Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX Preamp/Effect Processor
Fractal Audio Systems, fractalaudio.com
$1,799.95; Ultra version (with vocoder, multiband compression, rhythmic delays and more), $2,299.95
Originally printed in Guitar World, January 2009
Classic pro audio effect processors like the Eventide H3000 and T.C. Electronic TC 2290 sound great with guitars. But because they were designed primarily for studio and live sound applications, they’re not always easy for guitarists to use onstage, and some of their effects aren’t ideal for guitars. Meanwhile, most effect processors that are designed exclusively for guitar may provide plenty of great distortion tones, useful effects and the performance capabilities that guitarists need, but they often lack the sophisticated processing capabilities and otherworldly sound quality that studio processors offer.
The Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX preamp/effect processor combines the state-of-the-art processing capabilities of studio effect processors with features that guitarists need, such as a full selection of guitar-oriented effects, versatile external-controller capabilities and incredibly expressive and detailed simulations of amps, distortions and cabinets. By combining preamp and multi-effect capabilities in one unit, Axe-FX is truly an all-in-one “tone zone” for guitarists who demand pro-quality sound throughout the entire signal chain.
With its large LCD, rotary data wheel and various buttons and knobs, the Axe-FX looks similar to a typical two-unit rack-mountable guitar processor, but beneath its faceplate resides a powerful 500MHz dual-core processor that can run 10 to 12 exceptionally sophisticated effects at once. The Axe-FX has a wide variety of popular effects, including compression, graphic and parametric EQ, distortion/fuzz, chorus, flanging, rotary, wah, delay and reverb, and each effect provides a comprehensive selection of parameters that you can edit in fine detail. You can arrange individual effects in any order and in series or parallel, allowing you to program unusual sound effects or emulate just about any effect setup you can imagine.
Unlike most digital amp-modeling products, which provide reasonable emulations of various amps but also limit you to the features and controls of their hardware equivalents, the Axe-FX’s amp-simulation section allows you to combine the tonal and distortion characteristics of nearly 50 amps with any feature set you’d like. For example, you can build a tweed-style amp with master volume and a full set of EQ controls, presence, brightness, damping and more—you can even adjust the center frequency of the EQ controls to your preference. The cabinet simulator section is similarly deep, providing a comprehensive selection of speaker options—from 1x6 and 1x8 to a variety of 4x12 cabinets.
The rear panel of the Axe-FX unit offers just about every input and output jack a guitarist would ever need, including 1/4-inch stereo unbalanced inputs, 1/4-inch unbalanced and XLR balanced stereo outputs, a stereo effect loop, RCA and XLR digital I/O, MIDI In/Out/Thru and two pedal/footswitch jacks for connecting external controllers without hassling with MIDI. A single 1/4-inch unbalanced input jack is also conveniently located on the front panel, allowing you to plug in with having to do the rack reach-around.
The Axe-FX may look a lot like those dreaded multi-effect processors from the Eighties, but its logically arranged interface and large LCD make it easy to program and edit new sounds and setups. You still may need to scroll through several pages to get to the effect and parameter that you want to edit, but most major tweaks (like the ones you may need to do during a gig) can be accessed from an effect’s Basic page, which is the first page that comes up when an effect is selected in Edit mode.
The sound quality of each effect is absolutely stunning, rich and three dimensional, even when several effects are combined together, delivering that elusive refined, pro quality similar to the beloved H3000 and TC 2290. The reverb algorithms sound like those of high-end stand-alone studio units, delivering smooth tails and exceptional depth. Even the compressor and equalizer effects sound comparable to professional studio units. Unlike most guitar effect processors, the flanger has 16 adjustable parameters instead of the usual three or four, resulting in a sound that is remarkably deep. The wah even lets you set minimum and maximum frequency values so you make the sweep as narrow or wide as you want.
But for guitarists, the main reason to invest in an Axe-FX unit is its amp and cabinet simulation sections. For less than the cost of a boutique amplifier, Axe-FX provides a complete selection of just about every amp and speaker combination a player could ever need, for tones that range from jazzy solid-state clean to classic overdriven tweed to modern high gain. The Axe-FX’s sophisticated processing power allows the amp and cabinet-simulation programs to deliver the feel and response of playing through the “real thing.” The tones that I heard coming through my JBL 6328P monitors actually sounded better and more lively than tones I’ve captured using various combinations of high-end mics and classic amps in the studio.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Axe-FX effectively destroys any notions that guitars and digital processing don’t mix. This powerful processor delivers stunning, expressive tones and effects that most players would have difficulty achieving with even the finest analog gear. Considering the vast universe of sounds residing in this unit, it’s an exceptional bargain for anyone who wants to simplify their studio and live performance rigs without making any sacrifices whatsoever. In fact, it may be the last guitar processor many players will ever need to buy.
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