A few years ago a revolution began in guitar processing. Fractal Audio Systems’ Axe-FX processor arrived in 2006, bringing together amplifier modelling and effects processing – both of which had been tackled by dozens of companies for decades, so that was nothing new, right? And yet something set the Axe-FX apart from the others: a level of sonic realism and a degree of control that transcended pretty much any piece of digital gear to date, combined with incredible flexibility for professional stage use. The Axe-FX was followed by the Axe-FX Ultra in 2008, and now the Axe-FX II. It’s a modelling preamp which simulates various famous guitar and bass amps as well as including original models designed by Fractal, plus simulations of speaker cabinets, effect pedals and studio effects. And it’s found its way into the guitar rigs of players as picky as Steve Vai, Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Devin Townsend, Meshuggah’s Fredrik Thorendal, Dweezil Zappa, and of course Periphery, who have done so much for demonstrating the capabilities of the Axe-FX that they must hear “Dude, I bought an Axe-FX because of you,” like, all the time.
So let’s break it down and look at what the Axe-FX is exactly. It’s a two-rack-space-high unit featuring simulations of 50 amps, 39 cabinets, 10 microphones and a studio’s worth of multi effect units (17 drives, 12 reverbs, dozens of delays, modulation, EQ, pitch, intelligent harmony, tremolo, wah-wah, compressor, noise gate).
Around the back of the unit you’ll find all sorts of connections for a variety of uses including a pair of balanced inputs (mono/left and right), mono/left and right FX return, Output 1 (left and right balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4” jacks), Output 2 (FX send with unbalanced left and right outputs and an XLR ground lift in case your FX loop setup generates undesired noise), a digital I/O section (AES/EBU in and out plus S/PDIF in and out), a USB jack, MIDI in and out/thru, phantom power, and two foot control jacks for the proprietary MFC and a 1/4” pedal jack. The front is no less busy: there you’ll find all sorts of stuff including the instrument input, headphones output, output level controls, a ‘Quick Control’ section with four knobs and two buttons that you can assign in pretty much any way you like, a grid of buttons (Layout, Global, Recall, Edit, Tuner, Store, Control, I/O, Bypass, FX Bypass, Utility, Tempo), and some navigation controls including up/down/left/right buttons, page left and right buttons, a Value knob and Enter and Exit buttons. A large free screen shows you what’s what in terms of your settings, models and signal flow, and a batch of input and status LEDs tell you what’s happening with your signal.
Axe-FX II even has a feature called Tone Matching, which lets you sample the tonal characteristics of an isolated signal, be it an audio file or an actual live amp. Call up a sound that’s somewhere in the ballpark of what you’re trying to match and the Axe-FX will do the rest of the work, plotting the reference signal against the matched one so you can mimic your favourite amp tones.
The true test of a piece of gear like this is: can you forget you’re using it? And the answer is ‘absolutely, yes.’ Patch it through your mixing desk, PA system or headphones and you’ll hear an incredible sense of realism and touch sensitivity, very much akin to micing up a real guitar rig. Pick the string lightly and the tone cleans up just as you would expect it to with a valve amp. Slam a preamp model with a boost model and it’ll respond in all the right ways in terms of increased saturation texture, but even more importantly, hit it with an actual boost pedal and it’ll still do exactly what it’s supposed to. Swap pickups or guitars and you’ll hear the individual character of the instrument coming through. It’s uncanny. But whereas, say, a real Marshall Plexi might fart out once you hit it with notes below the standard range of a guitar, the Axe-FX never mushed out with lowered tunings, not even when I hit it with the full force of my Ibanez Iron Label 8-string. Importantly, the tone is natural enough and reactive enough that you could easily justify shelling out the high price even if you’ll only ever use one or two amp models live (but if that’s your style you might not like the studio reverbs very much).
It’s rare for a unit like this to do everything well Usually a unit that’s great at high gain sucks at clean tones, or vice versa. A lot of digital units seem to do great ‘medium overdrive’ sounds that can fool the ear into thinking you’re hearing at least a nice recording of a boutique tube amp, but they fall down when you need to add more gain. But the Axe-FX II just utterly becomes whatever kind of setup you ask it to become.
And yet if you want to get really, really out there, the Axe-FX will let you do that too. Its delays and reverbs are capable of some truly otherworldly textures, and its intelligent harmony capability is so huge that it’s now used by none other than Steve Vai himself. And John Petrucci has streamlined his rig to incorporate the Axe-FX for pretty much all of his effects aside a few pedals. Petrucci has even used Axe-FX to tone-match his real-world amp rig, and indeed there’s an official Petrucci Rhythm patch within the Axe-FX stock memory bank. And it gets even better: Fractal’s Axe Change website allows you to share presets with other Axe-FX users, including well known ones like Periphery, Wes Hauch of The Faceless, Marco Sfogli (James LaBrie).
Admittedly, editing can be quite complex especially for players who are used to simply turning a knob, and you really need a foot controller or carefully-programmed MIDI patch changes in order to make the most of the system, but when it comes down to pure tone-shaping ability and, more importantly, pure tone generating capability, it’s easy to see why the Axe-FX II has rapidly established itself as a recording studio must-have, and an increasingly essential part of the live sound landscape.