The Fractal Audio Axe FX 2 XL… the end of amps?
When the man in the brown shorts arrived at my home on Wednesday – two days after I ordered the Fractal Axe FX 2 XL direct from the manufacturer – I was excited and somewhat expectant. There are lots of guitar players whom we all respect – with VERY good ears – who have embraced this particular box and moth balled their “real” amplifiers. This is one reason that I pulled the trigger on the Axe FX. A second reason is that I have become increasingly frustrated with my “sound” in our band – a rock 3 piece that covers a lot of bases – everything from AC/DC to Stray Cats to ZZ Top to Stones to Elvis to the Hip… etc. I have close to a dozen amps, but finding the right volume, the right tone, the right saturation – especially with this wide range of musical material – well, I looked at my wall of amps and said: “this is not working!”. I had heard so many positive things about the Axe FX 2 XL, not only in print from the pros, but from lots of great local players (thanks A.D.) – it’s naturalness, it’s response and feel – exactly like the tube amps and cabs and effects it emulates – and the pure and rarified quality of sound – that I decided to “bite the bullet” and get one. Not being used to a digital box like this, the supposed “user friendliness” was lost on me. But after struggling for a few days, I was able to use the Axe FX in rehearsal today. I would have loved to have an amp and cab to play it through – you use a linear SS power amp and a flat response speaker cab – so that you don’t colour the models coming out of the Axe FX – but they are hard to get due to the demand. The Atomic CLR Powered Wedge Monitor is my proposed weapon of choice – if I can ever get one! So anyway, for our rehearsal, I went straight into the P.A. I was going to just try the Axe FX for a couple of songs, but I ended up using it for the whole rehearsal! Here are some observations:
The type of guitar becomes even more important than with a conventional rig. I had thought that it might be less of a factor, but these “amps” sound MORE like the pure article and so the sound of, say, a Strat through a model of a perfect Plexi and a 4 X 12 just sounds “right”… very much like the “Jimi” thing. Maybe “not so much” with a Gretsch Hollowbody through the Plexi!
Although I had my pedal board in front of the Axe FX adding, say, a Plexi pedal just sort of took away from the tone – whereas a clean boost seemed to add a nice grit and a little more volume to the sound – pushing the “amp” harder.
Certain presets gave me more articulation and a better depth of tone with certain guitars, one that I haven’t often previously experienced with my real rig. For example, my Gretsch Phoenix hollowbody with Filtertrons had a certain complexity that was amazing… not less distortion or funky artifacts… just a certain ability to make the nuance of the selected amp/cab/effects very audible. I could hear ”more” in the sound. Thus, it just “felt” right and made me play better!
I felt the same interaction that you feel when your rig is sounding just right and it acts as an inspiration, creating a feedback loop between the gear and the player – inspirational!
As M.G., our bass player/singer said, “there is a sweet spot between the P.A. speakers where the stereo image sounds amazing!”
Another observation… guitar players still like to play too loud!
I’m a total “newbie” in this new digital world, and I have no idea whether it’s the “end of amps” or not. I definitely have a lot of learning to do with respect to this new box, integrating it into my music, so there’s lots of work ahead. But it’s fun work. We’ve come a long way since those early Line 6 amps and Pods. The road ahead will be rich and fruitful, I’m sure.