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AX8 review

Overview

As this is the first blog for my website, and indeed the first blog I’ve ever done, I thought I’d keep it simple and talk about something I use all the time: the AX8, an amp modeller and multi-fx unit made by Fractal Audio Systems.

For those who aren’t aware, Fractal is a company that makes high-end products for guitarists who want professional-quality amplification without the amplifier. It’s all contained in a small box that you plug directly into either (a) a PA system, (b) a power amp going into a speaker cabinet, or (c) an FRFR active speaker (that’s a full range flat response speaker that’s engineered so that the unit does not colour the sound of the device plugged into it). Fractal makes three main products: the Axe-FX, which is a rackmount unit (with the most features); the FX8, a floor-based unit focusing solely on effects; and the AX8, another floor-based unit, which combines elements of the previous two. It doesn’t have all the features of both, but it’s still pretty powerful and flexible.

This sort of system has many benefits. Firstly, amps are great, but they are generally pretty heavy; if you gig or teach, moving them around frequently is going to cause some physical damage in the long run. I have a 100w head and 4×12 cabinet, and moving this up to my second-floor music room is not a pleasant experience. So unpleasant, in fact, that I’ve left it at the rehearsal room for about a year, so something I can fit in a laptop bag is great. Secondly, it’s brilliant for recording. You can plug it straight into your soundcard and record directly to your DAW (digital audio workstation, e.g. Logic Pro) and have a really good sound immediately. Thirdly, it’s just really good fun. There are so many good sounds and effects on there that you can while away hours/days playing with it.

First impressions

I should add at this point that I’ve never massively got on with multi-fx units or amp modellers before. The first one I owned was a Zoom 2020, which was actually very decent, probably because it was very basic. Since then, I’ve tried and sold loads – another Zoom thing, a Boss GT3, a Line6 amp, a V-Amp and a Digitech rack unit – and had sort of decided that I just preferred real amplifiers. The best one (which I still have) is an old Johnson J-Station from around the time when Limp Bizkit were still cool. Anyway, there were two reasons why I didn’t get on with these: (1) aside from the super-basic Zoom, these things took a lot of patient tinkering with to get a decent sound, and (2) they just never sounded quite like ‘real’ amps to me. There’s something about playing a decent valve amp and the way it sounds that none of the modelling stuff has ever been able to replicate, to my ears anyway.

My first impression on plugging into the AX8 was a bit of a revelation after everything else I’ve tried; this thing sounds brilliant straight away. Playing my guitar through it feels like playing through a real amplifier. It reacts in the same way when I turn my volume/tone down on the guitar and is really responsive. I can’t think of any other way to describe it, but it basically doesn’t have that ‘digital’ or ‘processed’ feel that anything else I’ve tried before has had. My 100w head is an Engl, which has been my main amp for about five years; the Engl model on the AX8 is spot on.

Amp modelling

The AX8 comes loaded with a ton of different amps to suit most players. There are simulations of Marshalls, Peaveys, Soldanos and loads more. You get 64 ‘banks’ on the unit; each of these can store one preset. However, within each of these presets, you have eight assignable ‘scenes’, each of which you can link to a footswitch on the AX8. Each of these ‘scenes’ can be programmed to turn on/off effects and other things. As an example, you could have one preset programmed with a basic, overdriven Marshall amp simulation, say, as a rhythm guitar setting. This would be the first ‘scene’. The second ‘scene’ could add a bit of chorus, the third ‘scene’ an overdrive and volume boost for solos … and so on. This is really boring for people who don’t play guitar; for those who do, it’s awesome!

Effects

I’ve never been massively into effects. I’ve always liked plugging into an amp with a nice sound, and trying to use my technique and imagination to come up with new stuff. This is probably also because whenever I’ve owned a multi-fx/modeller unit before, by the time I’ve actually got a decent sound out of the thing, I’m past the point of caring about messing around with effects. The sounds on the AX8 are very, very good though, and I’m using them loads. The reverbs are lovely and warm, the pitch-shifter syncs perfectly, the delay options are massive … and there’s obviously loads more.

Settings

So far, I’m mostly playing with two settings. I play in a covers band doing pop, rock and metal songs (veering towards the latter), and at home I record my own stuff (rock/metal instrumental).

My main preset is the Friedman HBE V1. Friedman is a pretty high-end boutique amp designed for players who like high gain (I’ve never tried one or even seen one – I just like the sound this preset makes). I’ve got this set up with the basic amp and matched cabinet – you get a huge choice of which cabs you can match with the amp you’re using, but I’ve just gone with the default. This is my first ‘scene’, with a bit of gain but nothing too much; good for rock rhythm, and gentler stuff with the guitar volume rolled back. I’ve then got a second scene with bit of an overdrive pedal added for crunchier rhythm stuff, and an additional scene – basically the same as the last one but louder, with a bit of delay, for lead work.

My other setting is the Shiver Lead preset, based on the Bogner Shiva amp. This is a fairly high gain lead setting, really rich, and it just sounds amazing. This is the one I’ve played with the most – it really responds to pickup changes (i.e. going to a single coil), changes in volume and so on, and sustains for ages. The best way I can describe it is like playing through a high-gain valve amp that’s warmed up and turned up loud to the precise point where the sound is best – every note you play on this setting sounds so harmonically sweet and resonating that it’s hard to believe you’re playing through a small metal box, not an amp.

Aside from these, I’ve been through all of the factory presets. Not all of them suit the type of stuff I play, but they all sound good. I use quite a few of the clean sounds for recording, and they are really nice – the Eric Johnson and George Benson ones spring to mind. There are also quite a few presets with the kitchen sink thrown in – loads of delays, choruses and pitch-shift effects – the ‘crystals’ effect-type on the latter is worth a look. There’s plenty of scope for lush sound-scaping effects work here for those who feel so inclined.

Band use

At home, I go into M-Audio speakers/soundcard or a Laney IRT-X FRFR speaker. It’s not that much different going straight into the band PA (a Behringer, flat EQ). I had to tweak the gain a bit in rehearsal – it needs dialling back a touch – but that’s pretty easy.

Axe-FX, FX8 or AX8?

I went with the AX8 unit as it’s just really functional. It’s got a load of features that are very useful for what I do as a teacher, gigging guitarist and writer. I think for a guitarist in a professional touring band then the full Axe-FX rackmount system with footswitch board might be the way to go; likewise, for the guitarist with a favourite amp rig already established, then the FX8 would be the best choice if you still wanted lots of effects and versatility. For me, this is just a great bit of gear that gets me the sounds I’ve always wanted in a really flexible system … and I can lift it with one hand!