I got an Axe-Fx2 about a month ago. I was planning to write up a full review, but there’s too much, so this is going to be a general overview. I will hopefully write some follow-up posts to go into more details and post audio clips over the next few weeks.
This thing is a monster. Seriously. It is huge and deep and there is a significant learning curve involved with understanding how it works. However, once you get past the initial “holy crap, this is insane” stage, there are some incredible tones to be found.
For some background on the guitar tones that I prefer, I tend to veer towards vintage flavors. Jimi Hendrix was my first guitar hero, and I always go back to the grindy almost-clean Marshall tones that he dialed up in songs like “Castles Made of Sand” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” Of course, another major part of my musical DNA is the music that I listened to in high school – ’90s alternative rock like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots. I also listen to a lot of Radiohead, and I love all of their tones, from the clean, jangly Vox to the weird, soupy reverbs. I have also spent a lot of time playing P&W, so that familiar slightly overdriven Vox with dotted eighth delay and ambient modulated reverb has become part of my musical DNA (for better or worse).
On to the overview…
The Axe-FxII has two processors. One is entirely devoted to amp modeling, and the other is devoted to effects, cab modeling, and anything else. One entire processor is assigned to amp modeling, and it really shows. There is a huge list of amps that the Axe can emulate, from Fender, Morgan, Marshall, Mesa, Peavey, Orange, Vox, Fryette, Diezel, Carol-Ann, Suhr, etc, etc, etc. There are dozens of amps in here, and they all sound pretty amazing once you find the right speaker cab to pair them with (more on that later).
When you look on YouTube for Axe-Fx demos, you will find a ton of guys playing metal, but that isn’t all it can do. Don’t get me wrong, it excels at modern high gain tones – otherwise, guys like Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Metallica, Megadeth (among many others) wouldn’t have switched over. In addition to the high gain monsters, there are also great clean/semi-clean amps and more medium gain plexi-style amps.
One of the crazy things about the amp modeling is that it is insanely tweakable. You can basically create your own amps with this thing. You can start with a Fender Bassman, but then decide that you want it to have EL34 tubes instead of 6L6, and you want it to have mismatched transformers, and you also want the volume control to be post-phase inverter, and you want it to have a cathode follower and a flux capacitor instead of a tube rectifier… okay, I made some of that up, but the point is that you can adjust almost every parameter that you can imagine. Of course, not everything is going to sound good, and that’s one of the dangers of having something this adjustable.
A lot of guitarists use the Axe-Fx solely for effects, and it’s easy to see why. There are a lot of different effects, and like the amps, they are all insanely tweak able. Delays, reverbs, multi-delays, pitch-shifting/whammy, wah, tremolo/panning, overdrives, compressors, filters, synths, and more.
Like the amp modeling, each effect can be heavily customized. For example, you can choose your delay type (digital, analog, tape, etc), you can set 2 different modulation speeds and depths, you can decide whether you want it to sync to a tempo or just have a specific delay time, you can set the EQ and treble roll-off of the repeats, whether you want the repeats to duck while you’re playing, stereo/mono, etc. The options can be mind-boggling.
Another huge part of the effects thing is signal routing. You can do a traditional pedalboard setup where each effect runs into another in series, or you can have a complicated parallel setup with various ins/outs, fx loops, etc. The advantage of this parallel approach is that you can keep your dry signal very clear and only add as much of the wet signal as you want. You can really tailor your tone exactly like you want it.
SPEAKER CAB EMULATION
Finding the right speaker cab or IR (Impulse Response) is the key to finding a great amp tone. You can have your amp settings dialed in perfectly, but if you don’t have a good IR, then your tone will not sound right. There are a lot of IRs that come bundled with the Axe, and you can expand on those with commercial/paid add-ons or user-created IRs that are freely available online. I bought a couple of add-on packs from OwnHammer for about $20, and they sound really great.
This is the part that I’m still struggling with understanding, and I’m still pretty much sticking with the same 2-3 speaker cabinet models for pretty much all of my sounds. In a way, that kind of makes sense. A lot of studios may have 10-12 amp heads, but only a couple of speaker cabs.
You can use any MIDI footswitch to control the Axe, but I only have experience with the controller that it was designed to be used with. The MFC-101 allows you to switch presets, scenes, turn individual effects on/off, tap tempo, and turn on the on-board tuner. There are inputs to connect up to 4 expression pedals and 4 auxiliary switches. I currently have 1 full-sized expression pedal for volume swells and wah control and two mini-expression wheels for controlling various functions like delay/reverb level. I also have an external tap switch connected because I like the soft switch better than the clicky switches on the MFC-101.
You can connect the MFC-101 to the Axe with either a 5/7-pin MIDI cable or an ethernet/ethercon cable. Using either the 7-pin cable or the ethernet cable provides power to the board and you don’t need an extra power supply.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is that you can use the Axe as a USB recording interface so you don’t have to worry about any plugging in any other boxes into your computer.
One very cool feature is that you can simultaneously record your guitar signal with amp emulation along with a completely dry signal. This allows you to go back and re-amp your original recording just in case you decide that you want to hear what it would sound like through a bassman instead of a super deluxe. Or maybe it needs more/less gain. Or you want those delay repeats to be a little more up front. You can make all those changes without having to go back and re-record anything.
To sum up, the Axe-Fx2 can be an overwhelming piece of equipment, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to know how your computer works to be able to check your email. It’s pretty easy to just plug in and dial up a great tone with an amp, speaker cab and some basic effects. Yes, you can go very deep with this thing, but you don’t have to.
Check back for updates with more detailed looks at some of the things that I hinted at in this overview.