All posts by Phillip

Fractal Audio Axe-Fx2 Overview

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…

AMP MODELING

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.

EFFECTS

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.

MIDI CONTROL

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.

RECORDING

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Making some changes

As a result of various things that are going on in my life, I have decided to make a few changes.

I have really been struggling with my faith for a while, and a couple of months ago I decided to take a break from the worship band at my church. I have been involved with it for 10 years, but I don’t feel right being on stage leading people in worship when I’m not even really sure about what I believe.

I packed up all my gear that I had up at the church and brought it home. I had this big, expensive tube amp that was too loud to use in my house, and I had this big pedalboard full of really fancy, expensive Strymon delay and reverb pedals.

I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to really take advantage of this gear playing at home, so I considered my options. (1) I could just turn it down and try to deal with it, (2) I could sell my amp and get a smaller, quieter amp, or (3) I could get a modeler.

Long story short, I ended up selling a ton of stuff. I started out by selling all of my pedals. All of them. 3 Strymons, Micro POG, overdrives, custom volume pedal, midi gear, power supplies, etc. I was shocked at how much money I raised. It was enough to buy the most powerful amp modeler currently available: the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II mk2. I bought it used and saved about $400.

The next thing to go was my amp. I was dreading this for a couple of reasons. Part of it was that I really loved that amp. The other part was that I hate shipping amps. It’s a pain, and it’s freaking expensive. Anyway, I had it listed for sale on the gear page, and I got pretty much the best offer that I could have hoped for. A guy offered me two things in trade. The first was the foot controller designed to work with the Axe. The other thing was one of my dream guitars: a Koll Duo Glide in Pelham blue. I have been wanting one of these guitars for years, but the cost always kept it out of reach.

I have had all this gear for about a month, and I’m finally starting to wrap my brain around it. The Axe is crazy deep and there’s a pretty big learning curve. I’m working on a full review  with demos and stuff, and hopefully I’ll be ready to post something in the next week.

Gear stuff

I’m just going to pretend that I haven’t neglected this blog for the last however long it has been and just start writing. Sound good? Great.

There have been a lot of comings and goings in terms of gear over the last few months, and the gear section of this blog is hopelessly out of date. Rather than detail everything that I have used since my blogging absence, I’ll just run down what I’m using right now. Here is what I’m working with currently.

Guitars:

  • Warmoth/Fender Jazzmaster – I talked about this guitar a few months ago when I put it together, and I absolutely love it. I needs a little fret work, but it plays and sounds fantastic. It’s got some of the jangly jazzmaster thing with the fatness of P90s, and the neck (from my old ’94 american standard strat) is nice and broken in  and super comfortable.
  • Gibson Les Paul Special – Again, I totally love this guitar. It’s a no-nonsense rock machine. Super fat tones, great neck, awesome TV Yellow finish. It’s a little noisy, but it’s rock and roll, so who cares?
  • Reverend Flatroc 15th Anniversary – I am by nature a toned down, no frills kinda guy. This guitar is pretty much the opposite of my personality. Silver flake finish (looks crazy under stage lighting), Bigsby trem, high output filtertron humbuckers, bass contour knob. It’s super blingy and fabulous, but I like it. I just got it, so I can’t guarantee that it’ll stick, but I got a great deal on it and it’s staying for now.

Pedals:

  • Diamond Compressor – very “transparent,” subtle compressor with a great EQ. I leave it on almost all the time, and adjust the EQ depending on which guitar I’m using.
  • Barber Gain Changer – Amazing low/medium gain overdrive. Incredibly flexible – capable of so many GREAT tones. It’s way cheaper than it has any right to be. You can find these for less than $100 used and it sounds better than a lot of overdrives that cost a lot more.
  • Thru-Tone modded Ernie Ball VP Jr. – Thru-Tone added a great buffer and tone control to deal with the high end loss that these volume pedals typically impart. Also, it has blue LEDs, so there’s that.
  • Strymon El Capistan dTape delay (modded by me to accept external tap input) – This thing is magic in a box. Awesome crinkly/fluttery tape delay tone machine.
  • Strymon Timeline delay – probably the most powerful delay pedal currently available. I traded my old one for a Deluxe Memory Man w/Tap Tempo (also a great pedal) for a while, but I missed the Timeline, so it’s back on the board.
  • Strymon BigSky Reverberator – I just got this yesterday, and I have only had a few minutes to play with it, but I really like what I have heard so far. Extremely versatile, with lots of reverb styles from classic spring reverb to crazy choral and reverse sounds.
  • TC Electronic Ditto Looper – It’s just a really simple, basic looper. Great for practicing and coming up with layering ideas. I haven’t tried to use it live yet.

Note: my time-based effects are synced with a JHV3 MTPro1:3 MIDI tap controller, and I have a pair of This1smyne mini expression wheels connected to the big Strymon pedals to adjust various parameters on the fly.

Amp:

  • Bogner Goldfinger 45 head
  • Bogner Goldfinger 2×12″ cab (Celestion Greenback & Weber Ceramic Blue Dog)

I have had this amp for almost 2 years now, which is probably a record for me. It has a really great clean channel, and a really flexible dirty channel. It does everything that I need it to do, and it has kept me from wanting to do any amp research for a pretty long time.

I’ll do a post soon(ish) detailing how I use all this stuff. I also need to update my gear page with new pics and stuff. I guess I’ll get to that eventually.

This stuff is amazing

So, forever since my last post, etc…

That out of the way – I just assembled a jazz master-ish guitar. It’s a Warmoth jm body with Lollar P90s instead of jm pickups, tune-o-magic bridge, stop tailpiece. I used the neck from my old strat. It all went together pretty quickly, and once I wired it up and plugged it in – “BZZZZZZZZZZ!” The noise level was kind of insane. Part of it was grounding (touch something metal and the buzz goes away), but most of it was 60 cycle hum or RF interference or something else.

Later that day I ordered some of this copper shielding tape from StewMac. It came in yesterday and I completely enclosed the pickup cavity and the back of the pickguard in this stuff. It was kind of a pain, and I have a few slices on my fingertips, but I got it done. I put it back together and plugged it in without restringing it to make sure that I wired it up right.

When I first turned on my amp, I thought for sure that I had wired it up wrong, so I tapped on the pickups with a screwdriver and it popped like it’s supposed to. After restringing the guitar, I tried it out again, and I absolutely couldn’t believe it. It was almost dead quiet. The grounding issues were completely gone. I can let go of the guitar completely and it doesn’t hum at all. There is a little bit of 60 cycle hum, especially with high gain, but it’s totally manageable. It’s crazy quiet.

jm

If you have a noisy guitar, try this stuff out.

my current favorite gear

I have simplified my gear setup somewhat in the last few months, and I wanted to highlight some of what I’m using lately. Our church had 4 services yesterday, and I was really happy with my tone.

1996 Gibson Les Paul Special – I love this guitar. I installed Lollar P90s and they sound so amazing. I put a ’50s wind in the neck and a standard wind in the bridge. I can get really clear, open clean tones as well as raw, fat distorted tones. It’s my favorite guitar that I have ever owned, and I spent a lot less on it than I have on many other guitars.

Bogner Goldfinger 45 – This is such a good amp. The Alpha/clean channel is just beautiful. It’s really flexible. I tend to keep the gain pretty low for a somewhat scooped blackface Fender kind of tone, but you can turn up the gain and mids for more of a british/vox tone, especially into an open-back cab with a celestion blue or something along those lines.

The Omega/gain channel is trickier to dial in, but it’s also really awesome. The loud/’69 mode is a marshall plexi style. It’s great for everything from cleanish Hendrix rhythm tones to crunchier AC/DC tones. The ’80s mode is pure JCM800 tone. It doesn’t really do modern high gain tones without pedals, but it has more than enough gain for me.

Bogner Ecstasy Blue – this overdrive is freaking awesome. It’s not cheap, but it’s probably the best low/medium gain overdrive pedal that I have ever used. It uses transistor instead of opamps, so it’s a little more amp-like than some other overdrives. Anyway, it has a bunch of knobs and switches, and it has a pretty huge range of tones, but I use it with the clean channel on my amp to get plexi/crunch tones, which opens up my gain channel to use the ’80s mode for lead tones and heavier crunch rhythm tones.

Strymon Timeline – I have been using this thing since it first came out. I was lucky enough to grab one from the first batch. I recently discovered that it’s even better/more usable with an expression pedal. I’m using the T1M mini expression wheel, which saves a ton of room on my board. Basically, it allows you to set a heel down setting and a toe down setting. At one extreme, I have it set for like 1-2 repeats and the level at less than unity, which is great for solos. At the other extreme, I have the feedback set much higher (but short of self-oscillation) and the level at unity or slightly greater. Of course, in between settings will average these values. I have found that I can play pretty much anything with two patches and no other delay pedals.

I have other gear, of course, but these are 4 things that I’m enjoying more than anything else at the moment. I could bring these 4 pieces of gear to pretty much any gig, and I don’t think I would be missing anything.

Writing

So, I’m not sure where to begin with this, so I’ll just start typing and see what happens.

One of my good friends is writing a book. He sent me a couple of chapters about a year ago and he recently finished the first draft. It’s pretty freaking cool. It’s kind of a sci-fi/fantasy story about space vampires, talking bear-like alien creatures, superhuman messiah figures, stuff like that. Anyway, he’s planning to self-publish it on Amazon when he’s finished with it. A few months ago, he asked me about writing some incidental music to accompany the story. I thought that was a cool idea – kinda like a film score, except for a novel.

I pretty much sat on my hands for a while. I tried to sit down and write, but nothing really came of my initial efforts. I decided right away that I wanted to do the Wagnerian leitmotif thing. Leitmotif is basically an operatic device that Richard Wagner invented where each character has their own melody. John Williams famously used the concept in his Star Wars scores. First I decided which characters deserved their own melodies, and then took some notes about what the mood should be for each one. That’s about where I stalled out until today.

Today was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays. Due to the weird nature of my class schedule, I had a few hours to kill, so I made sure to bring my laptop and guitar to school. After my last class, I sat down and started writing. For whatever reason, inspiration struck and I came up with a pretty cool idea for one of the characters. I plugged it into a notation program called Finale and exported the midi file to garageband, where I changed some of the sounds until I liked what I heard. I emailed it to my friend and he told me that what I wrote moved him. He also said that it was really surreal to hear something inspired by something that he created.

It’s always nerve-wracking when you reveal your work to someone for the first time. I was a composition major in college, and I had a composition lesson every week. During that lesson, I would present my work to my professor and she would offer direction on what I had done. She was always extremely gracious, even when what I brought to the lesson was terrible. I knew it, and she knew it, but she never said anything like “this is crap, and you would be wise to abandon it and never think about it again. In fact, you should probably stop writing music and also stop playing guitar.” No, she was pretty awesome. She definitely helped me to become a better musician and composer.

Anyway, I am pretty excited about what I’m doing. I’m envisioning this ambient/post-rock melodic soundscape that is also kinda metal-ish, but without the self-indulgent Dream Theater shredding stuff. There will also be strings and piano and stuff. When I get some stuff recorded, I’ll be sure to post my progress.

Tweaking with your ears

First of all, I’m just going to pretend that it hasn’t been three months since my last post. In that post I mentioned something about a new amp. I still have the Bogner by the way. I’ve had the same amp for like 4 months. Kind of a big deal for me. The amp is great. It’s a little tricky, but it’s great. [By the way, I have updated my gear page with new photos and stuff. Check it out up at the top of the page.]

Tonight at practice I was playing my Les Paul Special. It’s a great guitar, but it’s a lot different than the G&L ASAT that I usually play. The Special has P90s, which are really fat-sounding single coil pickups. They have similar output to a humbucker, but rawer, noisier and more ballsy. I love P90s.

Anyway, I wasn’t happy with my clean tone tonight. It was too bassy and boomy, and when I turned an overdrive on, it got even worse. I played with the EQ settings on the amp for a while and couldn’t find anything that I was happy with. The problem was that I was tweaking with my eyes rather than my ears. I was looking at the controls and saying “that setting looks like it should work” and then I was confused when it didn’t.

So I tried something radical. I trusted my ears. My ears were telling me that there was still too much bass, so I turned the bass down some more. I ended up turning it down to about 8:00. That’s almost all the way off. My other controls were weird, too. My treble was just under halfway and the mids were at like 9:00 or something. If you had shown me this setting, my eyes would have said “that’s gonna sound like crap,” but my eyes would have been wrong.

It’s a little depressing to think about all the gear that might have worked out if I had been willing to tweak with my ears.

That’s all I got for now. Hopefully it won’t be another three months before my next post. Maybe I’ll post tomorrow. Probably not.

There’s always something better

The problem with playing electric guitar is that there is always something better than what you have. Whether it’s your guitar, amp, distortion, delay, cable, whatever – there is always something better than what you have in your hands. I fall into this trap all the time.

The progression goes something like this: I am satisfied with my tone. I read about a new piece of gear online. I am no longer satisfied with my tone. I sell the piece of equipment that I am no longer satisfied with and buy the new gear that I have been obsessing over. Rinse and repeat.

My most recent gear rinse cycle has been amp related. I was satisfied with my Top Hat Club Royale until someone offered me a different amp as part of a bigger trade. This particular amp was a Matchless Chieftain. I have always heard magical things about Matchless amps, so my interest was piqued, and I agreed to the trade. As soon as I plugged in the Chieftain I was pretty sure that I had made a mistake.

I pretty much hated it right off the bat, but I did my best to convince myself otherwise. I mean, how could I hate a Matchless? I tried swapping tubes, different guitars, and I tried some really weird knob settings. I finally found a setting that I didn’t hate, but didn’t really love. I tried to make the amp work for about 3 months before I gave up and sold it.

I ended up buying a Bogner Goldfinger 45, which is a really cool amp. [I'll work on a review/demo at some point.] It has a really fantastic clean channel. It might even be the best clean amp that I have ever used. The first time I plugged it in, I was really relieved that I didn’t immediately hate it. The gain channel is good and really flexible, but it’s kinda tricky to dial in. I would like a little more gain, but part of that problem may be the fact that I don’t have any humbucker guitars right now.

Anyway, now that I have an amp that I am happy with, I have resolved to try to stay happy with it. I need to work on my chops and stop trying to fix my musical shortcomings with my wallet.

blending and transparency

I’d like to talk a little bit about my newest piece of gear. It’s the Xotic X-blender, and I really think it’s gonna change things for me. Basically, it’s a little pedal that allows you to blend your clean tone with the tone of whatever pedals you stick in the effects loop. I have been using it with my overdrives, and I am very happy with it so far.

People on gear forums talk a lot about transparent overdrives, and it has kind of become a joke because the word transparent means something different to almost everyone that uses it to describe a pedal. I’ve read people say that a tube screamer is a transparent overdrive, which is ridiculous to me.

For me to use the word transparent to describe an overdrive, it has to do a couple of things.

1) It can’t impart it’s own EQ curve to the signal in such a way that it can’t be dialed out. Pedals like tube screamers (and the myriad variations on the circuit) and Klon(e)s have a very distinct midrange boost that you can’t completely dial out.

2) It can’t introduce an unreasonable amount of compression. Most overdrives add a ton of compression to your signal as you turn the gain up. I have only played a handful of uncompressed overdrive pedals.

The point of me saying all that stuff about transparency is that a blender basically allows you to give pretty much any pedal a certain degree of transparency. Some overdrives that boost the mids tend to muddy up your signal, making more complex chords somewhat indistinct. Blending your clean allows you to add a little sparkle, chime, or clarity (or any other tone buzzwords) back into your signal. An overly compressed overdrive can rob your playing of dynamics. A clean blend allows those subtleties to be reintroduced without getting rid of the dirt.

The coolest thing about the X-Blender is the big mix knob on top. It was designed to allow you to adjust the blend with your foot while playing. I don’t know about you, but I hate having to bend over in the middle of a song to tweak a setting on a pedal. If you need a little more/less dirt, you can just nudge the knob clockwise with your toe and shift the wet/dry mix a little bit.

Basically, it is a very cool pedal. It is especially cool if you are really into cleanish/edge of breakup tones. I know that other guitarists have used it with delay, reverb, and other effects, but I haven’t really looked into that possibility yet.