Fractal Audio Axe FX III – First Impressions

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I’ve had a lot of synthesizers over the years.   In fact, it’s harder to name a synthesizer made since the mid 90s that I haven’t owned or used in some incarnation or other.  The same goes for Drum Machines and those sorts of noise makers.   Effects have been a different animal, though.   I haven’t had a lot of effects boxes, and certainly none that I really actually loved.  They were always tools that helped me achieve the goal of making a recording, and not really awesome creative tools in themselves.

The reasons for that are many.  First, sound quality was always an issue.   At the price points I could afford, truly professional processing was just out of reach.   I used a lot of cheap guitar pedals and processors, or settled for the FX internal to the synths.  I knew when we got to studio time, there would be better FX there that I could use.

Second, most FX boxes either had 2×16 character LED display and a cryptic operating system, or they were pedals that had 3 knobs and no preset storage, and the only way I remembered how they were all hooked up was by pen and paper.  I am far, far, far too lazy for that.

The third and final reason would be…I just didn’t care.  Effects felt utilitarian to me and not really a part of my process.  I was very focused on learning how to push the synthesizers and samplers I had at my disposal that effects seemed peripheral to that.

Fast forward to today, when Ive just taken delivery of a Fractal Audio Axe FX III. The first generation machine was one that I absolutely *loved*. It was the first FX processor that I’d ever really bonded with, and I did so at a time when I was working on my first album (you can find it here). This was also a time when I was getting heavily into Eurorack Modular, and had cut down my gear because I’d recently had a kid I had to pay for. Because it was all I had, I dug into it *deep*.

My first impressions of the Axe III over the original is that Fractal has definitely become a mature company with regards to their industrial design. The unit a big, beefy 3U and it’s front panel dominated by a huge color display (not a touch display). This makes the unit much more usable from its from panel, than the Ultra was. That unit almost required Axe Edit to operate effectively.

Operation is largely via a set of 5 control knobs under the display, a set of cursor buttons and a large value wheel. If you’ve had any experience using a piece of pro music gear in the 30 years, it will be familiar to you.

Around the back, it’s got a Lot of connectivity: 4 audio inputs (1 mono instrument input, and three stereo inputs) along with 4 pairs of outputs. You’ve also got digital I/O in the form of SPDIF/AES (and if I had one grip about the Axe, it would be this. I’d like to see ADAT or Dante or some other multi channel I/O option OTHER than USB). You will also find the usual MIDI ports and a USB port for connecting to your computer (which I haven’t yet tested, but will).

One thing to note for keyboard players: Input 1 IS only mono, and is optimized for guitars. Fortunately, you can easily plug your keyboard or stereo send into Input 2 or the digital input and very easily re-reroute things in the UI. Also, if you’ve got a smaller synthesizer rig you take live (as I do), the IO on the Axe may be enough for you to use it as your digital mixer. I’d bet it could do the job, with some planning.

Taking a trip through the presets didn’t mean much for me, being a keyboard player. I’m sure that all these vintage cab simulations and FX chains are excellent (and they did sound amazing with my TR-8s plugged into them). Just because of how I’m wired, I decided to go straight for the initialized patch bank and start rolling out my own FX.

Bottom line: the results are magnificent.

One of the reasons I like guitar processors so much is because guitarists are freaks about getting their ‘sound’ and they are totally uncompromising on this. If a processor is going to claim that it can be the only processor they need, then it’s going to have to let you go as deep down the rabbit hole of tweaking to have a chance of living up to that statement. The Axe FX totally succeeds at this.

The first patch I setup was to mangle the aforementioned TR-8s. I had a patch on Octatrack that I was attempting to duplicate, which looks like Compressor->Distortion->Delay->Low Pass Filter (if you haven’t put a delay into a filter running on a drum loop, you have your homework assignment). The Axe handled this, of course, flawlessly, but with far, far, FAR more power to customize the tone than on the Octatrack. The I discovered Channels and scenes and was even MORE impressed.

Scenes are kind of what they sound like. Each patch has 8 of them, and you can switch between them on the fly. This lets you change the settings of all the blocks without having o change programs and reload the DSP. Very useful for live use. Scenes can also be named, which is very useful indeed.

Channels took me a little longer to get my head around. Their name is a little confusing, I think, they would be better thought of as ‘block scenes’. Each block in a patch has 4 ‘channels’ you can switch between. When you consider all you can do with Channels and Scenes, you can see how it may be possible to run an entire live set through just one or two presets.

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with this thing. I know I’m going to use the hell out of it over the next few years. So far, I’ve used it on drum sounds, keyboards, and even played with a vocal mic going into it. It’s just a sound hacks dream. I may even hook up a guitar to it at some point!

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