The Fractal Audio Axe Fx II is expensive ($2199 direct from fractalaudio.com)! However, after having had one for about 6 weeks or so, I think it is money well-spent. It is nearly infinitely configurable, which is a good thing - though some people may not like that. It is also much more than an "amp modeler"... it not only models amps, but speaker cabinets, and effects (very high quality, feature-laden effects).
Before I go further, let me describe the music I typically play and the gear I have been using, as well as my goals when I finally made the decision to give this thing a whirl. My primary musical outlet for the last twenty years has been my band, TooMuchFiction. We play music that can be described as jazzy, modern rock with a dash of pop. I play lots of (semi) clean guitar behind a female vocalist, along with another guitarist, drummer and bassist. Most songs have guitar solos - usually melodic, often long-ish (not many 8-bar pop solos for me), some "worked out" and many with "improv" sections or outros.
For the last 6 years or so, the core of my sound has been Budda SuperDrive 18 amps (18 watts of EL84-based power). I use the amps almost exclusively on the clean channel since it is not a true 2-channel amp and I have had issues with getting consistent tone when using the drive channel. For leads and dirty rhythm sounds, I use a combination of overdrive pedals (Barber Direct Drive, Rodenburg GAS-828, Tech21 Double Drive, Nobels ODR-1). For other effects, I rely on a TC Electronic G-Major II - pristine, high-quality rackmount processing.
The pedals are routed to the input of the amp and engaged via a Voodoo Lab GCX midi-controlled loop switcher. The G-Major II is connected to the effects loop of the Budda. Each section of pedals is controlled via a Digital Music Corporation Ground Control midi-controller and Ground Link extension controller on a pedal board along with with wah pedal and two continuous controller pedals. All of this gear (including the amp head) is housed in a Carvin 12-space road case that is about half the size of a refrigerator (and possibly the same weight)! Which is the driver of my decision to give the Axe Fx II a shot...
I admit that I am a tone fiend - I have spent much time, money and experimentation with various combinations of gear to arrive at where I am now... and I think I do a pretty good job at it. I *always* get compliments on my tone and playing at gigs - I take a lot of pride in the fact that not only do I think I sound nice, others do, too. But at the same time, I realize that I am never going to have roadies (other than the occasional friend) and I absolutely can NOT put my rig in my car by myself - it is a 2-person job!
So, I worked out a deal with my boss (aka, wife!): I can purchase an Ax Fx II on the condition that within 6 months either all the above mentioned gear (minus the midi-controller pedals) gets sold, or the Axe Fx does. My primary goal was basically to be able to replicate my live rig while at the same time significantly reducing both the size and weight of what I have to haul around.
And let me just say that I am already pretty close to having matched the sound of my old gear... and what I needed to do that now fits in a 4- space rack. Pretty impressive!
My past experience with tube amps is not extensive, and it is also not "vintage" or "traditional"... I've used Ashdown PeaceMaker amps as well as a Carvin Quad-X preamp + H&K VS250 tube power amp. I have never owned a Fender, Marshall, Vox, Boogie, etc. Since my intent was to get "my" sound, I'm not really concerned with how closely the Dual Rectifier model replicates the real thing. That is something you will have to decide for yourself based on what *you* are trying to accomplish. That being said, there are a LOT of people who really love the Axe Fx II - there is a large online community that is very vocal and very active.
Ok, so now on to the actual review part...
The Axe Fx II is designed to be "amplified" in several ways. The first way is in conjunction with an FRFR (full range, flat response) system similar to what you would hear in a studio or stage front of house (FOH) PA system. In this mode, you are modeling the amplifier (preamp and power amp), the speaker cabinet(s) and the mic used on the cabinet. The Axe Fx II was really designed for this mode, but be aware that is is designed to sound like an amp plugged into a speaker cabinet and mic'd, not to sound like an amp "in the room". Some people like it, some don't. I have used this mode to record about half the tracks on TooMuchFiction's upcoming album and have been pretty happy with the results so far. I have also used it at home through my (budget) KRK5 studio reference monitors.
Unless you are going to use the AF2 only for studio work, you are going to need to shell out some decent cash for an FRFR system worthy of live performance. Most people going with this method use either powered FRFR speaker cabinets or a separate power amp with passive FRFR cabs. I have yet to try this out as my budget was already sapped from buying the Axe Fx II and even moderately priced powered FRFR speakers are about $600 for a single cabinet. The "good" stuff is $1000 and up (seriously)!
The second mode of operation is using a power amp plus a guitar speaker cabinet. In this mode, you are still modeling the preamp but may or may not model the power amp (depending on the type of power amp), and do not model the speaker cabinet or mic. If you have a very flat-response power amp, you can continue to use power amp modeling, but if you are using a tube power amp that imparts its own "voice" then you would want to disable that feature. I would recommend using a flat response power amp as much of the strength of the modeling is in the power amp section (which contributes a LOT to how a real amp sounds). This is the mode I am using - more about that in a bit.
The third mode is called "the four cable method" - so-called because it requires 4 cables to connect. In this mode, you are basically combining the Axe Fx II with your existing amp (and effects loop) and speaker cabinet and using it only for the effects - no amp or cab modeling at all. I have not tried this mode as it defeats the purpose of my goal.
Due to my limitation of liquid assets after purchasing the unit, I decided mode number two (AF2 + power amp + speaker cabinet) was the optimal way for me to go. As I did not have a power amp, I had to purchase one. I wanted something that was small (remember, shrinking the rig?) and flat response. After some digging, I decided on an ART SLA-2. This is a single rack space reference amp designed primarily for studio use, but very suitable for my purposes and I was able to find one new on eBay for $245. This power amp allows me to continue using the full amp modeling in conjunction with my custom-built, finger-jointed pine 2x12 speaker cabinet housing two Budda Phat 12 speakers.
The Axe Fx II is very configurable, and while it has the ability to do all of that configuration from the front panel controls, it also has a pretty decent software patch editor called Axe Edit. At this point, I am using the front panel controls only for basic editing (changing levels, gain, bypassing effects, etc). However, be aware that as of this writing, Axe Edit is version 1.9 "beta" - it does have bugs and is not 100% compliant with the version 10 firmware on the Axe Fx II. A new version (3.0) is about to be released in conjunction with firmware version 11 (which is also available currently in beta). I have been using Axe Edit with good results so far.
(If you are not familiar with firmware, it is essentially the "software" that runs the Axe Fx II. It is updatable via USB. This is a crucial capability, as it allows for Fractal Audio to fix issues, add new amps, cabinets and effects - which they do on a regular basis. That's one of the things the people in the community really dig, and are constantly giving kudos to the guys at Fractal for that. Word on the street is that FW11b makes the Axe Fx sound even better than the current version.)
The Axe Fx II programming paradigm consists of four "rows" of twelve "blocks". That means that you can potentially have 48 effect blocks in a single patch. Amps and cabinets are types of blocks, as are any of the effect types. They can be ordered any way you like and even in some ways that are not possible in real life (read the manual - too hard to explain here). You are limited to 2 amp blocks and 2 cab blocks in any patch, and multiples of other effect blocks. Many of the block types (including amp and cabinet) also have what are called "X/Y" settings. The X/Y settings let you have 2 completely different settings for that block. For example, I can have a "drive" block which is modeled after a TS808 overdrive pedal set for low gain in the "X" side of the block, and the "Y" side set for a Rat overdrive pedal with the gain maxed out.
The Effects can be enabled or disabled via MIDI control or combined via "scenes". Scenes are very powerful tools - they are like a patches within patches. The Axe Fx II allows for 8 scenes to be stored within a single patch. Each scene can have different effect blocks enabled or disabled; this allows you to (for example) kick on an overdrive, change your delay from long to short, and engage a phaser all at the same time, *without* changing patches or doing the traditional "pedal board tap dance".
Scenes are selectable by MIDI control and simple to do using the Fractal Audio MFC controller (another $999...which I did not spend), although they can also be selected using various other MIDI foot controller pedals. This is acheived via patch "mapping" - done by telling the Axe Fx II to take an incoming midi program change to a specifc patch/scene combination.
I have had a bit of time to play with the amp models, many of which I really like! There are lots of vintage, classic, modern, boutique and esoteric models -- Fractal adds new ones on a regular basis. I like the fact that many of the presets that come with the unit are not "overly effected" - a disease from which many effect units suffer. I typically find I have to spend a lot of time de-effecting presets to make them sound right. I think this speaks volumes about the quality of sounds from the Axe Fx II amp models: nobody is trying to disguise bad tones by burying them in reverb and chorus.
I started out at preset #1 (of 384 factory presets), and playing thru them one at a time until I happened to land on patch #40 (Buttery). When I started playing this patch, it sounded very reminiscent of my live clean tone. After digging in to the patch settings, I discovered that the amp model in this patch is modeled after the Budda VerbMaster - surprise, surprise! It has become the basis for my first Axe Fx II patch.
I am still on my first patch, because I have 8 defined scenes within that patch. Included in my patch are my primary delay and a long delay (X/Y), a drive block with a dirty rhythm OD (X) and a heavy drive lead setting (Y), two amp blocks - clean is a blend of VerbMaster (amp 1X) and Vox AC30 Top-boost (amp 2X); solo sounds come from a couple of other amps (amp 1Y and 2Y). I also have an Octavia drive block in the mix, plus a chorus block. This patch and 8 scenes combining these blocks has replaced about 5 patches on the G-Major II, plus other patches combining various of my OD pedals. Very nice!
Some other great features on the Axe Fx II:
Global Effect Blocks - this allows you to save up to 10 of each type of effect block (amp, cab, drive, delay, reverb, etc) and then "link" that block to multiple patches (or load into any patch). This is great when you have a lot of patches in which you want to have the same effect settings. For example, I have a a chorus block and a delay block that I really like - I want to have these blocks in several patches... but as I have experienced with my other effects units, this becomes a hassle when I have 10 patches using the same effects and now I want to "tweak" one parameter. I now have to go to each patch and make the same edit. With Global Blocks, this is no longer an issue. I have the global blocks linked into each patch and I can tweak to my heart's desire. Once I save the block, it will be updated in each linked patch the next time that block is loaded - brilliant!
Global Tempo - this allows for any effect block that has a time-based parameter to be tied to a global tempo value. That value can be set manually by front panel control or via a tap-tempo (front panel or midi). For you tap-temp nuts out there, you will love this! Now you can have your flanger sweep time and delay time as well as your vibrato pulse all synced to each other. This capability is something I have used before with the Roger Linn Designs Adrenalinn pedal ($300+ used on eBay). You can also tie the global tempo to the speed of the "internal" LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators) which can be assigned to control other parameters (such as filters, etc). All of this allows for some really cool capabilities.
Auto-engage Continuous Controllers - perfect for use with effect blocks such as Wah and Whammy, which are a pain to engage/disengage. The auto-engage settings allow you to engage the effects when a (user defined) threshold is crossed by the midi continuous controller. So, you can set your controller to engage the wah after the pedal has moved beyond 5% of the range and then go off after it is below that threshold. I have been using both Morley Bad Horsie II and Dunlop Crybaby 95Q wah pedals for a long time, as they also have this auto-engage ability and I loathe traditional wah pedals which have to be "clicked" on by pushing the treadle to full toe-down position.
USB Audio Interface - the Axe Fx II is a full USB audio interface in addition to being a modeler. You can use USB to send your sounds directly to your DAW, and even use the Axe Fx II to monitor the output from the DAW. Cool :)
Six months later...
The review above was written about six months ago, but publication was delayed until now. Due to the rapid pace of development at Fractal Audio Systems, and my own use of the Axe Fx II in my rig, I wanted to add a few updates.
FAS is constantly tweaking and improving the modeling capabilities of the unit via firmware updates. The current version of firmware is FW14.00, which was released a couple weeks ago. When I originally wrote the review, the community was anxiously awaiting FW11 *beta*... we are now 3 major releases improved (not counting the minor releases in between).
In that time, quite a number of new modeled amps (Carr Rambler, Divided/13 FT37, Matchless DC30, Engle Savage, to name just a few) have been added, in addition to new effects and capabilities for controlling effect (and other) blocks. There has also been expansion in the (limited) number of bass amps that are in the unit - there are now 5 or 6 of those, and many bassists have now adopted the Axe Fx II.
There have been major improvements in the modeling technology (which was already great to begin with!), including a major break-through in speaker cabinet IR ("impulse response") capture techniques that are only available with the Axe Fx II. The new IR'ers are called "Ultra Res(olution)", and add more realism through using a longer capture sample. More on IRs in a bit...
The release of Axe Edit 3.0 patch editing software coincided with FW11, and it is an excellent interface for editing, arranging and managing your patches. I find this to be an invaluable tool when working with my presets. Recent additions to Axe Edit (current version is 3.0.8) include the ability to create preset "templates" - very useful in my case where most of my presets are identical except for the "clean" amp I choose to have in the preset. The one downside to AE3 over the earlier version (it is a ground-up re-write) is that is a "client-server" application that works only when the Axe Fx is connected to your computer via USB - you can no longer edit patches "offline". But the overall improvement of capability far outweighs that feature, in my opinion.
Another software tool FAS provides, although not free, is Cab Lab. Cab Lab allows you to create custom "blends" of the speaker cabinet IRs. Imagine mic'ing up 10 different speaker cabs with different mics, and recording your guitar through all of them at the same time. When it comes time to mix, you can craft your tone by setting different levels of each cabinet in the mix. With a blended IR, you can set up a similar "mix" and save it as an IR, which you can load into a single cabinet block in your preset. Very cool stuff! I have not yet tried Cab Lab, but lots of people are raving about it.
Since originally writing this review, my rig has gone through a number of incremental changes to better take advantage of what the Axe Fx II can do. The ART SLA-2 was replaced by a Matrix GT800FX due to weight (20lbs vs 6lbs!). The MIDI controller is now a GORDIUS Big Little Giant (aka, LG2-X). This is about the most sophisticated and programmable MIDI controller pedal on the planet! If I was not using this, I would probably have ended up buying FAS MFC-101 which is the the "companion" controller designed for use with the Axe Fx. Most of the "typical" MIDI controllers on the market are just not capable enough to really take advantage of all the controllable features of the Axe Fx II. The traditional 2x12 guitar cabinet was replaced by a pair of FRFR XiTone passive wedges. I highly recommend XiTone, a small company with great products and excellent customer service.
On this topic, I would like to point out that using an FRFR speaker system of some sort really allows you to explore the power of the Axe Fx to its fullest potential. Without this, you lose the option of using speaker cabinet modeling which has a huge impact on your overall sound. Cliff Chase, the creator and main man at Fractal Audio (and frequent Axe Fx II forum contributor), has often said that the IR is responsible for at least 60% of the tone. Let that sink in for a minute... there are hundreds of speaker IRs that come with the Axe Fx out of the box, then you have the option of purchasing high-end IRs from a number of 3rd parties, capturing your own via built-in ability of the unit, and then using Cab Lab to craft and blends of all of those. That is a HUGE range of possibilities!
One thing that took me a while to get used to is the difference between that well-known "amp in the room" sound compared to the sound of running an FRFR system, in which the sound you hear is that of a mic'd guitar cabinet into a mixing board. If you are used to hearing yourself only through monitors (either stage or studio reference monitors), then your transition will be a lot smoother. A big advantage with FRFR is that your tones should *always* sound the same, regardless of whether you are on stage or in the studio (accounting for the speakers, of course). I've come to greatly appreciate this.
The 3rd party "cab packs" typically consist of a particular cabinet that has had different types of "desired" speakers loaded into it, and then mic'd and captured in various combinations by very experienced audio engineers with high-end outboard gear. I have yet to dive into this as I have been pretty happy with the one pack I did purchase (a set of Bogner Ecstacy 2x12's with "vintage" (pre-1990) speakers).
I am now about 9 months into the Fractal Audio Systems Axe Fx II experience and I am more enthused than ever! The product improves on a constant basis. I have never owned a music-related product that regularly releases so many software updates over its lifetime, let alone so many within just 1 year. Think about the last time Line6 or Zoom or Roland released an update... you probably can't remember it, right? :)
The company is incredibly responsive to customer input and has a very active presence in their online forum. I have seen a number of specific forum "wish list" requests incorporated into the product already. And speaking of the forum, the FAS community itself is excellent: there is a large and active community of users (many who are very experienced players and masters of tone), lots of helpful input for both solving technical issues and achieving a desired configuration. I've seen quite a number of user-contributed tutorial/instructional videos on using the Axe Fx II, and these are often very eye-opening experiences into further exploration.
I'm hooked, and at this point I would consider myself a sort of "product evangelist". This seems to be a common experience among Axe Fx II owners, and this is one of the primary means of "advertising" FAS uses - word of mouth.
If you have questions, I would recommend joining the forum (http://forum.fractalaudio.com/forum.php). You can read, ask questions, get further input and opinions.
(Kevin Collins is the guitarist for Too Much Fiction, a gear-head, Ibanez guitar enthusiast, and long-time contributor to the California music community. You can find him on the Fractal Audio forums as "unix-guy".)