Axe-FX III: First impressions from a long-time Helix user

Discussion in 'Digital & Modeling Gear' started by metropolis_4, Jul 11, 2019.

  1. metropolis_4

    metropolis_4 Member

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    TL;DR:
    :dude:cool::D:aok



    A few of my first impressions after day 1 with the Axe-FX III:

    1. Modulation Effects

    I know this is an odd place to start, but one of the first things that blew me away was how good the Chorus and Flange effects are! This is the first time I've EVER heard "analog" chorus/flange in any piece of digital gear that actually sounds like analog chorus/flange!

    It does that awesome thing that good analog chorus/flange does where it expands the sound and makes everything fatter and fuller.

    2. Drive Pedal -> Amp Synergy

    The way the Drive blocks interact with the Amp is the best I've heard in a digital unit.

    This is another thing that has never quite sounded right to me in every other digital unit I've tried. Somehow drive pedals and amps never seem to work together; instead of blending into each other, it always sounds like the sound of the drive pedal is sort of sitting on top (or next to) the sound of the amp.

    Back in my tube amp days, hitting a pushed amp with a drive or a fuzz was my primary approach. With digital gear, I've adapted and switched to a more amp-based approach and basically stopped using drive pedals because it just didn' t work the way it used to in Analog World.

    The Helix was better than most in this area, but still didn't quite feel right to me.

    The first time I threw a Drive in front of a pushed Vox in the Axe it was like that scene in Ratatouille where Ego takes a bite and has a big flashback of his childhood. Memories of what that pedal -> amp approach used to sound like came flooding back to me and put a huge smile on my face.

    I think I'm going to be changing back to a more pedal based approach again based on what I'm hearing.

    3. Scenes are ok, Channels are awesome!

    Scenes on their own are nice, and I probably wouldn't keep the Axe if they didn't exist. But they aren't as good as snapshots. They're sort of like snapshots-lite. I definitely miss a lot of the things I was able to do with snapshots in the Helix.

    Channels on the other hand are awesome! Having 4 channels on each block is so nice; changing between two amps, or two pedals is a big part of what I used snapshots to do. And then I'd have to have two blocks side by side, or set up a B path for the second one. Channels make it so much easier to manage that!

    4. The Grid is cool... and not cool

    I have mixed feelings on the grid thing. I get the approach, and I do appreciate some of the extra flexibility it allows for in signal chain creation and routing. But, it can also be annoying when you're just trying to get something set up quickly. Running shunts and cables is annoying. I find myself missing the quick ease of the Helix signal chain much more often than I find myself enjoying the grid flexibility.

    I wish they had a couple default grid layouts you could start from. Kind of like the layouts for the FC pedals. It would be so nice to have a default layout that just included an Input block at one end, an Output block at the other, and a complete chain of shunts in-between. That would save so much time in creating new patches.

    5. The FC Pedals are excellent!

    At first the whole control thing was weird to me in the Axe. With the Helix, there is a direct connection between the foot controls and the patches. It took some orientation to get used to the controller being so separate from the unit and patches/presets. I'm starting to like some aspects of it now though. I am starting to see benefits from having my controller being decoupled from my patches.

    I like the separate tap/hold operations, and while the scribble strips and color LED's are nothing new to me, I appreciate them greatly nonetheless.

    Also, I don't know what black magic it is that makes it possible to run and power the whole thing from a single XLR cable, but that is one of the coolest things ever! Major kudos for that one!!

    6. Editor and Workflow

    The editor is not bad. I still like HX Edit better, but the Axe editor is entirely useable. It has a bit of an old-school Windows vibe/sheen to it, but that's ok. It's intuitive enough and I like how everything is laid out and organized.

    The pick-lists are sometimes obnoxious. Especially cabs! :bonk

    Editing on the hardware isn't bad, but there are some things that aren't intuitive, some things that are janky, and there are a few too many deep menu dives for me. I'm a little concerned about editing on the fly at gigs... we'll have to see. I'm thinking I'll probably bring my laptop with me to the first rehearsals and shows I do just in case. This is where the Helix still feels lightyears ahead of the Axe to me. I seriously miss the on-the-fly editing ability of the Helix.

    7. Amp/Cab

    The amps and cabs sound phenomenal. Easily the best I've heard. Period.

    One thing I really miss from the Helix is the ability to choose either separate amp/cab blocks, or a single combined block!

    On the Axe, it can be annoying to have to change parameters on two separate blocks every time I want to change amp models. It makes auditioning amps a serious hassle! First I have to dig through the huge pick list of amps. Then, I have to change to the cab block and try to search for the cabs in a ridiculous list of cab IRs. It's basically made me resort to using 3 external IRs for everything and never touching the Axe cabs. What I've heard of them is great, but I don't have time to dig through that crazy list of cabs. It's easier to just set an IR, and then tweak the amp to get what I want from it.

    I seriously wish they had an option to auto-switch the cab to the cab for the selected amp model. Like a toggle switch in the Cab block that could turn this on if desired.

    It was so much easier to audition amps in the Helix to find the sounds I wanted when I was building tones for a show!

    8. Bass and Acoustic Processing

    For bass, it seems... utilitarian? It can work, but it's pretty limited unfortunately. The models that are there sound good (some better than others), but there are so few of them, and some glaring omissions. Obviously it's a tool made for electric guitar, and just has enough bass stuff thrown in to get by for the guitarist who occasionally plays bass. At least that's what it feels like to me.

    I like Helix much much better for bass. I would easily recommend the HX Stomp over the Axe to any bass player!

    For acoustic it's pretty good. I like the sound of the EQ and compressors a lot. I actually like the compressors in it better on acoustic than I liked them on electric!

    I have some mastering plugins I use in Ableton that I think might edge it out in terms of pure sound quality for acoustic, but overall it's very good!

    ----------------


    I've only been using the Axe for a day or so. I've got a first rehearsal and run of shows starting this weekend, so I'll get a chance to try it out in the wild soon! I'm looking forward to it, but also kind of nervous.

    First impressions compared to the Helix are about what I thought they'd be: The Axe edges it out in most areas of pure sound quality, but the Helix still reigns supreme for UX/UI and workflow!

    I think as a dedicated electric guitar processor, the Axe is a great choice. But another thing I've come to appreciate with the Helix is how unbelievably flexible a tool it is. And with things like Command Center, I still think Helix is the more versatile tool. If you're using something as a single piece that is integrated into a larger rig, or a guitar processor to integrate into a multi-instrument or synth rig, I think the Helix is the better choice.


    Final Verdict:

     
  2. Benz2112

    Benz2112 Supporting Member

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    This is one of the better comparos I have seen between the two, I really get a flavor for your transition. It makes a lot of sense, the Axe has a lot of horsepower, and is on the bleeding edge of processing, whereas the Helix is perhaps more accessible maybe or utilitarian?
     
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  3. Jarick

    Jarick Supporting Member

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    That's awesome to hear!

    I am hoping they start to roll out the FM3 soon.

    Like you, I found the effects to be the best on the Fractal units. And the amp modeling is outstanding. Great to hear the drive pedals are so good as well with the new Ares stuff.
     
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  4. tjontheroad

    tjontheroad Just Wanna Be Misunderstood Silver Supporting Member Vendor

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    Congrats. Once you get more use to the workflow, the differences become mute and the sound flexibility becomes more evident.
     
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  5. mbenigni

    mbenigni Member

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    [​IMG]
     
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  6. teofilrocks

    teofilrocks Supporting Member

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    [​IMG]

    :D
     
  7. mbenigni

    mbenigni Member

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    Great review, thanks. When the FM3 rolls out (and then when my name finally comes up, 6 years later) I'll probably have to narrow things down to owning 2 out of three: Helix Floor, HX Stomp, and FM3. I admit to having a seriously low tolerance for usability issues, so the Ares amp modeling is going to have to do this for 30 days (or however long Fractal gives us to decide):

    [​IMG]
     
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  8. texhex

    texhex Supporting Member

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  9. BKE

    BKE Member

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    On you point 4 regarding the grid. You can create a base rig and save as a template in axe edit then just load that up to build off when creating a new preset.
     
  10. Guitardave

    Guitardave Supporting Member

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    Great write-up! I'm curious how the new Performance mode will simplify things for editing at gigs. It's pretty rare that I change much beyond simple things like gain/output on drive pedals, tone stack on amps, mix level on a verb. Navigating on the III was logical but really slow compared to the Helix. Surprisingly the FX8 navigation works really well for me. Double-tap a footswitch and it takes you right to the effect block to edit.

    Another plus for the drive pedals is they offer so many EQ, gain and diode control options. That's one of those areas that the digital flexibility is a huge advantage and the Axe takes full advantage of it. Coming from years of using OD pedals I love being able to instantly swap around different diodes/etc. to get more of what I'm looking to hear.
     
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2019
  11. mbenigni

    mbenigni Member

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    Hopefully some of these later-generation UI/integration concepts have made their way into the FM3's design.
     
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  12. Rayf

    Rayf Member

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    Great comparison. I'm waiting on the FM3 myself to compare amp tones, and you pretty much confirmed a lot of my suspicions with Fractal's workflow. Interesting about the drive block comparison. The drives are one of the reasons I'm going to keep the Helix. It'll be interesting to hear hour Fractal sizes up.
     
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  13. tjontheroad

    tjontheroad Just Wanna Be Misunderstood Silver Supporting Member Vendor

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  14. Yek

    Yek Member

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    Nice review. As already mentioned above: use the Template feature in Axe-Edit to get a quick grid layout.
     
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  15. handyman

    handyman Member

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    Excellent review! I've had a Axe FX III for a couple months now, and totally agree with your take on both the III's high and annoying points.

    As someone who plays a lot of bass - I agree. Fractal doesn't really care about the bass player market. But when I'm wearing my bass player hat I really don't have much use for a fancy amp modeler/processor either. I plug my bass straight into my solid state amp, and that's that. I use the III's bass models for practicing at home, but that's it.

    If you're a bass player, yes, the itty bitty HX Stomp is probably the thing. And even that's overkill for me.

    But for guitar? Holly heck, I'm never giving up my Axe FX III.
     
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  16. bdrepko

    bdrepko Supporting Member

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    You can use limit what you see in the pick lists by searching for strings like "MAR" or "412". You can also highlight commonly used cabs and amps and restrict those to the pick lists. Very useful.
     
  17. JiveTurkey

    JiveTurkey Trumpets and Tants Silver Supporting Member

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    The grid kills. As does the editor.
     
  18. bdrepko

    bdrepko Supporting Member

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    The presets do a good job of demoing the amp models and matching them with cabinet models.
     
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  19. hippietim

    hippietim Member

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    @metropolis_4 nice write up. Regarding the grid, you don't have to fill the rows end to end. IOW, you can do a rig as simple as In1->Amp1->Cab1->Out1 with no shunts or anything. You do have to connect them but that's pretty easy.
     
  20. cliffc8488

    cliffc8488 Member

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    There's a shortcut to populate the grid with shunts and connect them. Place a block in a desired grid location, i.e. put Input 1 in the first column, third row. Press and hold Enter. This will automatically place shunts and connect them until you release Enter or the end of the row is reached.
     

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