First gig with Axe FX: a report from the field

Discussion in 'Amps and Cabs' started by willhutch, Oct 5, 2008.

  1. willhutch

    willhutch Supporting Member

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    I just played my first gig with my Axe FX. I’d like to post my experiences with this unit so far. The goal of this post is to impart some new info about this device and also to get responses from Axe FX users detailing their experiences and approaches to some of the problems I describe below. I look forward to some informative discussion.

    I.Background:
    a.I am a gigging musician playing in a variety of cover bands and occasional original projects. I play a lot of R&B, funk, and blues. I do some gospel and a little straight-up rock & roll. I typically gig in a small club environment.
    b.I have been a lover of tube amps for years. I have owned many of the high end amps touted on TGP as well as a handful of vintage pieces. My #1 amp lately has been a Two-Rock Opal. In the past year I’ve gotten into tube amp building, having completed 3 kit builds with excellent results.
    c.I got the Axe FX for these reasons:
    i.Curiosity (I really don’t NEED anything)
    ii.Flexibility – the ability to get variety of tones and effects.
    iii.Utility – ability to play quietly, record conveniently, feed FOH easily


    II.First week of ownership
    I received the unit on Monday and immediately tore open the box to get acquanted. My initial impression was that the Axe FX seems like a robust piece of gear. The chassis is solid, made of hefty metal. The buttons and knobs feel solid with the right amount of physical resistance. The jacks are all feel like they are mounted fast to the chassis.
    I spent Monday thru Saturday sequestered with the Axe FX learning how it works. Right away I was getting satisfying tones. I found virtually all of the presets to be utterly useless, but was able to quickly adjust them to my tastes. I have no experience with this type of technology, yet I find editing programs (at least on a surface level) to be quite easy. The interface is intuitive.
    The Axe FX is deep. The amount of control you have over your sound is amazing. If you desire, you can create tones at an atomic level, controlling the minutest details. Or, you can treat it like a virtual pedal board, inserting, moving and twisting the knobs on your virtual stompboxes. I’ve done a lot of experimentation this week, and have imagined many, many experiments that will take me months to study. I’m sure there are many more things I haven’t imagined yet.
    The tones are great. I’ve gotten some wonderfully lush, wide clean tones (a priority for me). The high gain stuff sounds great too. The effects really leave nothing to be desired. Strangely, I don’t feel I need to say much about the tone of the Axe FX unit. It can make whatever kind of tone you instruct to to make. It seems to me that the challenge is learning how to get it to do what you want. I will say that many of the pejorative terms I’ve heard leveled against digital gear do not apply. It does not sound phony or fizzy or weird in any way…unless it is dialed in to sound this way.
    The feel of playing the unit is widely, and justly, questioned by guitarists. The common question is “yeah, but does it FEEEL like a tube amp??” My answer is no…and yes. First the “yes”: You play a note, and the speaker projects the attack and a certain kind of decay, depending on various factors. There is no perceived latency. You play hard, and the sound gets louder and lasts longer. You hit hard enough and it will compress like a tube amp…assuming you’ve told the unit to respond this way. Again, the Axe FX can mimic the response of a tube amp if you tell it do so. You have control over the things that create the perception of an amp’s response to your physical touch on the instrument. Attack, sustain, compression, bloom, sag…these phenomena can be manipulated to create a response that is, to me, indiscernible from that of an amp. Now, the creators of the Axe FX did most of the work for you by creating the amp modeling technology. They’ve already tweaked the DNA of various tones in their modeling modules, so you don’t need to go in and manually adjust, for instance, the Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release generators. But you can if you wish.
    The Axe FX feels very bizarre in another way, and this became apparent in live application: You can get cranked amp tone without the volume! Having a speaker create a facsimile of a screaming Marshall while not having a screaming Marshall pushing air out of a 4X12 is….well…not natural. While the sound is convincing enough, and the touch response is similar, there is some psycho-acoustic thing missing. The connection is severed between an amp's tone, response and SPL level. However, I suppose you CAN turn up and push the air to regain the kinetic coupling that happens at volume. Additionally, it is easy to accidentally instruct the Axe FX to respond unnaturally. For instance, I found that using a gate did a great job of cutting noise in the signal chain, but overuse can cut short the natural decay of your guitar.

    III.First Gig.
    a.The Room: 200 person club. Packed house. Rectangular room about 30’ by 50’. Band at one end on floor (no raised stage). Small PA. Vox, keys, guitar, kick drum miked. Bass going direct into room. Two stage monitors carrying only vox.
    b.The band: Guitar, bass, drums, keys, 4 vocalists. Material was a mix of R&B, blues, funk, rock.
    c.My rig: Axe FX run thru full range two-way Mackie powered speaker. Controlled by Rocktron Midi Mate and volume pedal. I also had a wah and tuner in line with guitar plugged into front input of Axe FX. Guitar was Tom Anderson HDT with H-S-H pups. FOH signal supplied to board via balanced output of Axe FX. The MIDI pedal board was setup up to access 5 presets with one row of buttons and trigger CCs for delay, drive, reverb, etc with top row of buttons.
    d.Impressions:
    i. I found I was hauling more weight than with my usual setup. That powered speaker is big and clunky. The number of connections was slightly higher than my normal rig as well. The unfamiliarity with the setup added to setup time. In it’s current state, this rig doesn’t gain me anything in terms of load in or simplicity.
    ii.The tones were, mostly, very satisfying. I spent a lot of time editing the sounds, so they were to my liking. However, those sounds were created in my studio when I was alone. Being optimized for that environment, they weren’t perfectly tuned for playing with a band in that particular room. I found the gain on my distortion settings was consistently too low, echoes on my delays were too quiet and I had too much bass dialed in. I was able to attenuate the bass using global EQ. But, being new to the unit, I did not attempt to adjust the other things. The soundman, who also is a gigging guitarist, reported that the Axe FX sounded good. He wasn’t effusive about it, but seemed to like the results. The people in the band said it sounded great.
    iii. Being the first outing, the actual manipulation of the Axe FX’ controls took more thought than when using a more familiar rig. I spent all night experimenting with the interplay of the patches, parameters, volume pedal, and the guitars controls. I tried to do this without sacrificing my performance. Once I learn the unit, this will be easier. The way I have it set up is designed to give me access to more sounds with less footwork. While he footwork should be easier, this rig requires more brain power at the moment.
    I did experience a major problem in the last set. For some reason, the communication between the foot controller and the Axe FX got screwed up. So when I stepped on a button it didn’t retrieve the intended preset. I don’t know what happened. So I dialed in one of my presets using the value dial on the Axe FX and controlled gain with the guitar’s volume knob. This actually was great. I felt more at home having fewer options all the sudden. It was more like my usual MO.


    IV. Early Verdict
    The Axe FX is a powerful tool for creating tones for the guitar. You can go deep and work with the fundamental elements of timbre or you can just treat it like a collection of stompboxes, using the algorithms supplied by Fractal Audio.
    I feel that the quality of the unit and its controllability render the questions “how does it sound” and “how does it feel” somewhat moot. I’m no expert, but it seems Axe FX has moved the state-of-the-art to a point where the question is now “how good can you make it sound?”. The good news is that with the modeling modules loaded in the Axe FX allow you to get 90% of the way to great tones in a way that makes sense to guitarists. The other 10% requires new knowledge that most guitarists, like myself, need to develop.
    I need more experience with this thing. I was much less comfortable at the gig than I am with an amp. While the unit offers much more control, I am not skilled yet in taking that control in a gig situation.
    Regarding the question of whether or not this replaces tube amps, I think it clearly can. The sounds I was getting last night were not inferior to what I get with my Fenders or Two-Rock. The downsides of his unit are not tone or feel. At this point, the downsides to this thing are its complexity and the difficulty on making adjustments on the fly. On an amp you turn a knob or flip a switch. With this thing, you need to navigate menus…not to mention the hours you can put in to create custom presets.
    As a tone-generating tool, the Axe FX seems as good as an amp. I think it can be made to do whatever your amp does sonically. As a musical instrument, I haven’t bonded with the Axe FX yet. Last night, I felt there was something between me and the music. I chalk this up to the fact that it is still a very alien approach for me. I’ll revisit this as I gain familiarity.
    A final note: Since working with the Axe FX, I notice I’ve begun to HEAR guitar tones differently. Before, when I heard guitar tone, I would wonder what gear was used in its creation. Now, however, I hear guitar sounds as, well, SOUNDS. Using the Axe FX to render an imagined tone has got me thinking of timbre in new ways. The difference between the before and after is similar to the difference in the way your grandma understands her piecrust and the way a food scientist does. Good, bad, or indifferent, it is certainly interesting.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2008
  2. hamfist

    hamfist Member

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    Very interesting experiences. Thanks for sharing !
     
  3. bluesdoc

    bluesdoc Gold Supporting Member Gold Supporting Member

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    Great review, Will. I haven't gigged with mine yet, and I'm certainly not at your pro level, but I've used it in one of my bands' rehearsals a couple of times. Interesting that your lead gain seemed too low as so often it's the other way around going from home to ensemble. Similarly with effects. If you hadn't had the controller blip out, perhaps your level of 'security' with the new system might have been better?

    I find that one of the main advantages for me, in both home and band setting IS being able to get full tone at tame/low volumes. Yes, it changes the experience of playing, but allows it to be so much more controllable and generally easier on the ears. I have some inner ear issues, so that's really important to me. Also, I think there are other powered monitors that far surpass the Mackies. I'm loving my FBT and having eq on the back can make for some quick and easy room adjustments.

    The depth of this thing IS daunting. What a great tube amp/cab has predetermined is all variable on the AF and small tweaks can have a major impact on the final product. I'm not sure where that ends. I'm scores, if not hundreds of hours into playing this thing and I still tweak patches nearly every day. It was fine a month ago. It's better and better all the time. I A/B'd it with a couple of my remaining, yet to be sold, tube amps--->> cab the other day and found that I preferred the AF. I haven't had the chance to let it rip in a loud band ensemble yet, where my tube amp(s) had shined before, but I'm optimistic.

    This is clearly a device and technology that is NOT for everyone. It's so far from plug and play that one really must want to embrace taking on the learning curve. That said, it can be closer to plug and play by downloading other players' patches, which are widely available now. Scott Peterson has a now famous 800 patch that users are loving. And then deciding on which FRFR to use, or to go with power amp to cab, is a biggie. But guys are finding tonal heaven with both, or either.

    Lastly, the fact that Cliff updates and improves the firmware all the time is just an awesome plus. It was great, and keeps getting better, if that can be :eek:

    btw, I also use the Midimate, with a Hex pedal into it to control a volume block. To simplify wiring, I've left out a wah, and simply use an autowah as one of my eff on the top row (with a boost, delay, chorus, and drive block switching). The MMate will suffice until Fractal turns loose their controller, a much anticipated event.

    jon
     
  4. Audioholic

    Audioholic Member

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    Good review and points!!! I like these real world pros and cons, I think some of your concerns is a reason why my axe is still in the studio rack and not my live rack, easy adjustments on the fly, balancing out my sounds and eq quickly instead of navigating menus (which isn't too hard, but its a few extra steps) when playing at different volumes. and the big one for me is lack of a good controller....

    But your right, the potential, and sound is there, just may take a bit to get used to having a different work flow..
     
  5. Den

    Den Member

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    Great review Will! Very similar to my experiences. I've only gigged a few times with mine and felt less comfortable with it at first as well ... but I feel that way with any new rig until I get it dialed in with a band in a live environment.

    The key to success with this is recognizing that there is a necessary learning curve to get the most out of it. Just like learning the guitar, you have to make an investment, but the return can be tremendously rewarding.

    The upside is that there are so many possibilities to create so many kinds of great tones. I've had zero interest in any other amps during the 10 months I've had the Axe because every time I fire it up I can build a completely new rig if I like. As a result, I spend more time actually playing music than researching and lusting after gear.

    At this point, I have dialed in a few patches that I really love: a patch for my acoustic, a blackface patch I cloned from my Rambler, a JCM 800 that's awesome with both my strat and LP, an EVH brownsound, two Dumble patches, and another I use to jam along with Pink Floyd tunes. In each one, I have a wah, chorus, delay, drive and boost I can kick in with my All Access LTD. All-in-all, amazing versatility I've never had at once, let alone in one rig ... and I've barely scratched the surface of this thing.

    One other huge bonus is that when I dial in tones through my studio monitors, I can record exactly what I hear. I used to spend so much time dialing in an amp and setting up mics to try to get the tone I wanted. This is much faster and easier for a guy like me with little time to dedicate to my music ... and I'm getting the best recorded tones I've ever had.

    Cliff Chase has definitely made my musical world a better place.
     
  6. mude

    mude Supporting Member

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    Great info. That is the kind of stuff I have been wondering. I have had enough time with one to believe that I can get to the sounds I want with work, and the lure of low volume and front-of-house PA tone goodness are tempting.

    Things still holding me back:

    1. Time/effort to learn it enough to be comfortable. (A matching foot controller will be nice to remove some of the effort).
    2. It does not represent a smaller/lighter load compared to my normal setup at this point.
    3. I tend to use a fairly limited number of basic tones and then just color them with a few effects such that I would not use the depth of possibilities for quite a while as a guess.
    4. Expense of buying more stuff. I am expecting used pricing to drop as more are available and will likely try again then.



    willhutch - what really drove you to the Axe-Fx in the first place?

    Just curious because I think I am recognizing that a big part of it for me is the fun of trying new stuff. My needs seem reasonably satisfied with current alternatives, but I guess I am drawn to the low volume quality and replicating the sound through the mains of the PA. That is attractive.

    Evan.
     
  7. willhutch

    willhutch Supporting Member

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    Mostly curiosity. God knows I have plenty of great gear that gets me heavenly tones. My acquisition of new stuff these days rarely has anything to do with need.
     
  8. 62Tele

    62Tele Supporting Member

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    Will,

    What you reported underscores why I haven't jumped yet. I have no doubt this technology can eventiually replace traditional amps, but the unit is too complex for what I'm after. It would be for me like buying a Swiss Army Champ and using only the scissors. My favorite playing experiences always happen when I'm not even thinking about the gear, just have it dialed in and playing. The whole organic feel you can get with a good tube amp.

    No doubt you could get to that point with these units, seems like a longer, or at least different, road. Sure wish they'd come out with a pared down floor version built as tough as a PTP Fender.
     
  9. SkyhighRocks

    SkyhighRocks Member

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    Great post...thanks for taking the time. I, too, had my first gig this past weekend with an Ultra. I used a QSC as a monitor and was underwhelmed with my sound. I had the same problem at rehearsal too...where my tone was great at home and terrible away from home. I'm thinking part of my problem is that I prefer the sound and feel of a 4x12 cabinet...4 speakers pushing at you as opposed to one. I just picked up a mosvalve power amp off ebay this morning and will be trying that at my next gig next weekend. My other problem is that I am also still learning a great deal about this unit but I'm also positive that I will find my sweet spots with it...it's all trial and error and narrowing things down to what you like personally.

    If anyone is interested in a QSC, pm me!

    On another note, any of you guys want to share any patches? I like seeing how guys set theirs up that are happy with their live tone.

    Rich
     
  10. mude

    mude Supporting Member

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    Gotcha. That was me as well. Not quite enough to put me over the edge again at this point, but I could break at any time. LOL. Still enjoying some cheap amps and a few pedals.

    Evan.
     
  11. bluesdoc

    bluesdoc Gold Supporting Member Gold Supporting Member

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    It's in the works, we are told... ;)

    jon
     
  12. stratzrus

    stratzrus Philadelphia Jazz, Funk, and R&B Supporting Member

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    That pretty much sums it up for me as well.

    It's clear to me that some with more knowledge/ability than I have are able to get the Axe FX to achieve more of it's potential than I am, but I'm not in a rush. The Axe FX is here to stay as part of my rig and as time evolves I am becoming more familiar with it. I plan to spend a week getting the unit set up properly for my needs, but so far have enjoyed playing through it so much that I haven't spent as much time as I should learning the basics.

    No matter how you slice it there's nothing comparable and I agree with Will that the main limiting factor is your ability to operate the unit.
     
  13. fullerplast

    fullerplast Senior Member

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    Nice review, but this seems to be a recurring theme for virtually all users...

    I wonder why that is, given all the firmware updates and user feedback? Does everyone simply hear or use it so much differently than Cliff? Has there been any evolution of presets? It would seem to be a huge selling point for those not wanting to spend time tweaking and reinventing the wheel....:dunno
     
  14. willhutch

    willhutch Supporting Member

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    One thing that IS useful about having tons of far out presets is that you can dissect them to see what effects and parameters are being used to get those sounds. They serve as templates.

    I think it would be good to load a higher proportion of "usable" presets. These would be representative of the myriad classic guitar tones. They have some of these loaded, but why not have 50% be like this and the remaining 50% be the goofball stuff (value judgement here, I know).
     
  15. electronpirate

    electronpirate Member

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    I'll defend the presets.

    They work great for some people. You have to think they are created with a FRFR system that may not mirror the way that people will run theirs (not all FRFR systems are the same...) Also, they may be designed for a particular guitar or PUP. SC's will be better for the cleans and maybe driven, HB for gainier stuff. You start mixing those, and you might get some not so great sounds.

    I have used a few (not without some tweaking tho), so some of them are very usable. Also, keep in mind they are only to show the CAPABILITY of the unit. There are, well, MOST of them I'd never find an opportunity to use as they focus on effects generation, and not just amp tones.

    Thanks Will for the very comprehensive review BTW.

    EP
     
  16. Ed DeGenaro

    Ed DeGenaro Supporting Member

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    Since you asked...
    I've done 40 gigs with the Axe set-up this Summer and here's how this went for me...
    First gig I used it I ran it into the monitors and FOH and it sounded as ghastly as that place's monitor sound with my amps. :)
    However it was a bit of a turn off. Second try was with a Mosvalve power amp into a THD 2x12 loaded with Classic 80s. That was okay but not great.
    Then when I swapped the MosValve power amp out for a VHT 2/50/2 and used a THD 2x12 with either Golds or 65s depending on my needs we had something. So much so, that I ended up putting about 15 heads into storage. Still drag a Flexi-50 around wih me though., :)

    Long story short I love my sound. However I was still at the mercy of sound guys.
    Next step was adding in ears. That I had the sound guy run off the monitor mix. That was alright. But I was able to get a better tone together...so I decided to change the set up again. Added a mixer. Running the digital out of the Axe into the mixer, and running my mics into it as well...then the whole thing is fed back to FOH.
    Also I hav the monitor guy send drums and bass into my mixer. And send seperaste busses out.
    So I got a mix for mine, the drummer's, and the bass players in ears as well as FOH.
    Thatset-up rules. Actually use it even in rehearsal...
    [​IMG][​IMG]
     
  17. Pat Healy

    Pat Healy Member

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    Same here. I'm quite satisfied with the sonics of my current rig, but I'm extremely intrigued by this piece of gear. Thanks for your articulate and candid review. You've pushed me one step closer to the edge. :eek:
     
  18. Ed DeGenaro

    Ed DeGenaro Supporting Member

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    Here are some of mine...
    http://axechange.net/user.aspx?user_profile_id=387
     
  19. Ed DeGenaro

    Ed DeGenaro Supporting Member

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    I do think it's there. It's a matter of how aware are you what makes what you like tick. Is it as simple as plugging into an amp and have instant returns? Unlikley, unless you really know what makes your sound your sound.
     
  20. Pat Healy

    Pat Healy Member

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    Ed, how are you using the Palmer load box?
     

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