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.