Built my dream guitar rig, now I’m selling it — Part 3: The reality and the fix

Sometimes, you need to accept the facts.

Jonathan Thomas
Mar 23, 2017 · 7 min read
Fractal Audio Axe FX — Could this be the answer to the tone of my dreams?

So, after finally coming to a place where I could accept that I had most of the basic tones covered, why did I still want more? Why was I still missing my Mesa? Why did I suddenly feel the urge to buy a Plexi style amplifier? But more so, why is my sound so limited.

These limitations I felt were bug bears that I let go of at certain moments in time, but mostly just felt that my creativity was stifled by them.

That moment when you realise you’re doing it wrong*.

*wrong for me

I watched a video where a guy was running a class tutorial on how to use the Axe FX to create a nice clean tone. He basically set one preset to play with his single coil equipped guitar and another for his humbucker equipped guitar. For the latter, he lowered the input gain and managed to make everything clean up nicely.

It was at that moment I realised that I’m fighting against something that I may not be able to achieve. It’s why Mark Tremonti used a nice clean Fender amp for his clean tones and a big old Mesa stack for his dirty sounds. I’d go from playing my Strat to the PRS and get annoyed with having to set a different EQ on the amp…I didn’t want to have multiple amps to fulfil this and didn’t want the hassle of an EQ pedal, and when I tried them, they never quite did what I wanted them to.

This ability to keep the same amp but change a preset depending on your guitar seemed perfect for what I wanted to achieve, not to mention open up a whole world of possibilities not possible with a regular setup. But “surely it would never sound as good as my valve amp?”.

More concerns

  • I was never convinced about the portability of my pedal based rig, it’d be huge to lug around.
  • The amp has died on me once already, I wasn’t looking forward to that happening again.
  • I was tiring of going through various routing options for my pedals; stereo concerns, mono concerns, wet/dry ratio, midi control and setting up patches…it’s not as easy as we like to think and what works in one situation (at home) may not work in another (gigging or rehearsal)…is it wrong of me to want a rig that works in both?
  • Constant tweaking of pedal controls to reconfigure tones for guitars or songs…I want a plug and play approach. Digital presets seem to be the answer for this kind of headache.

But fundamentally, I just wasn’t getting close enough to the sounds I felt I needed to take my playing that step further. For example, if I bought a JCM800, yes, I’d have been closer, but then I’d have wanted a modded JCM800 to take it to the type of gain range that I felt I wanted. Similarly, the Nemesis delay could never do the dotted quarter tempo thing that I loved about the DIG, so ended up keeping both, that wasn’t ideal. The La Grange squealed at high gain settings, the reverb I was waiting for may not have been good enough then I’d be going around in circles again. The list keeps on growing…

Quite simply, it was a monotonous and boring cycle of trying and testing new things and in the meantime losing lots of money on gear that I maybe wouldn’t like. And at the end of it, I didn’t ever get close to the sound I was after.

The solution

I’ll caveat this next section with “”. For me, however, the answer was simple…try a digital modeller.

I wasn’t optimistic, the last outing I had with modellers was my POD HD, and that left a lot to be desired. I went and tried a Line 6 Helix just to see what I thought and must say, the clean tones were exceptional. Within minutes, thanks to the exceptional user interface (better than the Axe FX, without a doubt), I got the tones I was looking for. I struggled to brighten up the high gain tones though, and felt I needed more control.

After watching a few video’s I came to realise that the Axe FX could be the answer. It had more control over parameters (parameters I didn’t know could even exist) and sounded slightly brighter in demo’s. It sounded great. I got gifted the opportunity within a few months of searching (was always reluctant to try the returns policy as it was a big outlay) of buying a second hand Axe FX II XL.

The idea was to try the Axe and see if I could get all the tones and effects set up the way I wanted them, compare them to my current setup and give it a few weeks to decide if it’s for me, one way or the other. Then simply sell off the Axe FX if it’s a no-go.

Four days in…

I won’t talk about day 1, or 2, or 3; though they gradually got better. They were full of headaches and user errors — not any fault of the actual unit. It took a good few hours of tweaks and more failures to get to day 4…that’s when things started to click, not least because I decided to read the manual a little.

If you ever decide to go this route, do yourself a favour and read the manual.

I started to realise that minor changes to controls were all that was needed to create a great tone. I guess the major factor was first to select the correct cabinet and microphone IR for the amplifier in use. Then I got a grasp on how the ‘input drive’ and ‘master’ work together. Slowly but surely, I am now fine tuning things using the useful ‘cut’ feature which tightens things up, and the ‘saturation’ controls which give me even more of the types of tones I’ve only been able to dream of up to now.

Right now, I’m at day 5 and I’ve already managed to create my dream clean preset (for both guitars), my go to Marshall sound and a third sound which is set for high gain — Mesa. And that’s just the amps.

Although I’m nowhere near finished with my amp presets, I decided to give the effects a whirl. I wanted to see if I could approximate my beloved Nova Delay and the hallowed dotted 1/4 I’d been searching for outside of using the DIG. Needless to say, the infinite customisability of the Axe FX effects allowed me to dial in those settings effortlessly.

I’ve got a fair way to go until I’m confident that all my effects and drives have been modelled in the Axe FX, but I’m more than confident now that I can actually pull that off.

The conclusion and thoughts on the Axe FX

I started this search for digital modelling back in November 2016 after years of interest in breakthrough technology. My ethos on pedal purchases was always to go modern and steer clear of vintage, with a couple of exceptions. For some reason, I felt more comfortable and confident in modern gear and believed that modern technology was always the way forward. I like things that push the boundaries and gravitate toward those things despite general resistance (and sometimes judgement) from the guitar fraternity.

After just a few days, I’ve managed to find MY tones, the tones I’ve been searching for since I sold my ‘big’ amps, the tones I’ve been trying to replicate with pedals…but the truth is, it just sounds better. I’d say it even sounds better than the real amps (for me) because I could never use them to their full potential in the confines of my tiny bedroom.

One downside, it certainly doesn’t look as cool as all those beautiful little pedals and the cool blue and hessian grill of my trusty valve amplifier, but for years, I’ve sought to impress people with my rig and always got a buzz from hearing people say, “wow” when they see it. But like I said at the start, about my DVD and CD collections, having such material things has just bogged me down, stifled creativity and has in some way or another, defined me and my life…it’s now time for the creative side to start to define things.

Perhaps my judgment is slowly proving my decisions to be correct; some of my closest friends have already complimented my leaner approach and smaller setup and have been impressed by the tones too…who am I to argue, especially when I agree!

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to the Axe FX is that I’m replacing my dream rig with it, is how good I think it is.

Did you enjoy this? Read the rest too…

Surely guitars won’t be the only things I crave, now?! God forbid!

Red Chair Riffs

For guitarists.

Jonathan Thomas

Written by

User experience designer and guitarist

Red Chair Riffs

For guitarists.

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