Built my dream guitar rig, now I’m selling it — Part 4: One year later with the Fractal Axe FX…was it a keeper?

In March 2017 I made the massive leap to a fully digital guitar rig. I can now document my year long journey from Axe FX newbie to massive digital convert.

Jonathan Thomas
Jun 30, 2018 · 5 min read
Fractal Axe FX II XL

Big investment

I had to sell a lot of my old analog gear, including my amp and pedals, to get back some of the money I spent on the Axe FX II XL. It was a huge make or break investment of time, money and loss; of things I’d come to cherish. Ultimately, it paid off. Within weeks, I’d grown to love the sound I was getting out of an all in one unit.

Time is the big investment though. I spent a long time finding and perfectly tweaking the big high gain tones I needed. Fractal made this an incredibly in depth and addictive process of tweaking minor parameters in the amp block — preamp and power amp, cab block and EQ blocks. It’s a rewarding process when you think you’ve nailed it but it takes a while.

However, I suffer from ear fatigue and I’d be second guessing the tone I’d created, thinking that a minor tweak here and there would make a difference. It was futile. The following day, I’d end up switching out an IR and things would change again. I think a lot of it comes down to confidence in whether the tones I was creating were good enough to be mix/live ready. I never felt that confident.

Why an Axe FX?

I grew up with guitar magazines and Fractal’s Axe FX always took pride and place on the inside cover or somewhere inside. The likes of John Petrucci, Steve Vai and so many others raving about how good and realistic it was. It was an expensive investment but honestly, I didn’t really pay any attention to the competition, the Fractal is what I wanted.

I tried the Helix though, just to get a taste of things to come and did a lot of testing as it was local and obtainable, unlike the Fractal. I liked what I heard, but not enough to buy it — it wasn’t quite delivering the high gain tones I wanted — but the Helix is fantastic. My logic was that if this is good for 90% of what I needed, I know the Axe FX will go that extra 8–9% as everyone said it sounded “better”.

I tried it, and it did.

A year of Axe FX

I loved it from the outset. It delivered everything. High gain, pristine clean and everything in between. It delivered all the delays and modulations I could ever dream of and the reverbs were incredible too. I didn’t struggle to recreate my favourite pedals or tones. It was a fantastic year of creating new sounds.

However, that’s all I ever seemed to do was create new sounds because I could never really settle on a high gain tone that I was genuinely happy with — I would always be messing with IR’s to improve upon my favourites. That’s a tone chase in itself. Axe FX III has thousands, I would be absolutely lost! The cleans also had a nice tone to them, but could always tell they sounded slightly digital, to my ears — almost modulated or 80’s sounding in a way. Not a bad thing, I like that 80’s thing. But not always appropriate.

Still I loved playing the Axe FX and will always be a big advocate of it.

Why did I sell the Axe FX?

So, it’s January 2018 and I’m having serious doubts about the portability of my rig and was toying with the idea of buying an AX8 to see if I could fit everything I do into a small floor board sized package. I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be powerful enough for my FX needs, and the extra horsepower of the flagship Axe FX was where I’d have to stay if I wanted millions of reverbs and delays to run in tandem.

Then, like magic, Fractal announced the Axe FX III. More power, more delay, more reverb, more IR’s(!), quicker preset changes…more money. I was immediately sold and put myself on the waiting list.

Fractal Axe FX III

The rack thing never really clicked with me though. It felt big, bulky, unnecessary. I’d have to buy a rack case too and the Axe FX II wasn’t a standard depth, it was a big old beast. I craved more portability and a neater package.

3 months had passed since going on the European waiting list, I’d sold the Axe FX II to fund my purchase and I quickly grew tired of messing about with amp plugins. April 2018 and rumour was that the Axe FX III wouldn’t hit UK shores until June (I’m writing this today, 30th June, and I’ve still not had the invite to purchase). Frustrating.

Fractal had also just played a blinder by allowing some to purchase, for the princely sum of $1000+, the chance to jump the queue. Must admit, I didn’t say much on the forums, but I didn’t like the tactic and it put me off, a lot.

By this point, videos started trickling through on YouTube and I admit, I wasn’t blown away with what I was hearing. I watched a video where they compared an Axe FX III to a Kemper (EDIT: it’s since been deleted by its maker, Camilo Velandia — an Axe FX III owner, no doubt because the Fractal community got up in arms about it). I never gave Kemper the time of day before now, but it was worth looking at just to check out some of the tones that the Axe FX III had up it’s sleeve.

I was shocked. Genuinely shocked at what I was hearing. The Kemper blew the Axe FX III away tone-wise. It sounded more real and amp-like to my ears. Bear in mind, I wasn’t even watching this video for the Kemper — I expected nothing from it. This video turned my head. I’d also heard that the “instant switching” wasn’t as instant as I’d hoped…maybe Axe FX III wasn’t for me after all!

Did I miss the Axe FX?

At this point, I’d been messing about with plugins for about two months. I’d found some lovely reverb plugins and some great delays. The only thing missing was the core tone. I quickly realised that maybe I didn’t need to spend as much as £2700+ on the new Fractal unit to get what I wanted.

It got me thinking about my core tone and amps again, maybe a clean amp with pedals? Nah, been there, done that.

What next?…Kemper?

Sounded like an amp to me…worth a punt, read this to see how it worked out… https://medium.com/fretboard/built-my-dream-guitar-rig-now-im-selling-it-part-5-kemper-is-it-a-keeper-a32eb8f2e058

Red Chair Riffs

For guitarists.

Jonathan Thomas

Written by

User experience designer and guitarist

Red Chair Riffs

For guitarists.

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