Built my dream guitar rig, now I’m selling it — Part 5: Kemper, is it a keeper?
April 2018 my first taste of Kemper.
After seeing a video comparing the Axe FX III and the Kemper (that has unfortunately now been deleted by its maker, Camilo Velandia— an Axe FX III owner) which I spoke about in my previous post, “Part 4: One year later with the Fractal Axe FX”, my first instinct was to try the Kemper in the interim, whilst I wait for the Axe FX III to arrive in the country.
I’d planned to spend 2 weeks with it and then send it back to the shop. With the aim of seeing what it’s about, what it could offer me and to get away from using amp modelling plugins.
I bought the unpowered Kemper head. What a beautiful looking piece of gear.
Kemper, first impressions
After taking it out of the box, my first thoughts were that it was neat, compact, beautiful and intriguing.
Looks more complex than it is. After a tiny bit of manual reading — first five pages or so, literally, I quickly learned that I needed to activate certain effects or blocks (from the Axe FX world) by holding the relevant buttons across the top of the unit. And that line of buttons represented the signal chain from start to finish and in 3 sections.
- Stomps — pre-amplifier effects. Usually associated with but not limited to, drives, compression etc.
- Stack — The amplifier itself, along with the EQ and cabinet.
- Effects — similar to the stomps, but after the amp and cab. Again, usually associated with delays and reverbs. But can put most things here too.
Quickly did a system update and made sure the factory presets were all installed correctly and were up to date.
Yes, but what does it sound like?
Honestly, the factory presets sounded great. I used a Vox from The Amp Factory for the best part of three days before really delving in deeper. I could have played with that profile forever and that would have been perfect.
I used the Genelec 8020's with it and also tried my stereo pair of Yamaha DXR10’s, both sets of speakers sounded fantastic. Real. Punchy and very amp-like.
The main thing for me was the lack of tweaking involved. That’s not to say that Kemper won’t allow you to tweak, it will, but I have found it’s not absolutely necessary. If you want more gain, go for a different profile. That’s been my ethos.
And the effects?
Delays are my thing, I’m a huge delay user, Kemper delivers amazing delays. Chorus, phaser, flanger, I use them all sparingly, but they sound great for my needs. Compressor sounds fantastic.
Initially the drives sounded better than I thought they would be, but after a bit of usage, I quickly realised they’d be unusable for my personal tastes. I needed more from the Big Muff modelling, and the Distortion+ modelling didn’t sound even half as good as the Axe FX version. I’ve heard that Kemper are putting some work in to them though, so more to come, I expect!
Reverbs are ok, but not Strymon quality. But again, I have plugins for that now and love Valhalla for most of my needs. That said, Kemper are putting effort into new reverbs and from what I’ve heard, they sound pretty great!
I toyed with the idea of getting my favourite delay and reverb pedals to use with the Kemper when it arrived — and for taking out on the road. But now I’ve played around with it, I really don’t need another delay or reverb pedal — especially now we have new reverbs on the way (as of writing, the new reverbs are being revealed at Summer NAMM 2018).
Is the Kemper a keeper?
Yes. Here’s why…
After trying the Kemper, Axe FX and Helix, I decided to end the search there, here’s why…
Tone and amps
Sounds real. Very amp-like and natural. Has every amp I could dream of at the touch of a button or just an inexpensive credit card transaction away with 3rd party profiles.
Beats the competition.
As I said above, they do everything I need. Great sounding and flexible with your favourite vintage options. (I like a CE-2 and Electric Mistress as well as vintage vibe — all those sounds are achievable with the Kemper).
Doesn’t beat the competition, but strongly believe that it gets close and after all is said and done, the minute details in the FX blocks aren’t all that noticeable to me.
No fan noise. Axe FX is a slightly noisy unit.
Stable hardware/software iteration
Kemper hasn’t had (or needed) a hardware update since its release in 2012.
There’s lots going on with software updates, the newest of which on the horizon is the aforementioned reverb engine upgrades. Lot’s more to come before we see the inevitable Kemper 2, which is seemingly further away than the timescales we tend to see with Fractal iteration.
Although aesthetically complex (but beautiful), the front panel is the easiest to use of all three — Helix, Fractal and Kemper. Everything is accessible and tweakable from the buttons on the front of the unit.
The same can’t be said for the Fractal, there’s a lot of deep diving and lots of fiddling to get what you want.
Helix is great, really cutting edge, but the joystick approach means that you need to navigate from side to side and up and down…so there’s a little bit of diving in and out of menus.
Taking that into consideration, there’s no deep diving on the Kemper. Everything is just a button away.
There is none.
This suits me. I’ve come from relying on Axe Edit to change settings on the Axe FX and I find it incredibly liberating not to be tied to the computer monitor to make changes to my Kemper.
I don’t need an editor and don’t want one (am concerned that the front panel UI accessibility may suffer, I’d hope it wouldn’t be affected), but there’s a massive debate about the fact that Kemper needs one.
Helix and Fractal beat the Kemper with this.
The Kemper community are great. Some odd balls in the mix, but they are all very helpful and enthusiastic. There’s a lot of negativity about the perceived lack of proactivity from the Kemper team, but I genuinely believe this isn’t the case and is more a case of business positioning and keeping themselves to themselves without giving their game away.
Fractal community are great guys, but are very, very protective over their product. Cliff can do no wrong in their eyes. And whenever I questioned the UI/UX of the unit, my advice was never really welcomed. Fractal’s recent form of promoting jumping the queue for the Axe FX III wasn’t exactly shot down by the community, but rather, was praised as a ‘genius’ idea.
The Helix guys are great, I love the Helix community.
I ended up sending the unpowered head back to the shop and had them send me a powered head so that I could have options if I ever went to rehearsals or gigs etc. Having that option is perfect, I can turn the amp off when I’m at home and using FRFR or studio monitors and can turn it on and use it to power a cab when I’m out and about.
I’ve owned the Kemper for nearly 3 months now and the honeymoon period has well and truly passed. I still love it immensely. It’s the single best piece of gear I’ve ever bought, without doubt. It sounds incredible, like really incredible and that is really all that matters to me.
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