Fractal Axe-Fx II XL+ Preamp/Effects Processor

Since Fractal Audio Systems released the first Axe-Fx over a decade ago, it has become a touchstone in guitar amp and effects processing.  Fractal’s artist roster spans every imaginable genre, full of players known for having access to whatever gear they desire… and using Fractal.

Some of the players using the Axe-Fx that add valued legitimacy to me include Pete Thorn, Steve Vai, Greg Marra (check out “Thrust“), Metallica, The Edge (HERE, starting at about 2:30), Neal Schon, Joel Hoekstra (for Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Rock Of Ages), Steve Stevens, Joe Satriani, and many more.

My path to the Axe-Fx II XL+ is one that that started with curiosity and developed into necessity.  I have the same tube preamp I’ve had since it was new in the late 80s.  Yep, almost 30 years.  As my old amp needs a few more nips and tucks to keep it youthful, it is a matter of time before a replacement is happening.  To give credit it’s due, demo videos by Fractal’s Mark Day totally got my attention.

Initially, my main goal is to clone my main amp tone.  That’s a slippery slope, as the Axe-Fx currently comes with over 180 different amp models.  How many kids get that big of a candy store?  LOL!  And while great if you’re an “amp only” sort of player, take a look at the effects:

 

 

29+ Drive Pedal models
19 types of Reverbs
Customizable Whammy
Shimmer, Crystals, etc.
Flanger, Chorus
Rotary Speaker
7 types of Filters
Compressor
Front-end Noise Gate
Looper
Vocoder
Dozens of Delays
Customizable Wah
Fixed and Intelligent Harmony
Phase & Uni-vibe
Panner/Tremolo
Tone Match
Graphic & Parametric EQ
Limiter/Gate
Guitar Synth
“True” Tape Echo
And more…

 

Whew! No wonder Steve Vai uses the Axe-Fx! Haha!

Fractal Axe-Edit for Axe-Fx
Fractal Axe-Edit for Axe-Fx

For an insight into the path of a total newb, I went looking for established presets.  The Axe-Change and the Fractal Audio Systems Forum are good places to start.  Seeing how other end users assemble Axe-Fx patches can be a good reference point.  In the end, it still came down to putting something together from the ground up.

A pal is a local gigging-musician and maintains two Axe-Fx units (one for home studio, one for gigs) and he had already shown me how the free Axe-Edit software makes a lasting impression as a user interface.  With Axe-Edit, Fractal stepped up and made a comprehensive control portal that is very intuitive. I mean, come on. The appeal of navigating menus on a small screen via buttons on the front of a rack-mount unit just doesn’t appeal to everyone.  Especially aging old coots like me!  LOL!

For the curious, I’m cloning an ADA MP-1, which currently is not an Amp Type in the Axe-Fx (but hopefully soon!).  Noted guitar gear guru Frank Falbo and MP-1 wizard Robert Fosnot each suggested a Peavey block logo 5150 amp, which Fractal calls the “PVH 6160 Block”.  And yes, that is totally workable home base for a MP-1 tone.

Having nailed my primary tone, it then becomes all about the fun and games.  What are a few of the cool benefits?  Well, there are a LOT of cool things going on, so I’m keeping it to a few that really jump out at me.  Because, for real, the Axe-Fx is just packed too densely with how much it can do and how deep you can dive into it.

The SCENE feature is quite awesome.  Each preset allows for 8 scenes, or variations.  So let’s say you assign every effect you will need for a certain song. Maybe something like this:

 

Now imagine up to 8 combinations of those effects to be turned on and/or off within a single preset.  Don’t need the Wah, Phaser, Delay, and one of the Amp/Cab combos for the intro.  Turn them off and there’s SCENE 1.  Repeat as needed for each part of the song, for up to 8 SCENES.  Better yet, you can do that for each of the Axe-Fx capacity of 768 presets!  That sounds awesome for any gigging musician as it does for the man cave rock star!

Fractal MFC-101 Foot Controller
Fractal MFC-101 Foot Controller

That’s just what the Axe-Fx II XL+ can do.  The Fractal MFC-101 foot controller (sold separately) can be set up to control entire set lists.  That is a lot of control and flexibility and it’s barely even scratching the surface.  Stick with me and I’ll see if I can get an evaluation of the MFC-101 by the end of summer.  I know, but be patient… gear doesn’t just grow on trees around here.  HaHa!

Another way the Axe-Fx can be facilitated is simply as an effects processor.  Take another look at the list of effects that come with the unit.  Who else remembers the days of having huge racks filled with effects?  Steve Vai talks a little about that HERE, starting at about 17:54.  And I think he’s right when he says you can just pull up some settings and it’s good.  I am having plenty of ease with the effects blocks I am trying out.  A few simple tweaks and things sound just dandy.

Take a listen to Metallica using a few Axe-Fx in a live setting:

 

Support for the Axe-Fx is pretty robust.  The Fractal website stays current with updates for drivers and firmware and utilities.  It appears that the Fractal team has a passion for continuous improvement, with regular firmware updates.  The Fractal-Bot utility (like Axe-Edit, also no additional cost) is there for firmware updates and for backing up your presets to a hard drive.  It would be nifty if those features were integrated into the Axe-Edit application.  However, both utilities have a ridiculously small footprint and are working flawlessly for me.

Yes, I know, I’m barely scratching the surface.  This product is simply laid out like wall-to-wall 70s shag carpet with so many controls and tweaks and features – oh my!  While finding a great match for my main tone, I know there will be many search parties dispatched for additional sounds.  Keep an eye out for future Tech Tip entries.  If you can’t wait (and I don’t blame you! LOL!), there are wiki pages for Fractal’s current and legacy systems.

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