The Fractal Audio Systems AX8

General Information

I went through my first bout of interest with modeling amps when the earliest modeling amps were produced in the late 90s. I was an early adopter. Being a tech guy, I was fascinated by the technology and impressed by how much better these amps seemed when compared to the solid state amps I grew up with in the late 60s and early 70s. But the infatuation didn't last because I recognized that they still didn't feel right and didn't have the dynamic capabilities of good old tube amps. So I dumped my digital gear and proceed to spend most of the next two decades drowning my self in tube-technology.

But when one of my buddies began showing up at jams with a Fractal gear, I started to recognize that modeling technology had come a long way since I'd given up on it back in 2001 or so. As I started a new 3-piece band in the fall of 2018, I decided--based on the clubs we'd be playing--that I wanted a big stereo sound with a small foot print. I didn't want to drag my stereo wet rig around. I decided to give modeling a try again and jumped in, buying a used AX8, a couple expression pedals, and eventually settling on an Atomic CLR Neo full range, flat response amplified speaker.

I'm still basically a tech guy, but I was unprepared for the depth of the software in AX8. I initially felt overwhelmed. The AX8's native user-interface is clumsy and entails pages and pages of menus and submenus. There are hundreds of parameters to be tweaked....and based on my techno-personality and basic inquisitiveness, I felt I needed to understand everything.

AX8_birdseye.jpg

Figure 1 - the AX8 as seen from above; accompanied by a couple of expression pedals. I have one programmed to be a volume pedal and one for a wah.

That was my short-coming, I believe. Of course, anyone who's played around with these for more than a few minutes realizes that the way to work on things in the AX8 is via the free software that Fractal provides --AX8 Edit. AX8 Edit is a great piece of software, and while there's always some room for improvement, it still makes the AX8 much, much easier to use.

Here are some essential concepts at the core of the AX8. The hardware makes it easy to store (and load) user-defined presets -- rigs that can include combinations of amps, cab simulations, effects and layouts -- in up to 64 banks of eight. Each "piece of gear" that you put in a preset is called a "block." My typical preset will include several blocks like reverb, wah, chorus, an amp simulation and a cab simulation. Within each preset you control the routing of the signal from the input, through the various blocks, to the output; it's most easily done with the AX8 Edit software as seen in Figure 2.

AX8 Edit Screenshot.PNG

Figure 2 - The AX8 Edit software program makes configuration much simpler than the built-in user-interface.

The AX8 provides flexibility for configuring the use of up to 8 physical foot switches within each preset. These can be used in many ways. The simplest way is to configure them as on/off switches for your effects. But they can also be configured for other highly useful functions, like changing "scenes." What's a scene?

A scene is a rig, which includes your selected "gear", routing and the state of that gear...e.g., is your chorus pedal on or off? Is the volume on your amp set to 3 or 9? You can create up to 8 scenes within a preset. Within each scene you have the ability to change some of the settings on some pieces of gear...things like amp volume, chorus intensity, number of delay repeats, level of overdrive on your boost pedal, etc. are parameters to which controllers can be assigned. You can re-defined controller settings from one scene to the next. You know about Neil Young's "Whizzer" gizmo? Well scene controllers are kinda like the digital equivalent!

There's more...within a preset, you can defined two variations (labeled X and Y) of each block...so if you've added an overdrive pedal in one block, you can configure to simulate a Zendrive as your X and a Timmy as you Y for that block. Your X amp sim might be a blackface Fender Bassman and your Y might be Marshal 1959 plexi. Your X cab sims might be a single open back with a G12H30 and your Y cab might be a straight 4x12 loaded with 20W Greenbacks. Then you can chose various combinations of these X and Y blocks within your scenes. So in one preset, you may have one scene configured largely for rhthym playing, another configured for mild overdrive rhythm playing and another set up at a louder volume for a searing lead sound.

So remember those 8-configurable footswitches you have within each preset? You can configur them to turn blocks on or off, to change scenes...to change settings and so on. You can even configure them to jump to other presets, even in other banks (though there are 3-separate switches--also re-configurable--which are designed for switching between banks).

There's quite a bit more to this...I'm just scratching the surface of the features and giving you a feel for the degree to which this device--and your sound--is configurable.

But what about sound? How does it sound? How des it "feel?" Well, when I first heard my friend using one a jam, I was impressed with the sound. Take away the effects and I would not have been able to distinguish it from the sound of a good tube amp. I still feel that way about the sound. The potential for sounding absolutely fantastic is there. I've heard a million examples (some in person, many on youtube and soundcloud, etc.) of AX8's sounding absolutely fantastic. Of course, it's entirely possible to create absolutely horrid sounds as well. And also keep in mind that a good portion of the sound will be a function of your amplification system...but that is an entirely separate subject.

As for feel, what I can say is, a lot depends on your amplification system. If you're going to play direct into a computer for recording...well that will never feel like a real amp in the room. Same if you're going to FOH and/or monitoring on stage. Even using a very good amplification system on stage, it is unlikely to "feel" exactly like what you are accustomed to with your favorite tube amp. It can feel quite good, however, but probably a little different. (Note for live performance, some people prefer not to use the cab simulations and simple route the output of the AX8 into an amp and guitar-speaker cab. They claim this pretty much takes care of the "feel" issue and makes the Ax8 "useable." Personally, I feel that not having to drag a guitar amp and cab, and being able to use the cab sims are an important part of why I opted to go digital, but to each his own.)

So, IME, some mental returning and readjusting is required. I still love my tube amps, but I have acclimated to the differences and have been perfectly happy with and inspired by my AX8 in live performance situations. The ease of setup/teardown, great sounds and host of features have kept me happy since I started using it in late 2018.

Finally, I've included a little demo I put together while I was ramping of the learning curve of new (to me) digital audio workstation software. This features my AX8 direct into Reaper (my new DAW). I'm using two different amp sims (Morgan AC20 and Mesa IIc+) and two cabs (open back 1x12 with a G12H30) and 4x12 basketweave with 25W greenbacks. I've got digital chorus on one of the rhythm tracks too.

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Pros: Fantastic, usable amp, cab and effects simulations
Extremely flexible/configurable design
Easy to use software
Cons: Steep learning curve
I've been using the AX8 with great results since the fall of 2018. I found the initial learning curve steep as the product is so deep and the design so flexible. I also has some bumps getting comfortable with the live sound but once I discovered the Atomic CLR (with Neo speaker), I was very, very happy with the overall sound, feel and performance.

The AX8 comes with a huge variety of amp models, cab simulations, awesome effects. You can configure it for use with any kind of music for country to jazz to classic rock, funk/r&b, death metal, hell, Lithuanian Yak chants, if that's your thing :) It can also be used in a wide variety of setups from recording to live performance into FOH, monitors, or even guitar amps.

It also provides interfaces for up to 4 expression pedals, two sets of stereo outputs, MIDI and S/PDIF interfaces too.

The hardware's user interface is rather deep and can be intimidating. It's a bit clunky, IMO but with the free software that Fractal provides, you'll be working on your sounds in no time.

I highly recommend the AX8 for overall realism, utility, flexibility, power and a very stunning array of effects. I would caution people who are easily frustrated with technology; there may be other modelers more suited to them.

Here's a little video I did using the AX8 on four guitar tracks (Strat, Les Paul and Danelectro guitars were used).
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