Jun 24, 2016
Gear, like life, goes in cycles. When I’m not in a band, my gear acquisition is aimless and subject to random whims and fancies (which end up in me owning gear that I have zero real use for). That in itself isn’t a bad thing – I mean, being able to play a wide variety of gear is why I do what I do.
But now I’ve finally decided to come out of hermitdom and join a working covers band again! As luck would have it, not long ago I bought Fractal AX8 to see what all the fuss was about, and as a result, I’ve now got the focused GAS that I was looking for – the most compact, kick-ass rig that I can build! (without totally destroying my already terrible bank balance)
So this is going to be a two parter. First I’m going to talk about my experience with the AX8, and how it compares to one of my favourite new-gen modellers/multi-effects units, the Line 6 Helix. Seeing as the Quantum modelling engine is the same as the Axe FX II, I don’t really think clips are of particular use – they’re all over the internet anyway. But you’ll definitely be seeing and hearing the AX8 in my videos going forward, so stay tuned for that I guess.
Fractal Audio AX8
It’s the all-in-one Fractal floorboard that so many of us have been waiting for! All of the goodness of the Fractal amp modelling, with 100% less cumbersome rack units, expensive MFC foot controllers, and all that stuff. For me, I don’t need any of the extra stuff that the Axe FX II does – audio interface, tone matching, dual amp rigs etc. Call me simple, but all I ever really want to do with a sophisticated modeller is to be able to set it up like a normal rig – an amp, a cab, a handful of effects – and have it sound and feel good.
For this, the AX8 is perfect.
It has less memory than the flagship big brother, so you’ll reach the DSP limit a bit quicker – so no arsing around creating giant melodramatic soundscapes. Sorry to the guys who are into that – you might have to stick to the XL+ and MFC. But if you’re like me, and you want quality amp tone, with a good arsenal of effects in an easy, portable package – you’re in the right place.
AMP MODELS & TONES
Probably the one thing that I didn’t love about the Helix was the relatively small stable of amp models. The Fractal guys went completely the other way and went nuts modelling almost every amp under the sun. Not to say that the choices in the Helix are not completely solid, core amps that cover a wide variety of tones – but for me, having choices like a Friedman HBE or a Mesa Mark IV or Marshall AFD100 or Silver Jubilee just push the AX8’s tonal palette up to that next level.
And obviously the Fractal modelling has for some time now been regarded as world class – and I can’t disagree. The dynamics and feel are all there, as well as the wealth of options to virtually “mod” the amp. While the modelling in the Helix is a giant step beyond anything Line 6 have ever done, when it comes to deep, detail modelling of an amplifier in all its quirky glory, Cliff at Fractal still is the master. It’s as much of an art as it is a science, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s had a big head start.
There are dozens of amps available in the AX8, and it would take me almost a literal lifetime to explore and understand how to use each one properly – most are programmed to the tee, so any inherent quirks in how to use the real amp apply to the virtual one too.
However, out of the models that I’ve spent time with, here’s what I’ve ended up with as my first bank of presets:
Cleans – a nice, bright yet strident tone supplied by a cranked JTM45
Just past cleans – what better amp to supply warmth and crisp top end jangle than an AC30TB?
Crunch – come on, you know it’s gotta be a Plexi. There are several models to choose from – I initially went with the 50W version because it was just so scrappy and delightfully squishy sounding but in the end I had to have the big iron of the 100W. So freaking dynamic. I’ve played entire songs from clean to crunch to leads just with right hand picking dynamics and riding the guitar’s volume knob. You’d expect no less from a Plexi, and the AX8 delivered for me in spades.
High gain – Friedman HBE!! Having an amp this uncommon/costly/KICK ASS in the AX8 is part of what just really wins it for me over the current Helix stable. I played a real deal Friedman HBE for the first time last year and it freaking blew my face off with its super hotrodded Marshall glory, and the modelled amp brings through all that liquid gainy energy in all its glory. Whether you require a punchy 80s hair metal rhythm tone or a huge searing lead, the HBE model is up to the task. It just leaps to the forefront and pushes ALL the right tonal buttons. SO TASTY I COULD EAT IT WITH A FORK.
Now, as you guys know, I’m a huge Mark V fan. I’m going to talk about that a little as well. So for me the main thing I was worried about was not being able to replicate my Mk V Extreme channel tones. I’ve never owned or played a Mark IV (from which the Mark V is derived) but it has a reputation for being extremely touchy, with tiny adjustments making huge differences to the tone. Well, again, Fractal have got it right! The Mark IV model is bloody hard to dial in, and it’s taken weeks for me to get to somewhere that I’m pretty happy that it’s close enough to my favourite Mark V tone. I’ll do a bit more of an in depth post on that one day, but at this point my main bit of advice for the transitioning Mark V player is – press everything! Poke all the buttons! Flip all the settings, adjust them even in 0.25 increments and you’ll get there eventually. It just takes a bunch of patience – I was initially so disappointed with the Mark tones from the AX8, but it just turned out to be because I didn’t really know how to drive a Mark IV properly.
INTERFACE & USABILITY
Still the winner by a long shot though, is the Helix’s user interface. I’ve said it a million times before so once more won’t hurt. World beating. Touch sensitive footswitches, scribble strips, the intuitive control via the giant colour LCD screen – fantastic user experience.
The AX8’s GUI is still cumbersome and difficult to navigate, like the Axe FX. They’ve made some improvements by having direct amp controls on the front panel – Gain, Volume, Treble/Mids/Bass etc, which is great for on the fly tweaking if you need to adjust your settings to the situation – but if you want to do anything deeper than that… well, have fun. I’ve been creating patches via the desktop AX8-Edit program pretty much exclusively, as every time I try to do something even remotely involved on the unit itself my will to live just tanks.
However, all in all, I’ve been able to create a bank of presets that has served me perfectly at band practices so far, with ZERO tweaking required on the fly, so I’m not too unhappy on that score. Now – when it comes to amplifying this whole shebang… this is where the Laney IRT-X comes in.
Laney IRT-X – underrated FRFR speaker of the year!
The Full Range Flat Response speaker world is dominated by Atomic Amps, with their pricey CLR speakers. It’s an interestingly murky world – everyone claims that their speakers give a full, flat response (which allows all your amp + cab modelling to come through uncoloured by the poweramp/speaker), but a lot of time, it’s mostly powered by word of mouth. Which then encounters the issue that everyone hears differently, and sometimes people may think they don’t want a coloured tone or a “speaker cabinet” type response, but then actually, they do! Anyway, that’s getting a bit confusing.
So – the big player is the Atomic CLR, and Matrix, QSC, Line 6 et. al. all have their own high end monitor/PA-type offerings. The problem for me is… shiiit they kinda cost a lot. And they’re generally as big and heavy as a 2×12″ guitar cab almost, by the time you had in a beefy poweramp and a 12″ speaker.
So, I was limited on two fronts – I didn’t want to spend 60-70% of the price of the AX8 itself buying a speaker for it, and in my old age, I want a speaker that won’t break my back every time I try and carry it somewhere.
Enter the Laney IRT-X, the little FRFR that could!
The Laney website bills it as an “expansion speaker”, and curiously the bulk of the marketing seems to be targeted towards players who have a combo amp and want to make it louder by adding a speaker. Uh, okay. Why wouldn’t you just add another normal speaker cab? It also does a pile of other stuff like cab simulation etc etc – and then, there’s a side note about how it’s also good with modellers like the Axe FX, Kemper, etc.
If you ask me, ALL of the other uses that they’re pushing for this little beast are firmly in the category of “oh hey, that’s cool, but no one actually needs this.” The space that this really should be marketed to is the affordable FRFR market, because plainly, IT ROCKS.
It’s only 200W + 8″ speaker – which I admit, worried me – but it has stood up to a full noise band practice with drums, keys, bass + 3 singers and held its own perfectly. Due to the wedge design, it projects about 300% better than my 1×12″ or 2×12″ guitar cabs ever have. Finally, my ears can hear my guitar, not just my knees!
It also has a DI thru so you can have your exquisitely modelled tones go straight to the PA while just using it in wedge form as your own monitor. To top it all off, it’s so freaking tiny and light that you can literally just grab it with one hand (effort level – minimal) and away you go. Points off here though – I wish it had a proper carry handle. It just kinda has this handhold on the back that you’re expected to just shove your hand into. Luckily, it’s honestly so hilariously small and light that it doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
HOW DOES IT SOUND, THOUGH?
All the CLR snobs should probably look away now, haha.
Look, the IRT-X won’t compete for full bore volume, or perfectly flat response. I’ll come straight out and say it.
BUT – for the practical player on a budget, you can not only live with it – you can bloody well thrive.
The first thing I found was that oddly enough for a small speaker box, there was too much bass. It sounded fair bit murkier and muddier in the mid/low end than it did through my monitors. No worries – the IRT-X has Bass and Treble controls on the back. I turned down the Bass control to taste and voila.
Next – I felt that when listening in isolation, the mids were not quite as detailed as my monitors (M-Audio BX5a x2, so nothing too special, but good little monitors). You know how you can fix this? GO AND PLAY LOUDLY WITH OTHERS. Honest to Yesus, the moment I took this to a jam/band practice, I knew that I was happy with it. At jam volumes it just comes alive. Moving a bit more air helped a lot, and I felt that I could hear all of the nuance in dynamics and tone that I needed. And it probably helped break the speaker in as well.
So here I am, sitting at home while mentally preparing myself to sell the best “real amp” that I’ve ever owned – the Mesa/Boogie Mark V. I’m kinda freaking out about it. But at the same time, excited to finally be taking the jump to full digital. Which I’ve done in the past – but this time, the difference is that I’m a lot more confident in the fact that the tech has come so far since the original red kidney bean that I won’t be missing out on feel, dynamics and tone. It’s a brave new world for me. …check back in 6 months and see if I regret it. Haha!
PS – it’s a pleasure to get back into the writing. It’s been a really hectic year for me so far, with a lot more “real life” work responsibility, a death in the family that I had to rush off overseas for – stressful. So, it’s nice to be back, and if you’re reading this, thank you for sticking with me. These 5.0 F*ck Yeahs are for you! Rock on \m/