Axe-FX Ultra Review

manufacturer: Fractal Audio date: 09/14/2015 category: Guitar Effects
Fractal Audio: Axe-FX Ultra
This baby is so easy to get a great sound out of. Amp emulations have come a long way over the past decade, and the emulations on the Axe-FX are top notch.
 Sound: 7.5
 Overall Impression: 7.5
 Reliability & Durability: 9.5
 Ease of Use: 8
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reviews (2) pictures (2) 9 comments vote for this gear:
overall: 9
Axe-FX Ultra Reviewed by: Simple Jack, on february 22, 2013
1 of 1 people found this review helpful

Price paid: A$ 3000

Purchased from: Online retailer

Ease of Use: Purchased this bad boy in 2011, then cried respectable manly tears when the Axe-FX II was released. This baby is so easy to get a great sound out of. Amp emulations have come a long way over the past decade, and the emulations on the Axe-FX are top notch. Dial-and-play multi-effects lovers of all music genres will drool over the factory presets (some of the convolution "sparkle" patches on this are mindblowing). Those seeking to create their own signature sounds will relish the high quality amps, cabs, effects and signal routing options which make patch creation a true joy. And to top it off, there's even a free downloadable software interface that makes creating your own patches a drag-and-drop affair. On a sad note... The process for syncing the Axe-FX Ultra with the aforementioned software is highly tedious. Rather than simply plugging a USB cable into the computer, the Axe-FX requires two MIDI cables. Which in turn requires some way of plugging them into the computer (in my case an external soundcard). To top it off, in my case it won't actually sync. This is a tragic oversight on behalf of the developer; in my view it's equivalent to designing a high performance sports car and forgetting to add airconditioning. Still, the unit's LCD interface makes quick work of creating and editing patches. Ideally users of this unit will have had the foresight to use it in conjunction with the MFC-101 MIDI footswitch board, which is technically multipurpose but in reality was specifically designed for use with the Axe-FX. It's outrageously expensive - mine cost an extra $900 - but is somewhat a necessity for the live player looking to use the Axe-FX Ultra to its full potential. I'm unsure of the firmware version for this unit, which is technically now superseded. // 8

Sound: I generally use the Axe-FX with a Les Paul Studio with Bareknuckle humbuckers and a Dean Razorback V. It almost exclusively gets played in a large church auditorium, where its signal is run directly into a Midas desk. Unlike many older digital multi-effects units, the Axe-FX Ultra sounds superb when plugged straight into a system via line-out - no need to mic up your amp just to sound good. I play a variety of patch styles on the Axe-FX - metal, hard rock, dark and bright blues, clean, ambient - and they all sound fantastic. Metal influenced players will enjoy the variety of tones on offer, and softer players will appreciate the ease with which a cleaner sound can be tastefully coloured to sound fat and well-rounded. The effects all sound fantastic, and when routed in funky and creative ways in the signal chain can do everything from adding a touch of sparkle to satisfyingly mangling a signal beyond recognition. It must be said however that many of the convolution effects patches (i.e. patches featuring a highly processed, extreme layered sound) on this unit are, to a large extent, unusable. It's not that they don't sound good. They just don't have much of a practical place. Other than that, the factory presets cover virtually every genre and sub-genre of electric guitar and some of the presets are programmed to emulate existing signature sounds such as Slash's overdriven "Sweet Child O Mine" tone and AC/DC's searing classic "Hells Bells" sound. These signature sounds, I might add, are emulated with a staggeringly high degree of accuracy, although with such a high price tag on this unit it's fair to expect nothing less. The Axe-FX Ultra features input and output volume controls, which allows guitarists to compensate for a lack of input gain while still maintaining total control of the output gain. This is fantastic for those who want to squeeze the maximum gain out of their guitar. The Axe-FX is also designed to emulate the behaviour of tube amps; it "naturally" overdrives with higher gain input. Oh and by the way - the Axe-FX Ultra is perfect for bass guitars too, although you're gonna have to get your hands dirty creating your own patches. I've created a few and they work a treat. In particular this unit provides a cosmetic mask for nasty-sounding basses - a bit of compression to even out dull strings, some tactical EQing and subtle Overdrive for shape and character... It won't solve all your bass issues, but it's a pretty good band-aid solution. // 10

Reliability & Durability: I've been using this unit regularly for two years now and have never had a problem with it. This is possibly partly due to me buying an SDK roadcase for it - the Axe-FX is a rackmountable effects unit, not a foot pedal. I've never used it with a backup, if only because you just can't back something like this up and hope to achieve anywhere near the same result. It's just not that easy. On the topic of backing up, all the factory presets (and any of your own) can be backed up on your computer via the ingenious albeit unstable software (on this last point I deduct a point). // 9

Overall Impression: Regardless of what style of music you play, this sound is the pinnacle of effects and signal processing. There are many other cheaper units coming out now that perform a very similar job for much cheaper - Line 6 POD HD500 immediately springs to mind - but if you want the very best, you found it. If you want metal, you got it. More metal? Patches a-plenty. Vintage rock? You're set. Tastefully warm jazz and blues tones? Axe-FX has it covered. Ambient patches that leave the audience scouring the stage for a synthesizer? Right here baby. I've been playing guitar for 16 years, however musically this is just part of who I am. I also own a very respectable Ableton Live rig running a suite of top-end instrument, effects, mixing and mastering plug-ins. I am not a shred master or guitar god, however I'm also not a young guitarist who still counts his playing experience in months. I am a musically mature guitarist and home producer with a highly tuned ear for sound - developed and honed through countless hours composing and mixing in a home studio, a decade of regularly performing live, and mixing with close friends who work as professional sound engineers. This isn't me self-glorifying by the way. I just mention this as I'm shocked by how many guitarists with less than 12 months playing experience post reviews on here. This unit is not a toy, although it's so easy to get a great sound with it you'd be forgiven for thinking it was. This unit is your reason to sell your rack compressors, patch bays, pedal collections and any other signal processing gear you own. Chances are unless it's a guitar lead the Axe-FX Ultra has it covered. If my Axe-FX Ultra was stolen, I would go into an extended period of grieving. I'd then harden up, save some cash and buy an Axe-FX II. I might add by the way this unit has been superseded but is by no means obsolete. If you can find a cheap second-hand Axe-FX Ultra somewhere, grab it. What do I hate about this? The price. It's really, really expensive. And the fact the software is so buggy. Also this unit doesn't feature a headphone jack input which is a massive let-down, although in all fairness it was designed to be a high-end piece of rack gear. I also argue this unit should come with the MFC-101 footswitch included, as this is essentially what it was designed to be run with. For this, I take away a point. My favourite features of this unit are its superior sound quality, and some of its highly usable clean sparkle patches which are layered with subtle delays, reverbs and pitch shifters run in convoluted signal chains - I've had professional synth players convinced I was running synths, samples or loops on-stage. I haven't had the chance to compare this to a lot of units. Despite what Line 6 fans may say, it obliterates the POD HD series. I've got a few friends who run the HD500 - they're fantastic units, but don't stand up to the Axe-FX in the long run. Disagree with me? Then take up your case with Megadeth and Dream Theatre, to drop a few Axe-FX users. If money is no object and you absolutely MUST have the best money can buy, then go no further than this unit or its successor the Axe-FX II (again make sure you Pick up the Fractal Audio MFC-101 footswitch if you intend to use it live). This unit boasts big and delivers in spades. If this sounds like the unit for you however you can't afford it, I highly recommend checking out the Line 6 POD HD series as an alternative - for well under $1000 you can get an easy-to-use product that still sounds incredible and arguably offers much better bang for buck. Video from YouTube:

// 9

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overall: 7.3
Axe-FX Ultra Reviewed by: Konohana, on september 14, 2015
1 of 1 people found this review helpful

Price paid: C$ 1200

Purchased from: Other

Ease of Use: It's easy to use if you've used modelers/effects processors before. If you're new this will definitely give you a headache considering that the presets suck out-of-the box (except for the cleans). Editing patches is fairly easy once you get used to it, everything has the same format and you can literally do it step-by-step, it's a well designed system. The manual is good and has good commentary on the unit itself. The author/developer of the unit discusses it's uses and multiple different ways to arrange it (the 4 cable method, the poweramp -> AXE FX -> CAB method, and others at expert-level detail). Firmware 11. It has been upgraded. // 8

Sound: The sound from the Axe-FX Ultra has a distinctive trait in every single preset and patch, a characteristic that comes directly from the core of the effects processor itself. As mainly a strat player for 7 years, I rely heavily on dynamics. The Axe-FX has ironically another effect that I'll call the "Noise Cancelling" effect. Sounds good right? Nope. The "Noise Cancelling" effect would be amazing if dynamics and advanced techniques did not exist in modern guitar playing. But sadly (not really) they do. For Axe-FX Ultra users, please try this. Any distortion setting (for heaviest contrast on the effect) AMP + CAB is good enough, it gets worse with chorus and delay and makes another effect but we'll talk about that later.

The effect is decently clear on the low frequencies. Lightly pick an open E. The moment you pick it, sound is made and it immediately fades away (the noise cancelling part). A real amplifier would keep the note humming. My guess is that Axe-FX cancels any frequency that does not come loud of enough to be considered "played" (a db threshold to cancel out noise). Now try the same thing except play a melody while keeping the notes ringing as long as possible to keep the noise-cancelling effect from occuring (you need to pick light but keep picking, this allows the other string to not be cancelled while playing chords). This is how real Amplifiers work. If you play lead guitar lightly the notes cancel themselves and DO NOT ring. I can't stress how much of a problem this is. It completely erases the dynamic of light picking and hard picking in contrast. Rest in peace you fusion and jazz/blues players.

Now here comes the part where the metal players cry. The low end frequencies suck so bad it's unreal. They fuzz like crazy past a drive setting of 6 for most amps, and 5 for metal amp settings. But that's not the end of it. Add reverb and delay and it creates a mess of fuzzing muddy low-end frequencies, it sounds absolutely distasteful and not musical. I tried a variety of amps and cabinets as well as skewed with their settings and advanced settings, I found that the amps that aren't geared towards heavy distortion play the best.

The Fryette cleans are really good and snappy and have a generally good tone. However the Axe-FX itself is super dark, the brights don't shine at all and it's still really muddy. There is not a single setting that can brighten up the tone. I tried my strat as well as an LP style guitar and it did not make much of a difference. It is dark by nature. The Axe-FX itself is fairly noisy, but not during playing (which ironically is the issue I'm talking about). The noise does not interfere with a direct-recording mix, but it is loud outside the mix. Kind of like an overheating computer.

The thing I like the most about this piece of gear though, are the janky effects. There are lots of arpeggiators and similar effects that are amazing and beautiful sounding, and definitely musical. Conclusion: Distortion low end sucks, a player's dynamics are ruined/limited by the Axe-FX's noise cancelling, but the other effects are amazing. // 5

Reliability & Durability: This thing is pretty solid and apparently only has computer parts inside rather than real tubes and fragile materials, as mentioned in the manual. It probably wouldn't break if it fell but it is indeed an expensive piece of equipment and I doubt you'd gig with this without a rack (which protects the unit from falling and etc) unless you're not a very bright person, or you have abundant wealth.

The value knob of the Axe-FX goes bad very early and becomes a major pain to anyone who's frisky with details. Most controls go from 0-100, and the knob would sometimes skip by 5 units. In a list of types of amps in the amp-edit function, it would skip a range of amps, and since the amps are not numerically sorted it would take a while to go back and find where you were again. This problem doesn't matter as much when sorting through presets because they are numbered. But as you can imagine, it's not a pleasant experience to have a faulty value wheel. // 10

Overall Impression: I play mostly everything. Rock, metal, blues, fusion and probably other styles like folk. The effects processor unit doesn't really match any of those styles besides rock. If you hard-pick everything and strum everything hard then you won't have any issues with the unit. But if you're not braindead and are musical, you'll find the Axe-FX has a very limited play-ability. If it were lost I might try the Axe-FX II and hopefully change my mind, or the Kemper profiling amp. I wouldn't buy this thing again. I love the clean effects (chorus/harmonizers/etc), the tone-shaping EQs, and noise-gate effects, but I have a distinct hate for the distortion and the lack of usability of it. I can compare this to a Boss GT-10 and ME-25, and I can say even the ME-25 has an amazing distortion range of effects that sound natural and sound almost like a real amplifier. The Axe-FX Ultra screams of digital. // 6

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