Review: Fractal Audio Systems AX8 Amp Modeler

Aptly described by the manufacturer as an “all-in-one Amp Modeler + Multi-FX Pedalboard Processor,” the AX8 ($1,249 direct) packs a considerable amount of the firepower of Fractal Audio’s flagship Axe-Fx II processor and companion MFC-101 MIDI Foot Controller into a compact, floor-based unit that sells for less than half the price of those two units bundled together.
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Aptly described by the manufacturer as an “all-in-one Amp Modeler + Multi-FX Pedalboard Processor,” the AX8 ($1,249 direct) packs a considerable amount of the firepower of Fractal Audio’s flagship Axe-Fx II processor and companion MFC-101 MIDI Foot Controller into a compact, floor-based unit that sells for less than half the price of those two units bundled together. That firepower includes Fractal’s proprietary Quantum amplifier and UltraRes cabinet modeling engines, as well as the same 256 amplifier and 179 “factory” cabinet models employed by the Axe-Fx II. The AX8 can also load “user” cabinet IRs from Fractal Audio’s Cab-Packs or third-party collections, or “custom” IRs created on the Axe-Fx II or using Fractal Audio’s CabLab software. And although there are fewer effects offered in the AX8, all the staples are covered with multiple versions of each (43 reverbs, 18 delays, 34 overdrive and distortion effects, etc.), and the effects algorithms themselves are identical to those used in the Axe-Fx II. A fully featured looper and even a cool mono synth are also included.

The primary difference between the AX8 and its pricier sibling is that there is less overall DSP power on tap (two SHARC chips rather than dual TigerSHARCs), limiting the complexity of signal chains somewhat, especially those containing processor-hungry amps and effects. For example, it is possible to have a dual-amp setup in the Axe-Fx II, whereas the AX8 limits you to a single amp and cab. There are also fewer exotic features such as “Tone Matching” and IR Capture, as well as fewer I/O options, including a dedicated headphone output.

The AX8’s user interface is a thing of beauty. Fifteen knobs, six buttons, 13 LEDs, an 160 x 80-pixel LCD are all arranged within a 10" x 4" space, yet somehow everything is easy to grasp both physically and mentally. Eight LED-ringed knobs provide immediately accessible hands-on control of essential amplifier functions—Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, Depth, and Master—whereas five “Soft Knobs” are assignable to various parameters within individual presets, and two additional knobs control the levels of Output 1 and Output 2 (which doubles as an effects send). Extensive editing using the buttons and encoders on the unit can be somewhat inefficient, but you’ll probably want to connect the AX8 to your Mac or PC via USB and do most of your editing using the free AX8-Edit software application, anyway. And speaking of free, Fractal frequently provides free firmware updates that are installed using the free Fractal-Bot application.

Functionally, the AX8 has much in common with the Axe-Fx II, including the concept of amp, cab, and effects “blocks” that are inserted into a 12 x 4 Layout Grid, where they are connected in various ways to form signal chains within presets. The AX8 includes 25 different types of blocks, and how many may be combined within a preset is limited only by the CPU power (some are much more CPU-intensive than others). The AX8 contains 512 presets arranged in 64 numbered banks.

The footswitches are also arranged logically. The three “F-Switches” along the right side may be customized in more than a dozen ways, and either tapped or pressed, but generally have to do with bank and preset selection tasks. The eight numbered footswitches may also be configured in numerous ways, depending on your preferences. In the default setting the AX8 acts basically like a pedalboard, with the switches turning individual effects blocks within a preset on and off. And if the selected effect incorporates X/Y switching, where the same effect block has two stored settings, pressing and holding its assigned footswitch toggles between them. The numbered footswitches may also be assigned to up to eight “Scenes” within a single preset. Scenes allow you to do things like switch more than one effect block in or out simultaneously rather than pressing multiple switches, effectively expanding each preset into up to eight “sub presets” for a total of 4096!

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With its steel chassis, aircraft aluminum side panels, and protective roll bar, the AX8 is as well-suited for the rigors of the road as it is for studio use and less-punishing live shows. Inside, audiophile-quality converters and other critical signal-path components result in pristine audio quality, and Fractal’s “Secret Sauce” input and “Humbuster” output technologies further reduce signal noise. Even the footswitches are quieter and more reliable due to Fractal’s “Silent Switching” system, which eliminates mechanical contacts that can fail under duress.

The AX8’s rear panel contains a 1/4" input, 1/4" and XLR stereo main outputs, a 48kHz S/PDIF digital output, 1/4" stereo inputs and outputs for either Auxiliary I/O or Effects Send/Return, four expression pedal/footswitch jacks (two more than on the Axe-Fx II), USB and MIDI In and Out/Thru ports, and an IEC power cable socket for the internal universal power supply (no wall wart).

It would take more space than allotted here just to provide a complete list of the AX8’s manifold features—much less elaborate on them—but inquiring minds will find what they seek on the Fractal website. As for what the amp, cab, and effects sound like, do I really need to say more than that they are absolutely stunning and arguably unparalleled? Just check out a few of the countless audio examples available online or audition an AX8 for yourself if you doubt my word. The AX8 puts the bulk of the Axe-Fx II’s storied sounds and programmability into the hands of players at about half the price, making it an extraordinary bargain and deserving of an Editors’ Pick Award.

Kudos Sounds fantastic. User-friendly interface. Tremendous value.
Concerns No headphone output.
Contact fractalaudio.com

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