I just saw my very first Tascam Portastudio selling online for more money than this magic box before you. Think about that, and then give thanks for the amazing recording capabilities we routinely take for granted these days. Case in point: the brand-new AXE I/O from IK Multimedia. It offers a bunch of guitar-friendly features that could streamline your recording process, along with an impressive bundle of software that can make your tracks sound great.
The AXE I/O is a sleek little box that tips the scales at just under three pounds. It’s ergonomically pleasing, and all its knobs, switches and jacks provide a reassuring sense of quality. Integrating the AXE I/O into my existing Windows 10/Cakewalk by BandLab setup was simple, and downloading and launching all the cool software it came with — including Ableton Live Light — was no problem. Then I got into some recording.
The stuff that sets the AXE I/O apart for guitarists starts with the inputs. Input 1 is one of the more flexible that you’ll find, for a few different reasons. First, it allows you to choose between settings for Pure, for a pristine and uncolored signal path, and JFET, which imparts a midrange emphasis, with slightly enhanced harmonics and warmth. I set up two tracks and recorded the same part as precisely as I could with each setting. The difference was noticeable and musical. Pure was brighter, while JFET was a little darker and more midrange driven. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll probably want to audition with individual tracks, but it could be a really cool way to help a track fit into the mix without even having to touch the EQ.
And speaking of not touching EQ, the Z-Tone knob is yet another thing you can use to tailor both the sound and response of various guitars and pickups. A variable impedance control, Z-Tone takes you from 1MΩ, or “sharp” in IK Multimedia parlance, to 2.2kΩ, or “bold,” rolling off high-end and attack as you nudge the knob along. Z-Tone was effective at thickening and mellowing out a thin-sounding single-coil.
Because AXE I/O comes bundled with AmpliTube 4, you can track forever without ever needing to mic an amp. If you want to add some hardware amp goodness, however, AXE I/O provides a very clever option for doing so via the handy amp-out jack, which makes reamping seamless. Simply record a dry direct signal, run a cable from the amp output jack to your amplifier and then send the miked signal back to one of the AXE I/O’s class A mic pres. (You could obviously do the same with a modeler’s direct out.) It’s easy to do once you get your track inputs and outputs set, and it’s clean and quiet — no ground loops or hums. Best of all, you can tweak your guitar sounds right up until the final mix (option-anxiety sufferers beware!).
For those who stay in the amp-sim realm, the handy preset knob on the front panel lets you easily scroll through the various AmpliTube tones as well as the cool T-Racks mixing and mastering plug-ins. (The onboard tuner is also handy.)
All in all, this is a well-thought-out interface that packs a surprising number of features into a compact, attractive package. It boasts great noise specs and can artfully treat any kind of signal you throw at it. Unless you feel the need for more inputs, the AXE I/O would be a great addition to an existing setup or a brilliant all-in-one solution for someone starting from scratch.
CONVERSION 24-bit A/D, 24-bit D/A
SAMPLING RATE 44.1 kHz–92 kHz
INPUTS One multiple topology ¼" (active/passive), one hi-Z ¼", two combo mic/inst, MIDI
OUTPUTS Two ¼" TRS balanced, two ¼" TRS unbalanced, ¼" amp out (for reamping), ¼" headphone, two ¼" TRS external control, MIDI, USB
CONTROLS Input gain, Z-Tone, direct/dry monitor, headphone level, master level, active/passive switch, pure/JFET switch
SOFTWARE AXE Control Panel, AmpliTube 4 Deluxe, Ableton Live Lite, T-RackS 5 Processors
KUDOS Full-featured. Pristine noise specs. Guitar-friendly features
CONCERNS Some studios might require more inputs