Then, in the mid ’90s, the Blue Chip Axon arrived. This converter could track built-in and external synths with equal speed and fluidity, and it was easily adaptable to a wide range of techniques and skill levels. Sadly, the setup process was nowhere near automatic. A user still had to dive into a sea of menus, edit buttons, pages, and parameters to customize the device to his or her specific needs. Now, however, Terratec is guiding the Axon’s evolution, and the company’s new Axon AX 100 MKII boasts an improved synthesizer and upgraded hardware.
The single rack space AX 100 MKII keeps its MIDI ports, analog outputs, and pedal connections on the rear panel. The silver-and-black faceplate offers large, easy-to-read graphics, and holds the jack for the 13-pin cable running from your guitar. A global menu button accesses MIDI Channel assignments, pitch-bend ranges, and setup parameters for eight different controllers. You are not limited to connecting solely a guitar, as the AX 100 MKII also accommodates bass, violin, or cello.
To access the Axon, you’ll need a guitar with either a Roland GK-compatible pickup or an instrument with a built-in 13-pin output. I tested the Axon with three different instruments: a custom MIDI banjo controller armed with an RMC Poly-Drive II, a Godin G-series solidbody outfitted with a Roland GK-2A pickup, and a Brian Moore iGuitar 81.13.
A little time spent fine-tuning a few of the converter’s parameters will reward you with an instrument that tracks like a bloodhound. Editing software (Mac and Windows) lets you quickly adjust tracking response as you play without jumping between menus on a small LCD—a quantum improvement over doing your editing from the AX 100 MKII’s front panel. And there is much more to the editor than just making tracking adjustments. For example, I was able to set up complex patches and control assignments—such as controlling envelope-attack speed based upon where I picked the string—in less than a minute. You even get a library of alternate-tuning presets.
The AX 100 MKII’s tracking speed is no faster than the original Blue Chip unit, but it’s still plenty fast. When even the slightest perceptible delay can turn feel into a mechanical nightmare that saps your groove, the unit was able to track ripping, Scruggs-style banjo licks without wheezing or complaining. But an important benchmark for any MIDI guitar controller is not necessarily its ability to parse, say, speed-metal licks with pan flute sounds. How it deals with processor-intensive strumming techniques is the true test, and the AX 100 MKII was able to track everything from slinky funk parts to the most chaotic punk-style flailing I could throw at it. All notes arrived on time with no perceptible lag between low and high strings, although I did find that some tiny and inaudible glitches showed up in the sequencer tracks. However, I could easily filter out these artifacts.
The MKII’s bag of expressive options could give keyboardists the sweats. There are jacks for two expression pedals (not included), as well as two assignable momentary-pedal inputs, a programmable wheel controller, the two switches from your divided pickup, and assignable MIDI controls based on your picking hand’s velocity and position. You can assign just about any MIDI command to the aforementioned controls—which is enough flexibility to twist hardware or soft-synth sounds inside out without dropping a note.
Hold functions work beautifully. Common Hold simply keeps your sound going until you release the pedal, and Separate Hold lets you trigger a sound and solo over it with another synth patch. Other hold functions trigger sequences or arpeggiator patterns, and you can sync these to MIDI clock to stay in step with another sequencer.
Pick position-based modulation sets the MKII apart from other controllers. There’s some very nice stuff here—such as Harp Attack, which morphs into a glassy pad from a plucked harp sound as you increase your picking distance from the bridge. You can also do things such as change reverb level, or modulate external synths and MIDI-capable outboard effects via picking position. The controls may not always elicit the expected results on external gear, but you can usually tweak the range of control-change values to get what you need.
The AX 100 MKII provides more than 500 sounds. Synth pads and leads sound warm and animated, drums are beefy, the grand piano patches are not bad, and the electric piano is nice and crunchy. However, the woodwind, guitar, and bass patches sounded thin, and they produced aliasing noises at their higher registers. And here’s a more conceptual beef: Most onboard guitar synths offer conventional GM or XG sound sets, and that’s unfortunate, considering how picky most guitarists are about tone. If I had my druthers, I’d like to be able to pop in an analog-modeling engine that would allow a wider range of customizable sounds, rather than the same old stock patches.
The AX 100 MKII is not just a vehicle for triggering MIDI data—it’s a seriously expressive instrument. The instrument’s control facilities are generous, and the software editor makes everything ridiculously easy to set up and play. In addition, Terratec has shaved the retail price down from the original unit by several hundred dollars. All of this makes the MKII an irresistible deal for anyone wanting a smooth, yet no-compromise entry into MIDI guitar. It’s an absolutely professional MIDI controller with vast potential for controlling modern software synths and sequencers. For now, anyway, MIDI guitar doesn’t get any better.