Audio samples are further down the page.
Summary: I really like my Fractal Axe FX Standard. It sounds better then any guitar sim I’ve used. It sounds better then my Fender Twin reissue or my Marshall 25th anniversary head and cab. Those cost 1k and 2k respectively. I picked up the Fractal used for $1,100. Money well spent when you consider the cost of quality amps and cabs.
Long Time Coming: Here is an extremely brief history of digital guitar processing. A long time ago (20 years that I remember) digital processing came along for guitars. “Hey man I got 200 presets for 200 dollars.” Awesome! They all sound terrible. Serious guitarists learned to avoid this technology. In the last 10 years guitar sim plugins have gotten popular. “Hey, I got 50 amps, 50 cabs, and 50 fx for $200.” Would be great bang for the buck if just a handful sounded like the real thing. Some “useable” results produced but many guitarist still prefer tubes.
I personally don’t think this is a limit in the technology. I think it’s economics. It makes more sense to spend the money in marketing then producing a stellar product. It makes more sense selling 100,000 units of transglobaltechotone then 100 units of quality.
But finally, finally, It looks like a few companies are making digital products that stand toe to toe with analog. Fractal is one of them.
Apples to Apples: I wanted to take a well regarded sim, Magix’s Vandal, and compare it to the Axe FX. Vandal is a $200 guitar sim plugin that some rave about (I like it enough). Trouble is there is no way to do an apples to apples comparison. So I tried to make it as close as possible.
I only used an amp and cab sim on the Fractal and Vandal. Leaving out all other effects makes for a better comparison of basic tone. That basic tone is the things that’s hard to nail with sims. It’s not just the tone it’s the way the amp responds to the player. For example how does it respond to light picking? How does it respond to harmonics?
For these examples I dialed in the best tone I could for an aggressive song I’m working on.
Dialing it in: How well you know your gear is often more important then what gear you have. And getting to know it takes some time.
When I got the Axe FX I spent a lot of time trying out cabs and amps. I took notes. I saved several presets to audition back to back later. Even with one cab and amp there are a lot of parameters. I dialed those in too. After a few days I had a tone I was happy with. No I didn’t! A week later upon revisiting these presets I could clearly hear problems. Some had ringing undefined bass. Some had way too much mid-range.
My point is that dialing in tone is much like mixing. You have to step away from time to time to regain perspective. I have 3 sets of speakers set up and I change between them. I listen in mono a lot. Sometimes I listen on headphones. I have reference tracks. But I’ve had the best luck with simply walking away and returning later.
I think it’s a very good idea to revisit old presets and see how they hold up over time. This is especially true if you don’t know the gear well.
GUI: I just want to mention that there is a GUI for the Fractal called the Axe-Edit. It’s free and well worth getting. It allows you to do everything faster and from your mouse. IMO this is far better then leaving your desk and using the hardware.
Audition in the mix: Your guitar is most likely going into a mix with drums, vocals, bass. So why not dial in the tone while listening in the mix? This is easy with sims, less easy when micing a cab.
For my setup I use “hardware monitoring” for the Axe FX. This routes the digital output of the Axe to the A/D converter on my interface and then out to the speakers. It’s essentially n0 latency monitoring.
For software based sims it’s a bit trickier. You want to hear your sim-ed guitar along with all the other tracks. You may have a monitoring setting specifically for this. I do. Generally I don’t have to change any of my buffer settings to monitor Vandal. If you ave having trouble getting decent low latency monitoring check these two areas.
After you have the monitoring worked out you can audition in the mix. IMO this is a far better solution then auditioning outside of the mix and then trying to fix things with processing. I try to audition in the mix as much as possible. Sometimes I get tracks that need little or no processing.
Some samples: I dialed it in. I auditioned in the mix. I found the best tones I could from Vandal and the Fractal. One last bit of critical information: the performances are the same. Often it’s impossible to audition gear with the same performances. For example you can’t set up two mics in the same position. So you have to accept the differences in placement or do two different performances swapping in mics.
With the Fractal you can capture a clean signal with the processed one. The processed signal is via SPDIF. The clean is via analog out. This is what I did. Someone will raise the question of D/A conversion. It’s valid. But from my listening the difference between the Axe’s digital and analog out are so small they really don’t merit discussion.
I tried to select playing that would highlight differences.
Here are some “chuggas”. Listen to the way each sim deals with string harmonics and bass transients. There is a quick burst of bass with those muted strings.
Often when I play complex chords at high gains they start to sound sour. Here I am playing a… cm7b5 (I think). In any event, not a power chord.
Here I ramp up the dynamics on an arpeggio.
Dynamic picking on a single string…
If you like your tone but are looking for something cleaner try dialing down the volume on your guitar. This is what I did in these samples. All setting are the same except the volume knob on the guitar. I had better luck finding a less aggressive tone doing this then programming a new preset. Check out how each sim handles the lower volume.
I much perfer the Axe here. The Axe has a bell like tone and sounds less muddied.
My thoughts: Obviously I think it was worth the $1100 I payed for the Axe FX. These days I’m always listening to the way a sound will mix. It takes some time to learn that one and I’m by no means an expert. But I am starting to recognize what sounds will mix better then others.
I do think the Fractal has a more natural or authentic sound then Vandal. It also seems to mix better. I’ll go out on a limb and take a few guesses. The Fractal seems to produce richer harmonics. I feel the Fractal has less ringing. Ringing can mask details. So maybe that’s why the fractal sounded more alive in the mix.
As I said before I captured the Fractal performance via SPDIF along with an unprocessed track for Vandal. I’m going to keep the unprocessed tracks around during mixing. It’s always nice to have options. You could of course use the Fractal as an outboard processor with the raw guitar tracks. This ends up doing 2 conversions and then you’d have to deal with latencies I suspect. Something I may try up the road.
Is this comparison too narrow? After all both sims have tons of amps, cabs, and effects. Going out on another limb, I’d say these devices each have a characteristic sound that pervades them. Maybe this is due to their particular algorithm. I don’t know. After using them both for over a year I think there is something to that.
As many will tell you tone is subjective. That brings us full circle. All I can do is add my opinion and let you hear for yourself.