First Impressions: Axe FX 3 Mark 2 As An FX Processor

I recently bought an Axe FX 3 rack unit, for use at home.

Why did I get it, and how am I getting along with it so far? Read on for my First Impressions.

What Did You Buy?

I bought an Axe FX 3 Mark 2 Turbo edition rack-mount unit.

I got mine from, the European distributor for Fractal Audio.

Why Did You Buy It?

I found myself in need of a rack-mounted FX processor. While the Axe FX is mostly known for its amp modelling, it also doubles as an external FX processor.

This year, I’ve started using EQ a lot more than I used to.

  • The Earl (my PRS Paul’s Guitar) puts out a lot of bass. I often need to run it through some EQ first to tame it a bit. You’d be amazed at how many overdrive pedals crap out if you hit them with a tonne of low-end on the input signal!
  • My Tweed Deluxe amp through the Fryette PS-100 Power Station sounds a little dull and muddy on its own. Whenever I’m using that amp, I need to run some EQ in the effects loop of the Power Station to get the best sound out of the amp.

Until now, I’ve been using the MXR 10-band eq pedal for this. It works well, as long as I cover up the controls to hide those bright-beyond-a-fault LEDs that it has.

Unfortunately, because it’s all analogue, re-creating tones can be challenging. I’ve certainly forgotten to photograph the settings on more than one occasion. And I’ve only got the one, which makes it awkward when I want to use EQ more than once in a signal chain.

I would have loved to have bought some sort of analogue EQ rack unit that came with digital presets. Then I could have had it permanently wired up and available, and could have recalled tones whenever I wanted to. If anyone makes such a unit, I couldn’t find it anywhere.

That left me looking at all-digital, and right now, there’s really only two games in town for that: Fractal Audio and Line 6.

Why Did You Pick The Turbo Edition?

I bought it to be an FX processor, and the effects eat up CPU processing power. By going with the Turbo edition, I’m less likely to run out of processing power.

(Yes, I’ve gone for convenience here.)

Why Did You Pick Fractal Audio Over Line 6?

Both Line 6’s Helix and Fractal Audio’s Axe FX 3 could have done the job, and there are good reasons to consider a Helix. I went with the Axe FX3 for easy-of-use and consistency with my live rig.

  1. The Axe Edit software is, frankly, a joy to use. It’s so easy to setup presets, and to dial in the effects that I want. The hardware isn’t that difficult to learn either.
  2. I’ve got a Fractal Audio FM-3 as the hub of my gigging rig. I think it makes sense to stick with Fractal Audio for my home rack gear too.

I’m sure there’s also a sense of ‘been there, done that too many times before’ going on as well. I’ve had a lot of Line 6 products in the past, and sadly they all disappointed. I know it isn’t fair to compare Helix to what came before, but you know the old saying: one bitten, twice shy … and I got bitten more than once in the past.

Some Neat Little Touches

I’ve quickly come to appreciate some of the little details about the Axe FX 3. In no particular order, they include:

  • almost-silent fan: There’s a bit of fan noise when the unit boots up, but once that’s done, the fan is so quiet, it’s a non-issue.
  • fast bootup time: The Kemper takes so long to boot up, I’ve got time to go and make a cuppa. The Axe FX 3 isn’t an instant-on device, but it boots up quickly enough.
  • the foot controller uses a regular XLR cable: The Axe FX 3’s foot controller is connected via a standard XLR cable. Thanks to that, I’ve got the controller input wired into my XLR patch bay. Whenever I want to use the foot controller, I just plug it into the patch bay. Saves a lot of trouble running a cable round to the back of the rack every time.
  • separate volume controls for the outputs: If I want to adjust the output volume on the Kemper, I have to menu-dive to do so. The Axe FX 3 has four output volume controls on the front of the unit. Irony is, because of the design of the Axe FX 3’s signal paths, they’re all pretty much set-and-forget. But still, they’re there.
  • two stereo inputs/outputs designed for FX loops: input/output 3 & 4 are both stereo, and are designed for use as pre or post-amp FX loops. That still leaves input/output 1 & 2 for amp modelling, should I so wish.
  • no drivers required for Axe Edit: I’m on macOS, where third-party drivers break every time Apple do their annual OS upgrade release. With Fractal Audio, there are no drivers to download. It’s literally plug-and-play.

Oh yeah, and it sounds good. It sounds really bloody good. Amusingly, that’s actually been a bit of a problem for me (in a good way).

The Axe FX 3 As A Fault-Finding Tool

I recently rewired my home studio rack, to solve audio problems with some of the signal paths that I use. At the time, I thought I was done. Then I got the Axe FX 3, and discovered that no, I wasn’t.

The nice thing about the Axe FX 3 is that I can use it in a number of ways:

  1. as a digital pedal board, in front of a real amp
  2. as a replacement for a real amp
  3. as an FX processor, replacing my physical delay & reverb pedals

Doing so helped me discover that I’ve got some more things to sort out:

  1. My real pedal board is now the last remaining source of losing treble in the signal.
  2. My physical delay and reverb pedals colour the signal more than I realised.

I’m going to go into more detail on each of those in dedicated blog posts, once I’ve finished looking into each of them. What I will say here is that, without the Axe FX 3, I’m not sure that I would have realised either of these needed looking at.

Any Problems So Far?

There’s been a couple of things.

  1. When I first got it, I just had it sat on the floor while testing it – and it was a noisy noisy Charlie. That all went away once it was housed in the rack.
  2. I think the A/D convertors are a source of noise. I’m still at the early stage of looking into this, so I could be wrong. But, anecdotally, my rig seems noisier when it’s patched through the Axe FX 3. For now, I’ve added an Expander to my presets, which help tame it.
  3. The Axe Edit software loses contact with the Axe FX 3 from time to time. When this happens, the Axe FX 3 needs rebooting to fix the problem.

So far, none of these have been show-stoppers.

What About The Tweed Tones?

I haven’t tried any yet.

There’s several tweed-style amps in there, but sadly almost no tweed-tone pedals. I will explore them at some point, but my real Tweed Deluxe is going nowhere soon – and neither are my tweed-tone pedals into the Marshall DSL 20HR (that amp that isn’t modelled by the Axe FX 3 at this time).

There’s also well-respected models of Fender’s blackface amps too. That alone is going to save me the cost of buying a real Princeton amp (for example).

And there’s no shortage of different Marshall amps, including several on my wish list. I’m going to be making use of those when I finally finish off my Marshall Origin review.

Is This Unit Overkill For A Home Hobbyist’s Needs?

No, it isn’t.

Somewhere on YouTube, there’s an interview with Cooper Carter – one of the folks who helps professional artists get started with their Axe FX 3 units. In that interview, he says that the main piece of advice he gives new users is to remind them that they bought the unit to do 3 or 4 things. (I’m paraphrasing there.)

Yes, it’s got almost 300 amp models and thousands of cab models – plus all the effects. His advice is that you don’t need to worry about that at first. Use the Axe FX 3 for the things you want / need. All those other options will still be there if you ever want to experiment with them in the future.

Final Thoughts

I honestly thought that it would be more difficult to integrate and use than it is. I wasn’t expecting to have my main FX presets built yet – but they were done within a week.

It’s one of those rare pieces of gear that, from the moment I got it, felt like it’s always been here. I already can’t imagine going back to what I was doing before I got it.

Now that I’m starting to record audio for my blog posts, you’re going to be hearing it a lot.

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