#CoffeeAndKlon 32: A Digital Klone In The Axe-FX 3?

#CoffeeAndKlon is my occasional Sunday magazine-style series, where I talk about whatever’s on my mind about guitars, gear, music and yes, sometimes my love of both coffee and the Klon pedal.

Fractal Audio recently released a digital Klon klone pedal for the Axe FX 3. Knowing Fractal’s reputation, it will have been meticulously modelled against a real Klon Centaur pedal – either one they own, or one they were able to borrow from the community.

Can a digital klone be a stand-in for the real thing? Let’s find out together.

Table of Contents

My Coffee Today

Today, I’ve treated myself to a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. It’s a rare treat for me, partly because it’s not cheap, and partly because I have to travel to get some; it’s not the kind of coffee that’s sold locally.

I’ve just started a contract extension with one of my customers, and this is my little way of celebrating.

Sorry there’s no photo – I drank it before remembering to take one!

Introducing The Digital Klone

So, this was a bit of a surprise. A welcome one to be sure!

Fractal Audio originally added their Klone Chiron drive pedal model to firmware 20.03 in late July as a bit of an Easter egg. Unfortunately, there were a couple of bugs with it, and it just didn’t feel right to me to review it until everything worked as the Fractal team intended.

Those bugs were fixed in firmware 20.04-beta-1. That’s the firmware using for the audio demos in today’s blog post. While it’s always possible, I don’t think anyone is expecting significant changes to the digital Klone between now and when the final version of 20.04 is released.

So I think we’re good to go with this article.

Can The Digital Klone Knock The Real One Off My Pedalboard?

That’s the question I’m exploring today: do I still need my real Klon KTR on my pedalboard? Can I use the digital Klone in the Axe-FX 3 instead?

More specifically: can I use the digital Klone for the classic clean boost role in front of real drive pedals?

I’ve gone through most of the popular klones over the years, and (almost!) none of them get close to the same tone when they’re used as a clean boost. Sometimes it’s the top-end; always it’s the low-end that they don’t get right. The only one that can sub for my Klon KTR as a clean boost is the Ceriatone Centura. I haven’t found another one that can do that.

I’m very interested to find out how close the digital Klone can get for this particular role.

Putting This Question Into Context

You’ve probably picked up that I’m being very specific about what I’m doing in this article. Let me try and explain why.

Two Very Different Worlds

There’s (at least) two ways to use any digital drive pedal model in the Axe-FX 3 et al:

  1. as part of this signal chain: guitar > Axe-FX 3 > audio interface > DAW
  2. as part of a hybrid setup, where the signal comes out of the Axe-FX 3 into a real pedalboard and back again

In the first setup, there are no physical pedals, no physical amps … everything is done inside the Axe-FX 3. I imagine that that’s the kind of setup that the digital Klone was designed for. That’s the way that I’ve seen people talk about it and demo it so far.

In the second setup – which is what I do – there’s a mix of digital and physical devices. This allows me to use the drive pedals that I love so much with the convenience and sound quality of the Axe-FX 3.

The way I’m doing this – this hybrid setup – brings an additional factor to this comparison.

Let’s Talk About Buffers And The Hybrid Setup

The real Klon has a buffer, and that buffer isn’t sonically transparent. Some of that top end sparkle that the Klon brings to the party comes from the buffer. In my experience, that’s true even with the short cables we home players use.

I’m curious to find out how (if?) the digital Klone is going to replicate the effect of the buffer. The problem is partly one of location.

  • There’s a cable from my Axe-FX 3 to my pedal board.
  • The digital Klone is inside the Axe-FX 3, at one end of the cable.
  • The buffer is inside my Klon KTR, at the other end of the cable.
  • There’s a short pedalboard patch cable between my Klon KTR and the drive pedal that I’m boosting.

As far as I know, none of the drive models in the Axe-FX 3 are aware that they’re at the ‘wrong’ end of the cable – or even that they’re before a real pedalboard at all. Even if they did know, the Axe-FX 3 has no way of knowing what length of cable it’s got drive the signal down.

And I’ve no idea whether you can drive a cable from the ‘send’ end so that the resulting signal matches the output of a buffer would do at the ‘receiving’ end. That’s well out of my wheelhouse!

So this adds to the question I’m exploring today: does the Klon KTR’s buffer make a difference, and can I hear that difference when I’m using the digital Klone instead?

Let’s Talk About What I Can And Cannot Compare

In this article, I can’t say that the digital Klone is “right” or “wrong”. I can’t even say if it is accurate or not.

At the time of writing, I’ve no idea what specific pedal the Fractal team modelled the digital Klone against. Was it a Klon Centaur? Another KTR? A popular klone like one of the JRAD pedals? It wouldn’t matter if I did know. Whatever they used, I’ve not heard that pedal, and I’ve certainly not played it through my rig.

And, anyway, I can’t say whether my Klon KTR sounds like a Klon should sound. There’s only one person who can do that: Bill Finnegan, the guy who makes them. How should a Klon sound? There’s enough demos out there to show that they do very in sound from unit to unit.

All I can say is whether or not it can be a substitute for the physical Klon KTR that I own in this hybrid setup, where the Klon or digital Klone is shaping the tone of a physical drive pedal.

My Signal Chain Today

This is how things are routed:

  1. my guitar,
  2. into INPUT 1 of the Axe-FX 3 (tuner + virtual pedalboard)
  3. out of OUTPUT 3 of the Axe-FX 3 to my physical pedalboard
  4. into INPUT 3 of the Axe-FX 3 (virtual amp, cab, delay & reverb)
  5. out of OUTPUT 1 of the Axe-FX 3
  6. into my audio interface
  7. into my DAW

On the pedalboard, I’ve got my Klon KTR and the Wampler Tweed ’57 pedal in separate loops of my Gigrig G2. This allows me to take the Klon completely out of the signal path when it isn’t being used, so that it isn’t colouring the tone at all.

This is a photo of my pedalboard.

There are two pedals shown: my Wampler Tweed 57 Overdrive, and my Klon KTR.
The Wampler Tweed 57 Overdrive and Klon KTR on my pedalboard

As normal, in the Axe-FX 3, I’ve split the preset into two parts:

  1. a virtual pedalboard that sits before my real one. In most blog posts, I’m just using this for the convenience of the tuner. This time, though, I’ll be switching the virtual Klone pedal on for some of the audio demos.
  2. the signal comes back in from my pedalboard into a virtual amp, cab, digital tape delay and digital spring reverb
A screenshot of my Axe-FX 3 preset

For the amp, I’m using the Princeton Reverb model that I’ve adjusted to sound like the clean channel on my Marshall DSL20HR. For the cabs, I’m using stock IRs that sound very similar to the Celestion A-Type and Celestion Blue speakers in my real 1×12 cabs.

What Guitar Have You Chosen?

I’ve gone with The Squirrel: my Squier Esquire with the Callaham bridge, steel saddles, and Seymour Duncan Antiquity bridge pickup.

Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a Squier guitar. This little go-kart can happily hold its own with any of the normal Fender USA Telecaster models, thanks to those upgrades.

Both the top-end and low-end of the signal is going to play an important part of this comparison. The Squirrel has plenty of both, without being too mid-focused. If there’s any differences in those areas between the digital Klone and the physical Klon KTR, this guitar is going to help us hear them.

Why The Wampler Tweed ’57 Overdrive?

I think that this is a drive pedal where you can really hear the difference that the Klon KTR clean boost makes. Oh, and it’s a tweed-tone pedal, which doesn’t hurt either 🙂

I’ve got the Wampler Tweed ’57 set up in the Normal drive mode. Gain is around 12 noon, Treble is around 12 noon too, and both Bass and Mids are set around 10:30. (Basically, the settings you can see in the pedalboard photo above.)

This is what it sounds like on its own:

The Squirrel into the Wampler Tweed 57 Overdrive

Even with a bright Telecaster and the bass control turned down, the Wampler Tweed ’57’s on the verge of farting out in the low end. It’s certainly distracting attention away from the lovely tweed mid-range tones.

That’s our baseline. Let’s see how I can shape it using our two Klon / klone pedals.

Why The Klon KTR?

Regular readers will know that I am in the habit of often using my Ceriatone Centura instead of my real Klon KTR. To my ears, they sound identical. I often use the Centura just so that I can keep the KTR in its box where it won’t get dusty and the like.

For this comparison, it just didn’t feel right to use anything other than the real thing. Yes, it’s not a Klon Centaur, and yes, there have been quite a few iterations of the KTR over the years.

It’s definitely not one of the fabled first-run KTRs built by JRAD for Bill Finnegan: it doesn’t have a serial number, and it has the grey control knobs not the whiter ones. I’ve had mine since the summer of 2014, which (I believe) probably makes it one of the second-run KTRs. Just in case that matters to you.

This is what it sounds like, into the Wampler Tweed ’57:

The Squirrel into the Klon KTR into the Wampler Tweed ’57

That’s more like it. It’s tamed the low-end just enough, while bringing out the top-end sparkle of those steel saddles. Can you hear how it sounds a little mid-scooped now, compared to the first audio sample? Or is it just me?

It’s a sound that I’ve had a lot of fun playing with earlier in the week, in prep for this blog post.

How Does The Digital Klone Compare?

Basic Tab Controls Only

For this first test, I’ve setup the digital Klone in the Axe-FX 3 just using the controls on the ‘Basic’ tab. This is what most people will do, and (I believe) this means we’re hearing how Fractal intended the digital model to sound.

Here’s what it sounds like, into the Wampler Tweed ’57:

The Squirrel into the digital Klone into the Wampler Tweed ’57

To my ears, that’s quite different to how my Klon KTR sounds. There’s a lot more mid-range, a lot less top-end and a lot less low-end. It reminds me of the sound of one of my JRAD Archer pedals, if anything – only it’s got more a little mid-range emphasis than even they do.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a nice sound. I do like what it’s done to the Wampler Tweed ’57. I can easily imagine myself using that. (I’ve saved it as a preset in my block library; this is something I’m definitely make use of.)

Can we get closer to what my Klon KTR is doing?

Adjusting The EQ

There are a couple of options in the Axe-FX 3 for adjusting how this model sounds:

  1. I can go into the Tone page, and adjust Bass, Mid, High Mid and Treble controls on there.
  2. I can go into the Graphic EQ page, and use the sliders to boost or cut specific frequencies there.

They’re not mutually exclusive: I can use both at the same time. And I have.

After a bit of experimenting, this is the closest that I managed to get:

The Squirrel into the adjusted digital Klone into the Wampler Tweed ’57

To my ears, it’s less mid-rangy than the stock settings, and the top-end in particular is a lot closer to the sound of my real Klon KTR. There is something missing from the top-end, but would anyone notice it in a mix?

The low-end is where the biggest difference remains. I wasn’t able to get the digital Klone as close as I wanted. It’s filtering out too much low-end (just like the vast majority of klone pedals do), and I didn’t find a way to add it back without making the low-end boomy. To my ears, the digital Klone’s bass control adds low-end across too wide of a frequency range to help me here.

As with the top-end, the question has to be: would you keep the low-end from the real Klon KTR in a mix, or would you filter it out anyway to help the guitar sit better in a mix?

The Digital Gain Knob Taper Threw Me

When I was trying to dial in the digital Klone to match my Klon KTR, the biggest problem that I ran into was the taper on the digital Klone’s Gain knob.

As you turn the gain up on a real Klon, the pedal does become more mid-rangy. My guess is that it filters out more of the low-end (to avoid the overdrive circuit farting out) and starts to compress the top-end (taking away some of that sparkle). I could be wrong; I don’t have any way to objectively measure what it does.

To my ears, the gain knob on the digital Klone does exactly the same thing: it just does it a lot sooner than my particular Klon KTR does. A lot lot sooner.

This morning, I just wasn’t able to find the right spot for the digital Klone’s Gain setting to suit the clean boost setup:

  • turn it down to 0, and I retain a lot of the sparkle, but the Wampler 57 sounds too clean
  • turn it up to 0.45 (out of 10!), and the Wampler 57 sounds the right amount of dirty, but the top-end sparkle has started to disappear

In the final recording, I went with the gain at 0.45 in the digital Klone. If I’ve got to pick one, I’d rather keep that overdrive characteristic.

What Difference Does The Klon’s Buffer Make?

Earlier in the article, I made a big deal out of the importance of the Klon’s buffer. That begs the question: is it a big deal?

Well, I can test that pretty easily. I can keep the Klon KTR in the signal chain and just switch the pedal off. That’ll keep the buffer active, so that we can hear if it makes any real difference or not.

The Squirrel into the adjusted digital Klone into the real Klon’s buffer into the Wampler Tweed 57

That … made a bigger difference than I was expecting, at least, to my ears it did. I think that’s much closer to the sound of my real Klon KTR. If I spent a bit more time with it, I think that would be very difficult to tell apart in an A/B test.

If we go back to part of my earlier question …

Does the Klon KTR’s buffer make a difference, and can I hear that difference when I’m using the digital Klone instead? I think the answer’s very clear: yes, the buffer makes a difference; and yes, I can hear the difference when I’m using the digital Klone instead.

This begs a different question: if I need to have the Klon’s buffer in the signal path to make it sound bang-on, does the digital Klone really add anything in my hybrid setup?

Answering The Question

To finish up, let me try and answer the questions that I’ve put forward in this article.

  1. Can I use the digital Klone for the classic clean boost role in front of real drive pedals?
  2. If I need to have the Klon’s buffer in the signal path to make it sound bang-on, does the digital Klone really add anything in my hybrid setup?

For me, the answer is: sometimes. There are going to be times when the digital Klone is the right tool for the job.

  • Digital brings convenience. The digital Klone is going to give me a reproducible sound each and every time. I don’t need to worry about knocking the knobs, or any difference in voltage from day to day affecting the tone.
  • The top-end that’s missing without the buffer may not survive in a mix anyways. If I’m recording, do I really need it? I don’t have the experience to say with confidence.
  • The same goes for the low-end. Do I really need it, if I’m recording or part of a mix?
  • If I was gigging with the Axe FX 3 (or the FM-3; I’m assuming the digital Klone will come to the FM-3 one day), I could leave the real pedal at home. I doubt the audience would know or care.

I think that what makes this possible is that we’re not limited by the basic controls in the Axe-FX 3. Being able to go into the more advanced controls to adjust the tone made a big difference. If I was stuck with just those basic controls, the answer would be different.

That’s what I think. You’ve got the audio examples. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Final Thoughts

When I bought the Axe-FX 3, it didn’t come with a digital Klone model. Now, it does, and that gives me an option that I didn’t have before. Best of all, that option has cost me exactly … nothing. That alone is something to be celebrated.

I do think they’ve done a good job with it. It felt good to play through, and I was pleased with how quickly I was able to get it sounding close to my real Klon KTR.

I really enjoyed that mid-rangy sound in the first digital Klone audio example. That’s a new option that I’m going to have to explore some more. I wouldn’t use it instead of my Klon KTR, but I would audition it when I don’t want the sound of my Klon KTR.

But man … in my rig, that Klon buffer has a critical effect on the overall sound. I’ve been using it for 8 years now, and it’s going to be very hard to give that up.

And that brings me to the thing I really appreciate about the Axe- FX 3: I don’t have to give that up. It doesn’t force me to work a certain way. I can keep using my real Klon KTR whenever I want, and when I don’t? The digital Klone is there as another option.

Regular readers will know that I love having options.

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