‘Studio Diary’ is an occasional series where I talk about building a home recording setup for hobbyists and enthusiasts like us. I share my personal experiences, and the thinking behind some of the decisions that I’ve made along the way.
This time around, I want to answer a question that nobody has asked me. Why am I using DAW plugins for delay and reverb, instead of my Axe-FX 3?
Read on if you’re interested in my thinking behind this decision. And if you’re not interested, no worries 🙂
Back in September 2023, I started a series of #TweedTone blog posts, looking at how various bits of gear compare to a real Tweed Deluxe amp. I didn’t want readers to have to take my word for it, so I’ve been recording audio demos for each of those posts.
I always record each demo with delay and reverb effects.
Like many hobbyist guitarists, I’m a confidence player. If the tone isn’t doing it for me, I play even worse than normal. I find that delay and reverb play a big part in boosting my confidence.
Normally, I get my delay and reverb from my Axe-FX 3. However, for these #TweedTone blog posts, I’ve using plugins in my DAW for delay and reverb instead.
Why have I done that?
The Axe-FX 3 Delays And Reverbs Are Fantastic
I imagine that most of us think of the Axe-FX 3 primarily as an amp modeller. I know I did for a long time. It’s got hundreds of amp models available, and the general consensus is that they’re the best in the business.
If you don’t own one, you might not be aware that the Axe-FX 3 is also a world-class FX processor too. At the time of writing, firmware 23.00 includes 40 different modelling blocks. Only two of them are for amp modelling (amp and cab). The rest are all FX processing of some kind or another.
I adore the delays and reverbs in the Axe-FX 3. I originally bought my Axe-FX 3 to provide EQ, delay and reverb for my Tweed Deluxe amp with the convenience of digital recall. Since I got it, I’ve haven’t touched any of my delay or reverb pedals at all. They’re not even cabled into my signal chain any more. (I really should get around to selling them!)
So, if the delays and reverbs in the Axe-FX 3 are so good, why am I not using them for my #TweedTone comparison posts? Here’s why: my Axe-FX 3 today doesn’t sound like it did when I bought it in early 2022.
The Axe-FX 3 Is Constantly Evolving
The team at Fractal Audio regularly release new firmware for the unit. As well as the usual bug fixes and new features, Fractal also love to go back and revise the existing features too.
They do this to improve the accuracy and realism of the Axe-FX 3. And I’ve certainly benefitted from this.
The Tweed Deluxe modelling in the Axe-FX 3 is night-and-day better than it used to be, and today is something that I would happily reach for instead of my real Tweed Deluxe amp. If Fractal had never gone back and redone the Tweed Deluxe modelling, we’d have been stuck with something that wouldn’t have done the job for me.
These improvements (via free firmware upgrades – they don’t charge people for this, which is just plain awesome of them) … I think they’re awesome. Just be aware, though, that they do have an important consequence.
Necessary Evolution Changes The Sound Over Time
The whole point of Fractal’s revisionism is to improve the sound of the Axe-FX 3. That means that the sound can (and does) change with every firmware release.
A general rule of thumb is that, when Fractal revise something in new firmware, then it’s no longer possible to recreate how it used to sound. I’m sure it’s not always the case, but the whole point of the improvements is to replace the old sound. That’s the deal.
If you need to get absolute consistency out of the Axe-FX 3 over a long period of time … you’re working on a project and you need the Axe-FX 3 to sound the same until the project is done … then you have to stop upgrading your Axe-FX 3 firmware.
That’s the situation I’m facing with my #TweedTone comparisons project.
My TweedTone Comparisons Need To Be Consistent
For most of my audio demos, I don’t care if my signal chain changes in sound from month to month. Quite the opposite: I’m constantly tweaking my home-made preset for the Axe-FX 3 to work better with a larger variety of overdrive pedals and guitars. (My first audio demo was for the Speaker Cranker. I think the sound of the demos has improved immensely since then.)
I feel differently about my #TweedTone comparison demos though.
Those blog posts are my first long-term effort. I’m still going to be creating new #TweedTone comparison demos a year from now; longer still if I come across more gear to compare.
At some point, I’m going to put them all onto a single page, so that my readers can quickly compare any two pieces of gear. That just won’t work if the sounds aren’t consistent enough.
So, for those blog posts, I’m trying to do as little as possible with the Axe-FX 3 itself, by limiting it to just amp + cab emulation, where I’m not worried about improvements affecting my demos over time.
My DAW Plugins Of Choice Are Consistent
I’ve been using Universal Audio’s Apollo audio interface and plugins for the last 7 years. Back in the days before Apple Silicon, UAD’s hardware was one of the best ways to run audio plugins. They sound good to an amateur like me, and they work just as well today as they did back in August 2016 when I started using them.
One of the things that I love about them is that – to my ears – they sound pretty much the same as they always have. The UAD delay and reverb plugins that I use are very consistent. If they’ve changed over the years, I can’t tell that they have.
That makes them the perfect choice for a long-term project like my #TweedTone comparisons.
Consistent, Not More Mature
At first glance, you might be tempted to describe my DAW plugins as being more mature than the Axe-FX 3’s FX processing. While I get it, I don’t think that’s a reasonable position to take.
Each of my UAD plugins is dedicated to emulating a single piece of physical hardware. For example, the EP-3 plugin that I use for tape delay isn’t emulating 10 or more different types of delay. Its scope is limited to one thing: emulating what an original Echoplex unit does. That’s it (he says, trying not to minimise the effort involved in pulling that off). That’s all it has to do.
While I’m sure UAD do make small tweaks behind the scenes, they don’t go back and revise the sound of their plugins after release (according to their own release notes). Once a plugin is out there, the sound remains consistent from year to year.
I’ve got another reason too.
A Common Factor In Every Demo
Increasingly, home hobbyists are turning to DAW plugins for their amp models. They’re plugging straight into their audio interface, with no other external hardware (pedals, amps, or modellers) involved at all.
I’ve already looked at one of these plugins: the Fender 55 plugin from DAW.
One thing about amp plugins is that it’s not easy to use them with external effects, whether that’s something like the Axe-FX 3 or good old delay and reverb pedals. It’s not impossible, don’t get me wrong. I’m just not setup for it.
In this case, it’s just far far easier to get delay and reverb from my DAW plugins.
By doing so, I’ve got the same delay and reverb effects on every #TweedTone comparison that I do, no matter what I’m using for that tweed sound. Amp, amp pedal, digital modeller, amp plugin: this works with them all with minimum effort.
Honestly, despite the length of this blog post, I didn’t really put much thought into this decision at the time. It’s proved to be the right one, though.
In November 2023, Fractal Audio overhauled their reverb algorithms in Firmware 23. As far as I can tell, the old reverb sounds that I used are gone. They’ve been replaced by new models that sound different to the reverbs in Firmware 22 and earlier.
These new reverbs … I think they’re a big improvement. Fractal’s sprinkled some fairy dust over these, making them sound really special. I can’t wait to use them in my other audio demos. (You’ll get to hear them for the first time in my First Impressions post for the Carl Martin Plexi Tone Low Gain overdrive pedal.)
But if I was using the Axe-FX 3’s delays and reverbs for my #TweedTone comparison demos, then it just wouldn’t be possible to compare new demos with old ones. The new demos would always sound better, because of the new reverbs.
And that’s why – for this particular project – the right decision for me is to use my DAW’s plugins for delay and reverb.
I hope you found this blog post helpful. I’m always keen to learn from you and your own experience with creating great tone at home. Or maybe you’ve got more questions after reading this? Comments are very welcome. Just make sure you follow the house rules, please 🙂