We reviewed Fractal Audio's stunning Axe FX II back in issue 10. But the company has been hard at work producing firmware updates, recently releasing a complete overhaul in the form of firmware v.10. It's such a huge update that it required a review all of its own. Tom Quayle asks: is the latest the greatest?
One of the best things about Fractal Audio is its constant desire to improve its products. Since the release of the Axe FX II there have been no fewer than 10 firmware updates, each bringing new and improved features for the user. What is more, all of these updates are free, which can only be a bonus in anyone's book!
Our previous review of the unit was with a beta version of firmware 7 and since that time Fractal has issued a further three major updates, each introducing a slew of new amp models, improved effects and editing capabilities. Version 10 represents such a big upgrade in terms of both the amp and cabinet modeling that it deserves a review all of its own so we thought we'd get the unit back in and test out this new firmware to see how much of a difference it makes.
The biggest upgrade in v.10 is labeled MIMIC, which stands for (hold your breath now) 'Multi-point Iterative Matching and Impedance Correction' technology. According to Fractal's release notes MIMIC 'applies analytic signals to an amplifier and captures the fine nuances of each amp at various points in the circuit and corrects each model versus its theoretical implementation. What this means in practice is that the various controls of the amp-model behave and react virtually identically to the real amp and when combined with the improved power amp modeling in v.10, gives an even more realistic dynamic response and touch sensitivity that is far closer to the real amplifier.
This technology is remarkably effective and gives the amp models a supremely convincing feel and tone, especially for the lower and medium gain models that are often considered the hardest to model. Running through powered PA speakers it is very easy to forget that you're not playing through a real amp with tubes glowing behind you, as the dynamic response and tone of the guitar is so faithfully represented and the feel is even more 'real' than before. It would seem that Fractal have really improved upon what was, arguably, the most authentic amp modeller out there.
Another major feature of the update comes in the form of 35 new cabinet models in the form of custom blended impulse responses created at Wellspring Sound and Mad Oak Studios. For those not in the know, an Impulse Response is a digital capture of a combination of a particular cabinet, speaker, microphone, mic position and preamp, recorded into the Axe FX II for use in combination with an amp model. These new 'Mix' IR's are unique in that they are a combination of each producer's favourite speaker, cab, microphones and positioning as used in their studio and represent ready-to-go sounds that fit straight into a mix with very little post EQing required.
In use these new IR's sound fantastic and represent a real step forward in the authenticity of digital speaker and mic modeling and really add to the feel of the improved amp models. Fractal have also included some artist IR's including some from Voodoo Labs' main man and tone guru, James Santiago and progressive shred legend, John Petrucci.
The number of amp models has been upped again for this release and since version 7 there have been a significant number of additions, bringing the total number of amp models up to 88, including some great sounding bass heads and cabs. The number of user IR slots has been increased to 100 including a scratch slot for auditioning IRs quickly without overwriting your existing ones. In addition many of the drive pedal models have been improved making them more accurate and realistic and the existing tone match feature has been improved for accuracy too.
For those looking to tweak the minute details of each amp model and effect, numerous parameters have been introduced or refined such as Dynamic Depth and Presence, Tube Type, AC or DC power supply selection. The range of options on offer is simply staggering and whilst they needn't ever be touched by the average user, the fact that they are there shows to what lengths Fractal will go to develop accurate modeling and let its users refine their tones.
Within this update there are so many changes and additions that it would be silly to try to list them all in this review (a full set of release notes can be found on Fractal's website for those interested in the full list of changes), safe to say that Fractal has really improved an already highly impressive product and has done so for free for all existing users. Combined with the fact that this update coincides with an update for Fractal's Axe Edit software, allowing users of firmware 10 to edit their patches from their computer via USB again, it really is mind blowing just how much you get with this unit in terms of options for creating fantastic tones. Not only does it sound amazing, it now feels amazing to play too and that's quite an achievement considering how good the Axe FX II was in the first place. Right now, there's very little to challenge it.