If you are reading this, you are either intrigued or completely disgusted. The topic of guitar modeling is almost controversial as it has gained a relatively bad rap from guitar tone “purists”. At the same time, it has significantly grown in usage from those who feel the benefits outweigh the offense. I have personally used amps my whole life before recently coming to certain revelations and theories about why modeling works for some and does not work for others. With some conviction and research, I decided to give Fractal’s newer AX8 a shot, especially as it was an incredibly affordable investment. Could it be a great solution for beginning musicians and even touring professionals? Let’s find out.
As Instagram has grown, as well as the number of boutique gear companies, my affection for discovering the next cool pedal or amp has honestly dwindled. The game is not exciting to me anymore and I am more concerned with what ultimately helps me play my best in all situations. Others have found other steps forward in functionality with the likes of the RJM controllers, which I have seriously considered for a long time, but I could not help but wonder about the benefits of jumping all the way in with modeling. Part of me has been timid as I felt it may make me less inspired. However, as I have recorded more with direct simulation for various studio projects with plugins such as Waves GTR and Logic’s Amp Designer, I have concluded that much of the fear has to be a psychological issue.
This, and seeing how many professionals and producers are using modeling these days, motivated me to buy a Kemper last year. I returned it after 3 or so days. With the time I spent with it, I felt I could not justify selling another amp to keep it. I felt it was 90-95% of the way there and that one day it would be 100%. I had well over 1000 professional “profiles” and was not inspired much by most of them. What I found was that most of them sounded best with all of the default settings of the profile left as is and that whenever I tweaked them to my preferences of EQ, gain and such they started to sound a little off.
A year later, I kept seeing Kemper rigs everywhere and decided to let a friend of mine give me a full rundown and demo and convince me that it was undeniably the best option for me. I humbly came to the conclusion that I previously did not spend enough time with it and may like it after further learning and tweaking. After that experience I decided that I could probably make the modeling work for me but the effects, presets, controller, and interface were significantly less than desirable. I felt that Kemper invested more time into just making a modeling device that allowed you to model your own amp than an all-in-one rig solution that allowed me the flexibility to flow in worship, play strict sets with an artist, and quickly dial in great effect sounds during rehearsals and studio time.
Later that day, I came across the Fractal AX8 and was shocked that I never had heard of it before. The videos and documentation demonstrating the flexibility, intuitiveness, and depth of detail put into the modeling technology had me sold. It only cost $1000 used so I could give it a try for awhile with little cost to me. I have had it for over a month now, used it in many different live situations as well as in the studio and have honestly fell in love with it. I am going to outline the general reasons why as well as some tips and theories to help you decide on whether something similar may work for you.
Why Have I Loved Digital?
Consistent tone from venue to venue
Outside of guitar changes, our front of house engineer is getting the same signal and knows what it should sound like. My in ear mixes will also be way more consistent.
No failing tubes
I cannot tell you how many times I have been given backline amps with bad tubes (sometimes 2 at once) as well as had them go down in my own rigs. They are going to fail at some point. Yeah, digital rigs break too, but at $1000 I can easily buy a backup for touring situations.
No dialing in backline
So much of soundcheck on fly dates is dialing in random amps that have been abused or just are not your preference of amp. Every AC30 I have played sounds different. No more running back and forth from board to amps trying to get them to the right settings.
No stage volume
Engineer is happier and has a clearer mix…artist is happier…people backstage listening to the set are not annoyed by how loud you are…I can line check my guitar on changeover without being heard…my in ear mix is clearer because of no bleed or phasing issues from amp to amp. Sold.
Load in/out is a breeze
Tear down after sets takes a few minutes and I have sooooo much room in my car that I don’t even know what to do with. There is nothing worse than loading in heavy amps in road cases into the back of your car after being exhausted from playing for 4 hours.
It can sound better
One nice benefit is the ability to run wet effects post amp, which makes a really clean uncompressed signal. Also, technology is so good now that the frequency response variation from the real amp to the amp modeled is less than 1 db according to Fractal.
Incredibly flexible presetting
The AX8 really shines here as you can set it up to function like a normal pedalboard with 16 effects presets (x and y settings for each switch) or have it setup to trigger a whole array of effects with one stomp. Kemper cannot do both.
Endless tone shaping possibilities
There are an incredible amount of parameters you can adjust for every sort of effects and amp characteristic. If you are an engineer and like working in the studio it can be pretty fun. I love high passing my guitar a bit and pulling a couple dB’s of 2-3k.
Capability for creative effect usage and routing
If you were ever curious how one effect sounds in front of the other and do not want to pull apart your board, you can quickly move something in a matter of seconds. You also have access to pretty much every type of effect ever made without having to spend thousands on expensive pedals. Many pro musicians have even used Fractal simply for its effects.
Here are a few reasons for why I specifically like Fractal:
- AX8 is incredibly affordable
- Built for professional touring musicians/is very rugged (Not an average consumer product)
- They put a lot of effort into their effects
- Models real amps with incredible accuracy
- Does not only model an amp at one setting, but models the amp model’s control behaviors
- I.e. A 68’ Deluxe Reverb’s bass control taper will respond the same as the real amp
- Documentation is extensive and easy to understand
- Interface and software is incredibly intuitive
- Floorboard model is very convenient
- Great for those familiar with audio engineering and studio work
- Mono amp helps in ear mixes (keeps things clear with amp up the middle and stereo effects on the sides)
Why Not Kemper?
- Controller and presets are limited
- Not as flexible and powerful as an Axe-FX
- Heard many reliability issue related stories
- Documentation is…well…not good
- Interface was very confusing
- Software is limited and does not allow for tweaking/editing
- No all-in-one floorboard package
- Was not impressed with the effects
- Quality in modeling is not any better in my opinion
Why I Believe the Kemper is More Well-known
People have a mental block with digital. They need authenticity. Kemper makes you feel like you are getting a more accurate modeling experience because you CAN “profile” your own personal amp. They use the term “profile” to make it sound like they are doing something really superior to other “modeling” platforms, but from my understanding it is not that different. If you feel like you can hear of feel a difference I would argue that you are cheating yourself. Fractal is modeling/profiling real live amps, cabs and mics just like Kemper. You just do not get to do your own, which I am totally fine with.
Why I Believe People are Scared of Modeling in General
- They have not spent much time with it (I have disliked most of the settings I have first pulled up)
- It’s not very photo friendly/cool factor isn’t there
- Desire for stereo amps
- You cannot necessary collect it and modify to make it your own
- Line 6 gave it a cheesy and bad rap
- There are some modeling platforms that do not sound good
- It feels hard to logically agree that a “copy” of something can sound as good or better
Tips for Making Modeling Work For You
I have found that it is not wise to generalize and make the statement that modeling platforms just do not sound good. I could probably find 100’s of modeling amps that sound 10x better than some of the AC30’s I have played. There have been an incredible amount of real amps I have disliked, and some that I do like. The same goes for modeling. You just have to find what works for you. Here is how you can do that:
Time, time, and more time.
You have to spend lots of time putting in the hard work of reading, learning and experimenting with the system you decide to try out. Don’t give up. The first day I tried the AX8 (same with Kemper or any other plugin) I was not very happy with the tones I was getting, but I stuck with it and kept tweaking until I found what I liked. I am still tweaking almost every time I use it. Every time I have bought a new amp, DAW, plugin, pedal, etc. I have had to learn it. Something like an AX8 is like learning all of that at once.
Cab IR’s are everything
This does not apply to the Kemper, but I quickly found that the cab and mic impulse response you use drastically changes your tone. This is the same for any amp plugin like Guitar Rig, GTR, or Amp Designer. If you have ever swapped out speakers in a real amp this concept should make a lot of sense to you. I purchased multiple Fender Deluxe cab IR’s and experimented to find the one I liked most.
Feel free to use pedals you do like
There is nothing wrong with using the pedals and effects you like outside of the modeling amp. A lot of people like the way drives sound out front and feel that it is easier to get a good sound that way. I really like the Empress Reverb and the unique sounds it gets so I run that outboard.
The biggest downside to the AX8 is the limited CPU, which is another reason why I run some pedals outboard (reverb takes up a lot of processing power). The nice thing is that it has a great effects loop for stereo effects that make it easy to do so. I currently run drives and compression out front and use the AX8 for delays, modulation, filtering, pitch shifting, etc. As I mentioned earlier, it also benefits to purchase and try out other cab IR’s. Finally, give it a fair shot. I hated it the first day but I spent hours upon hours with it and got it to a place where I love it. I wish I made the decision sooner. It would have saved me from tons of headaches, complicated touring situations, and of course, lots of money.
You may also be interested in these posts as well:
- Practical Guitar: 7 Lessons I Wish I Knew Sooner
- 3 Big Myths About Worship Guitar Tone
- Guitar Rig Rundown: Pedals
- Guitar Rig Rundown: Amps & Guitars
- How to Mix In Ear Monitors Like a Pro