Time to Choose… Fractal Axe-FX or Kemper Profiling Amp

Introduction

I’ve been using the Fractal Axe-FX (Axe or FAS) for several years. I’ve been “auditioning” the Kemper (KPA) for the past year, or so. I’ve enjoyed being able to use both, but feel it’s time to focus on one over the other.

This is not a “versus” or “which is better” comparison. Both are very capable devices. The operator is the only limitation. I will attempt to explain why I am choosing one over the other. Hopefully, this will help you make your own assessment and decision.

Spoiler Alert

The Fractal Axe-FX (Axe or FAS) will be my primary rig moving forward. There are many variables and circumstances that go in to this decision. I’ve tried to articulate those in this post.

In 100% honesty and transparency, I was hoping the KPA would gain my favor. It’s popular, it’s cool and it’s new (at least to me). The thought of going back to something closer to an “amp and pedal rig” has a degree of appeal to me.  A thorough analysis of my needs and desires lead me to conclude that for now, that the Axe is the better option for me.

If Kemper releases a GUI Editor and/or new hardware… it would be “Cage Match” time, again.

Why the Axe-FX and Other Observations

For me, the Axe is a “complete solution”. My entire rig is 100% encapsulated inside of the Axe unit. My KPA rig consists of an external pedal board along with MIDI to the KPA. That requires programming numerous devices and being sure presets on multiple devices don’t move/change. I was using a BOSS ES-8 to assemble tones in to songs, so this is yet another device to program and manage. It is entirely possible to go 100% KPA and many people that I admire do just that. However, many also use a hybrid rig of KPA and external effects with some sort of switcher other than the Kemper Remote. I have found a 100% or hybrid Kemper solution to be a bit limiting, rigid and more complicated. For reasons stated below, the Axe provides me with a much more powerful, efficient and flexible workflow.

At first, I was convinced that the KPA had much better amp tones and feel. It does sound awesome. After lengthy comparisons (including a Radial A/B/Y box), I have found that I can dial in the Axe to sound practically identical to the KPA. There is a very slight difference, but I cannot say that one is better than the other.

The effects blocks. The Axe has a LOT of them and I prefer them over the KPA effects. To my ears, a lot of the KPA effects lack “clarity” or “definition”. I’ve downloaded many “pay for performances” and have tried to tweak these to my liking, but always end up with wanting more clarity and articulation in the effects department.

I find the KPA “grid” (the signal chain) to be somewhat rigid and limiting. The KPA provides 8 “slots” for effects. For me, the Axe has a more flexible grid; larger number of options; and great features like scenes, controllers and X/Y functionality. These are all winners.

Tweakability… the FAS is known for giving the user a lot of parameters to use. This can be good or bad. If you approach it wisely, it’s a very good thing. It’s not necessary to turn every dial or flip every switch to get great tone, but they are available if you really want a large degree of control when trying to dial in something.

The future… technology will continue to advance and competing products will leapfrog one another. Right now, the KPA hardware looks and feels a bit dated compared to the competitors. FAS just upped the game with the Axe-FX III. There are going to be a lot of improvements here. Line 6 has a great platform in the Helix. I just don’t see the commitment from KPA to advance the platform compared to its competitors. There have been software updates, so there is some upkeep taking place, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Seeing the overly confident and somewhat drunk top dog from Kemper at the latest NAMM announce “no new news” was quite disappointing [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sk_P0fj1wfs]

What I Like About the KPA

For me, it is definitely easier to get great amp tone, quicker, with the KPA. It’s fairly easy to download and audition profiles until you find a winner. It shouldn’t take long if you follow what others are having success with. Many/most profiles need minimal tweaking.

The number of amps available to the KPA is limitless. Great studios are cranking out more and more profiles every day. Having access to amps not found in other modelers is a big win.

The “Kemper : Praise and Worship” group on Facebook is AWESOME! A great community of believers that want to enable others.

What Started This?

FAS is a great company with awesome support, including FREE updates. The updates are many. This is good and bad. Each update required a review of my current tones and frequently having to re-tweak them to compensate for changes. The updates are not mandatory, but more often than not, they included some “must have” feature or additional functionality. New firmware is great, but after a while, you crave stability.

The rabbit hole… this is my own fault. The Axe has tons of options. Just selecting the right amp, speaker and mic brings 1000’s of options. Once you start down the Impulse Response rabbit hole, you start to question your own purpose in life. Finding a solid KPA profile, quickly, feels like a big win.

The pedal itch. I’ve got some very cool pedals that I miss… El Capistan, Eventide H9, GFI Specular Reverb, BOSS DD-20, etc… These are GREAT sounding pedals and are a joy to play. I often miss them.

Personal Parameters and Deciding Factors

At this point in time, I am looking to simplify and find my “core” tone. I want/need consistency from week to week. That means that I want to find a solid tone starting with just the amp, speaker and mic, then build upon that. Both the FAS and KPA devices offer a plethora of options; I am seeking a solid foundation (i.e. one amp, speaker and mic) to have from week to week. This may change in the future, but is where I am currently at.

Tone – the tone MUST be there. This was a huge deciding factor. If there was a considerable difference between the two, the unit with the better tone would be the choice with no further review needed. I found that I can get a core/foundation tone (amp, speaker, mic only) on the Axe that is near identical to the KPA. The difference is negligible in an isolated setting. There is no settling for “close enough” here. The Axe sounds and feels great, as does the KPA. Beyond the amp foundation, I prefer the tone and feel of the FAS effects over the KPA effects.

Time  – I am a volunteer musician at church. My day job that pays the bills is time-consuming, demanding and stressful. I need to be able to create and assemble a lot of great tones, quickly. The Axe has a powerful and easy editor, Axe-Edit. The lack of an editor for the KPA is HUGE negative in my book.

Expectations – I hear songs. I hear tones. I hear parts and transitions. I don’t expect to nail all of those 100%, but I make a conscious effort to capture the essence (i.e. come close). I love to hear something new or different and try to dial it in. I strive to strike a healthy balance between “sounding like the recording” and “sounding like me”. This is related to “time” as it takes time to dial in tones.

Role – 98% of the time, I am the only electric guitar on stage. That means I have to cover a lot of territory and be able to make complex changes, quickly. It is common to go from the pinnacle/climax of a song (e.g. solo, big chorus/bridge) to a quiet/down section in a flash. That change often requires multiple effects to be changed simultaneously. Add to this that I play quite frequently and we have a decent sized catalog of songs. It’s a lot to manage.

Learning curve and past experience – I have been a FAS user for years, so I have a lot of that learning curve behind me. The KPA is not overly complicated, but it does have its nuances, tricks and traps that come in to play.

The costs – I already own both devices, so this was not a factor me. Since the release of the Axe-FX III, the price gap has narrowed. You can get a new, or like new, Axe-FX II and foot controller for about the same price as a Kemper and Remote.

What’s Next

This is the plan, for now. I love gear. I often have a hard time committing to one amp, guitar, pedal, etc… or another. I want to play it all! So, don’t hate me if this all changes tomorrow. Haha.

 

Fractal AX8 Demo – Comparing to the BB Preamp Overdrive Pedal

DEMO: Fractal Audio AX8 Overdrive demo. Comparing the BB Preamp in the AX8 to the real deal. The BB Preamp is set up as a second stage OD with a decent amount of drive. I selected this drive and setting since this is where most modelers seem to have issues with drives being fizzy and/or raspy. I also feel this tone is usable in many settings, including P&W. The assumption is that if the modeler can represent these tones well, it will be successful at anything else that may be needed.

The demo is not meant to determine whether or not the modeled drives can can sound identical to their analog counterpart. It is meant to show that the modeled drives are very usable and sound as good as the real thing. The only thing on in the AX8 is the drive block. All amp, speaker and mic sims are turned off.

I chose the music to demonstrate different techniques (strumming, muting, double stops, power chords, single notes, etc…) and positions on the neck. The parts cover all six string and fret positions from 1 to 17.

I tried to EQ the drives to be close. They are very close, but not identical. I think both sound great. I actually prefer the sound of the modeled drive and enjoy the extra controls for lo/hi cut and tone.

The demo sounds great on my KRK Rokit 8s. I’m not sure a phone or mobile device is going to do it any justice. #jamn4jc

 

Eventide H9 Crushstation Algorithm: First Impression

Summary:

  • I won’t be selling any drive pedals soon
  • there are only a few usable tones
  • I applaud Eventide for continuing to bring new functionality to their pedals

I finally found some time to play with the new H9 algorithm called “Crushstation”.  It is very cool that Eventide is bringing overdrive/distortion to a platform used mostly for time-based and modulation effects.

I found that there are a couple of drive tones that are usable.  The pedal seemed to do best with the drive setting between 28-35 (of 100).  Anything less and the pedal just get quieter without dropping any of the drive.  Anything more and the pedal starts to lose any kind of natural tone and it becomes obvious that you are listening to a modeled tone.

What I did not like:

  • The drive tones did not “clean up” well.  Adjusting the pedal’s drive setting or using my guitar’s volume knob did not seem to clean up the pedal very well.  In both cases, the pedal simply got quieter and not less driven.
  • I could not find a low drive/gain tone that I liked.  Similar to the previous observation, it simply did not want to clean up at all.
  • Limited number of tones that sounded usable.  The pedal seemed to be the best at producing a fairly distorted, but not crazy distorted, tone.  For those of you that stack drives, this sweet spot would be something in the “2nd stage” drive area (i.e. a fairly distorted tone).  Unfortunately, this tone is not one that I require very often in the genre (Praise and Worship) music that I play most often.

I played with the octave setting briefly.  If you already have a POG, I don’t think Crushstation will make you want to kick it to the curb.  However, if you do not have a POG, this could be a passable solution.

Eventide is consistent.  Most of the factory presets were less about being usable and more about showcasing the total range and capabilities (e.g. “wacky sounds”) of the pedal.

I’m still a huge fan of the H9 for what it does best.  I applaud Eventide for bringing more functionality to the platform.  This is version 1.0 of a drive algorithm, so I expect it to only get better.

 

Sonic Research Shrinks the Turbo Tuner

Ask any guitar player, or instrumentalist for that matter, to name an indispensable tool and a “tuner” is probably at the top of the list.  That is unless they are one of the fortunate few with perfect pitch.

Announcing the ST-300

ST-300

Sonic Research is known for making accurate strobe tuners.  Their ST-200 Turbo Tuner appears on many pedal boards.  Joining the current trend of manufacturers making smaller or mini-sized versions of popular pedals (e.g. the Mini-TS9 or the Nano POG), Sonic Research has developed the “Turbo Tuner ST-300 mini“.

Similarities or Differences

At first glance, almost all features of the ST-300 are comparable to the ST-200.  Both tuners are accurate to +/-.02 cents.  I did notice that the ST-300 does not support battery operation.

Accuracy Comparison

To get an ideal of just how accurate the ST-300 tuner is, here is a comparison to a couple of other popular tuners.  A more accurate tuner (+/- 0.2 cent) is necessary for proper intonation of a guitar.

Boss TU2 & TU3: +/- 1.0 cent
TC Electronic Polytune 2: +/- 0.1 cent
Sonic Reseach ST-200 & ST-300: +/- 0.02 cents

Summary

The ST-300 is expected to begin shipping in mid-July 2015.  The price is $129.99.  I definitely see a Turbo Tuner ST-300 on my pedal board in the very near future.

Visit Sonic Research at: https://www.turbo-tuner.com/

 

Hello world!

All the Earth

Hi Everyone!

I have decided to start blogging.  For the past couple of years, I have been an active member on the Gear Talk: P&W group on Facebook.  It is a great resource and I have made a lot of friends there.  I plan to continue to be an active member there in order to contribute and more importantly, learn.

As great as the GT:PW group is, there are several challenges presented by the Facebook platform:

  • Constant flow of content — posts disappear quickly
  •  Many posts are not gear related.  It’s a social forum with 13,000+ members, so it’s bound to happen
  • Due to items above, many questions get asked repeatedly

This blog is my attempt to create quality content that is easier to find and on-point.

I plan to post mostly gear-related items, but expect my personal life to creep in from time to time.  Especially, when it comes to my walk with Christ, my church life and time spent with my wonderful wife, Teresa.  These items are all very connected and inter-twined.

I am looking forward to this new adventure,

Rick.

 

DEMO: Living Tone – Omega Tone Special

I have become friends with some great people on Gear Talk: PW.  Most of these “friends” exist in the digital world, however, I have had the pleasure of meeting several guys in person.  George Favazza is one such person.  We had chatted for a long time on Facebook and finally got the chance to meet in person when he was in Cincinnati for a convention.  It was great to talk about our faith and about guitar gear.  It’s amazing how much we had in common.

I learned that George was doing a demo for the Omega Tone Special by Mark Koher of Living Tone Amps.  After a few weeks, George showed me a first draft of the demo.  I was impressed by the video work, but we both agreed that the audio portion needed some work.  The OTS is a very special amp and deserved a demo that showcased its awesome tone and versatility.  I had been wanting to hear an Omega Tone Special in person and wanted to help George create a demo worthy of the awesome amplifier built by Mark, so after some discussion, George and I agreed to shoot another demo, together.  I would travel from Cincinnati to Detroit and we would spend the day and night to get it done.

For a couple of weeks prior, I worked like crazy to hone my mic and recording skills.  I tried a lot of different approaches and ended up deciding that a couple of Shure SM57’s, recording in stereo, in to a Zoom H4N Handy Portable Digital Recorder gave the best “bang for buck”.  The H4N is easy to use, has some cool features, and sounds great.  We placed one SM57 near the center of the cone and the other SM57 a little closer to the edge to get the full range of the tone.  A Jackson 2×12 cabinet with Celestion Alnico Gold speakers was used to push the air.

It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.  As a bonus, I got to enjoy an awesome GFaz pizza pie.  I am really pleased with the demo that we created.  George is an awesome guitar player. He played a variety of guitars on all the tracks except the last two.  I used my Gretsch White Falcon to record the last two tracks.  Enjoy!

 

Slushies – the Untold Story (until now)

slushies

On the Gear Talk: P&W group on Facebook, I am often associated with Slushies.  So, here is the “Untold Story: Slushies”. This is a TRUE story.

A couple of years ago, it was an extremely hot, summer, day and I was at a Cincinnati Reds game.  My seats were in the scorching sun. I went to the concession stand and bought a Slushie. It was $11 (total price gouging), but due to the circumstances, I was willing to pay the price. The following week, I saw a Slushie for $1 at a convenience store and ever since then, I have had a craving for $1 Slushies.  It was some sort of retribution.

Fast forward to football (NFL) season.  A GT:P&W member, Thad Pittman, used to post that if the Houston Texans won their game, there were free Slushies given away. This only fueled my cravings. Eventually, it got to the point where even at $1, I could not support my habit.

Texan Slushies

About that time, there was a rash of “Attachment Unavailable” postings, so I posted that the next person to post as such, would owe the entire GT:PW group a Slushie.  About 36 hours passed and I was away from social media for a few hours. I logged on and my notifications BLEW UP. Apparently, someone fell in to the snare and the group was demanding refreshment.

Slushies

https://www.facebook.com/groups/GearTalkPnW/permalink/883609388350800/

The Slushie requests have continued and ever since I have tried to assist those that are oblivious to “the rule”. There was even a time when I almost fell victim to my own snare. I shared a post and some time during the night, the original author deleted it, thus causing the infamous “Attachment Unavailable”.  I woke up the next morning to find dozens of Slushie requests in my inbox. Fortunately, a couple of gallant souls supported my story that at the time of my posting, the attachment did indeed exist.  It was a narrow escape.

What happens now, is out of my hands.

 

 

DEMO: POG Before or After Drives?

POG2 before and after overdrive/distortion. Both low and medium drive/gain scenarios are tested. I am using a T1M flip-flop to change the order of the pedals.

I was a “before” guy.  Now, I am “after”.  The “before” placement makes sense on paper, but my ears prefer “after”.  Both are usable tones, but they are different:

  • Before sounds more aggressive and sounds a bit more “processed”
  • After sounds milder and IMHO and more natural.

NOTE: I am fairly new to making demo videos.  In this video, I have the mic pointed at the speaker in my guitar cab.  As a result, you cannot hear what I am saying.

The key is this:
RED LED = Pearl (loop 1) in to POG (loop 2) — this is the POST scenario
BLUE LED = POG (loop 2) in to Pearl (loop 1) — this is the PRE scenario.

00:12 – clean tone
00:29 – Touch Drive
00:40 – Touch + Punch
00:55 – POG > Touch (Blue LED = BEFORE drive)
01:05 – Touch > POG (Red LED)
01:14 – POG > Touch
01:22 – Touch > POG
… you get the picture. I think both setups sound just about the same. Then, it gets interesting. I add the Punch drive for more drive/gain.

02:22 – engage the Punch side (running Punch > Touch)
02:36 – BLUE = POG PRE drives (I do NOT like this sound)
02:45 – RED = POG POST drives (much better)
02:54 – PRE
03:03 – POST
… and so on.

 

See this Facebook post for additional discussion and review:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/GearTalkPnW/permalink/910171022361303/