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.

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