Looking for a fast way of getting good quality guitar sounds down on tape? Ian Gilby has the answer...
It could well be argued that one reason why synthesizers, samplers, sequencers and drum machines have been so enthusiastically received and adopted by musicians and studio personnel is the ease with which they can be recorded. Their audio outputs enable direct connection to tape recorders and/or mixing desks without recourse to expensive microphones and cumbersome miking techniques.
Not so the good old electric guitar. So much of its sound is dependent upon factors other than the guitar itself - such as the tonal modifications made by the combination of loudspeaker/cabinet and the distortion introduced from overdriving the guitar amplification stages. A direct-injected electric guitar rarely (if ever) produces an authentic 'rock' sound. At best, it's suited to the clean, jangly guitar styles of funk and disco music.
Simply put, the guitar is nowhere near as convenient an instrument to record (especially at home) as a synth. What's required, then, is an electronic 'black box' capable of duplicating the sound created by a Marshall stack (say) running flat out, that you simply plug your guitar into and connect directly to any tape recorder or mixer input with the minimum of fuss. Well that's precisely what the Axxeman does, in fact, and more!
Axxeman is a new British product aimed at the guitarist/engineer looking for a convenient but versatile alternative to miking up any guitar combo or speaker cab in the studio or on stage. In essence, it is a solid state guitar preamplifier with built-in effects housed in a handy 1U high, 19" rack-mount box. It's also light enough to carry under your arm from studio to studio, or gig to gig, meaning hernia-ridden guitarists can throw away their truss and enjoy their newfound freedom (what d'ya mean, it's part of your image?).
I doubt whether the Axxeman's designers would frown if I say that they have obviously taken the Rockman as the starting point for their design and expanded from there. However, the unit has not been designed as a portable practice amp, being mains as opposed to battery-powered with no dedicated headphone socket. (Pity, since one would be very useful.)
Ease of use must have been top of the Axxeman's design criteria since the controls are logically arranged and their functions clearly labelled.
To use the Axxeman, you plug your guitar into either the High or Low front panel jack. 'Low' suits single coil pickup guitars, such as the Fender Stratocaster (and copies), while 'High' accepts the signal from humbucking pickups as fitted to Gibson-style guitars. A third unbalanced jack socket on the rear panel accepts a studio 'line level' input up to +4dB, such as a direct feed from a mixer.
The raw guitar signal is then processed by the built-in Compressor, which automatically adjusts the compression ratio according to how hard you play and the setting of the control knob, indicated by the brightness of the nearby red LED. This works well at all settings to produce a 'tight', easily recordable guitar sound.
You choose your basic amp 'sound' from the presets in the 'Rhythm' section by pressing one (or a combination) of the four latching pushbuttons marked 'Deep', 'Bright', 'Hard' and 'Edge'(an LED indicates your selection). For once, the manufacturer's labels do actually describe the sounds you get! As they come, the presets suit a broad range of musical styles - jazz, funk, reggae - not just rock.
The makers have wisely chosen to leave off any form of tone control, assuming any EQ changes will be made on the mixing desk (when have you ever seen a guitarist alter his amp tone controls midway through a set, anyway?). Since most amp tone controls are generally left full-on, this is no real problem.
The Axxeman has a separate Lead section which can be switched in and out by a footswitch connected to the rear panel jack socket. A separate 'Level' control is provided to allow you to boost the volume during solos when the Lead section is switched in, and you can vary the amount of distortion to suit your taste with the 'Drive' knob, which ranges from hardly any distortion to well over the top! The latter setting produces the longest sustain naturally.
To add more textural variety, and to create a smoother much creamier lead guitar sound, the Axxeman has a preset 'Filter' which is switchable in or out only. Its effect is to add more direct (clean) signal to the distortion circuitry resulting in a mellower fuzz tone. "We wouldn't quote the much abused term 'valves'," it says in the four-page manual, "but you can play blues with it." I'd certainly agree.
The remaining built-in effects on offer are Chorus and ADT (Automatic Double Tracking). Once again, these are very much preset effects which have been optimised to provide the guitarist with four highly usable fixed treatments.
Apart from the 'In/Out' selector button, there are two other pushbuttons with LEDs labelled 'Deep' and 'ADT'. With the 'ADT' button out the Chorus effect becomes operative and you can select either 'Deep' or 'Light' options via the middle pushbutton. However, there is no means of varying the Chorus modulation speed, though the preset speed has been well chosen to emulate that classic Andy Summers/Police chorus guitar sound. The 'ADT' likewise gives you either the typical slapback echo effect used on lead solos everywhere, or a general thickener, dependent upon the 'Light/Deep' button selection.
The Chorus/ADT effects are made all the more appealing by the fact that the Axxeman has the added benefit of a true stereo (left/right) output. You'll require a 'Y' cord if you want a mono summed output though.
In operation, the Axxeman is extremely quiet, almost noise-free, and gives a much 'cleaner' signal than the equivalent output from an amp and chain of effects pedals. As such, it certainly warrants the description 'studio quality'.
Overall, I'm favourably disposed toward the Axxeman, though I do have one or two minor gripes. Although I suspect most Axxemans will be used in a studio environment, a separate headphone socket wouldn't go amiss as it would then allow the Axxeman to be used on its own as a practice amp at home (or in a hotel room even). Similarly, the lack of a mono output I see as a miscalculation. Stereo chorus is just the ticket, but not everyone can afford to 'waste' two tape tracks or mixer inputs on recording one guitar part.
Still, at £299 the Axxeman can be considered a worthwhile investment for the studio or musician looking for a quick way of getting a good guitarsound down on tape.
Price: £299 inc VAT.