If you rely on the electric guitar in your recording but daren't annoy the neighbours, then this is what you've been dreaming about.
You may have noticed those adverts emanating from Thatched Cottage to the effect that the Axxeman cometh. Well it's finally here and we've got it.
The Axxeman stems, as do most good ideas, from a problem seeking a solution. Until recent years, the only way to get a good electric guitar sound onto tape has been to play the instrument through a conventional amplifier and then mic it up. The main reason for this is that the amplifier itself contributes greatly to the tonality of the instrument, especially if a distorted or overdriven sound is required. Plug a guitar directly into a mixer and you end up with a flat, lifeless sound. This is not only due to the resulting impedance mismatch but also to the fact that guitar amplifiers are 'voiced' - that is, they have a modified frequency response characteristic designed to suit the electric guitar. Probably just as important, the amplifier's speaker filters out unwanted harmonics and adds further colouration which is why you never even get close to the live sound by feeding the line output from the amp into a mixing console.
The problems with miking up an amplifier set-up are fairly obvious: it takes time, it makes a lot of noise and it creates spillage problems if you want to record more than one instrument at a time. And the resulting sound is often quite different from the sound perceived in the room due to the effects of mic positioning, room acoustics and the microphone's own characteristics.
One of the first devices to offer a partial solution to this problem was the Rockman which was initially conceived as a practice aid where the guitarist could obtain a highly produced, stereo sound through headphones. The device is still available in an updated form and basically offers a choice of several preset effects and tone colours including overdrive, compression, chorus and pseudo-reverb. In the studio this can give impressive results when plugged straight into a mixing console but the choice of presets are a little inflexible and the resulting signal is often considered to be too noisy to use on serious recordings without using some form of single ended noise reduction or gating. A studio quality Rockman system has recently been introduced which overcomes these problems (at a cost).
The thinking behind the Axxeman was that it should be a device aimed at the studio user, and that it should be affordable without compromising on sound quality. This might seem like an idealist's dream but by concentrating on the essential features and missing out the redundant ones, it can be done. For a start, you don't need a pseudo reverb because that is expensive to implement and far inferior in performance to even the cheapest digital reverbs. As most studios, whether home or professional either have or shortly intend to get a digital reverb, this omission is no loss, and even a spring reverb will yield good results.
Where equalisation is concerned, the preset system works well, and so was adopted to simulate a selection of basic guitar sounds. Once the basic sound is selected, the EQ controls on the desk may be used to tweak it according to taste. And there's distortion. Guitarists are very fussy about their overdrive sound, and rightly so. The Axxeman has variable drive and level controls, just like the ones on a guitar combo, that enable the user to vary both the degree of distortion and its level. How convincing this sounds, we shall see later. Add a variable compressor to give that Dave Gilmour come Dire Straits attack, cram it all into the obligatory 1U rack case and you get a fair idea of what the Axxeman is all about. Chorus and ADT are added as icing on the cake. Because these effects are configured to give a pseudo-stereo output, the unit has stereo output jacks at line level for connection directly to a mixer.
When the Axxeman finally arrived it looked far more sedate and innocuous than I had supposed. Finished in pastel shades of grey and blue, and festooned with coloured LEDs, it looked as though it wouldn't say boo to a goose. Then I plugged it in...
One big advantage of the Axxeman is that it is self-contained and needs no batteries or external power supplies. The controls, and the input for the guitar, are neatly and clearly laid out along the front panel and the stereo outs, additional line in and a footswitch socket are located on the rear panel. I'm all in favour of connections on the rear panel, but in this case, I think there might have been a justification for putting the footswitch socket on the front panel so that the footswitch could easily be disconnected and stowed out of the way when not in use. A minor gripe. Back to the controls.
There are two inputs, one for guitars with powerful humbuckers and one with extra gain for guitars with low output, single coil pickups. Plugging a humbucking guitar into the high gain input results in unpleasant overload distortion which reminds you that you're in the wrong socket. Directly following the input is the compressor which may be varied from virtually off to what one might describe as heavy handed. This emphasises the attack of the notes and adds a degree of sustain. It also keeps the mean level more constant giving a sound more in keeping with what you'd expect to hear on a record, which is just as well because that's where a lot of Axxeman sounds will probably end up. Then there are four basic rhythm sounds to choose from which may be selected by pressing one of four pushbutton switches, each of which is accompanied by its own coloured LED, so that even from the other side of the studio, you know which setting is active.
The first sound is called Deep, which is a fairly bland, uncoloured sound suitable for fill-in rhythm work and you can get a fair degree of variation from this setting by using your desk's EQ section. The next two are respectively Bright and Hard which are more cutting sounds with a bright edge. These are very versatile settings which lend themselves to further tailoring at the hands of the desk's equalisers and, in combination with the compressor section, yield a wide range of usable pop and rock sounds. Last comes Edge, which is a raunchy overdrive sound, but not too dirty for aggressive rhythm playing. A similar sound can be achieved using the overdrive section, but by including this in the rhythm presets, the footswitch can be used to switch to a more severe lead distortion when the inevitable solo comes along.
This can be set up using the Overdrive section. It's dead simple: just two knobs and two buttons with the compulsory coloured LEDs. Hitting Lead takes priority over any of the Rhythm buttons which may be selected and the Drive control sets the amount of distortion which may be varied from generally dirty to searing sustain. The Level control allows the lead sound to be balanced with the rhythm sound so the solos come in at just the right level and the filter button smooths out the distorted sound for those Mike Oldfield impressions you always wanted to do. Actually I was very impressed with the overdrive sound. True it isn't quite as convincing as a Marshall stack six inches from your left ear but it is biting without being gritty and doesn't break up when you play chords. It's the kind of sound that makes you want to keep playing, and again it sounds right on tape as part of a mix.
The last effect section is based around the stereo chorus, and appears to use the old trick of feeding the dry sound out of one output and the delayed sound out of the other. The first button turns the chorus on or off, indicated by a green LED, and the next gives a choice of shallow or deep chorus. These settings have been nicely chosen to provide just the right amount of chorus for guitar use.
If you want that Andy Summers guitar sound, it's in there somewhere. The last button, ADT, converts the chorus into a doubling effect and this is different depending on whether the Deep button is in or out. The effect is most obvious with Deep in when a neat slapback effect is created. With Deep out, the effect is a subtle thickening without any obvious delay.
Compared with the Rockmans and various clones that I have tried over the last few years, this unit immediately struck me as being far quieter, no doubt due to the internal noise reduction system used to squeeze the last ounce of dynamic range of the circuitry. Also, this is the first unit I have tried where the distorted sound stands up in its own right and doesn't need chorus or echo to hide its defects. Gratifying too is the way that the compression interacts with the distortion, enabling the user to use less compression for a raunchy sound or more for a creamy sustain. Even with bags of distortion, the predominant noise was that picked up by the guitar's pickups and not circuit hiss. True there is some noise at maximum distortion but far less than expected and certainly no more than you'd get when miking up a good guitar amp.
The rhythm sounds were clean without being clinical and somehow simulated the edge that only an amp/speaker combination normally gives. My only comment here is that a single input followed by a gain trim control might have been slightly more convenient than the two fixed inputs provided.
FET switching is employed to make channel switching quiet and the chorus ADT effects are quiet in operation and sound right. I must admit, though, that I probably wouldn't use the stereo output, as this would use up two tape tracks. Still, you could always record in mono using no chorus and then use the line input at mixdown to add stereo chorus to the sound on tape.
The decision of whether to buy an Axxeman or to carry on miking up your favourite combo is up to you. You must ask yourself, 'What can this product do for me?'. Speaking personally, it offers convenience so that ideas can be put onto tape with the minimum of fuss, it provides a selection of usable sounds which can be further personalised by adding EQ or additional effects, and it constitutes a way of working at night without upsetting anyone. I have a feeling that a lot of recording musicians will find those benefits sufficiently attractive to add an Axxeman to their shopping list.
The Axxeman costs £299 including VAT.
Review by Paul White
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