In Search of Tone: Part III


I last visited tone in this post here, but now that I’ve recently pulled the trigger on an Axe-FX II (a preamp/FX processor designed and built in America by Fractal Audio Systems) I find myself pleasantly absorbed by tonal nirvana. Once in a great while there comes a technology product that truly delivers on its product features, and the Axe-FX II does just that. Awestruck by the programmatic capabilities of the Axe-Fx II, I anticipate a long, introspective journey into the depths of tone creation and experimentation with this system. I’m neither here to offer an in-depth review nor to explain how to use it, but rather to share my user experiences over time as I continue my quest for tone. Speaking totally from an IT geek perspective, the Axe-FX II and its companion librarian software, Axe Edit, is the ultimate platform for creating “patches” of virtual amps, speaker cabinets, and special effects for the guitar signal chain.

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Tone, both in terms of its creation and how it’s perceived, is subjective and can be an extremely personal experience. For me the quest for tone is also a spiritual journey into how it effects a certain musical ambience or how it enhances the mood of music. A guitarist’s tone begins with the natural timbre or voice of his guitar, including the type of strings, setup, and plectrum used; and it is here that the signal chain begins. A direct connection into an amp is the basic rig, and the tone will be limited to what the amp can produce. Adding effects pedals, such as a compressor, distortion, or tremolo, can be inserted into the signal chain to achieve additional tonal qualities, but the amp, including its preamp section and cabinet, will still be limiting factors in the overall tone of the rig. Adding different amps and cabinets and more pedals will increase the tonal flexibility of the rig, allowing the guitarist to pick and choose equipment that produces a specific range of tone that best matches a particular venue or music genre.

Prior to the arrival of preamp/FX processors on the market, having a substantial investment in multiple amps, cabinets, and pedals was the primary way a guitarist dialed in his tone. DSLRs did not replace 35 mm film cameras overnight, and there are still devoted film shooters creating phenomenal art. The same holds true for the preamp/FX processor market—tube amps, big cab arrays, and yard-long pedal boards still rock the house with authority and legendary tone. Accurately simulating famous world-class amps, cabs, effects, and even those legendary tones of guitar virtuosos is the domain of the digital preamp/FX processor.

With a meager three-pedal board, my rig produced impressive tone and would have satisfied me if it were not for the joyous fact that I’m a tone junkie. Yes, my name is Kenny, and I’m addicted to tone. I bought the Axe-FX II to quench my thirst for tone, so that I wouldn’t have to invest in multiple amps, cabs, and more pedals. I advocate the less is more theory, in that a shortened signal chain (guitar—>Axe-FX II—>[amp, FRFR monitors, computer]) is a formidable rig for those who want to explore tone in all its sonic glory. I can now go on a tonal walkabout on demand, creating my own patches to best complement the natural timbre and setups of my guitars. My search for tone continues, however it takes place inside a beautiful black box with flashing lights, lots of knobs and buttons, and American high-tech goodness under the hood.

Stay tuned for Part IV.