Classic pro audio effect processors like the Eventide H3000 and T.C. Electronic TC 2290 sound great with guitars. But because they were designed primarily for studio and live sound applications, they’re not always easy for guitarists to use onstage, and some of their effects aren’t ideal for guitars. Meanwhile, most effect processors that are designed exclusively for guitar may provide plenty of great distortion tones, useful effects and the performance capabilities that guitarists need, but they often lack the sophisticated processing capabilities and otherworldly sound quality that studio processors offer.

The Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX preamp/effect processor combines the state-of-the-art processing capabilities of studio effect processors with features that guitarists need, such as a full selection of guitar-oriented effects, versatile external-controller capabilities and incredibly expressive and detailed simulations of amps, distortions and cabinets. By combining preamp and multi-effect capabilities in one unit, Axe-FX is truly an all-in-one “tone zone” for guitarists who demand pro-quality sound throughout the entire signal chain.

FEATURES

With its large LCD, rotary data wheel and various buttons and knobs, the Axe-FX looks similar to a typical two-unit rack-mountable guitar processor, but beneath its faceplate resides a powerful 500MHz dual-core processor that can run 10 to 12 exceptionally sophisticated effects at once. The Axe-FX has a wide variety of popular effects, including compression, graphic and parametric EQ, distortion/fuzz, chorus, flanging, rotary, wah, delay and reverb, and each effect provides a comprehensive selection of parameters that you can edit in fine detail. You can arrange individual effects in any order and in series or parallel, allowing you to program unusual sound effects or emulate just about any effect setup you can imagine.

Unlike most digital amp-modeling products, which provide reasonable emulations of various amps but also limit you to the features and controls of their hardware equivalents, the Axe-FX’s amp-simulation section allows you to combine the tonal and distortion characteristics of nearly 50 amps with any feature set you’d like. For example, you can build a tweed-style amp with master volume and a full set of EQ controls, presence, brightness, damping and more—you can even adjust the center frequency of the EQ controls to your preference. The cabinet simulator section is similarly deep, providing a comprehensive selection of speaker options—from 1x6 and 1x8 to a variety of 4x12 cabinets.

The rear panel of the Axe-FX unit offers just about every input and output jack a guitarist would ever need, including 1/4-inch stereo unbalanced inputs, 1/4-inch unbalanced and XLR balanced stereo outputs, a stereo effect loop, RCA and XLR digital I/O, MIDI In/Out/Thru and two pedal/footswitch jacks for connecting external controllers without hassling with MIDI. A single 1/4-inch unbalanced input jack is also conveniently located on the front panel, allowing you to plug in with having to do the rack reach-around.

PERFORMANCE

The Axe-FX may look a lot like those dreaded multi-effect processors from the Eighties, but its logically arranged interface and large LCD make it easy to program and edit new sounds and setups. You still may need to scroll through several pages to get to the effect and parameter that you want to edit, but most major tweaks (like the ones you may need to do during a gig) can be accessed from an effect’s Basic page, which is the first page that comes up when an effect is selected in Edit mode.

The sound quality of each effect is absolutely stunning, rich and three dimensional, even when several effects are combined together, delivering that elusive refined, pro quality similar to the beloved H3000 and TC 2290. The reverb algorithms sound like those of high-end stand-alone studio units, delivering smooth tails and exceptional depth. Even the compressor and equalizer effects sound comparable to professional studio units. Unlike most guitar effect processors, the flanger has 16 adjustable parameters instead of the usual three or four, resulting in a sound that is remarkably deep. The wah even lets you set minimum and maximum frequency values so you make the sweep as narrow or wide as you want.

But for guitarists, the main reason to invest in an Axe-FX unit is its amp and cabinet simulation sections. For less than the cost of a boutique amplifier, Axe-FX provides a complete selection of just about every amp and speaker combination a player could ever need, for tones that range from jazzy solid-state clean to classic overdriven tweed to modern high gain. The Axe-FX’s sophisticated processing power allows the amp and cabinet-simulation programs to deliver the feel and response of playing through the “real thing.” The tones that I heard coming through my JBL 6328P monitors actually sounded better and more lively than tones I’ve captured using various combinations of high-end mics and classic amps in the studio.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Axe-FX effectively destroys any notions that guitars and digital processing don’t mix. This powerful processor delivers stunning, expressive tones and effects that most players would have difficulty achieving with even the finest analog gear. Considering the vast universe of sounds residing in this unit, it’s an exceptional bargain for anyone who wants to simplify their studio and live performance rigs without making any sacrifices whatsoever. In fact, it may be the last guitar processor many players will ever need to buy.

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Orange's limited edition OR50 is a fitting and modern tribute to company’s 40th anniversary and the “Pics Only” amp that made Orange a household name.

Orange Amplifiers is sometimes referred to as Britain’s first boutique amp maker. The company’s namesake orange attire is unmistakable, as is its mix of classic Brit-type midrange punch and densely detailed top end. For a short time in the Seventies, Orange amplifiers were among the most popular in amplification, but the company never kept up with the demand for its products until recently.

Over the past couple of years, thanks in large part to the brilliance of amp designer Adrian Emsley, Orange has made up a lot of ground and is again becoming the hot ticket for superstars that range from Prince to Slipknot. Its latest achievement is the limited-edition OR50, a 40th anniversary tribute to both the company and the venerated 1972 “Pics Only” amp, so named for its use of pictographs on the front panel in place of descriptive text. The OR50 is more like a modern interpretation than a reissue, and it easily achieves everything from dimensionally diverse clean sounds to maniacally morose mega-gain tones.

FEATURES

Impeccable build quality is part of the Orange Amplifiers legacy, and this is well evidenced in the OR50. Everything on this amp is nicely overbuilt, from the custom eight-leaf transformers to the superduty basic components and 2mm-thick chassis. It’s easy to see the high-end audio influence that undoubtedly inspired Orange’s massive rack handles and oversized control dials. Inside, two EL34 power tubes generate the amp’s 50 watts, and three 12AX7s produce tons of front-end gain without clouding the signal’s dimension. On the backside, there are three speaker outputs: two eight-ohm and a single 16-ohm. Although the OR50 is a single-channel affair, the amp’s variety of gain and EQ settings manages to eclipse a number of multichannel super amps.

Like the “Pics Only” amp, the OR50 features icons common to engineering and music on its Plexiglas front panel to indicate each control’s function. Controls include gain, bass, treble, middle, HF (High-Frequency) Drive and master volume. Orange calls the HF Drive knob the amp’s “secret weapon” because it simultaneously increases presence and poweramp gain. This translates to attack and intensity, which can be dialed to achieve tones that range from angelic to anarchic. The master volume allows highgain tones at low volumes and spanking clean tones at extreme volumes. If you prefer the shortest possible signal path and most organic escalation of volume and gain, the master volume can be defeated with an optional footswitch that plugs directly into the front panel.

PERFORMANCE

Orange's OR50 is like a living entity, because its harmonic response doesn’t always behave as expected. The amp’s dynamic power and preamp section fire overtones like pellets from a shotgun: no two patterns are exactly the same; they always have a wide impact and they bloom unpredictably. This is the joy of playing a truly great tube amp; it responds to every touch and can be adjusted to complement any guitar or style of music. Even though this is an EL34-driven amplifier, it reveals all of a Stratocaster’s round jangle, rattling lows and chiming sparkle.

Likewise, my Les Paul’s woody warmth came through the Orange with a tone that was smoky and sweet, rather than dark and mellow. With the gain pushed past nine o’clock, the tone grew touch-sensitive fur that was ideal for blues or classic rock. Turning the volume high at this gain level made the amp churn out inspiring Angus Young tones. Moving the gain past the 12 o’clock position introduced mean and saturated tones, culminating in a symphony of high-gain nuance. This thick distortion is definitely heavy enough to play metal, and the Orange’s characteristically wide note separation remains fully intact at these settings. An attractive byproduct of this is an almost hollow resonance, which adds dimensionality rarely heard in the company of high gain. Even more attack, gain, harmonics and power amp distortion can be created through careful manipulation of the HF Drive circuit.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Orange's limited edition OR50 is a fitting and modern tribute to company’s 40th anniversary and the “Pics Only” amp that made Orange a household name. The special high-frequency power amp circuit and uniquely tuned controls prove that you don’t need a lot of knobs to achieve a phenomenal range of tones.

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Guitarists who want an extreme machine to deliver the ultimate heavy tones need look no further than Jackson’s Demmelition Phil Demmel signature guitar.

Phil Demmel's blend of old-school punk rock intensity and hardcore aggression propels the veteran thrash metal band Machine Head. Because Demmel’s sound is so distorted and seemingly unrefined, it would be natural to assume that any guitar with a high-powered pickup and a Floyd Rose trem would allow a player to recreate his tone. In reality, Demmel requires a very special set of guitar characteristics to help him create his super-heavy vintage-modern assault.

Demmel recently teamed with Jackson Guitars and incorporated these specs into the new Phil Demmel signature model King V, which has been aptly named the Demmelition. There’s nothing timid or reserved about the Demmelition’s bombastic, bowel-loosening assault, yet it’s a very tonally balanced instrument.

FEATURES

Dangerous-looking pointed guitars are used by scores of metallists as a symbol of their aggression, but when built properly, these wild shapes also achieve precise musical goals. For example, the Demmelition comes from the factory with massive .011–.056 GHS Boomers drop-tuned to B. The extended wings work like a tuning fork to help these nearly infrasonic tones develop fully and make the guitar shake with resonance. Lightweight alder is used in the Demmelition’s V wings for its ability to clarify upper midrange and add punch to the big bass notes.

For added stability and sustain, the Demmelition is built with maple neck-through-body construction. Like most high-end maple necks, the Demmelition’s is quarter-sawn to protect against warping or twisting. Stone-hard ebony is used for the fretboard and cut on a compound radius that begins at 12 inches and flattens gradually to a hammer-friendly 16 inches above the 12th fret. Nearly invisible black binding wraps the 22-fret board, and super-jumbo wire is used to make fretting easy and maximize the volume from those massive strings. The neck isn’t thin, but it’s consistent and has a wide and flat hill that complements metal fret-hand movements. It’s also recalls the playability that made Jackson guitars famous in the early shred years.

A classic set of metal-style pickups—an EMG-81 (bridge) and an EMG-60 (neck)—deliver power and detuned clarity. Although the model 81 is typically paired with an 85 in the neck position, the ceramic-based model 60 is the best choice if you really want to hear destructive rhythm tones and wailing neck leads from heavy strings. Each pickup is hardwired to its own volume pot, and a three-way blade lets you select the pickups alone or in combination. An Original Floyd Rose double-locking trem imparts a classic metallic resonance upon the diabolic King V. Some other nice touches on the Demmelition are an inlaid mother-of-pearl Jackson headstock logo, CTS pots, a positive-feeling Switchcraft switch and beveled body edges.

PERFORMANCE

Jackson makes many sonically multifaceted guitars. The Demmelition is unapologetically not one of them. This wicked-winged flyer is purpose built for high gain, extreme lows and greasy-fat leads. At the same time, its maple neck-through construction, ebony fretboard and ceramic EMGs deliver enough treble enhancement to define the Demmelition’s powerful detuned bass tones and make screaming high-end tones second nature.

Through an amp like my modified Mesa Rectifier, the Demmelition sent shockwaves of sound across the stage and awakened Godzilla-roar overtones when I chugged through power chords or dive-bombed the low B string. In addition to its massive tone, the Demmelition generated astonishing sustain in the upper registers, allowing bent notes to be held for well over 15 seconds! The EMGs had no trouble delivering clean and warm tones that sound completely unprocessed.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Guitarists who want an extreme machine to deliver the ultimate heavy tones need look no further than Jackson’s Demmelition Phil Demmel signature guitar. The name says it all: brutal assaults, unrivaled destructive power, truly unbelievable sustain and old-school Jackson Soloist-style playability.

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Searing tone and an authentic hard rock vibe make IK’s AmpliTube Metal a great tool for exploring rock’s extremes.

A selling point of guitar modelers is that they can recreate any sound you, your family, your friends or a casual passerby could ever want. That degree of variety and versatility is great when you’re producing music in many styles, but it can be overkill when your focus is on one type of music.

IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube Metal, which can run as a stand-alone or as a plug-in, is a slimmed-down version of its flagship AmpliTube software. Like the company’s AmpliTube Jimi Hendrix, it eschews the kitchen-sink approach and focuses on one style. Which is not to say it doesn’t deliver sonic variety: AmpliTube Metal can go from a whisper to a scream and do everything in between.

FEATURES

Like other versions of AmpliTube, Metal offers a complete signal path—actually, two signal chains that can include different amps, cabinets, stomp boxes and rack effects. At its core are four hard-rocking amps, including the Peavey 5150, Randall Warhead, Marshall JMP1959 Mk I and the Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, (IK offer separate amp models for the Recto’s “green” and “red” channels). One of the program’s coolest features is its ability to mix and match amp components, allowing you to use, for example, the Marshall’s preamp with the Peavey’s power section.

Amps are automatically matched to appropriate cabinets, but there are actually 13 to choose from (in addition to Peavey, Mesa and Marshall fare, there are a couple of Fenders). All of these are variations on the 4x12 configuration, and while that definitely upholds the law of the metal jungle, it would have been nice to have some other options. Cabinets can be miked close or far with a range of virtual dynamic and condenser and dynamic mics from Shure, AKG, Neumann and Sennheiser. You can really sculpt the sound by changing and/or moving the mics.

The stomp box collection leans to the heavy side. Among the 14 included pedals are seven high-gain distortion boxes, including the Pro Co Rat, five Boss pedals and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff π so realistic I could smell the Seventies when I powered it up. Other floor effects include generic 10-band EQ and delay plus models of Boss and MXR flangers, an MXR Phase 90, a Vox wah (which has Pedal and Auto- Wah modes) and the DigiTech Whammy Pedal. These effects all go in front of the amps (there’s no virtual effect loop) but you can also add effects like digital chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, harmonizer, pitch shift, graphic and parametric EQ, and tube compressor in the rack effects section.

In addition, there is a speed trainer that lets you load in audio files in a variety of formats, change their speed and pitch and play along—just the thing for mastering those Yngwie licks. It’s a very cool feature, although it’s available only when Metal is running as a stand-alone application.

PERFORMANCE

I've tested versions of AmpliTube in the past and have always come away impressed with not only its sound but also its “feel.” The amps are fun to play through, and some of the presets are inspiring.

Despite its focus on hard rock, Metal has enough range to cover any musical style, and many of the presets are good right out of the box. The high-gain tones are very compressed and tend to color the guitar’s tone—I couldn’t hear much difference on my S/S/H Strat when I toggled the pickup switch—but that’s the case with hardware high-gain rigs, too, especially when driven by a monster like the Big Muff. The effects sound great, and it’s nice to have a choice between the grungy stomp boxes and the cleaner rack gear. I would have liked more variety among the speaker cab selection, and it would be nice to be able to slide stomp boxes around the virtual pedal board to change their order, but other than those small complaints, Ampli-Tube Metal was pure gratification.

You don’t need IK’s slick StompIO to use AmpliTube Metal effectively, but it does add to the experience. In addition to providing 24-bit audio I/O via USB, the sturdy foot controller has 10 buttons and a built-in expression pedal, letting you turn effects on and off, operate the wah and whammy pedals, and select presets. Its metal chassis is tough enough to survive onstage.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Searing tone and an authentic hard rock vibe make IK’s AmpliTube Metal a great tool for exploring rock’s extremes.

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