Fractal Audio’s Stage-Ready, Penguin-Friendly Tech

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Fractal Audio’s Stage-Ready, Penguin-Friendly Tech

Fractal Audio
Words By Peter Hodgson

Over the years the Axe-Fx and its descendants have powered the live sound of many of your favourite guitarists, each of whom finds their own way to incorporate the unit into their rig, whether it’s simply for super high-quality effects, or as a complete sound source.

What do Steve Vai, Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, Devin Townsend, John Mayer, Iron Maiden, Metallica, U2, Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Journey’s Neal School, Dweezil Zappa, Muse’s Matt Bellamy, Def Leppard, Joe Satriani, Aerosmith, Periphery, Guthrie Govan… okay, this list could go on forever so let’s just say it, what they have in common along with many others is a live rig that incorporates Fractal Audio gear.

When the first Axe-Fx dropped around 2009, it ignited a revolution in home recording and live sound. It was arguably the first truly mature amp modelling and effects system good enough to fool the ears of fans and professionals alike and it was equipped with enough ins and outs to be incorporated into a complex rig: it could be your entire sound source, or just your effects.

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

For instance, Steve Vai is in the former camp: he derives his tone from tube preamps such as his Synergy signature module, but relies on the Axe-Fx III for those heavenly delays, harmonisers and other spacey effects that colour his music. Meanwhile Metallica first tried the Axe-Fx when performing a historic show in Antarctica where amps would have been impractical to ship as well as too dang loud for the penguins, so the audience listened through headphones while Metallica chugged and shredded through Axe-Fx. That ignited the spark for the band, and now their entire live guitar sound comes from Axe-Fx III units, with presets created out of multiple amp model layers and with any required effects at the ready (Kirk still has a signature wah-wah pedal though, try getting his foot off that thing). So what exactly is available in the Fractal family, and is it just for stadium-fillers?

FM3 MKII Turbo

The current pinnacle of Axe-Fx technology is the Axe-Fx Turbo, and Fractal has packed a lot of impressive numbers into its rack-mountable chassis: ‘Two 1.25 GHz, floating-point “Keystone” Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) comprise the main audio engine,’ Fractal says. ‘These processors are the most powerful DSPs available delivering over twice the performance of the DSPs used in our previous generation products. To feed these advanced processors we coupled 4Gb of blazing fast PC1600 DDR3 memory, hundreds of Mb of FLASH memory, a proprietary FPGA and a rich set of peripherals.’ And the large, bright display isn’t sapping any of this processing guts: it’s controlled by a dedicated graphics processor while USB traffic and user interface tasks are handled by a 500 MHz, 16-core microcontroller. Axe-Fx III is clearly designed with professional audio in mind, with front-panel LED monitoring of all four inputs and outputs, so you or your frazzled guitar tech can tell at a glance if a cord has been kicked out or otherwise compromised. Five assignable knobs below the screen give you instant physical access to parameters, be they delay tempo, harmoniser pitch or simply scooping the mids for the ultimate death-tone.

Axe-Fx FM9 Turbo

If you don’t require all that power or if racks just aren’t your thing, the FM9 is a floor unit which combines modelling and effects processing along with built-in foot switch control. It’s built on Fractal’s Cygnus amp modelling and includes UltraRes speaker simulation, a suite of stompbox and studio effects, expandable FC foot switching, flexible I/O, 8×8 USB audio interface capabilities, a world-class Mac/PC editor, and more. This model was recently upgraded to the FM9 Turbo, which features a 10% boost in DSP power. This was actually the result of a supply-chain issue built to get around difficulties in securing semiconductors, but the happy result is that the Turbo version is capable of more complex presets that would not have been possible with the original FM9 configuration.

If the Fractal Audio FM9 is out of your reach or just has more stuff than you need, the FM3 Mk II Turbo might be the answer. It’s a compact processor small enough to fix on your pedalboard alongside your stomp boxes (it’ll probably be the largest pedal on your board, sure, but it’ll fit, dammit) but it too features Cygnus X2 amp modelling, UltraRes and DynaCab speaker simulation, plus loads of amp models and effects based on the Axe-Fx III. It too is a powerful foot controller with all of the programmable features of Fractal’s larger FC controllers, plus a 4×4 USB audio interface. It can be expanded with an FC-6 foot controller and of course you can add expression pedal control too for all your onstage wah, pitch, volume and effect parameter access.

The list of Fractal users taking advantage of all this tech is absolutely huge, but a quick glance even reveals plenty of great Aussie guitarists including Brett Kingman, James Norbert Ivanyi, Plini and Brett Garsed. There are players who use Fractal gear for entire ‘history of recorded music’ sets, just as there are players who have a catalogue of bangers and an established sound that they need to recreate without a literal truckload of amps and effects units. There are local bands who use the FM3 for quick setups and soundcheck at small gigs, and there are international bands who trust Axe-Fx III in front of tens of thousands of fans per night. Just like the comprehensive signal-routing capabilities of a Fractal Audio unit, the possibilities are endless.

For local enquiries, visit Independent Music Australia.