TLDR version: I’m not sure if I’m going to keep it. I’m kind of excited to be in on the ground floor for what could eventually be a powerful contender in the modeling world, but I don’t know if I have the endurance to see this thing through with all the growing pains and likely slow trickle of updates.
I got my unit Tuesday night and have since had a couple hours to poke around the blocks and features, so I thought I’d share my initial thoughts. For reference, I main an Axe Fx III with an FC6 for my gigging band where we play mostly 90’s, but also a few older and a few newer songs. I’ve owned the Kemper toaster, the full Helix, the Boss GT-100, several Pods throughout the years, Zoom, Digitech, etc; over 2 decades experience with modelers. I now own just the HX Stomp, the Axe Fx III, and now this. I also own a few NDSP plugins - Plini, Parallax, and Darkglass on my Mac Mini.
CONSTRUCTION - I was pleasantly surprised by how solid the unit feels. It’s lightweight, but doesn’t feel cheap. The chassis finish feels smooth, yet matte. The knob feels good; it has good resistance. The footswitches/pots feel solid and there are nice, soft clicks as you turn them. While adjusting parameters, each little click indicates one parameter value; that is, if you want to turn the gain from 3.6 to 3.9, you would just turn it three clicks. This is nice, because not all units work like this (Empress ZOIA, for instance, has clicks, but they don’t really mean anything). I did find the difference between fine and coarse adjustment kind of annoying; fine is too slow, coarse is too much. This could stand to be adjusted and dialed in a bit better.
The screen is big and bright; not as high resolution as I would have liked, but it’s still very nice and will get the job done. Oddly, there wasn’t any screen protector on the screen and I found a few smudges of something or other; no damage or anything too bad, but I just expected to peel off a plastic sheet from the screen. All the jacks looked good; there’s a nice strong click when you plug your guitar cable into the combijack.
The touch screen is very snappy and responsive; like an Android phone from 2011 or so. It’s not as perfect as a new iPhone, but I only found myself having to re-touch buttons if I tapped carelessly. If I made a deliberate touch, it would always work. The only thing I can say about this is that, being that it’s a capacitance-activated touch screen, if you have thick calluses like I do, you have to be deliberate in your press. Long presses and dragging to move blocks around or change parameters feels good and responsive.
FEATURES - So I plugged my headphones in and turned the unit on. No sound, even with the volume halfway up. I checked every option I could find, went through the manual - still no sound. In order to get sound, I had to change the output from 1/2 to 3/4 before sound would come through my phones. This was inexplicable. I rebooted the unit and it was working as expected. My first bug!
I didn’t get a chance to try EVERYTHING, but I tried a bunch of the presets, a few of the stock amps & effects, as well as some of the captures. I was a bit overwhelmed by the way the stock captures are arranged: I had no idea what was an amp or dirt box or what, or what level of gain to expect. Nothing’s named at all intuitively. There even appeared to be some reverb captures(?). The cabs are nice and there’s a decent selection. I can only imagine they’re planning to add tons and tons and TONS of models. Right now, there are a scant few reverbs, delays, dirt boxes, mod pedals, etc. So few, in fact, that if I didn’t KNOW they were still planning on updates, I’d return the unit. It’s too barebones for the price you pay.
I was also a little disappointed to learn I will only be able to load up 192 IRs, give or take. Hopefully this changes. The Axe Fx can hold thousands of user IRs. This isn’t TOO big of a problem, as I’m used to the Helix’s 128 limit. I still haven’t figured out how to load IRs, but that’ll be for a different day.
This brings me to another point: the unit is not very intuitive. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to try presets from the app. (you have to “star” them, then find that section toward the bottom of the list in the preset finder, then download them to the QC). Speaking of which, it took me about 10 minutes to sign in to my profile on the unit. Signing into my WiFi was easy and fast - but it kept refusing my password for my Neural account. I double-checked again and again that it was correct (I’m in IT, so I know how easy it is to mistype passwords), but finally, after logging into my account on the computer, it let me log in on my QC.
I love how you can add tags to presets when you save them. This would be super handy if I’m looking for “clean,” “metal,” “edge of breakup,” “wet,” “4CM,” etc. I found it a little odd that you can’t have two presets with the same name in the same bank, even if stored in different preset locations.
SOUND - Let’s be honest. All current modelers sound excellent with a little tweaking. A good ear can make a Zoom 505 sound better than a bad ear tweaking the Axe Fx. I’m quite positive I’ll be able to get great sounds for all my needs out of this. I spent the most time on a chimey Vox AC30 preset, a clean Mesa Lonestar preset, and an acoustic preset. I wish there were just a plain tube preamp model, like every other modeler has, but I ended up using the Roland JC-120 with good results. I’m used to far more tweakability in my amp block (the Axe Fx III has over 100 parameters for the amp block, whereas the QC has 8 - sometimes more, sometimes fewer). Later, I found a stock acoustic preset that uses multiband compression that sounds fantastic!
I love the Hall reverb. The default on all the time-based effects seems to be 50%, which is too much. Dial it down a bit and it sounds rich and spacious. I actually found myself using and really liking the Ambient reverb (just a short reverb that gives it a little space, not huge, lush reverberations). The Tape Delay is nice - but I couldn’t believe there wasn’t an analog delay model (yet, I reckon). The compressors are nice, but more variety will be nice. The stock dirt pedals get the job done. Not really anything to write home about. I plan to capture most of my favorite pedals anyway (King of Tone, Timmy V3, SDD3K, Mythical OD, etc.). I didn’t really mess with any of the EQs, gates, or mods.
It’s too early to tell if this is going to be a keeper. I’m sure it’s going to be YEARS before this thing has even a fraction of the features of Fractal’s gear (no alliteration intended), if ever. The Axe Fx III simply has hundreds upon hundreds of models, hundreds of utilities, MIDI implementation options, I/O options, a superior computer editor, etc. I just don’t know if this will ever be there. Again, in terms of sounds, it’s fine. But I’m not sure the juice is going to be worth the squeeze to suggest, explain, and defend all the additions this unit will need to be 1/10th as useful as the Axe Fx. Literally anything you can dream to do with Axe Fx is possible via menu diving or MIDI or with the FCs.
I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly who this product is aimed at. It’s clearly got serious potential; the fidelity in sound is there. The interface is there. The construction and I/O are there. But it’s guts are just terribly lackluster at the moment. I don’t know if there’s a schedule or what the planned updates are or how involved the community will be, but it’s got an absolute Everest of a mountain to climb to really be competitive with the Axe Fx in terms of features and function. Save for a lacking between 100-200 amp, cab, and effect models, it’s about on par with the Helix already, in terms of price, features, sound, etc.
For perspective, look at the release notes from Cliff for a new FW update released today (albeit beta, but we get these updates all the time, often with substantial new content or models):
Axe-Fx III Firmware Release Notes
Improved output transformer / speaker impedance interaction modeling. This yields more accurate low frequency response. Note that the Transformer LF parameter effectively adjusts the transformer’s inductance. Increase this value to simulate a smaller transformer, decrease to simulate a larger transformer.
Improved power amp cathode current calculation accuracy for cathode biased models.
Updated default Power Tube Grid Bias and Negative Feedback on many models based on new measurement technique. NOTE: As a result of this existing presets will update the aforementioned parameters to the new default values upon recall.
Added frequency cursor to Parametric EQ graph.
Updated Blackglass 7K Drive block model. Previous model was incorrect due to defective reference unit.
Increased gain range of Filter and Parametric EQ blocks to +/-20 dB. Also increased gain range of input EQ in Amp block. Existing presets are automatically updated.
Fixed incorrect channel indication in Amp block when changing scenes if Scene Revert is true.
Fixed Amp block bypass state not reverting when changing scenes if Scene Revert is true.
Fixed incorrect Drive control taper in Jr. Blues amp models.
Fixed incorrect default P.I. Bias Excursion in Princetone Reverb and Div/13 CJ Boost models.
Fixed missing UI for several Friedman amp models.
Fixed pop when changing Amp block channels between models with disparate gains.
Fixed NaN in Stereo Tri-Chorus if Delay Time and Rate are set to minimum.
Various optimizations and improvements.
I know some might argue that they don’t need that level of depth; and I agree. I rarely DEEP deep dive, but I use more than just a few top-level parameters that the Helix and now the QC offers. Everything in the Axe III is designed for making the sound you want.
I’m on the fence. I’m not hurting without the money, but I also would hate to keep a unit around hoping it’ll eventually be what I want it to be, which I’m sure is literally years away before it’s even a fraction as functionally capable as the Axe.
How are other Axe users feeling about this? I’m kinda feeling a little let down; like this is the No Man’s Sky of modelers. I think I’ll keep messing with it for the next couple weeks and see where we’re at.