IK Multimedia AXE I/O by Arthur Stone
AXE Attack: I was busy when the IK Multimedia AXE I/O arrived for review so my first thought out-of-the-box was 'get this thing working quick' and within 5 mins I had replaced the old desktop Focusrite Saffire with the new AXE I/O. Super-easy, super-quick driver install.
Even in daylight the red bar lights on the black front panel obscured the small, white legends; it doesn't take long to associate the light with it's function – the legend is there in case you forget.
Next I started to notice some of the qualities of the unit; the build and the sound. The brand new AXE I/O sounded good in comparison to the decade-old Saffire. We should expect that. The important thing is that in itself the sound was comfortable, clear, and detailed.
The dials, at about double the size of the old Saffire, are comfortable to use and the front panel can easily accommodate the increased size as the 2 x XLR inputs are on the rear panel – with the important guitar DI's and associated controls on the front. Makes a lot of sense.
The 2 x front-panel DI's have different controls with Input 1 having the 'Z-Tone' dial to change the impedance seen at the input and two very nice toggle switches for active/passive inputs and JFET or Pure signal processing.
Price: Euro 426.99 (inc VAT) 349.99 excluding VAT. Approx. UK £308-£375, US $390-$475
Conversion: 24-bit A/D, 24-bit D/A
Sampling Rate: 44.1 kHz - 192 kHz
Power: DC IN
Device Connection: USB B-Type 2.0
Link to full specs: IK Multimedia AXE I/O specs
Good to see the inclusion of MIDI on DIN; this is useful for performance control, and integration of other MIDI gear into a DAW or AXE performance.
The software bundle is great; the software is not tied to the AXE I/O hardware – AmpliTube can be used with any interface either stand-alone or as a DAW session VST.
A nice design touch is the slightly upwards rake of the front panel (which gives a better view of, and access to, the controls); this achieved by the rubberised side cheeks which also raises the unit, assisting with cooling should that be needed (although the AXE I/O ran gently warm in mid-Summer here in the British Isles).
The Sound: I appreciate this is entirely subjective (even the audio examples below); I'm never going to convince an old-time tube guy, or gal, that the AXE I/O and AmpliTube will replace anything in terms of sonics...and I wouldn't want to. At the same time AmpliTube, designed for the DAW and standalone-digital world, is a little bit less unwieldy to use than a real Dumble (AFAIK), at least from the home-studio, audio engineering perspective.
This is something different: a step in the right direction as far as digital audio is concerned. No matter what it sounds like my primary interest is in vibe - can I gel with it as a guitarist? And further, can I gel with the AXE I/O as an audio engineer?
The amp sims and fx are generated in a computer connected by USB 2.0 to the hardware. To get the best out of the hardware and software one has to account for latency. This can be either a passion-killer or something to merely adjust to and overcome.
The AXE I/O offers a direct out (on jack) to an external amplifier or monitor. Although this signal is subject to the above-mentioned latency it's also possible to output the 'clean' direct signal with zero latency; the clean signal is affected by the Z-tone impedance knob and the toggle switch settings , and this does colour the signal in terms of subtle tone and timbre.
Using just the JFET and Passive settings and around 11 o'clock on the Z-tone I got a sweet, warm tone from a Tele FMT HH into the AXE I/O and out to a Fender Acoustasonic Junior amp. It sounded great – without the emulations.
There's also a wet/dry dial (Monitor) which sweeps between the Dry signal and the DAW output.
After a few minutes I was noodling and then hours passed by.
Best value via good monitoring: The appreciation of the AmpliTube system is deepened by good monitoring – something you can feel in the body whilst playing guitar. Either: monitors with good bass energy, headphones, or an amp. The amp worked best for me with just the clean/dry amp output and then the (latency-delayed) DAW/AmpliTube signal through the studio monitors, which were positioned at 90 degrees to each other and myself. With this set-up I was able to use smaller Focal CMS40 monitors (4-inch) and get some zero-latency 'feel' from the real amp; the discrepancy between the dry and delayed audio was eaten up by the room.
With my rig set-up I was able to clearly hear the nuances between the AmpliTube emulations (and also the hardware Z-tone dial and toggles on the AXE I/O); latency was only an issue if I concentrated on it. I was able to enjoy the AXE I/O and AmpliTube as a guitarist (and engineer) and move beyond the question of how software compares to hardware, to a new creative paradigm.
As with the Fender amp, I got a similar reinforcing bass presence from a wedge-monitor (plus 4” Focals for the AmpliTube-processed track). Moving on to 6” Mackie XR624 studio monitors the amp/wedge was less needed especially when in the sweet-spot of the XR624's soundstage.
Using Kali LP-8 8” studio monitors there was enough bass energy for a couple of people to have an experience similar to a real amp in the room (albeit a little quieter and more perfect perhaps).
The AXE I/O headphone amp is nice (tested with open-backed AKG K702's) and non-fatiguing; good range of level from the 'chunky' dial. No noticeable gain-bunching.
Still, for guitar-player reasons, the AXE I/O – AmpliTube combo sounded at it's best when expressed in the room where it could blend it's generic splendour with the local ambience. This brings the room into play which adds audio engineer interest e.g. recording the re-amped sound.
Re-amping is a key feature of the AXE I/O; in use, the Amp Out circuitry (on jack) has the same attention to detail as the DI input. It is very low noise and grounded. A delight to use. The Amp Out makes it possible to reprocess digital recordings (re-amping) through analogue gear chains or into amps or monitors and then re-record the audio using mic(s), the DI or both.
The Gear: It's fun to select through the outstanding range of amps, cabs, pedals, fx, mics, and rooms/spaces. To sound out a chain, I flicked through amps until I found something I liked and would suit the genre, and then tweaked; there's a great opportunity to learn about real gear and how it interacts using AmpliTube. An educational aspect.
In the world of digital emulation the sounds generated by the AmpliTube ecosystem work well and survive the transition from ones and zeroes via conversion to an analogue electrical signal and speaker reproduction to air pressure to ears (and body). It's not the same as the real gear but with some self-hypnosis we can put ourselves in a facsimile environment where the only real giveaway is the inevitable latency. All you have to do is stretch 'now' a few milliseconds longer in time.
In Use: Nice, warm temperature even in a hot Welsh summer 70 degrees Fahrenheit; not a real heat source. As it's relatively-light and robust you have some leeway regarding positioning, which is handy if connecting to different amps (within USB 2.0 cable-length if you want to connect to the software obviously). Due to the front-panel tone-shaping options, the AXE I/O is a handy, stand-alone guitar (or mic) preamp too.
Thankfully, there was no extraneous noise (apart from the desired AmpliTube-generated ones); all the gear connected with no issues or level- or impedance-mismatches. There was a useful range on all controls. IK Multimedia are not messing about here: AXE I/O is not some marketing ploy where a regular type of interface is dolled up for guitarists. It is more of a guitar-first device that can act as an interface. I did feel more like using an advanced guitar amp than a regular audio interface but I didn't feel any loss of regular function.
Immediately I had a sense that the designers had envisioned the studio connectivity problems faced by guitarists and eased the path to unleash god-like axe powers in the DAW era.
As a performance tool: After lot's of noodling though the excellent amps, fx, and sounds, I thought about a project: use the AXE I/O to create a track. I wanted to test the mic preamps and plugged in a Shure SM58. Despite having quite a quiet vocal I didn't need the Simply Sound in-line preamp that I normally use with interface preamps. There was plentiful and effortless clean gain with a slightly creamy character. Not too clean. Not harsh. No distortion. The SM58 sounded good through the AXE I/O.
To process the vocal with fx it is necessary to AD-DA to the DAW and this adds latency. The wet/dry dial doesn't really help alleviate this; personally I mute the original signal in the DAW mixer but return a fully-wet fx signal and then use the wet/dry dial to set the balance between direct vocal and fx. Any latency in the DAW signal is eaten up as fx pre-delay time.
With this set-up I started songwriting. Tele and SM58, AXE I/O, AmpliTube on the PC. AmpliTube has an input looper and 'mini-DAW' so, for a change from the DAW and also to test out AmpliTube stand-alone, I just worked with that DAW-less.
Making music with the AXE I/O: I made a stereo drum track in Reason DAW and imported that into AmpliTube's recorder in stand-alone mode. I overdubbed tracks: Tele rhythm; electric bass; harmonica; two lapsteel. Then I imported the AmpliTube session files (WAV's) into Reason and added: vocal; backing vocals; hand percussion; and, double-tracked lead guitar (with AmpliTube as VST insert).
It was a straightforward process and I felt the AXE I/O hardware and AmpliTube software worked with me as both and artist and performer, and as an engineer/producer (many hats). The sound quality for tracking/creating was notable: good definition, dynamics, and differentiation between sources.
The preamps didn't get in the way at all; great range of control, as with the Z-Tone impedance control, which helped bring the guitars forwards or back in the mix. I got a lot more out of my instruments with this feature. The JFET/Pure and passive/active setting also help find the sweet spot .
Later in Reason DAW, with around 16 tracks, all recorded through and mixed with the AXE I/O (apart from the original 2-track Reason drums), I liked what I heard and didn't need to do too much unusual processing – everything was mix ready.
The track 'Axe I/O' is here: a dub version with (pre-prepared VST) drums, Ibanez SR500 bass guitar, and Fender Tele FMT HH playing a funky chop; a lapsteel, and SM58-mic'd harmonica through the AXE I/O preamp; for the full mix I added vocals, backing vocals, percussion, and lead guitar in a DAW session with AXE I/O as the main interface.
There's a great video with Joe Satriani discussing the AXE I/O and AmpliTube and some shredding:
Why Buy? I think beginners (esp. guitarists or guitar-recording 'young producers') will benefit from the quick set-up and ease of use. Quick, sweet learning curve. Maybe it's my guitar-oriented brain but the layout and signal path seemed a lot more logical than other interfaces I've used.
I think this aspect will also appeal to more seasoned audio people who are looking for a new guitar-focussed audio interface – maybe an upgrade from a less guitar-friendly interface without the AXE I/O's specialized DI's, software integration, and pedal control features.
The high-quality re-amping features are also a big plus.
Another plus for everyone is the software bundle which includes virtual instruments; IK Multimedia VST plug-ins, and Ableton Lite. This is great for guitarists, in that, it can give access to 'studio' or signal processing plug-ins that can radically improve the transition of the guitar's sound to the finished mix.
AXE I/O can be a small-footprint studio: laptop, headphones, guitar...maybe a sofa...
Even if guitar isn't a primary concern the AXE I/O is still worth considering: the mic inputs are on the rear so it offers a streamlined fascia on the desktop. A synth or keyboard can be DI'd, also there's the re-amping capability to run hardware effects loops for mojo'ing-up ITB tracks.
Add a pair of studio monitors or wedge-monitor or guitar amp and the small-footprint studio becomes a venue for creating pro-quality sound. It'll fit into a small cupboard even.
So a nice mobile rig too. Fully-capable.
The AXE I/O is also a great unit for vocalist-guitarists: the preamps do very well with a range of vocal mics, particularly dynamic mics such as the SM58, as these are assisted by the clean, slightly-creamy gain.
This also a great unit for non-guitarists too...maybe keyboards or a simple interface for vocals.
In a way AmpliTube is educational; even for a novice the presets and rigs by genre give great start points. Beyond that, on a personal level, it's interesting to tweak classic amps and fx; also a great way to audition gear, to find a perfect rig in software and then maybe the hardware. Oh yes!
Fly By? For some a digital emulation of a real amp is not engaging enough – the inherent latency and the individual tone and timbre of electronic circuits (as opposed to digital 'circuits') compromise the experience. Maybe that's the the way it should be? Long may it continue.
Sound quality: Very good. Not a real hardware amp but close...close enough to enjoy and create authentic music with.
Ease of use: Pretty straightforward for guitar empaths and orks. Controls are guitar-themed and the stunning interactive visuals mimic hardware controls and features.
Features: Re-amping capability. The substantial software bundle can be used independently of the hardware. The build-quality is good and robust. Nothing feels cheap or wonky. Great guitarist-specific features but this doesn't prevent the AXE I/O from functioning as a regular type of interface too.
Bang-for-buck: Very, very good. Both the hardware and software have real value: the AXE I/O is a fine guitar interface with high-quality sound, and the software conveys the mojo of playing a real amp.
Credits and Links.
Image used courtesy of IK Multimedia; additional images by Arthur Stone.