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AXE FX II / AX8 vs Analog Chorus Pedal
Can the AXE FX II (or it's little brother the AX8) hang with their more boutique analog stomp pedal cousins?
The arguments for and against digital and analog FX in the guitar world are not new. Despite a miriad of pros and cons for both analog and digital based fx, it is typically concluded that analog is king for it's far superior sound quality. That premium sound does come with a list of cons that can sway even the most diehard analog purist to join "the dark side."
It is exceedingly rare to find analog multi-fx units, especially ones that actually produce useable sounds across the board for modulation, drive, reverb and delay. This means most guitarists will choose multiple pedals, and depending on the style of music, the number of pedals can add up. And fast!
Running more pedals means having to carry more gear, requiring more cables, understanding complex routing designs, providing adequate and clean power for multiple devices, and physically having the skill to "tap dance" between pedals while switching multiple devices in and out. All this without sacrificing the musical performance.
I personally fall firmly on "the dark side" and while I wouldn't argue that one style of FX sounds better than the other, the sheer flexibility of digital processing with a pro grade unit like either the AXE FX or AX8 from Fractal, is undeniable.
I like to get creative with effects. A phaser after a 100% wet delay in parallel, or a stereo dual delay setup with stereo pitch shifting on the repeats, perhaps a simple flanger panned left and a chorus panned right simultaneously. Maybe even a full out distortion directly before a reverb for a messy, dark and chaotic tone. The point is, with just these four setups I would need a small army of pedals to get the job done. Whereas I could just throw something like the AXE FX II or AX8 into a backpack and be ready within minutes. All from one unit!
With that said, I still have a soft spot for the warmth of analog gear and will grab something from my collection of pedals from time to time. Somtimes there is a analog equivilant that specifically can get the job done better than it's digital counter part, whether that is due to digital just not quite being there in terms of tone, or maybe a certain pedal having a completely unique tone that may be too confusing to replicate in the digital realm. I'm talking to you Electro Harmoix Bass Balls.
I recently got a new boutique analog chorus stomp pedal and was curious to see if the Fractal Audio units could rise to the challange of replicating one of the wolds most sort after modulation FX. The pedal I used for the test was the Retro-Sonic "vintage vibes" chorus pedal, which is a boutique pedal based on the highly revered vintage Boss CE-1. The digital counterpart came from Fractal's included Japan CE-2 chorus model, which is also based on a similar design, the Boss CE-2.
The one factor I did not take into account when putting together this A/B demo was whether the Fractal's A/D D/A conversion in the FX loop colors the tone. It is typical, even with extremely high quality studio grade converters, that converting from analog to digital in a signal chain will affect the tone in a minisclue way with each conversion. I will test the transparency of the Fractal FX loops at some point, but unfortunately didn't think to do it for this test.
What This Means to the Demo
This basically means that there may be a slight coloration to the signal while running out of the AX8 to the Retro-Sonic chorus pedal and back again. The digital chorus signal path stays 100% "in the box" so it would not be subject to any additional coloration. Without actually testing the loop I can't say with certainty that the conversion from digital to analog and then analog to digital again doesn't affect the signal path.
Setup for the Test
I am running the guitar directly into the Fractal AX8 and then have a single multi-scene preset setup to switch through the various options I wanted to demo. Both chorus FX were positioned after the amp block, but before the cab block and the only other FX in the chain are a light compressor before the amp and a small amount of parallel stereo room reverb after the cab block. The Retro-Sonic is made available in the signal path via an FX loop block in the AX8.
Scene 3 is a "Dry" FX chain. Although I leave on a reverb pedal the entire time for all scene demos. In scene 3 you don't hear any modulation from either the Retro-Sonic OR the Fractal Chorus FX block. Scene 1 opens the AX8's internal FX loop to showcase the sound of the Retro-Sonic Analog Pedal in all it's warm swirling glory. Finally, scene 2 closes the FX loop and un-mutes the internal Chorus block so we can here the digital recreation of the Boss chorus that both units are attempting to emulate.
For the amp model I chose to use the Jazz 120, which is based on the Roland JC-120 amp. I used this model because of my fondness for James Hetfield of Metallica's clean tone which relies heavily on chorus FX. I also believe the built in chorus of the Roland Jazz Chorus amps is based on the Boss CE-1 as well. For cabinet IRs, I loaded 2 custom IRs that were taken from the Silent Underground Studio BStar cabinet IR pack ,which is based on a Blackstar Series One 4x12 cabinet.