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Firmware version 17 has just integrated microphone preamp simulations into our favourite tool. Now, at this point you might be forgiven for asking yourself just what that is all about and what it has to do with you – well, let’s find out.
COMPLETE SIGNAL CHAIN
Ever since the appearance of the first Axe-Fx it has been possible for guitarists to determine our signal chains completely independently. Whether it’s directly from the guitar into the amp sim and from there into a power amp and a real cabinet, or keeping it totally digital; everything we needed was there.
MORE THAN EVERYTHING
And now Fractal Audio has added some more to this everything. Anyone who has made a traditional recording will know the score: once the optimal sound from the guitar, amp and box has been found, the right mic is selected and then everything is positioned and repositioned until it’s as perfect as you think you can get it. However, what happens next is something few really register.
WHAT DO I NEED A MIC PREAMP FOR, ANYWAY?
Well, to keep it simple, once the signal has been picked up by the mic, it has to be made louder, then it can be processed. Depending on the type of microphone, more or less amplification will be necessary. And while some manufacturers make a big thing about how neutral their preamps sound, others deliberately incorporate a certain amount of desired sound-shaping.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
And just like every other part of the signal chain, the preamp has an effect on the final sound, although here we are talking about the final bit of icing on the cake, rather than any kind of big difference. A good preamp will quite simply help the signal to sit better in the mix and sound more natural. This is, of course, a plus for the entire band, while for you it is yet another shortcut to getting a perfect sound. We should not forget that in hardware form such a preamp can easily carry a four-figure price tag, while even the software plugins offered by various companies can command high three-figure sums. Here everything is, as always, part of a free firmware update.
HOW CAN I USE THE NEW PREAMP SIMS IN THE AXE-FX II?
As with everything else in the Axe-Fx, it’s generally best to just trust your ears and set everything up so it sounds good for you. But let’s go through the available options step by step:
This is where you can choose which preamp simulation you want to use. It’s a bit like choosing which amp you like best. The palette stretches from tube-based preamps to the FET variety and even the simulation of a tape recorder with its typical distortion and compression behaviour. For 'crunchy' sounds you could begin with the tape models, if your music is of the hard and heavy variety, try the ‘Modern’ setting. When playing clean you may want to use the simulations to add a little more sparkle to your sound or to tame a harsh top end.
As you have probably already guessed, this controls the amount of gain. The VU meter shows you just how much you are overdriving the preamp input. The closer you come to 0dB, the more distortion you will hear. To get an idea of what this sounds like, try turning the drive up enough that you come over 0dB. Most of the time you will probably want to stay below it, however.
It is tempting to say that this is where the magic happens. From a purely technical point of view, this is where you can adjust the relationship of odd and even harmonics, but what you feel is this: the more you increase this parameter, the more you saturate your virtual tape or preamp and it is exactly this that makes it easier to sit your sound in the mix later. However, as usual it is important not to overdo it – first just turn it up until you begin to hear a difference.
BASS / MID / TREBLE
This is another place where you can fine tune your sound. Leave everything at twelve o’clock, or try raising the mids and treble slightly to get a little more of that much-desired sparkle.
Oh, we nearly missed one! This parameter is ‘hidden’ on page two of the Cab Block and allows you to set the quality of the preamp. If you hear any kind of aliasing, select ‘High Quality’. If that’s not the case, leaving it on ‘Economy’ should be fine. As a rule of thumb, with more gain you are more likely to need the higher quality setting, but again, let your ears decide.
Well then, off you go. Select the Preamp tab, play around with the settings and experience how the Axe-Fx II can keep on surprising you, over and over again!