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WITH CLIFF CHASE
CLIFF CHASE GIVES GITARRE & BASS
ONE OF HIS RARE INTERVIEWS
(Thomas Jeschonnek put the questions to him)
Cliff, you are an engineer. What did you do professionally before you developed the Axe-Fx?
For the previous 15 years prior to starting Fractal Audio Systems I worked in the underwater acoustics industry designing high-end imaging sonars. A product I invented was used to find the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 and JFK Jr's downed plane. My designs and inventions quadrupled that company's sales in less than 10 years. They rewarded me by selling the company to a large defense contractor who, in turn, cut my office in half, reduced my benefits and froze my wages. I worked for about six months under that nonsense and then quit.
When reading your forum posts it is plain that you have a good of knowledge of both digital and analogue signal processing. Where did you obtain this knowledge?
I've been an engineer for over 25 years. My philosophy has always been to learn as much as possible about engineering in general so I've studied both analog and digital signal processing. I believe that specialization is just pigeon-holing yourself and reduces your problem-solving abilities and engineering is all about problem-solving. One of my employees used to work for a large semiconductor manufacturer and was my field representative prior to joining Fractal Audio. He would always say that I was an anomaly among engineers since I always wanted to figure out how everything worked and do it myself.
I believe this makes me a better engineer and as a result makes our products better. For example, I don't use any of the stock libraries for our DSP. I wrote all custom libraries since the stock libraries aren't as efficient and, in many cases, use filter topologies that are sub-optimum. Of course you have to understand your limitations as well. I would never try to write a device driver for Windows unless I wanted to age prematurely.
What was your primary aim while developing the Axe-Fx?
To make a digital modeler that actually sounded good. Years ago I needed something for recording so I traded in a Dual Rectifier for a certain rack-mount modeler. The salesman told me that this thing was "really cool" and was the answer I was looking for. I worked with it for hours and just couldn't get anything remotely good sounding out of it. I was very depressed that I had traded my Recto for this piece of, well, garbage. I said to myself, "Someone has to be able to do this better" and set out to do it better.
It has been said that you base your simulations on the wiring diagrams of well-known amps. What does this mean for a typical musician?
The modeling is a combination of measurements and schematic analysis. The models are basically digital versions of the schematic however schematics don't have all the necessary information. For example, a schematic will show an output transformer but an output transformer has various characteristics that aren't indicated on the schematic. Therefore we have to make measurements to determine these characteristics. Also, the actual amp may deviate from the what the schematic would indicate due to circuit layout. By measuring the amp we are then able to fine-tune the model to agree with the actual amp.
Now the third version of the Axe-Fx is on the market, as well as the MFC-101 foot controller. Did you expect your products to be so successful?
I never expected the products to achieve the success and acclaim they have received. When I first started selling units I told myself I would be happy to sell 10 a month as that would give me enough to pay my bills. Needless to say we sell considerably more than that now.
You are also a guitarist and have played countless live gigs. How much of the Axe-Fx models and the MFC-101 were based on your own needs and desires as a gigging musician?
The original Axe-Fx was refined over several years as it was my gigging rig. After each gig I would make notes about improvements and changes that I thought would be desirable and then test those changes afterwards. For the MFC-101 I designed the hardware and wrote the firmware framework. Matt Picone did the feature spec and I then hired a software engineer to implement the design spec. It's a great product but I can't take the credit for its success as it was a group effort.
When you develop new algorithms and new hardware are you following a long-term plan, reacting to user requests or simply creating what you happen to come up with at the time?
All of the above. Hardware is dictated by a number of criteria including user requests and internal decisions. Algorithm development is a continually ongoing process. In the end it's all about the algorithms. There's a trade-off between algorithm complexity and hardware costs. In our market segment we appeal to the discerning customers so we have the luxury of being able to design expensive processing platforms which allow us to run sophisticated algorithms and, therefore, not have to make compromises.
Can you tell us a little about your plans for the future of Fractal Audio Systems?
My philosophy is one of slow and steady growth and not to abandon your roots. Customer service and product quality will always be the primary emphasis. We have several new products coming out over the next year or so and I believe they will be well-received by the market.
Talking of the future: most professional guitarists are tube purists who, especially live, can't imagine a future without their beloved vacuum tubes. Tube-based power amps in particular are still considered to be irreplaceable. What are your feelings on the future importance of tubes in guitar amps?
The days of tubes are numbered. We are seeing the changeover happening now. Many of our customers are now using solid-state power amps with the Axe-Fx II and believe that the power amp modeling is indistinguishable from an actual tube amp. I know this is controversial but the facts are that tubes are expensive, unreliable and increasingly difficult to source. Vacuum tubes have been replaced, and for good reason, in almost all other products. At the end of the day a tube is just an electronic component. It has no magical properties. It's nothing more than a fancy light-bulb. We can model a tube now with extreme accuracy and have the requisite horsepower to run these models in real-time.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
I think that covers most of it. I sincerely hope that people enjoy our products. We do what we do because we love music and our jobs. Although we've grown rapidly we're still a small company at the core and are always open to your feedback and suggestions.
The following is a summary of the Axe-Fx II test in the current November issue of Gitarre & Bass.
r e s ü m e e
Taking all of its features into account, at the end of this test it appears that the Axe-Fx II is really a completely new development as opposed to just a further development of the Ultra model. On the one hand there are the noticeably faster and simpler handling and the extended connections for external equipment, and on the other the truly fantastic tone, with amp models that react so realistically in so many ways that even the Axe-Fx Ultra could only have dreamt of. The quality of the effects in the previous version was undoubtedly already among the best you could get for your money, but here again the Axe-Fx II has gone one better. For serious professional recording uses the Axe-Fx II is an ideal solution. Those who wish to use it live will need an equally high-quality power amp and cabinets or high-end active monitors. The MFC-101 pedal board is ideal for live use and thanks to its Axe-Fx mode and universal MIDI connection it is also very flexible. The retail prices for both devices are absolutely fair.
The complete test (in German) can be found in the current issue of Gitarre & Bass, No. 11, which you can order here or buy wherever there are magazines for sale...