Axon AX-100 mk II
Original Author: Staffay
Weapon: Guitar Synth / Guitar to MIDI controller
Model: Axon AX-100 mkII
Price: 489 € / 625 € (with pickup + cable)
Axon Ax-100 mk II is the update of Blue Chip's Music AX-100 guitar-to-midi converter and is now produced by the German company Terratec. Several updates have been made as well as adding an onboard GM/GX compatible synth and a computer editor. It is also bundled with Cubase 4 LE and comes in the 19' standard rack format.
Terratec is selling two versions, one without pickup and one bundled with a Seymour Duncan hexaphonic pickup + a 5 meter cable. (this costs bout 40€ ed. note) It accepts all input from the 13-pin cable manufactoring standard which makes it compatible with Roland, RMC, Piezo and other manufactorers. It has 500+ built-in sounds that can be stored along with other parameters in one of the 128 user presets. On the backplate there is MIDI-in/out/thru, a stereo pair for synth output as well as an output for the straight guitar signal. There are also inputs for two expression pedals and two hold/sustain pedals (or what You assign them to do).
The module can be edited directly from the front, however this may be not recommended since the computer editor is far better and faster to deal with. Effects like chorus/reverb are built-in as part of the GM/GX standard sound systems.
As said before the original inventor of this product is Blue Chip Music, who also made the patent for Axon's ETS-system. (Early Transient System) This system is built on an early-recognition technique that immediately recognizes the strings pitch, attack etc. and converts it into MIDI-data. This system is also built so that every string has its own pickup (even though they are mounted in the same unit) and hence are separated from each other and processed separately in the unit.
By separating the strings and the recognition od where You pick, different play areas can be set-up in the module. Eg. You can have one sound on the bass string, an other one on the treble strings. Or You can have three different sounds depending on where You pick, eg. near the bridge, in the middle or in the neck position.
Another interesting feature is the ability to tune each string in the unit independently of each other which allows drop-tunings, open-chord tunings etc. For instance, a bass zone on the lower strings can be tuned one octave down. Axon have a built-in arpeggiator which can be triggered via one of the foot-controls. The arpeggiator can be user-programmed or one of the 7 pre-programmed modes can be used. (Assign, Reverse, Recycle, Up, Down, Up/Down, and Random) The arpeggiator can also be used for triggering drum patterns from its internal sound-board which makes it fun to jam along to.
The "hold"-function is very useful since a sound can be triggered while holding down the pedal, and then when it's released, it stays there and lines can be played over the chord. (Great for practicing) Stacking sounds on top of each other is also possible to make new timbres.
The presets that ship with the unit are good and easy to get a grip once You make the triggering work as expected. Here we actually find the first problem: I will say that no player at all can use his/her regular technique to play this unit. Even though it tracks extremely good in my opinion, the playing itself must be adjusted to the type of sound actually played. There is simply no room for mistakes here, a clean and accurate playing is a must, otherwise the translation to MIDI fails, causing bizarre notes and sounds. This is however a minor problem, once You get used to it, it works. As said, setting up the triggering according to Your pick-attack, style etc. is extremely important and the sensivity for each string can be set up.
One important thing to mention is that a regular footswitch/hold -pedal will work, but I really prefer a piano-like one since You can't really feel this little tiny hold pedal with Your foot. I can't really recognize any triggering delays with the unit (maybe I'm too slow.... *lol*) and the bass strings triggerers are wonderful in contrast to the "old" guitar synths. I had a blast playing bass lines along with the arpeggiator/drum machine and I will certainly use the unit for laying down bass tracks in my home-studio.
The editor makes the unit a breeze to deal with, and is really a must when programming it in my opinion. It communicates with the unit via MIDI, making it compatible both MAC/PC. Setting up splits, editing sounds/presets is really easy and future firmware updates will also go along this way.
To use the unit live, a set of expression-pedals/controllers are recommended. I realized very fast that only one hold-pedal will simply not do, since if You are playing with synth/other-sounds, You want to have access to vibrato/portamento/filters etc. Other aspects of using this live are that You must have a set of different amps or a multichannel amp to run both guitar/synth at the same time. Otherwise the synth has to go straight into the console, which is not good either, since You loose the monitoring. (although monitoring can be made through the headphone jack on the front)
I think the greatest advantage with the Axon will be in the studio, since all composing/arranging/transcribing tasks can be done directly by playing the guitar. It's very easy to put the notes into a transcribing program such as Finale, also there will be no more "hammering" on the keyboard to create drum tracks or bass-lines, even though straight keyboard-parts has to be played on a keyboard to get the voicings right. One disadvantage is the lacking of a USB-midi out though. (this is really strange since it can be found on the "little brother" the AX-50 interface, which is really the same but without an internal sound-board)
The sounds are fairly OK, even though they are not top-notch. They sound similar to those of Roland Sound Canvas series. (which actually is the sound engine in Roland GK-20 etc.) Eg. You will not find any surprises here, what You get is a reasonable good GM/GX module, but You will probably use other sound sources at least for recording usage.
Im impressed over the good tracking - if You play accurate enough. The splitting features are stunning and the ability to tune the strings separately are fantastic. What I really am missing are some more outputs, USB-MIDI out and it would have been nice with some loop features... But I think despite of this, it's a price-worthy unit and an invaluable tool for the composing player.