The FX8 can be said to be the first “completely new” hardware product since all models of the Axe-Fx II. Let me explain: Even the most recent product, the Axe-Fx II XL+, was based mostly on the original Axe-Fx concept – Amp Modeling and Effects arranged in a free-placement Grid with many parameters and capabilities, mostly intended to be used as an all-in-one tone generation unit.
The FX8 is a completely different product, as it doesn’t offer any Amp Modeling and focuses solely on effects and using it WITH other gear like guitar amps or even other digital units. Because of this, I believe FAS was able to come up with many new ideas since they weren’t “stuck” in the Axe-Fx paradigm.
As I read through the recently released FX8 Owner’s Manual, I will note certain aspects of the new unit that I think are new concepts compared to the Axe-Fx line and the MFC-101. It would be great if some (or all!) of these concepts could work their way into the Axe-Fx and MFC-101 products!
Hold Switches for XY Switching
The Axe-Fx II launched with the XY Switching feature for certain Blocks, which allows those blocks to save 2 sets of parameters that can be recalled, one at a time, at any moment by selecting the X state or the Y state. This could be selected on the Front Panel of the Axe with the dedicated X and Y buttons, or when paired with the MFC-101, any switch could be designated as an XY switch. However, each block needed its own XY switch in addition to the Engage/Bypass switch. This used up switches very quickly on the MFC-101. One solution launched with Firmware 9.00 was Scenes, which allowed someone to Engage/Bypass and change XY states of all blocks in the layout with a single switch.
However, sometimes when improvising live, you still may want to change just the XY state of a block, maybe something you didn’t program in a scene. The FX8 by design allows you to change XY states of blocks simply by holding its Engage/Bypass switch – no need for an additional switch programmed just for that effect’s XY. Of course the FX8 also uses Scenes, but being able to change just the XY of an effect this easily is certainly welcome. The length of hold time can also be adjusted in the Global menu from .25 to 2 seconds. (I suggest trying .5 seconds, but I’m not sure what the default is.)
The MFC-101 currently does not have this “hold” functions, while other brand MIDI foot controllers do have a “hold” function, assignable to many/any function. Hopefully the creation of the “hold” function on the FX8 means that it is possible one day for the function on the MFC-101.
Global Volume Pedal
The Axe-Fx line has always had a “global” way to control the volume with an Expression Pedal. CC#10 and #11 & 12 are available as Input and Output 1 & 2 level controls, respectively. Assigning your Expression Pedals to these CC#s allow you to control the volume of all presets with that single setting. However, a very common way to use a volume pedal is to adjust the volume of the Amp without affecting the volume of the Delay, Reverb, or other similar effects. So you could play a note, turn the volume down quickly with your pedal and the live guitar would go away, but the Delay and Reverb would linger – very popular with “volume swell” techniques.
In order to do this on the Axe-Fx though, you couldn’t use the “global” CC#s for Output, since it naturally adjusted everything, including the Delay and Reverb. You would need to instead place a Volume Block in the Layout after the Amp but before the Delay/Reverb, then assign a Modifier to the Volume parameter after assigning your Expression Pedal to a particular External Controller, and then you have to manually add that Volume block to every preset that you want this function. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually pretty quick to do, yet still a ton of steps for a seemingly “simple” function.
The FX8, however, has a new function called “Global Volume Pedal.” Because the Grid and Layout concept is different from the Axe-Fx – the FX8 designates the 8 blocks as Pre or Post – you can easily choose from 4 options for the volume pedal (text transcribed from the FX8 Owner’s Manual):
- IN 1 PRE VOLUME – This is like adjusting your guitar’s volume.
The level to all effects and your amp will be affected when you make changes.
- OUT 1 PRE VOLUME – This places volume at the end of the PRE effects chain. The signal level into any PRE effects like DRIVE or COMPRESSOR is not affected, but the level into your preamp is affected.
- IN 2 POST VOLUME – Here, the volume pedal presumably has no effect on any drive pedals or preamp gain, and since it comes before POST effects, their tails ring out when you pull the pedal back.
- OUT 2 POST VOLUME – This controls the level of EVERYTHING you hear. Effects, amp, tails, etc.
Awesome! So just choose what type of Volume pedal you want, and all your FX8 presets will function in the same way without any adjustments needed per preset.
New to the Fractal product line, Relay Switches are included on the FX8 for switching channels on compatible “real” amps. I like to think that because the Axe-Fx line was designed as an all-in-one tone generation unit, there was no need to include a way to switch channels on a real guitar amp you may be pairing with the Axe-Fx. The FX8, however, was designed to be used in tandem with real guitar amps and other gear. This means that the FX8 can change channels on your real amp when you change Scenes, Presets, as well as manually – all using the FX8 only, so you can leave that Amp Footswitch behind!
Perhaps a future version of the Axe-Fx would include these Relay switches, as many people prefer to keep the “brain” in a rack, which would be near any guitar amps used.
3 Status LEDs per Footswitch
The MFC-101 was designed and released many years ago, and the Axe-Fx II has come a very long way since then. New concepts like XY Switching and Scenes push the boundaries of the typical preset-based digital unit. Thus, the MFC-101 only has a single LED above each footswitch, and although it can display Red and Green colors, its usage is still a bit limited when it comes to the new features being developed.
The FX8 expands on the status LED and now has 3 LEDs per footswitch. The lower green LED shows the Engage/Bypass status of the switch, a very typical function. The top right LED is an Amber color that indicates if you are on the Y state of the block. Not lit indicates that you are on the X state. The top left LED is Red and indicates what Scene you are currently on, noted by the text on the unit itself (S1, S2, etc.).
Perhaps future versions of the MFC-101 (or probably a different model number with such a major revision) may include multiple status LEDs like the FX8.
“Brain and Foot Controller in one” Concept
Of course the most obvious change with the FX8 is that the Brain and Foot Controller functions are in a single unit. The Axe-Fx line is a rack-mounted unit with a functional Front Panel, but the majority of users will also use a foot controller like the FAS MFC-101 for real-time control during a performance, since their hands are busy playing guitar, and they don’t want to kick their Axe front panel 😉
We already know that this concept is being continued with the creation of the AX8 unit, which has recently been regarded by FAS as an “Axe-Fx lite.” The AX8 is similar to the FX8 in that the Brain and Foot Controller functions are in the same unit, but the AX8 contains the same Amp Modeling as the Axe-Fx II line, while the FX8 is effects and control only, no Amp Modeling.
Multiple Footswitch Modes (aka “Pages”)
Since the FX8 is focused on effects, it makes sense that its default mode is “Stompbox Mode.” It’s called this because by default, the 8 effect switches control the Engage/Bypass state of the effects. However, there are different modes for the switches such as Preset/Bank Select, Scene Select, and Looper modes. In these different modes, the switches change from Effect Engage/Bypass modes to different functions such as Preset Select, Scene Select, or Looper Function controls. It’s also possible to have “Sticky” Preset or Scene select modes.
These different modes let you use the FX8 the way you prefer: if you’re more improvisational, you may leave it in Stompbox mode and turn individual effects on and off throughout the performance. If you have a particular setlist, you can arrange your sounds in a particular order and use Preset Mode to change sounds according to songs (just one way to use Presets). Or if you have a handful of signature sounds within a single preset, you can live in Scene Select mode and jump among the 8 scenes. From any of those modes, you can jump to Looper mode and control the built-in looper easily.
The most similar things Axe-Fx II and MFC-101 owners have had up until this point were Reveal Mode and Looper Control Mode. However, Reveal mode only change Preset switches to IA/Effect switches. So if you only had 5 Preset switches (the default setup), using Reveal mode only gave you 5 more IA/Effect switches – not 17 new switches. And if your Bank Size was set to 0 (a typical setup with no Preset switches and 17 IA/Effect switches), Reveal did absolutely nothing!
Other foot controllers refer to this concept of the same switches doing different functions as “Pages.” Perhaps future MFC-101 firmware or hardware revisions will include more modes to choose from, or even freely assignable Pages of switches, similar to other foot controllers available.
MIDI Messages (MIDI Block)
In addition to the Relays mentioned above, the FX8 has a new MIDI Block that can be added to the Grid. Again, since the FX8 is designed to be used with other gear, it is great to have a Block dedicated to sending MIDI commands. You could send Start/Stop information to a sequencer or DAW, change Amp channels via MIDI rather than Relays if your amp supports it, or simply send Engage/Bypass commands to other Effects Units in your rig.
The Axe-Fx II has been able to send MIDI information from the MFC-101 or other foot controllers THRU to other effects units, but being able to program specific messages is a nice addition. The FX8 allows choosing PC# On/Off messages, CC#s with On/Off values, as well as MIDI Channel Selection.
Automatic Block Disabling (CPU Usage)
When the CPU Usage runs too high on the Axe-Fx II, you can hear crackling noises and the unit responds slowly. The FX8 also has a similar CPU setup that can be pushed too hard, but it has a function that automatically disables blocks if they utilize too much CPU.
It’s hard to tell exactly when this kicks in just from the manual, but it seems that if you editing a block and your last change in that block pushes the CPU to the max, that block will be the one disabled. It seems as if there will be no crackling sounds as a block is being completely disabled, thus reducing CPU Usage naturally. We’ll have to see a unit in action for more details on this, but regardless, it is a smart change to how the unit handles CPU Overload.
The FX8 has a “Global” looper, meaning that it is not a block which needs to be added manually to every Preset/Layout, like you have to do with the Axe-Fx II. Since it’s global, you can easily switch Scenes and/or Presets to change tones while your Loop remains playing and unaffected by the tone changes. It also can loop for 8 minutes in mono or 4 minutes in stereo, vs. the Axe-Fx II’s 60 second mono/30 second stereo (and cut in 1/2 again for Undo) Looper block. Definitely a much needed improvement.
The FX8 Looper can also be placed in several different Pre/Post locations – like the Global Volume Pedal mentioned above – per preset or globally.
These are just some of the things I thought were majorly different from any previous hardware and firmware from FAS. There are other obvious changes such as True Bypass, Pre vs Post effect routing, and Series vs Parallel effect routing, among others. But the aforementioned items I feel are game-changers that we could see in future Axe-Fx and MFC-101 type gear. FAS has DEFINITELY been busy lately!