Does a decent real mik'ed amp/speaker sound really come in a package this small?
Every recording guitarist has, at one time or another, dealt with issues of crabby neighbors, parents screaming "turn it down", sounds bleeding into tracks, or similar situations. Just the same, every guitarist and/or engineer has attempted to deal with the issue of sound isolation in a variety of ways. Most of these attempts end up with muffled sound, a "fat" sounding track, lack of ambience and realism or whatever other related issue you can think of. It's really a problem as old as the Marshall Amplification Company itself.
After having heard about AxeTrak®, the alleged speaker isolation system for electric guitar, via some message board postings at this web site and a couple other web sites, I became curious. So, I got in contact with AxeTrak's® owner, Jeff Harris. We spoke a couple times on the phone and much over email about the unit. These conversations did get me increasingly interested in the unit so we worked out a deal for me to be able to have a look at one for a few days and try it out. I just HAD to see if AxeTrak® solved this age old issue...
Construction and Design
AxeTrak® is a little box that houses a speaker and a microphone. The outside of the box has two jacks, one to plug the speaker output of your amplifier into and another that runs the output of the microphone into your mixing console.
The unit itself is quite small, I was really surprised when the FedEx truck pulled up to my house and brought up this little package, he handed it to me and it was light too. The thing is 11 inches tall, 10 1/2 inches wide and 13 1/4 inches long (279 mm x 267 mm x 336 mm for your non-American types) and weighs only 16 lbs (again, 7.5 kg for you non-US types). While its light-weight, the box feels very solidly constructed and has a convenient little handle on the top for easy transporting. There is also a plug in the side that one can open for greater air flow, though, logically, this reduces the isolation properties somewhat.
Inside the box is a custom-made speaker from Eminence Speaker. Built to the specifications AxeTrak® requires to make this idea work. AxeTrak® takes an 8 ohm load, though, if you need to, you can request a 16 ohm unit, and it handles up to 75 watts of power from your amplifier. The microphone is a modified version of a dynamic cardoid type microphone that outputs its signal from the AxeTrak® box at the standard mic level output.
Well, this is where the rubber meets the road. Specs, looks and marketing do a lot to attract people, and even sells to some, but what does it actually sound like? What will this product do for you?
In the field of home/project studios there are two very distinct camps when it comes to recording electric guitars, the cabinet mikers and the modeler/DI users. Both have their pros and cons and they can rarely compete with each other in their areas of strength.
AxeTrak®, conceptually speaking, gives the sound of a speaker with a microphone on it because, well, it is a speaker with a microphone on it...on the other hand; it's an isolated box that helps keep the volume down thereby having one of the up sides of modeler/DI units.
I am admittedly skeptical about anything like this, as I have tried over the years a number of different ways to be able to crank an amp for miking without ticking off neighbors, roommates, parents etc. All have fallen short with muffled or fat sound that come along with the small enclosure, the absorbing material I used or whatever other factors came in to play in my experiment of the moment. I have tried this unit out under a few different conditions, running a speaker out from a small combo amp, clean and distorted, running from my POD into an amp and to the AxeTrak®, running the POD and AxeTrak® parallel into the mixer and others just to get a good, well rounded experience with it.
I have to say, I am pretty impressed with how it sounds. The clean guitar was actually very full bodied and warm, I very much expected a fat sound but I was pleasantly surprised. The distorted/overdriven sounds I think were actually better than the free air miked cabinets. It seems as though the AxeTrak's® size and specially built microphone acted as a sort of compression to smooth out the sound a little bit for a very nice recording. One very cool effect I got was recording the AxeTrak® and my POD parallel onto different tracks and mixing to taste.
My Take On It
The Axetrak is a very cool unit; I have enjoyed my time with it and have got some great sound out of it. The only real downside I see with it is the lack of ability to choose a microphone for yourself. Also, the AxeTrak®, like modelers, is limited in spatial sound. It lacks the ability to have a couple of mics different distances from the amp for room sound and delay to fill up the sound.
That said, the sound I have gotten from it has been very good and full bodied. It retains some of the characteristics of a cabinet with a microphone on it while still maintaining the advantages of a DI by isolating the sound. I believe it to be best used for loud, distorted guitar, and the controlled environment the speaker is in, with limited air supply for speaker movement does act, as I stated earlier, much like a natural compressor, as it lends a very smooth, silky sound to good dirty rock guitar.
I would suggest any dedicated cabinet miker take a look at AxeTrak® and at least give it a test run. I was more than a little bit surprised at the sound quality and convenience of the unit. Modelers may or may not be impressed. I am a modeler, and while it won't make me get rid of my POD, I can see it working as a great compliment to it.
It should also be noted that AxeTrak® also has a bass version as well as speaker cabinets for live use with an AxeTrak® built into it. I have not played with any of those, however, the cabinets are said to be the same units, just built into the cabinets. Due to the fact that bass wave lengths are much longer than guitar, the bass AxeTrak's® ability to duplicate what it has done for guitar might be somewhat in question, but, I was skeptical about this version as well and was proved wrong, so who knows...perhaps someday I'll get to take a look at it as well.
About AxeTrak® (from www.axetrak.com)
The AxeTrak® was not originally designed or created for the purpose of being mass produced and offered to the consumer markets. It was created out of necessity by engineer and lead guitarist, Jeff Harris. Like numerous other musicians, Jeff was not able to support his family entirely on his music, so he maintained a full time job as an electronic engineer during the day. This left only weekends and late night hours during the week for recording in his small home studio. Being that his home studio was next to his son's bedroom, he had to do most of his recording using headphones and the direct outputs of digital instruments. Due to the fact that his main instrument was the guitar, it was very frustrating when it became time to record the guitar tracks. Frustrating because there was no direct output available that produced the quality of sound that his amplifier created when it was cranked up. This was the dilemma that inspired the creation of the AxeTrak®. After several months of research and development, Jeff created his first working prototype of the AxeTrak®. After being totally amazed by its sound quality and advantages over conventional recording methods, he continued to experiment and perfect his original design.
Since creating his first working prototype of the AxeTrak® in 1993, Jeff has used this device exclusively for recording all of his distorted and overdriven guitar tracks. It wasn't until a professional guitarist and friend commented on the recorded tone of Jeff's guitar tracks that he considered the possibility of manufacturing this product.
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