Fractal Audio FM3 (with ambient to hi-gain demo)

If anyone is familiar with the Axe-Fx rack unit, it’s easy to suggest that this can be a very lengthy review, since so much can be done with the unit. The FM3, which is s a floor modeler version of the Axe-Fx III (same amps, cabs and effects) certainly is no different, and so I want to focus on the pros and cons and let the demo, with sounds ranging from ambient to hi-gain, speak for itself (wear headphones if you have them, since the clarity and stereo effect of some presets are truly astounding). And be aware that I’m not comparing this to any other floor unit from competitors, since the only comparison I could make is with a far less expensive Valeton model.

First the pros, starting with the sound. I previously had an Axe-Fx II – Mark II, and it sounded good, but I preferred my analog gear running into the Axe. For example, I have three Victory V4 Preamps (The Sheriff, The Countess and The Kraken), and the tone sounded livelier and more authentic than the amps in the Axe (to my ears). However, I liked the Axe for effects, but also the cabinets – I typically stacked the Petrucci V30 with the Brown. Whatever Fractal did with the new ARES software and modeling was a big step forward; not only do the tones sound far more impressive and ‘real,’ but just about all the presets sound good without any tweaking (NOTE: I do find the sound improves even more by adding a preamp in the cab block, and so, do check out that little feature).

Another pro is the sound quality of the effects, which I think has improved even more from previous software/firmware versions. You can hear each individual repeat in the delays, the reverb blends with the original tone, yet remains separated and distinct, and the modulations increase the depth of the sound very well. For years Eventide has been known as a leader for its incredible studio-grade effects, and now Fractal Audio, likewise, can boast on equal footing.

Operation (without the software) is fairly intuitive with a bit of noodling, although far more obvious once you go through the manual and/or use the free FM3 Edit software. I always liked Fractal’s software and rarely tinker with the onboard knobs and buttons (unless flipping scenes, etc.). The screen certainly is an improvement, with more vibrant colors that are easier to view at different angles.

It’s size, too, is very decent – small enough to pop into a backpack and small enough to place on a pedalboard, if so desired. I prefer a rackmount system, since it sets on my computer desk, but I also have a large pedalboard, and so it’s not a big deal to place it there.

Now for the cons, and I’m a lot more forgiving than other users, since I find them to be moot points, for the most part. Now, keep in mind that the FM3 is HALF the price of the Axe-Fx III, and so no one should expect to receive equal value – if you want all that the Axe-Fx III offers, then buy that model. OK, so likely the biggest factor is less processing power, which means using only one amp at a time (no amp stacking, which you can do with the Axe-Fx III), but you can use two different speakers in the cab block (as opposed to stacking two different cabs). I’m uncertain of the sound difference between the two different speakers vs. two different cabs, but someone with both units can chime in. Further to that point, Reverb tends to eat up a lot of CPU, which means sometimes you can’t add a delay or some other block to some presets that are CPU-hungry (ambient ones come to mind). I only came across that instance once, and so it wasn’t a big deal. Fundamentally, I figure if there’s a great sounding reverb pedal out there, add it to the FX Loop of the FM3 and disregard all reverb on the FM3 (thus freeing up a ton of CPU usage for all other tinkering and tweaking). The argument may then be: “why should I have to invest in a separate reverb?” Fair enough, but you also need an expression pedal if you want to have a volume pedal or controlled wah playing – or there may be an overdrive that you love that is better (or different/unique) from those offered on the FM3, and so avoiding pedals altogether usually is not the case with my fellow gear hounds. Jeepers, I recall seeing Steve Stephen’s arsenal he uses for gigs, and it’s a multi-level rack unit that even holds his pedals.

Onto the final con, which I do NOT find a con, but which is brought up regularly in FM3 reviews. Yes, there are only three footswitches, which means a bit of tap dancing if you want to shift between presets versus scenes, or to engage the looper, etc. That may seem like a pain for some users, but consider that the Axe-Fx III has NO footswitches. That makes the FM3 3 footswitches better!  With the Axe-III, you need to buy a footswitch device, such as the FC6 (six footswitches) or the FC12 (12 footswitches). In either instance, it is a cost over and above the Axe-Fx III… and either of those switching systems can be added to the FM3 for more control, if needed.

Overall, I purchased the FM3 because of recent reviews, sound clips and my previous experience with the Axe-II; and there’s not a single regret. The amount of technology and quality sounds from this smallish floor unit (about 11-inches wide) is amazing, particularly when you consider buying a separate cab-IR unit, various pedals, etc. As just an effects unit, and without using the amps and cabs in the FM3, it’s worth the investment (which is what Vai, Satriani and others have done over the years with their Fractal rack units), and particularly considering how much we all have spent on various delay or drive pedals. The FM3 also is a world class USB interface, and so that saves some money (of course, after me buying a new interface).

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