Review: Fractal Audio Systems FX8 Mark II Multi-FX Pedalboard

January 25, 2017

Fractal Audio first made a splash in 2006 with its Axe-Fx preamp/signal processors, which made good on the company’s mission to reclaim the promise and potential of digital effects in a landscape dominated by analog pedals. The company released its first pedalboard effects-only processor, the FX8, in April 2015; our review unit, a Mark II released in September 2016, boasts an all-black aircraft-aluminum bezel and end panels, improved top-panel silkscreen design, an 18dB instrument-input pad option, and an even lower noise floor.

The FX8 overflows with possibilities: Each of its 128 presets is a self-contained “pedalboard” with up to eight effects, each called a “block.” You can choose an X or Y version of each block, which means twice as many sound settings from the same eight blocks. Each preset/pedalboard also contains eight easily accessible variations, called “scenes,” which makes it easy to turn multiple effects on or off with a single tap. There are so many effects and so many ways to tweak and arrange them that I decided to focus on five basic questions: How does it sound? How easy it is to use? How easy is it to tweak? How much can I do without bending over? And is it worth $1,250?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The 11.5-pound FX8’s switches feel solid, and the screen is just big enough and offers adjustable contrast. A protective bar helped keep my boots from hitting knobs or messing with the screen. The moment I plugged in my Elrick Gold-series 6, the pristine quality of the audio coming out of my Jule Monique preamp and powered Bergantino IP112 with HT112ER 1x12 cabs shocked me. (The FX8 features true bypass with analog relays to switch all processing completely out of the signal path.) Like a lot of bass players into multieffects popular with guitarists, I wondered whether I should try setting a global, bass-friendly EQ curve, but I realized quickly that the sound quality was so clean and each effect so flexible that I could dial in individual EQ curves depending on my intended tone. Loading, changing, and saving presets was easy, as was kicking on and off X and Y options for every effect and stomping through the eight scenes of each preset/pedalboard. The 92-page manual did a pretty good job of explaining the unit’s options, but I decided that the best way to understand the FX8 was to recreate my analog pedalboard.

DIGGIN’ IN

One of my main projects is a flexible drums/bass/synth trio that’s all over the map—we play whatever strikes us, from ECM-ish “jazz” and ’80s funk to drum & bass and cinematic soundscapes. It’s a perfect opportunity to use pitch shifters and delays to fill in guitar-range frequencies on top of my bass lines. I use a poor man’s bi-amp setup: I send the signal from my Boss TU-2 tuner’s output to an octaver, looper, and volume pedal and then out to my Jule/Bergantino rig, and I send the TU-2’s bypass through the rest of my effects—currently an overdrive, chorus, delay, pitch shifter, wah, and second looper—and out to a second volume pedal that goes to an Epifani Piccolo 600 head and Euphonic Audio VL-108 1x8. There’s lots to love: I always have pure bass tone, I have a separate EQ for most of the effects, I have complete control over the wet/dry blend, and I can loop either signal path (or both). The one bummer? I can’t enjoy the awesome sound of a delay, chorus, or pitch shifter in true stereo. Which is where the FX8 came in.

I began by plugging the FX8’s left output into my Jule/Bergantino stack and the right output into the Epifani/EA, using volume pedals for each. The results were instantly glorious. (The FX8 functions just fine in mono, but if you aren’t in stereo, you aren’t enjoying everything the FX8 has to offer.) Replicating my effects was a breeze. Initiating a blank preset and setting up the signal path took no time at all, as did attaching an expression pedal and choosing X and Y options for effect: two very different octaves, two types of chorus, and so on. It was intuitive enough for me to begin setting up scenes for each preset, giving me fresh options without having to change presets. I didn’t need to use “blocks” for a looper and tuner because they’re assigned to the unit’s F2 and F3 switches, respectively.

STEREO FUN

Once I was hearing things in stereo, I wanted to choose which effects came through the right channel, the left channel, or both. Before I could get too lost in I/O options, one of my bandmates proposed a solution so basic I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it: using the pan control on each effect. This worked in some instances, allowing me, for example, to put an octave through the Jule/Bergantino stack, a synth through the Epifani/EA, and a ping-pong delay in both. But it soon became apparent that if I wanted to explore those options, I had to put some serious thought into running effects in parallel (next to each other) or series (one effect into another) and in mono or stereo. It took some patience, experimentation, and planning to get it right, but when I nailed it, the results were breathtaking.

The real fun began, however, when I installed the FX8 librarian, FX8-Edit, and hooked up my computer to the unit with a USB cable. The graphic interface was a game–changer. Suddenly, it was easy to visualize everything and to make changes. Best of all, there was no latency: The moment I made a change on the software, it was reflected on the pedalboard.

How does the FX8 sound? Amazing. The reverbs and choruses are stunning, and the octave dividers are growly. The EQs made it easy to dial in low end, but I didn’t need it. The synths were wild; the FX8’s sequencer/arpeggiator opened up new possibilities, and its overdrive/fuzz/distortion emulations were capable of doing anything I asked. And everything was crazy flexible. Did I miss the pitchshifter’s algorithms? A bit. With time, though, I could probably replicate a big chunk of the particular magic I like. And using the looper—which offers up to eight minutes in mono or four in stereo, as well as reverse and half-time options—was a piece of cake.

The FX8 is deep. Even without going into its pre- and post-effects or MIDI options or TRS relays or using the recommended Humbuster cables or checking out other users’ FX8 patches, it was still mighty impressive. Like all great gear, the FX8 inspired me to push the envelope and be more musical. For the price of a stout collection of first-class pedals, a roadworthy pedalboard, and a case for it all, the FX8 offers infinitely tweakable options that can be saved, backed up, and thrown into the overhead compartment on your next flight. All things considered, it’s worth every penny.

SPECIFICATIONS

FRACTAL AUDIO

FX8 Mark II
Street
$1,250
Pros Great sounds, tons of options, FX8-Edit software
Cons No headphone jack
Bottom Line Highly customizable hi-fi multieffect in a road-tough box.

SPECS

Effects Chorus, compressor, delay, drive, enhancer, filter, flanger, formant, gate/expander, graphic EQ, megatap delay, multidelay, tremolo/panner, parametric EQ, phaser, pitch shifter, reverb, ring modulator, rotary, synth, volume/pan, wah
Finish Powder-coated steel chassis with anodized aluminum faceplate
Display 160x80 dot-matrix graphic LCD
Dimensions 16.35" x 3.96" x 10.00"
A/D conversion 48 kHz @ 24 bits
Dynamic range (A/D & analog outputs) >110 dB
Frequency response (A/D & analog outputs) 20Hz–20kHz, +0/–1dB
Input voltage 100–240 VAC, 47Hz–63Hz (universal input)
Power consumption <40 W
USB interface 2.0
Weight 11.5 lbs

Made in China
Contact fractalaudio.com

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