Francis Stringbender, from Switzerland, is a passionate guitarist. He likes variety and has therefore made himself at home in many different music styles. Rock, blues, metal, funk, pop and fusion. He also plays the drums and bass. This of course makes him an ideal partner for all types of production, whether live or in the studio. He has been an Axe-Fx user for many years now, handles support for G66 in Switzerland and is the man to go to for those in Switzerland who want to try out Fractal Audio or Matrix products.
Hi Francis, tell us a little about your career as a musician
I'll soon be 47 years old and I've been playing the guitar for over 30 years. At the beginning I was a fan of the hard rock and metal bands of the day, such as Judas Priest, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, etc. Back then having the right tone was no problem: Marshall JCM 800 with 2 4x12 cabinets, Boss distortion, a guitar with humbuckers and everything was fine (and loud…).
After a few years I started to widen my horizons and got into the music of all the Jimis, Jeffs, Steves, Joes, Ritchies and so on. It soon became clear that if I wanted to reach that sort of level I'd need to get to grips with the theoretical side of music too, like harmony, aural training, etc. Luckily I often had the chance to jam with people who had studied music and could give me the right tips at the right times.
I played in various bands, everything from metal to blues and Top 40 cover bands, sometimes as a stand-in for guitarists who couldn't make it. I also had gigs on the bass or on drums, both live and in the studio.
Recording was important for me from early on. At the beginning I used an eight-track tape recorder and the legendary Atari computer, later that gave way to a PC. For about twelve years now I've run a professional studio, in which I've done everything from complicated CD productions for bands and songwriters to commercial spots for radio or even just simple vocal recordings over karaoke music. Of course I'm also available for bookings as a guitarist for external productions.
I'm a bit of a gear freak and have invested a lot of money in amps, guitars and other devices, all in the search for the 'perfect tone'.
That brings us nicely to the next question: when and how did you get into the Axe-Fx?
It was in the summer of 2007. I was looking for a new multi-effects device to replace my Digitech GSP 2101. At that time I used an Engl SE 670 and was perfectly happy with it. It could do both great clean sounds and modern rock sounds, but you could also coax vintage Strat sounds out of it. It was midi-programmable too, which made it very versatile (for a tube amp). I'd pretty much given up on digital amps – I was familiar with them all and even owned some of them, including the best of the bunch at the time, the Hughes & Kettner Zentera. The sound just wasn't real enough with any of them and the dynamics were at best unsatisfactory, at worst non-existent. Then one day in a guitar magazine on the Web I came across an advert for the Axe-Fx Ultra. I was impressed by all the effects on board and especially that intelligent pitch-shifting was included. I'd been considering buying a hugely expensive Eventide Harmonizer, but luckily I resisted the temptation and went for the Axe-Fx instead. A few days later it got here and I played it straight into the mixing desk for a bit, without really expecting much from the amp side of things. After a few minutes I was smitten and could hardly believe how authentic and dynamic the amps sounded and how they reacted to nuances in pick attack and playing style. The effects section was excellent as well, with everything I could have needed and a top sound (again, no comparison with other 'all-in-one' solutions. It soon became clear that I would be using this thing not just for the effects, but for the whole sound. Since then I've always played directly into the desk, now of course with the Axe-Fx II, which sounds even better than the Ultra did.
How do you amplify your signal and how do you control the Axe-Fx II?
I bought the Matrix package (Q12 speakers and GT 1600 power amp) and I'm very happy with it. The Q12s are coaxial and behave like real guitar cabs but are less directional. For monitoring and smaller gigs they are ideal as they sound great but are nevertheless light and easy to transport. They have a lot of punch for their size.
To keep everything under control I use the MFC 101 with four expression pedals. Pedal 1 controls the volume of Delay and/or Reverb, pedal 2 is Wah (or sometimes Vocoder or Envelope Filter), pedal 3 is for the input volume of the guitar signal and pedal 4 is for special effects such as pitch shifting (Whammy, Harmonizer, etc.) or Rotary and Tremolo, which I like to use with bluesy sounds. I've got the MFC configured to use banks of ten presets and have the upper row of switches set as IAs to switch effects on and off: Drive 2, Phaser, Flanger, Chorus and Synth. For my band projects I copy a few of my presets (I've got about 50 different ones) to one or two banks and then adjust them a bit to suit a live situation (Delay and Reverb a bit more subdued than in the studio, lead sounds a bit louder than rhythm, etc.). I find the idea of scenes quite innovative, though I don't actually use them myself.
I have External Controller 10 set to the same CC number as Drive 2 (50) and Ext. Controller 11 set to the same CC number as the Synth block (88). Go to I/O and you'll find the CC numbers on the CTRL page. This means I can, to give just two examples, activate Drive 2 and simultaneously increase the volume (using the Level control in the GateExp block), or I can turn on an EQ simultaneously with the Synth block and change some of the frequencies. The possibilities are endless and the open architecture of the Axe-Fx allows everyone to cook up their own recipes. It's another thing I just love about this device!
Of course, there are plenty, but let's confine ourselves to the blocks that make the basic sound, i.e. the Amp and Cab blocks. First off, it's important to note that the cabinet effects the sound enormously, so you really need to spend a good deal of time checking the different cabs and the mics out. With time I've found a few favourites that I keep coming back to: F103, F051, F041 and F061 are all 4x12 cabs and the ones I use most often. As 4x12s tend to sound a bit stuffy, I like to combine them with F093, a 2x12 cab with Jensen Blue Alnico speakers, the ones from the old Vox amps. This cab is very crisp in its response and is more open in the upper mids than a 4x12. Put together they make a perfect result, at least for me. To my ears F093 also sounds great alone, especially in conjunction with a bluesy amp such as a Fender or Dumble, but also with a high gain amp such as the Diezel VH4.
As far as amps go, I have many more favourites, at least twenty. I try to set them up so that they breathe and react as dynamically as possible. This means I generally have the Master Volume up very high (often with the Master Volume Trim value raised too) and the Input Drive set pretty low. This sort of setting gives me distortion primarily from the power amp rather than the preamp, making the tone more pliable. To make the attack in the low end a little crisper I reduce the XFormer Match value slightly, usually to between 0.6 and 1.0, and then set the XFormer Drive to its lowest value (0.01). This makes the sound 'cleaner' in the sense that it becomes more defined. On the Dynamics page I set the Supply Sag to 0.01 for many amps and the Output Comp to 0. This moves the amp a little bit away from the original (also in terms of frequency response) and makes it even more dynamic. On the Power page there's the Negative Feedback parameter and this I usually set pretty high to give the amp more of a hi-fi quality. I like to have the Low Cut Frequency (Advanced page) up relatively high (e.g. 580 Hz for the Euro Red), then the signal going through the amp is fairly thin. I get the bass back with the cabinet by setting a high value on the Proximity control. The result is extremely well-defined attack in the low frequencies (high master volume settings on real amps often lead to a muddy bass response) and a bit less distortion than in the mids and highs. Especially the high-gain amps profit from this, as they then give me singing melody tones but with a simultaneous crisp, not too distorted low end.
All the patches from my video can be downloaded
Of course, all of these adjustments are made to satisfy my own personal taste and playing style and won't suit everyone, but anyone who is interested in trying out my sounds can download the patches from 'axechange.fractalaudio.com'. My user name is 'Jazzhooligan' (just put it in the Search field).
Cliff Chase is constantly working on improvements. If you could wish for a specific thing, what would it be?
Actually I'm perfectly happy the way things are and have been for some time now. Nevertheless, each time I install new firmware I'm amazed that it can sound even better than it already did. My wish is therefore that everything stays the way it is, namely with Cliff at the helm, steering a healthy course and staying independent from all the big name companies (though I'm sure he will have had more than a few offers from them). In principle it's a pretty crazy story: an unknown individual comes along and jumps straight to the front of the pack, setting a standard so high that the big boys with all their development teams and financial resources are left gasping in his wake. I think the secret is a combination of his genius in understanding what really goes on inside a tube amp and his idealism, the desire to create the best possible machine without ever worrying about what it will cost to produce. In this industry the more common process is exactly the opposite – first the price is set (new device XY should not cost more than Z$ resale) and then a way is found to produce it cheaply enough (cheap D/A converters, little memory, etc.).
With guitars it is quite similar, by the way. In Europe (Germany in particular) there are enormously talented luthiers producing absolutely perfect instruments that are made-to-measure (neck profile, pickups, hardware, etc.). Guitars like this are much nicer to play than off-the-peg standard instruments and are still much less expensive than the overpriced Custom Shop/Private Stock models of companies such as Gibson, Fender or PRS. I also like the personal contact to the craftsman and I'm convinced that every serious guitarist can find his or her 'perfect' luthier. Mine is Frank Hartung; we've been good friends for ages now and his guitars are quite simply breath-taking!