TerraTec AXON AX100 MK2

Let’s get this clear from the start. The TerraTec AXON AX100 MKII is for serious musicians only, if the price doesn’t make this clear then the physical appearance should. With it still rocking a £350 price tag for the unit alone or a dearer £499 for the AXON AX100 MKII, the AIX101 Pickup and a suitable cable it’s “comfortably” priced gear.

The pickup input is conveniently located at the front of the AXON for instrument hot-swaps

As a 1U rack unit it’s as clear as crystal that the AXON AX100 MKII was never designed to go it alone. In fact, it’s almost worthless without a separate synthesizer laden with carefully prepared patches to suit the entirely different dynamic one expects from resonating strings instead of depressed keys. The onboard sounds themselves serve as little more than an out-of-the-box demonstration of its capability. Cheaper, simpler floor units from Roland both sound better out of the box and are easier to set up.

This does not mean, however, that the TerraTec AXON AX100 MKII is a poor product. Far from it, in fact. The AXON AX100 MKII is all about tracking accuracy: the rapid and accurate translation of string vibrations to MIDI data ready to be pumped into a capable synthesizer, be it a keyboard or a rack synth.

The patented “early transient recognition system” present in the AX100 MK2 utilizes a powerful 32-bit RISC processor to evaluate the impulses from a string as soon as it is picked up. This discrete system has one goal: to lock on to a string the instant it is played and trigger the note immediately.

So much painstaking effort has been placed into ensuring the greatest possible tracking capability, in fact, that the onboard patches and synthesis capabilities of the AXON AX100 MKII, whilst present, are decidedly lackluster, implementing a more capable synthesizer would have easily pushed the price up to the £700-£1000 mark. Whilst effective as a test-bed for configuration settings, and as an assurance that the product can transform the sound of your guitar, the onboard sounds are certainly not of a live performance quality and are easily and unsurprisingly surpassed by dedicated rack synthesizers. They are not altogether poor, however, and would suffice in a rough performance or as a stand-in when carrying an entire rack of equipment is simply out of the question. I dare say there are even a few you could get away with playing live, but I would heartily recommend a few hours experimentation with patch programming a separate synthesizer for best results.

A healthy compliment of IO is available at the rear of the AXON

To put this in terms of specifications the onboard synthesizer performs no better than an external one in terms of tracking or latency and offers only a basic set of 128 pre-set patches and 128 user patches. Inexplicably nestled amongst these sounds are 10 drum kits. Don’t ask. The most notable and important thing to emphasise here is that the AXON MK2 does deliver extremely low latency control over a separate synthesizer, this is its meaning for existence and, in combination with a well-programmed and capable synth such as, for example, a V-Synth rack, the AXON can deliver astounding synthesized results complete with a guitar level of expression.

There’s also a compliment of effects, although only a single effects processor in addition to the standard Chorus and Reverb, onboard the AXON if you insist on using the integrated sound module. Again these are thrown-in to round off the package and will not deliver the best possible performance quality.

Fleshing out the package somewhat are an onboard arpeggiator for those bread-and-butter synthesized melodies and inputs for pedals and buttons to add more than enough additional expression. That’s two expression pedals and two switch pedals in addition to the rich expression available from using a guitar as the primary controller.

Finally, and most impressively, the AXON AX100 MKII supports fret, string and pick position splitting with up to 12 play area zones. A true demonstration of just how accurate the AXON is capable of being. All of these splitting methods can be combined offering a very diverse variety of sounds that can be immediately accessed and combined, with the correct level of skill, into astonishingly varied musical performances- something that keyboardists have been taking for granted for years. You can, for example, save two strings for triggering a bass patch, leaving

There are separate guitar outputs and soundboard outputs in the back of the AXON allowing your usual plethora of effects to be applied to the guitar after it has been processed by the AXON so there’s absolutely no interrupting standard guitar playing. This also means that, even if you’re using the onboard synthesizer, you can mix and effect the AXON and vanilla guitar sounds to your hearts content and switch between the two in a pinch.

When working with the AXON AX100 MKII I constantly felt decidedly and consistently out of my depth. To get the best possible results requires a substantial investment of time and the aforementioned painstaking patch programming. Even setting up the system itself is tricky, with the entire UI squeezed onto the very minimal front of the unit, there is no sanctuary to be had in the manual which assumes an existing level of technical expertise that many guitar players, having little or no synthesis experience, will lack.

The software unveils a level of complexity the surface of which is barely scratched by the controls present on the front panel.

Breaking out the software mitigates setup pains and offers far more sophisticated levels of customization than those which can be accessed on the front panel alone. This includes patch programming of the 32 user patches. As is typical of the software accompaniment to any serious professional audio hardware it’s compatible with OSX and Windows.

The AXON AX100 MKII is also firmware upgradable, with 7.04 being the most recent version at time of writing.

Guitar isn’t the limit with the AXON AX100 MKII either. With a suitable pickup it can bring a whole new sonic dimension to a Bass Guitar, Cello or Violin. 4 individual slots for instrument settings ensure that multiple guitars or a diverse array of instruments can be hot swapped without need for another painful setup process.

If creating unique synthesizer sounds with your stringed instrument isn’t your cup of tea then you can also use the AXON to swiftly and easily commit your playing and most of its nuances to a sequencer. You can then subsequently clean up any tracking errors and perfect your performance before playing it back using a software or hardware synthesizer or saving it for later reference.

To summarize. It’s safe to say that the inaccurate and laggy guitar-to-MIDI solutions of decades past are dead and buried and that now guitarists with the aid of the AXON AX100, if they desire, can use their instruments inherent breadth of expression to put all but the most masterful of keyboardists to shame, particularly when it comes to digitally re-producing the sounds of stringed instruments and creating lush pads or filler sounds which is where the AXON AX100s strengths lie.

On the keyboard front you could draw a parallel to the Haken Continuum which endeavours to add guitar-like expression to the keyboard by eliminating the physical definition of keys and adding a new method of inputting expression- the position of a finger along the length of a “key” or the “Y” axis. I draw this parallel because, like the AXON AX100 MKII coupled with a guitar, the Continuum demands not only a discrete synthesizer but also some similar patch programming requirements in order to achieve the most lush and effective of sounds. Both “instruments” require a similar level of patch programming artistry and if you’re prepared to put the effort in you will definitely obtain satisfying results.

It’s always going to be somewhat perplexing that both sides of the camp, guitar and keyboard, endeavour to gain qualities from the other to produce an amalgamated instrument with an unparalelled level of expression. This has resulted in a diverse variety of interesting products and curious techniques, but I think any musical purist would still be happier with a separate guitarist and keyboardist each doing what they’re good at.

In short, the AXON AX100 MKII, coupled with guitar and a capable synthesizer is an instrument that lets you explore mouthwatering sonic possibilities, but you only get out of it what you put in. If you’re looking for a challenge with the potential for great rewards then pick up the AXON AX100 MKII. If, however, you are looking for instant gratification then the Roland GR-20 might be more your cup of tea. Or you can just put the guitar down and pick up a keyboard.

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