BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
Thanks to advancements in digital technology, it’s never been easier for guitarists to record themselves at home and enjoy studio-quality results—even musicians with little to no experience in this realm of sound. An excellent example of the sort of tool that has enabled this DIY phenomenon is IK Multimedia’s AXE I/O, a two-in, five-out audio interface engineered specifically for electric and acoustic guitar.
To put the AXE I/O through its paces, I gathered a Martin OM-28 with Fishman electronics, a Kala Waterman concert ukulele, and a Collings I-30LC with twin ThroBak P-90 pickups, as well as an Audio-Technica AT4050 large-diaphragm condenser microphone. I found that the relatively affordable AXE I/O, with a street price of $349.99, delivers tremendous bang for the buck.
Plug In and Play
With its compact metal chassis, the AXE I/O feels sturdy and rugged. It comes complete with an AC adapter (and, thoughtfully, four international travel plugs), as well as a USB 2.0 cable. I plugged the AT4050 into the AXE I/O and the interface into a recent iMac, set up a new project in GarageBand, used the AXE I/O’s handy built-in tuner to check the Martin’s pitch, and was ready to go in a matter of moments—without even needing to take out the manual.
When I first pressed record in GarageBand, I auditioned the Martin acoustically, improvising a few fingerpicked and flat-picked pieces in standard tuning. Upon playback, the AXE I/O’s high-quality sound was immediately apparent. The interface did a commendable job of capturing the Martin’s rich and balanced tone, as well as details like nuances of picking—likely owing to a generous frequency response range of 3 Hz–32 kHz frequency, much wider than most low-cost interfaces. Plus, the AXE I/O sounded noise-free.
I next tried tracking the Waterman, a forty-buck plastic instrument that has its charms but is somewhat lacking in volume. The recording sounded quite good—in a blind listening test, I would probably be surprised to learn the uke’s identity. It had a vivid presentation, with impressive chop on strummed patterns and clarity on fingerpicked passages. And, thanks to the AXE I/O’s 116/117 dB dynamic range, it was easy to make this relatively quiet instrument sound plenty loud on the recording.
A Range of Useable Tones
The AXE I/O offers plenty of inputs for most home recording applications, and guitarists without a decent microphone or those having a suboptimal acoustic space will appreciate plugging into one of the instrument inputs, as I did with the Martin. For guitars with pickups, the AXE I/O includes IK Multimedia’s Z-Tone, an impedance control engineered to deliver a range of useable tones. The Z-Tone was just as useful for adding definition to a flat-picked single note solo as it was for thinning out the sound for dense chordal work.
I’m admittedly old-fashioned when it comes to electric-guitar sound and prefer nothing more than an axe and a good tube amp, so I was a bit skeptical when I downloaded IK’s included AmpliTube 4 Deluxe software, with its 140 pieces of simulated amps, effects, and microphones. But when I plugged in the Collings and tried the American Tube Clean 1 (i.e., classic Fender combo amp), I was taken aback by how much it sounded—and felt—like the real deal. And it was good fun to play around with effects like Opto Tremolo and Rotary Speaker.
My only complaint about the AXE I/O is that it was hard to read the labeling on the control panel. This was easy to work around, though, with a free download of AXE I/O’s Control Panel software, which was very readable on my iMac screen and can be used to adjust the inputs and outputs and more.
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The Bottom Line
There are many affordable recording interfaces on the market these days, but few that offer as much in the way of sonic goodness and flexibility for guitarists as IK Multimedia’s AXE I/O. Whether you’re new to recording, or are more experienced with sound engineering but want an excellent and inexpensive piece of gear, the AXE I/O is worthy of serious consideration.
24-bit A/D, 24-bit D/A conversion; 44.1 kHz–196 kHz sampling rate; two instrument, two mic/instrument, hi-Z, and MIDI inputs; two TRS balanced, two TRS unbalanced, amp out, ¼” headphone, two TRS external control, USB, and MIDI outputs; built-in tuner; AXE I/O Control Panel, Ableton Live Lite, and AmpliTube 4 Deluxe software. $349.99 street price. ikmultimedia.com