What is it?
You don't have to speak to too many touring musicians to chance upon one who has based their whole rig on Fractal's Axe-Fx amp modelling and multi-effects technology.
For those musicians, Fractal's tech takes the pain out of loading in and out while placing a comprehensive array of amp models and effects to play with. The convenience is hard to argue with. And yet, if the quality of the digital modelling lags that of the original hardware, the whole concept wouldn't fly.
The big story with Fractal's Axe-Fx suite is how it marries this convenience, with the all mod-cons approach to connectivity and configurability, with quality of sound. It is remarkable, beyond question. But it's not cheap. An Axe-Fx III rackmount unit plus any one of the accompanying FC-6 or FC-12 controllers is too pricy for all but the pros. That's where the FM3 comes in.
It's not quite as powerful as the flagship Axe-Fx III units but it has DSP magic in abundance, with the same same ARES amp modelling technology in place. The connectivity options are typically generous: effects loop, USB, headphone output, expression pedal inputs, FASLINK II port.
The latter is particularly useful, supporting the connection of up to 24 additional footswitches in the form of the FC controller units, while the USB connection allows you to perform deep edits via computer or use the FM3 as an audio interface.
Performance and verdict
Build quality is exceptional, as is the design, with each footswitch featuring a variable-colour LED ring and mini LCD display, allowing for fully customisable tap and hold functions. The FM3 is designed to be giggable, its a heavy duty steel enclosure protected with some very tough rubber end-caps that also stop the unit from slipping underfoot.
Size-wise, it's the same as the FC-6 controller. In terms of layout, it should be very familiar to Axe-Fx users, with the same display and control layout. Like its rackmounted sibling, the FM3 has 512 onboard presets, variations for each.
Presets are constructed from blocks arranged in a 12x4 grid. It is all digital, but it helps to think of it as a physical signal path, in which you connect your effects and patches via virtual cables. The options allow you to split these signal paths, run them in parallel. This is an eminently customisable piece of gear.
Again, this is like the Axe-Fx experience, though downscaled. There is no vocoder, for instance, but you will find all the essentials. Making do with two Drive blocks and two Delay blocks instead of the four apiece? That's no umbrage.
Dive into the blocks and you will find a wealth of amp model options. There are 269 amp models here, 43 models in the Drive block. You get all the factory cabinet options from the Axe-Fx III and there are 1,024 User Cab slots to save your own.
The blocks themselves have up to four channels. For instance, one Delay block could give you four different delay pedals, or you could arrange the same delay pedal with four different settings. You might have heard people talking about Fractal's Scenes feature – these operate much like presets nested within another preset.
With a maximum of eight per preset, it offers you plenty of scope for fine-tuning a preset; for example, you have a high-gain metal preset, and each Scene can add a different EQ, some modulation or compression... Variations on a theme, which can be very useful when tone hunting, likewise when arranging a set-list, allocating a preset for a set and then cycling through the Scenes for different tracks.
Knowing what's what is easy enough, with the 800x480 colour display readable in low-light or daylight situations alike.
While there are only footswitches, there are plenty of ways to use them. The options can be bamboozling at first, so it pays to be organised. The Tap and Hold functions are configurable by the user and each open up different functions. There are eight different switch layouts that offer a dozen footswitch opens, each performing their own function.
Arranging these footswitches might take some forward planning, but that is no different to the Axe-Fx user experience; it is intuitive, but with options comes that certain responsibility to your sound, finding out what it needs and where to store it on the unit.
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In terms of sound? Well, you will no doubt have read artist testimonials as to the quality of the tones. But they really are exceptional. With so much to get into, the factory presets are as good a place to start as any.
Some are dead simple – one amp, a little reverb. Others have more complex signal paths, with heavily processed guitars running through an effects arsenal containing but not limited to reverb, delay, compression, EQ, filter, chorus, flanger, phaser, pitch-shift, rotary, tremolo, synth and wah.
You will find all your favourite guitar amplifiers at the touch of a button, with the usual suspects from Marshall, Fender, Vox et al joining more boutique offerings. As for preset building? Well, it's a cinch to put one together, but like anything with Fractal, there is a rabbit hole, and you can go as deep as you like.
At the time of going to press, our only real concern was a little glitching with audio recording and playback but this is being addressed by Fractal via a firmware update. Once that's patched, it's hard to find fault in a design like this. It makes for an awesome self-contained live rig and is so portable. Alternatively, use it as a tooled up multi-effects station and incorporate that with your amp. Either way, it's a very classy unit indeed.
MusicRadar verdict: Compact and portable but packing enough functionality to for the gigging musician to use it as an all-in-one rig, the FM3 is another exceptional offering from Fractal. And it's a little more approachable in terms of price, too.
The web says
"The FM3 is the best opportunity yet to buy into Fractal modelling and is likely to give you all the tones you’ll need for recording, complete with the ability to dive deep and tailor sounds to the nth degree.
"For live work it ticks all the boxes as a compact self-contained ‘fly rig’ that you can just stick in a backpack and run into the PA or FRFR speakers for a fully processed amp/effects/mic’d speaker sound, but it also has the flexibility to slot into a conventional amp and pedals setup as a source of high-class effects."
"Whether you are using the FM3’s USB audio capabilities to get professional guitar tones straight into a laptop, packing it into your carry-on luggage for a European tour, or simply using it as the ultimate headphone amp, this compact and fully featured unit has you covered and then some."
Fractal Audio Systems
- ORIGIN: USA
- TYPE: Amp and effects modelling floorboard
- FEATURES: 3-Core ‘Griffin’ DSP with 1x ARM and 2x SHARC+ cores, 4-in/4-out audio interface, tuner, looper, MIDI, 512 preset slots
- CONTROLS: Level 1, Level 2, 3x footswitches, 5x soft knobs (A, B, C, D, E), Value knob, 4-way cursor, 4x buttons, ground lift switch
- CONNECTIONS: Standard guitar input, standard stereo phones output, XLR Main outputs (L&R), standard Out 2/FX Send (L&R), standard In 2/ FX Return (L&R), Pedal 1, Pedal 2, FASLINK II, MIDI In, MIDI Out/Thru, USB x 2, S/PDIF digital out
- POWER: IEC mains supply
- DIMENSIONS: 281 (w) x 236 (d) x 103mm (h)
- CONTACT: Fractal Audio Systems