IK Multimedia AXE I/O review

IK Multimedia AXE/IO

As a guitar player who is inspired by sweet-sounding amp and effect tones to craft my original music, I’ve always wanted an audio interface that would allow me to integrate the best of the organic and digital world into the recording chain workflow and also give me the best sounds in the box with little hassle or intense programming requirements. The newly released IK Multimedia Axe I/O, a 2 in/5 out unit and controller, makes it ‘caveman’ easy to get pro-quality recordings in the comfort of my home.

The Axe I/O has the familiar layout and build of other popular audio interfaces on the market, but its functionality goes way beyond what most provide. To the eye, it looks like your normal two-channel interface that features clean “ultra-low noise” mic pre’s and 5 outputs. But this unit really starts to shine in the guitar world. The main channel features 3 different “circuit topologies” and IK’s patented Z-Tone impedance control, which brings the most out of your guitars. Along with its 2 main outputs, the AXE I/O also has another set of stereo outs (or two individual mono-outs) for either patching in your outboard gear or setting up another set of monitors, with also a separate amp output for re-amping your guitar signal cleanly and noise-free. This unit seamlessly and deeply integrates with IK’s own AmpliTube software (which is graciously included), and, oh, it also has a built in tuner. What more can you ask for?

I had a field day (actually several days!) putting this interface to the test. First, I was never a fan of using software amp modeling, but the AXE I/O unarguably changed my mind and, I must add, my workflow of how I will approach recording guitar tracks. I plugged my trusty Tele into the main channel and immediately started investigating the different input stages and Z-Tone control, both with amp modeling and also without. The input selector features two different options: PURE or JFET. The PURE maintains your signal cleanly while tracking every note, which the JFET (which for my playing style, I left on all the time) warms up your axe as if you were feeding it into a tube preamp. It gives it a realistic and organic mid-range bump and rounds off the transients. Combined with the default “American Tube” amp from AmpliTube, I felt like I was playing through the real thing. Being a very dynamic and articulate player who uses the volume knob like it’s another string, it’s very important for me to have the amp clean up for me naturally when I roll down my volume pot and not do that digital “fizz” that I’ve heard with other amp modeling software in the past. The AXE I/O and AmpliTube combo passed the test.

Front panel view

I started to track guitars right away on a new song of mine. Flipping through different amp models with the preset knob on the interface itself and flicking the input selector between the two options until I found the right fit for the job was smooth. I found the Z-Tone knob to be super useful, in that I could thicken or thin out my sound depending on what the part called for, without switching the guitar. This is a big game changer for me, as there have been times where I’ve lost my workflow and train of consciousness from having to switch through guitars just to get a different timbre. With the knob all the way to the left you get a bright, sharp tone, while increasing the impedance load all the way to the right delivers a bold, thickness, perfect for making my Telecaster achieve “Les Paul status” leads. For my “country rock” rhythm sound, my Tele liked to live with the knob at about 11 o’clock. The ACTIVE switch let me use some of my hotter-output “active pickup” equipped guitars without jeopardizing the cleanness of my signal and tone.

Later on in the mix, the “AMP OUT” let me re-amp my guitar through my selection of real amps and pedals noiselessly and easily. This was virtually impossible before now without the need of external re-amp boxes and ground-loop interrupter to get a clean, usable signal to then process back through to your interface. In just one little box, I was able to route all of that cleanly, though at the end of the day, I preferred not running any extra cable and flipping through their high-quality amp models while kicking back on the couch. But that’s just me!

Back panel view

Furthermore, for all the hands-on players out there, the AXE-I/O lets you plug in your own expression pedals on the back of the unit. With a little manipulating of the “Controller” app included with the AXE-I/O, you can set your expression pedals to work your software just like its a pedal board. The AXE-I/O is also compatible with MIDI foot controllers such as the iStomp to further control what’s in the box without touching the computer once!

This interface also stood on its own through recording vocals, keys and drum overheads. The mic preamps are super quiet and loud, offering an impressive frequency range of 3 Hz – 32 kHz. Though the human ear can’t physically hear all of those frequencies, IK thought it to be a key factor in capturing the best sonic elements in whatever you put through it. You can also set this unit aside in your rack and control all of its onboard parameters (such as gain levels, phantom power, etc) through the Controller app as well.

IK also includes a heaping handful of their other popular software from the T-Racks collection, which I took to like a lot since using them. And for the singer-songwriter that might not have anything but the stock plug-ins that their DAW has to offer, you are now receiving the best bang for your buck. What about no DAW? No problem! IK also has partnered with Ableton to include Live Lite, which is a stripped down but nevertheless powerful version of the famous Ableton Live. IK Multimedia are no strangers to the world of recording, and the AXE I/O brings them further into the realm of high-quality recording gear. For $349, you get your dream guitar recording studio in a box.