ARP Axxe
– small is beautiful

“Welcome to the ARP AXXE Electronic Music Synthesizer. Your AXXE will take you on the most important experience of your musical career. The AXXE synthesizer will broaden your creativity and expressivity and it will open to you the new world of synthesized sound. With the AXXE you can create musical textures that are new to this world, distinctly yours.” (ARP Axxe User Manual)

ARP Axxe Synthesizer - small is beautiful

Interesting – ARP praises the creation of musical textures “new to this world”. So what do you need the ARP-2600 for … (?)

Single-VCO version of the Odyssey

As a cut-down version of ARP’s successful Odyssey, the Axxe hit the market in 1975. It only features one VCO (admittedly a very nice one) and has reduced modulation possibilities. Compared to other companies ARPs release of its smallest synthesizer came very early. Moog did bring out the Micromoog at the same time, but that instrument was no success at all. Highly successful cut-down synthesizers were released a couple of years later – like the Prodigy (1979) and the Rogue (1981). Sequentials Pro-One and Oberheims OB-1 were not out yet, but these instruments can hardly be seen as cut-downs. They are single products in every respect.ARP Axxe synthesizer

People might tend to look at the Axxe as second-rate. But be careful there: although the features are limited, the sound is truely ARP high quality analog sound! Sonically, the Axxe is actually not too far away from the 2600, Odyssey and Avatar! Power and flexibility may be somewhat greater on the state-of-the-art 2600, but still: the Axxe is a lovely ARP synthesizer in its own.

Features

The instrument contains the following modules:

  • 1 VCO (sawtooth, pulse with PWM)
  • 24 dB VCF
  • VCA
  • LFO (sine, rectangular and random)
  • portamento
  • good interfacing: CV/gate/trigger in/out, audio high/low out, audio in, pedal input
  • pitchbend-knob or single-PPC pad (Axxe MKI) or standard PPC pads (Axxe MKII)
ARP Axxe Synthesizer

ARP Axxe synthesizer

Admittedly, neither the Axxe nor this list is especially impressive. But taking into consideration its reduced possibilities, the ARP Axxe remains one of the biggest surprises in synthesizer history. A cut-back synthesizer of these dimensions, well arranged and (surprisingly) capable of real music is a rare thing in the land of vintage monophonics.

Appearence

There are two versions of ARP Axxe. The early one (MK I) is very compact with golden lettering, wooden side panels and either a pitchbend knob or a single PPC pad. The second version (MKII) has been modified to the general ARP production series since about 1978 and totes orange lettering, leather end-cheeks, overhanging keys and the PPC pads.

The advantage of the second version is the unbelievably expressive PPCs which will be discussed further below. You shouldn’t do without these! On the other hand, the big disadvantage of the second version is that overhanging keyboard, which was probably also a source of confusion by the users of the ARP Odyssey MKIII and ARP Quadra. (Then and now).

 

ARP Axxe with wooden chassis

ARP Axxe with wooden chassis

30 years later, clever technicians have solved this keyboard problem. Synthwood.com, for example, has come up with a lot of solutions for various synthesizer cabinets. This also applies to the ARP Axxe, which I myself enhanced with components from Synthwood. Now, the Axxe keyboard lies protected within the chassis, which also – how else could it be – adds to its appearence. Recommendable.

Slider tops are also a notorious problem with the later ARP Axxe series. The plastic tops of the illustrated Axxe have been replaced with rubber slider tops. So … with a little initiative, problems like this can be easily solved.

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

New slider tops

Controls – interesting concepts

What if the key doesn’t fit the lock? Well, if the Axxe is the lock, and the PPC-pads are the key, it might be easier changing the key. ARP developed the beautiful Proportional Pad Controls (PPC), but Axxe’s early version had no room for it! The original pitch bend knob fit perfectly, but those rubber pads ..?

Demand for those nice PPCs might have been high, since they were implemented not only in some Odyssey II and all Odyssey III, but also in some 3620-keyboards as well. So the ARP people must have searched for a solution for the original Axxe. They found a simple but brilliant way to implement the PPCs: they reduced three pads to one, and supplied the single PPC with a little switch to enable a choice between the different functions. This is seen in some MKI versions. Nice.

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

PPC rubber pads – much better than a pitch knob …

The PPC is definitely useful, allowing expressive sound changes. The rubber is very sensitive, so controlling the synthesizer is easy. Pressure and even finger position
are taken into account, giving you a great palett of musical expression …

Further, the Axxe offers portamento and that typical transpose switch “2 octaves up/down”. The later orange Axxe version (from 1978 on) was wider and had enough room for all three PPCs … this version might be the one to look out for! It’s the one shown in our review.

VCO

The single oscillator offers saw and pulse. Both waveforms may be used at the same time, so you end up with a sort of dual-VCO feeling. Modulation possibilities are quite good: LFO (sine, pulse), S/H, ADSR. Pulse width can be controlled via LFO or ADSR.

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

Voltage Controlled Oscillator

VCF

The filter is of high quality and is the equivalent of an Odyssey (MKIII, I guess). Its modulation possibilities are a little bit limited: three sources are offered at the same time (KBD CV or S/H or pedal, LFO, ADSR). Controlling the cutoff frequency via an external signal is tremendously important! Listen to the soundfiles – many of them are created with external LFOs (or other stuff) controlling the filter. Especially high-frequency LFOs are nice to use (like Korg’s PS-3100 main LFO) – they allow you to bring out those brilliant vocal-sounds only ARP instruments can produce.

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

Voltage Controlled Filter

Mixer and envelope

Beside saw and pulse, there’s one more signal source: noise. Not unbelievably important, but it’s really useful for nice hi-hat- and snaredrum-effects. Further, you can run an external audio source through the Axxe. So, all together, the Axxe isn’t really missing very much.

There’s one envelope. Not too much, but sometimes it’s definitely better having less possibilities – at least, that’s my experience. Good music is not a product of tons of features. I remember well being confused all the time while working on Yamaha’s extraordinary CS-30. A lovely synth with heaps of features, but still, I had no chance to feel creative with it. (“Envelope 1 and 2 can be positive or negative, envelope 3 is positive only. So, ENV1 pos is called A, neg is B, ENV2 pos is C and its negative output D, finally ENV3 is E. Please remember all those letters!”).

If the head is filled with technical aspects, the music gets totally lost. I prefer the simple things. I prefer the Axxe.

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

ADSR envelope

Connections

Very good interfacing: CV/gate/trig IN and OUT. Audio-out Low and Audio-out High. Last but not least: audio-IN and pedal (controlling the filter).

Sound

Nice ARP-sound. Equivalent to the Odyssey, sometimes to the 2600. What you get are good bass-sounds, strong leadsounds full of character (thanks to the PPCs), surprising fx-sounds (thanks to the pedal-port and to such external modulation sources as high-rate LFOs or analog sequencers). Certainly there are sonical limitations. Crossmodulation can’t be effected with one VCO, neither can ringmodulation. The same goes for some special sound creations easily done on the ARP-2600. But look, this is a small synthesizer! Therefore it sounds superb! It may be of limited concept, but it has much of the beautiful and vivid sound potential characteristic of all ARP-instruments.

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

Good interfacing

Conclusion

An Axxe in respectable technical condition is an instrument meant to be taken seriously! The later (orange) version Axxe MKII is even more useful because it features all three PPCs.

Anyone looking for an ARP to complete his studio-setup should have a look at the Axxe! Despite its small size, its sonical power is impressive. If weird modulation possibilities and strange sound creations are yours, the 2600 or Odyssey might fit the bill. But if you just love having a vast variety of ARP sounds at your fingertips, without having to get too deeply into complex sound creations, the Axxe might even become your favourite synthesizer!

ARP Axxe Synthesizer

12 thoughts on “ARP Axxe
– small is beautiful

  1. I have been an axxe owner for about 7 months and I am completely in love with this synth!

    Mine is the first run, black and gold version with the moog-ish filter…serial number 32.

    Reeno

  2. Great review. It helped me to identify mine (MKII). I just found one for $250 but it needs work. Right now I am replacing all the POTs and then hoping to fire it up and hear it in all it’s glory. If anyone out there has any experience in fixing these things please send me an email. All my POTs felt like someone had poured a coke on them. However the rest of the synth is super clean!!!! :)

  3. Small for the 1970s, not today! Thick metal 3.5 octaves wide case, about 10kg. Now with plastic and surface mount chips we have become weaklings!

    • … you’re so right! The ARP quality was superb (maybe except for the faders). Usually small synthesizers are “toys” these days. Arturia is an exception (Mini- and MicroBrute, surprising good quality), I have to admit …

  4. Hi,
    I purchased my ARP AXXE MK2 (Orange) new in 1978 and gigged with it for over 10 years before storing in a bedroom covered up. In December, 2014 I took it to Time Travel Audio, in Edinburgh (check them out on Facebook) who got it running again and published a few photos of it. Most of the slider knobs have broken off over the years but it fully works. Might consider selling. If anyone is interested, just email me, thanks,

    Mike – michael.baxter3 (at) btinternet.com

  5. Wow, what a flashback!
    That all just brought back a few memories I hadn’t thought about in decades!
    Thanks for that and all the other cool to know info!

    Many years ago my old man used a Mk-I with both his orchestral ensemble and pop-rock group’s studio recordings and live gigs from the 70’s through to the late 80’s, it was an amazing, versatile and reliable portable unit that gave an almost endless range and choice of sounds and effects, and its audio output quality was pretty full and warm through just about any decent amp and speaker cabinet.

    After the old man got it, we tried it out here and there for a few days and used to think that anyone could literally sit and “play” with this thing for days on end and probably never hear the same sound or effect twice! lol

    We tried it out through a Peavy 1000 watt P.A. head and an old customized 600 watt “Acoustic” 4×12 guitar cabinet and later through a pair of 500 watt Crown power amps and a pair of Leslie cabinets that each featured a rotating-drum 10″ powered sub-woofer, spinning mid-horns and horn tweeters that Pops used for his Hammond’s, Cox, Moog’s and Taurus pedals and it was absolutely astonishing!

    It also made for tons (and hours) of fun, just for goofs we’d sit in our home studio and recreate music, sounds and effects from Star Trek episodes and some cheesy 60’s and 70’s sci-fi flicks, and man, forget about it, when the first original Star Wars came out, we were locked in that sound room for hours having a blast finding all different, unique sounds while trying to get it to make the light saber sound and “Blaster” effects. lol

    One Saturday afternoon, when my sis and I were off from school and had nothing better for and 8 and 12 year old kids to do, we set it up in the family living room with a small practice guitar amp hidden under the coffee table and set it to make some “beefy” and/or “sawmill” “farting” sounds and would hit low-E’s and F’s for each step our Mom, Grandmother and Grandfather would take throughout the house and yell “Oops, Mom, or Noni, or Pop-Pop did it!!” point at ’em and bust out laughing, Pop would just laugh and tell mom (in Italian) just how idiotic we were!
    Good Times! lol

    A few years later I sang and played guitar and keys in a Metal band (in the 80’s) and used it for a few songs and we’d use it in our rehearsal room to recreate that sound Rick Wakeman’s had on a couple of “Black Sabbath” songs found on the “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” album which we covered, and which Mr. Wakeman performed on, and it sounded exactly like the record and not just some cheesy sounding playing on some lame ol’ keyboard.

    Wish I still had it around, I could have used it for some of my groups original tracks which I had later recorded through the 90’s and 00’s, unfortunately the old man thought it was “getting old and may burn out, sooner rather than later”, since we both used it consistently, and felt it would probably be near impossible to ever have repaired, since ARP was long gone by that time and finding someone with the knowledge, skill and parts to repair one wouldn’t be any easy task, so he sold it off to help fund an upgrade he has his sights set on.
    That was back around 1990 to some neighborhood kid the old man gave Piano lessons to.

    If I recall correctly, only one of the blue plastic slider tips it had come with was gone by the time Pop sold it and he gave it to that kid for only around $50.or $60. lol

    I might still have the steel road case that I had bought my Pop one fathers day to use on road trips so that it wouldn’t get all scuffed or damaged around here some place, it was a big improvement over the soft case we had been using.

    I have no idea what these go for used nowadays, but I’d love to have another one just for fiddling with in my little old analog 8-track music room.

    \m/ Cheers \m/

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