The Axe

Reviewed by: Matt Carson, send e-mail

Published by: Harmonix Music Systems, Inc., go to the web site
Requires: Pentium(R) 200MMX CPU or higher, 32MB RAM, Joystick, 16-bit sound card, 60MB free hard drive space
MSRP: US$19.95 - US$29.95 (depending on which music collection is purchased)

(Ed Note: Reviewed in 2000)

Harmonix Music Systems, Inc., maker of The Axe, is a relatively new company and boasts diverse investors such as Acer Group and Softbank. In January 1999, Harmonix founded the Mentoring Musician Program to support the efforts of The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting instrumental music in schools throughout the U.S. The goal of the Mentoring Musician Program is to use the personal experiences of well-known musicians to inspire children to study music. There are 15 well-known artists in the mentoring program at this time, with more coming on board all the time including everyone from Motley Crue and Meredith Brooks, to the delightful Squirrel Nut Zippers and DJ Spooky. Harmonix's The Axe software is an intricately designed music program that provides hours of musical creation. The Axe allows you to choose different songs from an Axe CD, and improvise (jam) along with your choice of lead instruments. This program concept is extremely creative, and truly an innovation in today's digital music industry.

The Axe is a new approach to creating (or perhaps just rearranging?) existing recorded music. As well as a great selection of popular music, The Axe includes interactive music videos (IMVs) which feature animated clay characters. There are currently seven characters available and like today's recording artists, each of them has a unique musical style. To jam with the animated clay musicians, users can chose from 8 lead instruments: electric guitar, jazz guitar, piano, Fender Rhodes(R) piano, saxophone, synthesizer, trumpet, and scat voice. While playing, the expressive clay characters take on a life of their own and add an engaging dimension to the IMVs.

As The Axe was installing, I reviewed the system requirements and found them to be a bit strange. They were actually quite high; not what I had expected for what I assumed was a very basic music play-along program. I was in for a surprise as it turned out. Delving into the excellent user interface was easy and fast, and it took only a few moments to choose an instrument (I chose the piano), and a favorite song. As the first song played, I pressed different buttons on the joystick and keyboard and heard notes, chords, cadenzas, arpeggios, and even special effects typical of the piano.

The first thing I noticed about music produced by The Axe was its incredible intricacy. What button I pushed at what time made no difference. The music was constantly flowing and any instrument I was playing never seemed to hit a wrong note. Harmonix seems to have put thousands of hours of work into finding or creating every single riff combination, chord, and trick, putting it all together to create incredibly catchy tunes every time you play. Because of the great variety of different things you can do with the different instruments, the combinations are almost limitless. The sound of each instrument is very accurate, and each note flows together with the next as it would in the hands of professional musicians.

The greatest thing about using The Axe however, is that you don't need to be a trained professional at all. You don't even need rudimentary music training. All you have to be able to do is keep the rhythm (and most of the time, the computer does it for you). The interface is smooth with no visible glitches, and all of the options are clearly labeled and easy to access. There are tutorials available for every single instrument. The tutorials show you the ins and outs of using each instrument. The multi-player mode is even more detailed, as it allows two people to play together using the mouse and joystick simultaneously. Two players can pick any combination of instruments they wish and then play together. There is an option to save what you have created, and play it back later.

There is also an option to change the template on which you play. My personal favorite is the clay musicians template, in which there are different clay people on stage that play the instrument you've picked. The different characters are very well done, not overly cliched, and add flair and fun to the program.

All in all, The Axe is a fabulous music program for anyone with a passion for music, whether you are a hard core listener, or a passing music fan. The Axe is easy to use, fun to play, exciting for kids and adults, and produces a lot of terrific music. Harmonix sells several CDs which include everything from classic rock to classical music. The Axe is a different sort of interactive entertainment and it's highly recommended.

Cons: Harmonix would do well to add more music collections to its current line-up. Control over the instrument you've chosen is limited by poor quality joysticks, so you'll have to pick up something better than a ten dollar cheapie.

Pros: There are lots different templates supplied, including amoeba blobs and exploding silver balls. You only need to install The Axe once. All of the music on the other Axe CDs can be accessed by simply putting the new CD in your drive. All in all, The Axe is a wonderful music program.

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