First Impressions: Synergy IICP Preamp Module

This photo shows the front of the Synergy IICP preamp module, sat inside a Synergy SYN-1 enclosure.

The red glow of the IICP's distinctive 5-band graphic equaliser is clearly visible.
The Synergy IICP

After a couple of months of waiting, my Synergy IICP preamp module pre-order has finally arrived. Yay!

Was it worth the wait? And how is a tweed-tone nut going to get on with a recreation of an amp most famous for being the sound of progressive rock and classic metal? (Spoiler alert: this thing sounds fantastic in tweed … 😎)

Table of Contents

What Did You Buy?

I bought a Synergy IICP preamp module.

It’s an all-analog tube preamp for the Synergy modular amp system. It recreates the classic Mesa Boogie IIC+ amp circuit.

I bought it from Peach Guitars. I preordered it the week it came out, and it arrived towards the end of the 1st week of January..

I’ve no affiliation with Peach Guitars, I’m just a happy customer. They were the first UK retailer to take a chance on Synergy, and I simply can’t say enough nice things about their staff and customer service when I went over to the store to try and buy my Synergy rig. If you’re interested in a Synergy rig of your own, I hope you’ll consider buying through them as thanks for their support for Synergy.

Why Did You Buy It?

Back in November (the exact same week that the demos for this module hit YouTube), I got to play a Fender Custom Shop Nocaster into Mesa Boogie 5:25 Express head. I had no trouble dialling in a great blues rock tone, and I had an absolute blast with it.

I just wasn’t in a position to buy it.

Instead, I went for the Synergy IICP module as a compromise. I’ve already got a full Synergy rig, so I just had to cough up the cost of the module itself. This really is the sweet spot of Synergy for us home hobbyists: it’s a really affordable (and space-saving) way to build up a collection of amp tones that you want for occasional use. Well, compared to the cost of real versions of these amps …

(I’ll do a series of blog posts on the Synergy rig at some point in 2022, I promise.)

What Is Your Signal Chain?

Today, I’m using:

  • various guitars
  • into the Synergy IICP (housed in a Synergy SYN-1 enclosure)
  • into the Synergy SYN-5050 power amp
  • into a Two Notes CAB-M (running two Ownhammer 1×12 Tweed Deluxe cab IRs)
  • the ‘amp’ signal from the CAB-M is going into a Two Notes Captor to dump it
  • the ‘DI out’ signal from the CAB-M is going into my UAD Apollo

I’m hearing everything through my studio monitors, not through a real speaker cab in the room.

This signal chain is the one I’ve been refining over the Christmas break for recording the sound of my Tweed Deluxe amp. (Look out for a blog post about that soon!) All I’ve done is swapped out the Tweed Deluxe & Fryette Power Station PS-100 for the Synergy preamp and power amp. Everything else – including the plugins that I’m running in my DAW – is setup for my Tweed Deluxe amp.

So yes – I’m (effectively) running a Mesa Boogie amp into a Tweed Deluxe cab with a Jensen P12R, rather than a Mesa Boogie cab fitted with EVM-12Ls or V30s. Maybe I should rebrand this blog the “Heretics’ Tone Blog”? 🤷‍♂️

This Isn’t Your Typical Amp Topology

Before we get into sounds, let me explain how this preamp works. It’s not like (say) a dual channel JCM800. It works differently to most other amps, and you need to know this if you’re going to enjoy one yourself.

I think this is important enough to cover here. Some of the launch week demos on YouTube didn’t cover this properly / at all, and as a result some of the YouTube demos don’t get the best out of this preamp module. (They are, however, a good idea of what your first experience with this will be like, if you don’t know how this module works.)

Things you need to know:

  • This is a two-channel preamp, but (effectively) Channel 1 cascades into Channel 2. The gain setting of Channel 1 has a big impact on how Channel 2 sounds and feels.
  • The three main EQ controls are shared between both channels, and they sit before the preamp’s gain stage. More than anything, they shape how the amp’s overdrive sounds. The more you turn the gain up, the less effect these controls have.
  • The 5-band graphic equaliser sits after the preamp’s gain stage. It does most of the work on shaping the overall tone.

From what I’ve read, this is exactly how the original Mesa Boogie IIC+ works. It’s a key part of what gives both the original and this Synergy preamp its magic.

But it has a very important consequence. When you set this preamp up, you’ve got two choices:

  1. just go all-in on Channel 2, and set everything up to get the very best sound out of it, basically forgetting about using Channel 1; or
  2. try to find a balance so that both Channel 1 and Channel 2 are usable

I went for the first option, and accidentally ended up with option 2 …

What Settings Are You Using On The Preamp?

After some experimenting, I’ve settled on:

  • Channel 1 gain: around 1 o’clock
  • Channel 2 gain: around 11 o’clock
  • Bass and Treble at around 12 o’clock
  • Mids at 9 o’clock
  • Presence at 3 o’clock
  • Graphic equaliser on
  • Master 1 at almost 4 o’clock
  • Master 2 at almost 2 o’clock

From left to right, the five bands of the graphic equaliser are roughly set at:

  1. 1/2 mark above unity
  2. unity
  3. 1.5 marks below unity
  4. almost a mark above unity
  5. 1/2 mark above unity

There are four toggle switches on the front of the preamp. I’ve got all four of them in the ‘up’ position. I find that some guitars sound better with ‘Lead Brite’ in the down position.

With these settings, I’m getting a glorious sound out of Channel 2.

The Best Tweed Tone I’ve Ever Had?

The original Mesa Boogie amp may be famous for hard rock and metal, but through my rig, my word, this preamp gives me an absolutely fantastic tweed tone. I’m seriously in love with this preamp.

That makes sense. According to Wikipedia, the Mark IIC+ (which this preamp recreates) was the end-result of a long line of refinements and improvements to the Fender Bassman circuit. (This surprised me, because the oft-repeated story is that the heritage comes from the Princeton circuit.)

I’ve got the Synergy BMan preamp too (their take on the Fender Bassman circuit), and going back and forth between the two, I can hear clear similarities. Both have the classic tweed tone top end, that crucial low mids foundation, and rounded attack.

(I’ve also got a real Tweed Deluxe, but atm I don’t have things setup to easily and quickly switch between it and my Synergy rig. I’ll do a side-by-side comparison of the two soon. I’m really looking forward to how they compare, and how they could complement each other.)

The main difference (to my ears, at any rate) is in the mid-range. There’s just something about the IICP’s mid-range that makes it very special indeed, and, if anything, makes the IICP sound more vintage than the BMan does.

(The BMan is still a great choice for tweed tone. Thanks to the IICP, I now have another tweed tone option!)

The Smoothest Mid-Range I’ve Ever Played Through

For me, through this rig, the highlight of this preamp is just how smooth the mid-range sounds. Words like ‘creamy’ and ‘velvety’ were invented solely to describe the sound of this preamp.

Seriously, if (like me) you’ve struggled to get a ‘liquid’ lead tone out of your gear, this preamp has that right out of the box. I haven’t needed any pedals before it or any compressors after it in my DAW to get this kind of lead tone, just a guitar with humbuckers.

The Mid-Range Can Be Too Thick For Rhythm Playing At First

It’s not that this preamp doesn’t have note separation. It’s more that the mid-range is so full, it’s easy for the individual notes in a chord to simply melt into each other. If that makes any sense?

For rhythm playing, there’s a few things I’ve found that can help a bit:

  1. Turn the Mids control all the way off, so that there’s (slightly!) less overdrive in the mid range.
  2. Move the ‘Lead Brite’ switch to the up position.
  3. Roll back the volume control on my guitar a bit.
  4. Work harder with both hands to selectively mute the strings as I play.

I don’t want to give the impression that this preamp is a lot of trouble and faff. It’s anything but. It’s really alive in the hands, and really touch-sensitive. In this respect, it’s very similar to playing through my Tweed Deluxe.

With a bit of practice at controlling the sound with my fingers, I was able to play a folk piece through this amp, without adjusting the EQ or gain controls at all. It can be done, and I found it very rewarding.

Humbuckers Still Too Thick For Your Taste? Try This With P90s

After all that … if you’re still finding that the mid-range from the IICP is just too thick to sit well in your recording or live mix, I’d recommend grabbing a guitar with P90s in. The extra top-end bite seems to go really well with the IICP for rhythm playing.

I need to do a lot more experimenting with this. In particular, I’m curious about how the IICP w/ a P90 guitar pairs with the BMan and humbuckers. I think that’s got serious potential to be a great two-guitar pairing for home recording.

Adjust The Bass Control For Different Guitars

As I try different guitars with the Synergy IICP, I’m finding myself tweaking the bass control quite a bit.

  • With humbucker guitars, I’m (sometimes) turning the bass control down below 12 o’clock to stop the amp sounding too muddy.
  • With single coils, I’m normally turning the bass control up from 12 o’clock to 2 o’clock or so, to make sure that crucial tweed-tone low mids foundation doesn’t get lost.

The Clean Channel Is Intriguing

My focus today has been on the glorious tweed tones out of Channel 2, so I haven’t spent much time exploring Channel 1. What little I have heard, though, does make me want to explore it some more.

I’m not sure how to explain the sound. I think the main characteristic that has stuck in my head is that it’s a ‘hard’ sound. Full yes, with a nice amount of top end. But also (for lack of a better word) ‘blunt’.

I did briefly try my pedals through the clean channel, and I didn’t like the end result. But the whole signal chain is setup for glorious tweed amp tone, so don’t read too much into that. I might do a follow-up blog post focusing on the clean channel at some point.

Every Guitar I’ve Thrown At It Sounds Amazing

In my limited experience, most amps don’t sound that great unless you’re able to plug a special guitar into them. Very helpful for finding such guitars, but not amazing for anyone who owns such amps.

I’m finding that the Synergy IICP is the opposite.

Single coils, humbuckers or P90s – everything I’ve tried has just come alive through this amp. I’ve even been enjoying neck humbuckers (which I normally avoid). The really nice thing is how each guitar’s individual characteristics clearly come through. It’s helping me fall in love with each of them all over again.

The Launch Week Reviews On The Graphic Equaliser Were Spot On

If this module has a weakness, it’s the physical height of the 5-bad graphic equaliser. Because it is small, it’s very fiddly to use. Because the graphic equaliser is so powerful, tiny adjustments make large changes to the final sound.

It’s a pain point, for sure.

I do agree with other owners of the IICP who’ve said that the graphic equaliser tends to be a set-and-forget kind of control. At the same time, I do feel that I’m forced into this because it is hard to get back to a favourite setting. Having tried it, I just don’t feel confident that I could find the exact same sound reliably. Now that I’ve found such a great tweed tone out of the preamp, I’m definitely babying this thing! And I shouldn’t have to.

If I wanted to use this module for multiple genres (for example, also using it for classic metal sounds) – or if I was recording two different guitarists who wanted their own settings – I’d probably get a second IICP, just because of the graphic equaliser.

A Bucket List Amp Without The Hassle

A Mesa Boogie amp was the very first thing that I put on my bucket list, decades ago before the term was coined. I did finally get one about 10 years ago, but the audible noise from the step-down transformer drove me nuts, so I moved it on.

(Most classic Mesa Boogie amps were made for 110/120V only, and they need an external power transformer to safely use them at 23/240V. The transformer I had was pretty loud, which made it difficult to enjoy the amp at home volumes.)

The nice thing about the Synergy IICP preamp is that it gives me classic Mesa Boogie tones without any of that hassle. At least, I assume it does. There’s no way I’m messing with that fiddly graphic equaliser to find out.

[Doing some additional background reading, it seems that modern Mesa Boogie Mark V amps can get very close to the Mark II C+ sound too. Whether or not that results in a great tweed tone … well, folks don’t really talk about that either way, so I’ve no idea]

Final Thoughts

It isn’t often that I instantly bond with a piece of new (to me) gear. But wow. Seriously. Wow. I’ve had a huge grin plastered on my face since this arrived, and it’s not going away any time soon.

I thought that I was getting something that would help me indulge the hard rock & metal tones of my youth. I would have been delighted with that. Instead, to my surprise, I got another tweed tone option. And not just another option, but quite possibly my first choice option.

It’ll all depend on how it compares side-by-side with my real Tweed Deluxe. Blog post on that coming soon!

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