Here in the UK, the online second hand gear market is in the worst shape I’ve seen for decades. Even frequent ‘sell for £1’ events by eBay haven’t helped.
So instead, I’ve decided to sit down, and sort out my home studio setup.
Marshall DSL 20HR
These were launched around the same time as my beloved Marshall Origin, as a replacement for the old Marshall DSL range. I played through the 5w combo at the Origin demo night, and loved it.
One finally turned up at a great price, and it now completes my collection of classic amp tones from affordable amps. I’m looking forward to learning how to get the best out of it over the coming months.
The Hermit’s Cave has spent most of this year as the rehearsal space for the band I’m in. I’m currently getting things sorted out and wired up for recording once again. When that’s done, and I’ve found my feet with this amp, I’ll record some clips and demos to show how this amp compares to the Origin 20H.
OMEC Teleport by Orange Amplifiers
Before there were Pods, there were Roland guitar synths.
When I worked in London in the mid-90s, Denmark Street was the place to search out great gear. Did I buy a vintage guitar, back before they cost the earth? No. I bought a piece of electronics that dated faster than fresh bread: a Roland guitar synth.
That old unit brought me years of pleasure. I wrote a whole album’s worth of music on it, veering off from writing guitar music to writing music for other instruments. I can’t remember what happened to it – whether it died or I sold it on – but I still miss it. And the two? versions that Roland brought out since were IMHO inferior. Roland seems to have completely given up on it in recent years.
The OMEC Teleport is a little pedal that acts as a USB audio interface. It’s just another way to get your guitar signal into a computer. Combine it with Jam Origin’s Midi Guitar 2, and I’m hoping it’ll give me renewed access to the guitar synth world.
And if it does, I’m planning on taking all that old music I wrote, revising it, and re-recording it. Fingers crossed 🙂
Synergy Friedman BE Module
I’m always on the lookout for extra modules for my insane stereo Synergy pedal platform. Many of the ones I don’t have yet don’t clean up enough to use with most pedals. Sometimes it’s great to simply go straight into a filthy amp, so if I can get those modules 2nd hand, I will.
ART XLR Patchbay
There’s a part of me that would love to have a Universal Audio Apollo rack unit, partly for the extra processing power, and partly because I hate recabling before I can sit down and record stuff. They’re serious money, and completely overkill for my situation. Processing power on my Apollo Twin is an issue, but I hardly ever need more than two preamp inputs at a time.
So what if I simply made the chore of cabling a lot less of a chore? That’s where the two patchbays I’ve bought this month come in.
The idea is to have (nearly) all of my gear wired up permanently, and then I just need to jumper a few ports to pick the gear I want to use.
As well as the XLR patchbay (above), I bought a traditional 3.5mm jack patchbay at the same time.
When I want to switch amps, one of the things that’s a real pain is switching over the FX loops. They’re not always easy to reach without moving the amp, and sometimes I can’t find the right length cable to reach my pedal board.
For convenience, I’m hoping that I can run the FX loops of all my amps into this patchbay, and then it’s just a case of moving a couple of cables to plumb in my preferred delay and reverb pedal chain. It should also be possible to jumper the cables for when I don’t want anything in the FX loop either.
If that works, I’ll also try patching in the input to each of my amps. That’s just out of curiosity though 🙂
Kemper Remote Footswitch
Another thing the patchbays are for is for me to get my Kemper wired up once again, so that I can start using it a bit more.
One advantage of using the Kemper for practice is that it means I’m not using up the life of my tube amps. Another advantage is that it has a built-in looper – but it seems that you need to pair it with the proprietary footswitch unit to use the looper.
These footswitches have shot up in price recently, so when a 2nd hand unit came up, I decided to grab it while I could.
Universal Audio Apollo x6
I got fed up of juggling inputs on my trusty Apollo Twin, so I traded away my Taylor T5z to help fund this new unit.
I’d been waiting for a Apollo x4 of some kind for the best part of a year now. Historically, there’s been a huge gap in the Universal Audio hardware lineup: you had the Apollo Twin with two preamps, and then had to jump up to the Apollo 8 with four preamps. Four preamps would be a good sweet spot for a home studio setup.
They’ve just announced the Apollo x4, and while it does have four preamps (yay), it’s still a desktop unit (boo!) with potentially limited processing power … that’s launched at around the same price as the Apollo x6.
The other thing with the Apollo x6 is that it currently comes with a free UAD Apollo Satellite. That’s a unit that provides additional DSP processing power. Together, the bundle is far better value for money than the Apollo x4.
Thomas Blug – the Stratocaster King of Europe – has been working on the next generation of his all-analogue Amp1 amp-in-a-pedal. He sat down with Henning, and they’ve done a great demo of the new version.
In this video, they compare the Amp1 Mercury with some of the amps from Henning’s collection – by tone matching the Amp1. Thomas dials in the tones while Henning plays.
The results are impressive.
I lost count of how many times Henning either couldn’t tell the difference between the Amp1 and his amps, or when he simply guessed wrong. In the room, he was clearly impressed – and I couldn’t tell the difference when I watched the video either.
Henning also made an important point that’s worth highlighting. In this video, he’s running the Amp1 into the UAD OX. All too often, demos of the Amp1 use the unit’s DI out, and that’s partially responsible for the lack of interest in the Amp1 in the past.
Even if you’re not interested in the Amp1, this video is worth watching just to watch how Thomas dials in each tone he’s matching. Not only a great player, but also great knowledge and understanding too.
Please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment if you enjoyed Henning’s video.
Check this out. Michael Nielsen has posted a video comparing a real mic + cab setup vs 5 different ways to record silently at home. And he’s picked a great way to do it too.
He’s recorded the best sound he could with each approach, and used them in a mix so that you can hear the kind of final results you might be able to get. Best of all: the guitar is soloed to begin with, to give you a taste of what it’s like to simply noodle through each setup.
It isn’t a straight comparison. The real cab has V30s in it, and is mic’d using an SM57. The impulse responses used are of G12M Creambacks with a couple of different mics, and I’d swear that the OX is emulating G12Hs not G12Ms. But that’s kinda the point. He’s gone and done exactly what we’d do ourselves – dial in what he thinks sounds the best.
Do have a read of the comments people have been leaving on his video. It’s clear that not only do people have different tastes, but that different people actually hear different things too.
The other thing that’s interesting? Play it back to back a few times. Once ear fatigue kicks in, just how much difference can you hear any more?
(And just how good does that BE-100 sound?!? Me want …!)
Please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment for Michael’s video.
I’m just back from a visit to Peach Guitars over in Colchester. I went over to try out the Synergy Amps modules in person, and Peach Guitars are the only UK stockist right now.
tl;dr: the Synergy Amps are exactly what I was looking for
What Are Synergy Amps?
A quick introduction to Synergy Amps: they’re an American company making a modular amp system. They make a range of preamp modules, a couple of different housings to put them in, and a 50/50 6L6 1U rack power amp too. Some of the preamps are made by Synergy themselves, and are re-creations of classic amp circuits. Some of the preamps are made by folks like Friedman and Metropoulos. If you’re uncomfortable with the economics of Kemper profiles (basically, the original amp manufacturers get nothing), Synergy is a way to get a range of real valve preamps and for (some of) the original amp manufacturers to get paid too.
The system came out just before Christmas. There’s a whole heap of YouTube demos online. Here’s a playlist of just some of them:
(There are hours and hours of demos there. What can I say? I was ill in bed with the flu over Christmas and New Year, and needed something to cheer me up …)
Why Am I Looking At Synergy Amps?
There’s a couple of reasons.
I’m looking for classic Fender cleans, but I don’t have the space for a real Fender amp.
Some pedals – especially Marshall-in-a-Box (MIAB) types – don’t work well through my existing rig.
I’ve been frustrated with MIAB pedals through the Blackstar HT-100 for the last 4 years now. Yes, frustrated is a fair word there. Nearly all of them have sounded dark or dull through the Blackstar, and nothing I’ve tried has solved that one for me. Many pedals sound fantastic through that amp. Just not MIAB pedals. Not for me, anyway. Having tried everything else, it’s time to try a different amp.
When I’ve seen pedals demoed on YouTube over the years, especially official demos done by the manufacturer, more often than not those demos have been done through some kind of Fender, Marshall, or a clone amp. And that got me thinking. I’m sure that pedal makers test their pedals with a range of amps before launch. But they’re probably designing those pedals through Fender and/or Marshall-style amps. It’s those amps that’ll get the best out of those pedals.
Over the last 18 months or so, our little music project has been moving away from palm-muted power chord riffage heaven and trying to be a little more … well, musical. The very properties that make the Blackstar HT-100 a great pedal amp also make for a very uninteresting clean channel. It isn’t something I’d use for clean tones, and I haven’t found a pedal that can bridge that gap.
What Did I Look At First?
I looked at the Fender Deluxe Reverb Re-issue (DRRI), and the Kemper.
There’s a fantastic-sounding DRRI in my local music shop. Sounds great at low volume, and it sounded even better cranked a little bit for product demo nights. The only reason I haven’t bought it is that it’s a combo.
Combos are simply too big, too bulky, and too heavy for me and my circumstances. I need separate head and cabs, and the head can’t be a 20+ kg monster like the the HT-100 is. I need a lunchbox head or better. Anything bigger, and it’s not for me.
Sadly, Fender just don’t make those kind of amps. I think that the only all-valve head they sell right now is the Bassbreaker, which is basically their take on the JCM800 circuit. No joy there.
I did look at getting the DRRI converted into a separate head and cab; that’s something the folks over at Zilla Cabs do, for example. It’s not a cheap option, and at the time a second-hand Kemper would have cost a lot less. Plus, as Adam once asked me – why not go Kemper, and have all the amps?
So I did more than look at the Kemper – I found one second hand for a good price. I’ll say a lot more about the Kemper in other blog posts. I’m nowhere near as in love with it as some folks online. Buyer’s remorse? It’s more complicated than that.
I think it’s good at what it does, but I don’t think it’s a good dirt pedal platform. If I dial up a clean amp model and run dirt pedals into it, the breakup doesn’t sound convincing at times. That was a real shame.
I’d love to get value-quality tone without the sheer hassle that valve amps bring. The Kemper can do that, as long as you’re plugged straight in. The more you throw at it, the further away you go from what it’s designed to be. That’s just its nature.
(There’s a couple of issues too, but I’ll save them for their own blog posts.)
Has it solved my Fender cleans need, at least? Not really. The Kemper doesn’t re-create the full frequency range of a real amp. It sounds like a very-professionally recorded amp. That’s great, as long as you record everything using the Kemper. The moment I try and mix and match Kemper profiles with recording my own rig … you hear the difference. I don’t have the mixing skill to overcome that. And the Kemper can’t re-create all the tones and textures I get from pedals.
My Kemper sits right beside my desk, and its what I play through most of the day when I’m taking breaks from my work. It’s not going anywhere. But neither are my pedals, and at the end of the day, I enjoy them more.
Synergy offers me everything I’m looking for:
6L6 power tubes
range of classic preamps
I like that the Synergy system is modular. If I’ve got a pedal that I’m struggling with, I can try it with a different preamp – or even with try it through a couple of different preamps at the same time. That’s awesome for me.
I can get the Fender cleans that I’m looking for, without having a big heavy combo taking up space I just don’t have. When it’s time to get things serviced, I’m not going to have any problems struggling with the weight. I’m dreading when I have to move the HT-100 for its first service. So much, in fact, that I rarely use the power amp on it, just to avoid that day for as long as possible.
The matching power amp uses 6L6’s. I think that, at heart, I’m a 6L6 person. Since I got the Kemper, I’ve been making profiles of my rig. I’ve switched from software emulation of power amps to using the HT-100’s real power amp and its quartet of evil-glowing EL34s. I just prefer the tone of a 6L6 myself.
And because it isn’t a digital system, the Synergy amps should last decades, if not the rest of my lifetime. Other than the TV, I don’t think there’s anything digital in the house that has lasted more than 5 years. Even if the device itself doesn’t fail, manufacturers drop support, and eventually you upgrade your computer’s operating system and the old drivers stop working.
Digital gear has a built-in obsolescence. It’s one area where analogue gear still has a clear advantage. My music gear is a hobby. It doesn’t earn me money at all. I’d rather spend money on gear that’ll last the longest, all other things being equal.
What Did You Try?
I played three modules:
through the Synergy Syn-50/50 out into a Friedman 1×12 loaded with a G12M Creamback. For guitars, I used a 2018 Les Paul Standard fitted with Burstbucker Pros, a Suhr Strat and an Xotic Californica Classic Strat.
My main cab at home is a Victory V112-C 1×12 loaded with a G12M Creamback. The Friedman cab is physically larger, and seemed to put out more bottom end than my cab at home does. It was very helpful to play through something that’s in the ballpark of what I’m used to.
I picked a 2018 Les Paul Standard because I own a 2013 Les Paul Standard. There isn’t a lot of difference between the two models. I turned down the chance to use a Tom Murphy-aged Custom Shop True Historic 59 Les Paul. Gear at that level always sounds different from instrument to instrument, making it harder for me to assess what the amp might sound like with my guitars.
The staff at Peach Guitars selected the Suhr Strat and the Xotic California Classic for me. That was very kind of them, as it gave me a chance to try both brands for the first time. I grew up playing Strats and cheap knock-offs, and I’m more comfortable trying different ones than I am with Les Pauls.
I had the choice of running the SYN-1 modules directly into a Friedman FRFR cab instead. I went with the power amp because it’s one of the things I’m interested in. Very glad that I did.
I picked the B-MAN module because the staff thought it was the only Fender-type module in stock. I went with the Metro Plex module partly because they didn’t have the Synergy Plexi module in stock, and partly because it was too good an opportunity to pass up. All the demos have said that the Metro Plex module is something special, and they weren’t kidding. The staff found a T-DLX module out the back whilst I was trying the other modules.
(I’m saying “the staff” because I am crap with names. If you’re reading this, I’m really sorry. You looked after me really well.)
I started with the Les Paul into the B-MAN module. Not unsurprisingly, a lot of bottom end. Way too much. Splitting the coils, playing with the dip switches and bass knob on the front … still too much bottom end. Was it the cab?
Best way to find out was to switch modules. Man, the grin I had on my face from the first chord. Les Paul into the Metro Plex module … oh yes. IIRC, I said straight away that I was sold. I wasn’t even there for a Plexi module! It was just so easy to dial in my kind of crunch tone. And no boomy bottom end problems at all.
Switch back to the B-MAN module, and tried it with a Strat. This was my first time playing a Suhr Strat. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the exact model. Still lots of boomy bass, and a lot of high end too. Maybe that was the stainless steel frets? I think that’s the first guitar I’ve played with stainless steel frets, so I don’t have much experience to help me out there.
The Suhr Strat was very nice to play. Loved the neck carve and fingerboard radius. Action was right where I like it. I’m definitely interested in playing more Suhr guitars one day.
I can’t remember if switched to the Xotic California Classic Strat at that point, or if we switched to the T-DLX module first. I think we switched modules first. Either way, the Xotic into the T-DLX was just as much home to me as the Les Paul into the Metro Plex. Instantly found the tone I was looking for. And what a guitar.
It had a beautiful baked flame maple neck and matching baked flame maple slab fingerboard. A 2-piece neck. Perfect neck carve. Lower-output pickups than the Suhr. They reminded me of Abigail Ybarra’s work, they were that good. If I wanted a top-end Strat, that would have been the one.
Did You Get Anything?
I got the T-DLX module, the Metro Plex module, a SYN-1 for each of them … and the SYN-50/50 power amp.
You’ve always got to be careful with going on YouTube demos alone. Many of those demos are made by professional musicians who can make a rusty tin can sound amazing. Us mere mortals, strumming away at home, don’t have those skills.
In person, the Synergy amps sounded great. That’s with me playing through them! (It isn’t false modesty. My enthusiasm makes up for a serious shortage of musical talent and technical ability). To my ear, they had the sounds that I was looking for.
I’ve a lot going on right now. It might be Easter weekend before I’ve got time to sit down with them, hook them up to my pedals, and really get into what they can do for me. I’m already looking forward to it.
Universal Audio has released v9.5 of their plugin software platform today. The highlights are three new plugins to buy:
Helios Type 69 Preamp & EQ
Friedman Buxom Betty Amplifier
To promote the release, Universal Audio has posted some short promo videos over on YouTube:
If you’re not familiar with UAD … they’re custom software plugins that you buy and run on Universal Audio’s Apollo hardware. Each plugin is a faithful recreation of some of the finest studio equipment around. Although the hardwae and the plugins aren’t cheap – right now, the Ultimate 6 Bundle is £2,999 – they’re a lot cheaper than the real gear, assuming you could get it in the first place.
I’ve had the Apollo Twin for about 18 months now, and I wouldn’t go back. I’ll write some articles about my experiences with it soon.