CoffeeAndKlon #22: Who Needs Pedals When You’ve Got A Great Amp?

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed.

Good afternoon! I’m a bit late with this week’s #CoffeeAndKlon. There’s a couple of reasons why. And one of them does involve the Klon.

I’ve been a bit flat for most of this past week. Delivered a couple of workshops and a talk on the Saturday and Wednesday, and didn’t have much left in the tank after that.

So Thursday and Friday, I’ve mostly been finishing off the home studio revamp. A bit of upgraded gear, and mainly about getting the gear I already have back into use.

At the heart of that is the Synergy amp system I got way back in February last year. It’s at the opposite end of the scale from the home-tone amps I normally talk about here.

Since getting wired up again, I just can’t stop playing this thing: the Synergy 800 module. Designed by Dave Friedman, it’s the classic JCM 800 sound that I grew up with.

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And when you push it with a Klon that’s setup as a clean boost? Les Paul heaven right there. And I haven’t been able to put it down.

Then I had a thought: I’m a pedal guy at heart. How well does a pedal hold up against proper amp filth? That’s where the rest of today has gone 😀

Our contender this afternoon: the JRAD Animal. On its own, this pedal isn’t the most exciting sound in the world. Boost it, and man does it come to life. A bit like a real JCM 800 to be honest.

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After a bit of experimentation, I’ve ended up running it into Synergy’s TDLX: a blackface-style clean amp. I tried running it into the 800 module setup as a clean amp. Didn’t like it at all, and it made A/B testing a pain.

Oh, and I’m using the exact same 1×12 cab loaded with a Celestion G12-M Creamback for both amps. It’s a speaker that brings out the Marshall in everything I run into it. More on that in the long-overdue Marshall Origin One Year On review.

How does the Animal do? It sounds great. It feels great to play. And there’s plenty of satisfying crunch if I boost it with the Klon. There’s a couple of key differences though.

There’s something deeply satisfying about the mids of the real amp that I can’t dial in using the pedal. The pedal setup has crisper highs and crunch, and deeper lows which are addictive in the room. I wish I could borg them together.

The other difference is noise. The pedal setup is picking up so much more string noise than the real amp does. An indicator that the pedal setup is amplifying the treble frequencies much more than the real amp does.

I’ve just switched over to the Marshall Origin for the first time today. Man, this amp loves drive pedals. And I have serious ear fatigue after listening to the pedal setup for most of the afternoon.

I’ve just switched over to the Marshall DSL 20HR. Still learning how to use this amp. Had to really go wild with the dials, as you can see in the photo. Man, it sounds really good too.

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To finish off – and by now, I’m a long way away from trying to match the JCM 800 sound – what about the boosted Animal into a Vox? Here’s my settings on the Mini Superbeetle. Like the DSL 20HR, an amp I’m still learning.

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Through the G12-M Creamback, it’s not a sound I would go for. Stick it through a Celestion Blue though, and that sounds really really good. The mid-range might just be the best of the bunch. Makes me want to add an EQ unit to my studio to tame the top-end though.

(Suggestions for an affordable, rack-mount EQ unit most welcome!)

Now I’ve got real amp filth on tap again, am I going to give up pedals? No. The Klon into the Synergy module sounds fantastic, and feels great to play. And so does the pedal into the other amps, just in a different way.

And for me, that’s what it’s all about, at the end of the day: having a palette of sounds to choose from and experiment with. I’m not a one-sound kind of person.

I’ve worked for three companies that had a strong singular colour for their brand. Going into the office to see a single colour everywhere all day, every day for years … it’s not me. And I’m the same about sound.

I’ve spent the whole afternoon on this, and my ears need a rest. I’ll tell you what though: no matter the amp, it sounded better when boosted with the Klon.

Have a great rest of your weekend, and let me know what questions you have for me about today’s #CoffeeAndKlon 🙂

Studio Diary #14: I Didn’t Need To Cable Up The SYN-1 FX Loops

I’m currently getting my home studio more organised, and along the way I’m sharing my thought process, decisions, discoveries and regrets.

One of the main reasons I’m doing this studio revamp is so that I can use my stereo Synergy Amps rig regularly again.

I’ve got a pair of SYN-1 enclosures, sat on top of the rack. This allows me to run two Synergy amp modules at the same time in stereo. There’s some really cool guitar tones you can only get by running a dual-amp setup.

On the back of each SYN-1 enclosure, there’s a whole bunch of inputs and outputs. Most of them are there because the SYN-1 was mainly designed to run entirely in the FX loop of a traditional amp. The idea is that you can use the SYN-1 to add an additional preamp, and it uses the traditional amp’s power amp section for amplification. It’s pretty cool.

I’m just using it as a straight-forward preamp though, running it into my Synergy 5050 stereo power amp. Which means that I can route the output of the SYN-1 straight into my delay and reverb pedals, without needing to put those pedals into the SYN-1’s FX loop.

And yeah, I only figured that out after having made up the four cables needed for the SYN-1 FX loops … and after getting it all cabled up.

Rather than rip out the cables (which would be a waste of cable) and having to reconfigure the Neutrik NYS SPP L1 (which would be a major pain), I’ve just unhooked them from the back of the SYN-1 for now.

That way, if I run into any pedals that must go into an FX loop for some reason, I’ve still got the option.

New Arrivals For October

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.

Neutrik Patchbay

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.

New Arrivals For February

February has been a very strange month for gear.

The Winter NAMM announcements are over, and now we wait for actual stock to appear in the shops. Some items – like Marshall’s new Studio line of heads, combos and cabs – have arrived quickly (and largely sold out just as quickly). Other pieces – not so much.

eBay started slow, but in the middle of the month, there was a lot of great gear up for grabs at surprising prices. I was expecting most people to be waiting for the “free for private sellers” changes coming at the start of March. I was wrong.

Here’s a list of everything I’ve picked up in February, along with my initial impressions. I’ll write up a full article on each of them once I’ve had a bit of time with them.

Mad Professor Stone Grey Distortion Pedal

I love Mad Professor. By far, they’re my favourite obtainable pedal brand. Many of their earlier offerings were designed by the legendary Bjorn Juhl (of BJF / BJFE fame), and they’re all designed with ultra-low noise floors and ultra-high headroom inputs to support stacking pedals together to find your own tone.

Even so, when I plugged it in for the first time, I was surprised at just how dynamic and responsive this pedal was. It’s billed as a high-gain distortion pedal for modern metal, but in seconds I’d dialled in a lovely light drive tone that really suited single coils and P90s.

I can see this pedal getting a lot more use than I’d planned on.

Mad Professor Golden Cello Pedal

With this pedal, I’ve definitely reached the point where I’m now buying early Mad Professor pedals to complete my collection. It came up on eBay at a great price for a Mad Professor pedal – possibly because it came sans original box 🙁

One thing I didn’t realise when I bought this pedal: they don’t make these any more. Looks like they weren’t a great success first time around. But a niche sound can still be a great sound in the right context.

I’m really looking forward to comparing it with the Bluebird Overdrive pedal that has been on my pedal board for several years now. Both pedals feature a built-in delay, and are aimed at lead tones. Maybe – just maybe – they’ll work out as complementary lead tones for recording?

Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion Pedal

I’ve had one of these before, and flipped it (in part) because I was just getting into the whole vintage-voiced thing – pickups and pedals alike. I’ve picked up another one because it completes my collection of early-era Mad Professor drive pedals.

It’s Mad Professor’s entry into the whole EVH / “brown sound” world, that slightly hot-rodded JCM800 tone from the days of hair metal (and my youth!) Like many of these kinds of pedals, it’s somewhat a one-trick pony. Doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of fun with it though 🙂

Plugged it in, and I’ll be honest … not feeling the fun. It’s a pedal that needs dialling in, and today’s not the day to spend on that.

Barber Electronics LTD Overdrive Pedal

This caught my eye because it isn’t a pedal brand that I recognise.

A quick bit of research suggested that this discontinued pedal is a low-gain overdrive that folks either absolutely love or are totally ‘meh’ about. Sounded like it could be my thing, so I chucked in a minimum bid amount and left it at that.

I’m so glad that I did. It took a couple of attempts to dial it in (it didn’t like my V30 speaker, but it absolutely loved the Celestion Blue) and there it was. A wonderful, clear, articulate mild overdrive tone. Absolutely perfect for the kind of rhythm riffs I play of my Les Paul. And it sounds fantastic with a Strat too.

When I’ve got time to devote to this pedal, I’m very curious about how it compares with the King of Tone (is it the perfect complementary tone pedal?) and how it takes boosts in front of it. I’m also wondering what it sounds like in the boost role too.

Kemper DI Box

I have a love/hate with my Kemper. Back in 2017, I called it one of my 3 worst purchases of the year (along with the King of Tone!), and I promptly went out and bought a dual-amp Synergy rig as soon as they were available here in the UK.

So what am I doing buying Kemper’s own DI box for a unit I should have flipped 12 months ago?!? I ask myself that every day …

Kemper units are in professional recording studios world-wide. They’re a tool that many professional guitarists use. I feel that I can’t just ignore that, that all these folks who rely on the Kemper to pay their bills do so for a very good reason. If I want to understand guitar tone better – if I want to get better at producing great guitar tone – getting better results out of the Kemper is one way for me to learn.

Hyperion Clone Fuzz Pedal

This (and the other fuzz pedal I’ve snagged this month) also belongs in the “why are you spending more money on things you hate?” category.

It’s not that I hate fuzz, it’s just that I’ve never enjoyed playing through the kind of raspy, broken-speaker kind of fuzz tones that people buy fuzz pedals for. I’ve always gone for the fuzz-as-overdrive tones (Velvet Fuzz, The Pelt) up until now.

Meathead Clone Fuzz Pedal

One reason for picking these pedals is that I’ve had clones from this guy before, and I’ve loved each one of them. The drive and boost pedals I’ve already got are well put together, have zero noise issues, and sound every bit as good as American-made (and priced!) boutique pedals.

I might not get on with these two fuzz pedals, but I’ll know it’ll be me, and not the construction of the pedal. And that’s important. These two pedals are an affordable way for me to explore something I know little about and haven’t gotten on with previously.

OKG (One-Knob Gain) Boost Pedal

I got this from the same guy who made the two fuzz clones listed above. He also made the Little Pink Wonder (my name for it!) boost pedal that I absolutely raved about last year on Twitter. Whether or not I like the tones, all his pedals seem to be well made using quality parts. I’ve no hesitation in trying out anything he puts up on eBay.

I don’t know what pedal this is based on. I believe it’s meant to be different to the LPW boost I already have. If it’s actually the same circuit, honestly I win either way. The LPW boost is so good I would be very happy to have a spare in my collection.

This OKG boost (my name for it) is different from the LPW boost. It doesn’t sound like a full-frequency boost like the LPW does. Through the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6, the sweet spot gives this wonderful vintage vibe: crunchy on chords, clear (and a little thin) up the dusty end of the neck.

I dug out my MXR Echoplex Pre to compare it against, and whilst I can’t say for certain that the OKG is a clone of this style of circuit, there isn’t much in it to my ears. The MXR is a little warmer, a little sweeter on the top-end, but that’s not to say the OKG boost sounds bad. I think you could use both for complementary tones when recording.

It’s definitely not an EP Boost clone. This is the first time I’ve compared the EP Boost to the MXR Echoplex Pre, and I was surprised at how different they sound. That’s certainly food for thought.

Ibanez Mini Tubescreamer Pedal

This is another pedal that turned up at a really great price on eBay this month.

I picked this up because I don’t own a genuine tubescreamer atm. I’ve got a few pedals that are based on the tubescreamer circuit, but not an actual TS pedal. It’s going to be interesting to compare them, and see whether the genuine article can push the pretender off my pedal board.

The first thing I’m going to do with it? Strat + ZenDrive + TS. That combo normally sounds very special indeed.

Xotic SL Drive Pedal

I’ve had one of these before, and ended up flipping it. So why have I gone back to it? It certainly isn’t for nostalgia’s sake.

Whenever I can find them at great 2nd hand prices, I’m going to revisit pedals I’ve had before to see whether I can get on with them better now that I’ve improved my rig. (This all started with the Mad Professor Amber Drive …)

This time around, I found it much easier to dial in. It seems to react well with the Marshall Origin’s brightness and insane input headroom. It still seems to work best for driving rock rhythms, rather than more laid-back styles.

I’m looking forward to spending more time with it.

Keeley 1962x Pedal

It’s hard to get one of these for a great 2nd hand price. They’re quite sought-after, and rare enough that they might only be one going on eBay at a time – a perfect storm if you have one to sell in normal times!

Robert Keeley is a legend in the guitar pedal business. It’s past time that I finally got one of this pedals. And this gives me yet another Marshall-in-a-Box flavour to add to the palette of tones.

Online, everyone raves about the KT88 mode of this pedal. Tell you what, though, I’m loving the KT66 mode with a Strat and the gain dialled back. I don’t think my Strat has ever sounded better.

Keeley Oxblood Overdrive Pedal

Is it another in a long line of klones, or just a really great dirt pedal from the legendary Robert Keeley? It’s certainly pitched as a pedal that can kick both your Tubescreamer and your klone off your board. It can also act as your main dirt pedal too, something those other pedals aren’t so good at.

Klon klones (and their rivals) interest me a lot. I like pedals that shape the overall tone in interesting ways, as long as they stack well with whatever’s next in the signal chain. It can be as subtle or as over-arching as you want. And, increasingly, the klones are often even better as the main dirt pedal than they are doing the Klon thing.

Quickly testing it out on its own, it seemed to suit the bridge pickup of my Strat better than it did the neck pickup. Switching over to humbuckers, I was surprised at how similar they all sounded through the Oxblood. That might be a very useful thing if you’re gigging and changing guitars mid-set.

Exact same settings through my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 and the exaggerated mids from the Oxblood sound just right with a Les Paul. More experimentation needed!

Keeley Super Phat Mod Pedal

It’s rare to see Keeley drive pedals going 2nd hand (other than the D&M Drive). I couldn’t believe my luck when a third one came available at a great price.

When it comes to low-gain pedals, the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver pretty much defined that whole genre. It’s a pedal that’s been modded to death (including by Keeley), cloned to death, and rivalled almost as much as the Tubescreamer itself.

With the Super Phad Mod, Keeley have taken their original mod for the BD-2, and made it a full pedal in its own right. I’ve seen people talk about this as the ultimate BD-2-style pedal, so when one came up at a great price, I couldn’t resist my curiosity.

I plugged it in, and struggled with it a little. The drive control is clean, and then within a hair it really isn’t clean at all. With my Strat, I just couldn’t find the sweet spot on my first go. Switch over to my McCarty 594, and it was a completely different story.

Keeley El Rey Dorado Overdrive

That’s right … sneaking in at the very end of the month is a fourth Keeley drive pedal. And it’s YAPP (Yet Another Plexi Pedal) to add to my collection.

I remember when these first launched in the hand-wired format as an exclusive to Riff City Guitar. They’re now available in factory format, as it were. I haven’t seen many turn up on the 2nd hand market recently, but doing my research before buying this 2nd hand unit, it seems there’s no shortage of stock of brand new items at aggressive discounts. Make of that what you will.

What am I expecting? A one-trick pony that’ll rival the JHS Charlie Brown v2 as a JTM 45-in-a-box. One-trick because it’s widely reported to have very limited adjustment ranges.

Yeah … it’s incredibly limited. The gain starts at crush-your-soul and only needs a nudge to go into smoother-with-mud territory. The tone is either covered-in-blankets or brittle-as-can-be; if there’s a sweet spot in between, it’s so small that I can’t find it. And this is with vintage-voiced, low output pickups!

However … dial it in just the other side of covered-in-blankets, then roll back both volume and tone on the guitar, and there’s a really nice crunch tone waiting for you. I’ve had more fun with a Strat rather than a Les Paul so far. I think I need to stick something in front of it (an EQ pedal perhaps) to get the very best out of it.

JRAD Tim Pierce Overdrive

This is a pedal I’ve been after ever since it was launched.

Tim Pierce’s YouTube channel is one of the very best for learning how a professional musician approaches his craft. He’s played on more hit records than you can shake a stick at – and he’s been doing it for decades, one of the best indicators that he really knows why things work.

This pedal doesn’t disappoint. Right from the go, I was able to dial in a great fat clean sound for my Strat. It was warm, dynamic, articulate. I can easily see me using this and the Keeley 1962x together on tracks.

JHS Morning Glory v4 Drive Pedal

The Morning Glory isn’t just JHS’s biggest success, it’s also one of those pedals you’ll consistently see folks put on their “legendary pedal” list. A lot of folks lump it in with klone pedals, although it isn’t sold as a reproduction of the most infamous circuit in pedal land.

Hardly any of these pedals this month arrived in boxes. This is the first time I’ve received a pedal sent in a recycled takeaway meal container though!

I’ve only tried it as a main drive so far – I don’t have things wired up to try it as a Klon-style boost atm. It took a few minutes – and some swapping back and forth to compare it with other pedals – before I found a tone I liked.

With the tone knob above 10 o’clock, my rig sounds brittle and plagued with electrical noise from the mains. Turn it down to 9 o’clock, and all the life gets sucked out of the signal. Find the sweet spot, though, and suddenly it’s other pedals that sound brittle or harsh.

Very interesting.

Wampler Pantheon Overdrive

The Analogman King of Tone (KoT) is as famous for its unusual ordering procedure and lengthy waiting list as it is for how much Dan of TPS loves his. Just like the Klon before it, this kind of demand and hype has created a market for people to bring their own take on this sound to market.

After being down on my KoT for a long time (it was in my Top 3 Disappointing Purchases of 2017), I’m finally at a place where I really like the KoT. So when a friend borrowed mine to help him decide if he wants one for himself, it got me wondering what the KoT alternatives sound like. And the same night, a 2nd hand unit turned up at a price I was happy with. Fate? Coincidence? I’ll take it either way.

Holy smokes. From the very first chord, this thing impresses. There’s something about the tone – and I can’t put my finger on it atm – that just sounds quality. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Some pedals sound raw. Some sound focused. This just sounds like a million dollars.

Snouse BlackBox Overdrive 2

This pedal is another take on the bluesbreaker circuit. It isn’t as famous as Analogman’s legendary King of Tone, and it isn’t as widely-stocked as Wampler’s new Pantheon pedal (I don’t believe there’s any retailer in the UK who stocks it), but it does have its fans.

The bluesbreaker (BB) circuit was originally a Marshall design, yet (to my ears) the King of Tone is at its best through a mid-scooped Fender-style amp. I’m half-expecting the Wampler Pantheon to fall into that category too. Where will this pedal fall?

Well, I lost a whole evening playing this through my Marshall Origin 20H and a Strat. Even started coming up with some new licks whilst I was doing so. That’s always a good sign!

Empty Cardboard Boxes

One of the downsides of getting a 2nd hand bargain is that the pedal often arrives without its original box. And boxes are really handy.

The box doesn’t just keep a pedal safe from dust, it also makes it much easier to stack a collection of pedals up on a shelf out of the way. Plus, when the time comes to move these pedals on to their next lucky owner, the box offers added protection against the modern postal experience.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find anywhere around here that sold suitable boxes for keeping pedals in. So I found somewhere that makes boxes to order, and that will do so in small quantities. I’ve got 25 plain white boxes (20 standard pedal size, 5 large pedal size) on their way from Italy, and if I got the dimensions right, I’ll soon have all my loose pedals packed away 🙂

On the dimensions side … mostly right. Turns out a couple of the pedals I’ve picked up recently have protruding jacks that I hadn’t taken into account. I have managed to get them all into these boxes, but I would probably add a few extra millimetres to length and width next time.

The boxes themselves … very white, very glossy, and quite thin card. They’re definitely not as sturdy as original pedals boxes are. But for keeping the dust of the pedals – and making them much easier to stack on the shelf – they’re perfect.

There’s something to be said for having all the pedals in boxes of a standard dimension. It’s a bit like switching to pedals with top-jacks. Maybe I should get some more, and get rid of all the original boxes I already have?

Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 Amp

If you’re part of the Les Paul player community , you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only amps launched at NAMM are Marshall’s new 20W studio amps. It’s all anyone wants to talk about – or wants to bash, depending on whether or not they believe that Marshall stopped making “proper” amps back in the 70s. That’s Internet forums for you!

Blackstar also released some amps, including a line of simple (1 preamp value, 1 poweramp valve) 10W combos aimed at home volume players like myself. There’s 3 amps in the lineup – the KT88 (which I haven’t seen in the wild yet), the EL34 (does the Marshall thing) and the 6L6 (which does the Fender cleans thing).

I’ve been looking for an amp that does exactly this for the last couple of years. I’m delighted that someone has finally made this kind of amp, aimed squarely at someone like me. My only question is: why isn’t it Fender doing so? Oh, and why does nobody make something like this as an amp head?!?

In person, the Studio 10 6L6 stands out for its extended range: there’s plenty of low-end (perhaps a little too much?) and good clear highs. Dial in your volume, switch to the neck position on your Strat, and there it is – that clean tone that no Marshall will give you.

Oh, and Les Pauls absolutely rock through this thing with a pedal.

And, it has to be said, some pedals just sound better through this amp. American pedal designers predominantly play Telecasters or Strats through Fender amps. It shouldn’t be a surprise if some of their pedals suit a Fender-style clean tone more than the mighty mid-range roar of a dimed Marshall.

That’s why I wanted both styles of amp to hand. Yes, I’ve already got this through the Synergy rig, but (for reasons I’ll go into another time) it’s not a rig I want to run all the time. I’m really enjoying being able to switch between this and the Marshall Origin when exploring different pedals.

My Strat is getting a lot more playing time too.

Synergy Plexi Module

Exactly 12 months ago, I went over to Peach Guitars and built out a dual-amp Synergy rig to be my pedal platform for the next 10-15 years. It’s soddingly expensive to buy into – especially for a dual-amp setup – but by the time you’re up to 3 or 4 different preamp modules, you’re way ahead of what it would cost to own all of the original amps they’re based on.

I’ve had the Metro Plex module right from the very beginning, and it’s one of my favourite amps for dirt. I used it in last year’s “Is It Plexi Enough?” challenge involving the Marshall Origin, and everyone loved the sound of it. Synergy do their own-branded Plexi module too, and I’ve always been curious about what the differences are between the two. Just not curious enough to buy one brand new.

One finally came up on the 2nd hand market over here. I don’t believe that there are many Synergy users in the UK atm – in part because the stuff was out of stock for most of 2018 – so not only are 2nd hand pieces rare, there’s only a small pool of people around to bid on them.

From the get-go, I was surprised. The Plexi module sounds much more like the Marshall sound in my head than the Metro Plex does. And I absolutely love my Metro Plex. Just like with Synergy’s 800 module, I bet you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this and an actual equivalent Marshall in a blind test.

One thing’s for sure. Because I’ve got this and the 800 module, I can’t see me buying either of Marshall’s new 20W Studio amps. With my Synergy rig, I’ve already got those tones covered. In that respect, Synergy lives up to its promise.

Initial Thoughts On The Marshall Studio Amps vs Marshall Origin For Pedals

At Winter NAMM 2019, Marshall made a major announcement: they launched not one, but two 20W amps based on classic designs. The Marshall Studio Vintage 20 is based on the famed plexi-era amps, and the Studio Classic 20 is based on the JCM 800 – the amp of 80’s rock.

And, by all accounts, both of these amps absolutely nail those tones.

Where does this leave last year’s big new amp, the Marshall Origin? Will the Origin finally find its audience, or is it going to disappear?

The Marshall Origin Isn’t A Plexi

When the Marshall Origin launched, everyone was hoping for Marshall plexi-era tones on a budget. They wanted that Marshall dirt tone from their amp, not from pedals. They didn’t get that. And the Origin’s reputation has (unfairly, I think) suffered ever since.

Personally, I think Marshall’s just as much to blame as anyone. In their initial marketing and demos, they got carried away with trying to pitch the Origin at the plexi-on-a-budget crowd. They set this amp up to disappoint. It’s no wonder it has.

Somewhere along the way – maybe due to all the delays – the message got lost, and by the time this amp was out, just about the only place talking about this amp as a pedal platform was Marshall’s own website. And in the 10 months since the amp started shipping, nothing’s happened to correct public perception.

It’s a shame, because the Origin might just be the best pedal platform in Marshall’s line-up today.

The Marshall Origin Is For Pedals

The Origin is a great amp if you like both vintage tones and dirt from pedals.

I always describe it as an opinionated amp. It colours everything you run through it, in a way I’ve not found with clean channels on other amps. The results are fantastic, but there’s a limit to how radically you can change the tone just by changing pedals. The Origin’s colour is always going to be part of the final tone.

That might sound like a negative. But, if I look at my pedal shelf, there isn’t a single drive pedal on there that doesn’t sound great through the Origin.

Although it’s a dead-clean amp, with an insane amount of input headroom, the Origin somehow sounds like it is on the edge of break-up. How many pedal demos has Pete Thorn done where he’s set his amps up on the edge of break-up to get the best out of the pedal?

It’s a thing many pedals are designed for, and it’s what the Origin utterly nails.

Other Marshall Amps? Not In The Same Way

If we switch out the Origin for a JCM 800, one of two things emerge.

Some pedals just lack life unless they’re running through an amp on the edge of break-up. With the JCM 800 set on the edge of break-up, those pedals will sound very similar to how they would sound through an Origin. There are differences – and they may well be important to you. If they’re not, the Origin’s much better value for money than the new Studio Classic, the JCM 800 in a 20W format.

(The 80’s thing was to crank a JCM 800 and use pedals like the Boss SD-1 and DS-1 as boosts to push it over the edge. You’ve heard that sound on untold classic rock albums of that era.)

The other thing you might find is that some pedals are voiced for Fender blackface-style clean channels. I find this is especially true with older boutique pedals from USA-based pedal makers. The signature mid-focused Marshall sound can make it difficult to dial these pedals in. To my ears, they often end up sounding harsh, or nasally, or too bright and brittle. Sometimes, those tones can work in a mix. If you’re just noodling at home (we’re the HomeToneBlog, not the OneHundredThousandSeaterVenueToneBlog!) not so much.

Don’t get me wrong – the Origin sounds like a Marshall. It’s just got more of its energy in the upper-mids in a way other Marshalls don’t (which is why it sounds too bright and harsh to many ears), and that difference – that shift – is just enough to make it work well with Fender-voiced pedals.

And even actual Fender pedals sound amazing through the Origin. Two of my favourite pedals through the Origin are Fender’s Santa Ana Overdrive and The Pelt fuzz.

Conclusions So Far

If you want classic Marshall amp rock tones, go and try the new Studio Vintage (for plexi-type tones) and Studio Classic (for the JCM 800 thing). They’re already shipping, and new owners seem delighted with how they sound.

If pedals are more your thing, then don’t overlook the Marshall Origin just because people have been disappointed with it. They hoped the Origin was a plexi-on-a-budget. Of course they were disappointed.

Will I Buy A Studio Vintage or Studio Classic Amp?

I’ve already got amps that cover the same territory – the Metro Plex, Plexi and 800 pre-amp modules for my Synergy rig. So I probably won’t. These Marshall amps simply came out too late for me.

But you can be damn sure I’m going to go and try them out when they’re in stock locally. Who doesn’t love a Marshall?

Speaking of Synergy … if you want both of these new Marshall amps, it might make more sense to buy the Synergy equivalents instead.

At the time of writing, the Studio Vintage 20H and Studio Classic 20H will together cost you £1724. You can buy a Synergy 30w head, Plexi module and 800 module for £1909. That’s £185 pounds more.

If you go down the Synergy route, you also get a dedicated clean channel built into the 30w head, giving you a two-channel amplifier. (The new Marshall’s are all single-channel amps) And you can add completely new amps for less than the cost an Origin 20H, by buying additional modules when you’re ready.

We’re living in a golden age of tone choices right now, whichever way you want to go.

Setting Up Synergy Amps Back At The Cave

This is a first look at the Synergy Amps system now that it’s home, where I can hear it through my cabs and with my guitars. 

I’ve been away for work this last week, and whilst I over the other side of the country, I managed to pick up a set of Synergy Amps modules, enclosures and the power amp.

Now that I’m back at the Hermit’s Cave, time to unbox everything … just to make sure it survived the journey, right? 😀

So what have we got here?

  • 2 x Synergy SYN-1 module enclosures
  • 1 x Synergy T-DLX preamp module
  • 1 x Metropoulos Metro Plex preamp module
  • 1 x Synergy SYN-5050 4x6L6 power amp

They’re sat on top of a pair of Victory Amps 1×12 cabs. The top cab is a V112-C with a G12M-65 Creamback, and the bottom cab is a V112-V with a V30.

Let’s talk about the power amp first. I have a lot more to say about it than I expected to.

Synergy SYN-5050 Power Amp

The power amp is deceptively heavy. The SYN-1 enclosures aren’t exactly featherweights either. It’s all solid stuff. If it was all mounted into a rack, I wouldn’t want to be moving it around much.

When I switched the power amp on, first thing I noticed is that the internal fan is loud. Loud enough to be heard when playing at home tone volume levels. It’s loud enough to be an issue for my environment. I’m hoping that it’ll be less noticeable once it’s properly racked. Failing that, the sound reminds me of one of those old 90s computer fans. Maybe it’s possible to replace it with something more acoustically engineered?

(I’ll do a follow-up post at some point talking about why fan noise is important.)

I’ve owned a few rack-mount power amps over the years. This one’s a little different to what I’ve seen before. This isn’t a dual mono-block power amp. It took me a bit of fiddling to get both channels working, and at first I really thought that Channel B wasn’t working. It was working, it’s just that Channel B’s volume control isn’t always active.

I’ll do a dedicated post about the SYN-5050’s 3 modes of operation shortly.

One reason why I want to make that a separate post is the manual that comes with the SYN-5050. I didn’t find the manual any help at all. I’m hoping it’s just that the manual is a draft, and that they’ll improve it as time goes on. The diagrams aren’t labelled, the text refers to sections that aren’t included, and the description of MONO, MONO-BRIDGED and STEREO modes wasn’t clear enough for me.

On the front of the power amp, the STANDBY/ON switches for Channel A and Channel B are next to each other. I’ve already switched Channel B on by mistake at least once. Fortunately, I had a cab plugged into Channel B, so no harm done. But be aware of it. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

The amp itself sounds great. It’s 50W in MONO and STEREO modes, and 100W in MONO-BRIDGED mode, I believe. The volume range is very usable for home use – already a bonus compared to many Fender amps! I’m looking forward to running it through the Two Notes Torpedo Captor so that I can crank it a bit and hear that lovely power tube saturation.

I’ve been after a rack-mountable 6L6 power amp for many years. The old Mesa Boogie 2:90 was on my wishlist for a long time. The sheer weight of it always put me off. That, and how much it would cost to revalve! I’ve been using software-based emulation in the mean time, which certainly does a job. I’m very pleased that I don’t have to any more 🙂

So what are the two modules like?

Synergy T-DLX Preamp Module

This module takes drive pedals really well. Especially on the red channel, which I believe is voiced like a Fender Deluxe. Some pedals just don’t shine through the Blackstar HT-100. I’ve had a couple of them out the cupboard and through the T-DLX, and so far I like what I’ve heard.

Early days yet. I need to do some recording and mixing before I can say that this is definitely a great pedal platform.

The module sounds good through the G12M-65. I would like to pair it with a Celestion A-Type soon, to get even closer to that Fender DRRI tone. I’m going to take a looat at how easy it is to swap speakers in the Victory cabs. Not sure yet whether I’ll swap out the V30, or just pick up a third cab and swap the speaker in that.

Metropoulous Metro Plex Preamp Module

The Metro Plex doesn’t take drive pedals at all. When I kick in the pedal, all the bottom end disappears. And I don’t care.

Because this thing sounds utterly glorious with a Les Paul.

I lost what – an hour and a half? two hours? – last night just playing straight into it. Hit the front end with a compressor (like my favourite, the Forest Green Compressor from Mad Professor) or a Wampler Tumnus, and it’s amp drive heaven. I’ve never been a fan of amp drive before. This module has converted me 🙂

Well … almost. I haven’t yet managed to dial in a touch-sensitive kind of crunch. Hopefully I’ll find it. If not, it’s still a special sound, and this module is a keeper regardless.

So Is This A Great Pedal Platform?

I bought this rig to be a completely-overkill pedal platform. The plan was to run pedals into both modules at the same time – a la That Pedal Show and their dual-amp setup – to get the best blended tone possible.

Then I got sidetracked a bit, because I had the opportunity to get the Metro Plex module. The early YouTube demos had deeply impressed me. I didn’t think there were any in the country, so when Peach Guitars said they had one, that was a no-brainer. I really don’t care that it doesn’t take pedals. It’s worth having for what it does.

So, going forward, I’ve got a couple of options.

  1. Get a third preamp module (like the B-MAN or Morgan AC) to be the second amp for my pedal platform.
  2. Keep the Blackstar HT-100, and use its preamp as the second amp.

I’ve already got the HT-100, and I know it takes many drive pedals very well. I’m going to wire that up into the SYN-5050 and give that a go first.

I don’t have a second Torpedo Two Notes Captor atm, and once again they’re on backorder at the retailers. I’m going to have to wait a few weeks before I can try this out.

And let’s not kid myself. I’ve been looking for a platform like Synergy ever since I decided that I’d had enough of digital amps. Unless I run into some big disappointments once I start recording this setup, I am going to collect the other modules over time.

Final Comments

I’ve spent years building a sound around my pedals into the Blackstar HT-100. Getting the Synergy Amps system has blown that up to a certain extent.

It’s going to be a few weeks before it’s fully integrated into my little home project studio here at The Hermit’s Cave. Probably won’t be able to get that done until Easter weekend. After that, I’m going to need time using it to learn how to get the best out of it.

I’ll be posting updates about that as I go.

First Impressions: Synergy Amps

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.

  1. I’m looking for classic Fender cleans, but I don’t have the space for a real Fender amp.
  2. 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.

Why Synergy?

Synergy offers me everything I’m looking for:

  1. real valves!
  2. small
  3. light
  4. Fender cleans
  5. 6L6 power tubes
  6. 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:

  • B-MAN
  • Metro Plex
  • T-DLX

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.