Studio Diary #15: Revisiting Old Gear

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 benefits of this autumn’s home studio mini-revamp is that it’s now pretty easy to use any piece of gear that I’ve currently got. I’ve been taking advantage of that, by revisiting old pieces of gear that didn’t get much use in the past.

Thanks to the cleaner cabling, I’m finally able to hear this gear at its very best. And – spoiler alert! – I’m rapidly falling in love with a couple of items that I never got on with first time around.

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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.