Talking about gear (100)
This week I want to tell you about a piece of gear I first played nearly a year ago. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while, as I wanted to wait until it was released, and it just has.
The company is called Synergy Amps and I’m a fan. And before you start to think cynically, I’m not employed by them!
As always, there’s a story attached to this for context, so I’ll get that out of the way first. When at NAMM I suffer horrifically from jetlag. As Cali is 8 hours behind the UK my sleep patterns are destroyed and I literally get about 4 hours of sleep per night, I’m not there for long enough to try to force it around with sleeping tablets, so I just live with it. The best thing about this is that I’m up at the crack of doom and generally get to the show each morning LONG before the doors are open. I usually take this time to do a line check on the rig and make sure everything is in place before the people attend the show, start attending.
One morning I was there so early the only people on the booth complex we are part of, the wider Boutique Amp Distribution booth, were myself, Bruce Egnator, Groover Jackson and my buddy Steve Elowe. Now, Bruce and Groover being there isn’t integral to this, but I just wanted to make you all sound the name drop horn in your heads – it still freaks me out that these guys are just milling around to talk too, a real pinch yourself moment! The Wampler rig was fine so I wandered off to see Steve who was sat at a computer, with guitar in hand, rocking hard. He was also gently cussing under his breath about latency issues, so I offered to help. He got me to play while he did something to the computer.
I was playing through the new Synergy Amps rig.
At first I just played enjoying the tones, then he started to press buttons and all these different sounds were appearing, so I was playing different stuff on the fly as the sounds were so radically different. He then stood up and said “That’s better”. The computer was now behaving how it should so we had some time to play with the Synergy rig.
Let me fill you in on what this thing is. Basically, Synergy is a modular system that has ports which allows you to add various modules that sound and behave like the amps they are based upon. You buy the dock, a single or double module unit, and then load the amp module in. The docks are 12AX7 driven with a ton of different out options. There is a straight “preamp out” and an emulated out to go into your PA/desk/DAW - I was initially playing through the preamp out to a power amp, but once Steve had sorted the latency on the computer he pushed it over to the emulated out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I had an incredibly authentic Soldano SLO100 tone coming straight from the studio monitors that sounded EXACTLY the same as the preamp out, and from what I can remember about playing an SLO (which I have played through a lot) exactly the same as the amp – not only tonally, but in respect of response. The way it responded to my picking dynamics, the volume pot and the gain… man… the gain...
At that point he started to show me the differing modules, which could be changed in a matter of seconds. One minute I was ripping through the SLO, and then quickly through a Friedman BE which was just roaring, then back into a TDLX which had the kind of clean tones you’d expect from a blackfaced, or tweed finished amp, then a Morgan AC that was SO glassy… and then… and then…. and then...
After I’d played it for seemed like 5 seconds, which in reality was almost ¾ of an hour, I was left thinking about the practical uses of this system and where it sits in the market place. The first thing that got me, other than the tone that was coming from it, was the ease of use and how practical it can be in any set up. In a way, it was like having a modelling system but without the endless sub menu’s and degree in computer science to work it, or let’s face it, if you are anything like me, tons and tons of stuff that you would just never, ever use. This I think is where this product is going to sit, right in the place where people want a ton of options, but only the specific ones they require, and something that has real tubes, real knobs and real tone. You can literally have a mountain of boutique amps available, at a fraction of the cost and using a fraction of the room, just ‘there’.
The trouble I’ve always had with the modelling stuff, apart from ‘that’ reaction (which let’s face it, that gap is being bridged all the time), is that you generally have to get rid of your original amp set up and get a full range amp/speaker to go with it. You don’t get the best results from those things going into your amp, they still sound great, but they work best when everything is modelled and you are going direct. Then, they sound incredible. The beauty of the Synergy system is that it can be run direct within the loop of your favourite amp, giving you multiple new channels to play with. For many players, those that don’t want the computery stuff and love their rig already, this HAS to be the best thing, well - as we say over here, since sliced bread. Also it works flawlessly direct into your DAW, or PA, it has a great FX loop (so you can run your favourite effects in there, the ones that were originally in the loop of your amp if you used it that way)… I’m not sure who is behind this system, but I doff my cap in their general direction.
From looking at the website, I can see that the docks are $499 for the single and $799 for the double, there is also all tube heads available and a power amp. The modules are $399. So, let’s look at a boutique level amp, which I’m guessing you will all agree tends to be around $2k to buy and generally only give you the sound associated with that amp, you get what you get and nothing else. So, consider this, If you have a great amp you can buy the dock and 2 modules for ¾ of the price of a new and different sounding head, and then keep adding to it for $399, you will start to build up an amp collection that is worthy of Joe Bonamassa. Then think that these modules are small enough to get two into a single 19” rack unit. Even if you have 8 modules and the Syn2 (double port dock) it comes to less than 2 full boutique level amps. That’s 8 amps for the price of two. Once you have the dock, the modules are so cheap GAS will be screaming for new ones all the time.
I don’t get excited about new technology products very often mainly because I like tubes, knobs and instantly available tone and most of the time these days, all those things appear to be missing in new innovative technology. New gear concepts these days usually consists of “sitting down with a manual the size of a novel and 3 hours just to get the amp tone you want that’s hidden in the middle of other stuff that appears to have no practical musical use to anyone”.
I want one.
A few months ago I wrote a ‘review’ of the Quilter 101 Mini Head here in the Wampler blog, it was an interesting experience using the 101 Mini, but tonally it didn’t work out for me. It was great, just not there yet. There were issues with the basic core tone and most importantly, the strange EQ section.
I’ve subsequently got my hands on the newer version of this head, the 101 Mini Reverb, they’ve upgraded the unit considerably, made the EQ a much easier system to dial in and you guessed it, contains reverb. I’ve been using the 101 MR for the last few gigs as the ‘other’ side of my stereo rig, and something happened this weekend that made me look at it in a different light.
First of all, a quick gear rundown so you get a feel what my rig does. My rig is mono until it hits the incredible TC Electronic MiMiQ which then splits it to stereo. The main side of the MiMiQ (which sits after my pre gain modulation the gains stages and compression – so that’s pre gain Strymon Mobius – mainly Vibe - Mini Ego, Tumnus and Paisley Drive Deluxe) sends the signal on to the post gain side of the Mobius (so that’s chorus, tremolo etc), the Strymon TimeLine, dB+ and then to a Wampler Bravado amp. The other side of the MiMiQ just feeds direct to the Quilter 101 MR – both then feed directly into a stereo 2x12” speakers. I have the MiMiQ set on “slight drunk” so when it’s kicked in I find the difference in tone (I set it pretty quickly, on a scooped setting) and the lack of delays etc do a really good impression of a second guitar player.
I play in a pub band, playing covers, and on Saturday night we were kinda cookin’. The crowd was rocking, so we were. My rig sounded fantastic and I ended the first set on a high! I was just having a lovely time… when it came to the start of the second set we started and I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. None of my delay’s where there, so I checked a different patch (the vibe) and that worked, so I thought – oh shit, the TimeLine is knackered. There was something else going on with the sound as well, it wasn’t quite as attacky or bright as usual (I have the Bravado set on Bright position 4 with the mids scooped out so it’s more like a Fender Deluxe than it should be)… For about 3 songs I felt this thing was wrong, still sounded like me, still sounded great (well, let’s face it, with those gain stages how could it not?), but there was a certain something missing. Trust my wife to spot the problem… It the end of the third song she leaned over to me from behind the P.A. speakers and shouted in my ear “Do you know that the Bravado is on standby?”.
So, I had turned the Bravado on to standby at the end of the first set and forgotten to turn it back on again, which is quite funny considering the piece I wrote about putting amps on standby last year. it was just the Quilter being used and I was blown away with the sound of it. Granted, It was not as clear and concise as the Bravado, and the response was different, but it was close. Kind of felt the same way when I first played through a Kemper, really close but the reaction wasn’t there, because it’s a D class and I’m used to a valve amp.
Once I realised my mistake I tweaked the Quilter a little to try to bring the top end in and it got even closer before bringing the Bravado back in. This little thing is quite remarkable when I think about it, I carry it around in my effects case and it weighs about 2lbs and it stood up against the Bravado and didn’t lose without a fight. It took the pedals like a dream, it responded to my pick attack and expression like a dream. The updated EQ section was SO much better in this one, every issue I had with the original was addressed. Basically, this thing is pretty bloody awesome.
I’ve made the conscious decision that when we do the small, quiet gigs – as we often do – and you can’t get a valve amp up to the required level to make it sound like I want too (yes, we really do play that quiet sometimes, literally so you can talk over it), the Quilter 101 MR will be my main amp and the Quilter 101 Mini will be the stereo field. It won’t be the Bravado (as, you know, valve compression and response of a high end amp, there is nothing like it), but at least I can put it to the level I want to play at and I won’t be disappointed with the tone, which when you think about it, is quite remarkable.
I can thoroughly recommend this little amp, and I don’t say that very often. Everyone should have one in the front pocket of their gig bag as a back up, or if like me you want a stereo field, it’s perfect. Actually, if I wasn’t so fussy (I am, extremely) I would probably use it for every gig as let’s face it, the people listening wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in those conditions... It’s close enough to the real thing to be able to warrant the compromise of tone – that magical thing that can’t be replicated - especially when like me you have a history of sciatica and want to keep the weight down!
As a last thought - when the Bravado isn’t here I use a Fender BDri as my main gigging amp… well, I used to, as if the Bravado isn’t here, from here on in I’ll be using the Quilter…
There goes my carefully laid out release.
Don’t you just hate it when that happens? This isn’t the first time of course, google cached a website tester that means the Pinnacle Deluxe v2 was leaked before the announcement, and only a few months ago when we released the Ethereal, some rather silly people had shown it as a new release almost 18 months before at a NAMM show or 2. Well, 3. But hey, who’s counting? *insert chuckles here*
The Paisley Drive Deluxe is coming, October 12th. Now, we weren’t going to tell you about this for a while yet, probably somewhere around 1st Oct, but there you go, you got it at least 10 or so days early. You may be thinking that a week doesn’t really matter, but for us this was a huge disappointment. Over the last 7 years or so I’ve been doing this, Brian and I have pretty well got this wrapped up, we know what to do and how to do it (since Alex joined us a couple of years ago it got even better) and the plan was in full swing… This is why the product page on our site was launched so quick, the FB header graphic was up quickly and the promo pictures where on FB and IG instantly after the leak… I had it all in place.. So, obviously, to make up for this - the next release will be announced to the dealers early yet under the pain of death if anyone leaks it! And you think I’m joking… I just don’t want another quiet Sunday morning ruined like this again (we must take a moment to give appreciation to my wife and kids who had to deal with me, loudly dealing with this, at 9am on a Sunday morning. I do think my kids learnt new ways of putting cuss words together in that first hour).
Although many people were VERY shocked to see us announce the pedal, it made me smile because we’ve already been teasing it for quite a while. For example, this graphic was the facebook header on our company page and it’s been in full glorious view since Sept 6th. I also published a photo on my personal Instagram a week ago that showed part of it, so the evidence was there – a couple of people picked up on it, but I love it when people only become aware of it after the event. Also, lest we forget, Brad’s tech leaked that this was coming waaaaaay back in March in an interview with Guitarist magazine. We also posted pictures of Brad’s rig on Sept 8th that clearly showed the prototype in his rig… So, you know, the evidence was there for all to see! It’s not easy to join the dots up, because we deliberately place them so far apart!
ANYWAY, enough of all that – here is the blog I was not ready to write yet, as I was hoping I’d have a few more gigs under my belt with it, but my hand has been forced so here I go. I used the Paisley Drive Deluxe on a gig last Friday. I didn’t know what to expect, the Paisley Drive for me is a special pedal – it was the first logo I designed for Wampler, I inadvertently named the pedal during (it was known as simply as the Paisley Overdrive in proto stage), so it kinda got me the job – 7 years later, here I am writing about the next generation of it. I love the original Paisley Drive so much, we named our dog after it, she’s the original Paisley Dog as far as I am concerned!
First impressions: well – I already knew what it was going to look like, as I did the confirmed graphical design for it back in February, and LONG before that I had got ready for this release and amended the original Paisley to co-ordinate with it way back in 2015. So, this has been in our minds for years. We just needed the main man to decide on what he wanted to be in it, so when over the last couple of years the Underdog started to get a run out in his rig, it looked like it was time to move it forward, Brian met with Brad and his techs a couple of time this last year to bash out the details, for example the routing and switching options, and the pedal was decided – into the process it went! But yes, my first impression was a sharp intake of breath. It is beautiful. Major props have to go to our production guys, this thing is flawless.
Channel 1: The first thing I noticed on it when plugging it in was how much gain was on tap from the Underdog side – the UD is probably the only one of Brian’s creations I’ve never played before, so it was all new to me, and boy does this thing cook! Considerably more gain that I was expecting, gravelly in a good way (the low mids are gorgeously wide), and has a great element of sag in the bottom end, not in the way the Pinnacle does, but it feels like when you hit the lower notes with a little palm muting it really jumps up and reacts. When you stick the fat switch in, the whole thing jumps up a level and starts to run into classic rock territory. I ended up running it at 15v as the band I am in doesn’t need that much gain, so I found the sweet spot right here. As always, when a little more gain and girth was needed I put the Tumnus on in front of it, and that most definitely takes you into rock territory.
Channel 2: Basically, extremely similar to the original Paisley. The three-way switch was removed and replaced with a 2 way switch. When the button is in, you get the original top setting (right on the newer one) – so that’s what I call the Trainwreck tone, or the Cliffs of Rock City right there, and when it is out, it’s like the bottom on the original (left on the newer ones) so a classic “Waiting on a Woman” TS feel. So, yeah, you get some classic Paisley from that side. The presence switch has been removed and is effectively set to “off”.
Stacked: Now, as in the Dual Fusion and Hot Wired, the real beauty of this pedal comes when you start running both channels together. Included in the Paisley DD is the same routing control that Tom and I came up with for the Dual Fusion, perfectly implemented by Brian and Jake, because if like me you use a looper, the last thing you want to do it have to press the loop switch and then press something else on the pedal. This way, it’s all done for you. I run 2 into 1, as the Underdog sounds glorious and when you stick the Paisley into it, with both set in the ‘out’ position you are going to hit the kind of creamy tones you would not expect from a pedal. Most of you that know me know I have an inherent dislike for most TS circuits, but when you run the Paisley on TS flavour and push it into the Underdog, something comes alive. These two circuits run together so well it’s just amazing we’ve not put them together before, feedback is waiting there but you are not fighting it, the guitar shines through the dirt, and when cranked, you move some serious air. Those two together sustain forever, I was hitting notes and they were ringing out like Parisienne Walkways – quietly and perfectly morphing into a feedback and once I moved the guitar the note moved up perfectly to another pitch. Think Flying In A Blue Dream intro. And I’ve never been able to find that so easily.
Every time we release a pedal, I excitedly play it for a while, understand it, and then it goes on the shelf for a while and I stick with my tried and trusted gain pedals for live. This one was plugged in at home to briefly hear it and make sure it was OK, I literally played two chords on each side, then put it on my live board as I was pressed for time. By the end of the first song I was smiling so much my face hurt, the bass player in the band (who is the biggest tone chaser I’ve ever met) was smiling back at me… I knew we were on to a winner.
Anyway, enough from me. Here’s Brett Kingman showing you how it’s done.
There are more demo's to come... lots more!
I’ll come outright and say it: I love looking at and learning about gear. Gear porn makes the day go by so much faster, and it’s interesting to see what various players choose to have on their board, why they chose it, what worked with each rig and what didn’t. Off the rack guitars, custom guitars, pawn shop finds and killer deals. All of it. From the simplest rig to the biggest rig, each setup tells a little something about that player and what their tastes are, and often it either spurs GAS or makes you curious about something else. Down the rabbit hole you go. I’m apparently not the only one either, seeing as gear culture is probably more at the forefront than ever. If you had to take a guess, how many FaceBook discussion groups would you say there are associated with tone in some fashion? You’re talking brand groups, podcast groups, general discussion groups, groups dedicated to a certain style of guitar or style of music? I’ll guess on the low side and say hundreds, and those are just the ones I’ve seen personally or been on. That’s not even touching on other forums outside of FaceBook, or places like TGP or TDPRI or ILoveFuzz (all interesting boards for sure). It’s become a global culture, where if you’ve got a musical instrument and the internet, there’s a good chance you see or experience something gear-related throughout the day. I’ll admit that I’m so enthralled with gear that I often forgo watching TV to check my phone to see what the latest thread or blog or article discussing new releases have popped up. It’s truly an addiction, one that I barely keep at bay on most days.
Most of these groups and pages have quite a varied group of members, with diverse backgrounds that range all over geographically, and with that comes the differences in cultures and varied view on race, religion, and many other variables. Thankfully, most of the places that I frequent don’t pay any attention to any of those external factors, and the focus remains on gear. Other than the subjective opinions that come up about that gear, they’re normally friendly and great environments. But not always. I’ve noticed a trend on so many groups lately that it’s become second nature to expect it to happen, and it eventually will. Inevitably there will be a member that will join, and they do NOT agree with opinions that go against their own. They disagree with a post or take a cheap shot at another member, and things devolve from there. I’m not talking about trolls necessarily. (I wrote another blog on that very topic, you can check that out here). These are people who are whole-heartedly invested in their belief, and if you question or bring up a counter-point, an argument inevitably ensues. I’ve found this especially prevalent on certain hot topics, such as discussing Klon Centaurs, Relic Guitars, or specific guitar brands and their quality. Any of those topics will ignite a burning flame in someone, who can DEFINITELY hear the magic in the diodes, or who only buys from a certain place of origin because they’ve got a stigma in their mind that guitars from XYZ are just garbage, no matter what.
I’ve come to ask myself this question on a regular basis: Are we taking gear and gear discussions too seriously? We all want to chase those ever-elusive tones, but how we each do it is going to depend on a lot of factors. Personal tastes aside, monetary reasons can put a big damper in our plans. Yes, we’d all love a Dumble or vintage Les Paul or Strat, but that’s usually not in the cards for the average player. So, we chase those tones we have in our head with the funds we have at our disposal, and luckily there are enough brands with various offerings that can get you close to that (some closer than others). Opinions are like buttholes though, everyone’s got them. I think we can all agree that not everyone is going to agree on loving all the same things. Variety is the spice of life and all that. But when I brought up selling my Centaur in my last blog, I was met with various comments regarding whether that was a good move or not. Some agreed totally, agreeing with my point that the used prices are a bit absurd and that they were able to find a great alternative for a fraction of the cost just like I did. There were a few people, however, that went out of their way to express that I was wrong and my thought process was off and that the price truly is justified and it’s the greatest in the world. That’s great, more power to you. If that’s what hit’s the spot then cool, go for it. Some got so heated in their beliefs that they felt they needed to convince me I was wrong, and subsequently various members started arguing, which led to people almost being banned from that group. Why in the heck is that so important that it’s worth getting into an argument over?
Another example that I see frequently posted are the users posting pictures of large pedalboards with a wide range of effects, with comments to follow saying, “All you need is a guitar and an amp” or “You must be compensating for lack of skill” or “I only use amp dirt and a single delay”. I completely understand and can appreciate the traditional minimalist approach. Times change though, and if you’re in a band that covers a large variety of music, you’ll need the tools at your disposal to achieve whatever the song calls for. On the flip side, there are the players that flaunt their gear choices, going specifically into how many amps and how much each one costs (usually equaling a lot). That’s great, we get you have money and appreciate discerning tastes in gear. Owning a small fortune in gear doesn’t equate to knowing everything about tone. Just because something costs exponentially more doesn’t necessarily make the tone that much more superior, nor will it make someone play better. I refer to the video of Joe Satriani playing a cheap knock-off guitar into a Peavey Bandit and RP200. Granted, it didn’t sound like his rig, but raw talent got it close enough that you could immediately identify what was being played (Surfing with the Alien). It’s all just trivial, and it doesn’t matter if you invested $400 in a guitar or $4,000, if it hits the spot then that’s all that matters. Knocking another player’s rig solves nothing and if anything rains on their parade, instead of appreciating the effort they put into it and moving on.
Lately, the big topic everyone has been discussing is Gibson’s current releases and the quality control, after a recent catch showing an advertisement for their new Les Paul that had dings in it. Many people were immediately dogging Gibson and discussing how overpriced their models are and the subsequent decline in attention to detail. There were some extremely heated arguments regarding the amount of money spent on Gibson’s, some saying they are still fantastic guitars and still an icon of sorts, where others were saying they are complete garbage and trashing the brand and people who appreciate their Gibson guitars. Around the same time, Fender released their Brad Paisley signature guitar, and the internet lit ablaze at the cost of the instrument being too high because they’re made in Mexico, the fact that it didn’t feature a rosewood neck like the one it was paying homage to, and the fact that it didn’t have a G-bender. Let’s look at just those 3 things and break them down. Brad wanted them to be affordable, hence having them MIM. That doesn’t mean cheap, that just means more cost-effective than labor costs in the US. Regarding the neck, Brad doesn’t like rosewood, if you look at his current touring guitars there are only a couple of them with rosewood necks. He’s always been a fan of maple. Lastly, the G-bender mechanism Brad uses is from Charlie McVay, a small business owner who literally couldn’t produce that many benders to suit Fender’s needs, let alone at a cost-effective level. Yes, there are other companies out there with alternatives, but there’s also the issue of consistency and longevity and added cost, which all adds up to a more expensive guitar. I guess my point is that until all of the facts are known and verified, or unless someone has experienced using the instruments themselves, passing judgment just comes off as trolling and disconnected.
So why did I write this whole thing? I don’t know, maybe making the issues stare people in the face will make them realize what’s going on and thinking before just posting the first thing that comes off the top of their mind? One can dream. I’d like to just reinforce the point of taking gear discussions a little more lightly, most people are there to learn and enjoy guitar and gear with like-minded people. Not everyone will agree, and that’s totally okay. How you respond to the disagreeing part is what sets people apart. So sit back, enjoy soaking in the info and comradery over our favorite instrument. To summarize, I’ll leave you with this quote from Travis Feaster: “If you’re offended, I forgive you.”