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Antelope Zen Go Synergy Core: Review

Antelope Audio has long been associated with the more professional end of the market when it comes to audio interfaces and clocking: superb sound quality, multiple I/O options, FPGA processing, and sophisticated mic modelling are some of the features which have set the brand apart from the competition. The company has introduced a new compact interface that at £449 or less is half the price of its previous entry level interface, the Discrete 4 Synergy Core. So what has been sacrificed (if anything) to accommodate that kind of cost-effectiveness?

The Zen Go Synergy Core (ZGSC for ease of ID) is a bit like a baby Zen Tour Synergy Core, a desktop interface which has been available for around three years now but with a smaller desktop footprint and reduced I/O. The front panel features a large rotary control which in isolation controls the amount of monitor level to your speakers, and when you press it, mutes the output signals. If you press and hold it for a second or so it will also dim and then undim the signal.

When you press the small gain control once, it selects the first mic preamp; and twice, the second. Pressing the rotary with either mic pre moves between mic/line and instrument HiZ, and turning the rotary adjusts the input gain level. The middle of the three switches assigns either of the two headphone outputs, and main monitor output to the rotary. And pressing the little Antelope button exits you from the gain and monitor function but leaves whichever monitor output that you last selected assigned to the rotary.

The rear panel features two combination XLR/TRS jack inputs, two pairs of parallel outputs for monitoring - one on phonos, the other on balanced TRS jacks. There are stereo S/PDIF in and out and two USB-C connections - one to link to your computer, and one for additional bus power should you be using a laptop.

On the front there are two large ¼-inch independent stereo headphone sockets; the front panel also mentions the 64-bit AFC (Acoustically Focused Clocking) jitter management technology, supporting sample rates up to 24-bit/192 kHz. This is the same technology which is shared throughout the Antelope range in everything from their Goliath HD and Orion 32HD, and now the ZGSC.

What this ultimately means is, before you even load Antelope Audio’s accompanying Synergy Core software suite - and providing you have a Mac - you have a functioning USB interface straight out of the box. And not just any USB interface; this one sounds stunning, every bit the pedigree of Antelope’s high-end studio interfaces.

IT HAS A DEPTH AND WARMTH OF SOUND THAT YOU ASSOCIATE WITH MORE POWERFUL RACK UNITS

I spent a good hour listening to some of my ‘off the shelf’ favourite pieces of music and acquired hi-res files before I even thought about registering the ZGSC and downloading the accompanying software - or even opening up my DAW for that matter - such is the musicality of the ZGSC. I even started noticing things in pre-recorded songs that I hadn’t noticed before. The euphoria of a new device? Well, this is not the first new interface I’ve plugged in this year, put it that way..! So it’s clear that absolutely nothing has been sacrificed in terms of sound quality.

The Synergy Core

Setting up the ZGSC is very easy. Just log into or set up an Antelope Audio account, download the Mac or Windows installer, and follow the prompts. At the core of the ZGSC is its DSP and FPGA chips which provide real time FX processing of the Synergy Core software plugins used in the ZGSC control panel. It so happens that this is the same software available for the whole range of Antelope products which incorporates thunderbolt 3, 4 and USB drivers so you can use the processing power of onboard FPGA chips with the suite of plugins in your DAW.

Sadly the ZGSC doesn’t allow straightforward access to the individual plugins directly from your DAW; there is a slightly more involved procedure of routing audio to the Synergy Core, so you can add the FX from within the interface. This is a minor point, but if like me you find a great sounding plugin, there’s a tendency to want to try it on other instruments and channels on existing projects in your DAW. As many other providers of products with onboard DSP and FPGA processing provide the means to use their plugins directly in the DAW, perhaps this is something Antelope will look at for future updates of the Synergy Core software? However, the good news is that the ZGSC is now fully supported with the new M1 Macs.

Core Strength

As we have all found out at some point or another, recording directly into our DAW using a bunch of plugins to control vocal dynamics and give a particular characteristic to the sound without increasing latency is not easy. The aim of the ZGSC is to allow you to assign a mic pre, a compressor, an EQ, and possibly even a gate if need be, all with next to zero latency and monitor in real time. I was very impressed with how quiet the preamps on the ZGSC were and how much dynamic range there was. It was difficult at times to see this as a desktop bus-powered USB interface. It has a depth and warmth of sound you associate with more powerful rack units.

Recording acoustic guitar through a couple of different mic combinations was a good starting point. I used a 414 with the BA31 and the Stay Levin which is a very warm and in-your-face compressor, but at the same time gentle. For the second, I used a stereo pair of DPA 451s which I still swear by, but with the same plugins. It was a real revelation hearing exactly how the sound changed as I made small adjustments in relation to the microphone’s position. It was also lovely to be using really open analogue sounding devices that had such a rich, warm tone. There are a wealth of additional plugins that you can add as you go should you wish, from the likes of SSL and other manufacturers, but you are provided with some really good preamps, compressors and EQs straight out of the box.

I’m looking forward to the time when I can meet up with some of my musician friends so I get the opportunity to try some really good vocal recordings with this interface. I can really see the appeal of carrying, for example, the Antelope Edge mic with which you can emulate a range of vocal mics to use what suits. Hell, even if you’re just experimenting to see which mic suits a particular vocal style best, that combination’s going to save you a lot of time and money. And if you’re new to music creating, then you’re going to learn a lot.

Guitar Shop Heaven

This brings me to the section which features the fully unlocked amp and cab models, no additional outlay required. You get 11 amps and 11 cabs, and there are also some additional chorus effects. And of course there’s absolutely nothing stopping you using your trusty FX pedals before you plug into the Zen Go Synergy Core.

While all the usual suspects are available, there’s a certain quality about them; the sound is accurate, but more important is the way the instrument responds and behaves, almost like sitting in front of the amp and having the sound affect the vibration of the strings. A particular combination that demonstrated this to me was the Rock 22.10 with the Green 4 x 12. It was uncanny the way the strings reacted to the gentlest of touches, just like a real amp behaves when you’re not in total control of those strings. And the level of sustain which sounded like it wanted to feedback if I just turned to face the speaker cab (which sadly wasn’t really there at all), takes me back to a time before children when I was forced to sell my last remaining Marshall 2204!

The Top 30 Bright was another that had the feel of an AC30 as well as the sound; you know it’s an emulation, but it just has the sound and feel of an amped up Vox on a studio floor somewhere. There’s a Plexi59, a couple of Fenders, the Darkface, the Tweed Deluxe, two Mesa Boogies, an Orange 120, a Burnsphere (which sounds like an ENGL), and several others including a bass amp, and Bass Supertube, which surely has to be the Ampeg SVT.

The great thing about all of these amps and cab models is that they’re all unique in tone and incredibly simple to set up and use, which is exactly what you want from a songwriting suite of tools. They’re excellent, and of course once you have that inspirational moment and capture a great performance, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you from re-amping that guitar ‘til your heart’s content.