|Mesa Boogie - inside the shop that changed the face of amplification|
It’s not too far-fetched to say that Mesa Boogie has been a victim of its own success. Depending on when you started paying attention to such things, Boogie has represented a specific amp for a specific time period. For example, I started playing in the early ‘80s, and I can remember catching the Clash, playing live on ABC’s Fridays. Mick Jones was playing his black Les Paul Custom through a blond Mark II. From then on – for me at least – all Boogies were Mark IIs. Joe Strummer was enamored enough of Mesa Boogie that he later gave them a shout out in the oddly R&B flavored tune, “Version City,”on 1980’s Sandinista! “All stations to the Mesa Boogie Ranch.”
Fast forward to the ‘90s; the first half of the decade was all about the Mark IV. Numerous players from were using them for everything from jazz to rock, digging the flexibility of three channels and the extensive EQ options. But the big news was that the metal boys jumped on it hard. Metallica, in particular, made good use of the cascading gain stages found in the Mark IICs and Mark IVs. Once again, Boogie found themselves known for one amp.
Later in the same decade a new amp design took hold for the Petaluma-based company: the Rectifier series. The Dual Rectifier became the grunge amp. Flip on SNL, and if a band originally from Seattle was playing, chances are it was through a Mesa. A big proponent of the Dual Rectifier was Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, using Dual Recs both live and in the studio. At that time, when you said “Boogie,” or better yet “Mesa,”chances are you meant “Rectifier.”
The end result has been that if you haven’t paid close attention, you might think Boogie has produced only three amp models over the past 40 years. The reality is they've made plenty of other amps, both past and present, that break out of the high-gain, tons-of- EQ-options mold, such as the Maverick series in the ‘90s, and the Lone Star and Stiletto series today. We were fortunate enough to be able to talk shop with Doug West and Randall Smith of Mesa Boogie, and find out what is in store for the amp faithful.
We first sat down with Doug “Tone Boy” West, Mesa Boogie’s Director of R&D, about the current state of Boogie, and what’s new in Petaluma.
Mesa Boogie has changed considerably since the “Dog House” days, yet the new Express amps’ small stature recalls nothing more than the original Boogie. Was that intentional?
Doug: Yeah, I would say it’s intentional in that we wanted the Express series to be super-portable. We have bigger amps like the Road King and the Roadster and all these amps that have much bigger cabinets for their 1x12s. We’re leaning back to getting something more portable, a little more balanced sounding. There’s been a trend toward bass heavy combos lately, and, for the last five years or so, it seems like everyone has been making the biggest 1x12 they can. We were just trying to get back to not only portability, but also the sound and balance, where the bass isn’t so prevalent.
On the original Boogies, the cabinets were made with 3/4” birch, and the Express is made out of 5/8”, so it has a more breathy sound than the original. You know, the original cabinets were like a cannon shot. They come right at you and don’t spread as much sonically, whereas the Express definitely spreads a little bit more. Could you explain how the Duo-Class power amp works?
Basically, when it’s in full power position, it’s running Class A/B and pentode, and when you switch down to the 5-watt position, it’s running Class A single-ended. It turns into a really sweet-sounding, but inefficient amp which is great for clipping the power section. Was the Duo-Class design the impetus for the recent Lone Star redesign?
Yeah, we wanted to include that on the Lone Star too, because we figured that it would be a little strange for our most affordable line to have a feature that our higher-end line didn’t have. You know, we’re always trying to find stuff here; always sleuthing to find new tones. When we have a feature like that we try to make sure we can redo any amp that doesn’t have it, although with the Road King we didn’t really feel like it was appropriate, because you’ve got so many power selections and it’s so big. We decided that guys who are buying Road Kings don’t really want to go down to 5 watts, you know? We won’t put it on the Rectifier line, but we thought customers of the Lone Star series would be the type of guys who would really appreciate it. Was the Contour control a conscious move away from the involved EQs of the Mark series, a way to simplify things for a newer audience?
Yeah, we were trying to make it easier for people to use, and it’s just such a cool way to do it. You don’t have the flexibility of the five-band, but you have the ease. We did something similar with the TriAxis 17 years ago, where you have all of the EQ inductors, and they’re all basically tuned to a different frequency. You’re able to roll it up and down, and put in the amount of EQ that you want at that preset curve. You would think that that would work for only one style of music, but it seems to work for clean as well as it does for high-gain sounds. Parametric EQs are great, but you can paint yourself into a corner quickly if you aren’t careful.
Exactly, and people have a tendency to go overboard with it. Just because you can, you will?
I approach it from this point of view: EQ is like putting spice in food. Some people will turn on the contour and play and then turn it off and say, “The amp sounds flat,” and that’s definitely a case of EQ hangover. Most amps throughout the years have never had that type of EQ circuit in them. Ours have, but the majority of amplifiers that everyone agrees sound great don’t have extensive EQ options, so we encourage people to try the amp first without the contour, then gently roll the contour on to find where it sounds good to them – their sweet spot. If you just go in there and turn the contour to ten, then the amp will sound broken when it’s off. It’s a lot like food, really. No one wants to eat something spicy, with tons of garlic, and then go back to a plate of scrambled eggs, without hot sauce. Sure, the flavor, or basic tone, can get lost.
Yeah, it’s like, hey, there’s nothing wrong with the eggs; you just blew your taste buds out on the spicy stuff. So what does the Roadster bring to the Rectifier series lineup?
We started to see a lot of guys that didn’t play the heavier styles of music using the three channel Solo heads, so we wanted to bridge that gap and give those guys a way to get those lead sounds in addition to a really great clean sound and some reverb. It seems like it’s worked, because Roadster sales have just gone crazy. It was the three channel Recs for 15 years, and that’s been our best seller, but now it seems like the Roadsters are actually starting to take some of those players away – like it’s bridged the gap. We gave it the Lone Star’s clean sound. That’s a really different clean sound than the Duals and Triples have; more traditional, paying homage to Leo’s designs. Let’s talk about the Stiletto Ace a little bit. Who was the perceived target market when you were coming up with that design?
I’d say that it was aimed at guys that grew up playing British amps, but with an attempt to lift the veil off of the clean sounds – to get them experiencing big, blooming cleans.
You know, it’s been the same thing throughout the years; we love typical British sounds but we were really frustrated with not being able to go from an EL34-type sound to a clean sound that we thought sounded right. So once again, it was an attempt to bridge a gap where we saw one. How has the response to that amp been so far?
It’s good, but it’s slow, like we thought it would be. You don’t get guys off something that they’re used to – it’s like trying to give a Harley rider a Hayabusa. A guy used to driving a Ferrari doesn’t want a Porsche, because he isn’t used to it. But it’s starting to gain momentum. That’s what I always see, though. Randy gets worried sometimes, and he’s like, “Oh dude, they’re not a smash hit!” and I always say, “Wait, man. You gotta wait and be patient.” It takes a while for street-level confidence to build. When we first launched the Rectifiers, I would say it was a year and a half before they kicked in. We were actually shooting for the hair bands of the late ‘80s, and we missed that completely and created this new style of amp. We’re currently 16 years into its success. And that totally turned into the grunge amp.
Exactly, and that wasn’t even what we were aiming for at all. It’s just this weird thing that happened. Now it’s really appreciated by a lot of the goth and death metal bands, so I think it’s that same thing where you just have to be really patient.
You know, I have to say that we blow it sometimes in that we’re always going for tone first, and there have been two versions of the Stiletto. The first one we all loved and then we shared it with a bunch of guys, and about half of the guys loved them, and the other half said, “They’re not hardcore British enough yet.” So we changed it after only a year, and that kind of threw a wrench in the works.
The current version we made a little more hard-hitting and tighter in the upper mids, and we changed the Fluid Drive mode a bit, too, to be more like the rest of the amp. In the first version, it was really different than the rest of the amp – it was much more Boogie-esque. It’s funny though, because now there are a few people out there looking for what we call the “stage ones.” I think as guitar players we’re all the same; nothing matters until it isn’t being made anymore. You guys need to bring stuff out for like three months and then quit making it.
[laughs] Randy and I joke all the time that the best way to make something successful is to quit making it. Can you share with us some of the artists currently using the Stiletto?
Andy Timmons is one of the most visible; he’s just freaking out over it. Al Di Meola’s using an Ace, Tom Wisniewski of MXPX, Marcos Curiel of POD, Skip Dorsey and Mike Scott from Justin Timberlake’s band, and of course, Mike also played with Prince. He’s a really great guitar player. Also, Captain Kirk Douglas from the Roots has been playing them. Once again, that’s the amp finding a use in a style of music that we didn’t really design it for. We were thinking more classic rock and rock sounds, and these guys using them for funk and, of course, rock solo sounds, but that just speaks to the versatility of the amp. Randy Smith is the founder, and spiritual leader at Boogie. We were fortunate enough to talk with him and learn some unique insights into what makes him and the company tick.
Is your entire guitar amp line up now fixed bias?
Randy: Almost, the Lone Star Special is the one amp that’s cathode biased, meaning it doesn’t have a fixed negative-voltage bias supply. Most people call cathode-biasing Class A because it sounds sexier. When asked to explain this, and the difference with Class AB, it ran to about 30 fun-filled pages available on our web site (mesaboogie. com). But there is another common meaning for fixed bias, and that’s when the negative-voltage supply is not user-adjustable, and we do that too. All our negative bias supplies are fixed at the factory, that is, they’re wired to supply the correct voltage, and never need adjustment. Mesa Boogie was the first company to use finished, hardwood cabinets for guitar amps – fancy them up a bit. Where did that idea come from?
The tolex aftertaste! I really didn’t like putting on the vinyl covering. I used a hot-melt, hide glue, heated in a simple double-boiler over a hot plate, and brushed the shit on. After doing that for a few hours I felt like the fumes had settled on my tongue. Gave it a sticky, disgusting taste and the worst thing was, I could picture that crap just lying there. Brushing your teeth didn’t remove it; luckily vodka did.
For a little more effort, and much more pleasant work, I could produce a unique, hardwood cab with dovetailed joints and a hand-rubbed oil finish. I used all different kinds of hardwood that I picked out at White Brothers over in Oakland, and I carried the boards back in my old 1959 Mercedes sedan. Unfortunately, that ripped up the headliner and gouged up the top of the dashboard. I haven’t forgotten their motto: “The first hundred years are the hardest!” We’ll see! The wicker caning for the grille was some remnant I found in theback of my father’s old shop and I started using it when Lee Michaels said he wanted his amps to look at home in Hawaii. Lee’s cool, and we still hang out once in a while. Randy, you’ve been responsible for so many of the music industry’s innovations throughout Boogie’s history. Where do you get the inspiration to keep coming up with things like the Duo-Class power amp design?
Who knows? Some guys can think up dozens of great melodies. I’m usually just trying to solve a problem or fulfill a wish. It was our Deacon, Steve Mueller, who thought it would be cool if the Lone Star Special could switch from four EL84s to two, to one. After I gave him some lengthy answer on why that’s not possible – due to the iron in the output transformer needing to be a different shape – I got to thinking. I remember I was swimming when the light came on, and I realized how I could fool the transformer into thinking it was still working push-pull, even though it was running single-ended. By the time I got out of the water, I had it pretty much worked out and went and tried it. And it seemed to work, especially since I could add or delete the parts that fooled the transformer. You could definitely see, and hear, that it solved the gapped-core problem. After being at this for more than 40 years, do you still get pumped about going to work every day?
I don’t really go to work, and it doesn’t really seem like work no matter where it is. I more-or-less live the design process. First, I spend most of my time at home so I don’t have to go anywhere, though I do enjoy going down to the shop a couple afternoons a week to hang with the guys. But I think if you’re going to get good at doing something, you’ve got to do more than just work at it. You’ve got to dig deeper and live it, so I’m the portable designer. My pencils and graph paper are always there; I’m always in the creative design process. If you’re going to live it, you’d better love it, ‘cause it’s going to become your life!
I’ve been very fortunate to stumble onto something I still find interesting that’s provided a nice life not only for me, but also the people I work with. The vibe at Boogie is amazing; I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. I mean, it is a job, I know that, but compared to whatever else is out there, we’re all pretty darn happy – even the guys putting on the tolex! They’re so good at it, it’s amazing. Whenever I see them, especially if I’m taking someone through on a tour, I make a big deal about their work and their workmanship because it’s some of the hardest work physically, as well as the most demanding in terms of craftsmanship. And all day long they’re kicking ass, knocking out cabs with great pride. Of course, they don’t have to brush on the glue any more, so they don’t suffer from tolex aftertaste! Is there a holy grail of amp design that you refer to? A specific design that you think is perfect for its particular application?
I like the last part of that question, “…a design that’s perfect for its application.” Yeah. That is the goal for anything cool, like the perfect melody, or the perfect chord – it’s got to be in the right context to be perfect, yeah? I’d say a Vox AC30 is pretty close. It’s totally limited, and not versatile at all. It does one thing and one thing only, but if that’s what you want, it does it perfectly. It has defined a musical context which it perfectly fulfills, and it’s easy to identify because it’s capable of nothing else. Of course, I came up wrenching on Fenders, and those Vox amps were weird nightmares to work on, just bizarre; needlessly costly and complicated in a way only the British could produce. Meanwhile, the circuit itself looks to have been restricted to the absolute miserly minimum in terms of parts and cost. In their day they weren’t so well regarded, not in California anyway.
It’s easier when you’re talking guitars. Strats, Teles and Les Pauls perfectly define and fulfill the expectations for a guitar. That’s why they’ve become the classics they are. With amps, it’s a little trickier. Because of the variety of venues and styles musicians are going to encounter, there’s no single old amp that’s always going to be right, particularly an AC30! That desire for sonic versatility – no, it was actually the endless complaints about the limitations of classic tweed and blackface amps back in their day, that’s what got me searching for what turned out to be the holy grail of gain. Once that door was opened, all kinds of things became possible. But there are so many other elements to work with, preamp and power amps... we’ve got more possibilities now than ever.
So, have you been granted the patent for the Duo-Class design? Could you walk us through that process?
Yeah, sure. The patent was issued rather quickly, number 7,173,488. It should be a real strong one because it’s very clear cut; it’s how to get an amp to switch between push-pull and single-ended.
For those interested, patents are comprise of two main parts, the Specification and the Claims.The Spec part describes the history, background and application of the invention and provides both a general and a detailed description of the invention itself in plain language. The Claims are written in an arcane legal language that hopefully describes the invention in general and generic terms. Properly written, the Claims will be broad enough to anticipate minor variations so that infringers can’t use them to circumvent the patent. But if those Claims are written too broadly, they open the door to prior art that infringers will cite to invalidate the patent, even if the prior art has nothing to do with the invention. So patent litigation, and I know a bit about this, often becomes a contest between the Claims and the Specification. I always write the Specifications part myself because it saves money and forces me to think really clearly. After all, I do know more about something I’ve discovered or invented than some lawyer would. That only makes sense, and I’d advise anyone considering a patent to read in the same field and follow the format in writing their own Specification.
But the Claims, my God! I recall reading the Claims part of my first patent – 4,211,893 – and I couldn’t even understand it! That was after the writer who was the retired head of the Amplifier Art division of the Patent Office said that my Spec was the best-written one he’d seen! Unfortunately, he drew the Claims narrowly enough that it wasn’t that hard to circumvent, but also broadly enough that it did open the door to a prior art that bore no relationship whatever! He was a real genius. Of course, he kept telling me the problem with the invention was “it will distort!” That should have been my first clue.
Maybe, in retrospect, it was a good thing. If that had have been a bullet-proof patent, we’d be the only ones building channel switching amplifiers with clean and lead sounds, and we’d still be battling over it. Bottom line – patents have some value, but not as much as you want. The funny thing is it’s like catching someone inside your house, stealing your shit. When you challenge them, they say they have every right to because first, they’re not stealing it, second, it’s not your shit, and third, it’s not really your house because someone else has a house like this one so the shit inside isn’t yours. What you’ve got to understand most of all is that defense lawyers are paid to lie on behalf of their clients. They will sit across the table from you and tell you with a straight face what everybody knows is simply not true! Now I always write a few of the Claims myself, that way there is at least something in there that makes basic, real sense and describes the invention. We’ve actually got a stellar record defending our patents and trademarks, but the process sucks because you’re often forced to deal with people of limited integrity. You have mass distribution, your amps are widely available, yet Mesa Boogie is still considered by many to be a boutique amp. Is that what you were shooting for?
Yeah, although I didn’t know it at the time. It’s been said we originated the boutique amp concept, and I think that’s true, but I was just trying to make something hip and keep from starving. My goal was to make the best, not the most. Leave that battle to the others. It still seems like a good idea. Great high-performance tube gear is hard to make. You can’t just stamp it out mindlessly unless you de-tune it first, which is what the big boys usually do. But I did lay down two basic principles which we’ve followed since day one: first, hand-build the best amplifier you can, and second, treat each person the way you’d like to be treated. I think that no matter what the endeavor, those two principles will hold you in good stead, and almost guarantee some level of success.
Next, what level of success are you satisfied with? Some people are never going to be satisfied. Even when they rule kingdoms, they’ll want the one next door, too. I’ve always been happy just by doing something creative and interesting that fulfills those two principles. Also, since I started out totally broke, the money has always seemed to take care of itself, just through treating people right.
But I also think if grabbing the big bucks is your goal, you’d better be ready to time your exit, ‘cause you’re going to be selling that boat down the river – you’ll want to get off before it heads over the falls. I saw that happen in the old days with both Gibson and Fender, and it seemed like a real shame. The big corporate mentality ruined the work of geniuses. So, you can whore it out, or you can treat it like a child, and grow with it; which do you want to do? For me, the journey remains interesting and satisfying in itself, and I’m not looking for an end point. Want to catch up on your Boogie History? Check out our visual timeline.