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The end result of that epiphany was the Mark II. But Smith and his clientele still weren’t satisfied. “The Mark II was the first channel-switching amplifier,” Smith says. “Then there was constant need to improve the effects loop, which—again—was a new concept. So the Mark II-B sought to improve upon the effects loop. But they also used a relay that made a huge pop when you footswitched if you didn’t stop playing at the moment you footswitched.” Realizing something had to be done to eliminate that annoying pop, Smith began work on what many consider to be the holy grail of Mesa amplifiers—the Mark IIC+.
“The footswitch pop and the effects loop caused me to rearrange a lot of other stuff in the Mark II-B to try and accomplish that,” Smith confides. “The other thing that happened was that Doug West came on the scene around that same time, so it became a collaborative project between me, Doug West, and Mike Bendinelli. Who could have predicted at the time that it would be such a groundbreaking project? We were just trying to make it sound great and overcome what we saw as some of the shortcomings of the predecessor.”
Judging by the esteem with which the Mark IIC+ is held by so many eminent players, it’s really not a stretch to say it was a revelation to the world of amplification at large. Regardless, as times and styles changed, Mesa found itself in a precarious position in the mid ’80s. “When the whole hair-metal scene was in full swing, the notion of a little Boogie combo was just too friendly and wasn’t threatening enough,” Smith explains. “We realized that and noticed that everyone was into big stacks and big crunch and so forth. I mean, you can crank a IIC+ and get killer crunch—listen to James [Hetfield] and Kirk [Hammett] on Master of Puppets—but it just didn’t look the part. People thought of Boogie as some sort of friendly hippie deal, and it didn’t fit the style.”
So Smith and his team began work on what would become the Dual and Triple Rectifiers. “I came up with the idea of making an amplifier that would be our rendition of a big, monster-metal head. I thought of the idea of putting the diamond plate on the front, which I thought was pretty damn tough. Circuit-wise, it’s pretty evolutionary, where everybody stands on the shoulders of those who preceded them and you can trace the circuitry back to a Fender 4x10 Bassman via Marshall, and so forth. We just put together everything that we knew and were completely blown away by the success of it.”
The positive reaction to the Rectifier line was so immense, in fact, that those who had before considered Mesa a hippie outfit making amps for blues dudes came to regard it as the premier metal amp manufacturer. “It just got so crazy,” Smith laments, “to the point where some people think of us as only a heavy metal amp company. So we have to occasionally remind these doubters that you couldn’t get anybody who has paid more homage to the Fender legacy than us.”
Design Elegance from
Start to Finish
As its founder, Smith is rightfully the public face of Mesa/Boogie, but he is quick to point out the impact of other key personnel. “The bottom line is that the depth and breadth of talent we have with everybody collaborating on these products in the beginning, throughout, and in the end is staggering.” Smith’s first employee hire was Mike Bendinelli, who was put to work immediately on power-supply boards. Bendinelli continues to work for the company to this day and is one of many Boogie employees who have been with the company for well over two or even three decades.
Smith says he prizes every employee and the expertise and experience they bring to their position. “[Leader of product development and marketing] Doug West has 31 years, and Mike Bendinelli has got probably close to 40 years,” Smith relates. “And the average lady wiring amps for us has 17 years with the company. Do you think they know how to wire a doggone amplifier after 17 years?” Vice president/cabinet guru Jim Aschow is described as being “absolutely essential,” and engineer Dan Van Riezen has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring some of the company’s most intricate and impressive products—such as the Triaxis, Royal Atlantic, and a myriad of hybrid bass gear—to life.
Given the complexity and ingenuity of Boogie designs, it’s no surprise that the processes of brainstorming, prototyping, and producing them are labor intensive. “The way we do it, there are so many different steps of assembling and building an amplifier,” says Smith. “First there is the design and layout of the circuit board, which is integral to the whole thing. On a circuit board—take the Mark V, for example—there are 200–300 little resistors. And we use 1-percent-tolerant resistors so that they are exactly the same. We have an auto-insert machine that puts all those parts on the circuit board. Then the board has a whole bunch of stuff that has to be put in by hand—but even though it’s a hand-done job, there is a machine telling you which part to pick up and where exactly to place it.”
Once the circuit board is complete, it gets put into a handbuilt chassis. “All the potentiometers and the heavy-duty stuff that’s likely to get broken throughout the life of the amplifier is connected by individual ‘flying leads’,” Smith explains. “I used to tell people when I walk around [the shop] that there are at least a thousand mistakes you can make on each amp—so even if you’re 99-percent accurate, an amp could have 10 mistakes in it.” That’s why, after each step in the process, the newest work is checked, rechecked, and then checked again.
Smith is so adamant about this attention to fine details, in fact, that his workers sometimes chide him about being a bit over-the-top. “Everybody at Mesa/Boogie has read the book Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs [a satirical biography] and laughed at me, but our neurosis is exactly that. For example, the traces on the bottom side of the circuit board—which nobody can see—not only have to be correct and musically appropriate, but also they have to be beautiful. That’s where the artistry comes in. That’s one of the reasons I still enjoy doing it—because of the satisfaction I get from achieving what I think is artistry in design, even if it doesn’t show.”