Mesa Rectifier Recording Preamp

May 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY GEORGE PETERSEN

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Some years ago, I hired Night Ranger's Brad Gillis to do some sessions that required a bit of amazing guitar pyrotechnics. He showed up at my studio with nothing more than a vintage Fender Strat and a Mesa Boogie Guitar Studio Preamp. I felt a little let down: No racks? No stacks? No pedals? As it turns out, all Gillis needed was that rig and a ¼-inch cable, and he proceeded to lay down some of the most amazing guitar tracks I'd ever heard. You can hear them now at www.mp3.com/arielrocks.

The Studio Preamp and other Mesa tube preamps that followed (such as the Quad Preamp and the Triaxis) captured that classic Mesa Mark Series tone that was part of the sound of performers such as Pete Townshend, the Stones, Larry Carlton, Carlos Santana and a billion other artists. However, the earlier preamps couldn't duplicate the raw, aggressive modern sound of Mesa's popular Rectifier Series amps, favored by groups such as Limp Bizkit and Soundgarden.

With that in mind, Mesa started a three-year R&D project to develop a box that would not simply model, but could actually create the blazing fire of a Recto Stack without the volume or hassles of amp miking. The result is the $999 Rectifier Recording Preamp, a two-rackspace, steel-encased chassis that seems to weigh as much as the stacks it replaces. But beyond acting simply as a preamp, the unit's recording outputs are designed to capture the sound of a tube amp reacting to a dynamically active speaker load, with a studio mic reproducing all of the nuances in detail.

You won't find any digital circuits here. It's all analog, with six 12AX7 tubes providing the punch of 12 Class-A triodes. Even the rear panel is nearly overwhelming in the interfacing it provides, with two balanced TRS stereo recording outs, two stereo “live” outs to connect directly to a power amp, effects loop output sends and returns (with a wet/dry effects control, ¼-inch switch outputs for the included channel switching and “solo” footswitch), a “modern” mode output to use with Mesa's Rectifier Stereo power amp and an extra input jack (paralleled to the front-panel input) for permanent in-rack installs.

The front panel is no less versatile. Each of the switchable two channels has gain treble, mid, presence and master pots. Both share output section controls such as a “live/bright” and “warm/record” preamp voicing switch, channel 1/2 switching for non-footswitch channel selection, and output level knobs for solo level and the recording and live output jacks.

Although each channel's knobs are similar, their sound is anything but. Channel One — the “clean” channel — also includes switches for bright boost, -3dB pad and a three-mode Clean/Fat/Brit tone switch, with the latter kicking in a circuit from Mesa's Road King amps for a wider tonal palette in recording situations.

Rather than offering the edgy, in-your-face sound that Recto is known for, Channel One provides a smoother effect for blues, rock and even country rhythm parts. Of course, amps are meant to be abused, and if nasty is what you're looking for, then crank that gain knob up to 11 and you'll have no shortage of distortions — lead or rhythm. Using high-gain settings in the Clean and Fat modes, however, resulted in an overwhelming wash of low bass that muddied up the sound. But turning the bass control way down restored the tonal balance. With more low-mid emphasis and a low treble bump, the Brit mode was useful for single-note soloing, power chording or crunch rhythms.

The fun really kicked in on Channel Two, which also offers three tonal modes (Raw/Vintage/Modern) to play with. Here, users should be aware that there's a small volume dip to the record outputs when switching into the Modern mode, so don't fall into that “louder is better” trap when making A/B/C comparisons between modes. Despite its name, the Raw mode offers a lower-gain and less saturated sound that worked equally well in blues rhythms or smooth solos.

The Vintage and Modern modes are closest to what people expect from a Mesa Rectifier amp, and give users a higher-gain punch with a choice of standard Recto sounds or a more aggressive, attenuated top end in the Modern position. Here, I encountered the best sounds by keeping the gain setting in the 9:30 to 2:00 range; less than that didn't pack any wallop, and much more than that seemed way over the top, although it's hard to say what your music requires. That said, very small variations in the gain (within the above range) were capable of huge tonal changes, depending on the master setting, of course. So here, a little studio experimentation really pays off.

Speaking of settings, the preamp's manual, which is very good overall, provides pages of suggested settings for different sounds, although there are no blank sheets so users can easily archive their own “presets.” Also, as this is a studio product, I wish the unit's balanced recording outputs were XLR (or Neutrik Combo) rather than ¼-inch TRS, but this is a minor point, as is a lack of a headphone output to practice or silently audition sounds in the studio. Maybe next time.

The Mesa Rectifier Recording Preamp doesn't create every amp sound on the planet and it doesn't pretend to. But for disciples of that elusive Recto sound, this is a serious tool that provides that tone (and a few others, as well) in a convenient recording package.

Mesa Engineering; 707/778-6565; www.mesaboogie.com.






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