My Love/Hate Mesa/Boogie Story, Part II: The Roadster in Review

boogie_3Although Mesa first released its Roadster series of amp heads and combos in 2006, it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally tried one. Playing it in the store, I was impressed enough to make the purchase. Based on my playing time since then in various environments, volumes, etc., and coupled with the many experiences of other Boogies I’ve played and owned through the years, to me the Mesa Roadster is THE best amp Mesa has ever produced. No contemporary multi-channel amp I’ve ever played previously had delivered such a consistently great range of tones across each of its channels – suitable for any style of music and user-friendly with any guitar.

While most reviews will leave the glowing praise (if deserved) for the end of a story as they wrap up in order to satisfy and hook readers in, let’s take a slightly different approach. I’ll cover the features and gloat about them as appropriate as we go along – and you already know generally what I think about the Roadster. It’s fantastic! But, we’ll also talk later about some of the amp’s deficiencies – fortunately none of them but one are tone-related. Finally, we’ll wrap up the discussion with what I feel is an urgent “must do” mod in order to make the Roadster truly sound its best. Without this mod, the Roadster just doesn’t achieve its full potential. So let’s begin.




The Basic Key Features

Now bare with me here – I’m going to do this rather quickly. Or as quickly as possible considering all that the amp offers. The Roadster has a LOT of features, but don’t let it scare you off – really. A Line6 POD or other modeling device is infinitely more complex but doesn’t provide the TONE payoff you can get here. O.k., let’s continue.

The Roadster is a four-channel 100-watt all-tube amp that is part of Mesa’s Rectifier series, and is designed to create tones from sparkling cleans to ultra-high gain distortion. The Roadster comes in head, 1 x 12 combo, and 2 x 12 combo versions and is based on the features of the Road King series amplifiers, but is stripped of some of the extra features of the RoadKing – essentially the ability to blend 6L6 and EL34 output tubes at the same time or combine or separate the tones from both the Celestion C90 and Vintage 30 speakers. The RoadKing also has multiple effects loop assignments and controls. But quite honestly, and without going through all the details, I’ll just provide my opinion on this: I feel the RoadKing suffers a bit with its additional circuitry and the Roadster overall is a better, more pure-sounding amp in comparison.

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On the front panel…While the Roadster at first glance looks rather complex, it is quite a simple and elegant design. Think of it as simply four unique separate amps with individual controls – just 6 knobs per “amp” (channel) – with nothing shared (except one overall Output volume control). It all begins at the power switch, which is a three-way toggle between Bold (full power) in the up position, off in the middle, and Spongy (Variac [email protected] approximately 10% reduction) operation. It has individual tone (Bass, Mid, Treble), Presence, Gain and Volume controls on its front panel for each of its four channels that are cleanly labeled. It has LEDs to indicate which channel is active and whether or not the effects loop is being assigned. A Solo level control provides bursts of volume on whatever channel you are playing when you punch it in. Output level controls the overall amp volume control after all 4 channels are otherwise set. Each channel itself has a unique three-way toggle switch that can change the tonal color and/or gain and essentially allows the player to select the overall character of that channel. The bottom line is the Roadster has twelve unique colors to select from in total (3 switch modes x 4 channels) and we’ll cover these in detail after we plug in.

Now, on to the back panel…The Roadster has individually controllable and channel-assignable reverb that can be switched in or out and with four reverb level controls for, you guessed it, each individual channel. Another switch on the back can individually turn on/off the effects loop. Each channel can also be uniquely set for 50 or 100-watt operation as well as for tube or silicon diodes with the respective switches. The individual channels can be selected by the panel’s rotary switch. A bias switch enables the choice of 6L6 or EL34 tubes (6L6’s are chosen as stock). There’s a direct out jack and level control, tuner output ¼” jack, effects loop ¼” jacks with level balance control, and a hard true bypass switch for complete removal of the effects loop circuit. This last feature is one of the keys – more on this switch later. Speaker output jacks are very versatile and enable the user to hook up individual 16, 8, or 4-ohm cabinets or a combination of two 8-ohm cabinets together. The footswitch jack is also found on the rear for the Mesa controller, and if the player wants even further control with external switching, there are dedicated ¼” jacks for these unique applications as well.

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The combo is equipped with the Vintage 30 (either one or two speakers of course depending on which model you choose). One peculiarity: the Vintage 30 speakers used in either combo is rated at 60 watts and yet it is strange to think that they even have a 1 x 12 combo version when the head itself is rated at 100 watts. Hmmm… It’s a unique design however, ported in the 1 x 12 and full-closed back for the 2 x 12 combo which both provide much more bass response than a typical open-back style combo. As to the single-speaker version, I’m sure Mesa put it to the test and if there was truly a concern for it blowing, they would have gone with something else. But again, it’s still an oddity.

Mesa also provides an 8-button footswitch for utmost control of each channel, reverb, effects loop, solo function, and tuner/mute. Nice slip covers for the amp and footswitch are also included.

For more comprehensive information about every feature on the Roadster, do check out the Mesa’s product page: http://www.mesaboogie.com/Product_Info/Rectifier_Series/roadster/roadster.html

Now Let’s Plug In!

Though I played through all versions of the Roadster, I opted to purchase the Roadster head, not only because I like to have the versatility to play through different speaker combinations and change my rig sizes as needed, but also because of the weight. The combos are HEAVY. We’re talking into the 100 lb+ range, and Mesa doesn’t openly list the weight of its amplifiers – only its speaker cabinets – on its website. But the head is approximately half the weight of the combo so it’s easier for me to move gear in two trips rather than risk injury lifting the combo in and out of my vehicle.

We’ll discuss speaker cabinets later as I’ve played through and owned various ones with the Roadster and this requires its own explanation. Needless to say, a 2 x 12 cabinet configuration was what I was going for here for a relatively portable “do-it-all” guitar rig.

Let’s start with Channel 1. This is your clean channel and its 3-position switch enables the selection between Clean/Fat/Tweed. Clean is the purest and lowest gain, Fat enables more bottom end and Tweed introduces a bit of grit to the signal and is based on adding the gain similar to what’s found in our beloved classic early American Fenders. The tones here are indeed classic Fender and can be set bright or neutral with tone controls that offer a nice taper.

I must say that the amp itself is incredibly easy to dial-in, and this is not a typical trait of the Mark Series Boogies. You really have a wide range of colors to choose from here that are all excellent.

With a Les Paul Custom plugged in with a PAF-style pickup, I preferred it set Clean, especially when using the neck pickup. The Fat channel does what it says though and by balancing out the Bass knob to ensure not too much low end is pleasant, a pleasing smooth glassy tone can be the result. It’s like the loveliest blackface era Fenders – of which I’ve owned plenty of and don’t miss because Channel 1 is so good. Nice headroom, brilliance on the top, and warmth on the bottom. With my single-coil equipped Stratocaster, I tended to favor using the Fat mode, which helped add the bottom end fullness back in which is lacking by design in most single-coil guitars. But that said, the Fat mode did not hinder the Strat’s ability to remain well-defined and articulate. The Tweed mod was nice, just a bit more top-end cut and gain for those interested. My preference here was to remain pure and clean however.

Channel 2 contains the same Clean and Fat modes, but the third position is Brit, designed to bring out even more of the gain structure and midrange emphasis of the classic early JTM-era Marshall amps. Certainly Brit is quite a unique gain stage of its own and the mids and gain are dramatically different from what the Clean/Fat modes otherwise offer. For Channel 2, I have it dialed in as my blues channel with mild-dirt, and my preference again was generally using the Fat mode and simply turning up the Gain control as well as adding in some additional mids. While Brit does offer substantially more gain, I found it not as much to my liking to go from Channel 1’s clean to something so dramatically different in tone shape in Channel 2. It feels more natural to go from the same clean tone of Channel 1 and then keep that tone but add a bit of overdrive and slight mids to the Channel 2 voice. But this is just my preference.

The beauty of the Roadster here though is if you prefer the gain structure of Tweed over Brit, you could simply assign Channel 1 as your mild-dirt channel and then dial-in Channel 2 as your pure clean channel. Both channels essentially are identical other than the Tweed and Brit modes.

One note on the reverb. It is beautiful and among the best I’ve ever heard. It’s natural, smooth and delivers a wonderful decay as it fades. The ability to assign more or less reverb on each channel individually is a pleasure to have as an option.

Channel 3 and 4 are the gain distortion channels, and like Channel’s 1 and 2, are similar in how they are structured as a pair. Both Channel 3 and 4 have modes Raw/Vintage/Modern, but Channel 4’s version of Modern mode is slightly more aggressive, and also includes a brighter taper on the Presence control. Raw/Vintage/Modern offer more gain as you move from each position respectively.

Playing with Channel 3 as my basic hard rock drive channel, I experimented with dialing in my medium gain demands by running through the modes, then setting the Gain control to match the gain amount I desired. By doing this, I discovered that using the lowest gain mode Raw and turning up the gain control provided better note clarity versus choosing a higher gain mode and then turning down the Gain mode. Raw was my preference because it sounded the purest while the other modes provided more top/trebly artifacts that I didn’t necessarily want in this medium-gain setting.

Channel 3 is a critically important channel for me as it is my hard rock channel. I have a love for Marshalls and the 2203 100 watt master volume in particular. Channel 3 is the one that has to deliver this voice. And it achieves it to my great pleasure. This is where smooth hard rock sounds are found with crunch that cuts through, but will remain balanced – like the best of Marshalls.

Channel 4 is dialed in as my lead channel and I tend to set up this in Modern mode with the preamp gain set between the 2 and 3 o’clock positions (varies depending on my guitar). Fantastic gain found here that is smooth and sustains well, with note definition that remains excellent without the over-compressed elements that sometimes plague other amp’s highest-gain modes. However, each of us has different tastes and this is where some people prefer the type of high-gain that the Mark series produces which is very compressed. If Channel 4’s gain isn’t compressed enough, that can be remedied by use of a compression pedal, or boosting the amp further, which is something I tend to do when playing the Strat. It’s another way of adding even more versatility and tone color throughout each channel.

Again, with the tone controls, finding my voice was easy – even when switching guitars – with only minor adjustments needed. Throughout all four channels, there were no “extreme” settings required with the tone controls. Everything tended to balance well with the knobs somewhat set around the middle 12 o’clock positions (give or take a bit here).

One of the great pleasures with the Roadster is the fact that it can be dialed in for great warm tones even at lower volumes, and of course it performs solidly at louder levels with the band. The preamp stages here are so sophisticated and finely tuned that they can really do it all. Even the earlier Rectifiers I’ve played didn’t seem to bloom until they were turned up. While technically, power tube compression isn’t occurring at lower levels, the ability to provide warmth with the tone controls certainly gets this amp sounding good regardless.

What about the other features? Tube vs. Silicon rectifiers or Bold vs. Spongy? These features both contribute to the “feel” of the amplifier rather than directly to the tone since they are both elements of the actual power supply circuitry of the amp. A silicon diode rectifier stage will enable the most efficient amount of power output and keep the feel of the amp tighter while Tube rectification provides a sagging feel when the amp is driven to peaks – felt especially with aggressive passages and low notes that will strain the power supply. In general at home playing or lower levels, it is very difficult to hear – or rather feel – the differences. But certainly when moving to a moderate level of volume, the feel of these choices is more pronounced. My general preference is to use the tube rectifiers for my bluesy Channel 2 setting and sometimes with my Channel 3 medium-gain rock setting. With the clean channel, I prefer the maximum headroom available to stay clean and with the high gain channel, I also prefer the clarity/tightness of silicon rectification.

The Bold/Spongy selection is like having a built-in Variac option to lower a portion of the entire input voltage that the amp is seeing – like going from 110 to 100 volts from your outlet. Bold is full power and keeps the feel and clarity of the guitar attack strong, whereas Spongy does as it says – provides a bit more compressed feel and softens the overall attack. In general, I do like what Spongy does for the amp across the entire circuit, but definitely could be happy with either selection. With a loud drummer, you may be forced to use Bold as I often am.

And how about 50/100-watt selection? Well unlike the other features just discussed, the 50/100-watt power option does impact the audio circuit as it switches between two or four output tubes. It also impacts the feel of the amp still in addition to reducing or increasing the output. 50 watts gives a more compressed character and blurs the feel whereas 100 watts feels punchy with more authority to the guitar’s attack. I found 100 watts to be my setting of choice for all the channels, though it is definitely a novel idea to enable individual 50/100-watt selection for each channel individually.

So overall, the amp does everything tone wise that I could want and sounds fantastic. From clean to bluesy overdrive, to driving rock, to metal/high-gain leads – all at my feet. Are there any downsides to the amp? Yes.

Close, But Not Quite Perfect

Playing out with this amp and owning it for more than a year, I’ve spent enough time with it to be able to pick apart some of the amp’s issues. Some were immediately obvious, others discovered over time (the first, an unfortunate accident). I’ll detail them one by one and provide input as to the severity of these things. In order of severity from LEAST problematic to worst:

1) Channel Loss When Footswitch is Unplugged. I’m not a rock star. This means that the venues I play out at are small clubs or bars and often have a small stage with all of us cramped up there. During a Halloween show I played last year, the singer came around to my side of the stage while I was playing on Channel 3 on a driving rock tune. He accidentally stepped on the cable that plugged into my footswitch controller and the cable disconnected. All of a sudden I was switched to Channel 1 of pure clean blackface Fender-type settings and it took me a few seconds to realize what had happened since I didn’t realize at first that my controller became disconnected. As a recommendation if it is possible by design, it would’ve been best to have the Mesa remain on its current channel of play when the controller cable disconnected. Obviously a lesson was learned here when I thought my amp had started to develop a personality of its own by automatically reverting back to Channel 1!

2) Channel 3 “Pop”. When first using the footswitch after the amp is first turned on, there will be a popping sound when going from any channel to selecting Channel 3. I spoke with Boogie support by phone and they downplayed it as not being a genuine problem since it’s only really audible at lower volumes. Still, you can minimize the popping effect by switching through the channels first after turning the amp on from standby. Once that’s done, it really isn’t a problem and I agree with what Boogie says. But it is an annoyance. Obviously if the popping was louder – in other words audible – during band practice or live work at any point, this would be a very severe issue.

3) Channel Switch Delay Muting. Mesa intentionally incorporates some delay in the internal relay-switching network by briefly muting the audio signal for a few milliseconds between channels to avoid circuit-switching noise. If you leave the Reverb on at all times (even if the reverb controls are dialed back to 0), somehow there really isn’t a problem and the delay/mute is virtually entirely unnoticeable. However, if you leave the Reverb OFF, the few milliseconds of muted signal is increased, annoying and borderline unacceptable depending on the music you are playing and your switching requirements. So leave the Reverb switched on always (and set the Reverb levels off if you don’t want reverb otherwise) if you want to bypass this issue.

4) Effects Loop Tone Suck: The Roadster manual talks about using the hard true bypass switch for recording sessions or other times when you want the purest signal possible. The problem is, once you’ve done that and turned off the internal effects loop (even with NO effects attached) and realize how GREAT the amp sounds with it out of the circuit, it’s tough to go back. The problem with having the effects loop circuit taken out of the amp this way is that you’ll also simultaneously lose not only the effects loop, but the use of the solo and overall amp output controls. So no more of that cool ability to instantly punch up your volume during solos on any channel. And now you have to use each channel’s individual Volume controls to set the levels as 4 separate amps and 4 master volume controls. But you know what? It’s worth it because while the tone is good with the effects loop in, but GREAT when it’s out. So what to do with your effects or toys that need a loop? Well, you either choose to run the effects loop and get better sounding processors and swirly effects, or you can run them up front – sacrificing the tone of the effects – but maintaining a great core amp tone. I chose the latter. The core amp tone is more important to me. This is the single most significant “issue” with the amp itself truly. But the next one to me takes the cake, even though it’s not directly about the amp itself.

5) Terrible Speaker Choice: This one is more about an opinion, but to me it is the BIGGEST problem with the amp, so let me go with this. Quite frankly the Vintage 30 is not a good speaker choice with this amp. The Vintage 30 in an enlarged/oversized Mesa Recto cabinet provides thunderous lows if you want it, but doesn’t do the clean channels justice at all. The detail of the high frequencies becomes more blunted and compressed – not open and vibrant. And what about the distorted channel tones of the Vintage 30? Well, there are certainly a camp of fans out there who like the speaker and that is o.k., but the upper midrange “honk” or nasal frequencies of the Vintage 30 gets on my nerves. No matter what you do with the tone controls, you cannot dial those frequncies out – you’re forced to listen to them just dominate the audio. It makes the amp sound smaller then it should and a bit boxy sounding. But if it’s a consolation of the Vintage 30, in its favor it does work for a lead tone that cuts through the mix if that’s what you’re after. But the amp circuit to me suffers overall running those darn Vintage 30’s. Which brings us to the final topic….

The Required Mod

You guessed it. Ditch the Vintage 30’s and try other speakers. The Roadster can do it all but it NEEDS a dynamically bigger sounding speaker to free it. Now, it’s not just the speaker, but the cabinet as well. And through my time ownership, though I won’t write about each one here in excessive detail, I first discovered there was something going on when I went from trying my Roadster 2 x 12 and then plugged into a standard Marshall 1960B 4 x 12 cabinet loaded with G12T-75 speakers. Obviously a 4 x 12 versus 2 x 12 may not be a fair comparison, but what I’m talking about here is a comparison of tone and what my ears heard – at all volumes. And though the G12T-75 is a polar opposite of the Vintage 30 in that it is a bit mid scooped, using that speaker enabled me to at least have the ability to add the right amount of midrange I wanted to hear with the amp’s own mid control. I was not “forced” to listen to the exaggerated upper mid honk that the Vintage 30 provides.

But the G12t-75 loaded 4 x 12 was NOT the best cabinet/speaker selection here in the end. The Vintage 30’s do provide nice lows that the 75’s lack. So between the 4 x 12, and also playing through both the C-90 equipped ¾ back 1 x 12 and 2 x 12 Mesa Cabinets, I felt that they each had their advantages and disadvantages. But all three of those cabinets were certainly better than the Vintage 30 equipped cab.

Now just a quick note on the C90s (which are the standard speakers included on the Lonestar). They were good, but still perhaps a little harsh at the top end frequencies when running higher gain with either ¾ back cabinets, so I then opted to try a pair of G12T-75s in the Mesa 2 x 12 Recto cabinet. Tonewise, that worked great. Unfortunately they flubbed out a bit on the lows at high volume in a band environment on the lower frequencies at times. The G12T-75s are also not the most efficient speaker, and have a sensitivity rating of 97dB, meaning that you will actually lose a few dBs of volume level at full power in comparison to using a Vintage 30. If only the G12T-75’s could handle the power of the Roadster in this oversized 2 x 12 cabinet, and be a hair more efficient, they would’ve been the perfect choice.

Then I discovered the G12K-100 Celestion, a design that is similar to the 75, but described as having 100 watt power handling, extended lows, and a slightly subdued top end compared to the 75, which could be slightly harsh. Also, 99dB efficiency rating! A pair of those went into the Mesa Recto cab and finally the perfect match was made in tone heaven.

g2k-100The G12K-100 is a full range speaker that balances beautifully with the Roadster. The cleans have a full, blossoming tone, and the distortion is dynamic and big. I think I’m on to something with this speaker choice as it is also used with Diezel amps.

When I first planned this article, I did not intend for it to be as lengthy as it turned out to be. I could have extended it further in fact, so I’ll make the conclusion here very short. If you’re looking for a handbuilt, solidly constructed amp that can provide a range of tones and truly plays well for use in both home environments or stage (and covers any style of tone imaginable), the Mesa Roadster amplifier is truly one to check out. The head sells for $1999 and is worth every penny.