Although Mesa Engineering of Petaluma, California, is perhaps best known for its Boogie tube amps for guitar, the company’s first built-from-scratch amplifier was a bass amp. “That’s right,” says Doug West, MESA’s director of R&D, who has been with the company since 1981. “From day one, we were a bass company. [Company founder Randall Smith] built that first amp for his friend Patrick Burke. Decades later, we bought it back—it’s here in our shop. It still works and sounds great.”
Smith launched his company in the late ’60s by hot-rodding Fender Princeton amps for more volume and sustain. (Carlos Santana famously gave them their brand name after plugging into one and stating, “That little thing really boogies!”) Smith moved on to hand-building amp heads, including that bass amp, in a converted doghouse that had once housed racing greyhounds. The company’s 100-watt Mark I guitar combo, introduced in 1971, was a big success, and MESA soon moved to a larger facility not far from the doghouse. It has remained there ever since, building all of its products in the USA with a small, dedicated crew of employees.
|From left: Dan Van Riezen, James Aschow, Randall Smith, and Doug West
The popularity of MESA/Boogie amps with guitarists has always tended to overshadow the company’s bass line, but that has shifted with the introduction of the Subway series. MESA still produces tube bass amps—the 250-watt Bass Prodigy and 465-watt Bass Strategy—as well as hybrid Carbine-series amps, with tube preamps and MOSFET power sections, but it’s the Class D Subway amps that have recently caught the ears of many bassists. “With those amps, it seems like we are finally known as a bass company,” says Doug. “The numbers have been phenomenal, and the support we’ve gotten on the bass forums and from artists has been great.” The Subway amps were designed by Andy Field, an experienced electronics engineer known for his previous R&D work with Genz Benz, Fender, QSC, and other companies. “He’s been amazing to work with,” proclaims Doug, who says that Field is now hard at work on “a lot more cool stuff” that will emerge in future product announcements.
Because of MESA’s long history with tube amps, its design team took a different approach to the Subway heads and matching Subway lightweight cabinets. “Class D amps definitely have a different tone and feel,” explains Doug, “so our approach was to incorporate the best qualities from our tube and MOSFET models in the sonic and textural domain while retaining the tight attack and stop-on-a-dime control aspects of Class D technology. In the end, the goal is: When you hear and feel it, does it make you want to play? Is it magic?”
Introduced in 2015, the first Subway head was the D-800 [reviewed in the June ’16 issue], a five-and-a-half-pound unit that delivers 800 watts into 4Ω. It has 4-band active EQ and the voicing control that has been a popular feature on other MESA bass amps. A newer model, the D-800+, offers the same power specs with more tonal flexibility, thanks to expanded EQ and a back-panel effect loop for outboard processing. The matching Subway cabinets are made from Italian poplar and have neodymium speakers plus a high-frequency horn; they are available in 1x12, 1x15, and 2x10 configurations.
While many of its competitors in the bass-amp market have been acquired by large corporations—and, in some cases, then shut down—MESA has remained faithful to its roots as a small, privately owned, and fiercely independent operation. Randall Smith, who’s 70, is still actively involved, and many of the key employees, such as VP/cabinet guru James Aschow, designer Dan Van Riezen, and Doug West, have been with the company for decades. “It starts with Randy’s philosophy: build the very best products we can, and treat every customer like we would wish to be treated ourselves,” Doug says. “Our goal has never been getting rich, but instead, taking satisfaction from doing our craft with excellence, and making sure that every MESA customer is happy. And, of course, the magic accidents never hurt—‘What would happen if we connect this to that?’ We’ve been fortunate to happen on a few of those in our 48 years!”
For more about MESA/Boogie amps, go to mesaboogie.com.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).