So… the Boogie Mark V. Rarely has an amp been subject to so much hyperbole; both good and bad. I wanted one since seeing the first John Petrucci and Lamb of God adverts in 2009; but I allowed the negative internet theories to put me off. Apparently these amps are finicky to dial in (at least partially true), lacking in bottom end (not true) and overly tight/dry (couldn’t be more wrong).
Let me make one thing clear from the outset; this is not an amp for everybody. Most guitarists don’t want an amp with pre and post EQs and an almost infinitely variable set of gain structures and response characteristics. Most guitarists – unless they take some time to check out some recommended settings and read the manual (a 63-page tome packed with lavish descriptions and a range of exuberant metaphors) – are simply not going to get the best out of this amp on the first, second, or even third test drive.
Make no mistake, the key to this amp is understanding it. If, like me, you’re a pathological amp flipper whose tastes are always changing and who is never completely satisfied, this could be the amp for you. Think of it as nine distinct preamps, three distinct power sections, and a pre and post EQ, and you’re on your way to visualising the overall concept of the Mark V. It is, essentially, about as close as you can get to a user-customisable modelling amp in an all-tube design. Simultaneously, it is one of the sweetest and most toneful amps on the market – at almost any setting – with a bubbly, vocal quality that pervades the tone at all times.
Doesn’t that sound perfect? Well, not for everyone. Some people will crave the up-front harshness and dynamicism of a JCM800, or the woody girth of a Plexi, or the simplicity and aggressive bark of a 5150/6505. Some simply find the concept of two EQs too much to grapple with, and might find themselves tweaking instead of playing. If this is you, you don’t want a Mark V. It can get in the ballpark of nearly all these sounds and way, way more – but not without significant work.
So, for the obsessive/compulsive tweakers and tone hounds, where does that leave the Mark V? It’s fair to say that no matter where you point the dials, some of the molten lava-esque Mark character remains. So, as a “Holy Grail” channel switcher it perhaps falls short. With the amount of midrange complexity, relatively tight low end, and playful character that exudes from this amp’s every pore, it is not and cannot be all things to all men – which perhaps accounts for some of the remaining negative reviews you may find on the internet.
This leaves, essentially, a smaller band of dedicated Mark Series followers. People like John Petrucci, who has used Mark Series Boogies on almost every Dream Theater album since the ’90s. People like Mesa’s own Doug West, who by his own admission would apparently rather stay at home than gig with anything but a Mark! To some of us who have “found” the Mark Series, it’s like a long-lost sibling we never want to be parted from again. Now, if you fall into this category, is the Mark V the ultimate studio and live tool? Let’s find out…
Channel 1 is the clean channel. I’m not writing an owner’s manual here, so I’m going to skip over a few of the features and peculiarites of each channel, and instead focus on what you can expect to find with a little research and a good ear. Essentially, the Mark V clean channel is – almost undebatably – one of the best on the market. It presents the lively bounce, authority and finesse of a great Fender circuit, with an utterly addictive playing feel and no harsh highs whatsoever. Unlike so many other channel switchers, this is a clean channel that could stand quite happily on its own merits. It’s crack for the soul!
In short, CLEAN mode and FAT mode provide two slightly differing characters at the “utterly clean” end of the spectrum. With the (remember, pre-tone stack) tone controls at halfway or below, the sound remains pretty clean with most pickup types. For my guitar – a Suhr Modern – I liked the TREBLE at zero and the MID low-ish to prevent any breakup at all. I then found I could round out the sound with the BASS control and add detail with the PRESENCE. I found that both of this latter pair of dials could be run as high as needed without introducing any unpleasantness. The John Petrucci clean settings, by the way, are worth researching for a slightly different approach that may suit your guitar.
The TWEED mode of the first channel is so good I almost wish it existed in its own channel. With the gain at halfway or above, a meaty and crispy Bassman crunch melts out of the speaker in all directions at once. The TREBLE and MID dials can be run a lot higher in order to shape the distortion character to your taste and pickups; higher treble for extra bite and gloss, more midrange for an infusion of chime and complexity – verging on growl at the highest settings. This mode has exactly the right blend of bounce and spank and cleans up exquisitely from the guitar.
At first, it’s worth trying the first channel without the graphic EQ engaged. This keeps the gorgeous natural character completely intact; and you’ll probably find that the pre-gain channel EQs have more than enough range to give this channel a wide and clear sonic footprint. If you find it needs a little extra help, it’s worth trying low to moderate settings of the “preset” post-EQ curve, which frees up the sliders for use on your distortion tones.
For Channel 2, I’m going to start by focusing on CRUNCH mode. Very little information exists on the internet about this mode, and for my application it is the most important sound on the amp. Now, it might seem backward to expect a modded Marshall-esque mid-gain sound from a Boogie, but the quality and feel of that sound makes or breaks an amp for me, so I was intrigued to see if it was achievable. Thankfully, the answer is “yes”.
On the distorted channels and modes of any Mark Series amplifier, the TREBLE dial is fundamental in shaping the gain structure of the resulting sound. In order to replicate the crispy high midrange burn of a good Marshall tone, I found that using the TREBLE control as the primary source of gain was the way forward – eventually I realised that for my applications I generally like the TREBLE above halfway on CRUNCH mode. I then found I could bring up the GAIN control from there for a bit more warmth and saturation, filling out the distortion like meat in a sandwich. Even with TREBLE maxed out, there’s nothing truly approaching harshness in the Boogie’s nature – it’s really more of a “gain character” dial than anything. Still, I found the sound very much in the vein of the EVH 5150 III Blue channel; a great and completely valid modern-ish medium to high gain sound with just the right balance of liquid harmonic character and square, up-front bite. With a bit of volume behind it, the sound is forgiving enough for some fairly energetic solo styles, yet – mercifully – can be cleaned up very well from the guitar.
It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that all Boogie Mark Series distortion channels need to be set with the BASS control in its lower region. I found that settings of more than 3 started to flub out (pre-gain, remember?). Rather than a weakness or an unnecessary complication I actually see this as a strength in the design. It means that for a looser feel I can set the preamp BASS control on the edge of flubbing out – here you will find a bit more bloom and sag that belies the traditional “tight” label so often applied to the Mark Series. The MID control at first seems to do very little on Channels 2 and 3, but in fact it alters the gain structure in a way that’s subtle yet absolutely indispensable; at lower MID settings the gain is slightly clearer and cleans up better, and at higher settings it’s like adding a little spice. The churning, burning midrange of the rightly revered Bogner 101b can actually be approximated with higher settings of the MID control.
We can’t go any further without mentioning the most divisive feature on the Mark Series amps: Mesa’s now-classic five-band EQ section. Having shaped the gain character with the channel EQs, we now need to give the sound authority with post-EQ. The wonderful thing about having this option is that we can assign the post-EQ to sounds where a wide aural footprint is paramount; and leave it off (or at low PRESET settings) for those where chime and sensitivity is the name of the game.
For our medium through to high gain sounds (except MARK I mode), the classic “V-shaped” EQ is just the ticket to getting the sweet, vocal little Mark in the ballpark of more traditionally architectured amplifiers. I found that the lowest slider (80 Hz) could be near maximum before creating mush through my Vintage 30s. The middle slider probably needs to be in its lower region to compensate for the incredibly midrange-rich preamp, and the top slider boosted somewhat to open up the top end in line with Marshalls and the like. The remaining two sliders can stay around the halfway mark, where they hold immense shaping power for the low and high mids – in almost frighteningly small increments.
The PRESET EQ curve can also be applied in fully user-tailorable proportion to any or all of the three channels. It offers a slightly louder, more aggressive version of the classic Boogie “V”; one which can’t quite be replicated on the sliders themselves. It’s worth experimenting with this (it’s one flip of a mini-toggle away) on any and all gain modes, to see if the character fits what you’re trying to achieve. Just be prepared to compensate a little on the channel MASTER and possibly PRESENCE controls.
Speaking of the PRESENCE dial; it too is formidable in its shaping power. It works (in the words of John Petrucci, in fact) as a mastering tool; it increases the prominence of upper harmonics so that the user can tailor the exact amount of sizzle or gloss that’s appropriate for a given sound or style. For most distorted tones, I liked the PRESENCE just over halfway, and judiciously balanced with the 6600 Hz slider in order to avoid harshness.
The other two modes of the middle channel are also very strong. EDGE mode is a clearer, stringier version of CRUNCH, with a surprising amount of bounce and compression. It’s more suitable for classic rock, blues or country styles and the GAIN does need to be kept lower in order to avoid excessive compression with modern pickups. Essentially, it’s an effective “non-hyped” mid gain sound with great sparkle and string response – perhaps in line with the Bogner Ecstasy’s Plexi mode in some ways, but overflowing with those joyous Mark Series mids. This is in fact one of the more unusual modes on the amp – in that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve ever played (maybe a Vox or a Peavey Classic) – but I can definitely see myself using it at lower gain settings for rootsy classic rock, hard country, or even indie/pop tones.
The great thing about all these lower gain or edge-of-breakup tones is that they respond incredibly well to some of the different power amp options. It’s worth experimenting with switching EDGE or TWEED mode down to 45w and engaging the tube rectifier; this transforms the feel and overall footprint of the amp in a way that I imagine would really blossom through an open-backed cabinet. With a Strat or a Tele the Mark V provides some completely viable and musical alternatives to a classic smaller combo, with smoky, breathing highs and a soupy feel that really makes those sultry blues and country licks “pop”.
Mark I mode, at least initially, does exactly what it says on the tin. It produces a huge amount of gain and bottom end for that classic fat, sustaining viola-like Boogie tone. It’s suitable for single-note lines, hard rock rhythms and is also capable of some vaguely Cameron-esque “hyped” gain sounds with some cautious EQing. It definitely works best with the graphic EQ disengaged or used more subtly – unlike all the other gain modes on the amp – due to its immense bottom end. If you’re looking for one of the most toneful and charismatic lead sounds of all time, Mark I mode could be for you. It overflows with three-dimensional character in a way that is best described in MESA’s own words from a classic 1980s advert: “Sound leaving the speaker seems to expand on contact with the air”!
What’s really interesting about MARK I mode, more so than any other mode on the amp, is that it is almost an entire amp in its own right. At lower gain settings, it has just as much chime and string definition as EDGE mode, but with a little less compression – yielding a magnificent 1970s style low-to-medium gain rhythm channel. It has a perfectly judged blend of organic, meaty midrange and top-end detail; cleaning up beautifully and retaining more dynamics, in fact, than the CRUNCH mode that precedes it. It’s also less tight than CRUNCH, so the lows really bloom, breaking up just enough for a classic “medium rare” beefy feel on palm mutes. Although MARK I is ostensibly a high-gain mode, it provides a bewitching brew of sustain, clarity, girth and dynamics that is a testament to the completeness of Randall Smith’s original design. By increasing GAIN and using higher settings of the PRESET EQ (perhaps around halfway), Mark I mode takes on a somewhat more modern character, but still retains unbelieveable string definition and warmth. I can think of only one medium gain sound so completely musical in every discipline, and that’s the hallowed Bogner Ecstasy Blue channel. The single caveat here (and it’s worth mentioning twice) is that Mark I mode doesn’t respond so well to the extreme “V shaped” EQ that is almost mandatory on the other distortion modes; it really is full enough already, and needs only a little post-EQ massaging to provide a wide and clear footprint.
And so, to Channel 3. This contains two of the most sought-after Boogie circuits of all time – MARK IIC+ and MARK IV mode – along with EXTREME; a louder, brasher high gain sound more in line with a 5150/6505 or Mesa’s own Rectifier series.
Channel 3 needs to be treated much like CRUNCH mode for optimal results. The TREBLE dial really shapes the gain character, the MID alters the feel and harmonic complexity, and the BASS needs to be kept low unless you want a looser, blooming feel. I started with MARK IV mode and replicated the Petrucci settings which really gave me a “best of all worlds” high gain sound. It’s slightly more impactful and slightly less sensitive than MARK IIC+ mode; yet retains the impossibly, overflowingly sweet midrange for a sound that seems to handle ’80s hard rock, drop-tuned metal and singing leads with equal aplomb. It doesn’t quite have the truck-like low end of an amp like the 5150 III (I currently have them side-by-side) but in playing feel, clarity and harmonic content it’s a different proposition altogether – so colourful and addictive it should probably come with a health warning! If I want to replicate the stomach-churning lows of the 5150 III or a Rectifier, I can flip over to EXTREME mode, which sacrifices a little clarity and a fair chunk of sensitivity for what is the Mark V’s most intense gain mode. Dual Rec devotees may find something still missing in the realms of pure size/physicality, but in terms of aggression, gain structure and raw lows this amp undoubtedly has the goods. Even the MARK IV and MARK IIC+ modes have enough tight controlled lows for most high gain or drop-tuned playing styles, and once again overflow with that irresistible meaty chunk, Samurai-sword gain and sugar-cane midrange that have been the Mark Series’ calling card since day one.
I’ve deliberately avoided talking about the remaining features on the Mark V; if you’re particular about your spring reverb, effects loops, switching capability, solo boost or master volume taper, rest assured the Mark V is simply a professional piece of equipment inside and out. MESA/Boogie were the original boutique amp maker and their amps lose nothing in quality when compared with today’s very best. Peering behind the tube grille is like peeking under the bonnet of a BMW: a place for everything, and everything in its place. The user interface is one of the clearest laid-out and most enjoyable in operation that I’ve come across, and the feel of all the major and minor controls is perhaps more akin to an aircraft cockpit than a piece of electrical equipment.
If you’ve got this far, the chances are you’re seriously considering a Boogie Mark V at some point. My advice is do it, keep an open mind, and set aside half a day to read the manual!