REVIEW – MESA/Boogie JP-2C

When John Petrucci’s signature Boogie was announced at NAMM 2016, it caused quite the frenzy among MESA devotees. Here was an amp that promised to re-package the most sought-after Boogie of all time, the Mark IIC+, into a format far more interesting than that of solely a reissue. The JP-2C is marketed as an amp with the capacity to match – maybe even exceed – the tonal prowess of the coveted originals; while offering far greater performance flexibility alongside a bevy of modern features.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - front view
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – front view

To the seasoned Boogie enthusiast this really does sound like an impossible dream. To begin with, the huge power transformer that the original IIC+ carried is no longer made; MESA have been forced to reverse-engineer one! Also, as many of us have expensively and repetitively learned with modern amplifier design, less is nearly always more where tone is concerned. Could the JP-2C – with its multiple relays employed to switch three entirely separate channels, twin assignable graphic EQs, Shred mode, CabClone and more – really sound and feel as pure as the notoriously organic and harmonically rich originals?

To further compound the issue, the original IIC+ was available in numerous formats including the 60/100W Class A/B version, a 60W-only version, and the classic Simul-Class version which combined Class A and Class A/B characteristics. Each was available with or without the iconic Boogie five-band graphic equalizer – and the fun doesn’t stop there! The original Mark IIC+ hails from an era in which component changes and substitutions were still commonplace; and manufacturing techniques simply did not afford the same level of consistency that companies like MESA/Boogie now enjoy.

In short, it’s fairly difficult to find two Mark IIC+ amps that sound entirely identical – adding an insurmountable layer of complexity to the act of reissuing one. However, by finally reissuing this wonderful amplifier as a John Petrucci signature model, the impossibility of choosing a universally accepted standard has been neatly sidestepped: the JP-2C is simply based on Petrucci’s own favourite Mark IIC+. He favours the 60/100W Class A/B version – presumably for its soupçon of extra punch and its fractionally higher headroom cleans – and he prefers the models with the onboard graphic EQ.

By virtue of these focused design decisions – along with the inclusion of the extra features – the JP-2C succeeds in walking a fine line: it contains enough bona fide Mark IIC+ DNA to appeal to those who might be searching for one, yet it’s differentiated enough to appeal to a whole new audience.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - rear view
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – rear view

As somebody who gigged extensively with the magnificent Mark V for over a year, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the much-vaunted history of the Mark Series under one roof. I became intimately familiar with the V’s incredible flexibility, its mind-bending array of features, and most importantly its distinctive punch, fluidity and musicality at almost any setting. The V was quite simply my favourite guitar amplifier of all time and I wasn’t really looking to replace it. However, I had become similarly acquainted with its handful of flaws: it is very particular about settings and seems to require a small tweak or two almost every day; the third channel can occasionally lack body when compared to the second; and the graphic EQ is slightly lopsided and occasionally unintuitive in operation (more on this later). I take nothing away from the Mark V – it is still one of my all-time favourites – but I certainly knew what I wanted to improve about it.

The JP-2C began as an interesting experiment for me: could it really offer a significant improvement over the IIC+ mode in the V? Could the clean channel offer the kind of breakup I needed for day-to-day playing alongside its breathtaking clean capacity? Were there any cool mid-gain sounds available? Could it possibly expunge the finicky nature of the V without excessively compromising its chameleonic character? Before I get into detailed analysis, I will save the impatient among you some time: the answer to each of these questions is an unequivocal “yes”!
 

MESA/Boogie Mark IIC+
The original MESA/Boogie Mark IIC+

What we really want to know, though, is how does this modern edition of the timeless IIC+ high gain character actually sound and feel? The short answer is this: it is everything you’ve been told it is and more. The IIC+ circuit stands alongside Soldano’s SLO as one of possibly the two most iconic high gain sounds of the 1980s and beyond. It appears on much of Steve Lukather’s high-watermark mid-’80s output and it is typified by John Petrucci’s smooth, rich liquid lead sound on a vast array of Dream Theater’s recorded work. It also accounts for a large portion of what we perceive as the classic Metallica “chunk”.

However, this classic guitar circuit offers so much more than that: it has a tonality so perfectly balanced that it is equally suited to both rhythm and lead playing. It has a playing feel so flawlessly judged that it can transition from choppy palm mutes to ripping power chords to liquid sustain just by virtue of the angle of your pick. Its gain structure sits precisely on the boundary between loose and tight; fluid and aggressive; molten and rugged. It achieves all of this with the kind of power, richness and clarity that leaves me pondering the very existence of lesser circuits. Like its ’80s cousin, the SLO, even the most verbose description flounders in trying to communicate the simple truth of this design apex: the IIC+ circuit represents nothing short of six-string perfection.

In light of this, I would argue it really doesn’t matter how the JP-2C compares to the original Mark IIC+. Is it exact? Probably not; I don’t see how it could be. Is it better than the V’s rendering? Yes, absolutely and without reservation. Does it represent a singular and flawless expression of IIC+ musicality, richness and power? Hell yes, and then some.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C rear panel
MESA/Boogie JP-2C rear panel

In the modern world, however, a single incredible high gain sound is no longer enough. Pro and semi-pro guitarists operating in a world of Axe-FX, Kempers, Marshall JVMs, MESA/Boogie Road Kings and a frankly bewildering array of realistic pedal-sized solutions are simply no longer willing to carry one amp per sound. The idea of carrying, for example, two or three Mark IIC+ heads each dialled in for a different sound and response (as Steve Lukather did in the mid-’80s) now represents an anachronism for most of us. More than that, it is close to an economic impossibility for the vast majority of modern touring acts. No: the 2016 Mark IIC+ needed to offer all the varied talents of the original in one rack-mountable box – and with three entirely separate channels, some cleverly judged push/pull pots, the twin graphic EQs and full MIDI control of every front-panel switch MESA/Boogie have achieved just that.

The Boogie clean channel has been perennially known as one of the best available, with a liquid, bouyant character that remains firm and bold enough to hold its own next to Fender’s best. The JP-2C iteration of this circuit is tweaked for maximum headroom, and with sensible use of the channel’s (pre-gain) tone stack it does remain clean at some scarcely creditable volumes. However, it also borrows the powerful Mid/Boost characteristic previously exclusive to the Mark V:25 and V:35. In short, at higher Mid settings it dumps enough midrange gain into the signal to send the amp into a raunchy, muscular breakup that any Bassman enthusiast would find endlessly fascinating. With all the preamp controls at or near maximum the clean channel transitions into a ripping, squalling, barking tonal soup – in whose power and touch sensitivity Stevie Ray Vaughan would have no doubt found himself very well represented. The spring reverb is taken directly from MESA’s Lonestar and Mark V, and it is coming to represent something of an industry standard. It can add anything from a subtle shimmer to a cavernous howl without becoming at all splashy or overbearing, and is MIDI controllable/assignable – with a separate Mix control per channel.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C with footswitch
MESA/Boogie JP-2C with foot switch

The Achilles’ heel of the Mark Series – and indeed many MESA/Boogies in general – has always been their mid-gain performance. It’s not the Mark IIC+ circuit isn’t capable of medium gain – it certainly is; with character, dynamics and harmonic complexity to spare. No: the issue with the Mark Series’ mid gain performance isn’t a lack of ability. The problem appears on more classic rock, hard rock, indie, pop and blues records than could ever be counted, and it comes with a gold front panel and a curly white logo. Our ears are simply so tuned in to the gritty, sinewy way a Marshall responds at mid-gain that it can be difficult to accept any alternative. The simple fact is that if you require this sound, you need to buy a Marshall or one of the impossibly numerous clones. If, however, you are happy to craft a medium or medium-high gain sound that is perhaps more inviting, rounded and smooth – yet still complex – you will find a wide range of captivating textures in the JP-2C’s second channel.

The second channel represents a Mark IIC+ circuit with the “Volume 1” control (a gain control situated earlier in the original’s circuit, now omitted) set a little lower than in the third channel; and as such it really does conjure up some of the most endearing Mark Series tones. It is a little chalkier in the high midrange than the highest gain channel, and cleans up well; so it can certainly be massaged into the accepted ballpark for a mid-gain tonality with ease. The gain control can also be pulled out to notch up the now-imaginary Volume 1 control by a number or so, which does alter feel more than sound.

For me, the JP-2C’s middle channel simply represents the ultimate rhythm guitar sound. At times viciously aggressive, and blessed with greater string definition and high-midrange clarity than the V’s similarly impressive Crunch mode, this is a non-Marshall riff vehicle to be reckoned with. It also holds more than enough gain in reserve to be used as an alternate lead channel, or indeed a rhythm sound for modern metal, should the urge overwhelm you.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - rackmount version
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – rackmount version

It goes without saying these days that MESA’s effects loop is among the best – with a slight caveat relating to the very earliest JP-2C models which could suffer from a volume-jumping issue between channels (swiftly resolved by MESA, and with a standing invitation to modify any affected amps to the current specs). The build quality and attention to detail – as with every MESA/Boogie I’ve had my hands on – is simply second-to-none, and there is an impressive heft to every control that makes working with the amp a continuing joy.

I must also mention the twin (channel-assignable and MIDI-controllable) graphic EQs, which are both more powerful and more intuitive than the equivalent on the Mark V. Whereas the Mark V can become slightly woofy at the very highest settings on the lowest slider, the JP-2C puts out clean, three dimensional power at every setting. Side-by-side the JP-2C’s bass response seems almost twice as big – whether this is down to the larger power transformer, the Class A/B power section or the overall design is unclear – but the new amp certainly has power and punch to spare in every situation. It’s also worth mentioning that the classic Boogie “V” contour works incredibly well on this amp; I found that the thinner, brighter Mark V required a slightly offset “V” and a lot of patience to achieve the correct balance. Somehow, the JP-2C’s graphic EQ manages to be incredibly potent (it offers some furiously scooped settings at the lowest reaches of the middle slider for example) – and yet predicting and repeating settings remains an entirely instinctive affair.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - front panel
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – front panel

The JP-2C also debuts two new features currently exclusive to the amp. Shred mode constitutes a gain boost that works similarly to an onboard Tube Screamer or similar. It adds a fair bit of mid and high-frequency gain which makes the amp lightning fast and greasy to play – and can be useful for livening up a darker guitar. It is MIDI-controllable or assignable to either/both of the gain channels. There is also an alternative Presence voicing available on both gain channels – found by pushing in the corresponding dial for a darker, smoother voice reminiscent of some of Petrucci’s recent work. I actually don’t have a use for either of these features day-to-day but it’s nice knowing they’re there; great that they work well; and I’m sure for some players they will prove indispensable. In my mind they simply add an unobtrusive extra layer of flexibility to an already great amp.

MESA/Boogie JP-2c rackmount version- rear view
MESA/Boogie JP-2C rackmount version – rear view

With all the praise I’ve showered upon it, you might be under the impression that I think the JP-2C is the perfect guitar amplifier – or that it could somehow be all things to all men. It is not, and it cannot. However, it is incontestably one of the greatest MESA/Boogies of all time; and an impeccably judged Mark IIC+ for the modern musician.

It is also, by a considerable margin, my own favourite guitar amplifier – for what that’s worth. I think it represents a achievement in modern tube amplifier design similar in vision, scope and completeness to that of the original Bogner Ecstasy a quarter of a century ago, or more recently the Cornford MK 50H II or Friedman BE-100. Bold words indeed, and I’m very pleased to be writing them.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C with limited edition cosmetics
MESA/Boogie JP-2C with limited edition cosmetics

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