Monday, 24 October 2011

Mesa V-Twin Valve/Tube Guitar Preamp

I’m quite a fan of simplicity. I’d much rather have a musical device which produces two or three great sounds, than one which produces a thousand reasonable sounds. As you might have guessed, this statement is highly relevant to the Mesa V-Twin guitar valve/tube guitar pre-amp. It doesn’t do much, but what it does do, you’d be very hard-pressed to better.

Whether this was good value at the £295 it originally cost in the 1990s, really depends on how you see it. You could view it as a distortion stomp box, which would make it very expensive against the alternatives available upon its introduction. But equally, you could view it as a genuine, hand-built, Mesa/Boogie valve amp, which just lacks the power stage and the speaker. Given that the V-Twin has a facility to feed straight to a mixing desk (or headphones), complete with speaker simulation, the missing power stage and speaker could well be irrelevant to you. If so, this latter vision of the unit would make it a bargain and a half.


As well as a dedicated Blues channel (mild overdrive to moderate distortion) and Solo channel (raging distortion), the V-Twin has a Fender-style Clean channel which will itself break up when pushed hard. The best way I can describe the sound of the Blues channel is to say that if you put a Les Paul through it with the bridge pickup selected, Hocus Pocus by Focus sounds exactly like the record. When the unit was introduced, blues was a big craze, so you can see why the channel was designated ‘Blues’, but really it would be much more appropriately named Vintage Rock. It’s a very attractive, and categorically valve-derived brand of overdrive, which just forces you to keep playing, even if you don’t really have time. The Solo channel is a full blown Santana style drive which caters for anyone who wants a truly classic heavy rock distortion. And because it’s got the attack of real valves rather than that lesser-defined tranny envelope, you can use it for hard drive rhythm as well as lead.

Even if you do choose to view the V-Twin as a stomp box, I feel it did justify its original price. I’ve used countless distortion effects, but none of them treat a guitar’s sound the way the V-Twin does. Of what I've tried, only one transistor-driven unit – the original early ‘90s (blue on black) Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal – has what in my view is the ‘feel’ of valve/tube overdrive. But the level of overdrive available from that pedal is very limited. Nothing wrong with that – it’s meant to simulate a 1960s valve combo pressured into natural breakup, and that’s what it does. But if you want heavier distortion, I’ve yet to use a conventional stomp box which provides the smoothness and classic tube attack envelope of the V-Twin. If the V-Twin is a stomp box, it’s an extremely lavish one, with superior components and frankly a much higher-end sound than the norm. One would expect it to cost a lot more than the average.

But as I mentioned, the V-Twin also has a direct injection feed for a mixing desk, which means you don’t need to faff with miking up an amp. Just plug the V-Twin straight into your recording device or mixer, and you can get some blistering overdrive and distortion sounds which, to me, do sound, and more importantly feel, like you’re playing through a miked amp. You have to keep the master volume pretty low and use the gain on the desk to boost the volume, because if you crank the master on the V-Twin you get an unpleasant type of distortion. Since this distortion comes post-speaker simulator, it’s fizzy and unnatural on the recording. But keep the master volume low, raise the pre-gain and you really do get classic rock sounds without any of the hassle. Very rich and warm, and with that characteristic valve attack which transistorised units find it almost improssible to emulate.

I regard this box as a one-step route to producing and recording some of those desirable rock sounds from the annals of history. If you want something more modern-sounding from the DI feed, you will need to employ some fairly drastic EQ. But if it’s modern sounds you’re after, you probably wouldn’t be looking at a unit like this. Whether you want that smooth overdrive and distortion as opposed to a biting sting (which you definitely won’t get from the V-Twin) is of course down to personal taste. But if you like thick, ‘70s-style drive and silky sustain, it’ll probably be love at first power-chord.

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt