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Gear Review: Mesa Boogie Mark VII

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

This article is the first in a new series for Metallica Gear History - gear reviews. While numerous sites will undoubtedly write reviews for any new offering from mainstream manufacturers such as Mesa Boogie, we're opting to take a different approach with our reviews. Each article will review new gear specifically from the perspective of dialing in Metallica tones.


DISCLAIMER: Metallica Gear History is not sponsored, endorsed, or affiliated with any gear manufacturer. All reviews on this site are unbiased and honest assessments based on tests conducted with the gear being reviewed. While recommendations may be given and suggestions provided, your experience with your gear and your playing style will dictate the best setup for you. Please use our recommendations as starting points only and let your ears dial in the rest.

Without further ado, let's jump in the fire and review the new 2023 Mesa Boogie Mark VII.


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Mesa Boogie Mark VII Head Unit
 

MESA BOOGIE MARK VII

The Mesa Boogie Mark series has went through numerous iterations over the years, from the original Mark I model ushering in a new era of cascading high gain, to the revolutionary Mark IIC+ that has achieved legendary status among guitar amp afficianados, and now - the new Mark VII.


While the Mesa JP2C was released in recent years, it's been nearly 15 years since Mesa released a new mainline Mark in the series (with 2009's Mark V).


As prices of the legacy Mesa Mark amps such as the C+ continue to rise on the used market and become increasingly unaffordable for the average guitarist and Metallica fan, alternative amps are frequently being sought to capture the iconic tones of Hetfield and company.


With the release of the new Mesa Mark VII, Mesa promises to capture the tone and feel of those amps of yesteryear like the C+ and IV, only with added features most modern guitarists demand. The question we'll try to answer is - how does the Mark VII compare to the legacy amps for dialing in those iconic Metallica tones? Let's dive in.


Channel 1 (Clean & Fat Mode)


While most players immediately think of searing high gain tones and Hetfield's "Crunchberries" amp when it comes to Metallica tones, the band has been just as critical of their clean tones over the years. From the iconic Roland JC-120 sounds, to the Mesa Triaxis or numerous amps going simultaneously on albums for a clean sound (such as Load), getting a proper clean sound has always been top of mind for Hetfield and Hammett. There are 2 modes on Channel 1 that could serve as the basis for Metallica type cleans - Clean and Fat.


Channel 1's Clean mode is a throwback to the classic, early Mesa Mark tones inspired by Fenders. This mode is bright and punchy with a very subdued low end which makes it easy to dial in for single note picking while retaining clarity in the bass frequencies, particularly with high output humbuckers that emphasize the lows.


This (Clean) mode is ideal for things such as the fingerpicking in "Nothing Else Matters" or single note lines in songs like "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" and "Until It Sleeps."

The character of this tone and sparkle provided with a minimal amount of gain stages gives it a chime that's ideal to emulating Hetfield's Mesa Boogie Triaxis "Rhythm Green" sounds.



Mesa Boogie Triaxis Preamp

Channel 1's Fat mode builds on the foundation of the Clean mode, adding additional low end and a touch more saturation in the upper limits of the gain knob for edge of breakup sounds. This mode could thought of as comparable to "Rhythm Yellow" on the Triaxis.


The adjustment in low frequencies and hint of additional clean gain helps glue chords together and sustain when playing, making this mode the optimal choice on the Mark VII for things like the ringing chords in "Fade to Black" and "Mama Said."


One of the primary sources of the classic Hetfield clean sound is a Roland JC-120 amp. The iconic amp was used liberally by James in the studio and live for many years and was a primary contributor to many of his most well known clean tones. There are no channels or modes on the Mark VII that are capable of achieving that type of clean sound. That solid state clean sound with the built-in chorus effect can only be found on the Roland amps.


Channel 1 Clean Tone Recommendation


When choosing a mode for Hetfield's clean sound, the Channel 1 Clean mode may seem like the obvious choice, given its penchant for being deceptively close to Triaxis Rhythm Green as used by Hetfield. However, James paired the Triaxis with a Roland JC-120 live which rounded out the overall sound.


With that in mind, we recommend one of two options on the Mark VII for dialing in Metallica clean sounds:


OPTION 1: Use Channel 1 Fat. While this may not be a 1:1 equivalent of what Hetfield used, the touch of extra clean gain and more robust lows can round out the notes and chords to provide extra depth to help emulate the blend of amps by James.


OPTION 2: Use Channel 1 Clean and Channel 2 Fat. With the Fat mode also appearing in Channel 2, the ability to utilize both modes for varying purposes is available - Clean for single note passages and Fat for chording. This may not be ideal for lead players that may look to utilize Channel 2 for a lead sound, but is an option that could be considered if it is not being used for another purpose.


Channel 1 and a Channel 2 also have a Crunch mode, though their practical use for Metallica tones tends to be somewhat limited in comparison to the clean modes and high gain sounds available on the 2 channels. If you're not using Channel 2 for other sounds, the Crunch mode could serve as a good "medium" overdrive channel and middle-of-the-road distortion sound that Hetfield and Hammett started using in the '90s with Load.


Channel 2 (Mark VII Mode)


Channel 2 features a brand new mode to the Mark series - the Mark VII. Plugging into this mode was diving into the unknown, with no preconceived notions and wide open expectations.


When rolling up the master volume on the channel, the first thing that became apparent was the amount of overwhelming midrange present in the mode. It was thick and forward, but also incredibly "boxy" sounding. The Mark circuit traditionally has a lot of midrange in it, but this has more - much more. Regardless of where the midrange knob was adjusted, the midrange "honk" and boxiness of the sound could not be dialed out, even at "0." This was surprising, given Mesa's statement that the Mark VII mode could be used for heavy rhythm playing without the need of the graphic EQ.


The "boxiness" of the Mesa Mark VII mode requires the graphic EQ for shaping heavy rhythm sounds, despite Mesa's claim to the contrary.

The need for additional EQ to shape the Mark VII mode creates an inherent challenge for the user for one primary reason - the optimal EQ setting for the Mark VII mode on Channel 2 differs from the optimal EQ settings typically used to shape the Mark IIC+ and Mark IV modes on Channel 3. Because of this, one of the two channels will suffer from a suboptimal use of the graphic EQ, likely the Mark VII mode as most users will typically favor Channel 3 for heavy rhythm playing.


This feels like a missed opportunity for Mesa, given that a second graphic EQ was incorporated into the Mesa JP2C and the foundation and chassis layout to work from already existed.

For most players, this will likely mean setting the graphic EQ for Channel 3 and then relying on the 5 tone knobs on Channel 2 for dialing in the Mark VII mode, which can be problematic.


It was at this juncture I decided to pull the tubes to see what it shipped with stock and assess whether a tube change would help better sculpt the tone in a way my ears were attuned to with other Mesa Mark amps.


Mesa STR 445 6L6 & Mesa 12AX7-A

The Mark VII shipped stock with current generation Mesa 12AX7-A and STR 445 6L6s. Close examination reveals a structure that looks like JJ tubes that are rebranded by Mesa in both the preamp and power amp section. The JJs have historically had a rounded top end that can tame bright amps, but the trade off is often a softening of the attack.


Given that we're looking to achieve the super bright tones with a sharp attack that Hetfield is known for, the stock tubes seemed counterintuitive to the goal. This was compounded by the STR 445s that shipped stock in our demo amp amp being of the red color code, which is the "coldest" tube that Mesa relabels. Some red coded tubes have drawn as little as 10-15ma in Mesa Marks and Rectifiers, and compared to their hotter counterparts, the reds often provide an extra abundance of clean headroom. Perfect in some situations, but not an ideal selection for players looking for saturation and high gain. That said, a tube swap was in order.


At this point, the stock tubes in the Mark VII were swapped for '80s era Beijing ECC83s and early '90s Mesa STR 420 6L6s.

With a tube swap complete, I went back to dialing in the Mark VII mode. After the excessive midrange was mitigated via the onboard EQ, the Mark VII mode started to come alive and the possibilities of it started to show through. While first impressions of the channel felt similar to offerings from Mesa such as the TC-100, with its forward midrange character, a particular Hetfield related amp reference came to mind: the Mesa Triaxis LD1 Red Mode (Vintage Rectifier).


Mesa Boogie Triaxis LD1 Red Mode

The Mesa Boogie Triaxis LD1 Red Mode - based on the Mesa Dual Rectifier "Vintage Orange" channel - was a primary part of Hetfield's heavy rhythm sound for many years, blended with a second Triaxis on LD2 Yellow. With some careful shaping of the Mark VII tone controls in conjunction with a typical "V" type scoop on the graphic EQ, a player could conceivably dial it in to be used as a Mesa Triaxis LD1 Red substitute, or to fill sonic territory later covered by Hetfield's Diezel VH4 in the '00s. Players have often wished for Mesa to have a Rectifier and Mark sound built into a single head unit. The Mark VII mode is arguably the closest thing to achieving that, albeit of the Vintage Orange variety (not Rectifier Modern Red).


A recommendation when dialing in the Mark VII mode is to dial in Channel 3 with the graphic EQ optimized for it first, then adjust the settings on Channel 2 around the EQ settings chosen for Channel 3.

Although not optimal for Channel 2, this method will allow maximum flexibility for Channel 3 - which most players will use as their primary overdrive channel - and provide the boundaries from which Channel 2 can be tweaked. Interestingly, the VII mode does start to reduce in midrange very quickly with the 750hz slider, more so than the modes on Channel 3. It calls into question if this was an intentional design choice by Mesa, placing the VII mode mid focus around that frequency range knowing that players will need to remove a lot of the mids for the channel to be usable while only having a single onboard graphic EQ. If it was, kudos to the design team! If not, it's quite a happy accident.


The Gain control on the Mark VII mode is a powerful tone shaping knob. Even in the highest regions of the sweep, the ambient and white noise threshold at near maximum on the knob remained deceptively low. It's a very quiet circuit given the amount of gain on tap.


Despite having usable gain available on nearly any setting of the knob, we narrowed down the most effective setting range for heavy rhythm in our setup to being roughly between 10:00 - 2:00.


Optimized Mark VII Mode Gain for Rhythm

In the lower setting close to 10:00-11:00, the sound will become more pointed and percussive. The lows and low mids will thin out letting the string attack show through more prominently and clearly without the haze of low frequencies clouding it. It takes on the character of an alternate Mark sound with a different gain structure. That said, keep in mind that dialing in too little can cause the signal to choke and lose power. Depending on your pick attack, pickups, tubes and more, you may find that setting needs to be slightly higher to achieve the same result.


Above 12:00 on the (gain) dial, the sound saturates and focus is added to the lows and low mids. The result is the Mark VII mode taking on a Vintage Rectifier characteristic to the tone and feel.

There is a limit to where the gain knob starts to become counterproductive for rhythm. In our testing, that appeared to be around 2:00 on the dial. From the 12:00 - 2:00 range, the Rectifier characteristic becomes apparent but the sag and added lows reduces the articulation of the pick attack and blunts the sharpness, as on an actual Rectifier. Dial it in to suit your specific tone needs, but be mindful to use only as much as needed, otherwise it will become a detriment.


The Mids knob has a wide sweep that has to work in conjunction with the 750hz slider on the graphic EQ to find the proper balance of punch without being "boxy" or "honky." The amount of mids you dial in with the knob will largely be contingent on how much scoop you apply to the 750hz slider as you set it for Channel 3. With the 750hz slider just above the bottom line as I dialed, the mids knob needed to be at least in the 12:00 range to offset the cut via the graphic EQ. Your setting will vary based on the tone you're striving for, but don't be surprised if it's 12:00 or higher if the 750hz slider is dipped relatively far.


The bass knob on the Mark VII mode has the ability to dramatically transform the character of the channel. Given that most players will be boosting lows via the graphic EQ, keeping this control set to modest levels becomes essential to retaining a tight sound. At around 10:00 on the dial, the sound starts to fill out and provide girth to the sound, increasing in fullness to around 12:00, as indicated by the green range below.


Optimized Bass Settings for Mark VII Mode

In this range, the low end gives punch and the focus of the lows feels shifted a little higher in where that punch is applied (similar to a Marshall). It's a robust low end in this range, not a "big" low end.


Raising the Bass knob above 12:00 with the 80hz and 240hz sliders boosted starts to place an emphasis in the lows and low mids that Rectifier users will find familiar.

As the bass knob is turned above 12:00, the "punch" of the low end transitions to a "thump," moving air and producing a low end response that's typically associated closer with a Rectifier, not a Mark. The trade off is a rounding of the pick attack and a sag to the feel as you turn up the knob. We've found the best balance of attack and thump by turning up to around 2:00 at the highest (as indicated by the yellow line above), but there are no rules. Dial it in as high as needed to achieve your sound while keeping in mind the trade off in tone and feel as you turn the knob.


The presence knob on the Mark VII mode interacts in a rather odd fashion where nearly the first half of the dial - up until around 11:30 to 12:00 - has a "blanket over the speaker effect" which leaves the tone dark and distant. This is represented in red in the pic below. For dark, smooth lead tones, this type of effect may be desired, but it will remove the attack and percussive nature from heavier rhythm sounds.


The "blanket" finally comes off as you approach 12:00, but the usable range on the knob is small given the tone becomes very sharp once the knob brings the sound forward. This is very similar to how a Peavey 5150's presence knob doesn't impact the tone much until around "8" on the dial, then becomes incredibly sharp not much above it.


Optimized Presence on the Mark VII Mode

The "sharpening" range is indicated in green in the pic above. These are recommendations based on how most players typically set up their graphic EQ settings. If you are using exceptionally bright pickups, or have extremely pushed 2200hz and 6600hz settings on the EQ, you may find the blanket starts to dissipate somewhat below 12:00 on the dial. This was the case with a '78 Gibson Les Paul Custom with stock T-Tops that pushed a near single coil styled brightness to the amp, leading to a reduction in presence while I played. Use these recommendations as starting points and tweak to suit your rig and play style.


In all, the Mark VII mode is a pleasant introduction to the Mark series that's unlike anything before it. It can be a challenge to dial in, and it absolutely needs the graphic EQ to optimize its tone. However, with the proper EQ, it could be used as a stand-in and substitute amp mode for those looking to dial in modern sounds on albums like Death Magnetic, Hardwired, and 72 Seasons. It's the closest thing you'll find to a Rectifier sound in a Mark amp, with its primary role - in terms of Metallica tones - likely be taking the sonic space occupied by the Mesa Boogie Triaxis LD1 Red in the '90s and the Diezel VH4 in the '00s.


Channel 3 (Mark IIC+/Mark IV Mode)

Channel 3 introduces the modes that most Metallica influenced guitarists are interested in - the Mark IIC+ and Mark IV modes. Both of these modes were also incorporated on the Mark V amp, so how do the new renditions compare to the originals?


Plugging into the Mark IIC+ mode feels natural with a tone that's unmistakable in what the circuit is supposed to be. I started by replicating typical starting point settings that I would use on the older amps - including the graphic EQ - and this turned out to work incredibly well.


If you've played a Mark IIC+ or Mark IV, you should be able to replicate your settings on the corresponding mode on the Mark VII as a terrific starting point.

Using the same approximate settings on the Mark VII, the C+ and IV modes may at first sound as if the VII can be a little brighter and slightly more scooped by comparison. While this is objectively true, it's important to keep in mind that the legacy amps are 30-40 years old and the collective result of older, aging components tends to alter and shift the sound of the end product. What you're likely hearing is the result of new, modern components that are all more closely in the intended spec vs the vintage amps.


The C+ and IV are 30-40 years old with vintage components, many of which have drifted in spec over the years. The sonic difference with the corresponding modes on the VII can likely be attributed to new, modern components with a better tolerance to the intended values, which should also provide better consistency among new head units being produced.

The individual characteristics that make up vintage amps are driven by aging components. They're a snapshot in time and many drift slightly in spec, with the wear-in causing many players to cite them as sounding "warm" vs modern amps. The trade-off is that all vintage amps sound inherently different, compounded by the loose QA standards that most amp manufacturers had years ago. If Mesa or Marshall had a box of parts that were slightly out of spec or a run of transformers years ago that weren't intended for a particular amp, they still would have used them!


Today, QA standards across the board have been tightened and modern amps will come with more consistent parts that are more consistent in spec. This is a welcome change, as 2 amps on the shelf of the same kind should sound closer in tone in 2023 more than they ever did in 1984 (let alone 40 years later). This gives players a better sense of what an amp will sound like when they purchase.


1984 Mesa Boogie Mark IIC++

Plugging into the Mark IIC+ mode on the Mark VII gives an immediately different impression vs the mode that was incorporated on the Mark V. Within the first few minutes of playing, it was apparent that the new version sounds slightly closer to an actual C+ than its Mark V counterpart. In fact, we would take it one step further.


The Mark IIC+ mode on the Mark VII is the closest adaptation to the original C+ yet, surpassing the Mark V in terms of a direct translation of the C+ sound.

On the Mark V, the Mark IIC+ mode felt like the "little brother" of the Mark IV mode, being what the IV was but with a little less of everything in all tonal respects. There was little reason to use the C+ mode on the V because the IV mode accomplished everything it strived to be, but did it "better." This is not the case on the Mark VII. The C+ mode now has its own sonic identity.


Bright, punchy and tight - all the hallmark traits associated with the original C+ amps are present in this mode, making dialing in legacy Metallica tones a breeze while plugged straight in. Add in an external EQ and the tones from Master of Puppets to Metallica (Black Album) and beyond can be found.


While it's an inherently good circuit and a fantastic recreation of the iconic C+ sound, let's discuss some of its limitations.


Mesa Mark IIC+ Volume 1 Control

One major difference between the vintage Mark IIC+ units and current Mark VII is the absence of a few critical tone shaping tools on the new amp, particularly the Volume 1 control and pull switches found on the C+. Starting with the Mark V, Mesa opted to remove the Volume 1 control and many pull switches to simplify the amp for the user. To do this, Mesa hardwired the pull switches on or off and internally used a fixed value for the Volume 1 knob. Perfect for casual users, but a detriment to tone tweakers and those experienced with the legacy Mark amps.


It's impossible to dial in the C+ mode exactly as the originals, given the VII uses a fixed Volume 1 value. Increasing the gain control on the Mark VII does not compensate for its slightly lower fixed value for Volume 1.

In the Mark V, the Volume 1 knob was preset to roughly 7.75 for the C+ mode. While there's no indication on where this control is preset in the Mark VII, it feels to be in roughly the same 7-8 range. Contrasted with the slightly higher Metallica-esque setting of 9 to 9.5, users will need to raise the gain control on the Mark VII (comparable to the Lead Drive control on the IIC+) to compensate as best possible, though the result will not be exact.


One curious omission from the Mark VII amp is the ability to choose Triode or Pentode operation for the lead channel. This is more striking because the Mark V gave the user this option as selectable on Channel 3.


The decision to have the Mark VII run on Pentode only at 90W/45W was a curious choice considering the original Simul-Class IIB and C+ ran on Triode, while the Mark IV had a selectable choice. This means the VII is hardwired to be fundamentally different at max power on the C+ mode than an original vintage unit.


The Pentode operation and new, modern components are the likely reasons why the Mark VII feels different than the vintage Simul-Class IIC+ amps. Per Mesa Boogie, there is a "radical sound and feel difference" between Triode and Pentode. Unfortunately for Mark VII users, the C+ mode will not be able to run on Triode like an '80s original.

This is not to say that running in Pentode is bad, or unwelcome. Pentode should provide a more immediate attack and a bolder sound, oftentimes desired for metal rhythm playing. The trade off is a partial change in how the amp may react or feel to your fingers.


Mesa Boogie Mark IV Amp

The Mesa Mark IV mode is - quite frankly - a slight variation on the C+ mode. Swapping from the C+ mode to the IV makes a few overall shifts in the tone, notably a touch more highs, a slightly deeper midrange scoop, and a bit more push in the lows. It could almost be thought of as a variation on the C+ mode, where the C+ and IV modes could have been labeled "C+ 1" and "C+ 2."


All of the verbiage noted for the C+ mode is also applicable for the IV, so we feel no need to recap the same talking points. Dial in the IV mode similarly to the C+, then toggle between them and choose the one that best suits your preference.


Channel 3 also has a Mark IIB mode, but we're opting not to cover it in this review as it is not recommended for Metallica tones and there are virtually no instances where it should chosen over the C+ and IV modes also found on the channel.


Final Thoughts


The Mesa Boogie Mark VII offers a compilation of options that make dialing in Metallica tones of all eras achievable, from the classic Mark IIC+ style crunch tones to modes that could act as a substitute for even the Diezel era. While the feel is not exact and extra compression in the tone may lead to a more modern edge, few amps provide the versatility to cover as much Metallica tonal ground in one chassis.


Please check out our other articles for a detailed analysis on other Metallica gear, album breakdowns, and more. Thanks for reading!

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