Amplitudes: The Mesa Boogie Blog
Tones and Tips with the TA-15 in the Studio
The TransAtlantic and Recording Excellence:
Engineer, Session ace, veteran Producer and long time Mesa Endorsee Michael James puts the TransAtlantic through its paces in the studio and delivers some amazing recording ideas. Read the review and learn some great recording techniques then find about the IndieProMix Giveaway...
The TransAtlantic and Recording Excellence:
Tones and Tips with the TA-15 in the Studio
By Michael James
"What a great amp for the recording studio! It's like having multiple iconic amps… in a flyweight micro-amp."
Hey Guys & Gals! For those of you who don't know me, and are wondering why I'm a guest columnist in this issue of Amplitudes, I'm Michael James - veteran platinum mixer, producer, session cat, A&R exec, and Mesa Artist since 1991 and I've been fortunate enough to work with artists ranging from Hole, Jawbreaker and L7 to New Radicals, Robben Ford and Chicago, and recently mixed Far's new hit, "Deafening." I've also owned and extensively recorded many classic, fabled guitar amps and their modern boutique counterparts. I am also a co-founder of a new company specializing in Professional mixes for Indie artists called Indiepromix and we are proud to be presenting a giveaway for one of our mixes and a new TransAtlantic TA-15 amp to lucky winners (see details and links at the end of this review). Also at the end of this reveiw is the track I recorded while writing this review so check that out to hear some examples of TA-15 in action and as used in this writeup.
Mesa sent me a TransAtlantic TA-15 so I could step into the ring with it and share my thoughts. I'm a big fan of certain EL84 amps, and I'm not easily impressed by pretenders to the throne. So I'm a tough customer. After plugging in and giving the amp an exhaustive workout, I am, in fact, a customer, quite literally. The amp is a knockout and I'm buying it, and here's why…
Choosing the right amps and settings when recording guitar parts can be a totally different beast than dialing in a live gig sound. Live shows often require adequate headroom to retain punchiness at loud volumes. In a recording studio, however, pushing that much air can be the enemy. You don't want to spill your sound into other open microphones, yet you sometimes want the power section to clip to generate glorious harmonic overtones, saturation and feel. With its multiple wattages per channel, vast variety of well chosen modes and intuitive controls, the TransAtlantic TA-15 excels in a recording environment.
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all recording amp because you need tonal variety and contrast. The TA-15, however, is as good as it gets because of its multiple personalities. Great studio tones are the product of layering and arranging contrasting parts and timbres. Contrast is key: it creates the perception of tonal dynamics and a sense of width. The TransAtlantic TA-15 truly shines in a recording studio because it can easily be set to sound like at least four classic, contrasting, essential amps. Session players and producers generally request access to amps that cover the four basic food groups of tone: Fender clean, Vox shimmering clip, Marshall crunch and Mesa/Boogie gain. The TA-15 can cover all of these tones, and I'll share some "starting place" settings with you, along with a few of my favorite studio tricks.
On that note, my first "trick" to dialing in righteous tones is to wear custom molded earplugs with flat-frequency ER-15 or ER-25 filters. Live players tend to listen to their amps with the backs of their knees rather than their ears. Earplugs will let you listen to the speaker at ear level, so you can control your brightness and hear what the microphone wants to reproduce once pointed at your speaker. Trick #2: Medium-gain settings often record huge compared to over-saturated "bumblebee gain" that tends to hide dynamics and articulation.
So, where do we start with the settings?
For rocking, touch-sensitive Top Boost sounds, start with these settings in Channel 1:
15W for a classic AC15/30 responsiveness and growl;
The TransAtlantic’s input sensitivity is tremendous, so using a combination of the guitar's volume pot and your picking-hand's dynamics will give you everything you could ever want in a Vox or Matchless EL-84 amp: growl, chime, articulation, sustain, clarity, sweet clipping and touch-sensitive dynamics. That sounds like I just claimed that this mode does everything, right? Well, almost… It does what you would expect from an iconic EL84 amp, and about the only thing you don’t get is the massive low end of a Dual Rectifier. For sparkly, yet warm bell-like clean tones, turn the Volume knob down to 12:00 and the bass up to 12:00. Feel the love!
Blackface tones abound in Channel 2's Tweed mode, with plenty of headroom at 25W. Low Gain settings will give you a familiar, "brilliant" jangle, and high settings will produce juicy yet potent pushed sounds. The Master is definitely your friend here. Be aware that the Bass can dominate in this mode, so close your eyes and dial bass in by ear. As Gain settings increase, you'll generally want to decrease the Bass.
If you want more of a tweed sound that feels like a vintage tweed Deluxe, drop the power down to 15W, crank open the Master and lower the Gain to find the "sweet sing" that will remind you of Larry Carlton's expressive solo tones on Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne and Don't Take Me Alive. Set the Treble & Bass to taste, and find the balanced tone that works with your guitar and your approach.
Moving to Hi 1, we're now into vintage Marshall territory--at club-friendly volumes! Without even trying, we're in the zone of one of my favorite Marshall amps, the hand-wired 1974X reissue. Setting all the knobs to 12:00 produces a great sound, and subtle adjustments from there will customize the tone to your personal specs, at all three power settings. The 25W setting is bold and punchy; 15W is blissfully clipped, juicy Class-A mojo; and 5W oozes with complex harmonic overtones and saggy compression that feels oh-so-good to play!
Try the trick of maxing the Master and keeping the Gain somewhat low, for a different "power-clipped" take on these Hi 1 tones. Once again, be careful that too much Bass doesn't muddy your sound. There's plenty of low end for balanced recording studio crunch and power, but you can’t expect EL84s to rumble the Coliseum stage with bass like 6L6s. The beauty of EL84s in Class-A is that they have a knack for sitting perfectly in the mix, allowing you to crank up the guitar without conflicting with the bass. You'll know it if you set the Bass higher than the power section can accurately reproduce because the low frequencies will start to feel mushy and sound indistinct. You'll want to close your eyes and listen without looking while you mine for tonal gold!
Hi 2 offers copious, thick, syrupy sustain that is a derivative of Hi 1 but with a classic Boogie fresh twist! While Mark-series Mesa's are known for their lightning-fast power section responsiveness, the TA-15's EL84s offer a sexy, power-clipped alternative to 6L6s. If a Mark II-C+ solo tone is bold and commanding, the TA-15 Hi 2 solo tone is seductive and captivating. The feel of the two sounds mentioned above are yin and yang - opposing forces that are equally worthy of occupying the same perfect circle. While the tones are obvious relatives, the accessibility and tactile magnetism of the TA-15’s power options makes it hard to put the guitar down and easier to fly the tones into the right place of the track. In other words, the sweet clip of EL84s is more elastic and forgiving, whereas the punchy headroom of 6L6s makes them brutally direct and honest. Like physicians delivering an urgent message, they both speak the truth, but have a different bedside manner. Or, if the medical metaphor isn't working for you, think instead of a pinup girl with and without her makeup: forgiving or not, the gal is beautiful either way.
Here's another technique for recording massive rock tones…and the TransAtlantic’s features make it easier than ever. To create an articulate, non-washy, wall of power chords in the chorus of a tune, record a track with the 15W Top Boost setting described above, with just enough "medium to moderate" gain that the guitar has balls, but you need to dig in for the wicked harmonics to begin their bacchanalian partying. Pan that track hard left. Next, double the guitar with a different medium- or moderate-gain tone, and pan hard right. Try Hi 1 at 15 or 25W for a bolder, slightly scooped sound to contrast the juicy mid-forward tone on the left. You won't be using any extra mics that can wreak phase havoc, and the two complementary tones will have a clarity, depth and power that will make your guitars sound huge!
But the story doesn't end there. As an alternative, try the following settings with a power attenuator connected between the speaker out jack and your speaker cabinet.
Top Boost, 15W
Cut 8:30 (knob pushed in.) Pan hard left in the mix.
Channel 2: Hi 1, 15W
Master 3:00. Pan hard right in the mix
The hot plate will let you run the power tubes harder, and will let you dial in more treble without sounding harsh. Old-school, midrange grind awaits, eager to teach the kids how "root-5th-octave" power chords are supposed to sound when you want to record tight doubles. The guitars will sit perfectly in the mix, leaving room for the bass line to narrate the sub-plot.
I used those settings on yesterday's session with a Tom Anderson Hollow Tele and a 2x12 cabinet, and the sound had a full, three-dimensional quality. Then I added a solo with similar Channel 2 tone settings: I switched to Hi 2 and dropped the power to 5W while nudging the gain up to 1:00 and cranking the master to 5:00. Treble and bass remained at 1:30 and 10:30, respectively, and there was enough juiciness on tap to satisfy the demands of rush hour at Jamba.
Below is the track I composed and played all the instruments on in the writing of this review. The song is for Danielle Lo Presti & the Masses, who subsequently wrote lyrics and a vocal melody that you'll be able to hear on their upcoming album, Run With It. This instrumental demo was recorded with the TA-15 settings documented previously in this article. The main guitar is a Tom Anderson Hollow Tele Classic plugged straight into the TA-15 & a 2x12 ElectraDyne extension cabinet. The single note lead line at the intros is an Anderson Atom (Les Paul substitute) straight into the TA-15.
There are two exceptions to the TA-15 rule... left side (only) of the crunchy choruses is Atom & ElectraDyne (w/ 4x12 Stiletto Traditional straight cab) for some EL34 action, and the left side of the verse arpeggios (the phaser part) is Rectifier Recording preamp (DI through Moog phaser pedal) to provide a darker contrast to the chiming TA-15 on the right and center. The bass is a Fender P-Bass through a Big Block 750 & 4x10 Powerhouse cabinet.
And keeping it 'all in the family', The Rhodes Mark I electric piano is played through a LoneStar Special 2x12 combo.
Ultimately, the TA-15 offers a smorgasbord of supersize tones, served from a compact lunchbox platter. I'm aware of some pundits criticizing the amp for not having reverb or an FX loop. The fact of the matter is that each of those features, when designed to Mesa's exacting standards, requires at least one more tube and a circuit that physically couldn’t be fit in the micro-chassis format--which already has six tubes, two foot-switchable channels, five modes, groovy blue mood-lighting (!) and a weight of only 12 pounds. Frankly, I'll be shocked if the critics are not silenced after actually playing the amp. As it stands, the TransAtlantic TA-15 gives me virtually every tone I need, in a portable package that allows me to focus on the music rather than the schlepping. It shines in the recording studio, and it is convincingly loud enough for almost any live gig. I am now officially stepping down from the soapbox and heading to the mailbox so I can send Mesa my check.