Mesa/Boogie Nomad-45 2x12
Ok, so I never reviewed this thing in depth before around here, it seems, despite all of my ravings and whatnot. And, since I've got a slow day at work...
I've owned this amp for, um... Probably about two years now, which is I think the longest I've owned an amp since my first, a Crate G-15R. That in alone should tell you something. So, I've had loads of experience with this one, and know it fairly well. Also, as far as my "ideal tone," I was floored by the sounds John Petrucci was getting on his G3 tour rig - a dark, smooth, liquid lead sound with that incredible midrange focus. This is worth keeping in mind when reading this review - if Angus Young has the best lead sound you've ever heard, then there's a chance we might not see eye to eye on this amp.
So, the basics... This is a 45-watt, three channel amp with two non-footswitchable modes per channel, footswitchable reverb, and a footswitchable clean solo boost across all three channels. In addition, there are two distinct poweramp modes available, and a parallel effects loop, headphone/recording out, and output mute on the back panel, as well as back-panel reverb levels for each channel. Each channel has front-panel controls for gain, channel volume, and presence on top, with treble, midrange, and bass immediately underneith, with a global master volume and solo boost control near the power/standby switches. In short, you've got rather a lot of options.
Channel 1 Your first channel, the green channel, has two modes, "Clean" and "Pushed." Clean is your typical Mesa clean channel - Fender-y in derevation, but with a slightly crisper response to the high end. It's not that it's brighter, per se - if anything, it's less bright than most Fender tube combos I've played (and way less bright than most solid state Fender amps), it's just the treble response doesn't feel quite as "round." While not the sort of tone that's going to get anyone to sell their '58 Bassman, this is hardly a bad thing, and across the entire sweep of the gain range there are some very useable tones to be found here, although with humbuckers it helps to run the treble and presence high and the mids back for maximum brightness and clarity. Plug in a strat, and you can wind up in Jimi/SRV territory with ease. As the master goes up, this one doesn't stay absolutely pristinely clean, but for me that's always been part of the appeal of low-watt tube amps. If you want squeaky-clean clean tones at high volumes, though, this might not be the ideal amp.
Mode 2, "Pushed," comes with a substantial output jump and a SERIOUS increase in gain. You go from what could be a Fender amp running fairly hard to a crunchy, gain-y edge-of-meltdown tone that still hints at a Fender lineage, but offers far more aggression. The overall voicing seems a bit brighter to me - rolling the gain back to 2-ish and comparing it to Clean with the gain half up shows more pronounced treble - but really this one's about crunch. Think maybe a slightly more jangly Young Brothers. Of the two, I prefer Clean with the gain approximately halfway up, as it's that magical clean tone where when you dig in there's just a bit of grit to it, but if you were doing uptempo blues shuffles, this would be very comfortable territory - "Love Struck Baby" style riffing and chordal soloing just jumps off your fretboard.
Channel 2 The orange channel is probably my least used channel on the entire amp. It's not that it's bad, per se, but... Your first mode, "Vintage" is a smooth, oldschool style Mesa tone. At the lowest edges of the gain knob, say 2-3, there's some great smooth Santana-esq lead tones to be had, and the Air Norton/Tone Zone combo in my old 7620 (smooth, powerful, warm pickups) were particularly happy here. It's not a particularly compressed tone though, so for faster legato playing you need to have a phenominally even attack to really get away with this range up through about the halfway mark. At this point, you run into my same issue with the Rectifiers, where the line between "undercompressed" and "overly gain-y sounding" is awfully fine, and it's tough to dial up a singing lead tone than still preserves the sound of the string and a certian dynamic responsiveness. As such, I feel this channel is better suited for rhythm work, and it's worth mentioning that especially at the lower (5 and below) gain ranges this sounds positively massive for big, ringing chords. Also, after giving my roommate's Gibson a run through this thing, I can say with a clear conscience that fans of Cream-era Clapton would be very, very happy with this channel as well - it seems to do better if you absolutely pummel the midrange and go easy on the highs coming out of your guitar.
The second mode, Modern, is an edgier, bassier version of Vintage with a bit of extra output. There's not a tremendous difference in response between the two aside from a bit of extra crunch, and of the three channels, this is the one where the two modes are the most similar.
Channel 3 The red channel is the one that really sold me on this amp. You have the same two modes as the Orange channel, but their order is flipped, so "Modern" is your "default" mode (only in as much as when the mode switch is pointed up, you get modern). Modern is as close as the Nomads will get you to a Rectifier. It's got a tighter, faster low end than the orange channel, as well as a crunchy high end that positively bristles with agression. The biggest difference between this and a Recto (aside from that fact you'ce got an open-backed 2x12 instead of a closed 4x12) is that the sweep of the gain knob is much more gradual from "fairly clean" up to "nice and compressed and chunky" to "wall of gain" - there's that middle ground that I always look for in a heavy amp sound where you get a nice crunchy tone when you're picking, but when you start palm-muting that gainy edge to the sound vanishes and you get a taut, deep, "chunk" to your tone. It's a point I can never seem to find on a Recto, but it's the sort of tone that the Nomad practically falls into. For lead sounds, this channel is also useable too, as the treble and presence knobs have a huge impact on the response and by rolling them back you can get a fairly round lead tone. Cool.
That said, the mode that really made me fall for this amp was 3 Vintage. Whereas 3 Modern is an edgy, crunchy beast, 3 Vintage preserves that same darkness and clear low end, while coupling it with a round, smooth high end response. This channel positively sings, and again the taper from low gain up through super-saturated is VERY musical. At the bottom of the gain knob, again say 2-3, you get a squishy, smooth, clear, and responsive lead tone that, while responding well to player dynamics, is also very forgiving. Midway is probably where I'm the most comfortable - halfway up with the treble a touch over midway, a little bit of a midrange boost, and the bass at maybe 10 o'cloclk with the presence low, and you find yourself in a very fluid, liquid George Lynch sort of tone that also bears more than a passing resemblance to that Petrucci sound I mentioned earlier on. Keep pushing the gain up, and you begin to get a violin-y "Hendrix melts down his Marshalls" sort of sound with the same EQ settings. Push the treble and presence up a bit and scoop the mids, and this is actually a great channel for rhythm, too, not as crunchy as the Modern mode, but with a "thicker" midrange and bass (naturally, they layer quite well too, although i'm hesitant to do that as I like to use this channel for my lead tone so I try to keep it out of my rhythm tracks in the interest of clarity). And, if you roll the gain all the way back, you actually find yourself with a fairly nice clean tone as well. This one channel could be an entire amp unto itself and I could probably live with it.
Other things worth noting - well, you've got your two poweramp modes, Normal and Extreme. Normal is, well, "normal" for Mesa, based around their modified Fender poweramp design. It's round, it's bubbly, it's smooth, if you've played a EL-84 equipped Mesa, you know what to expect here. Extreme, meanwhile is a boosted version with negative feedback stripped from the circuit - it's substantially louder (like, nearly double), and has a stronger treble and bass response. This mode works best with the crunchier modes in the preamp, especially for rhythm sounds - the green channel in Pushed and red channel in Modern sound particularly hellacious in Extreme. I go back and forth on Extreme for lead sounds, but generally seem to prefer Normal - extreme gives you a bit of extra compression, but Normal's a little more "round."
Also, the channel volume has a fairly profound impact on the response of each channel - at the highest settings, the channel becomes darker and more compressed, while as you go down it becomes a little more open, particularly in the highs. It's a pretty cool little variation, especially while recording.
Quirks? Well, Mesa reverb isn't the most pronounced verb you'll ever hear, so expect it to be pretty subtle. Also, your channel volume settings double as your effects loop send levels, so if you're playing live with something in the loop you have to keep them pretty even, which particularly for the clean channel means you have less flexibility for where you want to set your gain. This could be a problem if you were running something very threshold-dependant like a noise gate. And I'd prefer if the FX loop was switchable, if push came to shove. And I guess, while we're at it, if they did their old "channel cloning" thing and doubled up the 3rd channel on channel 2, I'd be exstatic.
The big picture, though, is that this is possibly the most well-rounded amp Mesa has produced to date, that can do a fair approximation of both a Rectifier's crunch and the smooth liquid response of a Mark-IV. And with three channels and a footswitchable volume boost (oh, and I didn't really get into that - it's essentially a second volume control. you can't cut your volume with it, but you can set it to boost from wherever your main volume is up through the entire range of the amp's output. So, if you want just a couple dB to help a solo cut through, you can do that, or if for some reason you wanted to be able to go from a whisper to a cranked-up Mesa (oh, did I mention that while I believe them it's rated at 45 watts, this amp is louder than the TSL-100 I owned before it?), you can do that too), there are a LOT of different tones you can pull up on the fly - you can have a lush clean, a light crunch, and a saturated high gain sound, and then solo with all three of them if you so choose. It's really an impressively flexible amp, and if you like the "mesa tone" but can't quite commit to a Recto or a Mark but want something squarely between them, then this is probably the best jack-of-all-trades amp they've produced.