March 1, 2004

Randall Smith Unveils Mesa/Boogie’s New Stiletto

“The Stiletto is a vicious rock head based on EL34 tubes,” says Randall Smith, Mesa/Boogie founder and sonic guru of the company’s first all-EL34 amp.

“Those tubes are notoriously fragile, but there’s no denying their delicious sound. EL34s are airy, they produce a crystalline high-end harmonic haze that’s kind of like fine-grain glass, and they deliver one of the great rock and roll tones.”

However, before Smith and Director of R& Doug West (a.k.a. “Tone Boy”) could exploit the fabulous EL34 sound, they needed to solve the problem of the tubes tending to overheat and fail as signals are driven to beautific clipping levels.

“We did some clever voltage-switching stuff that not only juiced the tubes and gave them more character, but also made them a lot more reliable by changing their operating points and making them feel real liquid, rich with gain, and full of sustain,” says Smith. “We also radically re-voiced the tone controls from where our Rectifier amps are set. The bass tone-control frequency was raised about an octave, and we lowered the middle tone-control frequencies by about an octave and put them real close together. We basically crafted the whole thing—literally from the input jack to the output transformer—to maximize the glory of those EL34s.”

“We wanted to take the Stiletto completely over the top, as well as find a voicing that would work well with a Rectifier on the same stage,” adds West. “Whereas the Rectifier’s subsonic lows seem to emanate from the center of the earth, the Stiletto’s lows appear to bloom from a space about two feet above the floor.”

West was also instrumental in ensuring the Stiletto not only sounds marvelous, but that it feels good to play. “Doug is legendary in his ability to play the same thing over and over while we’re making minute adjustments,” says Smith. “And we go through all these listening and refinement stages because we want the amp to invite you to play. From a technical standpoint, there is an action, the tube reacts, and the power supply changes the voltage. A great-feeling amplifier is constantly morphing, and that’s why it’s so responsive and exciting to play. The magic lies in what fluctuates, how much it fluctuates, and what time period it fluctuates under. It’s like the flavors in a great wine—the layers unfold before you.”

A big part of Mesa/Boogie’s hands-on approach to amp design is Smith’s desire to, literally, keep his hands on the rendering of the circuit boards. They are all drawn by hand, rather than developed with CAD software.

“Does that make a better board?” asks Smith. “No. But it does change the approach of the designer. For example, I feel like I’m working on an oil painting or building a model, whereas guys who do CAD layouts often say they get so burned out from looking at the computer screen that they don’t look at design as an artistic project, but as a big chore. That wouldn’t work for me, because we’re trying to make things that a player identifies with and loves. It’s not like a dishwasher. Nobody loves their dishwasher, they just expect it to work. But we want guitarists to love their amp. So everything we do—from the circuit design to the manufacturing—is designed to make an amp more special for the player.”

—Michael Molenda

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