I’ve been a huge fan of Mesa Boogie amplifiers going back to…..well, let’s just say it’s been a loooong time! So when Tim McKee at Boogie asked if I’d like to take their new Royal Atlantic for a spin and review it here on The Gigging Musician, how could I refuse! It’s only fair to admit that I’ve been using Boogies since the 80′s and have used many of their amps over the years since. My current rig consists of a Lone Star Special head with 2, 2×12 Lone Star Cabinets, and my backup rig is an original Mark IIb head that I got from Steve Miller that’s been modded a few times by Mike Bendinelli down at Boogie. Just so you don’t think I’m too biased, I also have a 65 London, a vintage Princeton Reverb, a VOX AC-15, and a few others, but for live gigging nothing beats the Mesas!
Before we delve into the features on the amp, I’ve got to tell you that the first word that came to mind when I sat down to write this review is BOLD. This amp is BOLD! With the Lone Star, I feel like I can blend in or jump out as needed. It’s so transparent that I can sometimes get lost in the mix, and more than once I’ve actually been asked to turn up by my lead singer as well as a soundman or two. That is definitely not the case with the Royal Atlantic. This amp is chomping at the bit to be cut loose, and I had no problem finding great tones out of it as soon as I plugged it in. The amp (while being decidedly British) is more akin to a big, American V-8 muscle car, while the Lone Star is more like that racy, European job. One of the biggest tests for any new piece of gear is what my bandmates think of it, and with the Royal Atlantic they immediately knew something was different and commented very favorably on the variety of tones I was getting from it. That’s a big test to pass as these guys can be brutal when they don’t like something!
The Royal Atlantic is the flagship of the TransAtlantic line and packs 100 watts of EL-34 based power. It is a two-channel, three-mode amp, giving you access to Clean, Lo-Gain, and Hi-Gain modes via the supplied two-button footswitch. The Lo-Gain and Hi-Gain modes share their tone controls, but in a new and much more useful way than they did on say, my old Mark IIb. The tone controls on the RA-100 are much like those on the Mesa Electra-Dyne, using concentric tone pots to actually subtly change the tone stack when switching between the two modes. I have used the amp on a wide variety of settings and have never once wished I had separate tone for the gain modes. That was a pleasant surprise given the battle I always have finding a happy medium on the old MKII between the Clean and Gain channels! The Reverb on this amp is one of the best I’ve ever heard, and via switches on the back, you can have it engaged on all three channels, on just the Lo-Gain and Clean channels, or just on the Clean channel. Very useful for keeping those cleans lush, and those searing solos clear and distinct.
Which brings us to probably the most interesting and innovative feature on this amp, which is the Channel Assignable Multi-Soak. This features basically gives you a separate power attenuator for each mode of the amp, giving you the ability the get the sound you want at the volume you need! Located on the rear of the amp, each channel has a 5-position power attenuation switch (-16db, -12db, -8db, -4db & 0db) for Power Ratings ranging from 100 watts all the way down to 3 watts of class A/B power. For those of you who prefer a non-master volume amp, this is an invaluable solution, as you can have this big amp working hard and still be able to use it in the smallest settings. They do warn you that using the higher levels of attenuation will dramatically shorten tube life, but it’s a small price to pay for the amazing versatility it offers. The amp comes with a two-speed fan, and I always keep the fan on high so as to prolong tube life.
So how does it sound? Besides Bold? Suffice it to say I really love this amp. While I got my Lone Star Special mainly for it’s clean sound, the Clean channel on the Royal Atlantic is the best clean I’ve ever heard on a Boogie. No kidding! You can basically set everything at noon, attenuate wherever you want, and this thing sounds fantastic. I’ve tweaked the tone on this channel and no matter where you set it, it performs. I use Les Pauls, Teles, and Strats throughout our shows, and the clean here really lets each guitar’s distinct sound shine through without having to change settings when changing guitars. The tone is big, round and warm, very American sounding. The amp is worth trying for this channel alone!
The Gain channel really takes you back to those classic British rock tones all us old(er) guys grew up on. Between the two modes on this channel you can cover everything from sultry blues to over-the-top screaming lead, and everything in between. A huge benefit of the Gain channel is how well it responds to both your picking and use of the the volume knob on your guitar (you all know where that knob is, right???). If you’re the type that rolls back your volume for rhythm and brings it up for leads, this amp is made for you. It’s very quick to respond, giving you back exactly what you put into it. That being said, I tend not to do this (and yes, I know where that knob is on my guitars!), so I have the Lo-Gain mode set for my rhythm sound, and use the Hi-Gain mode for solos. Works perfectly either way. I did find the Gain channel a little harder to dial in, mainly because I tend towards a bit darker, warmer tone and this amp is on the brighter side. I ended up running the Bass at about 4:00 and the Treble between 8:00 and 9:00, and then use the Middle to dial it in for each room. I am running this through a couple of open-back 2×12 Lone Star cabinets and would expect more low end and punch if I were to run it through a big, closed back cab. That being said, it was easy enough to dial in, it just didn’t work as well for me with all the controls at noon.
The RA 100 also has a transparent, series effects loop which handles outboard signal processing and provides a seamless interface for units that don’t always like to live in front of the preamp such as Delay, Chorus, Flange and Pitch Shifting based effects. The Loop Send is derived from a source at the end of the preamp and the return is inserted back into the signal path near the input to the power section. Being more “old school” (as opposed to just “old!”), I run everything in front of the amp and honestly haven’t used the loop. When there are no patch cords and/or devices connected, the loop is hard bypassed and all associated circuitry is removed from the signal path, which is a nice touch.
I was told that some of the other Boogie guys checking out this amp were running the master all the way up and then cranking the attenuators to get the volume they were looking for. While I tried this and it was very cool, I didn’t find it to be the sound I was ultimately looking for. I’ve ended up running the amp in the 100-watt setting (via the handy 50/100 switch on the front panel), and then attenuating each channel two clicks, or at -8db. Keep in mind that the ear’s perceived difference in volume between a cranked AC-15 and an AC-30 is only 3db, and you can see just how versatile this feature is! I took a couple pictures of my front panel settings, and while they turned out horribly, it at least gives you a starting point for what worked for me.
So what would I change? There’s really very little about this amp that doesn’t work for me. I would probably like the Gain channel to have a bit more low end at neutral settings, but again, that’s what those knobs are there for so that’s not a big deal. The one thing I would LOVE to see on this amp (as well as on just about any amp) would be a variable Solo Boost feature like I have on my Lone Star Special. I’ve gotten so used to having that, that it has become an indispensable feature for me. With a variable solo boost on this amp you would have six, count ‘em, six different foot-switchable settings, and tone for days!
My verdict is that the Mesa Royal Atlantic RA-100 is an amp that you definitely want to check out before making your next amp purchase. We are so lucky these days to have so many great amps out there to choose from, and the RA-100 is right up there at the top of the stack. I’ve been using the amp for about 4 months now and will follow up with another long-term review next year after I’ve got a few more miles on it. Very special thanks to Tim, Mike, Jim and everyone at Mesa for bringing us such a versatile beauty. And speaking of beauty, I’ll leave you with a picture of an amazing, custom-ordered RA-100 that was recently delivered to Geo at The Guitar Sanctuary. I don’t know about you all, but this thing ROCKS!!!