Background: These days, it’s hard to deny that lightweight tiny amps are on the front lines of the bass amp scene; amps that look like and weigh about as much as a shoebox, but deliver all the volume, tone and flexibility needed for today’s busy gigging bassist. Companies are jumping on board left and right, entering their bids to compete in the new featherweight amp market. And then there’s Mesa’s M6; not tiny, not featherweight, but truly a contender the modern amp marketplace. Mesa’s M6 has already earned a reputation as an instant classic, garnering praise among discerning bassophiles and gigging road dogs. For the M6 to be gaining such popularity amongst similarly rated heads that weigh a fraction as much, Mesa must really have hit the nail on the head, right? RIGHT! Well, Mesa recently sent me their M6 Carbine (previously known as the Fathom) to check out and put through its paces. My personal opinion is that the M6 represents a real evolutionary leap in terms of power and tone, while maintaining the tried and true form factor of a 2 rack space traditional-power-supply bass head.
Construction: Mesa stuff always looks well built and smartly designed, and the Carbine certainly follows in that tradition. The look is stripped down, austere and industrial; the clean lines are refreshingly easy on the eyes, making quick tone adjustments a snap. The beefy chassis and faceplate are confidence inspiring, seeming totally roadworthy, the switches, knobs, and jacks feel stout and reliable. Everything about the construction seems well thought out and equally well executed.
Features: The M6’s preamp section features a 3 band eq with some cool extras. Pull on the bass knob and you get the “deep” setting, with extended low end heft and a bit of additional air on top, adding overall beef and some added width to the sound. The mid control is deceivingly a boost only control, as opposed to the bass and treble controls boost/cut type feature. It sounds balanced and punchy at the center detent (an odd feature for a boost only control), but as with all of the M6’s eq knobs, a little goes a long way. Twisting any of the knobs offers powerful tone shaping ability. The eq is user friendly, and the chosen frequency points are very intuitive and unobtrusive to my ears. One cool feature is the 5-way mid preset knob, which works better than most any other “mid presets” type of approach that I’ve heard. It has two mid scoop settings and two mid boost settings, and I found the less extreme of each to be totally usable, musical and great sounding. I experimented on gigs making quick adjustments to my tone using only that knob and was pleasantly surprised with how usable the settings were. Continuing down the front panel, the M6 features a handy front mounted DI level with push/ pull control for pre/post eq settings, and a master volume with a pull-to-mute function, indicated by a small yellow LED. On the back, there is a DI XLR jack with a ground lift, an effects loop with a bypass switch, two multi function speaker outs, a tuner out, and the footpedal jacks. A note about the footpedal: Mesa decided to go with 1 jack per setting, meaning that there are 5 jacks for footswitches, one each for the 5 mid presets, all of which are on/off. While I can appreciate the flexibility in being able to control and combine any and all settings, I find this to be somewhat clunky, potentially very confusing, and it requires either a small handful of pedals, or a custom designed pedal that houses 5 switches and 5 jacks. (Mesa responds: We can make a footpedal designed for the carbine for an additional cost if a customer requests one)
Real World: I used this head on a handful of gigs with various basses and cabs in several different rooms. By and large, playing through the Carbine was a joyful experience. Tonally, the carbine is a departure from the vibe Mesa is loved and renowned for. It is quick, articulate, and forward sounding, with tons of upper mid and treble snap, and great low end oomph. Whereas Mesa’s Mpulse series heads are somewhat pillowy and tubey sounding, the Carbine is a striking contrast; bold, sharp and assertive, adding some spice and variety to their product line. My band mates praised the Carbines ability to leap through to the front of the stage mix without sounding brash or harsh, instead it rides that fine line of being clear and present without sounding sterile or clanky. It is very musical and dynamic, and was easily compatible with every cab/bass combination I tried it out with. Volume-wise the Carbine is loud, and by loud I mean REALLY LOUD. Perhaps it’s due in part to the assertive voicing of the amp, but I was more than happy with the volume and the headroom the amp produces, bordering on overkill for most club gigs. I know how we bassists love our headroom! I rarely had the master above nine o’clock even on loud gigs, and it never seemed to lose its composure or break a sweat, even when pounding out sub octave OC-2 synth lines or searingly loud slap grooves.
Gripes: I admit that the pull-to-mute function on the master knob almost always results in a volume shift due to the knob getting bumped when pulling/pushing. I would like to see Mesa add a separate mute control, one that isn’t connected to a critical knob. Good news: the mid presets are footswitch controlled. Bad news: As I mentioned, you’ll need a barrage of footswitches to get full use of the functionality, or a custom made footpedal, like the one Mesa mentioned is available as a custom order. I personally would love to see Mesa include in the box a proprietary Carbine footswitch. This is a no-brainer for me, especially given my love for its abilities, and its functions’ value in the overall package.
Conclusion: Some friends and I were joking that this is the anti-Mesa or better yet, the Mesa for guys who haven’t been real fans of their previous amp offerings. This is not at all meant as a slight against Mesa Boogie. Rather, what I mean is that the M6 is a clear departure from the established Mesa tonal formula, and a foray into a market that has many good contenders but few true standouts, especially ones that sell for under $1000 ($1149 with optional head case). To my ears, the M6 sounds more similar to my old trusty and beloved Demeter/Crest rack setup than it does like any of its 2 rack space head competition. I loved its authoritative quickness, forward yet unobtrusive and appropriate mids, and slammin’ bottom end. The M6 may prove too “in your face” for the die hard lovers of SVT or 400+ type tone, but there’s no denying that what it does, it does in spades, The M6 raises the bar big time. It shows that a 2 rack space amp that weighs 24 pounds doesn’t have to compromise sheer power, tonal versatility, build quality or a comprehensive yet uncluttered feature set. One thing is for sure, the M6 is right up my own alley. It puts a smile on my face and a flap in my pant leg every time that cool blue power light flicks on.
For more info, visit www.mesaboogie.com