The Fender Blackface Tone: An Alternative

The 'blackface' Fender Twins from 1964 and 1965 (AB763 circuit) have always been my point of reference for clean guitar tones (especially with single-coil guitars).  I like the tweed and blonde versions that preceded the blackface era as well as the AB763 in silverface cosmetics but nothing is quite like those '64 and '65 versions. In short, I have a clean sound in my head and I associate that with the name 'blackface Twin' -- whether or not the designator is perfectly accurate.

I also love the old blackface Deluxe and Princeton models. The problem is that these amps are highly collectable today and prices have continued to soar. Many have been cannibalized for parts, been repaired incorrectly, modded, or in some cases just beat to hell.

The good news would appear to be that Fender has reissued all these amps so we can just run down to the shop and pick one up for a reasonable price. Well, It isn't that simple. The originals were all hand-wired whereas the reissues use PCB construction....I'm definitely not opposed to printed circuit boards when done properly. That's the problem. The stuff that Fender is cranking out today does not inspire that much confidence. Those PCBs are 'paper thin' (okay, I exaggerate) and the components used are really not that great. Moreover, they sound somewhat thin, brittle, cold, and harsh to my ears. They can be modded but, again, it's not the same. 

Ah, wouldn't it be great to just get a pedal that could duplicate those old amp tones? Been there and done that. They can get close but no pedal can really substitute for an amp, especially when you have to run that pedal through an amp's tone stack. And don't get me started on digital modeling. I'm actually a fan of digital emulations but the blackface emulations are not that amazing to me -- modeling, to me, is okay when you're aiming for a ton of distortion or just generic clean; it's those 'in between' tones they seem to fail at. 

So what to do? Flying in stealth mode for the last 20+ years has been a device manufactured by Mesa Boogie way back in the day called the Studio Preamp that, depending on your current amp, can deliver all the goodness of those Fender blackface tones and, perhaps, even improve on them.

As far as I know there was only one brief window of fame for the StuPre and that was a few years after it was out of production. From 1999 to maybe early 2001 there was a brief mania for these preamps. They were red hot on guitar forums and there was a brisk trade for them on Ebay. You hardly see them anymore but for a while these things were heralded as the greatest thing Mesa Boogie ever did when you look at it from the price-to-performance angle. Others claimed that, on the contrary, the StuPre was not simply good for the price but the best lead circuit ever designed (a refined and improved MkIIC+) that could be obtained from no other Boogie. There were stories of some guy hoarding a dozen or more of them; the old Harmony Central guitar forum participants were flustered; prices quickly doubled; my own now-defunct guitar forum  became a virtual and informal StuPre fan club as it seemed that about every other guy owned one.

Whatever the Studio Pre was, or was not, is or is not, when I plug my single-coil guitars into the clean channel of the Studio Pre all I hear is Southern California 1964. 

The Mesa Boogie Studio Pre has that sound. Now, a lot depends on what amp you use with it, but even with my Bogner Shiva (highly dissimilar to a Fender Twin) I can still nail that tone. My Shiva is powered by EL34 output tubes and has a sealed and ported 1X12 cab with a Celestion in it. But it can still get that blackface Twin tonality. How? First of all, the Shiva has an effects loop and I can bypass all the tone-shaping aspects of the Bogner and go right into its power section and, secondly, the abnormally powerful and interactive tone stack of the Studio Pre can carve a sound like few amps ever made. And the good news is that, once the mania passed, the prices seem to have returned to non-bubble levels. Last time I checked I saw one for $375 and another for $450. Which, when you consider inflation, is not too bad for a box that was going for $250 to $300 twelve years earlier. 

The Studio Pre (see the Owner's Manual for all the details) is built like a tank and could be the most reliable piece of musical equipment I've ever owned. I bought it new in 1992 (mine was manufactured mid-April 1992) and I've replaced a couple of tubes in it. That's it. It's also insanely flexible in terms of tone-shaping. The tone stack is very interactive and extremely powerful. String definition is just ridiculously good as is the string-to-string note separation; this might be the first time you've played third intervals through a distorted amp and you like what you hear. Tiny adjustments to, say, the bass makes a big difference in the Treble.  And the options for lead tones are more than you might imagine: Lead; Lead + EQ; Lead + Fat Boost; Lead + EQ and Fat Boost; Lead + Bright, and so on. The secret to the rhythm crunch and liquid lead tones is the cascading gain stages (Volume, Master, Lead Drive, Lead Master,  and Output Level). Sounds scary complicated but once you grasp the concept it is easy. 

But, anyway, back to that iconic clean sound: if you are craving those old blackface tones of yesterday and currently own a quality amp and it has an effects loop then I suspect you're in good shape for capturing those vintage California cleans. For low-volume playing use the Recording Outputs of the Studio Pre and for stage volumes use the Main Outs -- there's even a trick whereby you can run the signal out of the effects Send on the pre to the effects return on your host amp for a more open and chimey sound with increased note clarity.

Try this: bypass the preamp section of your current amp by plugging the StuPre Recording out into the Effects Return and you're off. With a Strat-style guitar using the bridge pickup start with these settings:

Volume: 5
Master: 6
Treble: 6
Bass: 3
Middle: 3 to 6 (adjust this to taste)
Reverb: 3
Rhythm Bright: Off
EQ: off

Raise the Output Level to your preferred level (I have mine between 8 most of the time but lower it to 3 or 4 when I don't want to disturb the kids). Even though I am bypassing the Bogner's tone stack I can still use the Master volume and Presence so I have a lot of options for tone and distortion shaping while keeping volume levels down when needed.

Try the above settings, now, but switch your output to the effects Send (Line level) and check out the difference.

Reconnect to the Recording output. Check your sound and adjust the bass first then the treble and fine tune by going to the mids. Switch over to the Lead channel and start with your Lead Master on 1 or 2 then bring up the Lead Drive to the amount of gain you want and fiddle with the Lead Master for a good volume balance between the Clean and Lead channels. You should be able to just adjust the Lead Drive from 2 to 8 to move from furry distortion to full-out metal crunch. Remember, the Lead channel is almost an exact replica of the famed MkIIC+

The key to lead tones is to use the Recording outs unless you playing at stage volumes. 

If you're wanting to capture that legendary blackface clean tone without paying a ton and getting world-class build quality I think the Mesa Boogie Studio Pre could very well end your quest.