JEFF SHATTUCK MUSIC

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Gear Review: Carr Mercury 1 X 12".

A my friends Toby and Cory I am amp-obsessed. Or I was. Then I bought a Carr Mercury and for the first time in ages I felt sated in a tubular way. But first, a little history.

Over the years, I have owned a Marshall Super Lead, a Marshall combo thing that I barely remember, a Hi-Watt, a Lab Series, a Music Man, a Fender 75, a Fender Concert, a Fender Bandmaster and a Mesa/Boogie MKIIB Simul Class. The only amp I still own is the Boogie. Of the amps I sold, the only one I wish I still had is the Bandmaster (It was a beauty, pre-CBS, totally clean, a piggyback design that was just damn cool).

Despite its status as sole survivor, however, my Boogie has spent most of the last 20 years in regal retirement, ensconced comfortably in a closet, no long nights of rawk to busy its mind. Why? Because the amp is just heavy and too loud to be anything but a serious amp for a serious gigging musician who can afford a roadie, or for a really well insulated recording studio. Also, despite my love for the Boogie, I confess that its sound is a little brittle and thin (less so now since I had Boogie mod it a bit). Plus, to make it sound decent you need to turn it up, which, even at the 15W setting can peel paint.

So several years ago, when I first started contemplating playing again, I wanted a much lighter, much lower-power amp that could still achieve the harmonic complexity of true tube distortion that I so crave. Sadly, most so called low-power amps aren''t really that low power. Trust me, go ahead and crank up a 20 Watt amp; you'll swear it's as loud as anything else you've heard, just maybe not as "big" sounding. Sadder still, most low power amps ship with no master volume, so the ONLY way to get some grind is to crank 'em up. Sure, you could use a distortion pedal, but, well, I'm too much of a purist. Plus, I'm too forgetful to have to remember to bring my pedal, bring a battery, recall a setting. Forget it. Literally.

After researching small amps on the Web for weeks, I finally came across Carr Amps. I think I first read about them on Harmony Central, but once I had hit on the name, Carr info suddenly popped up everywhere -- all of it glowing. To Carr's credit, the Carr site has lots of audio samples, and I clicked away to my heart's content. At first, I wanted a Hammerhead, but after writing to Carr, they suggested I look at the Mercury again. I did, and what I read, and listened to, so impressed me that when I found out I could buy one here in the Bay Area I simply went out and plunked down my cash. A LOT of cash. Sigh. But. Oh. So. Well. Spent.

The Carr Mercury is the best amp I have ever heard for my purposes, which is home use, recording and the occasional gig. Here's why:

TONE

For higher-gain settings, imagine a Fender's warmth and shimmering highs and blend 'em with a Marshall's crispy crunchiness, and you can start to get an idea for what my Merc sounds like. For cleaner tones, just imagine a classic Fender Deluxe and you're there, albeit with a touch less warmth and roundness.

FLEXIBILITY

Being a picky bastard and forever dissatisfied, I want my amp to be quadraphenic -- or worse. I want the thing to be Sybil-like in its ability to change personalities. The Carr Mercury delivers in spades. It's secret is a unique range of controls, which read from left to right (facing the amp) as follows: VOLUME, BOOST, BASS, TREBLE, REVERB, OUTPUT. There is also a CUT swtich.

VOLUME controls the volume of the power-amp, not some wimpy pre-amp tube.

BOOST makes three levels of gain possible, with the lowest topping out at a crunchy Bassman-esqe tone, and the highest giving you gritty, snarly Marshallness.

BASS and TREBLE are self explanatory, except that they actually work when engaged, and get taken out of the circuit at higher BOOST levels.

REVERB means what it says, and delivers gorgeous, lush sound.

OUTPUT is what really sets the Merc apart, by allowing you to switch the total power output of the amp from 1/10 Watt, to 1/2 Watt, to 2 Watts to 8 Watts. For godlike tone past midnight, just set the BOOST to 3, VOLUME to 10 and OUTPUT to 1/10, and rock till you drop. So cool.

CUT switch reduces highs, to rid the amp of "ear needles".

BUILD QUALITY

If you can find one, go look at a Carr amp. They are the best made amps out there. Others might be as good, but I seriously doubt any of them outdoes Carr. The Tolex is perfect, the knobs tight and smooth, even the power cords are special given that they are hospital grade. Remarkable. In fact, the one time I've had my Carr worked on (needed to replace a tube) the guys a the shop were all trying to be cool, but they could not hide how impressed the were with my Carr.

WEIGHT

I've had it with granite amps. The Carr is light but not ever flimsy feeling. Perfect for lugging on stage.

LOOKS

Hey, call me shallow, but looks matter, and the Carr's retro-cool is just badass.

BOTTOM LINE: If you're looking for a low-power tube amp and you can afford the Carr, get it. Go ahead, try a Dr. Z, a Top Hat, a Bad Cat, a THD, a Rivera, try 'em all. The Carr Mercury will win your heart. Even better, once you own a Carr amp, the company takes care of you, answering emails, solving problems (unlikely!), just acknowledging and appreciating your joy.

I will say it again. The Carr Mercury is the best amp in the world for home use, recording and even gigging (with a good monitor mix).