Hands-On Review:It's Alive! Marshall Mode Four amplifier
by Eric Kirkland
As the science of amplification moves forward, players and manufacturers have had to adjust their approaches to creating great tone. For instance, we now understand that while all-tube amps have their advantages, they are bound by limitations. In response, Marshall has created the Mode Four, a hybrid amplifier that combines a tube-driven front end with a massive 350-watt solid-state power section and digital reverb. The results are nothing short of outstanding. In particular, the Mode Four has the widest tone range of any Marshall product past or present, making this one of the most versatile amps in the company's long and venerable history.
The Mode Four has the instantly recognizable gold faceplate and black tolex covering traditionally found on Marshall amplifiers, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike its siblings, the Mode Four has a Marshall logo rendered in thick polished aluminum and affixed to a slotted brushed aluminum grille. A super-duty rubber handle provides comfortable support, while black chrome knurled knobs lend an industrial but classy vibe. The head stands on rubber ball-type stabilizing feet that, to my ears, help to improve midrange clarity and definition as vibrations increase. The imposing 4x12 cabinet is just over three inches larger than the company's previous cabinet designs, and the increased dimensions are integral to its tone, as they lower the resonant peak to produce massive bass authority and clarity.
Features and Layout
The Mode Four utilizes two independent preamps, labeled Amp 1 and Amp 2, each of which has two modes. To prevent confusion, the amp's designers have placed the knobs for each of the preamps on either side of the front panel.
Located on the left side, Amp 1's controls include knobs for gain, volume, bass, middle, treble, digital reverb and FX level, and push-button switches with LEDs with which to select clean or crunch mode and midrange scoop. Situated on the right side of the front panel, Amp 2's controls include knobs for gain, volume, digital reverb, FX level, bass, middle and treble, and a three-position tone matrix selector. There are also push-button switches with LEDs to activate the scoop feature and to select the OD1 and OD2 modes.
The Mode Four's master controls, located in the center of the panel, comprise resonance, presence, solo level and master volume, and they function regardless of which preamp or mode is selected. The master section also includes a tuner mute button that operates in conjunction with the Mode Four's tuner output jack. Pressing the button silences the amp's output and routes the signal to the jack when a tuner is connected to it. In addition, the Mode Four automatically mutes itself when no instruments are plugged into the input-a nice feature on a high-gain amp.
The 350-watt beast is powered by a solid-state amplifier that has a revolutionary design: it optimizes its output to match the selected preamp mode, with an emphasis on damping and harmonic response. Marshall understands that tubes are still a vital part of creating rich tone, so the Mode Four's designers wisely gave each preamp its own single ECC83 (a.k.a., 12AX7)tube.
The Mode Four's back panel houses two speaker outputs, the previously mentioned tuner out jack, an FX loop with a +4dB or -10dB level switch, dual cooling fans and 1/4-inch and balanced emulated line outputs. There is also a 15-pin connector for the Mode Four's six-way footswitch, which is included with the amp. The footswitch can be used to select any of the four amp modes and to switch the reverb and solo feature on/off. Modes and solo boost can be selected with either the front panel switches or the footswitch at any time.
I tested the Mode Four with a Strat and a PRS Custom 24, using guitar cables from Planet Waves and VansEvers. Our straight-front, 400-watt, 8-ohm model MF400B test cab came loaded with 100-watt custom-voiced Celestions. While the cab was tight and certainly ideal for loud and defined tones, Marshall also makes 280-watt, 16-ohm cabinets (models MF280A and MF280B) loaded with specially voiced Celestion MF Vintage 30s, which may be more appropriate for lower-volume playing styles.
I began by selecting Amp 1's clean mode, and was floored by its sheer power and available headroom. Single-coil pickups had sparkle and dimension, while humbuckers were punchy and articulate and never overloaded the front end. Most impressive, the clean mode only got better as I turned it up, a characteristic that's in direct opposition to solid-state amps of the past. The remarkable 350-watt power amp emulates the rich output-stage distortion characteristics of a tube amp to deliver accurate edge-of-breakup blues and driving pick dynamics. Depressing the scoop switch in the clean mode alters the tone beautifully, creating a slinkier feel and a blackface vibe with sweeter highs, less pronounced mids and smooth bass.
Punching up Amp 1's crunch mode drove the Mode Four into the realms of Plexi and JCM800. By keeping the gain low and increasing the treble and presence, I could make the amp produce that upper-mid brilliance that defines Marshall's tone legacy. Increasing the gain pushes the crunch mode into JCM800 territory and beyond, while maxing the gain and volume in this mode produces searing metal tones like those made famous by players like Zakk Wylde-and all without an overdrive pedal. With its master control turned up, the Mode Four sounds frighteningly good and comparable to any all-tube design.
Although Amp 1 produces enough distortion for practically every player, the Mode Four has plenty more on tap courtesy of Amp 2. Picking up where Amp 1 leaves off, Amp 2's OD1 mode approximates the modern distortion of the DSL2000, and pumps more than enough drive and attack for wicked leads. For those that have a truly sick obsession with gain, the OD2 mode produces the most distortion and liquid sustain ever offered on a Marshall amp, with enough saturation to satisfy the most perverted distortion sadist. As with a tube amp, the Mode Four's master volume needs to be set high in order to take advantage of everything the Amp 2 preamp has to offer.
Amp 2's three-position tone matrix selector increases the low-end emphasis and narrows the tonal envelope as it's turned from 1 to 3. Essentially, this shifts the midrange from a classic response to one that is more akin to modern metal. Should you still desire to drop the bottom out of the midrange, the scoop button will take you on a devilish trip down the river Styx.
One of the Mode Four's most useful and intelligent features is the FX level knob on each channel's front panel controls. I placed a Boss DD-3 delay into the FX loop and was able to dial in exactly the right blend of delay for each channel without having to turn the amp around and search for the dial. The resonance and presence controls tune the bass and treble response respectively and serve as the final tone controls after the EQ has been set in the selected modes. These controls allow for a copious amount of high-end attack and enough bass response for detuned styles, seven strings and baritones.
The amp's solo boost allows you to increase volume from a small amount for solos to a whopping +6dB. The Mode Four delivered the quickest response and had the greatest touch sensitivity with the solo feature engaged, so I would opt to keep it on all the time. Although I had real reservations about the amp's digital reverb, I have to admit that this nearly studio-quality effect is perfectly integrated into each preamp. When set low, it's virtually indistinguishable from most spring reverbs and is predictably quieter. As you turn it up, there's enough reverb for a spacey hall effect, which is always crystal clear and doesn't have the harshness associated with solid-state units.
The Bottom Line
As one of the first amps to mix tube, solid-state and digital technology, the Marshall Mode Four superbly demonstrates how well these disparate technologies can work in harmony. Its sounds range from chest-thumping clean to Eighties metal to mutating hyperdistortion. With features like solo volume boost, digital reverb and front-mounted independent FX level controls, the Mode Four is sure to shape the future of amplifier design and modern guitar.