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2/06/2013

Fender Mustang III - the budget boutique

FENDER IN CONTEXT

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation isn't just a brand anymore: it's a tone.

Unlike any of its major competitors, Fender is a market giant in two different product lines: electric guitars and guitar amplifiers. And it has been since before many of us were born.

Not every guitar player chooses Fender products, of course, but it's undeniable that the establishment of the electric guitar as a prominent instrument is strongly connected to Fender's history. The iconic Stratocaster is ubiquitous amongst the hands of the most successful guitar players throughout the decades. Fender's amplifiers were no different.

Fender tube amplifiers became and, to many people, remain the tone pinnacle. Whether we're talking about a Bassman, a Twin Reverb or something else, Fender always made magic with tubes... And that has been their niche for decades.

Until a few years ago, Fender didn't invest on the solid state amps market. Maybe because solid states are stereotypically perceived as mediocre, maybe because they never managed to design a solid state that lived up to their own quality standards while retaining a worthwhile price tag. Technology has evolved very much in the last decade, though. And in spite of already manufacturing some 'okay' entry-level solid states, Fender eventually decided to really make a stand on the transistors field. First, they made a partnership with IK Multimedia (an established company on the art of modeling and amp simulators), and both companies created Amplitube Fender. After this shy but successful stepping into the water, Fender raised the bets: the Mustang amp series was born.

THE MUSTANG SERIES

During the pre-launch, the Mustang I and II were seen with a mixture of anticipation and scepticism. The prices were about 100 and 170 dollars, respectively, and the amps offered USB connectivity, 24 preset slots and simulation of -- amp models - plus effects. That's quite a lot of features for an entry level practice amp, so major flaws were generally expected to justify such a low price. Besides that, Fender had never manufactured a solid state that really stuck on the market. Not the way their tube counterparts did, anyway.

As one would expect, the Mustang amps focus on modeling Fender tube amps. That alone is a very bold task. I don't know if it was due to their prior experience with IK Multimedia experts, but they amazed the guitar community with the accuracy of Mustang's simulations. They actually seemed to shake the premise that defends tubes are and will always be superior to solid states. And all in a groundbreaking price tag. In fact, the Fender Mustang amp series has been such a success that Fender decided to add the Mustang III, the IV, the V, the Floor and the Mini to the catalog.

So I decided to check what this Mustang thing is all about.

FENDER MUSTANG III - A REVIEW

The Fender Mustang III boasts 100 watts of power, 100 preset slots, 12 amp models and 37 effects. It also has an effects loop (send and return) and two jacks for footswitches. A 2-button footswitch is included with the amp. It has a headphone output, which doubles as a 1/8'' speaker-emulated output. For the tech experts, the speaker is a Celestion G12-T 100.



There is a USB input/output for firmware updates, exchange of presets between the PC and your amplifier, sending the output of the amp to the computer for recording, configuring the amp settings through the computer (via Fender Fuse, the software that comes with the amp)...

The Fender Mustang III has 60 more watts than the Mustang II, 76 more preset slots, a LED with menus and all the features of the amp are unlockable through the amplifier alone (unlike the I and II, which need to be connected to a computer to edit some parameters on the amp).

You also have the option to buy the EXP-1 expression pedal, which allows you to control any effect of the amp with the pedal: volume, wah... you name it. Mustang I and II aren't compatible with the EXP-1.

The effects are 37 total, distributed in three categories: modulation, delay and reverb. For each category you can only choose one effect at a time, but still, it gives you plenty of possibilities.

It comes with a CD of Ableton Live 8 Fender Edition, which you can use as a DAW (digital audio workstation). If you don't know what that is, it's basically a studio program where you can record, edit and tweak songs, recording each instrument on a different track. You also have Fender Fuse, the software used to edit the amp's configurations through your computer.



Right now, with firmware v.1.10, here are some of the things you can do through the LCD:
- edit the preset's name
- change the behavior of the footswitch (it can go up or down the presets, quick access some presets, or toggle a pair of effects of your choice)
- configure the quick access presets that each button on your footswitch toggles
- configure the EXP-1 Expression Pedal (if you have one)
- configure the LCD contrast
- choose the amp sag, the bias and the cab model on each preset
- set the TAP interval for delay-category effects
- change the signal path of your sound...

Now that we have the specs out of the way, let's really review it...

The sound(s)

There are some reports of a fizz sound on some Mustang III amplifiers, especially while playing clean single notes. It seems to be a hardware issue, particularly the power amp section; firmware correction was not feasible. However, personally I did not witness any fizz or wierd sound of any kind. Besides, Fender launched now the Mustang III v2, which is expected to fix completely that issue, as well as a bonus pack of 5 more amp models, 5 more effects and XLR outputs!

The Mustang III is basically a computer with a built-in speaker. The power and versatility of the amp's configurations is amazing. You can play any style from rock, to blues, to country, to jazz... The amp will never let you down. Maybe the weakest genre is heavy rock, heavy metal and beyond - I don't play those genres but I've been told by who does that the amp isn't very strong on those fields.

It sounds very, very good. It really nails the Fender tones... and it feels very responsive to the way you play. The configurations are quite easy to understand, although I had to read the manual to fully understand how the menu flow works. But once you read the manual (the important stuff is just about 2 pages full of illustrative images), you're good to go.

It's very customizable. Everyone might have his or her own tone preferences - the Mustang III lets you achieve those details you're looking for. Depending on how picky you are, you might need to tweak for a while until you get it right. But I think it really pays off once you nail the way you want to sound. Personally, I've made a preset with the Bassman model from scratch, and I like it so much that I'm using it everytime I practice - I never get tired of that tone!

One trick I use when naming the presets on the amp is put the name of the amp model first, then the kind of tone, then add the first letter of the pickups I liked the most when playing with that preset. For example, one of my presets is named Bassman Clean BM (bridge + middle), another one is Reverb Clean N (neck)... as you can see, the amp really allows you to do some neat stuff.

I disagree when people say you need a tube amplifier to sound distinctive, to achieve a sound that is yours and yours alone. The Fender Mustang III, for example, has so many different tone possibilities that you have all the tools to achieve your own personal tone.


The volume

The volume is adequate for a bedroom between 2 and 3; one has to be careful, though, as the volume rises quite abruptly somewhere between those numbers with a very slight rotation.

It's more than enough for rehearsals, jamming and even gigs. I've never brought it up to ten, it even frightens me just to imagine the blast this thing would shoot out lol! On most bars you'd be scaring the heck out of the customers at ten, so I guess it's only usable on gigs outdoors.

Another concern you might have is the tone quality throughout the volume spectrum. The amp sounds always the same, only at different volumes. Your tone remains untouched, even at very low volumes. So don't be afraid to need to push it for optimum tone.

When you plug in your headphones, the speaker goes silent and the volume is adjusted to headphone level. You can adjust the volume through headphones just like through the speakers. Remember to check the volume when you unplug the headphones, though: a 5 on headphones might be ideal but inside a house it's almost heard on the entire building! :D

CONCLUSION

If you're looking for an affordable amplifier that will be your Swiss knife for any kind of tone needs you might come up with, the Fender Mustang is your best bet. It's quite difficult to outgrow this amplifier, in my opinion - so it's a good investment for the future too. If you're looking for a Fender tone, the Fender Mustang REALLY is your best friend. If you need an amp for practicing at night, for rehearsals and gigs, the Fender Mustang III is the perfect candidate.

If you already have a ton of pedals that you use with tube amps, maybe the Fender Mustang won't be essential for you - but still, people who experimented putting pedals before the Mustangs usually say it sounds surprisingly well for a solid state amplifier. Lastly, if you're looking for a metal / grunge / punk specific amp, the Fender Mustang will give you that, but maybe it's overkill and there might be better sounding amps at the same price for those niches.

The Fender Mustang III became an all-purpose powerhouse that defied the tube amp lovers with its outstanding tone & feel. It established a new standard for future solid state amplifiers from other manufacturers, especially when it comes to quality-price ratio. Maybe a new era of the guitar begins here...

1 comment:

  1. Your review of the Mustang III is very accurate. I've had my Mustang III v1 for about a year and 1/2 and I'm very happy with it. The fizz problem has been resolved by the Fender tech people, who can instruct you with a quick fix over-the-phone, if you've ever experienced it. It happened to mine about a year ago, and it took a simple phone call to Fender to get it fixed.
    All it took was a factory reset; which takes about 10 seconds. It amounts to the same as rebooting your home computer. The instructions are there in the Fuse software. The issue has never returned.

    This amp is amazing and lives up to the hype you hear from multitudes of very happy customers. It's easy to forget that it is not a quality tube amp, the tone is THAT good.

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