Martin's new Retro Series promises time-travelling guitar tones in an electro-acoustic package. We take a look at its stunning reworking of the D-18 Dreadnaught.
As well as a visitors' centre, pickin' parlour and factory, Martin Guitars' HQ in Nazareth, Pennsylvania boasts a museum, which plots the firm's 175-year history interwoven through American culture.
Among the 170-plus guitars on display are iconic, classic Martins from the 30s and 40s - known as the 'Golden Era' of guitar making. It's these unique, highly valuable guitars that form the lifeblood of Martin's new Retro Series of electro guitars.
Martin Guitars and Fishman Electronics have enjoyed a collaborative association for over 20 years. During a brainstorming session in early 2011, Martin CEO Chris Martin put forward the idea of recording some of the museum's pre-war Martins to Larry Fishman, CEO of Fishman Electronics.
As Chris Martin himself says: "All of the guitars in the museum are great-sounding guitars, but some are spectacular." This is because they possess unique tonal characteristics attributed to the passing of time.
The concept was simple: to record selected 'Golden Era' guitars and, in a similar way to the earlier Aura series of Martin electros (which reproduces the studio-mic'd sound of a guitar), turn the recordings into software that could be read by Fishman's preamps, thereby offering access to the sounds of these vintage instruments.
The 'tone donors' used included a 1942 D-45, a 1941 D-28, a 1937 D-18 and (on loan from Vintage Instruments) a 1934 long-scale 000-28 model. If the project was successful, then plugging in the resulting guitars would be the closest thing we could get to acoustic time travel.
The project employed the services of Grammy Award-winning producer and acoustic recording guru, Bill VornDick, and his famed Mountainside Studios in Nashville. He assembled a collection of vintage and boutique microphones - some dating back to the 1930s - and began painstakingly and meticulously recording the museum pieces.
The results were then passed to Fishman who, forging a new technology path, set about turning the recordings into software readable by its F1 Aura preamp systems.
Phase three involved Martin creating an all-new series of non-cutaway electros, vintage in appearance but benefiting from the enhanced playability of recent Martin models, with features such as the Performing Artist Series high-performance neck and its reshaped taper and low-oval profile.
In terms of the guitars' dimensions, the review model you see here is identical, though its neck profile differentiates it from a 'standard' Martin dreadnought. The retro look comes courtesy of ageing toner applied to the solid Sitka top; a silk screen decal on the classic Martin headplate; butterbean open-geared tuners; and a 1930s-style ebony bridge.
Interestingly, while traditional bone has been used for the nut, Graph Tech's Tusq is the chosen material for the compensated saddle. This is because Tusq, apparently, transfers string vibration to the undersaddle pickup much more evenly than bone - a prerequisite for an electro whose amplified performance is all about delicate tonal inflections and nuances.
The Fishman Aura Plus preamp system is not new to the marketplace, having been previously featured on Performing Artist series guitars. As fitted here, the Aura Plus system has two distinct modes of operation: Easy and Performance.
As you'd expect, Easy mode is a simple, uncomplicated way of getting amplified, offering three pre-selected, pre-blended images, identified by a simple 1, 2 or 3 on the 18mm diameter display LED.
Pressing the left Edit button scrolls through these presets. Pressing a fourth time takes you to 'P', which, in Easy mode, denotes an unblended, pickup-only signal. Tone shaping in Easy mode is limited with just the Edit button offering a mid-scoop/boost.
Unfortunately, due to its multi-functionality, the Edit rotary has no limit, either left or right, so it can be a little difficult orientating where the control is set, particularly on a dimly lit stage.
This is not the case with the right volume control, which also engages the tuner (whether or not the guitar is plugged in). Sharps are indicated by a tiny dot in the top-left-hand corner of the display, which is also not the easiest to see unless you drop the headstock away from you, squaring the display up to your line of sight.
Performance mode is engaged by holding down the Edit button while inserting a cable into the standard jack output located just behind the strap button. Here, the full capabilities of the F1 Aura Plus shine, giving us access to blend, bass, mid, treble, a compressor and its 'search and destroy' anti-feedback system.
Navigating around the menus does take time to get to grips with, but putting in the time is well worth the effort, because the tone-shaping options on offer here are wide-ranging, impressive and rewarding. Mercifully, for those who like to 'fiddle', restoring factory resets is an easy procedure, and erases any alterations made in Performance mode.
The power-hungry Aura Plus system uses up a fully charged nine-volt battery in a little over 24 hours. We like that the battery is not anchored inside the compartment and, once the compartment door is opened, it slides out easily.
As you'd expect with a £2,000-plus Martin, the build quality, attention to detail and overall presentation is excellent. The label-free inside is clean and tidy, every joint is crisp, and the gloss finish is flawless.
The Retro D-18E is an all-solid affair featuring a bookmatched solid Sitka top and mahogany back and sides. Tortoiseshell-colour binding edges both the guitar's back and front, and complements the Delmar pickguard.
Though simplistic in appearance, the D-18E does have a classic air about it, be it the ebony 30s-style bridge, old-style abalone position inlays, or vintage-style tuners, Martin clearly intended the D-18E to hark back to yesteryear - it's a fine looking guitar.
Acoustically, the Retro D-18E offers a clean, bright, crisp tone with lots of power and projection. It's a mid-heavy sound that's sensitive to dynamic variations. Direct comparisons with a standard D-18 reveal a slightly more woody tone compared to the Retro guitar, but overall they sound very similar in character.
Though enjoying the guitar acoustically, we were eager to plug in. Switching between the three presets in Easy mode, we're impressed with the difference each setting offers. All three produce full, rich, slightly bass-heavy outputs, but with varying degrees of attack and presence.
We'd argue that these presets are good enough to not ever need to venture into
the seemingly endless options of Performance mode. However, venture we did - and although it's time-consuming, some glorious tones await.
Rolling the mids out gives us some very likeable sounds for picking, while boosting mids and treble provides lots of attack and bite for solos and choppier chord work. Biasing the output to full image creates some stunning sounds, though we'd suggest a good acoustic amp is essential to fully realise the Aura technology.
Without the original Golden Era guitar to hand, we can't make an accurate judgement on how closely the F1 Aura Plus replicates that museum piece. We can, however, confirm that this guitar is an exceptional electro.
Martin's Retro series is aimed at more traditionally-minded players than its Performing Artist series, and will excel in any home or any studio. Its tones work superbly in a live environment, too, though how many people will realistically submit such finery to regular gigging life remains to be seen.
In any case, top marks to Martin and Fishman for travelling back in time to create a forward-thinking guitar worthy of anyone's collection.