Story by Adam Perlmutter | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta
As some guitar makers move incrementally closer each year to recreating their golden-era designs in exacting detail—a process that involves a rediscovery of original constructional techniques and materials—Martin has emerged with its new Retro Series line, which features a more tech-savvy approach to recreating the sounds of its legendary Thirties- and Forties-era flattops. This quartet of guitars includes the D-18E, D-45E, HD-28E, and OM-28E, all of which boast traditional looks and modern playability combined with a built-in electronics system.
But this is not your usual preamp. Designed in partnership with Fishman, the Retro Series electronics system uses digital algorithms to harness the sounds of vintage Martins as recorded by Grammy-winning producer Bil VornDick in his Nashville studio. When plugged in, the Retro Series guitars can recreate the tones of museum-piece Martins as they would have been heard in a professional studio from the period.
We checked out the lone orchestra model in the bunch, the OM-28E, which like its earliest predecessor has an elegantly understated appearance. Its minimalist ornamentation includes a herringbone top border, small diamond-and-square fingerboard inlays, a plain rosette, ivoroid body binding and heel cap, and a zigzag back strip. Though the electronic elements are less obtrusive than on many acoustic-electric guitars, features like a plastic battery compartment near the butt-end strap button leave no doubt that this is a modern-era guitar.
Solid Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce are the tonewoods found on the original OMs, but the OM-28E features the more environmentally sound choices of East Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce. The Sitka soundboard is impressively fine-grained, and the quartersawn rosewood back and sides have a lovely variegated coloring and a deep, rich glow.
Our OM-28E is superlatively well built in all aspects, the fretwork flawlessly clean, the finish rubbed to a perfect luster, and the innards tidily sanded and assembled. Its mahogany neck has a profile that Martin describes as a Modified Low Oval with Performing Artist Taper, and the neck feels exceptionally smooth in all regions—slim but not skimpy, which is a plus for players accustomed to classic electric guitars.
Played acoustically, our OM-28E exhibited an impressive amount of headroom for a small-bodied guitar. Like a good OM, it was nicely balanced, with a taut bass, an assertive midrange, and a sturdy treble. It responded well to fingerpicking and flatpicking alike and didn’t lose clarity when the guitar was placed into alternate tunings with slackened strings.
Things became especially interesting once we plugged in the OM-28E and took advantage of the vintage Martin tones within its Fishman preamp. To create those “images,” or timbral snapshots, VornDick recorded a 1934 long-scale 000-28 (basically an OM-28 with different numerology) with nine different classic and boutique microphones. The Fishman F1 Aura+ uses a pair of knob/buttons to access a host of different functions, so it is not entirely intuitive to operate. That said, the user guide and DVD included in the guitar’s case provide clear instructions. The system’s default setting is Easy Mode, which includes a built-in tuner and three image presets—the 000-28 miked with a Miktek CV4, a Geffel UMT 70S, and a Milab 96—plus the straight sound of the under-saddle pickup. Six more images are available in Performance Mode, which also has controls for blending the images with the pickup, EQ, feedback suppression, and compression.
As a purist, I approached the electronics with skepticism but emerged a convert after trying the guitar through a Fender Acoustasonic amp as well as a DAW. While the pickup sounds very organic on its own, the images really take things to a whole new level. It’s easy to appreciate the dramatic as well as the subtle differences between the images, including the complexity and detail inherent to each. The setting for the Thirties-era RCA 74B, so warm and velvety, is particularly satisfying.
For some guitarists, anything but the genuine article will remain unacceptable, but for those inclined to embrace the technology found in the OM-28E Retro, the ramifications—to have at one’s fingertips the sounds of a treasured old guitar beautifully recorded with a collection of the world’s best mics—are staggering, to say the least.
LIST PRICE: $4,499
C.F. Martin & Company, martinguitar.com
Museum Quality: Scott Follweiler, Martin’s artist relations coordinator, speaks about the Retro Series.
What kind of players are the Retro Series intended for?
The traditional Martin customer who prefers noncutaway models but also isn’t afraid of state-of-the art electronics—in this case using vintage museum-quality Martins as “tone donors,” recorded using two million dollars’ worth of microphones with the Grammy-winning producer Bil VornDick behind the product.
How did Martin arrive at the neck profile unique to the series?
We started with a modified low oval and gave it a profile similar to but slightly meatier than that found on our Performing Artist neck, which is designed to be fast and comfortable for modern players.
Can we expect other guitars from the series?
We have no plans for additional Retro models at this time. But the series has sparked interest in directions we did not expect, for instance, from producers who want to create their own “images.” Fun!