Martin OM-28E Retro Review

AG 241 January 2013 Cover

Posted by Doug Young

Prewar Martins have achieved mythical status and are universally revered for their tone. Although Martin has offered various reissue models intended to capture the magic of these vintage instruments acoustically, modern acoustic guitarists increasingly need to play amplified, and reproducing vintage tones for an audience remains a challenge, whether you are lucky enough to own an original prewar Martin or a more modern reissue. To address this need, Martin’s new Retro series leverages technology to try to bring some of the character of vintage instruments to the amplified sound of a modern guitar. The guitars are the result of a collaboration with Fishman, using its Aura technology to reproduce the sound of four specific vintage instruments from Martin’s museum. Fishman enlisted Grammy Award–winning producer Bil VornDick to record the vintage instruments using a collection of new and vintage microphones, including classic mics like Neumann U67 and U47s, and an RCA 74B ribbon mic. The Retro series includes three dreadnoughts and one OM. We checked out the OM-28E Retro.

High-Tech Vintage

The OM-28E Retro has a vintage-inspired design that includes herringbone purfling, vintage "diamond and squares" fingerboard inlay, open-back tuners, a 1930s-style bridge (but with a drop-in, rather than glued, saddle), scalloped X-bracing, a bone nut, and a touch of aging toner in the finish. In contrast to prewar instruments, the OM-28E Retro is built with a Sitka spruce top, Indian rosewood back and sides, and Martin’s relatively new Performing Artist neck—a slim profile design that, while it starts with a width of 13⁄4-inches at the nut, flares out slightly less than older Martin necks, which gives it more of an electric guitar feel and makes playing in higher positions easier. The Sitka spruce top is especially attractive, with a nice silking pattern, and the Indian rosewood used for the back and sides combines straight grain with some figuring. The gloss finish on our review guitar showed some mottled hazing, but it was only visible under certain light, and it would probably be undetectable to most people. In short, the Retro is a modern update on a classic design, with changes designed to improve playability for guitarists who are used to contemporary instruments.

Played acoustically, the OM-28E Retro has a warm sound with good sustain, and a typical Martin focus on the lower midrange, along with a pleasant hint of compression, all of which would make the guitar appealing as a strictly acoustic instrument. I didn’t hear the dry, airy, yet resonant quality often found in a prewar Martin, but I wouldn’t expect that until the guitar has at least a few decades under its belt. In any case, the real magic lies in the custom Fishman F1 Aura + electronics. The Aura technology involves analyzing the recorded sound of a guitar and essentially mapping the sonic fingerprint of the recorded acoustic tone onto the pickup sound using digital signal processing. Most of Fishman’s Aura products provide a variety of stock sounds—called "images"—gathered from various guitars, but many people report the best success when the images are based on the specific guitar the image is intended for—a service Fishman can provide on a custom basis. For the OM-28E Retro, Martin and Fishman decided to base the models on a vintage 1934 longscale 000-28 (some early 1930s 000 models had long scales and were essentially OMs, but they were built during a transitional period when Martin was changing its specs and naming coventions).

Extensive Onboard Controls

The F1 Aura + combines an Acoustic Matrix undersaddle pickup with an onboard preamp that includes the Aura processing. The system packs a surprising amount of control into two unobtrusive knobs and a small display panel mounted in the side of the guitar. Nominally, the two knobs are volume and tone, but they also provide access to a long list of features through a combination of pressing and press/hold. Reading the manual is an absolute necessity, but it is well written and it’s easy to grasp the basics (in addition, the guitar includes an instructional DVD that explains the Aura + system). Pressing and holding the volume control for two seconds mutes the output and activates the built-in tuner, while simply pressing and releasing the volume toggles the pickup’s phase. Rather than simply adding bass or treble, turning the tone control alters the tone from flat to scooped—a slightly unusual arrangement that takes some getting used to but ultimately seems useful, since it replicates a popular EQ setting that removes some midrange mud from the sound while emphasizing treble and bass tones.

As shipped from the factory, the F1 Aura + is set to Easy mode. In this mode, pressing and releasing the tone control steps through four different sounds, the unprocessed sound of the UST pickup and three Aura images. In Easy mode, the Aura images are blended to a predetermined mix with the direct pickup sound. In addition to selecting the image, you can use the tone control to fine-tune the sound.

You could easily be happy with the default settings of the Easy mode, but the F1 Aura + also features a Performance mode that provides access to six additional preset images. In Performance mode, it is also possible to access bass, mid, and treble controls; a pickup/image blend control; an automatic antifeedback control; and even a built-in compressor. Entering Performance mode involves a sequence of pressing buttons while plugging in the guitar. Fortunately, once you perform the required acrobatics, the guitar will power up in this mode by default, until you reverse the procedure.

Splitting Image

The images are clearly the core attraction of the OM-28E Retro, so I spent a fair bit of my time with the guitar plugged in. I played the instrument through an AER Acousticube II combo amp, a Pendulum SPS-1 preamp into a PA system at a local café, and the same preamp through my recording setup, listening over studio monitors to both live and recorded sounds. The straight pickup tone (using the "dry pickup" preset in Easy mode) sounded quite good through the amp, but under the more detailed lens of my studio monitors, the snappy attack typical of an unprocessed undersaddle pickup was clearly evident. However, a quick switch to the first Aura patch produced a dramatic improvement: a warm, round tone that seemed very similar to the unplugged sound, even with the default blend. While the difference was most dramatic through studio monitors, the processed sounds were also noticeably better through the AER amp and club PA system.

For recording, I switched to Performance mode and ran through all nine images with the mix set to 100 percent image. In this mode, it was easy to hear the distinct character of each microphone. Some differences are subtle, but others are dramatic, such as the dark sound of an RCA ribbon mic used for one image. I tended to prefer the sounds of the modern condensers, such as the Miktek and Milab mics available in Easy mode. For recording, I preferred using Performance mode and setting the mix to 100 percent image, but blending in some of the dry pickup sound usually worked best in live performance through an amplifier.

Vintage Sounds

Without having a prewar OM handy to compare it to, I had no way to evaluate how accurately the OM-28E Retro matches its inspiration, but the guitar sounds superb plugged in and is quite satisfying acoustically. The acoustic tone is classic OM, and the Aura system, whether it reminds you of a prewar Martin or not, comes much closer to reproducing the guitar’s acoustic tone than most acoustic-electric setups.

SPECS:  000 body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid East Indian rosewood back and sides. Scalloped X-bracing. Mahogany neck with dovetail joint. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. Bone nut. Tusq drop-in saddle. 25.4-inch scale length. 1 3/4-inch nut width. 2 3/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Polished gloss lacquer finish. Nickel open-back tuners with butterbean knobs. Martin SP Lifespan phosphor-bronze light-gauge strings. Fishman F1 Aura + electronics. Made in USA. Left-handed version available.

PRICE: $4,499 list/$3,399 street.

MAKER: C.F. Martin and Co.: (888) 433-9177;martinguitar.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar January 2013

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