A reader inquires about the high-end line of acoustic-electric Martins.
I am most interested in trying out the new retro series especially the HD-28E Retro and D-45E Retro. Have you tried these and what do you think?
I own a D-18E Retro. I have played all the other Retro models as well. The two major factors that set them apart from the Vintage series guitars they were based upon are the new high performance neck instead of the modified V necks, and the on-board Fishman Aura F1 Plus electronic pickup system.
What sets the Retros apart from other Aura-equipped Martins rests with the fact the “microphone images” installed in the on-board computer were captured using rare vintage Martins recorded through priceless vintage microphones. The marketing implications are obvious; plug in and sound like you are playing a pre-war Martin worth tens of thousands of dollars. But this is not modeling technology.
The guitar still sounds like the modern Martin it is, but it does make for a very good plugged-in experience, which is more “acoustic” than perhaps any other pickup system out there.
Martin executives were skeptical when someone first proposed to use images not from the specific model they were currently making, but rather images from much older guitars, made with different species of tonewoods, like Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce. But they were excited at the initial results, and went ahead with the project. They were even more happy with the finished products.
According to sources high up inside Martin, the tweaking done to fit the Retro images with the guitars they were installed in required considerable engineering and a melding of the sounds of the old and new guitars. And I will say my D-18E Retro has a Sitka spruce top, but it also has a certain dry pop and chimier ring to it when amplified that reminds me of Adirondack spruce, as found on the 1939 D-18 that supplied the Aura images.
In terms of the acoustic guitar, the Retro series dreadnoughts have forward-shifted, scalloped braces under a high quality Sitka spruce soundboard, and Indian rosewood back and sides, with mahogany used for the D-18E Retro, just like the Vintage series dreads. They are all very good guitars, with voices rich, resonant, and powerful.
While some traditionalists cannot imagine buying a venerable D-45 with the newfangled neck, I am sure many said the same thing about the D-45 when it moved to the low profile neck of the 1990s. But many more traditionalists cannot imagine why anyone would pay the price required for a top of the line D-45 to get a guitar with three holes cut in the side and invasive electronics installed. I guess it depends on how badly one wants a D-45 with plug-and-play electrified sound that offers advanced, programmable tone adjustment.
While the Fishman Aura F1 Plus requires complicated science to work, it is extremely easy to employ from the player’s standpoint. In practical terms, it removes a great deal of the artificial sound of under saddle and magnetic sound hole pickups, and brings back the sound of an acoustic guitar, particularly where the unwound treble strings are concerned, which lose almost all of the typical “quack,” and sound much more like what the guitar is supposed to sound like.
In reality, Aura-equipped Martins sound less like an unplugged acoustic guitar than they do an unplugged acoustic guitar heard through a microphone, including phenomena associated with proximity effect and plate reflection, etc. They sound most like a miked guitar through larger PAs, which move a lot of air, but still sound very good through smaller amps, even if they tend to have more of a pickup-ness.
A greatly simplified explanation of the extremely complex efforts required for the Aura system goes like this:
The folks at Fishman Electronics take a guitar, like a D-18, and they record it through its under saddle pickup while also recording it with an elite professional recording studio microphone, like a Neumann U87. They take the resulting sound files, slice them into over 1,000 tiny pieces, and apply EQ and other special effects to transform the wave form of the pickup to be as identical to the microphone wave form as possible. They do this with various microphones at various positions, and pick the best 9 results to load into the computer on the guitar’s Aura system.
When a particular microphone image is chosen, the player can blend as much of that image into the pickup signal as they wish (typically 40% – 60%.) And they may now tweak it further by adjusting bass, mids, treble, applying compression, etc., and those settings can be saved.
The “Plus” to this latest Aura system is the plug-and-play easy mode, which provides 3 preset images, designed for solo playing of fingerstyle and light strumming, flatpicking and lead guitar, and a more compressed sound profile for playing in a large band. I have never found my easy mode images all that impressive, so I use a variety of the fully programmable 9 microphone images, and rarely need to alter them with the on-board tone controls.
But the most amazing part is the exclusive algorithm running inside the Aura F1 Plus, which adjusts in real time to the player’s strumming, picking, and changes in stress and attack, squelching unwanted pickup sort of tones and applying excellent anti-feedback protection. And included in this real time juggling act is the use of micro-delay that approximates the time it takes sound waves to leave the guitar and reach the diaphragm of the microphone, if there was a real microphone present.
I can fool the Aura sometimes, when changing attack abruptly, and may get a bit of bark or quack at times, but nothing like other pickup systems I know of. While the Aura system might never sound exactly like an acoustic guitar, its ease of use and good quality sound makes it very worthwhile. I am also extremely fond of the on-board tuner and phase switch, as well as the new end pin installation, which has a 1/4″ jack that is separate from the strap button, and a hatch for the battery, so I no longer have to loosen my strings to change it.
As for that neck, well, it is a sign of the times. Martin has been converting many of their Standard series models to the new neck, while incorporating many specs found in the Vintage series, which is being phased out. The new OM-28 has the herringbone trim and diamond fingerboard markers of the retired OM-28V and the current D-18 has looks, bracing and wood of the late D-18V.
So, the D-18E Retro is identical to the Standard series D-18, except for the material used for the saddle. Martin’s lengthy experiments have led them to feel that the artificial Tusq material works best with the under saddle pickups, mainly because natural materials like bone are often filled with microscopic air pockets, which can adversely affect plugged-in tone production. If someone really wants bone for that extra clarity and sustain, it is easy enough to change the saddle.
The high performance neck is a combination of Martin’s modified low oval profile and the Performing Artist taper, thus named because it was introduced on the Performing Artist series of guitars. It has a width at nut of 1-3/4″, but the width at the 12th fret is 2-1/8″, the same as their traditional 1-11/16″ neck. So it has a shallow, slightly rounded carve to the neck, a touch deeper and less flat than the Performing Artist series necks, matched with a sleek fingerboard width, which is cheated out just a touch down in the cowboy chord area of the first three frets.
My casual polling suggests it is thought of most highly by people used to Martin’s 1-11/16″ neck than those used to the traditional 1-3/4″ neck, which is 2-1/4″ at the 12th fret.
This likely has to do with the fact the string spacing for the new neck is 2-3/16″, 1/16″ wider than what comes with the 1-11/16″ neck , but anywhere from 1/16″ to 3/16″ narrower than the various OMs and dreadnoughts with a traditional 1-3/4″ neck.
As with all guitar necks, some folks love the new Martin neck, some folks do not love it, and others are indifferent. I find I like having the sleeker, lower profile all the way up by guitar’s body. But I would actually have preferred the even lower profile of the PA series guitars.
As the only regular catalog Martins that feature both Aura electronics and a traditional, hand-fitted dovetail neck joint, the Retros make excellent acoustic guitars, even if a player rarely needs to plug in. But they might want to weigh the value of an on-board tuner if they do not expect to need advanced electronics on a regular basis. As of yet there is not a version of the D-28 or D-45 outside of the Retro series with the high performance neck, but it is likely only a matter of time before there is.
Here is a video featuring a Martin HD-28 with a traditional Fishman under saddle pickup, and a Martin D-18E Retro, with a Neumann U64 microphone image engaged, and with the on-board EQ set flat. If you jump to the 2:15 mark, where each guitarists takes a lead, you will get the best comparison.