Sooner or later, we all want that one famous guitar sound. Carl Martin takes a punt at an iconic tone and discovers a very cool byproduct. Words by Peter Hodgson.
Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Every guitarist since about, say, 1978 or so has at one time or another craved a particular sound – one that you can only get with a raging Marshall Plexi set to ‘kill’. Y’know, the kind of tone that makes you want to run with the devil on the mean streets... Yeah, you get it.
Guitar companies have been trying to capture this magical tone in one form or another for four decades, and in the process, they’ve shaped the evolution of tone in unique and interesting ways. Because even when they get close to those particular lusted-after sounds, there will often be some kind of feature or design tweak that can be used to do something unintended.
Take, for example, Eddie Van Halen’s 5150 amp. He designed it for his personal tonal requirements, and yet it’s ended up as the perfect amp for extreme metal. Go figure, huh?
Carl Martin’s attempt at capturing certain classic tones is the Panama Overdrive. And yeah, there are plenty of overdrives out there that are designed to give you a taste of the cranked Plexi sound – the little spin that Carl Martin have added, and the thing that can open up the Panama’s capabilities well beyond its intended brief, is a damping control designed to adjust the tightness and focus of the pedal’s overall character.
We’ll get to how well it works in a second. First, the Panama overdrive is in an anodised case and which features Carl Martin DC/DC converter circuitry, which lets it run with plus or minus 12 volts internally. It has the expected level, gain and tone controls in addition to the damping knob.
The input and output jacks, and the nine-volt, 100-milliamp external power supply jack, are mounted to the top of the pedal to conserve space either side on your pedalboard so you can cram more pedals in.
The look may or may not be to your taste (it’s a little more modern and high-tech looking than its sonic brief might imply, but that’s a look consistent with the company’s other pedals right now) but you’re not going to be looking at your pedal while you’re melting faces onstage with it, right?
I’M THE ONE
The goal of this pedal is to give you that very particular tone of that very particular Plexi. But does it succeed?
Well, it gets a lot closer than you might expect from a little box that isn’t an overheating tube amp head and cabinet. Key to this is its upper midrange quality, which has exactly the right amount of cut-through in this crucial frequency range. It gives you those exciting harmonics, it gives power chords just the right kind of oomph to cut through the rest of the band, and it sounds great with a phaser pedal. Practically the only thing missing is a second output that sends just a room-reverb sound to a separate amp.
But of course, that’s not the only element of that legendary sound. There’s also the attack and aggressiveness. That’s where the damping control comes in. Crank it up and the distortion becomes more cutting, clear and angry. Roll it back and the tone becomes deeper, thicker and more dynamic, particularly in the lower frequencies. So while you can really blast that damping control to get those extra-edgy Diver Down style tones or back it off a little for more of a “Fools” vibe, you can also roll it right back to get unique, full-bodied sounds that are great for stoner and doom metal tones
It’s also worth remembering that the gain control doesn’t just stay on ten. It has a very usable range, from “pretty much clean, but with the advantage of using the damping and tone controls to shape your sound” up to “Angus and Malcolm are here”, all the way up to “welcome to the point of no return”.
There’s even a sweet spot where you’ll be able to roll the volume knob of your guitar down to get a clear and punchy clean tone before cranking it back up for your main rhythm and lead sounds.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s a lot more going on inside this pedal than first impressions may suggest, especially one you start to explore the lower regions of that damping control and begin to find all those massive doom tones. This is a pedal that’s at home with Superstrat, SG and Telecaster alike, and just like the player whose tone inspired it, it’s way more than a one trick pony.
• Damping control
• Internal 12-volt circuitry
• Level, Tone and Gain controls
• Top-mounted jacks
• Anodised enclosure
• Dynamic, responsive and 'brown' sounding
• Damping control does way more than you might expect
• Great gain range
• No cons, but the addition of reverb would be nice