Friday, July 27, 2012

Gear Review: V3M 3 Channel 50W Micro Guitar Amplifier Head

Life has a way of interfering with important things like trying new gear and blogging sometimes, and worse yet is when it gets in the way of reviewing a product that you've actually had in your hands for a long time.  Upon launching Extreme Metal Musician, my first intended gear review was going to be that of Carvin's then-new V3M "micro" tube head.  Well, that clearly didn't happen, and EMM has been gathering dust for several months.  But I don't feel right about reviewing anything I haven't spent significant time using, and the truth is that I hadn't put the V3M through its paces . . . until now.  Having rehearsed and gigged with it recently, I feel that the time has come.  If you're considering the V3M yourself, read on!

Carvin V3M Micro Amp Head (shown with optional rack kit) - as shown on

The first, perhaps most important detail to consider about the Carvin V3M is that it is very much its own beast, not simply a downsized version of the original V3.  Furthermore, it is not a copy of another, better-known "classic" amplifier.  The concept of a compact guitar amp head is not new, but the V3M ushered in a new era of full-featured tube heads in such a format.  By using EL84 tubes, Carvin was able to offer a full 50 watts of power (which can be lowered to 7- and 22-watt modes via a switch) and three channels without sacrificing functionality.  As is typical of Carvin, they make you purchase a footswitch separately, either the stripped-down FS22 or the V3M-specific FS44L-V3M.  Spending $44 on a footswitch is a bit of an annoyance when you're already paying $600 for the amplifier, but Carvin is hardly the first company to charge for a footswitch.
FS44L-V3M Footswitch

It's worth the expense, however, as you can activate the clean channel, switch between the two distortion channels, and engage the boost and reverb from the footswitch.  If you're like me and like a little `verb on solos, you'll be pleased with the V3M's digital reverb, and it's feasible to hit the boost and reverb switches simultaneously for a proper solo boost.

So, how about those distortion channels?  Does the V3M have what it takes to deliver extreme metal tones?  Yes, it definitely does, and Carvin did something that more amp manufacturers should do, which is to voice both distortion channels the same.  There are few things more irritating than dialing in a great rhythm tone but finding that you can't get an equally great lead tone on an amp's second distortion channel, or vice versa.  Each channel on the V3M has its own EQ, plus an EQX (EQ expander) toggle and voicing toggle on each, which recalls solid state amps (like my beloved Peavey XXL) that offered extensive versatility.  All of these are accessible from the front panel, and allow for an absurdly wide range of clean and distorted tones.  The 12AX7-driven distortion is fully capable of death metal, and the EQing flexibility is very impressive.  That said, the V3M does not sound like [insert favorite high-gain amp name here] and shouldn't be dialed in the same way; it doesn't have Marshall JCM roar or Peavey 5150 grind, but that shouldn't be expected. 

I spent quite a bit of time tweaking the EQ settings in practice, made some pretty drastic changes during soundcheck at my latest gig, and have found a sort of "happy medium" since then.  This amp is much more speaker-intensive than any other I've played as far as EQ settings are concerned, and with so many different options, it's easy to go overboard.  Drastic EQ changes are reflected in the amount of hiss the V3M generates as well, as I had virtually no noise with a mid-scooped tone but starting getting some squeal as I started boosting the midrange for a punchier soloing tone.  For that reason, I strong suggest dialing in the distortion channels exactly the same, finding a suitable tone and leaving it that way on one channel, and then making adjustments on the other channel.  Once you're really happy with your settings, match them up again.  For me, this means having one distortion channel for six-string guitars and one for sevens, but it could just as easily be a subtle variation for rhythm/lead switching.

OK, so the V3M can do the "death metal thing" quite well, and has a better clean channel than any metal-friendly amp has any right to, but the truth of the matter is that tone is admittedly secondary for most people that first take notice of this amp.  It's the size that generates the most interest in the micro-amp niche, and Carvin has made the most of a very compact footprint.  The V3M is lightweight and can easily be carried in one hand, sitting securely atop small 1x12 or vertical 2x12 slant cabs with room to spare.  There are unfortunately some risks associated with this, namely in a gigging environment, specifically pertaining to the front controls.  Unlike the switches and knobs on most full-sized amps, the controls on the V3M are not recessed.  They are invariably in harm's way if you're moving around in close quarters, and snapping off knobs is definitely going to ruin your day.  My advice?  Buy the V3MRP rack ears (shown above) and a 4U rack case of whatever depth you prefer.  I went with a simple SKB shallow effects rack case and couldn't be happier.  That sets the front panel safely back and adds a line of defense to the V3M's solid but cramped chassis.

At the end of the day (or end of the set, anyway) the V3M can hold its own alongside veteran metal amps.  My experience has been that purchasing just the amp itself isn't sufficient for a gigging musician - the FS44L footswitch and V3MRP rack kit (and a case) are absolutely essential - but with $100 of extras, it is capable of the versatility that many larger amps don't deliver.  There is no compromising on features, but rather so many that finding the desired tones might take some guitarists longer than they're accustomed to. 

The Carvin V3M could very well be your ideal gigging amp, or one more tool in a diverse recording arsenal.  It has very few limitations when judged by its own merits rather than measured against amps with "classic" tones from years gone by. 

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