When meeting any highly adaptable piece of equipment for the first time, it’s easy to assume a “jack of all trades, master of none” bias. The guitar industry has seen a lot of products that promise a-million-tones-in-one solutions. The questions always remain—how can an amp laden with the electronics necessary for a thousand features compete with the signal purity and unique tonal complexity of a great point-to-point design? How does a 19-pound box squeeze out the visceral dynamics and screaming saturation necessary for modern metal sounds?
Carvin offered answers at Winter NAMM earlier this year with the fully featured three-channel V3M. The little beast unites a compact package with the high-gain spirit of Carvin’s bigger heads. But this little amp does many things well, and at a price that could make the most hardened gear snobs look twice.
So Many Knobs, So Little Time
The first thing I noticed when unpacking the V3M was, of course, the size. At 15'' wide, this is a very portable 50-watt, all-tube head. Paired with a Carvin 212V cabinet with the company’s GT12 speakers, it’s a great looking micro stack. The amp’s two-toned metal enclosure lends a utilitarian vibe, though there are some flashy touches too—the dynamic V3 logo and the red or blue LEDs inside the cage enable you to augment the natural glow of the four 12AX7 and four EL84 tubes, livening up your stage presence.
The amp feels solid and road-worthy, and at 19 pounds, isn’t as easily tipped as some smaller heads. The knob layout feels surprisingly uncluttered for having so many controls on such a limited surface space. There’s a Master Volume and Reverb knob for all three channels. But each of the amp’s three channels has dedicated Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, Volume, and Drive controls. Each channel also has two switches—the EQX switch, which expands the frequency range affected by the EQ, and a Drive Mode switch, which alters the channel’s gain structure.
The rear panel is home to a Power Mode switch that enables for on-the-fly selection of 50-, 22-, and 7-watt output levels, Effects Loop and Footswitch jack, Speaker Impedance switch, and a Boost control. To top it off, Carvin throws in a cabinet-voiced Line Out for plugging directly into a mixer and a 120/240 AC voltage switch.
Tone Shaper’s Delight
Competing with full size heads and low wattage screamers alike is no easy task. But the V3M has potency across the board. I started my test in the 50-watt mode and with Channel One selected—one of two identical drive channels—with the Drive set to 6, the Bass and Treble knobs at 5, and the Mids at 8. Opening up the Master Volume let loose a Petrucci-like vocal laser beam of a lead tone from my Les Paul’s treble pickup, and string-to-string clarity was impressive when I delved into chunky rhythms as well. The amp was very responsive to picking dynamics in this setting. I was also confident that the V3M would have no problem driving a 4x12 cabinet at a large gig.
Flipping the Drive Mode switch up from Classic to Intense and turning on the EQX switch gave the amp a significant boost, specifically in the upper mids, resulting in a more grinding, 5150-like sonic character.
The amp’s greatest quality, perhaps, is its ability to switch channels and instantly nail completely different distortion flavors.
Switching to 7-watt mode I tried to get a grip on the amp’s snarl quotient. Scooping the mids, diming the Drive knob, and setting the Drive Character switch to Thick gave the V3M the kind of fully saturated scream and low-end girth you’d need for a great base metal tone. You can easily tweak the tone to taste too. Engaging the foot-switchable Boost (I had mine set to 10 on the amp’s rear panel) rewarded me with an explosive, sustaining growl, despite the moderate output of my Seymour Duncan ’59 pickups. This is why cranking low wattage amps so fun—it’s so easy to dial in great aggressive tones. The only downside to the 7-watt setting was a minor loss in pick attack sensitivity, as expected. Seven watts simply can not compete with 50 in terms of sheer dynamic performance.
But the amp’s greatest quality, perhaps, is its ability to switch channels and instantly nail completely different distortion flavors. I selected Channel Two on the footswitch and adjusted to a classic rock rhythm tone by dropping the Drive to 4, setting the Character switch to Classic and dialing the Bass, Mid, and Treble knobs to 4, 6, and 7, respectively. Suddenly I was churning out a honky tonkin’ crunch that would fit right into any Skynyrd jam.
The clean channel (Channel Three) has its own Drive Control characteristics, allowing you to flip between Bright, Classic, and Soak. The Bright setting is ultra clean, and switching the V3M back to 50-watt mode gave me the headroom necessary for crisp, ringing country lead lines. It was easy to dial in convincing jazz tones as well. Setting the Reverb knob to 6 introduced the just right amount of acoustic ambiance. The amp’s reverb doesn’t get dripping wet, even on 10, but offers a wide useable range to suit most applications.
Back at 7 watts, I switched to Soak mode to experience some natural tube break-up. This more classic overdrive sound had plenty of bite and lured me into playing some punchy old Stones material. Due perhaps to the relatively huge bottom end coming out of its cabinet, the V3M seemed to hold together contentedly with the volume on 10.
Carvin was smart to address the market need for versatility with its latest addition to the successful V3 series. Refreshingly, the amp isn’t just another victim of feature creep, so often seen in gear both in and outside the music world. The V3M’s features are selected for real-world usability, and the breadth and quality of its sonic abilities are impressive and accessible—all this while hanging on to the micro amp spunk so many of us have come to love.
you’re in the market for a rocking low- to medium-wattage amplifier, or if you're a gigging musician in need of a flexible, all-tube solution with power to spare.
you’re a purist who prefers less complicated amp designs.