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Carrera Review - Guitarist Magazine

It was back in 1999 that Guitarist ran the world's first review of the debut model from Cornford Amplification. At the time the Harlequin was a radical move: a full-sized 1x12" combo that kicked out just six watts. Since then, many other manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that there's a market for big tone from a low-output valve amplifier, and the market's now awash with 'single ended' heads and combos.

The Harlequin became an instant hit with studios, and with guitarists with home set-ups who were fed up with synthetic sounds and who wanted real tone on their recordings. So it's not surprising that many of the contributors to both Guitarist and our sister magazine Guitar Techniques, use Harlequins as their main recording amp.

Six and a half years down the line the Cornford range includes the powerful MK50 and Ritchie Kotzen signature heads and cabs, the 35-watt Hellcat stack and combo, and the excellent 20-watt Hurricane. So why have Paul Cornford and Martin Kidd, founders of this now world-acclaimed amp range, come up with another low-watter, the Carrera?

"It was as a direct result of pressure from our players," says Paul. "They kept telling us they wanted a Harly, but with a few more features, like reverb and an effects loop, so we've bowed to their requests and come up with the Carrera. But we've added a couple of our own ideas to make it even more interesting."

Cornford has made its name on hand-built, point-to-point wired amps - "no PCBs of any sort" insists Paul - and that's exactly how the Carrera is built at the company's home in Whitstable, Kent. As well as the aforementioned reverb and effects loops, both entirely valve driven, Cornford has come up with an ingenious way to create different power ratings and tones - more of which later.

The Carrera is a simple but attractive amp. It comes in the company's trademark oxblood vinyl over a lock-jointed pine cabinet, with cream painted control panel, chicken-head knobs and a sturdy leather handle. New is the monster-sized Cornford logo that splashes the name across most of the cream-piped black fret-cloth. We like this bold statement and wonder if it is to be repeated over the whole range. The control panel is a simple affair, offering low and high inputs, effects send and return, gain, reverb, bass, middle, treble and master volume controls. There are on-off and standby switches and another toggle that says '8 pin' one way and '9 pin' the other. This is the Carrera's secret weapon and means you can use any output valve you like, from regular EL34s and 6L6s, right up to super-tubes like the venerable KT88. This feature not only allows the user to choose the amp's overall tone colour, it also provides different power outputs; from five watts (EL84) to a 'massive' eight (KT88), and all points in between.

Inside, the wiring is impeccably done. Makers of hand-built valve amplifiers like to route and tie the cables as neatly as possible while ensuring minimum noise through interference. They also love to lay the components out in the most visually pleasing way, as well as building in simplicity of design and therefore ease of maintenance. Cornford and Kidd have turned these aims into an art form. It's a beautiful piece of work.

SOUNDS: The Carrera was tested using an early sixties Strat, a PRS McCarty, a custom-built 'chambered' Warmoth with Bare Knuckle pickups and a variety of other instruments. It quickly became apparent that this is an amp of real sonic beauty. Equipped with a Fender-style 6L6 (or 5881 as we Brits call it), it produced an open, vocal set of tones that proved clear and bell-like at any level. The old Strat was both incisive and fat; the PRS produced girthsome punch and the Bare Knuckled Warmoth a barking torrent of brooding tone.

Reverb is so often a disappointing affair, even in expensive amplifiers, often going from 'nothing' to 'everything' between three and four on the control knob. The Carrera's on the other hand couldn't be more perfectly tuned: use a tiny hint to add ambience to your general tone; a bigger splash to help those driving rock licks to sustain; and a total wash for Peter Green-style weepy blues. Cornford's valve circuit has made reverb a genuine addition to the Carrera's tonal palette.

What this new Cornford is brilliant at is what we could term the 'Eddie Van Halen phenomenon'. This is where you think a sound is distorted because it sings and sustains so well, but in reality it's a whole lot cleaner. This is the holy grail of guitar tone, because so often we pile on the gain to try and make things happen, when in truth all that's needed is a decent sound in the first place. The Carrera has it in spades. The amp comes with EL84 and 6L6 valves as standard, so you can opt for the Harlequin's typical 'mini AC30' tone, with its inherent sweetness in the trebles and plummy warmth at the other end, or go for the altogether more 'open' tone (with a touch more output) of the 6L6. As it happened, we also had an EL34 to hand. This fitted (simply turn the amp to Standby) we were greeted with a harder edged, squarer sound altogether. The obvious comparison here is that of Marshall tonality compared to Vox, the emphasis switching to the mids for a more direct attack.

All that said, Cornford has brilliantly managed to create its own voice in the midst of all this comparison. It's a uniquely British voice too (helped in no small way by the Celestion Vintage 30) and one that sits somewhere between Van Halen's 'brown' sound and Brian May's much sweeter one. And it's not just dirty tones at which the Carrera excels: clean it's as fruity as you like - especially with a dash of reverb - and if you sneak a chorus pedal into the equally musical send and return loop, the thing springs into life.

There's bags of headroom too, and although you'd only get away with it on all but the quietest gigs, for home playing, band practice and of course committing those superlative solos to hard disk, it really is the one to beat. But wait, there's a speaker extension socket too, so you could hook a Carrera up to a 4 x 12 if you so desired, and even a slave output should you want to gang it up to your MK50 stack. Seems like those Cornford boys have got it all covered!

Verdict: Prior to this review we were mentally assessing the need for an amp so close to Cornford's already brilliant Harlequin. Truth is, the Carrera is ripe brie compared to the Harlequin's farmhouse cheddar (albeit mature, organic farmhouse cheddar). Other than the cabinet and speaker, and perhaps the low-wattage principle itself, they are completely different if equally valid products.

The concept of switchable valve bases is simple and clever. It allows you to be the master of your own sound, albeit under the guiding hand of those tone hounds down in Whitstable. Imagine being in the studio and a simple valve change is all you need to convert one brilliant amplifier voicing to another, in a matter of seconds.

At just under £1,000 the Carrera may not seem cheap. But we're too used to expecting to pay 'per watt' for our guitar amps, rather than for the knowledge, craftsmanship, components and hours of toil that go into hand building each one. We can't fault the Carrera in any area, even price. And the look of amazement on the faces of the lucky few who've heard this new arrival, tells us Cornford has yet another sonic success story on its hands.

Cornford Carrera

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