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Harlequin Review - Sound on Sound Magazine

The Harlequin, from Kent-based Cornford Amplification, is a purpose-built recording amplifier. By Dave Lockwood (Sound On Sound - June 2000)

Think about that for a minute. What makes an amplifier into a 'recording amplifier'?

It needs to sound good, obviously; it needs to be reasonably free from hum and hiss; and it doesn't need a lot of output power, as it will probably never be used in a live performance situation.

Well, so what? There are dozens, if not hundreds of amplifiers on the market that fulfil that particular brief, so what's special about this one? Well, to start with, the Harlequin is not small. Most very low-powered guitar amps on the market, even the small number of valve amps that fall into this category, are considered to be primarily 'practice amps', with portability and economy of manufacture given precedence over sound quality in the design. Unfortunately, you can't defeat the laws of physics here a small speaker in a small box will never sound like a big speaker in a big box, so you will have to resort to some miking and EQ tricks if you want it to sound big on your recorded tracks.

Paul Cornford and Martin Kidd's design, however, is the size of a proper combo (600 x 450 x 250mm) bigger than a classic Mesa Boogie, but smaller than an AC30. The 12-inch Celestion Vintage 30 speaker has room to breathe, resulting in a noticeable absence of the normal boxy coloration that is usually the first thing to overcome when recording a small guitar combo.

What really makes the Harlequin tick, though, is its 6-Watt single-ended, Class A valve output stage. Using a low-powered output stage allows the player to crank the volume control to the desired level, flat-out if necessary, to achieve just the right amount of compression and distortion, without the acoustic output becoming a nuisance. In a pro studio this equates to less spill into other mics, in the home studio less tendency to annoy the wife/flatmates/neighbours and restrict your recording time to moments when they're out!

Using the conventional Volume and Master gain control arrangement, the Harlequin's two 12AX7s and single EL84 can easily be dialled in to the sweet spot where the guitar really comes alive. This is an amp that excels at all the classic valve tones that even the most sophisticated of recording processors fall down on: fundamentally warm with a glassy shimmer, but biting back at you when you dig in. It's all there, with the minimum of fuss and fiddling around. Sure, there are tone controls to play with, a standard bass and treble arrangement, but I guarantee you won't spend too much time on them - there isn't a bad sound to be had out of this amplifier. You can pretty much put any of the controls anywhere and come up with something usable. Everything on 2 o'clock did it for me, leaving the rest to my volume control, pick-up selection and playing dynamics. Advancing the Volume control past halfway brings in an additional gain stage and lets you drive the thing way beyond traditional warmth. Input gain all the way up and Master down will give you a more ragged-sounding front-end distortion, reminiscent of using a pedal in front of the amp, while input gain up high and Master well up too will give you an absolute killer everything-on-11 tone. Of course, there's not a massive amount of headroom on the clean sounds; the sound will 'squash' when you hit it hard, even with the input gain well down, but in practice, if you are having a problem with this, then you've probably forgotten that this is a recording amp, designed to be listened to by a close-up mic, rather than to fill a room. The only remaining tonal tweak is the two-position Voice switch which offers a useful alternative tonality, with a more focused mid-range, useful for crunchy high-gain power chording or middly neck-pickup Carlos Santana soloing.

That's it for facilities; two input jacks (Hi and Lo), Volume, Bass, Treble, Master, power switch (no Standby), power indicator and fuse. No reverb? Why would you want that in a dedicated recording amp? No effects loop? Ditto; that stuff is going to be added at the mixer. No Line Out? That would be missing the point completely. The only connection on the output side is the speaker output, which thoughtfully uses a quarter-inch jack, rather than a hard-wired connection, thus allowing it to be easily connected to a sealed 'silent' speaker box or even a speaker simulator, provided that a dummy load is employed to keep the output stage happy.

Inside, everything about the Harlequin says quality and attention to detail, from the dovetail-jointed solid pine box (chosen for sound, of course) to the point-to-point hand wiring of the chassis-mounted components. Even the transformers are in-house, custom-designed, hand-wound affairs. In the studio, the Harlequin is an absolute treasure. Stick a smoothish dynamic mic, perhaps a Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser MD421, right up against the grille, or any large-diaphragm condenser about a foot back from the cabinet to let it breathe a bit more, and there's your guitar sound! Humbuckers are full and fruity, single coils a little more wiry with a bit more air, but whatever you put in to it, the character of the instrument and the player's touch still come through.

I can't really say that the Harlequin sounds precisely like anything in particular; it has a character of its own but it is versatile enough to offer anything from a passable Marshall crunch to a ringing blackface Fender, passing through a tight Class A Vox and a singing Boogie lead voice on the way. It's really easy to get the sound in your head onto tape (or hard disk) with this amp, and once it's there, you will find it easy to mix, for there is something about the sound of a real amp and speaker, well-miked, that just sits in a track better than any faked version that I've ever heard.

The Cornford Harlequin recording amplifier is well-conceived and faultlessly executed. Makes you wonder why nobody did it before!

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