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MK50H Review - Guitarist Magazine

Gary Moore used the prototype of the MK5OH on his latest album and liked it so much that he's had a special 100W version built. By Neville Marten ("Guitarist Magazine" - 2000)

Regular readers of the mag and listeners to the CD will know how much we love and use our Cornford Harlequin 6W combo. But this brand new, hand-made head and attendant, Celestion-loaded, cabinet is the product upon which Cornford are staking their reputation."The idea behind the head," states guitar player and head honcho Paul Cornford, "is to give our fellow guitarists an amp that can be gigged or used in the studio with unrivalled ease, total flexibility and no pratting about."

Paul and his fellow Cornford designer Martin Kidd wanted boutique amp quality without the price tag of some of the big American names. "We of wanted the sounds guitarists can hear in their heads but are struggling to find," says Paul. With those 'simple' aims in mind, Cornford and Kidd started on the amp of their dreams. Housed in a 19mm-thick, lock-jointed plywood cabinet with powder-coated metal grilles, two-millimetre steel chassis and screening base plate (no strip of tin foil here), the 5881 output valves and quartet of 12AX7 preamp bottles sit tight in their ceramic bases. Transformers are all designed in house and custom wound to Cornford's requirements: absolutely no corners have been cut and, as you'd imagine, that extends to the internal stuff too.

"It's all point-to-point wired," says Paul, "and hand assembled; there are no PCBs and everything's bolted direct to the chassis". Examining the wiring and general internal quality of theMK50H, it is indeed as neat and professional as Cornford claims. Whether you're convinced by the arguments in favour of point-to-point or agree with Boogie, VHT and Bogner that PCBs can play an integral role in quality amp design, is something you'll have to make up your own mind about. What I would say here is that, traditionally, point-to-point construction means Matchless-style mega-bucks, but Cornford have managed to keep things in financial proportion.

All Cornford's speaker cabinets are built from pine - "it helps the sound no end," says Paul. Like the amp box, it's lock-jointed and the ply baffle is permanently dadoed in place. Celestions are the speakers of choice for Paul and Martin; either Vintage 30s or Greenbacks, depending on personal taste. As on the amp head itself, all hardware is nickel plated - corners, screws and screw-cups etc, while the side handles are sturdy black metal. Big rubber feet sit the cabinet firmly on the floor or stage. Both amp and cab are covered in ox-blood vinyl. They've done this to increase brand recognition like Trace Elliot's green and Soldano's grey - but I'd prefer black. Constructionally this is a compromise-free zone, but does such a vintage-style approach mean basic features and old-fashioned operation?

Paul: "Well, it's a one-channel amp with foot-switchable master volume and overdrive. That's the same as most companies' two-channel amps, but our ethic forbids us to call it that."

The footswitch itself is a minor work of art, made of 14-gauge steel with metal switches, LED indicators for overdrive and master, and the best quality 8mm cable mated to a Switchcraft stereo jack. Also included in the MK5OH's price is a 10ft mains lead - "Unlike some amps," says Paul, "at least ours will reach the floor if you're using two cabs!" You'll find a top quality speaker lead thrown in too, and even a 15ft Van Damme spiral-screened guitar cable. "All that's included so nothing interferes with the way a Cornford sounds," says Paul.

Two inputs - hi and lo - give you access to the Cornford's single channel with its switchable gain and master volumes. As Paul Cornford states, this system is used by plenty of manufacturers who are happy to describe it as 'twin channel'. It certainly operates that way. In fact, I'd say it's more like a three- or four-channel affair in that when you jump on the switch you go from one level of preset drive and volume to another. Plus, you can add overdrive to either, so that's four presettable sounds.

The controls are straightforward. Ubiquitous chicken-head knobs look after volume, overdrive (footswitchable with red LED), bass, middle, treble, master 1, master 2 (footswitchable for 'second channel', with green LED), presence and resonance, Mains and standby switches are sturdy metal affairs. About those resonance and presence pots: the former adds huge thumping bottom as you turn it clockwise, while the latter sparkles up the top frequencies.

Around the back, along with the usual mains inlet and fuses, sits a three-position impedance selector for four, eight and 16 Ohms, twin sockets for the series effects loop and finally the footswitch input.

Using the amp is simple: just decide the level at which you want your clean or rhythm sound and use gain and master 1 to set it; then adjust master 2 for a louder version of that. The overdrive feature can be used on both masters, so there's your crunch rhythm or riff sound on master 1 and big lead solo sound on master 2; straightforward and very versatile. One of the great things about simple valve amps is that, if their basic tone is good, it's usually difficult to adjust the controls to find bad ones. On more complex beasts, and certainly on most transistor amps, it's all too easy. Starting with master 1 on three, volume set to around half and all the tone controls on five, the sound is big and British. Think original Marshall 50 and that's the ballpark.

Our demo cab came equipped with a quartet of Celestion Greenbacks, which obviously reinforced that vibe. Crank the volume for a bit more gain and things dirty up very sweetly. It's not mega-thrash, more classic '70s rock, like Wishbone Ash or Bad Company. My resonance and presence control settings depended on the guitar - less presence and more resonance for single-coils and the other way round for humbuckers was the general rule, but different venues and musical styles will also impact.

Step on the master 2 switch and the same sound leaps to whatever volume you've preset, But remember this is a valve amp, so the transformers and power stage are now cooking that bit more; this means tube compression and natural harmonics beginning to happen - remember those rock records, where the note shot up to the octave or fifth? That's the stuff! Going back to master 1 and treading on the overdrive switch, brings in instant Led Zep sling on a Tele and it's Whole Lotta Love time. This is ‘riff mode' - Angus and Malcolm Young take note! Leave overdrive on and jump to master 2 and you're greeted with one of the smoothest, most naturally compressed and sustaining lead sounds I've heard. But it's all so genuine and unforced. Gary Moore told me it reminded him of a small and sweet Soldano, and that's not a bad description.The tone controls make more of a subtle difference than any out-and-out change, but around the half-way mark there's a squarer, early Clapton feel to the tone, whereas with everything on ten, it gets a lot more Stevie Ray.

Still, this is a truly British amp which will appeal to lovers of the particular tonal band that extends from Marshall to HiWatt, but with a lot more gain thrown in, If you like that sound, you'll love this amp; the loudest 5O-Watter I've ever heard.

For this completely hand-built-in-England, point-to-point-wired, all-valve amp you will be charged £1,399. For the lock-jointed-pine 4 x 12 cab, add another £499. Compare that to the 'boutique' prices asked by the top US companies and even the sums demanded for British mass-produced 'PCB and-chipboard' products, and I'm sure you'll agree that the Cornford MKSOH represents stunning value. Since our six-Watt Cornford Harlequin has been in the studio it's been used to create every sound from pop to blues and rock to country. Jan Cyrka has now taken delivery of a 50-Watt head like this one and Gary Moore is getting his custom-built 100 very soon.

From the quality, value, sound and usability standpoints I can't fault this amp. Paul Cornford and Martin Kidd have built the guitar amp they wanted to build, regardless of any other considerations. They're both gigging guitarists and have used the head extensively, fine-tuning it right up until production. Compromise is not a word that enters the Cornford vocabulary. I've been telling British amp makers for years to go for the jugular and create a boutique amp that we can call our own. Finally, someone has done it. But remember, a Cornford is not the amp to plug your plastic box of presets into: it's an amp for those who say:b "Never mind the b***ocks, gimme some TONE!"

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