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Guitar Magazine - RK100 Review

General: Cornford's range of hand wired valve amplification needs no introduction, having acquired an enviable status in the UK in an unusually short time since the appearance early in 1999 of its first product, the 6 watt Harlequin combo. Regular introductions have since seen the 20 watt Hurricane and the 50 watt MK50 (head) /Hellcat (combo) added to the range. Now the time has come for the logical extension to 100 watts. This is the first signature model the firm has made, and results from an association between Ritchie Kotzen and Cornford amps that has developed over several years. The guitarist, who rose to fame via Mr. Big, The Stanley Clarke Band, and Poison, and who is now cutting his 15th solo album, has used their MK50 and Hurricane amps since 2002. He began a special collaboration with Cornford 18 months ago, and a jaw-dropping performance at the NAMM show in January this year revealed the new RK100 model to the music public. However, the RK100 isn't a tweaked version of an earlier model, but a fresh-start design with features entirely its own, based on the exacting requirements (and alarmingly detailed knowledge) of its star namesake. Head-and-cab 100-watters have a particular role in the back-line business. The market they cater for demands great tonality, physically impressive sound levels, and the ability to create enough sonic energy to couple with the guitar via the air in a self perpetuating cycle. Far from being a cumbersome relic of 70's prog-rock, this format is still the best for a certain kind of playing, and it's preferred by name rock guitarists who need to command big stages. Size and weight are a secondary issue here, which is just as well, as the RK100 isn't deficient in either. More important are quality construction and classic looks. The all-ply cabinetry and neat covering work of the RK100, along with its chrome-enamel badges and brushed steel front and rear panels, create an impression of no-nonsense durability combined with simple elegance which, we're told, came high on Mr.Kotzen's list of required qualities, and which Cornford have gone to some trouble to produce. Handles, steel cabinet corners and other fittings are of consistently good quality.

A stove-enamelled steel chassis carries two enormous transformers and a right-way-up array of four JJ /Tesla EL34 valves in that pretty blue glass that seems to be a speciality of Czech valves. All components are fixed to old-style tagboards, and wiring to the high-grade valveholders and pots is neatly done with substantial-looking, thickly-insulated stranded wire. Ventilation is faultless, as the front and back perforated steel covers leave the valves more or less open to the four winds while providing good mechanical protection.

The amp reviewed had fitted to it a toggle selector marked "EL34/6L6", on the top of the chassis, with provisional-looking marking. This implies that either type of valve can be used, with appropriate changes in bias level and sonic result. One or two other high-end amps have this facility and it's useful if you're not decided on a preference, particularly as the two have different habits in different amps if you like EL34's in one amp that may not hold true for another. Good to be offered the choice like this, supported by the internal fitting of a bias-adjuster and a couple of sensing resistors for the benefit of those of a tinkering tendency, or possibly even the factory techs. As to the cabinet, four Celestion Vintage 30's in a solidly-made closed cab of a certain size are always going to sound pretty impressive, and they don't disappoint here. The zinging highs, punchy lows, and gut-wrenching levels are standard fare from a 4x12" of this calibre in fact this cab is used by one or two other household names in preference to that issued with their chosen amp. The old 4x12 problem of jack blowout is solved in the RK model by fitting a locking jack socket, to avoid those embarrassing silences in mid-solo. For that other old 4x12 problem you're going to need a bigger skateboard.

Sounds: Our tests confirmed that despite the relatively uncluttered control panel, the RK100 could be made to mutate between big-headroom "power clean" rhythm and super-sustained, harmonic overtone rich lead, by use of the front-panel footswitch jack. This feature is the key to the amp's simple-to-use but unexpectedly wide spectrum of sounds. It alters the dynamics of the amp, as if an additional valve was inserted. More unusually, you can get similar clean sounds on either throw of the switch by adjusting the control settings but with additional sparkle and touch always available on the high-gain setting. This element of overlap between the two will appeal to players whose idea of channel-switching heaven is to create shades of difference rather than night-and-day - although the clean/scream option is easily called up if that's what you want. The other element in achieving this flexibility is the Drive control, which is particularly smooth and progressive, without the "sweet spot" tendency of similar Drive/Master arrangements in other amplifiers.

Almost any setting of the two controls in this amp results in great sound of one kind or another, with the possible exception of extreme Drive and very low Master settings, which sound scratchy on most other overdrive amps and aren't the best-sounding on the RK100. This setting isn't even on the list for practical purposes to use the RK100 for bedroom recording would be an expensive form of sacrilege.

The 3-band EQ is effective (noticeably so compared to certain other well-known makes) and offers decent amounts of "swing" without noticeable interaction. The Middle pot is particularly pleasing in changing the tonal signature without creating an impression of thinness at low settings or treading on the toes of the Bass and Treble ranges. The Presence pot, too, works well, adding the required sparkle smoothly without obtrusive switch-like behaviour.

Finally, the Effects Loop, series-wired for simplicity but well engineered, can be set at line or stomp-box Return levels by suitable adjustment of the Master Volume. With the Master towards max, we could fully drive the amp direct via the Return with just a Tube Screamer (with lovely results) so there won't be any adaptability issues with your pedal-board. Although it has to be said that RK himself now uses no effects - just this amp, his own-name special Telecaster, and his bare hands. That's a review in itself.

Verdict: The Ritchie Kotzen 100 is in a different category to Cornford's earlier models, excellent though these are. There really isn't an imaginable guitar situation that it couldn't handle with total authority. It has great tone at Dog & Duck levels but that's just a beginning - its ability to conjure sustain and overtones out of the air, using standard guitars, is really remarkable from an unassisted amp. How it does this without picking up stray interference or causing the pickups to howl with the strings damped is one of those bits of amp alchemy that in itself is worth the asking price. A fine example of ear-driven engineering from a company that specializes in it.
David Petersen June 2005

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