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Mountainview Publishing, LLC

INSIDE the
Meet Denis
Cornell... Britain’s
Top Custom Amp
Builder & Veteran
The Player’s Guide to Ultimate Tone
$10.00 US, March 2003/VOL.4 NO.5 Report TM

Tech Talks About


The New Clapton
Amp, the
Denis Cornell
Spectacular
Cornell Plexi’s, Y ou’ll know when you’ve found the perfect amplifier. As you flip the toggle switch (or turn an
old chicken head knob), you will be transported to a place where the cares of the day melt
and More... away and time stops. With the white noise of every day life silenced, the music that lives within
you will effortlessly pour forth for hours, but mere minutes will seem to ha ve passed when you
finally lay down your guitar.You’ll sit back and consider all of the promise that burns so bright
within the jeweled pilot light of your perfect amp, and you’ll wonder, “Will I ever return to that
place again?”And of course, you will return there, many times. You found the perfect amplifier.

An instrument that enables us to break the bonds of daily existence and soar above our troubles
surely must qualify as a thing of inspiration and magic. How can we fail to regard the special and
rare instruments that give us our voice as being anything but magical? And what of the men and
women who build and shape them? Is the inspiration we receive from their work a happy acci -
dent, or something more? Part science, art, and deft craftsmanship, all instruments betray a
unique visual and sonic personality that can be traced to the builder. Truly great amplifiers dra -
matically expand the canvas on which we create our very best work. The mystical arrangement of
electrons that occurs in an utterly inspiring amplifier is no accident, but there seems to be a bit of
magic at work, too. Superior instruments of all kinds are judged as such, in part, because their
sound mysteriously defies explanation. They can be faithfully, meticulously copied, yet these
“replicas” can and often do completely miss the mark. They lack the magic...

It is our privilege and pleasure to introduce to you Mr. Denis Cornell of Southend on Sea, Essex,
England — a builder of thoroughly magical amplifiers. Enjoy...

www.tonequest.com
cover story

TQR: How did you initially become fascinated and cancer, and she was bedridden for a long time. I have bad
involved with guitar amplifiers, Denis? memories of coming home from school and having to look
after myself. I car ried this grief throughout my apprentice-
I was born in England in 1949, a teenager of the mid ‘60s, ship, and I felt that the world owed me a favour. One of the
and therefore highly influenced with music of that era, which work line managers knew of my plight and took me under his
included The Stones, Beatles, etc. and all that was happening wing, and we often played guitar together. He would play the
in Britain around that time. At the age of 14 in school, every vocal line of the song and I would play the rhythm. I did not
one who was not a genius or an athlete had a chance to be know this at the time, but thanks to Brian Lawrence, I could
someone if they had a guitar, and almost everyone owned have easily become a different person than I am today. I
one.You did not need to know how to play it as long as you therefore consider Brian to have been my first mentor. My
could make a noise. Well, here was my chance to make it the second mentor was Brian Hucker, who I worked with design-
easy way, but out of my class of 30 there were at least 20
chaps with the same idea. I spent a little time teaching myself
some chords, and the first song I learned was “Sweets for My
Sweet” — you guessed it, C, F, and G. I played it about 50
times a night, but it wasn’t till my second week that I got the
G right. We all started the same w ay, and I often forget that
this is still true for be ginners today. I soon joined my first
band, which consisted of two other chums with guitars, and it
was not long before we needed an amplifier. I had a grocery
round, so it was about 6 months (a lifetime when you’re 14) ing Sound City Amplification. Brian was a typical RAF-
before I saved £12.00 to buy my first second-hand amplifier trained engineer, and we designed all the later range of the
— a Watkins Westminster 15 watt. This was when I first Sound City amplifiers. I did not know it then, but we were
realised that this bit of wood I was so proud of suddenly carrying on the work that Dave Reeves had done on his own
amplification called Hiwatt. Tom Jennings (founder of Vox)
was to become the last man that I can say I have looked up to
— not in a technical sense — but as a man that had the knack
of knowing what was a good product and how to sell it. He
insisted that the re-launch of Vox have nothing to do with
Sound City in any way, and I was to become his technical
Watkins “Dominator” 50 manager only to work on Vox amplification. Certain things
left an impression in my mind, since Tom and I came from
came alive. The amplifier made so much difference to the different professional backgrounds, and therefore, had differ-
tone, and it wasn’t long before I took the back off the amp ent views. I was concerned with technical aspects of the Vox
and fitted an external speaker to it. I also played around with range, and he more concerned with the aesthetics. For exam-
my father’s radio — an old valve set with 5 speakers. I stum- ple, one of those things was when I wanted to use better qual-
bled across a phono input and connected it to the guitar, and I ity resistors... Tom was under pressure from the company to
was jolly surprised when it worked! With little gain, it was keep the cost of the amplifier low to make it more competi-
not very loud, but now I could practice with a friend and tive. He stated that if I had come to him with a unique feature
together we could make quite a lot of noise. that improved the look and potential of the amplifier, it would
be worthy of investment! He would have no qualms in spend-
Fitting an extra speaker to my amp made a big difference to ing £1.00 on the look, but would argue to save a penny on a
the sound, and what with the radio conversion, this was to be resistor. As an engineer, we tend to get lost in components
the start of my fascination with amplifiers. It’s hard to com- and forget that the thing that sells a product often is the first
pare it to today, but being able to make a noise through an impression. Another of his famous lines which I will never
amplifier and play an early Beatles song put me in the realm forget was, “an inch up and an inch in.” This was in reference
of super stardom at the time. to the posi-
tion of the
TQR: Did you receive any formal electronics training, Vox logo on
and were there any significant mentors present to the AC/30
help you along? cabinet.
Tom’s atten-
When I left school, I started an apprenticeship in electronics. tion to detail and perfectionism relating to his proud range of
The first years were very hard, because I lost my mum to Vox amplifiers was to leave me with the awareness that tech-
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TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


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cover story

nical knowledge was only a part of a successful product. amplifiers, keyboards, and effects, etc. During the recession
of the mid to late 80’s, with barely enough work for one per-
TQR: What was your first real job working with amplifi- son, I left Brian to carry on whilst I applied for other jobs.
cation? For the second time in my life I was unemployed, because
most of the people we worked for had closed down. CBS
One day after I had completed my apprenticeship, I saw a job sold Fender, and for a while the new Fender owned by Bill
listed in the paper — “Wanted — Engineer to work on high Schultz did not market any amplification in the UK. Brian
power amplification.” Bearing in mind that I still played the maintained some repair work and remained working for a big
guitar and spent a lot of my spare time building guitar proj- music store while I started making amplifiers for anyone who
ects from a magazine called Practical Electronics, I could not wanted something special. I still had to do repairs and play
resist applying for the job. Well, my first interview did not go two to three nights a week in a band to make ends meet.
too well, since the minimum qualification needed was a When Arbiter started to distribute the new Fender amplifica-
degree, and when questioned on valve technology it was tion, I was asked to work on a self-employed basis repairing
obvious that my knowledge was not quite up to the required and servicing the stock. I am still there to this day, more on a
level. This was a job at a firm called Dallas Musical consultant level, along with Fender’s sister company, Fender
Instruments — they made guitar amplification, so the fact I Europe.
played was very much in my favour. I had also built a valve
amplifier as part of a college project for my City and Guild TQR: Among all of the vintage amplifiers you have come
qualification. But the biggest stroke of luck was that Brian to know so well as a technician and a player, which
Hucker, the man asking the awkward questions, happened to are your favorites?
know my college tutor. Sometimes, it’s not what you know,
but who you know! I got the job, and Brian was to teach me Sound-wise, earlyVox, Marshall, and Fender were the best
so much. Only being in my early 20’s and being involved in sounding amplifiers. They all sounded different, but fitted the
the design and development of a product was a great chal- job perfectly. It’s like owning a Fender Strat and a Gibson
lenge, and I still have friends from this time and often recall Les Paul guitar — if you have one of each, you have a vast
many happy memories. range of tones to feed your imagination and create many
types of music. A good amplifier built today can perhaps take
TQR: How did your career progress during those early us part of the way in producing a range of tones that cover
days? the old Vox, Marshall, and Fender amplifiers, but the design
and tones are too different for any one amp to sound like
Dallas Musical Instruments and Dallas Arbiter expanded their those three together. Construction wise, Hiwatt led the field,
empire. Their brands included Sound City, Fender, and Vox. I and there has never been anyone to touch Harry Joyce as a
became more important, not just as part of the design team, wireman. Anyone who knew Harry will smile when I say I
but having an ear that recognised the connection between a
circuit on paper and the actual sound of the guitar played
though an amplifier. But by 1977 I had become redundant, I
needed to get a job, and I did get several, but nothing I could
put my heart into. It was at this time that I had my first deal-
ings with the British Ministry of Defence (MOD). I applied
for a job at a firm that made defence instruments for the
MOD, which was part of the Pye Group, where I served my
apprenticeship. Although I enjoyed the work, I was frustrated
that I could not earn enough to go it on my own. To work in
the music business was to be my goal, and although I was
repairing stuff for musical shops and local bands, it was not spent many an hour on the telephone with him! I think that if
enough to pay the mortgage. Meanwhile, Arbiter became I had to choose the best amplifier of all time, it would have to
CBS Arbiter, and Brian Hucker was asked to go back to be the AC/30, which produced a classic tone, it was well con -
repair the customer returns on Fender amplification. I was structed, and it was built to stand the test of time. I know just
very pleased when he asked me to join him, and with our how much Tom put into them, so I may be a bit biased. It is
joint contacts, we worked together repairing anything musi- sad to see the poor examples on the market since Tom’s
cal. death. I have made a fewAC 30’s myself, but there is so
much in them that unless you build a large quantity, the cost
CBS Arbiter was just a one day a week affair, so we also is ridiculous and just not worthwhile.
worked two days at a hire company in London working on
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TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


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cover story

TQR: Did you have the opportunity to work closely with Together, we produce their own individual tone, and what I
artists on shaping their sound? hope is the customer’s ultimate amplifier. There are several
major components and lots of minor ones in an amplifier that
Working for Sound City and more so with Vox, I got involved go to make up the tone . The typical example we all know of
in many projects for top artists, but being what I call a “back is the Fender Bassman and the Marshall Plexi. There is not a
room boy,” I did not get a chance to meet many of them. My world of difference in the circuit, but we have a big differ-
first one-to-one encounter was with a band called Argent. ence in the tone. The major differences are down to a few
They were using Sound City 120 amps and had complained components, like the middle response in the tone stack, the
that they did not sound as loud as their old 100-watt jobs. So, speaker, and the different output valves and the way they are
I took the guitarist into a soundproof room and we A/B tested biased. The tone is shaped with just a few major components,
the amps. It was true — the old Sound City Hiwatt-type 100 and the next step is to build on how these components work
watt sounded louder than the 120-watt and the problem was in different hands. Some of the results of my custom work go
simple — too much feed back in the output circuit. The sen-
sitivity was a lot lower on the 100 watt, which gave the
1960’s Marshall 50W Plexi
impression of it being louder. With just a few component
changes to increase the gain and some personal tone changes,
the problem was reversed. He was well impressed, and this
was when I realised that the one-on-one interplay between a
technician and an artist was invaluable, and the only way of
producing that ultimate tone.

We also got involved with slaving up amps, which, in those into my amplifiers that I market on our web site. My only
days, was pretty rare. The basic idea was where one amp interest is in producing top quality amplifiers. I do not have
would be a “mother amp,” which would then feed maybe 6 or any marketing regime, and I do very little advertising. The
more other amps. We linked up 7 AC30’s for the Status Quo, amplifiers tend to cost more than the average Englishman
where they will pay, but I will not go down the mass-produced road.
had one AC30
to drive 6 oth- TQR: What is your opinion of the new digital modeling
ers. It was a amps?
long time after
I started build- On a technical basis, the new modeling amplifiers are a little
ing my own beyond my full understanding. I find digital technology unin-
amps that I spiring, and the resulting sound is just not real. They work
made an ampli- fine in the studio, but I would compare them to a toy rather
fier for a major than the real thing.
artist. It was not
until 1991 that I made an amplifier TQR: We hear a lot about “military specs” featured in the
for Lee Brilleaux of Dr. Feel Good. He played a little guitar, construction of amplifiers built by Harry Joyce for
but his main instrument was harmonica. The instrument is Dave Reeves at Hiwatt, for example. They are
amplified through a bullet microphone, and this was hard to incredible examples of detailed craftsmanship, but
match into an amp because the tones are completely different. can you help de-mystify the aura surrounding
With very little low and high-end frequencies, the EQ had to “military specs?”
respond over the middle range. I think that getting the feel of
the instrument is a big part of getting the sound, and since I There is a lot of hype about military specs. Let me tell you
do not play harmonica, this proved a little difficult. We got what I know and some of the things I do relative to MOD
there in the end , and I was very proud to see the amp on the (Ministry of Defence) specifications:
drum riser at their local gig. I worked for a firm that made several defence systems for the
Ministry of Defence (sorry, can’t tell you, Official Secrets
My ideal work is creating a sound for an individual — creat- Act and all that, but if I did it would not matter one iota any-
ing the ultimate amplifier. I feel that I can be likened to a tai- way). It was the inspection procedures and the component
lor making a “made to measure suit,” as opposed to buying specifications that were part of a rigid regime. All the compo-
one off the peg. I get the most satisfaction when someone nents in a system or a unit had to have a specification number
comes to me with an idea to enhance their sound, or someone (DEF 123 for example). Each component had its own num-
needs advice and inspiration on achieving that special tone. ber, and this was its approval for it to be used as part of the
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4 TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


cover story

system or unit. As the system or unit was being built, an after the project got under way. Since the initial design, I
inspector from the MOD would visit, test, and visually have added a power reducer that cuts the power down to 3
inspect the progress. His stamp would be the only acceptance watts. I also make the Romany Plus, which is the same, only
for the work to proceed, and the inspector would visit several it incorporates a 12" speaker and reverb. Only having 1 pre-
times depending on the size of the system. When the work amp valve in the Romany and 3 in the Romany Plus ensures
was completed and tested to its specification, the work was a low background noise and makes them ideal for home use
then re-tested by the MOD inspector before the product was and studio recording. Being based on a Champ, we use
awarded the final MOD “Pass” stamp. The components — as Jensen speakers. This, along with some classic tweaks, gives
in resistors, transistors, etc. — were mounted onto a compo- it a nice glassy, clean tone. The Rambler 15 watt was to be a
nent board. The components were wr apped around turret smaller version of the Journeyman, but due to customers’
tags, and in some cases, laced to the board before being sol- requests, it has changed a little over the years. This amplifier
dered. The component board was then covered in a conformal incorporates several different choices in design. The basic
coating that sealed all the components from moisture and amplifier comes as a twin channel or with switchable chan-
resistance against vibration. To build an amplifier today using nels via a foot switch. Each comes with or without reverb,
only components with DEF numbers would not be possible, and the whole thing can come as a 15 watt Class A EL84, or
as a lot of what we use in guitar amplification does not apply 20 watt class AB, 6V6. The bass and treble controls have a
for military purposes. Although these procedures cannot be wide range of tones, and I also used this circuit in the
identically applied to a domestic amplifier, some of the tec h-
niques and procedures used can be applied in their construc-
tion, and this is what I do.

TQR: Let’s review the various models you currently


build…

I make five different types of amplifiers, named Romany,


Rambler, Journeyman, and Voyager, and a bass amplifier
called the Explorer.

The Romany 10 watt amplifier started life as the Stinger,


which was a project for a magazine. I was asked to design a
simple amplifier for readers to build as a kit. I felt that this 2 Ramblers & a Journeyman

was a great idea, and it brought back memories of when I Journeyman amplifier. The overdrive is a totally different
was an apprentice and made projects from the Practical design to current types of distortion, where valves in cascade
Electronics magazine. The design was based on a Fender are overdriven by gain. I was very proud when this amplifier
Champ — single-ended Class A. Like all Fender amplifiers, was voted “Amplifier of the Year 2000” in Guitar Magazine.
there have been several models that use the same name. We
ended up incorporating the early Champ with just a volume My first, and flagship amplifier, is the Journeyman. It is a 30
control, and the later model with treble and bass controls. watt class A amplifier using 4 EL84 output valves, with a
This was achieved by adding an EQ switch that simply wide range of tones from the 3 band EQ. This is my basic
switched out the EQ stack. The design used only one 12AX7 design of bass and tr eble controls and an “Edge” control. The
preamp and one 6L6 output valve, and the amp was a great Edge control is a dual pot that boosts the treble when turned
success. Sixty people subscribed to the initial offering, but up and boosts the bass when turned down! This is a result of
many others were disappointed as more than 100 inquired a custom amp I made for the use of two completely different
guitars — the Tele and the Les Paul. The customer wanted
the classic tones of the two guitars, but found with his exist-
ing amplifier that much time was involved in adjusting the
tone of the EQ when changing guitars. He could not find an
amplifier on the market that gave a good tone and could cope
with the vastly different tone ranges of his two favorite gui-
tars — the Telecaster and the Les Paul. I designed the Edge
control that added the high end needed and a subtle cut of
bass when using humbucker pickups, and the opposite, reduc-
ing the treble and boosting the bass when a Tele type guitar is
Romanys
used. There is also a 4-position boost tone switch controlled
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TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


5
cover story

by a foot switch. This 4-way tone select is achieved by ried out through Lee Dixon. Lee was a pleasure to work with,
adjusting the gain of an EF86 preamp valve. It has only one and we spent many hours working together not just on the
channel and no overdrive, but it does have a master volume. tone, but on the features and aesthetics as well. We ended up

The Voyager is a switchable channel which is similar to the


Rambler, but with more tone controls. The output is 40 w atts
using two 6L6 or two EL34 output valves. This amplifier is a
classic class A/B design, but I use a small amount of cathode
bias to protect the output valves when overdriven for long
periods of time. This results in a little loss of output, but I
feel that the benefits outweigh the loss. I am planning to
incorporate this amplifier with an upgraded version of the
Rambler next year.

The Explorer bass amplifier again comes in different configu-


rations. The preamp has a tone select switch that scoops out with something that looks like Eric’s old Twin, but sounds
the middle at different frequencies. This was also a result of a bluer, with lots of middle. The speakers are the Tone Tubby
custom-built amplifier I made for a ‘60s cover band, and speakers from A Brown Soun in San Rafael, CA with the
again, this was due to the vastly different tones of the two hemp cones. We must have tested 10 different types of speak -
bass guitars the owner used — a classic Precision Bass and a ers, but ended up with the Tone Tubby speakers because we
Paul McCartney Hofner violin bass. To achieve a good rang e thought they were the closest to what Eric was looking for.
of tones from totally different guitars was difficult. I ended
up using two twin ‘T’ filters in the feedback path of an EF86 The Eric amplifier… We made a decision to have two chan-
preamp valve. This tone select switch works on the different nels. Channel one consists of volume, bass, and treble. The
guitars as a pre-shape tone before the EQ stage. There is a 4- tone stack is similar to the 1956 Twin amplifier, with lots of
band EQ stage, and each control has its own half valve and is warm middle response irrespective of how you adjust the
then mixed into the output sta ge. Power options for the tone controls. It’s a simple “plug in and go” tone. Channel
Explorer range from 100 watts up to 300 watts. two consists of volume, bass, middle, and treble. These con-
trols are a lot more sophisticated than your average 3 way
TQR: How did you wind up designing and building the EQ. Each control has its own valve stage, giving it a wide
amplifier now used by Eric Clapton? range of control, yet still able to achieve a good tone at any
position. The output stage has 4 6L6-output valves running in
The Eric story… Out of the blue, I received a telephone call. class A/B, giving a comfortable 80 watts. There is also a
A man named Lee Dixon said he was the guitar tech for Eric power switch to reduce the output to 20 watts. The cabinet is
Clapton. “I have a letter for you — Eric has a problem with made from Birch ply and covered in Fender Tweed that we
his sound and has been told that you can sort it out for him.” have treated to look old and dated. This amp was used on the
He had been using two old Twins, but in his words “they just Queen’s Jubilee gig with his guitar connected to Channel
don’t make it anymore.” Eric was now using Fender Vibro- Two. I understand that he has also used it for recording an
King amplifiers, but he found them to album with Ringo, and the Ferrari gig at Brands Hatch.
be lacking in middle response. His
control settings on the amplifier were
bass and treble “off,” with the
midrange up full, but he still found
them to have too much treble and
bass response. I made some
adjustments to the EQ and cut
some of the treble response,
however, the lack of middle was
due to the Jensen speakers,
which cannot help sounding
clean and crisp. The mods
helped, but I was pleased when
he decided to have a custom
amp built. All the work was car-
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TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


6
cover story

difference to the quality and to the sound. Then there are pro-
duction methods... Are those today better than old fashion
methods? For example, early transformers may have been
wound either by hand , or on an antiquated winding machine.
They would have been wound on either a paper former or a
paper bobbin. The resulting winding would be held together
with wax around the iron E’s and I’s. What we need is to
know what is good, and whether the modern equivalent is
better or not in terms of sound, reliability, and cost. Take a
modern winding machine… it can maintain the tension, count
the number of turns, and wind with a pre-determined gap
However, since then, Eric has decided that he would like the
amp to be as simple as possible, and therefore we have now
deleted channel two. Whilst it is true to say that at this
moment in time Eric appears to be happy with the amplifier, I
cannot with any certainty feel that a total “made to measure
suit” has been made, since the man himself (due to his vast
schedule) was never available. I can only hope that if some
time in the future Eric feels that changes need to be made, he
will give me the opportunity to make them.
Original transformers in a vintage Park 75

between each winding and do it time after time, so each


TQR: Having worked in this industry in England during
transformer is the same . Ask yourself — is this better than
the “golden years” when so many classic vintage
winding by hand?
amplifiers were built, how great a role do you
believe the transformers made by Drake, Albion,
There are three major ideals you need to consider when you
and Partridge, among others, played in the tone of
are designing a transformer:
the classic amps?

First, to go with the old methods of production and compo -


I do not think that those transformers were superior to trans-
nents, knowing that this is a way of getting a great tone.
formers that are around today — it’s just that they did things
differently then, and today we have new and better materials.
Secondly, to use modern methods and components, knowing
The transformer makers you mention were good, but isn’t it
that the reliability and consistency will be to it’s maximum.
that those were the people around at the time? We often find
that it is not the company, but the people who work in it.
And thirdly, design. This is very critical in the output trans -
Some of those makers are still around today, but do they have
former. Design takes into account things like ultra linear
the people with the skills and background to be a ble to pro-
taps, cross coupling, interleaving, and other tricks such as
duce top quality audio transformers? Look at the way things
techniques found in the Williamson design amplifiers. These
have changed in design and technology… The basic compo-
things will make a big difference to your design and tone.
nents in a
transformer are
Now, is your objective to only make one amplifier, many
iron, copper,
amplifiers that will all sound the same, or an amplifier with a
and insulating
very high specification? In early transformer design, paper
materials.
was wrapped around the iron core, the winding would go on
Different quali-
top of the paper “former,” and you would produce your wind -
ty grades of
ing stack (concentrically wound). We also had a paper bob-
iron, the copper
bin. With a bobbin, the “cheeks” would insulate the winding
wire, and how
from the iron and thus remove the necessity to insert separate
it is insulated
pieces of insulation at the ends of the windings when assem-
and how the
bling the core. So we have paper formers and paper bobbins,
windings are
and these were then impregnated with wax. The wax was at a
insulated from
high temperature, so it would soak into the windings to pro-
one another
vide a good insulation. The insulation on the copper winding
will all make a
Partridge power transformer from a Sound City 50W often has minute holes in it. This can allow the copper to oxi-
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TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


7
cover story

dise and react to damp in the atmosphere, and this oxidation


is known as “green-spots” that can cause a breakdown in the
transformer, and it will fail. Now, as years progressed, the
paper bobbins were replaced with nylon bobbins, and the wax
was replaced with various varnishes. So today’s transformer
will have a nylon bobbin and it will be impregnated with a
varnish, the result of which is a far more reliable transformer.
When it comes down to performance, the various materials
used today have different dielectric strengths compared to the
old paper-based materials, and this results in a difference in
tone. So,
transformers
are a compli- glassy, crispy tone that says, “I’m a Fender amplifier,” then
cated issue, use a Jensen speaker. If you want what I would call a
and it is best “British” sound with a lot of middle and a sound that breaks
left to those up well when dr iven hard, use a Celestion speaker. I mostly
who make use Celestion. Celestion tell me that they are still using the
them to do the same glues today and that their speakers have not changed in
job for you. I tone. Sometimes I mod the cone to age the speaker, and this
use a firm has the result of rounding off the treble end. I also use Jensen
called where there is a Fender tone connection. I would like to use
Majestic more Tone Tubby speakers, but again, the Englishman will
Transformer just not pay for it. We are a strange breed aren’t we?
Co. in Poole,
Dorset, TQR: And what about the state of the vacuum tube indus-
England. try today? You were working in England during a
Majestic have time when Gold Lion KT88’s, Mullard EL34’s and
been making transformers since 1942, and have experience in EL84’s,Amperex “Bugle Boys,” and Telefunken
all types of audio output designs. I use paper interleaved tubes were all commonly available.
windings and get them impregnated with a pol yester varnish.
Not only do they sound good — they also all sound very sim- Well, we are back a gain to, “Are things better today than they
ilar in tone. were years ago?”Again, I would say that valves are one of
the things that probably are not getting any better. I’m sure
TQR: And can the same comparisons be applied today they are experimenting and trying, but we have lost a lot of
between the “classic” speakers that are found in the our best in the valve industry, Mullard being the great
classic amplifiers, versus current production speak- English one. I am sure it will be a long time before we actu-
ers? ally see something as good as the old Mullard valves. I tend
to use what I can get, but I’ll try anything to see what they’re
Being an engineer, I try to look at things with logic in mind, like. I find that different
so I feel that it is not possible to be able to make a good com- types have different
parison with speakers of today and vintage ones. There have faults, whether it be
been times when I have been lucky enough to come across a noise, hum, or reliabili-
good vintage speaker, but when doing a comparison test, I ty. They have all got
have often been disappointed. Is this what the speaker really their different charac-
sounded like, or have the cone and magnet de generated so ters. I cannot find a
much that it does not resemble the original tone? valve today that comes
I like Celestion speakers. Because they have always been a up to what I would say
guitar speaker manufacturer, they know how to make them is a good quality valve.
sound good. History tells us that Jensen, in the Fender range, Poor quality valves are a
have always had a nice tone. It’s a bit like going back to gui- sore point with me,
tars — different speakers have different sounds. As I said ear- being a valve man, and I
lier, the new Tone Tubby speakers have an amazing tone and fear that the valve is on
I think they have definitely come up with something that its way out. Hi-fi audio
today’s guitarists should look at. However, if you want a
-continued-

TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


8
cover story

buffs and guitarist have thing that will not colour it, so a non-resonant cabinet would
maintained the valve therefore make the speaker sound more like its natural tone.
because of its sound, but The size of the cabinet also makes a difference to the sound,
there are a lot of young and the denser it is, the less it will resonate. On top of all
people playing guitars that, you need to consider using an open or closed back cabi-
that use semiconductor net. Closed back cabinets are ideal in a technical sense
amps, mainly because because they can be tuned in relation to the speaker’s charac-
they cannot afford a teristics. An open back will make the cabinet resonate, so
valve amp. Who can again, you have this conflicting issue — do we use a wood
blame them? I spend that adds a tone to the sound, or do we use a non-resonant
hours making an ampli- type wood that would not necessarily colour the sound from
fier that will not fail, the speaker? Whatever you do, all that matters is the end
only to put a valve in result. I use Baltic-pl y, non-resonant, and rely on the speakers
that is unreliable and and my ears to do the job.
may only last ten hours.
The amp gets a bad Construction-wise, if I have a special design or a one-off, I
name for quality because of the valve, because it’s the weak- will build the cabinet myself by methods of butt jointing with
est link in the chain. The people manufacturing these valves a bearer in each corner. Simple, but very strong. I have never
need to get their act together, because they will be the demise had a cabinet problem. When I make a batch or a customer
of the valve if amplifiers cannot be maintained reliably. requires special jointing, I go to a cabinetmaker.

TQR: What type of wood do you prefer for cabinet con- TQR: Do you build all of your amplifiers with multiple
struction? primary taps for international compatibility?

I always like to use pine, however, in England we don’t have All my transformers are made with two primary taps of 115
many pine trees, and importing good quality pine is difficult. volts; for England they are wired in series 230, and for the
If I lived in America, then most of my cabinets would be USA in parallel 115.
made out of pine, because I am sure it would be cheap and
easy to supply. My experiments with pine have been with fur - TQR: How long will it take to build and ship an amplifier
niture pine — it has a sweet tone, and it also has an advan- from your shop once an order has been placed from
tage of being lighter, however, I had a problem using it on the the U.S.?
speaker baffle. The pine that we get is glued together in 4-
inch strips, and when the speaker rattles and vibrates, the At this moment in time , a custom built amplifier will take 10
strips split apart. So, now if I do make a pine cabinet, it is to 12 weeks from the initial idea to completion, but it could
only for the benefit of its weight. I never make the baffle out be longer. It depends on the customer’s requirements. Some
of pine now, which makes it a little bit pointless, since that is of the amplifiers on the web site are in stock, but if not, they
where most of the tone comes from. At the moment, I use will take 6 to 8 weeks maximum.
Baltic Birch plywood. If you can
get it grown in a cold climate, TQR: The Plexi amps you
I’m told that it is the best stuff to are building are
buy. The reason we use it is (a) it simply outstand-
is multi-laminate and you can ing in every
actually tap a thread into it, and respect.
(b) it is non-resonant. Now, this
is where you have another mile- Thank you. We have
stone to get over. Pine wood been reproducing
adds a tone to the amplifier. the Plexi 20 watt
For me, it has a slight and the 45/50. I
sweetness, but whatever have been commis-
you say, it is colouring sioned by a firm
the sound of the called Guitar
speaker. To get the Avenue, headed by
true sound of the Gary Winterflood,
speaker, you need some- Ray Cornell who is a dealer in Sandy Cornell

-continued-

TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


9
cover story

classic guitars and amplifiers. I have known Gary for many


years simply because I have been the chap that he brought his
amps to — Vox, Marshall, WEM, Selmer — you name it, he
has bought and sold it, and I have repaired them for him.
Obviously, old Plexi’s are now so few and far between that
they’re just not available any more, so he came up with the
challenge to reproduce them, which I have done, however,
they are not 100% the same… We spent months testing many
Denis, Edie, Sandy & Ray
different vintage Marshall Plexi amps to find the ones with
the best tone, because back in those days, they would use dif- that will be 100% satisfactory, but 5 years down the road,
ferent components and different components give a different things may change and something totally different may now
tonal result. Not only have we tweaked the design, but we be his or her tone quest.

The Cornell Plexi 45/50


We received a beautiful prototype Cornell Plexi 45/50, serial
number 0001, from Gary Winterflood, the Cornell distributor
for the USA. The Plexi 45/50 features dual circuits accessible
by a toggle switch, yielding subtly different tones that are
rooted in the sounds of the original tube rectified Plexi 45W
amp and the diode rectified 50W small box head that fol-
lowed.
have also settled on the best component values. We have Hence
come up with the Plexi 20 and the Plexi 45/50, which are the
available through Guitar Avenue, which is advertised in your “45/50”
Vintage Guitar Magazine. model
designa-
TQR: What’s ahead for you, Denis? tion.
Denis
There are two people that work with me, but I find myself Cornell
doing far too much and not delegating enough due to also
turnover of money and general working problems. I tend to included
work 7 days a week for little return. In the future, I would a low
like to have enough time to be able to work on some of my 45/50 Plexi atop our 1969 50w Marshall and
own ideas that I have been kick- high power switch for the 45/50, and we were very pleasantly
ing around surprised with the results. In our experience, most half power
for or pentode/triode designs have been disappointing; the low
years... power settings lack authority and punch, and big amps at low
I would power generally fail to produce the sound of a small amp
like to being pushed. Not so with the Plexi. It’s character doesn’t
build a seem to change much at low power — the volume simply
simple amp drops while the tone remains intact. For classic, overdriven
with a valve compressor, an Marshall tone, the low power feature is extremely useful, and
amp with transformers as part of the gain it adds another dimension to the Plexi’s appeal as a true “2 in
stages, and I would like to work on a directly coupled valve 1” custom amp.
output stage. I have many more crazy ideas that are buzzing
around in my head .

TQR: Is the Quest for Tone ever over?

The answer to that is “no,” the reason being that it is the gui-
tarist that produces the tone. As he or she a ges and as inspira-
tions and ideals chang e, their tone will change. I am the first
to admit that I can design an amplifier on a one-to-one basis
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TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


10
tubes

The front panel including the “Eric” amp. As Denis said, he’s in the business
control layout is of building amplifiers that are “made to measure.” Quest
classic two-channel forth... TQ
Marshall with the
addition of the tog- www.dc-developments.com, 44-1702-610964 (England)
gle switch for the To order a Plexi 20W or 45/50, contact Gary Winterflood at
45W or 50W cir - guitaravenue@tinyonline.co.uk, or call 941-383-4289
cuit. Tubes include a traditional duet of EL34’s or KT66’s, (Florida distribution office for the USA)
and three 12AX7’s.

Our base-
line refer-
ence amp
is a vin-
tage 1969
Marshall
50W, and during our evaluation of the Plexi, we switched
back and forth from the ‘69, to the Plexi at 45W and 50W
using a variety of guitars. The 45W Plexi produces a more
transparent, slightly clearer and cleaner tone, while at 50W,
the Plexi toughens up a bit with a an edgier character. The
distortion characteristics of the Plexi in either mode are
exceptionally smooth, musical, and round, and the tone con -
trols are fully effective throughout their entire range.You may
have noticed that the tone controls on many modern amps
and reissues seem to “hit the wall” somewhere around ‘7’?
The Plexi behaves like a hand built, classically designed tube
amp should, and the tone pots are no exception. In compari-
son to our ‘69 smallbox 50W (what a year), the Plexi sounds
a little more sophisticated and cultured, but it’s entirely will-
ing and able to talk dirty to ‘ya without losing its dignity.
(Now, an original Arbiter Sound City will talk dirty to you
too, but that’s an amplifier with no shame). Again, the tone of
the Plexi is just a bit smoother and less sharp than the ‘69,
with perhaps a tad less of the pow factor when you pop the
low E string or really hammer power chords. The Plexi is no
super high-gain grinder, but players with a sophisticated ear
will really appreciate what it can do with a variety of guitars,
including all of the usual suspects. Like the Plexi 20W, the
Plexi 45/50 is voiced to sound like the classic Marshall, with
a few subtle departures from the original circuit that actually
produce improvements that you’ll hear and appreciate.

The build quality and cosmetic detail of the Plexi amps is


outstanding, with beautiful wiring and chassis, majestic-look-
ing transformers by the English company of the same name,
and beautiful dark, dark green tolex reminiscent of the past,
set off by gold hardware and the gold front and back Plexi
panels. Even the cabinet backs fit the cabinet like fine joinery.

We love Denis Cornell’s Plexi amps, and our only r egret is


that we can’t hear some of the other models he builds, which
are listed on his web site. However, we invite you to contact
Denis to acquire more information about his custom work,

TONEQUEST REPORT V4. N5. March 2003


11