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The Personal FX of Pete Cornish
Originally printed in Musicians Only October 6, 1979 by Paul Colbert
Some of rock’s top
guitarists have a strange effect on stage…and it’s provided by Pete Cornish.
The Greying-haired electrician’s contribution to their live show isn’t in charisma, or presence, but in a large black case no thicker than a few inches, though with a reputation several hundred musicians wide.
Pete builds effects boxes. They rarely, if ever, go wrong, and make noises only when asked—no unrequested hiss, hum or squeak.
Andy Summers of the Police has one, Steve Hacket has one, Pink Floyd have two or maybe three by now, Eddie Jobson has a Hammond Organ lounging on his and Bill Nelson’s was designed so he could rest his feet.
In the days when phasers were those things set to stun in Star Trek, guitarists were still rejoicing because they could buy a pickup that didn’t hum under a neon lamp.
In a few years, Hendrix almost single-handedly made the wah-wah an essential in the strummer’s arsenal, and Clapton did much the same for the fuzz, though in his case it was canny manufacturers looking to reproduce in a tiny box that distortion born of a stack of amps.
Electronic techniques have been taken to such a pitch that the basics of four such fuzz boxes can now be found in a silicon chip less than an inch long, and the combined force of a tape deck and several racks of valves can be squeezed into an aluminum can easily covered by a size nine shoe.
Yet all those cans stay separate, and there are the hassles of batteries for power, leads for connections and space…which is where Pete picks up the soldering iron.
He doesn’t design effects units, though he has the knowledge. Wisely, he leaves that to the big firms geared up to turn out economically thousands of the gadgets. What he does, is to put them all under one roof, connect them all to one power point and make sure that they don’t fall apart under a roadie’s gentle touch.
The cases he designs are instantly recognizable, but that’s accident rather than planning.
“The covering is my own secret: it prevents hum—it just happens to be black” he says. “If it was green they’d all be green, there’d be nothing I could do about it.”
Though a fluke, it’s a Godsend to musicians who don’t want garish foot pedals spoiling the light show or gleaming metal boxes reflecting the lasers. From out-front, Pete’s babies are very difficult to spot unless you know they are there.
At most a couple of inches high, they hug the ground and don’t get in the way of the guitarist’s fancy footgear, probably a greater talking point among the audience than the several hundred pounds worth of electronics they are resting on.
That low profile is in high demand, though it means stretching the effects into a long line and producing a case some 9ft square in area.
To keep the dimensions, the effects first come out of their own cases and are split into three—the footswitch, the controls and the circuit.
The switches go to the front and are circled by wooden rings gauged to the right thickness so that a foot stomping down will turn the unit on but go no further. It gets round the worry of carried-away guitarists crushing the thing under the over eager boot.
Next in line are the pots, mounted on etched aluminum which reduces stray reflections. The ally plates are attached to the underneath of the wood so the knobs are sunk in their own little well, with enough clearance to let fingers in but sufficient protection from a passing foot.
Right at the back is the circuit itself—the most delicate item and therefore the furthest from the stamping ground.
“Guitarists nearly always send me their own effects pedals to be put inside. There are some makers like MXR where a phaser bought here will sound the same as a phaser bought anywhere; they’re excellent, but others will all be slightly different.” He says.
“Status Quo have four pedals which all look the same but they know which one is which by the sound and the settings. If it’s that critical, I have to use the ones sent to me because whoever wants the board will have got used to them.”
“Building an effect’s board for someone is such a personal thing that they have to come in and chat about it. Sometimes they come up with ideas and I have to tell them they are not going to work—for example, putting the fuzz box last in a circuit so that all the noise from the others is amplified by it.”
When a customer comes to Pete, usually directed to his backroom office near Covent Garden tube station by word of mouth, the first thing they work on is a list of effects and an order in which to connect them. Most guitarist have a pretty firm idea in that respect.
Then the layout is drawn up life-sized on tracing paper. At this stage all the controls, circuit boards, power lines and drill holes are marked out. Often guitarists who’ve built their own boards, or had roadies knock them up, will call on Pete in desperation following breakdown after breakdown.
Picking up one crumbling example left by a browned off player he commented: “I don’t have too much to worry about with opposition like that.” Wires had broken, screws snapped—it looked not only unusable but lethal. The secret to the Cornish staying power lies in his background and training, one probably unique to rock electricians.
“After I left school, I took an electronics course with the Air Ministry. There were two kinds of apprenticeship—one very academic, and another technical but accenting the machinery which is what I did, so I learnt both aspects.”
“The training was at Aquila Down in Chiselhurst. I started in 1960 and was there for three years. I was in only the second year ever to have gone to Aquila; it was experimental course for the Air Ministry.”
It may sound hush hush and full of state-of –the-art electronics, but for most of the time, Pete was making or repairing radios; valve ones, and old-fashioned valve ones at that. But it did teach him how to build something that would stand up to punishment.
“They used to be parachuted out of a plane, land in the Sahara and have to survive going from minus 40 degrees to well over 100. In my boards any component bigger than a capacitor is held down and the circuit boards are screwed to the wood with the biggest screws that will fit. I find it works.”
He also fastens the wires to the casing at every other inch and uses the toughest marine ply available. Apart from the original circuits and switches, everything is turned out by Pete’s own hands. That way he makes sure it will last.
After serving his time in Aquila, the Doncaster lad had no desire to return home.
“I remember when I came down to London, the first thing I saw outside King’s Cross station was a jazz record shop and that was it as far as I was concerned. I’ve never wanted to leave.”
So he hunted for local jobs, working in Bromley and surrounding areas for electronics firms, and once in the planning department of relay makers. The regimented hours didn’t appeal, neither did the risks: “In some places the safety was terrible; they wouldn’t get away with it today.”
He drifted up town to Sound City. “The guy who was doing their servicing died and there was no one to look after the amps. I didn’t know much about them but it was all electronics and I did know about valves. I used to repair the amps for all sorts of bands and everyone popped in—it was really like a club.”
At Sound City his expertise began to get known, and it wasn’t long before musicians, baffled by science, would ask for advice on the construction of a pet project.
“One day Peter Banks came in and said would I make him a pedal board. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d never been to a rock gig, but under his instruction I put it all together for him.”
In those days, the pedals were simply screwed down to boards and the connections ready-made.
The next buyers to come knocking on the door were Robert Fripp and David Cross. These two wanted battery-powered units for complete portability: mains-controlled boards hadn’t yet caught on.
In 1979, it’s a must. Nobody wants to carry around a pocket full of PP3’s and most IC effects can only function with a good power supply: they’d exhaust 9 volt cells in minutes.
But they don’t all run on the same voltages. Some are 15 volts; others 12, a few 18, a scarce number have positive earths, not so common nowadays.
So everything in an ice cream Cornish gets its own regulated supply. His gloriously overparked workshop has cartons of ready-made circuit boards waiting to be screwed down. To prevent hum loops, all the outputs are floating, is earthed at only one end, a simple trick but one which impresses the musicians plagued with buzzes and background noise.
Pete is a little cagey about the insides of his creations. While willing to show photographs and files to me during the interview, they were swiftly put away when the possibility of publishing them was raised. Only fair, really, since he’s spent many years and late nights perfecting reliable and repeatable techniques. Too many to have them repeated by anyone else.
Demand for Cornish effects boards is reaching a level where he could happily feed himself and family on that income alone. On average, the finished objects are round the GBP 600-GBP 900 mark but it varies depending on the ‘specials’ the artist needs.
He’s particularly proud of the GBP 2,000 item soldered together for the Bay City Rollers. “They were having trouble with their fans who would climb on to the front of the stage and damage their gear, so I made it all remote-control. The switches are at the front and the pedals are at the back of the stage.”
All the boards are one-offs. A keen photographer, he snaps each one before it goes out. As an example of the effort and perfection he brings to all sides of his work, Pete has spent large sums and a long time developing the necessary photographic skills to pick out a black volume pedal from an equally black surround.
Other specials include the 49in wide monster he designed for U.K. keyboard player Eddie Jobson. It treats and mixes his Hammond Organ, which sits on top, Minimoogs and rack of violins. Fellow U.K. player, bassist John Wetton, needed a cut-out in his board to take a set of Moog Taurus bass pedals.
Some Customers can be exacting, such as Steve Hackett. “There was one particular line he had to play for Genesis where a note jumped down an octave. He tried playing it on guitar, but it wasn’t clean enough so he used an octave divider to take it down for just one song.” Octave dividers work better for wind instruments where the volume is continuous. Andy Mackay has four in the device he uses with Roxy Music.
Bill Nelson was another visitor with definite ideas. He came with a plan of a board narrowing to a point and covered with rubber so he could rest his feet in preparation for hitting a footswitch. He also wanted a strip light across the top but that created too much hum so 20 6-volt bulbs were fitted.
Pete sticks to the areas if electronics where he is familiar; switching is by reliable relay, and not solid state.
Lights are another lesson learnt from the past. The tiny low power LEDs (light emitting diodes) in many pedals aren’t bright enough to be seen under a fierce light show. It’s the tried and trusted 28 volt filament bulb which finds its way into a Cornish concoction. Like all his methods, they work. “I remember going to see Steve Hacket play at a Genesis gig and even from where I was in the audience I could tell what effects he had selected by the colors of the lights on the board.”