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Producer · Engineer · FOH
John Cornfield
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John Cornfield

Legendary Engineer and Producer
John Cornfield

John Cornfield has produced and engineered some of the biggest names in music – Muse, Oasis, Robert Plant and many more. You name them, he's worked with them, mostly at the legendary Sawmills studio in Cornwall. He also has some hilarious stories about his incredible life, some of which he reveals right here…

Robert Plant, Oasis, Verve, Supergrass, The Stone Roses, Muse, Ben Howard and many more
Adult supervision

My interest in sound and music started at a young age, somewhere in the early 70s when my Dad found me a job in an electronics workshop on Saturdays and school holidays. It was probably to get me out from under his feet because, apparently, I was a pain in the ass and always getting into trouble. This workshop repaired anything from hi-fis to the occasional washing machine but mainly audio gear, so I became fascinated with everything audio and built my own stereo with bits of scrap I found anywhere.

 My Dad bought a Sencor cassette recorder from Reader's Digest which came with a small microphone. I initially started out recording the charts from the radio but soon progressed to building a recording studio in our bedroom using the bedding as acoustic deadening. I recorded my sister's singing with some home made percussion. Christ knows why I even thought of the treatment as I didn’t know anything about it really.

 At my school there was a school jazz club that was really an excuse for the school rock band to have some fun. I got involved sorting out the PA system and lights, again bodged together with anything I could lay my hands on. All this culminated in us being allowed to put on a show at the end year school do. We went to town on this and even made our own pyros which were, of course, concealed from any members of staff until they were actually ignited during the show. It was brilliant, but we left the strobe on for too long and one unfortunate girl ended up staring at it and collapsed due some sort of epileptic episode. She was taken to hospital and was absolutely fine, but it was the first and last time for quite a while that the school rock band were allowed to put on a show without adult supervision.

“It's dead mate”

After getting expelled from that school during the first year of 6th form and subsequently the 6th form college that followed, I got press ganged into a general engineering apprenticeship with English Chine Clays. I ended up learning a lot of skills both mechanical and electrical/electronic – it certainly improved my safety standards with all things electrical but I did learn more skills with explosives too, but that's another story.

 After the first couple of years there I ended up working in the electronic/instrument department during which time I got a name for being able to revive bits of musical equipment. I met a guitar player who was in one of the bigger local bands who brought me his Electro Harmonix flanger pedal that he loved but all the shops had said “it's dead mate”. I revived it so he asked me if I fancied coming along to one of their shows. They picked me up and the van broke down, so I fixed it. We got to the gig, set all their kit up, and their lighting rig blew the main fuse in the building. I fixed that and then sorted out all their routing which greatly improved the sound. They then asked if I could come to all the gigs and sort the sound out for them!

After a couple of years of this the band eventually went their separate ways so I bought the PA off them and started doing my own thing. I got to know Martin Griffin who was one of the many Hawkwind drummers. He got interested in what I was doing and he put me in touch with Dennis Smith and Simon Fraser from Sawmills studio. Dennis had a Trident series 80B and Martin suggested that we all get together and revamp Sawmills with the Trident console, which we did – this was around the early/mid eighties.

If you think you know it all…

I then started working as assistant engineer with Simon Fraser and others and John Leckie became a regular client. From there it all started getting very busy. There are way too many stories to recount but one of my personal highlights was engineering for Robert Plant on recordings for his Fate Of Nations album. Having been brought up listening to Led Zeppelin I was quietly shitting myself at the prospect but he was a thoroughly nice guy and made me feel at ease straight away, but I still had a moment when I was about to record him singing and I needed two hands to press record on the tape machine.

I eventually ended up going freelance and engineered and produced albums in many different studios in different parts of the UK and Europe. I am still as busy as ever working from my own studio in the basement of my house which has the same vibe as the early Sawmills – I.e. put together on a shoestring budget – but Sawmills is still very much running and it is still my base.

 I am in to recording bands as bands and prefer capturing the live energy that a band produces when they are on it. Even if there are the odd fuck ups, these can all be fixed. I am still learning new tricks from wherever and whoever, and firmly believe the rules are: there are no rules. If you think you know it all, then it is time to move on to a different career.

Job done

I tried the Aston Origin on many sources and it excelled on everything, and I especially liked it as a vocal microphone. Then I got a Spirit down and it was a cut above on vocals. As I still had the Origin, I also tried them as an M/S pair on acoustic guitar. Wow, such a great focused and wide sound. I ended up buying a pair of both mics and that is my main setup for recording acoustic guitar and live vocals. I do a lot of recording with Ralph McTell and nearly all his recordings are live acoustic and vocals together and this setup really doesn’t require much post production – it is 'record and go'.

Last year I recorded with Ben Howard for his new album. We decamped to Le Manor de Leon in the south of France. Again I had the Origin as part of the overhead setup and the M/S combination for all the acoustic guitar recording. When we came to the vocal recording I set up a few microphones to find out which to use. We had a vintage AKG C12, a vintage valve Neumann 47 and 87 and the Spirit, and we recorded takes of all of them. Everyone unanimously decided on the Aston. Job done. We did more sessions in different studios and checked out other mics in the process but always ended up back on the Aston. I once lent Ben my Spirit and LA 610 as I had to go and do other sessions. When I needed to get my mic back he said 'can I buy it?'

Then came the Starlight. It's another stunning microphone. The first thing I tried it on was the piano at the Sawmills which has always been a difficult piano to get sounding good as it is not a great piano. The Starlights produced easily the best sound ever from that old girl. I also used them as overheads on a tour with a metal band King Creature. They sounded great and took the beating of a tour without any issues.

Out-takes

Q. We hear you are putting together more studios…
A. “I have also been building another studio with a friend with a Neve 5088 console down near Portreath in west Cornwall and I am consulting on another studio build near Gunnislake in Cornwall. Or is that in England? I’ll need to check that :)”

Q. Analogue or digital?
A. “ I am currently using a digital console in my own studio, supplemented with analogue outboard and preamps, and I am enjoying it a lot but I really don’t mind using either totally analogue or totally digital or a mixture of both. I think the most the important thing is the song and the energy in the performance.”

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?
A. “Next we need an Aston ribbon please.”

Q. What was the first song that made you cry?
A."Probably the first Coldplay album (Parachutes). I was up for doing the album but I had to be away in London as it coincided with the due date of my second son, Matthew (but the first with my current partner). We tried to find an available studio that was in between Cornwall and London but it wasn’t to be so I had to walk away from it. I had the demos and still do as I could tell that it was going to be a huge record, but hey ho, a little later when it was all over the radio I said to Christy, my partner; “This is going straight to the top,” which of course it did, I could have cried."

 

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