The challenge of recording feral tube-amp tones without shaking the rafters of every abode within striking distance of my home studio was solved for me in the ’90s with the PS Systems Power Tool and the Marshall SE100 Speaker Emulation System. These hardware speaker simulators/internal-load boxes let me audition raging guitar tones at quiet-as-a-mouse volume levels through my studio monitors and headphones. No mics. No blaring speakers. No pissed off neighbors.
So it was with a hint of nostalgia that I started testing the Mesa Engineering CabClone ($299 street), as it had been ages since I’d dragged tube combos up to my home studio. Software amp simulators had long been my weapons of choice for recording guitars without bothering the dogs (well, and my wife). Now, I could “silently” track my Vox AC30, Mesa/Boogie Stiletto, and Marshall JCM900 by routing their speaker outputs into the CabClone, and sending the signals to a Focusrite interface and directly to Apple Logic. Then, I could choose one of three speaker emulations—Closed-Back, Open-Back, and Vintage—and listen to everything through my CAD MH510 Sessions headphones. No one was the wiser that a sonic apocalypse was going down just across the hall.
The CabClone is passive (you don’t plug it in), handles amps rated up to 150 watts, and comes in 8-, 4-, and 16Ω versions for proper impedance matching. A rotary D.I. knob lets you tailor signal levels to Mic (-30dB), Instrument (-10dB), Line (+4dB), or anywhere in between. A Phase Flip switch cures any signal phasing issues, but I often activate it when I want thin, out-of-phase guitar tones.
Obviously, Mesa Engineering made choices when voicing the CabClone’s trio of speaker emulations, and their ideal sounds may not be yours. That’s the caveat. Having said that, I loved them all. The Closed Back simulation is designed to produce scooped-midrange frequencies, so you don’t get all the low-mid chunk of a real 4x12, but you do get a lot of impact and presence. The Open Back setting brings up the mids for more punch, while adding some high-end shimmer for dimension. Mesa voiced their Vintage setting to be dark and compressed, and it’s indeed warm, full, and articulate without being too bright in those “attack” mids around 3kHz-5kHz. Each emulation is also very dynamic—you can hear hard attacks, soft picking, and variations in strumming. Throughout the tests, it always sounded and felt like I had miked an amp, and every guitar tone packed a visceral wallop.
A bonus for sound sculpting is the Cab-Clone’s Thru mode. Here, you get a non-speaker-emulated output that you can send to a speaker cabinet if volume isn’t an issue (such as in a big studio or rehearsal space) and mic it. You also have the speaker-emulated direct output, of course, so now you can blend the two tones, process each one differently, or mix them any way your heart desires. And think about how cool it can be when you’re performing live to send the emulated CabClone signal to the house mix (for pristine impact), and the unprocessed output to your stage rig for a comfy roar from the backline. Best of both worlds, baby!
I have nothing against digital amp models, but I sometimes crave the immediacy, dimension, and familiarity of recording my favorite tube combos in my home studio. The Cab- Clone makes that craving a reality with a compact, super-easy-to-use, light (2.4 lbs with tilt stand), and fierce-sounding wonder box. For me, it’s way more fun tracking guitars at home with the CabClone in my tonal arsenal.