Now you can have gain without the pain, courtesy of a sealed speaker box designed for recording electric guitars.
In the article on recording electric guitars back in SOS December 2002, I mentioned that you could use a miked-up speaker in a sealed box when you want to retain the sound of your amp without the noise or spill problems associated with miking it. Such 'speaker in a box' devices are so rare they don't even have a proper name, and not all perform as well as you might like, but the Hermit Cab seems to have been thought out using properly applied engineering principles. It is extremely well made and is designed to retain as much of the character of the original amp sound as possible while providing a usefully high degree of sound isolation.
Measuring a compact 20 x 20 x 20 inches, the Hermit Cab is solidly constructed from 0.75-inch MDF (the outer shell) and 0.75-inch plywood (the inner shell), neatly finished in a black fuzzy nylon covering. In order to achieve optimum sound isolation, the enclosure comprises two boxes, one inside the other, and when the tops are removed to access the upward-facing speaker, the top half of the inner box lifts off separately to the outer box top, rather like one of those stacking Russian dolls. The joins between the base and top sections are staggered, and each top/bottom joint also features a lip to help keep the sound in. The two boxes are separated from each other by high-density foam and the top outer cover is held in place once fitted by two flightcase fasteners to ensure a decent seal. Because of the lipped joints, no sealing gaskets are necessary, although the fuzzy covering probably functions as a gasket to some extent.
The speaker is an 8Ω 10-inch 30W Eminence model with an Alnico magnet, so higher-powered amplifiers should be used with caution or via a power attenuator. A slot-shaped port in the baffle helps avoid the boxiness that often results from putting a speaker in a smaller-than-optimum enclosure, and contoured acoustic foam is used inside the inner enclosure to attenuate standing waves. Connection to the speaker is via the outer two pins of an XLR connector on the outside of the outer cabinet, and there are also two XLR mic output sockets linked to a pair of captive internal mic cables (balanced).
Two slotted mic clamp fixing brackets with thread adaptors are mounted at the side of the speaker allowing the user to use any microphones and mountings that will physically fit inside the cabinet. For semi-permanent installation, it often pays to use one dynamic mic and one capacitor mic, which will provide a choice of tonal characters without the need to keep opening the box to change mics. Shockmounting may also be desirable to keep structure-borne vibrations out of the mics. There's enough space to angle the mics to face any part of the speaker cone and the mic distance may also be varied over a useful range. Because the XLRs are wired for balanced operation, phantom-powered capacitor mics may be used with no added complications.
I first tested the Hermit Cab using a little valve-powered 12W Fender Champ amplifier, which goes much louder than you might imagine. Cranked up with a nice overdrive, the spill from the cabinet was not much more than you'd expect from a pair of headphones left open next to you, though with slightly more bottom end. As soon as the miked signal is audible over the studio monitors at even a modest level, the spill becomes completely unnoticeable.
The other pleasant surprise was that the sound I was hearing back over the monitors from a hastily positioned SM57 was very similar to what I normally heard from the amp itself. The bass end wasn't quite the same, but there was no obvious boxiness or lack of punch — a little gentle EQ was all that was needed to put things right. Switching to a capacitor mic gives a slightly more 'American' sound and, of course, if you leave both mics in there you can mix them as desired. I also tried my 40W Marshall DSL401, and again got a great sound, full of life and energy, that was distinctively different to that of the Fender Champ, even though both were being used via the same speaker.
I've tried similar devices before, but none that were anywhere near as effective as the Hermit Cab either for isolation or tonal quality. If it weren't for the 'pun police' in the SOS editorial office, I might even go as far as to say the Hermit is out on its own! Furthermore, although the cabinet is fairly large and heavy enough that you wouldn't want to carry it far, it's exactly the right height to use as an additional studio seat or as somewhere to stand your combo. My feeling is that the Hermit Cab works best with smaller valve amplifiers such as my little Fender and Marshall combos, but using a power soak/attenuator would make it possible to work with more powerful amps. Alternatively, master-volume amps could be used at a moderate power setting. The results when used with transistor amps are likely to be more variable, as some sound good and some sound dreadful — the whole point of the Hermit Cab is that the miked sound bears a pretty close resemblance to the acoustic sound of your amplifier, and it achieves that aim very well. Because of the complex woodworking involved, the Hermit Cab isn't exactly cheap in the UK, but then it doesn't cost much more than a good modelling preamp or a basic effects unit. So if you're one of those people for whom only the sound of a real miked-up speaker is good enough, but you don't have the space to record one conventionally, then the Hermit Cab is most definitely something to consider.