For decades, the only way to play guitar live and be heard was with a 100-watt guitar amp and a stack of 4×12 cabinets. For lots of players, the idea of the full stack is still the epitome of coolness – but it’s certainly no longer the most practical solution out there. Or is it? Here Blog Of Tone looks at the history of the cab, where it came from, where it’s going… and what cabinet size you should try if you’re in the market for a new live setup!
It all started, as many things do, out of pure necessity.
Historically speaking, the iconic 4×12 cab was a baby born of the shortcomings of sound reinforcement technology in the ’60s and ’70s.
Early PAs really were for public address, and not for filling auditoriums with music. The sound system was still in its infancy, with a lot of experimenting going on, and the high-definition sonic images of modern line arrays were still light years away.
If a player wanted to be heard, the guitar rig would have to move some serious air.
And the only way to do that was to step up the cone acreage and amplifier wattage.
King Volume ruled the stage in those days. Many rock concerts left the audience’s ears ringing for days.
Tinnitus: a byproduct of early rock ‘n’ roll
The sound was rarely good; but volume levels were debilitating – just ask the likes of Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck or Neil Young. They’ll tell you how it was, assuming they can hear your question over the buzzing of their tinnitus.
The crippling volume didn’t detract from the rock ‘n’ roll experience, though.
On the contrary, in those days a concert was a truly physical event that often left an indelible mark. Noel Gallagher, for one, wears his tinnitus with pride, a badge of honor like a Purple Heart earned in the line of front-line R&R duty.
The dawn of the effective PA system
It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that PA technology took a big leap forward. Line array systems established a new gold standard for live sound.
In-ear monitors brought those absurd on-stage volumes down to manageable levels.
These two advances catapulted rock ‘n’ roll into new sonic territory, conjuring live sound almost as sweet and pristine as a studio recording.
The jury is still out as to whether the 4×12 cab is heading for obsolescence, but this new PA and monitoring technology may well drive the big stack a step closer to extinction.
Is the 4×12 finished?
What’s more, these days many players are tired of fussing with rigs that are too large, too heavy and too inflexible.
This is why the walls of sound seen on stages these days are often purely for show.
They’re just there to look cool.
Rarely do they consist of actual 4×12 cabs. Often they are dummies – empty boxes. Some acts use pictures of speakers printed on canvas as props; others create the same illusion with projections beamed on to screens.
And all in the name of looking cool.
A modern-day solution
So what kind of stage setup do 21st century guitarists want?
Well, plenty of players still like to mic up their rigs live, but we’re talking about just one cab or even just a single speaker here.
Every now and then a guitar-driven rock band will aim several microphones at a 4×12 cabinet, but we’re seeing it less and less these days, even at big shows.
Lightweight amp, heavyweight tone
Things are changing even in the thrash metal genre, where guitars are meant to roar and bands are expected to rage.
Our good friend Jeff Waters – head honcho in thrash metal legends Annihilator – is a great example of where all this is going.
We’ve watched him go from big 4×12-dominated rigs and the Coreblade to a lunchbox-sized GrandMeister with 2×12 cab, even in front of 50,000 people at places like Wacken and Hellfest.
In fact, Jeff loves to surprise other bands on festival bills with his dinky amp’s massive sound:
And while Jeff loves to mic his cab up, don’t forget that with GrandMeister you’ve also got the option of sending your tube tone straight to the PA (and your in-ears!) via the Red Box DI output.
Why the 4×12 was king
So, while we’ve established that these days size no longer matters when it comes to cabs, it sure did back in the day.
And this is why 4x12s were the way to go. Basically, the bigger the diaphragm, the more air molecules a speaker can disturb, which explains why 4×12 cabs deliver the highest sound pressure of any standard-sized cab (there are rare beasts in the 6×12 and 8×12 format, but you don’t see them often, which is good news for your ears!).
Sure, 4x12s will blow the audience’s hair back and get your musical message across with in-your-face assertiveness. But they also have some serious drawbacks.
For one, they are weighty and unwieldy.
For another, a housing loaded with four speakers is susceptible to phase cancellation. Microphone placement is tricky, and finding the sweet spot takes some finessing.
If you happen to have a spare 4×12 gathering dust somewhere, try this: pluck and hold a note, then move your head back and forth in front of the baffle to hear how the tone changes as your ears roam across the expanse of speakers.
Here’s Rabea Massaad‘s video of the anechoic chamber at H&K HQ – check out some of the audio effects as the camera pans around the room and you’ll see what we mean:
All this, by the way, is also the reason why two identical 4×12 cabs of the same type and brand can sound quite different.
The joy of the 2×12 cabinet
A smaller cabinet loaded with two 12″ speakers is a far handier option.
Why? Well, 2x12s are lighter by nearly half and no bigger than a good-sized suitcase, yet they pack a punch almost as hefty as that of a 4×12.
And they’re rarely troubled with the problem of phase cancellation.
For many guitarists these days, 2x12s represent the best compromise between roadworthy convenience and stage-approved sound pressure.
This also explains why the 2×12 format has become a standard size for combos.
As we say in Germany, two is one better than one.
What about 1×12 cabs?
But then again, the Teutonic way does lean towards over-engineering.
For those who really like to strip things down to the bare necessities, a 1×12 cab is ideal. Phase problems are a non-issue, nor is size.
And these cabs can be very compact indeed – in theory, not much bigger than the speaker inside.
The housings are somewhat larger in practice, but many manufacturers have succumbed to the seductive charms of a petite footprint.
Portable is more practical.
These housings come in various guises – open-backed, closed-backed, semi-open and even with bass reflex ports.
All variations apart from Thiele bins and small bass reflex enclosures deliver less low end and a tightly focused response, relatively speaking.
And a special mention goes to…
There are a few exotic species of cab that merit special mention.
The first that come to mind are the seldom-seen (these days, anyway) 4×10 and the 1×15. If you wish to dip your musical bucket in the deep well of ’60s and ’70s-era blues rock, these configurations should serve you well.
The legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented with a variety of amp/cab combinations in the ’80s and was said to be partial to the venerable Bassman, a very popular amp in its day.
SRV used various 4×10 and 1×15 configurations to achieve his trademark gigantic tone.
But he wasn’t the only one to love the 1×15 format. When Polytone made a combo loaded with one of these speakers, it gained a cult following among jazz guitarists.
These days, though, there seems to be little love left for these two formats among top-tier guitarists, who are rarely seen without 12” speakers.
The future of the cab
Who’s to say what tomorrow may bring? The 4×12 may die out completely, or it may make a massive return.
But with smaller cabs, better PAs and other solutions like the Red Box available these days – and getting better at their jobs all the time – it’s looking like musicians and concertgoers no longer be forced to go deaf if they want to continue enjoying decent live music.
Either way, we’d love to know what you think. What’s your cabinet of choice, and why? Let us know in the comments below…
First published: May 19 2017. Most recent update: May 19 2017.
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I don’t completely agree with the “4×12’s are louder” argument.
IMHO, if you keep the global volume to a reasonable level -which is, keeping up with the drummer and not overwhelming it- each speaker of a 4×12 cabinet gets only 1/4 of the power coming from the amp, thus sounding in fact quieter than a single cone pushing the same volume.
I vastly prefer having a wide and mellow sonic front, rather than a single source screaming wildly at my ears – and at the mic.
Wire two 4×12’s together side by side, even in a mono rig, and you will be immersed -for lack of a better word- in your guitar’s tone.
Obviously there are more practical solutions for gigging, but as far as tone goes…
That’s actually a pretty good point, Michele, and we agree with you on that! Does anyone else have experience with this kind of setup? It’s all about tone after all, so we’d love to hear any other alternative suggestions to try 🙂
I have the GM40 and it is perfect for a mini-stack of 1×12″ cabinets. It has more volume than i’ll ever need. Electric guitars sound best with 12″ speakers without a doubt. I like the H&K design but went with some custom closed back Mesa cabinets with the same Celestion Vintage 30s that H&K uses. I went with these because i was able to customize the look. They are basically the same otherwise. Make sure to get 16ohm speakers if you are using two cabs.
Sounds like a killer setup you’ve ended up with there Brian! A mini stack is an amazingly flexible (and portable!) way to go these days 🙂 Rock on, and thanks for reading!
I played 30 years back in Germany, around 20 years in different bands. I started it in age of 16 with a American Gi´s band. On stage I used a Marshall JTM 45, one chanel without master volume and a half stack. Both was used when I get it. For playing at home the JTM 45 was not usefull till Marshall offered their Power Brake.
So I was buying a no name 10 Watt combo amp, but the speaker sounds bad. I take the inner volume of my 4×12, multiplyed it with 1/4 and build a 1×12 box with Celestion Vintage 30 speaker. If you don´t like the sound of this speaker it is easy to swap to another one, caus you need only one, not four.
Since the no name amp has no speaker out I opened it and placed an speaker out. Then the sound was well and the noise usable.
But I was tired to dance all the time on the different effect switcher. So I start with 19 inch components. There was a Peavy Rockmaster (3 chanel), Alesis Quadraverb and as power amp I get the H&K VS 250.
To change the chanels and the effects I used the Nobels MS 8 Switcher. The floorboard and four switcher I get at Conrad Electronics, so I could go up and down the bank and in the bank with on step.
At home I used the 1×12 and the no name amp, on stage or in rehearsal room the VS 250 on 4×12.
I lived in a small City and get frustrated with the band members, mostly about the rehearsal room payment. So I sell my equipment.
Since I live in China, I´m back into guitar again ten years after the break. I import a Gibson SG and a LP. The floorboard is a Zoom G5n. At home I use the clean amp of the VOX mini 5. This amp has three power options (0,1w, 1,5 and 5 watt and sounds well at home. At rehearse the 5w are to small, so I buyed the Marshall MG30 FX. Toghether with a friend again I spend the MG30 a speaker out and change the line out to the backside so I could go direct into the PA and into my (cheap) Marshall MG412 full stack. Also I build a 1×12 cabinet same I discribed above.
Mostly, on small gigs I use the MG30 as combo, sometimes with the 1×12, never I take the stack with me. How could I say, the full stack is a like to have, not to need.
In China all playing direct into the PA. We don´t have to cary the heavy cabinets. The PA engeneer is looking for everything include the monitors on the stage. So you go with your guitar and the floorboard, ready.
In the near future I like to by a H&K GM40, cause still I like the real tube sound compared with the programable sounds, and will use it on stage with the 1×12 for feeback sounds and the dy out of the GM40. And maybe I´ll try a 2×12 cabinet, too.
My optimal combination is 2x CABs 1×12″ TL806/EVM12L DIY from the Electro-Voice builder plan. Good compromise in dimension/sound pressure, and mainly a fantasticaly equilibred spectrum for great CLEANs and punshy “in you face” LEADs. Stereo for big ambiant effects, of course.
Sounds like an awesome setup Francois! We’re big fans of massive stereo effects too 🙂
In smaller venues, I like the combination of two 1×12 speakers. One with open back for some surround sound on stage and one with closed back for some serious forward thrust, which I will use to mic the front of the house. If there is no back wall to project against, an open back may sound thin. In bigger venues I go with two 2 x 12 cabinets and a sound pannel in front to keep volume acceptable. But in honnesty, I sometimes miss the days of the big stacks with everyting on 11. By the way, I love the sound of the Grand Meister Deluxe 40 and the Red Box DI out for quick recording 😉
Best for guitar is 12”
My problem is,I love the sound of a 4×12….nothing else has that sound…it’s not about volume,it’s that “crack”that a 4×12 has…..But,it is no fun moving it around….I am currently building a couple of 2×12’s to run in stereo,hoping that it will be close enough….Personally,I don’t like 1×12 cabs…..just sounds small to me….just my 2 cents…
We reckon you’ll get close with the double 2×12 setup Scott! We’ve used this numerous times and it really thumps, as well as being a whole lot more practical in terms of carrying and transporting. Sure, if you’re used to 4x12s, a 1×12 (or even a 1×10!) will sound boxy, and while some people love that sound, others need the open expansiveness of the full stack 🙂 To each their own, we say. Rock on!
Multiple 10s. 2 or 4.
I am only an amateur guitar player, and I started late (well into my 40’s).
One of my first real amps I got was a H&K Statesman Dual EL84 (20W). I really like the sound of this amp, and it has worked really well in some performances on stage, but it is just too powerful for home playing (bedroom levels). You can just barely turn it up before it gets too loud at home, but it takes a bit of volume for it to sound good.
So I started looking at smaller, low wattage tube amps, and I have accumulated different ones (even modifying them to my liking). These have typically a 8″ speaker, sometimes even only 6.5″ and sometimes a 10″. I did like the sound I could get from the amps, but the smaller speaker size is a compromise.
I then moved from small tube combos to small tube heads, and I have a Vox ‘Lil Night Train (with modified tubes to get a bit more headroom). I quite like this little amp, but overall, it is pretty bright sounding, so I always dial in quite a bit of EQ to make it less bright.
A little after that, I found a TubeMeister 5, and I like the sound of that one much better. I especially like the clean channel, which is not as bight as the Vox and sounds great with both, single coil and humbucker pickups.
Since I was always missing the full sound of a 12″ speaker, I made a 12″ speaker cabinet (I bought a kit from Tube Town and just did the finish and the staining and some details). That 1×12″ cabinet with the TubeMeister5 gives me beautiful sounds already at bedroom level and I can turn it up quite a bit if I am home alone.
So, my preference is a 1×12″ cabinet. The 12″ speaker size has a another advantage, there is almost an endless choice of speakers available, and you can select the one which suits your style and sound preference best. I have a Celestion Heritage speaker from England in my cabinet.
Even in live situations, I would never need more than a 1×12″. If I want to mike it, I would be using one mike anyhow and not two, so the 2nd 12″ speaker of a 2×12″ would be mainly for stage volume/sound. I usually already get complaints with the 1×12″ being too loud…
Thank you for this extremely interesting comment and feedback Roland. It seems you’ve made a long journey to your current setup, and you’ve made many tonal discoveries along the way 🙂 We agree with you about 1×12 cabs, by the way – they’re a great solution for all kinds of playing, and small enough to store/transport. And, as you say, you can double up and make a double 1×12 setup for louder stage work if needed!
Plus you’re totally right about being able to swap out speakers easily – we can’t overstate the influence of the speaker itself on guitar tone! They’re right up there with tubes and guitar pickups in how important they are. The same cab with a speaker change can sound 100% different.
But this is part of the beauty of the guitar: we as guitarists are all on a journey for the perfect sound. And even if it never ends, we’ll have a whole lot of fun and music-making along the way 🙂 The fact that you’ve found a bunch of different H&K amps that have helped you along the way also makes us very happy!
All the best to you,
I’ve used a lot of different cabs over the years. I started with a small, simple 1×12, moved on to a 4×12, tried a single 4×10, then two 4×10 cabs in a stack and I’m currently using a 2×10, plus I have plans to build a pair of oversized 1×12 cabs to use as a small stack. I find that each cab has a specific sound it will produce. The 1×12 was tight with moderate lows. The 4×12 was HUGE. The 4×10 cabs produced a shockingly focused midrange attack that was great for staccato rock riffs. The 2×10 is similar, but lacks low end punch. After learning all this over the years, I’ve focused in on the oversized 1×12 mini stack configuration because I believe it will give me the volume I’m looking for, plus the low end, but it will be much more portable and will give me the option of using a single cab or both, depending on the venue and the need.
Thanks for the feedback Harley, this was very interesting to read, and to hear that your experiences correlate with ours 🙂 It seems to us at the moment as well that 1x12s and 2x12s are the cabs that are doing the job for the widest variety of contemporary player, for the reasons you mention. Is the 4×12 dying out? We’re still not sure. But we really don’t find them absolutely necessary any more in 99.9% of contexts.
For me two 2×12’s with Vintage 30’s in Stereo sounds like a wall of guitar, just amazing and ya dont need a pickup truck to get that sound to shows 🙂
Yes, +1 for the stereo sound goodness! Sounds like a great rig you’ve got there Ronnie 🙂
I just swapped my Vox AC30C2 (which I loved dearly) for a TubeMeister 18/12.
The 30 watts of amazing Vox juice was just simply too much for any venue I got to play at. Even outdoors, it was on the verge of too much.
The power soak is amazing, I got to try it out yesterday at 1w in the bedroom of my condo with my two young children in a room mere meters away.
My question is this:
With the TM18/12, how could I get a safe output to a decent set of headphones? Redbox out to a small mixer? effect loop send to a headphone amp? Some other wizardry I’ve not considered?
Also, I’m curious, what brand are the stock tubes in the Tubemeisters, and what would you recommend for replacements?
Hi Mike, and thanks for your message! Glad you’Re finding the power soak useful.
And yes, when it comes to using headphones, those two methods are the way forward – Red Box out to a small mixer or your audio interface is probably the easiest, as we imagine you’ve already got the bits and pieces required to do that.
The stock tubes in the Meister amps are H&K tubes – that is, they’re made for us by the factory in China. You can get replacement sets from any H&K dealer. We obviously tried and tested a lot of tubes before settling on these, and so like them a lot, but there are alternatives out there. We hear a lot of guys love JJs, and have heard a few Meisters that sound great with them. But the best thing to do, if you have the means, is to get the amp to a tube tech and have them swap a few in and out for you, and you play around until you find the ones that suit your playing style best. Tone is subjective, after all! And with TSC, swapping power tubes in and out is very easy indeed too 😉
Hope this helps, and enjoy your 18/12!
Team H&K in Germany
I had a compact Marshall Valvestate 4×12, a long time ago, and was not that found of it. I wasn’t using it with a tube amp, which is probably much of the reason I didn’t care for it.
When the day came to get another tube amp, I bought a Switchblade combo, which is pretty decent. I wouldn’t say it is super loud, like a 4×12 is but it does the trick, and i like the open back bright sound that it got.
With my next purchase I bought a Coreblade, but decided to opt out of the 4×12 that was meant for it, and instead went with this brand called Port City. I bought the 2×12 Port City OS Wave, and it is pretty massive sound wise. I don’t think I’ll ever need a 4×12 with that cab, it is pretty awesome.
That’s an interesting evolution of amps Jeffry, but you’ve ended up with a great-sounding rig! We need to try those Port City cabs out sometime 🙂
After years of moving a Twin Reverb with JBL crome domes…Large effects pedal boards, I’ve grown to love my Switchblade 50 combo…I have 3 groups of 16 presets each for SIngle coil, P90 and Humbucker guitars…room for 70 more. It’s still 50 lbs but better than the Twin, or a head and a 2×12. I use the standard SM-57 and get great tones. Practice with the band or live gigs, I will use no other.
Thanks for the kind words Steve! Yep, the Switchblade really is a versatile amp, and it just fits with all types of pickups too – which not all amps do! And with presets, it’s super easy to have patches set up in advance like you do. 50lbs of weight is a small price to pay for that 😉 Enjoy your Switchblade and rock on!
I have Marshall 4×12’s as well as HK TM112 cabinets. The 1-12 cabinets are small…but if you use more than 1…. they are larger than a 2-12 or 4-12 cabinet when stacked. I also find the 1-12 cab’s do not have the resonance or “umph” a sealed 4-12 cabinet has.
I do like the HK cabs with the input / output jack on the cabs. Brilliant.
That being said….i still love the sound of a 4-12 cab. For small gigs, I will use 2 1-12 cabs…..but i much prefer the 4×12 sound….and the look of a 4-12 cab.
Interesting feedback Brian, thanks for sharing! You’re right in that the 1x12s will never fully have that oomph of a 4×12, and we also agree that nothing looks cooler than a big stack onstage 😉 It’s just our backs and our ears that are starting to tell us otherwise sometimes! You can’t beat the practicality of those smaller cabs…
The best of both worlds, of course, is having the option to use both, as you have. That way you can always pick the perfect solution for every show, rehearsal or home practice 🙂
Since using my Deeflexx Systems I only use 1×12 cabs. They make them sound HUGE!
We’ve heard good things about these Sebastian, might have to give them a go soon 🙂
I’ve used both 4X12 and 2X12 cabinets. If the cabinet is built well, a 2X12 is more than sufficient. Depends on your circumstance. I play at church so it would never be practical to use a 4X12 bottom. I have always loved the full tone that my Marshall 6960B bottom has had but it’s just too much for what I do today. I’m still looking into getting a larger volume 1X12 at one point. I have a Grandmeister 40 deluxe rig.
We agree with you Randy – for most applications these days, there’s simply no need for a 4×12. They can be just too big and loud (not to mention a pain to lug around before and after the show!). Enjoy your GM40 rig, and let us know what 1×12 you end up choosing in future, as we’d be interested to know 🙂
Erik Kurtz, guitarist in Cordova has a great setup going with a Triamp & Marshall 4×10.
Sounds like an interesting setup, we’ll have to check it out 🙂
Recently I’m the proud owner of a Tubemeister36(former Triamp MK1 user). I use a 4×12 cab loaded with V30’s. I was thinking about going to a 2×12… but I still can’t get enough of the look on other peoples faces, when I place my tubemeister on top of my cab. Some people even laugh… ’till I crank it open 🙂
Thanks for this entire blog, it helpes a lot
Greetz from belgium
Ha ha, we know the feeling! It’s always great to see people’s reactions when you crank a TubeMeister or GrandMeister 🙂 Especially when’t it’s Jeff Waters at a big festival. Those amps can go way louder than many guitarists expect, and they have no problems driving a 4×12 either! We’re happy you enjoyed the blog, now rock on and keep surprising people with your H&K 🙂
This was a great history lesson about the cab, thanks guys! But no matter what you say, you’ll never beat a full stack dimed to 11. It does not get more rock and roll than that! Your 2x12s do sound great though, I’ll give you that 😉
Cheers for the kind words Phil! Glad you enjoyed the blog. And we know what you mean… we just value our ears more than that these days 😉 And we’re not sure anyone’s buying the dummy cab look these days any more either!