Barcus-Berry 402 Sonic Maximizer
Geoff Levin tries the latest word in psychoacoustic enhancement, and finds it involves analysing the entire frequency spectrum, then time-aligning parts of it. What do the results sound like in the studio?
Innocent-looking it may be, but this unit takes psychoacoustic enhancement a stage further by time-aligning parts of the audio spectrum at different rates. The effect is shattering.
AT ONE TIME or another, many of us have had a chance to use some type of psychoacoustic enhancer (the Aphex Aural Exciter is one example) to enrich the spatial and harmonic clarity of the audio project or music we were working on. Barcus-Berry Electronics, located in Huntington Beach, California, USA, have come up with a different approach to the challenge of restoring the clarity which is lost when instruments go through microphones, mixers and speakers. The BBE 402 Sonic Maximizer, or "Maxie" as they call it, is the cheaper of two units currently in production, and is the only model currently sold by UK importers Syco. It's a -10dB unit, unbalanced, with both RCA and 1/4" phono plugs on the back. The slightly upmarket model 802 Signal Processor is basically a +4dB unit, balanced or unbalanced with both cannon and 1/4" phono plugs on the back. Both units are stereo, and have basically the same controls, although the 802 has inset pots for more permanent line level and bass control settings.
Unlike such machines as the Aphex, the Barcus-Berry 402 does not work on the principle of adding harmonics or synthesising frequencies that have been lost. As a result, there is no appreciable noise added into the chain. But the difference in clarity, transient response, and high end is quite impressive.
IN THEIR PROMOTIONAL material, BBE emphasise the use of their processors to return the natural balance of harmonic time alignment, which disappears when the sound becomes amplified.
When we hear sound unamplified, we receive the higher harmonics first and fundamental sound behind them. This translates into the experience of crisp, clean sound that retains its natural transient response, or punch. When sound becomes amplified, the high frequencies become delayed and we hear the bass or fundamental sounds first. This results in dull, mushy sound that seems to lack punch.
This effect is worsened because we tend to hear sound in groups of frequencies that have a distinct shape. When a sound is electronically amplified or recorded, the shape of the sound is altered because the phase relationship and amplitude of the harmonics are changed.
What the 402 achieves is a realignment of the harmonic and fundamental frequencies to their natural balance, which in essence returns the sound source closer to its original shape.
The processor breaks the frequency spectrum into three groups: the lows, which are delayed about 1.5ms; the midrange, delayed about 0.5ms: and the highs, which are delayed only microseconds. The high frequencies are balanced by a VCA (voltage controlled amplifier) controlled by the midrange material, which helps to maintain a natural balance between the mids and highs. This results in a smooth, even playback, as opposed to the harsher sound of any Aphex-type signal processor.
The above is a simplified explanation of the 402's operation, as told to me by Bob Crooks at BBE, who invented this process. But as an introduction to the way the processor works, it should suffice.
"Unlike an ordinary enhancer, the 402 doesn't work by adding harmonics or synthesising frequencies that have been lost - so no appreciable noise is added to the chain."
Using the 402 is incredibly simple, as there are just two controls that affect the signal. First there's the Process Control knob; at the twelve o'clock position this gives you the sound unaltered, but as soon as you start moving it clockwise, you start to perceive the effect. Second comes a Bass control, which allows you to increase the bass at 50Hz by up to 6dB, or attenuate it by 2dB. This control is provided because often, the added clarity at high frequencies provided by the Barcus-Berry system make it desirable to add a little more lows. There's an In/Out switch with an LED, and four LEDs per channel to indicate how much effect is being used, and if clipping is occurring.
And that's about all there is to the unit. Not surprisingly, you find it takes very little adjustment to get things working properly.
THIS IS THE fun part of writing this review, and I'm not sure where to begin. The first thing I wanted to know was: how does it sound on tape? I have owned recording studios for 12 years now, and am pretty jaded, but as soon as this unit was switched in, I was a fan. The great thing about the 402 is that not only does it work, it works without adding unwanted noise and distortion of its own.
My partner and I set up a mix coming straight from our synths (Kurzweil, DX7, Oberheim Xpander), driven by SmpteMate from an Atari ST. Before we patched the mix through the BBE processor, we thought we had a good, punchy mix. After switching in the processor, we had to readjust the levels to compensate for the added sparkle and clarity. I switched the unit out and it sounded as if pillows had been taped over the speakers.
Believe me, the effect produced by this system is unlike that created by any other signal processor or EQ unit. I was careful to A/B the sound through alternate busses, which completely bypassed the unit, and there was no doubt the BBE processor added more spatial quality, more transients and more clean highs.
Subsequently I made cassette copies using the 402, and barring inherent cassette noise, the tapes sounded better than the unprocessed 1/2-track masters.
I COULD GO on about my personal experiments, but it's best you hear it for yourself. The BBE system works equally well on vocals and acoustic instruments, and has an unbelievable effect on the use of EQ when you have it in the audio chain.
"The unit isn't very forgiving on the enhancement of sampled sounds as you lay them onto tape... It creates so much clarity, loops and quantisation noise in the sound are more apt to be heard."
Note, though, that the 402 is none too forgiving when it comes to the enhancement of sampled sounds as you are laying them onto tape. Because the processor creates so much clarity, loops in the sound are more apt to be heard, as is quantisation noise.
For me, the best applications for this machine lie between the mixing console and your mixdown machine, and for enhancing copies of a final mix. The effect transfers beautifully to tape, and eliminates the need for radical use of additional EQ.
But the 402 should be of great benefit for the live performer, too. It'll work superbly for guitarists and keyboardists who want to restore that wonderful sound they got in the studio, and it'll also make mixes through a live sound system more flexible and clear, as well as cleaning upstage monitoring. In essence, what you're getting is electronic time alignment without having to muck about with the speakers.
Once you've heard any of the Barcus-Berry work on a record, tape or CD, you'll probably want one in your hi-fi system, too. During the test period, we heard things on a Prince Purple Rain cassette that we did not even know existed. Who knows? Maybe there'll come a time when this sort of processor will be built in to amplifiers. I may sound like I am going on, but this is the first black box that actually helped make my music sound the way that I knew it should.
So, BBE 402 is a must for any musician looking for a state-of-the-art amplification system. It's a compact rack-mount unit, and once it is set, you probably won't have any reason to readjust it.
I have had the BBE 402 for just a short time, but already, there is no way that I could imagine recording or mixing without it. It's as simple as that.
Review by Geoff Levin
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!