Take it to the Max!
BBE Sonic Maximiser
Modular mix enhancement
The world is awash with signal processors claiming to add sparkle to even the dullest of mixes, but few are as instantly satisfying, or as affordable, as the BBE 362NR Sonic Maximiser. Ian Masterson finds uses for it in club, hall, and studio
Don't ask me why, but there is undoubtedly an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding audio enhancement units. Sonic Maximisers, Aural Exciters, Audio Vitalizers... trademarks abound to describe electronic processors which seem, almost magically, to take a previously dull and ordinary mix and turn it into one laden with sparkling cymbals, smooth bass, crisp vocals, and engaging synth or guitar riffs. But intrigue or no intrigue, such devices seem to add to a homespun mix the punch normally associated with recordings made in expensive commercial studios with vast banks of signal processing.
How do they do it? No-one is entirely sure. The theory and circuitry vary considerably between manufacturers, and in any case, all the designs are closely-guarded secrets. What we do know is that each audio enhancer works slightly differently, with different consequences for your sound, and different sets of advantages or disadvantages.
Barcus Berry Electronics (BBE to you) threw their cap into the enhancement ring several years ago with the launch of their first 'Sonic Maximiser' units to employ a new type of processing.
Essentially, the approach is one of dealing with phase and amplitude distortion. Loudspeakers, as electro-mechanical devices, have problems dealing with the electronic signals supplied by an amplifier - to the point where phase and amplitude are distorted, affecting the original source signal. BBE pointed out that the information which a listener translates into the recognisable characteristics of a musical performance is directly tied into complex time and amplitude relationships between the fundamental and harmonic components of a particular musical note or sound. These relationships define the all-important 'character' of a sound, but when they are passed through a loudspeaker, the relationships become fragmented. In the end, the fundamental components of a sound may be so time-shifted that they reach the listener's ear ahead of some (or even all) of the harmonic component, resulting in a 'muddy' or 'smeared' sound.
The results of BBE's research into phase and amplitude distortion were the development of electronic circuitry designed to compensate in advance for the inefficiency of your loudspeaker system. The final process was so unique that it was awarded 42 separate patents in the USA - and the first units so successful that they attracted a legion of followers, from record producers to live sound engineers and DJs.
The 362NR is the latest embodiment of BBE knowhow. Offering all the technology in a more cost-effective and user-friendly package, with the addition of a simple noise reduction system, the 362NR is aimed at anyone working on a tight budget who doesn't want to compromise the quality of their mixing.
First the basics. A 1U high, black, 19" rack-mounting box; four rotary controls, two LEDs, two buttons and a power switch; -10dBu inputs and outputs on phono and unbalanced quarter-inch jack sockets; plus an integral mains power supply with captive lead. Physically, at least, the 362NR is deceptively anonymous. The construction might not be up to that of its bigger brothers - the rotary controls in particular have been reduced to more mundane plastic affairs, as opposed to anodised aluminium - but these and other cost-cutting measures are only to be expected.
The extremely thorough instruction manual includes several suggestions as to how best to connect the unit to your system, depending on the application you have in mind.
If you're working with a large mixing desk live or in the studio, your best bet is to hook the BBE into the inserts on your master channel strip, so that any sound you mix is processed before reaching the studio monitors, PA cabs, or mastering machines. Using the 362NR is rather like using a compressor or noise gate; all the sound you put through it has to be processed, so there's little point in trying to connect it to normal auxiliary sends or returns.
If you're a DJ, send the main outputs of your desk through the BBE before they reach your amplification system. Since the inputs and outputs are -10dBu and unbalanced, it's obvious that this unit is aimed firmly at the amateur and semi-pro user; most purchasers of the 362NR will find it easier to interface with phonos or quarter-inch jacks than balanced XLR connectors.
"No money for a crossover and separate bass or top cabs? Get yourself a 362NR"
The 362NR is two-channel in operation, so it has no problem handling either stereo or mono signals. But it works much better in the context of a stereo mix. The two channels, although discrete internally, are ganged together on the front-panel rotaries, so it isn't possible to process two channels of audio separately.
All the 'Sonic Maximisation' circuitry is controlled by two rotaries and an In/Out switch (for comparison of an effected signal with the dry original).
The first rotary governs the low contour of the processed sound, or the amount of phase-corrected low frequencies introduced to the program material. In other words, this is the knob that adds serious pump, along with smooth-rolling bass, to your mix without shattering your loudspeaker cones.
The second rotary ('Process') controls the level of phase-corrected high frequencies in your signal - making your saxes sparkle, your synths shimmer, your strings swoop, your shakuhachi sexy, your shakers slick, your snares snappy... (that's quite enough of that, thank you - Ed.)
On the noise-reduction front, each channel shares a common Threshold control that sets the level at which noise reduction begins. When the control is at a minimum, the noise-reduction circuit is removing the greatest amount of unwanted noise - generally 'hiss'. This has the side-effect of cutting the normal high-frequency content of the signal, so should be used with great caution.
A further control governs the speed at which the noise-detection circuit 'releases', and under most situations this would be set to fast, unless pumping or breathing effects become noticeable in the final mix.
With all audio enhancers, the crucial factor in getting a decent sound is restraint. The magic of units such as the 362NR is all too deceptive when you first hear it, and the temptation to crank as much as possible out of it can be irresistible. The same applies to the noise-reduction section: over-emphasis here could kill the dynamics of your music.
It's also tempting to leave the unit permanently active during recording and mixing - don't. Only switch it on after you've mixed your track at the desk, or the instruments will end up being over-EQ'd, out of proportion, and weak in the stereo image. Your mix has to be perfected before you apply the wonder of the 362NR - the BBE system, no matter how miraculous, cannot polish a turd.
"Trying to bang the supplied plug into a 13A socket is plain dangerous"
But when you do switch it on - with restraint - you'll be blown away. The difference a unit such as this can make to any mix is invaluable. To prove this, I tested the 362NR with a selection of my favourite tracks from CD and vinyl, and it really did show the lameness of some of the mixes done in 'professional' recording studios. Similarly, when mixing 12" vinyl through a mobile PA system, the unit so improved the bass and midrange definition that I could have sworn my JBL M-Series speakers had turned into a complete three-channel amplification system. No money for a crossover and separate bass or top cabs? Get yourself a 362NR.
Similarly, the noise-reduction circuit, while deceptively simple to operate, can make a vast difference in terms of reducing the hiss from a noisy mixer, effects processor, or synth. In particular, I found myself using the 362NR to clean up sounds before sampling them into my Akai S3000. It's quick, it's convenient, and it's cheap.
Gripes? Well the construction, as mentioned, is perfectly sound, even if the aesthetics are a little less glamorous than previous BBE releases. But balanced quarter-inch jacks might have been a happy compromise (particularly for the live sound engineer), instead of leaving balanced facilities off altogether, which is what BBE have done. Also, the clipping LEDs apply only to the output from the unit; clipping indicators on the input as well would greatly aid level-setting.
More seriously, the captive mains lead comes supplied with one of those horrible Euro-style moulded plugs, which has to be cut off and replaced with a 13A plug by the UK user - simply trying to bang the supplied plug into a 13A socket is plain dangerous, since the unit has to be earthed. If BBE had opted for a separate mains lead joined by an IEC connector they could have supplied 13A moulded leads for the UK market. (This is something more and more manufacturers are starting to do now, and extremely welcome it is, too.)
BBE are far from alone in this crowded and highly competitive market. Aphex make the Aural Exciter series, SPL the Vitalizers, dbx the 120X, Perfect Pitch the Francinstien... all of which attempt much the same sort of task, albeit in different ways - not to mention at different prices. To be honest. I'd say choosing any one of these is largely a matter of personal preference versus a particular application and budget.
With my DJ or sampling cap on, I'd be delighted to go for the 362NR. If I was mixing in a commercial studio, I'd maybe go for the more 'professional' options offered on a larger BBE, an SPL, or the Francinstien. If I was concentrating on adding shine to a lacklustre vocal or instrumental performance, I'd opt for the Aphex series. But these are only personal predilections - doubtless your own requirements will lead you in a different direction.
No matter which path you intend to follow, though, make sure you give the 362NR the once-over. In the field of signal processing, value for money doesn't come much better than this.
Price: £320 inc VAT
More from: Music Audio Distribution, (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Masterson
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