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JoeCo BBR1 Black Box Recorder
Multitrack hard-disk recorder
Published in PM January 2010
Reviews : Multitrack Recorder
From the founder of computer recording pioneers SADiE comes this compact multitrack recorder, which aims to make the process of capturing live performances easier than ever before.
As one of the plucky British pioneers of digital recording, Joe Bull, the eponymous Joe in JoeCo, is no stranger to this realm. Following the passing into new ownership of the company that he founded some 20 years ago, Joe has returned to the fray with the BBR1 Black Box Recorder — a 24-channel, rackmount multitrack capture device, aimed specifically at the live performance market, that records to (and replays audio from) an external USB 2.0 hard-disk drive.
Were now all well used to multi-channel interfaces that function as inputs to computer-based recording systems, and multitrack hard-disk recorders with internal drives. With the BBR1 Black Box, JoeCo have taken the unusual steps of both removing the computer from the equation and of leaving the hard drive outside the box.
Whats in the box?
Fittingly, the 1U Black Box Recorder turns up in a black box — a nice, typically Joe Bull touch. Nestling within youll find the recorder, a set of cables to interface it to your mixing consoles insert points, and a non-latching wall-wart power supply. A Quick Start guide and a more comprehensive manual complete the package.
The Black Boxs rear panel carries all the necessary input, output and control connectors. The review model carries its 24 channels of unbalanced analogue I/O on a single row of three 25-way D-sub connectors (as do the BBR1-A and BBR1-D variations). The unbalanced cables supplied with the BBR1 are terminated with stereo TRS jacks that connect the recorder to a consoles insert points. Inside the BBR1, relays route the audio signals from input to output so that, in the event of a power failure on the BBR1 (remember that non-latching wall-wart?) you dont lose audio.
The BBR1-B balanced analogue variant uses the lower D-sub row as balanced inputs and adds an upper D-sub row to carry its balanced outputs. The final analogue connector is a stereo TRS jack that carries the headphone output.
Of the models that add digital I/O, the BBR1-A carries three normal eight-channel ADAT lightpipe connectors, and the BBR1-D runs AES/EBU on the upper D-subs. The BBR1 also has a row of three-pole jacks that allows you to insert external processing into channels 17-24, but these are disabled on all other versions.
External control comes not only in the form of a MIDI connector that will accept MIDI timecode (MTC) and machine control commands (MMC), but also in the shape of a Sony nine-pin control interface and a stereo jack that accepts either timecode (LTC) or a record start/stop footswitch. Finally there is a PS-2 keyboard connector for track naming, the USB 2.0 HDD interface and a pair of RCA phono connectors that accept and pass through an external AES or S/PDIF word clock. The BBR can only act as a slave and has no ability to generate timecode or to output its own word clock.
The front panel is where youll spend all of your time, and it packs a lot of information into a relatively small space. On its left youll find the metering section. Three rows of LEDs (red, yellow and green, from top to bottom) give you an idea of the signal levels, and these sit atop a row of green/red LEDs that show a tracks Playback/Record Arm status. There are also indicators for HDD activity and the Playback Lockout status, which shields you from the certain embarrassment of accidentally entering playback during the gig — unless youre working with a playback act, where the obverse would be true.
Next to this section lies the natty, blue-lit JoeCo logo and the similarly illuminated data wheel, which doesnt move, simply responding to your touch. This wheel is followed by a row of switches sitting above a row of transport controls. These switches are all touch sensitive and you simply have to place your finger on them. The upper row carries the Back, Mark, Loop and Menu/OK functions, and the lower row has the usual Play, Stop and Record layout. Fast Forward and Rewind are accessed by holding down the Stop button and turning the data wheel in the appropriate direction. The BBR1 front panel is completed by an extremely readable, multi-colour LCD screen that displays recorder status information and also allows you to navigate through the BBR1s extensive menus.
The BBR1 boots up in Status Display and in Record Ready modes. In Record mode, the display colour is essentially red and in play mode it turns to green. Information displayed includes song name, mode confirmation (useful if, like a friend of mine, youre completely red/green colourblind), song time position, remaining drive/song time, sample rate and bit depth, drive status, song folder name plus local date and time. Pressing the Menu button gets you into the Main Menu, from whence you can not only select folders, songs and playback lockout, but also plunge into the depths of the BBR1s operating parameters.
Assuming that youve done all thats required to set up the BBR1 to your requirements, hooking it up to record from your mixer is simplicity itself. Connect the HDD to the recorder, add power, connect the D-subs to your consoles insert points, adjust the mic amp gain to give the occasional flash of red LED and press Record. If you want to start a new song, press Record again. Thats it — simple and perfect!
Of course, what the BBR1 does isnt exactly simple. On power up it checks the date and creates a new folder with the date as its title, into which it will record all of that days songs, even if you power it down when taking a break. On recording, each track gets its own time-stamped Broadcast WAV file, with the format nnn:tt, where nnn is the song number and tt is the track number. By using an external PS-2 keyboard you can then rename the song to reflect the actual title, however the BBR1 keeps the nnn:tt section intact. Additionally, you can name the individual tracks, and this name is appended to the song name so that youll end up with a complete track name format something like 001-14.Over the Waterfall-Guitar Ambient Mic.WAV.
Monitoring during recording is accomplished using headphones plugged into the rear of the unit (slightly bizarre for something thats going to live in a flightcase), and you can monitor a rough mix of all tracks — odds right, evens left — or any odd/even pair. The headphone signal is routed through an automatic gain control (AGC) so that quiet sounds can be heard as easily as loud ones during the gig. The amount of AGC applied is set in the setup menu. Im not going to go through every line of the setup menus, but it is worth mentioning a few salient points.
Broadcast WAV files can accept a timestamp that marks the time of the first sample in the file, and this is used to help re-sync your track files once youve loaded them into your DAW for mixing. The BBR1 allows you to choose your timestamp from either the internal clocks time of day or from incoming LTC or MTC timecode. This facility comes into its own if youre recording a gig for film or video shoots (where youll typically be running to their LTC), or if youre recording a gig that incorporates sequenced backing tracks. However, do bear in mind that youll need a continuous incoming timecode feed as the BBR1 doesnt have an internal timecode generator and therefore cant jam-sync.
If youre working with a digital BBR1 then youll need to be careful over the choice of its reference clock source. The reference clock can be the BBR1s internal clock or the clock from either an external AES or S/PDIF, or from one of the incoming digital signals from the BBR1s digital board. Personally, Id always sync the entire digital system to a master word clock. However, as the BBR1 doesnt accept an incoming master word clock, Id look to use a digital signal from the mixing console to sync to, since the console is usually the nominal master audio clock.
Sample rates supported are 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz, with 16-bit or 24-bit resolutions.
The BBR1 can monitor its input signals in one of two modes when recording. In Relay mode the track signals pass from input to output via closed relays, which in effect means that the BBR1 input signal is paralleled off from the insert point. If youre monitoring in E-to-E mode (ie. post digital processing), for example if youve connected the BBR1 in line with a theatre consoles matrix outputs, the signal from the console enters the BBR1, passes through its A-D converters, DSP and D-A converters before being passed to its outputs. In this case the relays are open, but if the power to the BBR1 fails, the relays revert to their closed state so that you never lose audio from the console.
Of course, there are times when either 24 tracks are not enough or you have to be able to make a backup recording for that unrepeatable live gig. In this case you can lock up to four BBR1s together to give you a maximum of 96 channels at 96kHz/24-bit, so that you could record 48 tracks with full backup. Naturally, youd have to ensure that all four units were receiving the same clock and timecode sources so that DAW transfer wouldnt cause any problems, but other than that you shouldnt have anything else to worry about — other than pressing record at the right time.
Working with the Box
One tip — if you own a PC laptop running Vista dont, whatever you do, get to a weekend gig in the wilds of the Quantock Hills (where 3G mobile broadband cannot be found) with a brand-new, 500GB, NTFS-formatted HDD, safe in the ignorance that a couple of minutes wait will give you the necessary FAT32 formatted drive for the BBR1. I found out the hard way that Vista doesnt support FAT32.
However, once youve got the drive correctly formatted, life is a breeze — more or less. The three nice, colour-coded, eight-channel D-sub looms linking the console insert points to the BBR1 are all well and good, but Id have appreciated a bit of numbering help. However, now that I know the colour cadence, my living is again easy. Once plugged up and line-checked, tweaking mic and line gains to optimise levels into the BBR1 is a simple enough process to get through as part of your soundcheck.
In use via the insert points, the BBR1 is entirely transparent — as youd expect, since it is basically bypassed as far as the console is concerned. When replaying recordings through the console and PA, I couldnt hear any difference between the replay and the live sound. Back in the studio with the files loaded into my DAW, any limitations that I heard were down to the mic preamps in the analogue console that Id used on the gig, and not the BBR1 itself. Loading the Broadcast WAV files from the BBR1 into the DAW presented absolutely no problems whatsoever and all locked up perfectly.
As well as its obvious live recording uses, there is another killer application for the BBR1, and that is virtual soundchecks. For those of us who regularly engineer for one band (or several bands), one live recording of the band and a careful note of input gain settings and monitor send levels means that system soundchecks can be done without the band being present, thus avoiding all those exciting moments when the band tires of waiting around and starts to throw their toys out of their particular prams.
You could also use the BBR1 to record backing tracks in the studio, replay them during the gig, perform over the top and record your efforts. If you want to go back to old-school recording where you cant edit on the multitrack but have to play the song all the way through, then the BBR1 will give you this as a function. However you cant do drop-ins, as the BBR1 has a great safety feature. Although recording starts instantly, to stop recording the stop button has to be held for two seconds, which is absolutely perfect for live use, but pretty useless if youre trying to fix one note in a solo.
However, I think that if JoeCo were to release a BBR1 MK2 with the additional function of gapless drop-in/drop-out, then they might start a fashion for recording and overdubbing with the band set up as at a live gig on stage, rather than in the always artificial environment of a studio. This could then spawn the entirely new industry of acoustic treatment for church, village and town halls, resulting in better-sounding gigs and recordings (a Google search for “village hall” returned 65 pages of unique results!).
Since bands nowadays seem to make bigger and bigger proportions of their income from live gigs and merchandising sales, the JoeCo BBR1 Black Box digital recorder is the right unit in the right place at the right time. It gives any PA engineer who works on a desk fitted with analogue inserts the ability to offer his employers digital live recording and virtual soundchecking. The fact that the feature set of the BBR1 is optimised for the live market means that it can be used with absolute confidence even on the most critical gigs.
I cant think of a single substantive reason to fault the JoeCo BBR1 Black Box recorder at the tasks that it has been designed to carry out. If you want to record gigs live, the BBR1 is probably the most practical solution currently out there. I know that I want one. 0
Published in PM January 2010
JoeCo BBR1 Black Box Recorder £2044
Probably the most practical solution for live gig recording out there, the JoeCo BBR-1 Black Box Recorder is aimed specifically at the live market, and its feature set has been optimised to fit the demands of the task at hand. The BBR-1 also gives the engineer and band the facility to do virtual soundchecks, which can save the engineer great grief and give the band additional time in bed or at the bar. If youre into live multitrack recording and looking for a recorder to take on the road, then the BBR-1 should be at the top of your list. I know that its at the top of mine.
19-inch rack, 1U 24-track hard-disk recorder.
Records to external USB 2.0 hard disk (not supplied).
24 inputs via D-sub (terminated in TRS plugs for console insert points).
Loop-through insert points for channels 17 - 24.
Stereo headphone output.
External clock input and through output.
LTC timecode/footswitch input jack.
PS-2 keyboard socket.
Sample rates supported: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz.
Analogue input and output level switchable between -10dBV and +4dBu.
Maximum input and output levels: +20dBU.
A-D/D-A conversion: 24-bit, 96kHz.
THD + N: 96dB input, 94dB output (A-weighted @ 48kHz).
Timecode frame rates: 24, 25, 29.97 (drop and non-drop), 30fps (trigger only, no chase).
DC input: 7.5V - 15V.
Power consumption: <25W.
Dimensions (WDH): 425 x 150 x 44.4mm.
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