Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is the BBE Sonic Maximizer Hi-Fi?

Manufactured during the mid 1980s supposedly as a means to “transcend” the limitations of hi-fi speakers at that time, does the BBE Sonic Maximizer qualifies back then – and now – as hi-fi?

By: Ringo Bones

Now (as in 2009) derided by hardcore audiophiles and “soulful” electric guitar players, I did remember during my high-school days – i.e. the mid 1980s – that a black box with the letters BBE was both revered and coveted in domestic hi-fi circles in my neck of the woods. To the uninitiated – and those who have already forgotten – here’s a refresher of that used to be wonderful black-box known as the BBE Sonic Maximizer.

The letters BBE stands for Barcus-Berry Entertainment Incorporated – later called BBE Sound Inc. when they’re “iconic” black-box / audio processor that became widely used and endorsed by Heavy Metal musicians during the “Hair Metal” era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The company is located at Huntington Beach, California. Around the middle of the 1980s, BBE Sonic Maximizers began to be widely used for audio recording, motion picture sound tracks, TV and radio broadcasting, and motion picture theatre sound systems. According to the audio processor’s creators, BBE Sonic Maximizers were primarily designed to improve the sonic clarity of virtually any reproduced sound by correcting / compensating for phase and amplitude distortions produced as your typical power amplifier drives a typical loudspeaker system.

My first hand experience of this device was back in 1987 when a rich high-school classmate with similar musical tastes as me got one from his dad while working in the US. It was the Barcus-Berry BBE Model 2002 signal processor, which sold around 500 US dollars at the time. The BBE signal processor was meant to be installed between the signal source(s) – we only had a cassette tape deck and a Technics Quartz Synth tuner at the time – and the power amplifier.

Though my memories of that particular BBE Sonic Maximizer was now somewhat hazy, I can still vividly remember that we often played a track called Digital Bitch by W.A.S.P. (We Are Sexual Perverts?) at the time - Unforgettable because Chris Holmes, Blackie Lawless and the rest of the band probably foresaw the rise of Paris Hilton and her famous antics on the Internet. And as one of the few Heavy Metal bands who gained a strong following in the Punk community – my high-school classmate was actually into Punk / New Wave at the time – W.A.S.P. gained fame (or is it notoriety?) in both camps. Rumor has it that W.A.S.P. were “discovered” by Ed McMahon during the first season of Star Search.

From my present perspective – being my present hi-fi set-up is composed mainly of Electro-Harmonix vacuum tube-equipped and high-speed wide-band solid state exotica. All I can say is that the BBE Sonic Maximizer is nothing more than a “lazy-EQ”. I mean it is just an adjustable Loudness controller on steroids – though I am not denying that it is not useful. Given that at the time, we can rarely crank up our hi-fi sets to “unamplified / no PA system” garage band sound levels. Those rare occations when we can play as loud as possible during my high-school days is usually reserved for band practice.

When you can only play your hi-fi below the actual sound pressure level the music was originally recorded, Loudness and other EQ / tone controls to compensate the Fletcher-Munson Equal Loudness Contour Curves inherent to how our ears perceive airborne sound. To my ears – back then as it is now (2009) – BBE Sonic Maximizers boosts the bass and treble frequencies of the audio signal, depending on how much it’s “process” knob is being cranked.

First impressions on using the BBE Sonic Maximizer usually results in “clarity” – i.e. the boosting of the high-frequency signals usually around 2-KHz to 3-KHz upwards. And this is why many novice hi-fi enthusiasts during the early 1990s who can only afford mass market mini component boom boxes to listen to their copies of Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana became concerned over “tweeter failure”. Especially when the tweeters of their BBE-equipped boom boxes (which became commonly widespread around 1992) heats up when playing the iconic “Seattle Grunge” album that features very distorted electric guitar sound with boosted high-frequencies.

Due to its endorsement and use by top musicians, like Megadeth and Skid Row – guitarists Dave “The Snake” Sabo and Scotti Hill were known to use one - during the early 1990s. The folks at BBE Sound Inc. created a BBE Sonic Maximizer plug-in for PC-based recording, which started to gain popularity during the late 1990s. For domestic hi-fi use, the BBE Sonic Maximizer works very well with budget cassette tape decks that don’t carry the Nakamichi badge to make them sound more “natural”. BBE Sonic Maximizers also works very well to "improve" (...or is that to flatter?) the “sound quality” of FM stations that are seriously addicted to those OPTIMOD compressors. And data reduced digital music downloads like MP3s. But if it is up to me, I would rather use the vacuum tube-based Pultec Model EQP-1R studio equalizer. This vintage studio equalizer - probably dating back to The Beatles era Abbey Road Studios - has 12RX7 and 12RU7 preamplifier vacuum tubes that can put to shame the BBE in sound quality terms.

Unfortunately, BBE Sonic Maximizers are an anathema to vacuum tube hi-fi aficionados and “soulful” electric guitar players because they tend to make their gear sound like cheap solid state. Like a brand new 10,000-watt audio power amplifier with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of 200 US dollars. Surprisingly, BBE Sonic Maximizers can often be found in pawnshops or other establishments that sell pre-owned music gear somewhere between 50 to 100 US dollars. So it is somewhat a cost-effective way for the curious and uninitiated to experiment – or experience first-hand - what this BBE audio processing brouhaha is all about.


Sherry Rashad said...

Maybe W.A.S.P. (We Are Sexual Perverts?) should wrote "The Ballad of Paris Hilton", reminiscent to that of the Charlotte the Harlot saga of Iron Maiden. To my ears, BBE Sonic Maximizers still do things no ordinary tone control does - increase the apparent spaciousness of the recording space of a recording event. Maybe BBE should have an audiophile grade version of their baby based on Electro-Harmonix 12AX7 preamplifier tubes,
Speaking of bands from the 1980s that sound good on BBE - especially when recorded on cassette tape, have you checked out Storm Troopers of Death a.k.a. S.O.D.? Storm Troopers Of Death is a legendary side project / joke band by Anthrax's Scott Ian and drummer Charlie Benante, Nuclear Assault / Brutal Truth bassist Danny Lilker and M.O.D. singer Billy Milano. Their famous 28 minute underground classic from 1987 Speak English or Die (released by Megaforce) back then sounds absolutely excellent through a BBE Sonic Maximizer.

Angel said...

Wasn't Digital Bitch A Black Sabbath song from their 1983 album Born Again with that iconic "Devil Baby" album cover? The lyrics of Digital Bitch does suggest that it is about Paris Hilton - given that I only heard this song back in 2005.
Though I wasn't yet born during the time of the 1980s when WASP ruled the Hair Metal world, WASP member (lead guitarist?) Blackie Lawless has lately mired himself in controversy for joining the President Obama is the new Adolph Hitler bandwagon. With Blackie Lawless WASP now means We Are Stupid People. I just hope that Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and whoever the hell is running the Aryan Nation embrace Blackie Lawless with open arms. A sentiment that Mr. Lawless was denied during the Reagan Administration.
Speaking of Barcus-Berry-Entertainment's BBE Sonic Maximizer, it does make the high frequencies of your hi-fi sound more spacious - at the expense of making the midband frequencies sounding more solid-state and and more like early 1980s Red Book speck 16-bit 44.1-KHz digital. Most soulful guitarists had been rejecting their BBE Sonic Maximizers for ruining the pristine midband provided by vacuum tube electronics since the early 1990s. You can even pick up BBE Sonic Mazimizer units in most pawnshops that accept electric guitars for less than a hundred dollars.
P.S. Whatever happened to Billy Milano and the rest of S.O.D.? I really love their 1987 Speak English Or Die album. At only 28 minutes long, The Gathering's How To Measure A Planet? instrumental is longer by 32 seconds - and It's only one song! I think Billy Milano's singing style influenced both Björk and Eliza Carthy's singing style.

VaneSSa said...

Most of my audio-buddies who were old enough to experience 1980s Hair Metal often confuse this excellent post Ozzy Osbourne Black Sabbath track - i.e. Digital Bitch - as being something done by W.A.S.P.
Speaking of Blackie Lawless comparing President Barack Obama with Adolph Hitler, I just hope that the other members of W.A.S.P. doesn't share Blackie's racist-leaning point of view. Who knows America's most beloved Über-Aryan Glenn Beck would probably welcome Blackie Lawless with open arms to their fold. And they say that the Richard Butler led Aryan Nation is already been driven to bankruptcy. Unfortunately Aryan Nation America probably lives on as the FOX News Network with Waffen-SS America chapter leader Glenn Beck running the show.
Back to the BBE Sonic Maximizer. Given that it emerged at the time when vacuum tubes were already no longer in production in America - i.e. the 1980s. The famed audio processor's creators probably attempted - I think - to replicate the good old tube sound using solid-state devices. Other audio processors I think that are in direct composition with the BBE Sonic Maximizer at the time was the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C2 (Type C Squared) with Big Bottom supposedly capable of making your 8-inch woofer sound like it's a 15-inch woofer. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your sonic tastes) these devices were superseded by simpler 12AX7 tube based preamplifiers, especially those loaded with Electro-Harmonix sourced tubes from the late 1990s onwards.
P.S. Eliza Carthy's singing style on her Angels and Cigarettes album was / is probably influenced by Billy Milano's singing on that iconic Stormtroopers of Death album Speak English or Die. Eliza Carthy can probably claim her underground / hardcore cred.

Golda said...

One probable factor why US President Barack Obama was awarded "prematurely" with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was probably due to Über-Aryans Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of Tea Party. Comparing Pres. Obama to Adolph Hitler probably offended some Jews in the Nobel Committee.
As for the BBE Sonic Maximizer, it tends to limit the headroom of low-powered tube amps when set to maximum. Sadly, low-powered tube amps is what soulful toned guitar playing is all about, BBE just ruins it. If you can live without it, don't use it.

Ramesh said...

Interesting that so many cheered when George Bush was regularly compared to Hitler, yet its suddenly offensive that its Obama's turn. Both arguments are silly because if either Bush or Obama really was like Hitler, he would have slaughtered all his critics by now.

As to the BBE, I have been using it in my hi-fi system since 1996 and find that I can't do without it. It is especially good on CDs of live recordings. Check out Daniel Vincennes' review and the Ippinkan review on BBE's website.

Ringo said...

Maybe some folks wview this topic somewhat differently from the mainstream. Especially folks who actually experienced being shot with a Browning .50 caliber machine gun or something similar from over a kilometer away by the likes of Waffen-SS leaning Right-Wing nut jobs like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh (a nut job since the Reagan Administration if you'll ask Exene Cervenka and Lydia Lunch).
On the subject of the BBE Sonic Maximizer, I did give it a second go these past few weeks and all I can say is that it works on some situations. Like playing back CDs recorded during the mid 1980s - i.e. Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. But in guitar playing situations, guitar players who are intimately familiar with the warmth and feel of vacuum tubes find that the BBE sonic maximizer more often than not screws up with the vibe of their performance - make that during the actual performance. Some chose to add BBE only during the mixdown / mastering stage.

Sherry Rashad said...

Dear Ramesh,
I only heard about President George W. Bush being compared to Adolph Hitler around February 2008. My husband - even though he thinks that comparing Bush to Hitler is very funny - never heard of it during his duty in Afghanistan for the whole of 2007. While the Obama / Hitler jokes were spreading around US Service Personnel e-mail inboxes in Afghanistan like some Nigerian prince's malware.
On the BBE Sonic Maximizer, I too find that it works on some situations - 1980s era pre-recorded music cassettes - while making tube-based guitar playing sound like cheap solid-state.

VaneSSa said...

Apparently - according to their official website - Barcus Berry Entertainment, Incorporated's origins can be traced back to 1963 when experiments initiated by violinist John Berry and electronics visionary Les Barcus gave birth to the first ever piezo crystal transducer for musical instruments that ultimately lead to the two's invention of the electric violin. They also later invented the first successful piezo transducers for acoustic guitar, piano and concert harp. They also later invented the first commercially marketed active direct box and the first combination strap button / output jack and the first under saddle piezo pickup.