Thursday, October 18, 2012

BBE 882i Sonic Maximizer Review


I have heard plenty of hate for BBE Sonic Maximizers over the years, and I am picking up what you are putting down. But…I have one in my rack, and so do a lot of other people. What is the deal? I thought I would try to explain this with my review of the BBE 882i Sonic Maximizer, but keep in mind that I am a musician and a sound guy, not a scientist.

For starters, what do people expect this thing to do? They think it will be a magic tool that will make anything sound better: live music, pre-recorded music, individual instruments, recording and mixing. Remember Studio Magic from that episode of The Simpsons? That is how these processors are hyped by those that love them, and BBE touts many of these benefits as well. And they can deliver on many of these promises, at least to some degree.

But what is a sonic maximizer? It is not an aural exciter because it is not synthesizing new sounds, rather it is changing the phase of the input signals and then limiting them. Effectively this makes the bass boomier and the treble more sizzly. Or something like that. It is like having a distortion box and a compressor pedal all in one unit with almost no controls.

From my research, this appears to be a relatively simple analog process that can dynamically boost the treble based on how much midrange energy is in the input signal. The signal chain includes an input buffer that is routed to a level detector, as well as to the low, mid and high bands. The user can regulate the phase controlled treble frequencies with "Process" knob and the phase controlled bass frequencies with the "Lo Contour" knob. Then all three of these signals are mixed in a summing amplifier and routed to the output. The maximum boost adjustment will be +12dBu at 5kHz for the Process knob, and +12dBu 50Hz for the Lo Contour knob. Or knobs in this case, as we are talking about the 882i, which is a dual-mono unit.

The 882i has simple inputs/outputs and controls. On the back there are balanced XLR and ¼-inch TRS ports for the inputs and outputs for both channels. On the front there is a power switch, a bypass switch, Lo Contour and Process knobs for each channel, and sets of level LEDs for each channel. That is it. If you cannot figure out how to hook this thing up and use it, you have chosen the wrong hobby or business.

BBE Sonic Maximizers are almost universally reviled on guitar forums. Guitarists complain that they are tone sucks and a waste of money. I am not going to argue with them, and would not put one of these in my guitar rig because it would alter my tone. A decent equalizer will provide many of the same benefits without changing the tone.

These units can help in the studio to somewhat make up for poor microphone placement and production. They can make bad recordings sound surprisingly good, and can really perk up the drum tracks. But they can make the instruments sound unnatural. I would only use one in the studio as a last resort.

But the Sonic Maximizer comes into its own for live performances. It can make the bass guitar and vocals (especially female vocals) cut through the mix better. Sounds that are dulled by playing outdoors or in bad rooms can really be perked up. But again, be careful how much you dial this thing up because it can get out of hand pretty quickly.

But in my opinion, the best use of the Sonic Maximizer is when playing pre-recorded music through a PA system. This is especially true when you are doing DJ work and somebody hands you an iPod or a CD that they ripped and it just sounds terrible. There is a lot of magic in adding in a little delay and compression, and it will make these recordings sound the best they can. And DJs, if you do not believe me, read this next sentence:


Everybody and their brother wants their DJ system to sound like the PA at a strip club.

But I must warn you one last time, if you overdo it, it will kill your tone and headroom. Keep comparing the tone with the bypass ON and OFF to make sure you are not getting too far off into the woods. It is entirely possible to make your mix sound way worse with this thing.

I use mine through the AUX effects loop on my Yamaha mixers, so I use the ¼-inch TRS jacks. Then I send the regular stereo out to my powered QSC K12 or Mackie Thump speakers. Set-up does not get much easier than this. I have had great luck with the Sonic Maximizer, and I will not go to a gig without it.

The 882i I got is nicely made, and the knobs have a nice feel to them. It only takes up one rack space, and it is not a very deep unit, so I can put it under my Furman and still have the wall warts fit on the back. I have not had any troubles it and do not anticipate any difficulties, but if I do BBE backs it up with a 5-year warranty. That provides a little peace of mind.

The BBE 882i Sonic Maximizer has a ridiculous list price of $499, and a friendlier street price of $249. I checked Amazon and they are selling them for $169, which is a smoking deal, and brings them into the realm of affordability for most of us. Check one out if you get a chance, but make sure you understand what you are getting, and don’t overdo it.