Technology

JoeCo BlackBox Recorder Review

FEATURE-PACKED, 24-CHANNEL LIVE-CAPTURE SOLUTION 7/27/2010 10:40 AM Eastern

The BlackBox features record/playback of 24 channels, 9-pin and MMC control, and SMPTE sync.

JoeCo is a new startup founded by Joe Bull, who founded SADiE, the UK-based company that offers high-end DAW solutions for music, post, broadcast and mastering. When SADiE was purchased by Prism Sound last year, Bull moved on to produce the BlackBox recorder, the first new product released under the JoeCo banner. The single-rackspace, 4.5-pound unit comes in four versions: the BBR1 with unbalanced I/O; BBR-B with balanced I/O (reviewed here); BBR-A with ADAT I/O; and the BBR-D with digital I/O. The BlackBox records to any external FAT-32 formatted-USB 2 drive operating at least at 7,200 rpm, making it easy and affordable to purchase storage.

The unit is designed to work across a variety of applications. For instance, you can use the BlackBox as a zero-latency “thru” recorder where input is fed instantly to the output across the insert of a console. This way, even if power to the BlackBox fails, you still have output. You can also feed the D/A converters to the outputs so that you can use an existing recording for soundcheck. The box can be controlled via MIDI (MMC) or 9-pin, and can slave to existing SMPTE or clock itself internally. Whenever you push Record, tracks are recorded in BWF and are stamped with the date and time in an auto-named folder on the drive. You can rename items after the session or by using a keyboard plugged into the unit’s PS2 port.

The maximum sample rate is 24-bit/96kHz, and all but the BBR-1A record up to 24 tracks at that rate. The BlackBox with ADAT I/O drops back to 12 channels at 96 kHz because of the limitations of the Lightpipe interface in SMUX 2 mode. If you need more than 24 channels, you can chain multiple units and run them from a single interface.

DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE
Right off the bat, the BlackBox requires some explanation: It isn’t a punch-in/punch-out studio recorder; instead, it is a simple capture box for recording a live performance. And although the BlackBox looks simple, behind the curtain is a range of features that makes it a real contender for those wanting minimum haul and maximum results.

The front of the box is rich with visual feedback. It offers 3-segment confidence meters with a selectable sticky-peak feature and separate LEDs for indicating record arming, disk activity and playback lockout. An easily readable, color LCD offers a large timecode display, menu options, date/time, sample rate and more. The unit also has large Record, Stop and Play buttons; a scroll wheel for navigation; and Back, Mark, Loop and Menu/OK buttons.

All buttons have no moving parts and are designed to last. However, this is a bit disconcerting because the buttons are capacitance- sensitive and trigger easily, even within close proximity. This takes a bit of getting used to; more than once, I accidentally triggered Record or another menu feature until I got the hang of it. Speaking of menus, they are well laid out, intuitive and easy to navigate once you’re familiar with the buttons.

The back of the box is loaded with I/O and control options. The BBR-A offers 24 channels of balanced I/O on six D-Sub connectors (Tascam format), external clock I/O (RCA), 9-pin control port, PS2 keyboard port, MIDI input, DC power in (wall wart), headphone out, USB 2 drive port and a double-duty LTC/footswitch input for remote record/mark or external time code input.

SMART OPERATOR
The BlackBox has a number of smart fail-safe features designed to shield you from catastrophic events such as accidental playback during performance or hitting the Stop button by chance. The unit defaults to playback lockout, and to exit Record you must hold the Stop button for two seconds. It also makes it hard to screw up a recording. For instance, I intentionally pulled the power to the BlackBox during a recording. Upon reboot, I found that the files existed on the drive up until the time I pulled the plug. Also, there is no menu feature allowing you to delete files. At first I found this inconvenient, but as I got into using the unit, I liked the fact that neither I, nor others, could easily erase files accidentally in the field. Instead, I had to plug the drive into my laptop and audition, erase or export them that way. Speaking of exporting, with its cross-platform FAT-32 format, it’s a simple matter to drag and drop the files into any PC/Mac DAW when production moves to editing and mixing. For more tech info, be sure to view the BlackBox bench tests that incorporate an APx500 test and measurement system in the “Mixed Media” section at mixonline.com.

GREAT IN THE FIELD
My first gig was a live recording of a concert in a large church that featured a grand piano and saxophone (read more about it on Mix’s “Tech Ticker” blog). I needed only eight inputs so I decided to run at the maximum sample rate of 24-bit/96kHz. Before the gig, I armed the tracks I needed and set the sample rate and other needed parameters, and then unplugged the unit for the trip to the venue. When I got there and powered up, all of my settings came up instantly and I was ready to go.

The concert was slated to run 90 minutes, but because it was in an improvisational format, I had no real idea how long it might run. This was no problem as a quick glance at the Remaining Disk readout on the LCD screen assured me that I had more than enough recording time. Once I hit Record, the button went red, SMPTE started running and a ring of lights ran clockwise around the scroll wheel. This offered me plenty of confidence in the system and was easily viewable from my seat in the venue. As an aside, I had hooked up the Millennia HV-3R preamps with a wireless router so I could view and manipulate my levels on larger meters, group tracks and even apply phantom power from my seat in the front row. The recording went smoothly and the tracks sounded great. In addition to the BlackBox, I also had an on-site backup recorder as there’s no facility onboard for redundant recording. However, the BlackBox was recently tested with Glyph’s GT 062E RAID-configurable two-bay drive, making it easy to take a simple and trustworthy recording solution on the road.

The next application was in a live sound venue with a band where 16 channels were recorded during two live performances. Once again, the tracks sounded great and the unit operated without a hiccup.

READY AND ABLE
The BlackBox is a unique tool for capturing great-sounding live recordings and was easy to operate once I got through its quirks. Its easily triggered buttons were troublesome at first, but once I figured them out, I found it easy to navigate and choose menu options. I’m not crazy about the wall wart, but if the power supply should go, it would be an easy matter to switch to a spare without popping the hood. I do think that a Locking function on the DC power input would provide confidence that the plug won’t be accidentally pulled; in fact, JoeCo notified us during fact-check that production units now feature a small lug to tie down the power inlet.

I really liked the visual confirmations that the unit was recording. The front panel displays redundant assurances that you’re in Record mode. After the gig, it was a snap to take the files off the drive for backup and export them to my DAW.

If you’re looking for a first- or second-line recorder for live sound, I strongly recommend the BlackBox. It’s affordable, reliable, sounds great and makes it easy to have confidence in the field.


Kevin Becka is the technical editor of Mix.

Click on the Product Summary box above to view the BlackBox Recorder product page.

Click on the Product Summary box above to view the BlackBox Recorder product page.

APx500 bench tests performed on the JoeCo BlackBox recorder

Crosstalk between adjacent channels was a very low -94 dB

Crosstalk between adjacent channels was a very low -94 dB

Frequency response at 96kHz/24-bit was dead flat out to 45 kHz

Frequency response at 96kHz/24-bit was dead flat out to 45 kHz

Signal-to-Noise ratio just below clipping was over 89 dBm

Signal-to-Noise ratio just below clipping was over 89 dBm

THD at nominal level was 0.014 percent or better

THD at nominal level was 0.014 percent or better

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