Burl Audio is a company with a unique approach, one that embeds personality into the design. Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., the company makes a range of gear including two 500-Series preamps, a monitor controller, and a 32x2 summing-mixer, but when somebody says “Burl,” you’ll most likely think about converters.
The top of the line reviewed here is the B80 Mothership with up to 80 channels of configurable I/O. If you don’t need such a big rig, Burl has the B16 with 16 configurable I/O, and the B2 D/A converter or B2 A/D converter, each featuring two channels of digital-to-analog, or analog-to-digital conversion, respectively.
The B80 tested here has 24 inputs and 32 outputs, the perfect rig for my tracking days at Blackbird. But you can configure the B80 however you want—all inputs (40), all outputs (up to 64 outputs), or stack a second unit to add more. It all starts with the four-rackspace, 10-slot chassis, which for this review came unloaded except for the BMB1 DigiLink motherboard in slot 11. The BMB1’s eight LEDs show the clock rate (44.1 to 192 kHz), system lock, and power status. Further down is a four-position rotary pot that chooses the clock source (Internal, External, DAW or USB). I used DAW, which allowed Pro Tools to freely change the Burl’s clock rate through the DigiLink connector.
On the back of the BMB1 are two DigiLink primary ports, a wordclock input, two wordclock outputs, an Ethernet control slot for future use, and a 7-pin XLR for power. Not reviewed here but also available is the BMB2 motherboard for MADI. Burl plans on releasing the BMB3 motherboard for Dante, and the BMB4 card with SoundGrid connectivity in the next year. You can also order a 4-channel AES I/O card (BAES4), or a BCLK card with eight wordclock outs, and one AES clock output. The power supply is an external, single-rackspace unit that we kept far away from the audio path. You don’t need a degree from MIT to know that this is the surest way to keep AC power from polluting your audio.
The audio is entirely modular via the BAD4 analog-to-digital or BDA8 digital-to-analog modules placed into the 10 empty slots of the Mothership. The review unit came as parts with six BAD4s and four BDA8 cards that were easily assembled and screwed into their slots. The card with all the electronics slides into the rack from the rear and connects to the front-mounted panel via two simple jumpers. The front panel shows metering with five LEDs on the BAD4: three green, one yellow and one red; and two LEDs for each channel on the BDA8, a green confidence LED and another in red showing overload.
After constructing the unit, it was an easy matter to swap the Burl in and out of existing studio setups. Being that I had a roving unit, I could use the DB-25s straight out of the room’s Pro Tools converter outputs and marry them to my BDA8 cards. The inputs were a bit different, because the BAD4s use four XLR inputs per card. Blackbird Rentals came to the rescue with the right translation cables for the gig. After that, it was just a matter of getting the I/O numbers right, and I was ready to configure my Pro Tools I/O setup. Burl recommends having no more I/Os in your Pro Tools setup than available, so I trashed my ins, outs and buses and built a custom set with 24 ins and 32 outs, exported it to my I/O Settings folder and kept a copy for myself on a jump drive for use in other rooms. Once this was done, everything worked perfectly.
I used the Burl system on four tracking days in two studios at Blackbird. These studios are great sounding rooms and when paired with the mics, players, instruments and other gear, made for a beautiful chain to put the Burl units to the test. The system performed as promised, with the bottom end full on kick drums and toms, with cymbals, room mics, and other tracks sounding full, authentic and diverse in the stereo field.
Jacquire King is a three-time Grammy Award–winning recording engineer/producer whose recent work ranges from Shania Twain, You Me At Six, Guthrie Brown, Kaleo and Foy Vance. He had already been an owner/fan of the Universal Audio 2192 converter for many years and opted in to the Mothership when he was assembling a new DAW setup. I asked him why he chose Burl converters and what they bring to his workflow.
“It sounds a lot closer to what I put into it,” King said. “There was clarity in the top end without the distorted hash in the upper midrange. All converters, for the most part, have gotten better, but the Burls are the best to my ear. The clocking is also fantastic.”
Jacquire’s system is a hybrid using Avid HD I/Os for analog inserts in a session because the delay compensation algorithm is written for those specific units and they do the best job for that purpose. “The Mothership is the main I/O, and if I’m mixing in a hybrid configuration, the outputs are used for some individual outs and stereo stems,” he explained. “I print back through my 2192 and that comes into Pro Tools on the AES input of the Avid converters. When I mix in the box, I’m perfectly happy to monitor the mix print on the Mothership D/A. It sounds perfect.
“I mentioned I was ready to make a switch of my DAW setup and get into a system where my main mixing rig could do high sample rates,” he continued. “I could have the latest software and a more current computer, but I held off because there wasn’t anything that sounded close to good enough to fully replace it, especially with the main conversion I/O. The Mothership changed all that and in fact is the best setup I’ve ever had.”
The Burl B80 Mothership is a sonically superior audio conversion system. Its stealthy modular design can make it the “everything” tool for a variety of users and applications. I used it in different rooms, one while tracking in the box with a range of preamps and processors and another tracking on an SSL K console. My greatest revelation was that I found myself EQ’ing less than usual to get my tracks how I like them. I’m always careful about making sweeping claims like this in a review, but I had the same experience in both rooms on different sessions and bands. Burl conversion is a solid choice for pro audio production.
Typical (and tired) terms like “color,” “warmth,” and “musical” don’t accurately describe what’s happening here. Tracks sound more “finished” through Burl converters, more like they should when you have a great player, instrument, mic, preamp/processor and speakers. Rather than being let down by your converters being the weak link in the chain, Burl’s conversion in, and out, lives up to other components up and down the line. It’s like playing with a great golfer; it always brings up your game. Burl is a sonic partner that helps you score well under par, making it easier to get great results.
When transitioning up to a new system, rather than sell off old converters for a loss, use them to create a larger, hybrid system. For example, for a tracking rig, use older converters for cue and hardware reverb sends or for additional analog hardware inserts. This keeps trusted and newer I/Os positioned for main inputs and outputs while your older I/Os do the lighter lifting for less critical purposes.
COMPANY: Burl Audio
PRODUCT: B80 Mothership
PRICE: B80 Mothership (DigiLink) $2,099; BAD4 $1,499; BDA8 $1,799
PROS: High-end, elegant design. Promises, and delivers great-sounding DAW conversion.
CONS: Fully loaded unit priced out of reach for some.