By Jon Chappell
The flagship of the Sonic Maximizer series, the 882i.
Sometimes you just can’t get your track or mix to shine, no matter how much EQ, compression, or other filtering you employ. No matter what you do, the tone still sounds dull and lifeless. In those situations, or when you’re just looking to add a little zing, sparkle or clarity, consider a Sonic Maximizer. Though the name is sometimes used generically, to describe any all-encompassing enhancement, the Sonic Maximizer was invented by BBE. And contrary to popular belief, it is not some form of sonic voodoo, but a straightforward operation based on simple and easily explained phenomena. Yet the results are often described as magical. So let’s see how BBE applies their practical magic to a lifeless track or mix.
A little-known sonic secret is that while P.A. speakers are designed to project sound, in the real world they can also deaden it through what is called “frequency-dependent phase shifting.” This is a delay in the sound reproduction of some frequencies relative to others. The reason for this is that a speaker’s impedance rises with the frequency of the sound. Thus, for a given sound, the higher frequencies take longer to reach your ear than the lower ones. The overall sound can be “smeared” over time, causing some aspects of the sound to cancel out others, resulting in, among other things, a dull attack and articulation, especially for instruments like guitar, piano, bass, and percussion, which all have distinct transients.
BBE has the solution to this problem. Its Sonic Maximizer series was designed to delay slightly the lower frequencies, counteracting this natural phase delay between bass and treble. The idea is to make sure that the entire frequency range of the signal reaches the audience at the same time, giving the sound coming out of the PA the same presence and attack as the sound heard on the stage.
Full-range speakers also tend to reproduce midrange frequencies more efficiently than lows and highs, so PA systems often come with a booster switch for the high and low frequencies. BBE’s Sonic Maximizer series augments these frequencies in conjunction with their delay curve, to produce a more natural full-range signal.
This simple sonic solution has been implemented in a variety of models to fill different needs. The top of the line 882i (tested) features a Lo Contour and a Process knob for each channel (A and B), each with four-stage LEDs indicating signal strength (see Fig. 1). Its dual-mono operation is supported with balanced XLR inputs and outputs, which provide low noise and +4dBu input levels, found in pro-level systems (see Fig. 2).
Fig. 1. The front panel is blessedly simple, with just two controls for each channel.
Fig. 2. The back panel reveals XLR ins and outs, in addition to 1/4" jacks, for professional applications.
The 482i is virtually the same unit, but geared towards semi-pro users who don’t require balanced jacks, while the similarly featured 382i further economizes by ganging the stereo function together onto two knobs. You can even get this marvelous effect in a pedal form called the Sonic Stomp.
For those who work entirely “in the box” (that is, on a computer), BBE offers the Sonic Sweet plug-in set, including a software version of the Sonic Maximizer; a Harmonic Maximizer that generates tunable harmonics for low- and high-end emphasis; and a mastering/dynamics limiter called the Loudness Maximizer (see Fig. 4). It’s the perfect plug-in collection for mastering your mix or adding a final dash of sweetness. Tip: use this after you’ve converted your high-res WAV files to MP3s to restore anything lost in the conversion process.
Fig. 4. The Sonic Maximizer also comes in the form of a three-module plug-in suite known as Sonic Sweet.
I first tested the 882i in the effects loop of an Egnater Rebel-30 guitar amp. The 882i’s PC-board-mounted pots, switches, and jacks are housed in a 19" rack with a 1/4"-thick extruded aluminum faceplate, leaving little doubt that this is a professional, roadworthy unit. All the controls are smooth to the touch and have a nice solid feel to them.
Its dual mono configuration allowed me to come out of the amp’s mono effect send into the 1/4" input on one side of the 882i, and have that side send the signal back to the amp’s effect return. I played a Telecaster through the amp’s clean channel. Once engaged I could see why the Sonic Maximizer sits in a so many pro guitarists’ racks—it became very hard to say goodbye to the sparkle and jangle it induced. The Egnater is a great sounding amp, but after bypassing the 882i, the sound was perceptibly duller and less lively.
The 882i had much the same effect through the distortion channel: Without changing the essential quality, it made the sound more alive and in-your-face. The Lo Contour knob let me shape the bass response to one that was compatible with my 1x12" closed back cabinet. Tweaking the Process knob enabled me to dial in just the perfect amount of the effect—one that sounded completely natural and less like an actual “effect.” Thanks to the extremely quiet, proprietary Sonic Maximizer op amp, the 882i added no discernible noise, even at full gain settings.
Next up was a funky DJ dance tune on my laptop. I ran the audio out of my computer into an audio interface plugged into the 882i, then through the 882i’s balanced XLR outputs to a second audio interface and into a Mac G5 running Ableton Live. I wanted to see if I could emulate the effect of the 882i with EQ. The Sonic Maximizer expanded the sound of the track significantly: The percussion was much crisper, and the bass now stretched the capabilities of my near-field monitors.
Despite my best efforts with Live’s eight-band parametric EQ, I was unable to approximate the full range excitement of the 882i. This time-alignment stuff is really something special! The +23 dB headroom of the 882i resulted in a pristine flow through this pumping track; it is hard to imagine any source material that this device couldn’t handle—or improve.
Whether you are an instrumentalist, DJ, recording engineer, or broadcaster, BBE has a unit that will slot in nicely to your rig—and your pocketbook. The configurations are slightly different and optimized for different rigs, but the core Sonic Maximizer process is common to all models in the line. Whatever your sound source—whether live or recorded—the 882i Sonic Maximizer is the best and most cost-effective way to give your music that extra depth, detail, and intelligibility to make it sparkle and shine.