Recording in a live environment demands simplicity and stability, and this intriguing new product from SADiE co‑founder Joe Bull is designed to offer both.
The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), in all its forms, has become a ubiquitous tool for audio‑recording duties in the home and professional studio. DAWs are also widely used in live-sound rigs, theatres and broadcast stations too, but there are still occasions when a dedicated hardware recorder is more practical. Hardware often makes more psychological sense, too: many people find it difficult to excel in right‑brain music-creation activities while having to maintain a left‑brain concentration on the technicalities of managing a DAW to record their performances. Although far less versatile, a dedicated hardware recorder is generally less distracting and easier to use than a fully fledged DAW, and does not present the same temptation immediately to tweak and process each recording rather than capture a better performance. It's not an approach that suits everyone, but is certainly worth thinking about for some situations.
There are numerous hardware recorders on the market, with varying track counts, facilities and prices, but virtually all of them are either geared towards the professional music studio or film and TV location work. With the increasing numbers of artists and bands turning to touring and live performances as the most practical way of earning a living these days, one rapidly growing application for hardware recorders is the live-sound market. Many acts are using DAWs for the task, but these tend to be bulky, relatively fragile, and grossly over‑specified for the task at hand, which is basically to record a bunch of desk direct outputs and little else.
With this growing market in mind, Joe Bull, one of the founders of SADiE, set up a new company called JoeCo, whose first product is the BlackBox Recorder. With over 15 years' experience designing ultra‑reliable, high‑quality audio-recording platforms, Joe is well versed in the requirements of digital audio recording hardware. The BlackBox is tightly focused on meeting the specific needs of the live‑sound market, although it remains versatile enough for other applications.
The BlackBox Recorder is, on first sight, astonishingly compact — so compact, in fact, that you might wonder how on earth it can be a professional 24‑channel, 24‑bit/96kHz recorder! In essence, the BlackBox provides the physical interface between the desk's audio sources and a hard drive, along with all the necessary control functionality. As a result, the unit occupies a mere 1U of rack space, and extends only 160mm behind the rack ears. Part of that compactness comes about because the power supply is an external wall‑wart, and part because the recording medium is a user‑supplied external USB2 hard drive (any FAT32‑formatted drive should work). The BlackBox records standard Broadcast Wave (BWAV or BWF) files, so after recordings have been made, the drive can be disconnected and hooked up to any DAW to start working directly and immediately on the material.
I was initially concerned that the system records to a single hard drive: I'm used to mirrored drives with my SADiE LRX2, or the ability to copy files to an optical disc to provide a safety backup. However, Joe Bull pointed out that hard-drive failures are extremely rare these days, and it's very simple to back up the drive manually immediately after a recording using a laptop. Building in dedicated facilities for a second drive would have added to the complexity and cost, with little practical advantage. I'm not sure everyone will be convinced or comfortable, but it's a fair argument. Joe is also investigating the use of third-party external USB RAID drives: they've yet to be tested with the BlackBox, but there's no reason to suspect they won't work.
A tour of the rear reveals the design intentions very clearly. On the right‑hand side there's a quarter‑inch headphone monitoring output, and three 25‑pin D‑sub connectors, which accept three supplied eight‑way break‑out looms terminated in TRS jacks (standard Tascam‑format looms). The BBR1, as reviewed, is configured to work with insert connections, using the standard send‑on‑tip and return‑on‑ring format — the idea being that the BlackBox sits across the insert points of the FOH console to record the channel signals, while simultaneously passing those signals on through their respective desk channels. Bypass relays ensure the signals carry on through the FOH desk even if power is lost to the recorder. The advantage of working this way, with both the send and return feed accessible from the BlackBox, is that recorded material can be replayed and used for extended sound checks, rehearsals or training purposes — and thoughtfully, a Replay Lockout function is engaged automatically to prevent accidents when recording! This replay facility is very handy, allowing the band to come out front to hear what the show actually sounds like, for example, or to enable the FOH engineer to fine-tune the rig without making the band having to sound check endlessly!
Other versions of the BlackBox are available with different interface formats, such as a balanced analogue input/output version (BBR1‑B) which uses three D‑Subs for inputs and another three (blanked off on the review model) for the outputs, all wired to the standard Tascam format again. There are also digital I/O versions with ADAT (BBR1‑A) or AES‑3 (BBR1‑D) connections. Although the firmware in the review unit did not support it, by the time you read this it should be possible to link multiple machines together for expanded track counts and control them all from one front panel when large track counts are needed.
Continuing our tour of the rear panel, a pair of RCA phono sockets provides external word clock in and out, and a single USB2 port allows connection to the external hard drive. A PS2 mini‑DIN socket caters for a keyboard to enable faster song and track naming, and a quarter‑inch TRS socket accepts linear timecode, and also serves as a remote footswitch port. More sophisticated machine control options are catered for with a nine‑pin D‑sub socket working to Sony's PII format, and a MIDI In port supports both the Timecode (MTC) and Machine Control (MMC) protocols. Power from connects via a coaxial 2.5mm plug. The review unit lacked a cable clamp or tie-post to ensure that the power lead remained attached, but this is something Joe says will soon be added.
The final connectivity comprises eight quarter‑inch TRS sockets along the top of the rear panel. These provide insert‑point loop‑throughs for the last eight channels (17‑24). The idea is to allow some outboard equipment to be patched back in for the live sound engineer's use, since the desk's own insert points are occupied by the BlackBox looms.
The front panel is remarkably simple and very distinctive, borrowing some of its operational paradigm from Apple's iPod user interface. A small, but high‑resolution colour LCD screen displays the pertinent information about the recording and machine configuration, through a series of simple and logical menus. There are only seven buttons to control the entire machine, all protected by a clear Perspex plate. Large Play, Stop and Record buttons dominate the lower level, and four smaller buttons (Back, Mark, Loop and Menu) sit above. To the left is an illuminated iPod‑like control disc.
The machine's operation is brilliantly intuitive and I didn't need to read the manual at all: everything is exactly where you'd expect to find it, and it all works exactly the way you'd think it should. Pressing the menu button accesses the menu list on the screen, and rolling a finger around the control disc scrolls a highlight bar up and down the list. Pressing Menu again opens the selected option, wheeling the control disc again changes the setting, and pressing Back moves back out. It's quick, simple, and obvious — which is exactly what's needed in a busy live‑sound situation. The left half of the front panel is taken up with a set of 24 channel record arming indicators, and rudimentary but effective traffic‑light level meters. The brightness of each channel's three LEDs provides a very good indication of record signal levels, and with 24‑bit resolution you can afford to be generous with headroom.
Having plugged the BlackBox Recorder into a convenient console (I only had 16 insert points conveniently to hand, but it was more than enough to prove the point) and powered it up with a clean 250GB USB2 drive attached, the machine booted with all 24 tracks armed and ready to record (this is the default configuration). A prod of the Record button was then all that was needed to start recording. If the drive has a lot of material on board it can take the BlackBox a considerable time to scan the drive before it's ready for action, but I doubt that will cause problems in most situations. The machine's default configuration will suit most users directly, without needing any alteration — it's set up to run on the internal clock, with real‑time time‑stamping of files, 24‑bit 44.1kHz sample format, and ‑10dBV nominal input level. The last can be raised to +4dBu (for a maximum input level of +22dBu), but since my desk's insert points operate at a nominal ‑2dBu anyway, and I tend to work with generous headroom margins in the console, I found I got healthy levels with a reasonable headroom margin using the ‑10dBV setting. A mix of all tracks is available at the headphone output at all times, and the monitoring level is controlled by the front-panel disc, just like an iPod.
Pressing Record again while the machine is recording creates a new Song (the default term used for each set of 24 audio files), and if a footswitch is plugged in this function can be remotely controlled.
The only initially confusing thing was that pressing Stop doesn't actually stop the recording: you have to hold the Stop button down for two seconds. This is to avoid accidents and is a very sensible feature, but one of the few things that isn't immediately obvious — although the screen does flash up a message about it when you press the button. Part of the stopping process involves closing all the recorded files, and that takes a few seconds to perform, but the screen displays the progress.
While recording, the LCD screen is highlighted in red and details the record duration and the remaining disk space. There's absolutely no doubt that the machine is recording! The bargraph meters have a peak‑hold feature so that you can quickly check the maximum recording levels after a sound check. The default file-naming format is easy enough to work with, each channel being clearly indentified: each new recording session is stored in a folder named with the date and a '.bbr' extension, and each song and track is numbered sequentially. So by default, song one, track one is labelled '001‑01.wav'; song one, track 12 would be '001‑12.wav'... and so on. Accessing the recorded files in a variety of DAW programs was trivially simple (using SADiE 5, Adobe Audition 3, Logic 8 and Pro Tools 7).
A firmware update released during the review period enabled the keyboard facility, so that songs and tracks could be named directly (although these details are added to the machine's own default file-naming format). Firmware updates are loaded by copying the small update file to the root directory of the hard drive (or a USB stick) and powering up the machine. Menu options determine whether the machine looks for and loads update files automatically, or ignores them.
To access the previous (or next) recording, you can use the 'mark' and 'loop' buttons, or disable the playback lockout function (a couple of clicks on the menu button) and select the required song (scroll to the appropriate menu page, and then through the recorded songs). Pressing 'play' accesses the appropriate files, but it can take a second or two before any audio is produced, and there's an audible click inside the machine as all the bypass relays flip across. In playback mode the screen is highlighted in green, so again, there can be no confusion as to what's going on.
As I said earlier, the default machine configuration is spot-on for most applications, but if you need to reconfigure the machine for a different sample rate, or change which tracks are armed to record, it is fast and easy to reconfigure through the menu structure. However, the BlackBox is (quite deliberately) not designed to perform punch‑ins or drop‑ins within already recorded tracks, unlike most hardware recorders, and that needs to be taken into consideration when planning your workflow. In terms of sound quality, I couldn't fault the BlackBox at all. It sounds very quiet and clean, and just does what it says on the box.
As a dedicated hardware recorder to capture a large number of channels in a live event, the BlackBox is a very attractive solution. It is an easy-to-use, well focused design, with excellent sound quality, in a very compact space. If I have to criticise, I'm not a huge fan of wall‑wart power supplies, and the current lack of some kind of secure cable-fixing arrangement worries me a little. Personally, I'd have preferred a slightly deeper machine, with a built-in power supply — and I think that approach would appeal to the pro live‑sound market more. However, there's no denying that the product works very well, and I didn't actually have any problems with it during the review period: it did just what it was supposed to do. For any situation where there's a need to record a number of tracks from a console in a very convenient and straightforward way, the BlackBox recorder offers a very attractive solution and is worthy of serious consideration. The standard version configured to work directly from console insert points will suit most applications, but the alternative versions with balanced I/O and digital I/O will undoubtedly suit any remaining markets.
There are a great many hardware recorders on the market, from high‑end products like RADAR to more modest offerings from Fostex and others. Most are designed to emulate traditional studio multitrack recorders in terms of their connectivity and functionality. The BlackBox is much more tightly focused than these machines, and while much of the functionality overlaps, the way it is intended to be used differs significantly in some areas. As a result, direct comparison with existing hard disk recorders is unfair. Nothing else on the market currently matches the specific functionality and ease of use of the BlackBox for live sound recording applications.
- Extremely compact.
- Very fast and simple to use.
- BBR1 version interfaces elegantly with console insert points.
- Protection against accidental stop or playback commands.
- Industry-standard file formats and folder structures.
- Built‑in headphone monitoring.
- Eight insert loop-through ports.
- Wall‑wart power supply.
- Currently no provision for PSU cable fixing.
- Records to a single drive, with no on‑board mechanism for backups.
This specialised hard disk recorder is intended to meet the needs of engineers recording multitrack audio in live, theatre and broadcast contexts — but with a viable role as a simple hardware recorder in the studio too. The very elegant and simple user interface makes operation fast and straightforward, and the various I/O configurations cater for all applications. Patching in to the insert points of a console provides very convenient source recording and playback, and sound quality is top-notch.
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