There are few products that I have come across that are a divisive as the BBE 882i Sonic Maximizer. Head on over to any forum thread dedicated to the infamous rackmount and you’ll be sure to read plenty of hate. A lot of their gripes seem warranted, although at the time I couldn’t say for myself if they were true since I never used the 882i for myself. But I did know one thing – the Sonic Maximizer is used by a ton of people and sells surprisingly well for a rackmount that gets so much negative feedback. It is particularly widespread in nightclub sound systems. Conversely, there are those who absolutely praise the benefits of the 882i, such as how well it can adapt to any sound situation, not just music – pretty much stopping short of calling it a miracle machine.
With so much disparity between both camps, I decided to check this thing out for myself. While I can tell you right now that although it’s not perfect, there’s a reason why 882i remains one of the best selling rackmounts out there today.
For those of you a little confused as to what a “Sonic Maximizer” actually does, BBE says it's “designed for applications requiring low noise, high headroom and +4dBu input levels.” In other words, it’s a preamplifier, but more specifically, the 882i works by changing the phase of the input signals and then limiting them, creating a sound with boomier bass and brighter treble. It’s a lot like having a distortion effect and compressor all in one box – albeit with almost no controls.
It should be said that this type signal processing is nothing new or unique. It essentially delivers a simple analog process that can dynamically boost the treble based on how much midrange 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 frequency bands. Seeing as how this is a dual mono rackmount unit, you get two identical channels – channel A and B, each of which come with a Process and Lo Contour knob. With the Process knobs you’ll be able to dial in the phase controlled treble frequencies while the Lo Contour knobs does the same for the phase controlled bass frequencies. After those are dialed in, 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 knobs, and +12dBu 50Hz for the Lo Contour knobs.
The 882i has simple inputs/outputs and controls. 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. On the back there are balanced XLR and ¼-inch TRS ports for the inputs and outputs on both channels. It’s pretty much as easy a setup as it gets.
Among the most common complaints leveled against the Sonic Maximizer by guitarists in particular is that they suck the natural tone off their instrument. After about a few weeks of lugging this thing around and trying it with as many applications as I could, be it with a house party sound system, as part of my practice and recording sessions, etc, I would have to say that I wouldn’t recommend simply placing the 882i freely on just any setup as it can and will alter your tone. In fact, if you’re simply looking fine tune your overall sound, a decent equalizer should provide many of the same benefits without altering the tone.
But with that said, it’s during those particular situations when you do need a change in tone that the 882i works best – such as dealing with a less than stellar recording and sound situation. For example, I found that it did a solid job in making recordings with bad mic placement and sub par production techniques sound surprisingly well, such as my impromptu practice sessions! The drum tracks in particular became much more alive afterwards. I then tried out the 882i with a project that I already thought was pretty good to see if it could add the same layer of magic it did with the crappy recording. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when used with recordings that already sound reasonably well on their own. It just made the instruments sound too unnatural, meaning that as far as recording purposes go, I would only recommend the 882i as a last resort, like one of those emergency car tires only meant to take you a few miles until you get real help – or real recording techniques!
Moving on, the Sonic Maximizer fared much better with live performances than recording. It can make the bass guitar and vocals – especially female vocals – cut through the mix much better. Sounds that are dulled by playing outdoors or in rooms with bad acoustics can really be livened up. But again, there’s a fine limit on how much you can dial this thing up because it can get out of hand pretty quickly.
But where the BBE Sonic Maximizer shines brightest above all else is when used with 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. You’ll be surprised how far a little bit of delay and compression can go in making MP3s and similar recordings sound as best they can. But again – you still need to be very careful about overdoing it or else it can easily kill your tone and headroom. I found that comparing the change in tone with the bypass ON/OFF switch went a long way in making sure I was just at the right spot. It's entirely possible to make your mix sound much worse if you’re not sure what you’re doing.
The BBE 882i Sonic Maximizer can be a life saver in the right situation. It can also be your worst enemy if you don’t know what you’re getting into. The setup and control layout is as easy as they come and the entire unit feels solid. It’s not particularly huge and should only take up one rack space, although it’s not at all very deep. And at $249.99 and a 5 year warranty, it’s a great deal – as long as you know what you’re doing!