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Review: JoeCo BlueBox BBWR24MP

Review: JoeCo BlueBox BBWR24MP
Simon Allen

Recording

15 March 2017: By Simon Allen

Simon Allen discovers why this top-of-the range model offers a lot more than just an interface for a Digital Audio Workstation.

Simon Allen discovers why this top-of-the range model offers a lot more than just an interface for a Digital Audio Workstation.

The audio interface market has become increasingly crowded, resulting in a surprising variety of solutions. There are a number of key areas such as channel count, Audio-over-IP technology, DSP and so on, which the leading manufacturers currently compile in very different packages.

Improvements in technology have also given way to recent improvements in latency performance and low-noise mic pre-amps. At the same time, due to economic changes in our industry, interfaces have become the most important piece of hardware in nearly any studio today. Whether you’re a professional or amateur working from home, through to medium-sized facilities, we now expect our interfaces to do everything. They are your mic pre-amps, mixing console, digital converters, DSP engine and much more. Choosing the right one for your scenario can be confusing. If only there was one that made coffee as well.

While there are some obvious trends, I think it’s quite significant for there to be such a wide choice available. JoeCo are entering this market for the first time, with yet another entirely different background. I was keen to see why the BBWR24MP is so unique and how it stacks up against the competition. The promises are high, but is there enough to convince buyers away from other name brands?

What sets it apart?

JoeCo were established in 2007 and are based in Cambridge, UK. Their first BlackBox multi-track recorders and players have seen them offer some unique products. In the studio world we haven’t come across this brand until now, but there’s about a decade of experience here that’s not to be sniffed at. Initially building something unique for the broadcast and live industries, they present some technology which JoeCo hope will corner their own end of the interface market.

The BBWR24MP is a dual-purpose device. It can either operate in standalone mode as a multi-track recorder and player – in a similar way to their BlackBoxes – as well as a USB audio interface. By combining these two functions, JoeCo are providing a unit that can offer a reliable back-up recording. Redundancy in studios today has become almost non-existent. We place so much trust in our DAWs and computers, yet we’ve all got a tale to tell about the one session when it crashed, losing all our hard work.

This isn’t a breakthrough idea of course. There are other units that offer direct recording to removable storage, as well as some live sound consoles that either offer this or a built-in recording function. However, there’s something to be said about the platform JoeCo have built, with an emphasis on reliability and stability.

A key area where the BBWR24MP steps up the game is the offering of 24 of JoeCo’s mic pre-amps. This does of course significantly impact the price, while the other two models (BBWR08MP and BBWR24B) in the BlueBox range are in more affordable territory. However, it should be noted that while these might not be the very best pre-amps I’ve ever heard, they are very clean. It’s impressive they’ve managed to squeeze all these and the other electronics in a box that’s only 1U high and not very deep.

A final consideration that I think sets the BlueBoxes apart from other interfaces is the 12V power input. This results in there being an external power transformer under normal mains operation, while also permitting the unit to run standalone in the field. I’m not aware of any other solution with this many mic pres that can do that, which can then also be used as an interface.

In Use

Using the BBWR24MP as an interface with my Mac was extremely easy and straightforward. Pro Tools accepted the interface as my playback engine without any hiccups and the unit automatically switched to ‘Workstation’ mode upon connection. There is a JoeCoControl app to remotely control the interface and build your own monitor mixes that also worked well. It isn’t the best looking piece of software, but it’s very clear and functional. It can also be operated remotely via iPad.

I really like the operating modes the unit offers when used as an interface: ‘Live’, ‘Studio’ or ‘Mix’. These present three ways in which the software can configure the hardware depending on your scenario. The studio mode provides a combination of the direct low-latency monitoring paths, and four stereo returns from your DAW. These can then be mixed into four stereo outputs to provide different headphone and monitoring mixes.

I also appreciate that the app displays an overview of all channel meters, with each section able to expand into its own window. This allows you to make good use of your available screen area, having the all important talkback button on the screen at all times. There’s nothing more frustrating in today’s recording environment than forever toggling between your DAW and your interface app. It’s just a shame there aren’t more controls on the front panel of the device for tasks such as TB.

JoeCoControl

At NAMM, a more affordable BBWR24B option was launched, along with a substantial upgrade to the JoeCoControl app

While the app offers a good level of control over the device, which is much faster and more efficient than on the device itself, I felt there were some limitations. For example, it doesn’t give you the ability to operate any of the onboard recording features besides record and stop. It would seem sensible if you were able to edit channel names, takes and general device settings. However, all these have to be done from the front panel of the device, or you can plug in a keyboard and use that for all menu functions if you prefer.

To operate the front panel of the device there are touch sensitive buttons and a ‘data wheel’, which can be thought of in the same way as the classic iPod selection wheels. However, this one isn’t as responsive or accurate as a 15-year-old iPod, which just goes to show how good those devices were.

The menu is comprehensive and logical. Once you’ve learnt your way around, it’s very simple to use. I did find the touch sensitive buttons frustrating, though, which I wouldn’t expect in today’s  touchscreen world.

Back in interface mode and considering the performance when used as a sound card, the BBWR24MR isn’t going to break any records for round-trip latency, being on USB 2.0. JoeCo are quoting a value of 6.5ms when monitoring through a DAW at 96kHz without any plug-ins running. Perhaps a Thunderbolt or USB-C version will be available in the future. Thankfully zero-latency mixes can be created, but this is about the extent of the built-in DSP. There isn’t any DSP power for signal processing which might be a drawback for some users, especially at this price point.

The biggest selling point here is the built-in recording functionality alongside the USB interface capabilities. JoeCo recommends leaving the unit in record for your entire session. That way you are certain you will capture everything. If you need to rescue something from the backup, then you simply follow the time stamp. This is a really attractive feature and I can already imagine that at some high-level classical sessions I have coming up, this would be a great fallback solution. One feature I’d like to see, though, is an internal loop input. It would be really useful to record onto one of the BlueBox’s internal channels – the click generated from the DAW for easy syncing of recovered files.

Conclusion

If you need 24 mic pre-amps built into an interface and are attracted by the back up and standalone recording features, then you should consider the BBWR24MP. It’s a very solid unit, which easily matches the modern expectations for sound quality. There are some quirks when it comes to usability with its onboard controls and menu, but you soon find a workflow.

There isn’t another device out there with a specification quite like this. If you’re after a more flexible studio-based solution, then there’s a German-made equivalent that works more fluidly. However, this JoeCo solution ticks many more boxes and will serve a much more rounded professional.

Key Features

  • 24 channels of individually switchable mic/line inputs
  • 24bit/96kHz audio both to and from a DAW
  • Simultaneous backup of all source recordings
  • Fully standalone multi-track field recorder
  • Provides three core functions in one 19in rack-mountable unit


RRP:
£2,995 excluding VAT

Simon Allen is a freelance internationally recognised engineer/producer and pro-audio professional with nearly two decades of experience. Working mostly in music, his reputation as a mix engineer continues to reach new heights.