Paul Atkins takes the Joe Co BlackBox on tour
Paul is an engineer, producer, composer and musician who these days spends a large portion of his working life mixing FOH sound either on tour or in-house at London venues – including the legendary 100 Club.
His studio credits include Lucky Soul, The Hope Rebellion and Nick Evans and he tours with Various Cruelties, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed & ZZ Ward mixing FOH. He’s also performed on stages around the world and on many recording sessions over the last 20 something years.
This month I’ve written a warts and all road test of the Joe Co BlackBox player which I’ve been using for about 6 months. Rather than going into small detail about everything the machine has to offer I’m going to focus on what I experienced going from an absolute beginner to using one on tour.
Late last year I was asked for advice by a touring band looking to upgrade their backing track device from a humble iPod Nano to a multi track system but wanted to avoid going down the laptop & audio interface route. Members of the band had relied on computer systems in the past and had been let down too many times so were very keen to go for something that was rock solid, simple, very portable, rack mountable and could handle at least 8 tracks of audio.
For many years now the Alesis HD24 and Fostex D2424 have been popular choices for use in the live environment, both for playback and recording, but aren’t without their own idiosyncrasies and ability to throw a spanner in the works at the most inopportune moments. While they both offer 24 tracks of playback and the HD24 in particular offering good value for money (a refurbished unit can be picked up for around £1000) they seem to have a dislike to high SPL environments or sitting on a bouncy drum riser, from my experience at least. And lets face it, they’re both more at home in a recording studio far removed from the bumps and scrapes of life on the road.
So if I wasn’t going to suggest either of these two then what were the options?
While I was dredging through pages of devices that were unsuitable for one reason or another I remembered that a colleague had mentioned being thrown in the deep end recently when, with no rehearsal, he went on tour doing FOH for a band that used 16 channels of backing track. Out of curiosity, I got in touch and asked what they were using to play their tracks. The answer was a product by Joe Co called simply, the BlackBox.
I had never heard of the product before, let alone the company, but after researching online and speaking to the founder, Joe Bull, it seemed one of these units might just be exactly what I was looking for.
What’s a BlackBox?
There are two main types of BlackBox: a recorder (BBR) and a player (BBP).
Each are 1U devices available with a choice of analogue and digital i/o options. The BBP is in fact a BBR but with some additional software specifically designed for live performance and can playback 24 tracks of standard mono Broadcast WAV files at 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96kHz sample rates at either 16 or 24 bit resolution.
As the BBP is an interface only, audio needs to come from an external USB2 device. This can be a typical hard drive (the user manual gives good suggestions of which drives work best) or, very conveniently, a USB flash drive. This option really appealed to me as they’re cheap, easily available and have no moving parts.
The units are very compact measuring 425mm x 150mm x 44mm and weighing a mere 2.4 kilos.
So, compared to a HD24 a BBP is less than a third of the size; about a quarter of the weight and the audio can be stored on something that can go on your key ring, and they’re designed specifically for live performance.
Recommending a BlackBox to the band was an easy decision and they opted for BBP1-B as its balanced outputs enables plugging directly into a venues stage box, so no need for DI boxes. The units have 3x D type connectors for input and 3 more for output with cabling using the TASCAM standard.
Loading the audio
Before preparing your audio Joe Co recommend that you decide what sample rate, resolution, how many songs, how many tracks, which tracks are to come out of which outputs and how many playlists / set lists your going to use.
So that the audio is assigned to the correct song and output channel they use a simple audio file naming structure:
nnn = the song number (between 001 and 999)
tt = the track number (between 01 & 24)
The “-” (dash) and “wav” are crucial and can’t be omitted, otherwise audio won’t come out where you want it to. A sample file name using this structure looks like this:
To make life easier it’s also possible to include your own song and file names between the track number and the file extension. For example:
I find this particularly useful as it’s easy to tell at a glance what each file contains and which song it belongs to. If I only had the song and track numbers to ID files I’d be compelled to create some sort of reference chart that explains which file is which, and who wants to be sorting through that kind of info when trying to trouble shoot?
Once you’ve bounced and/or renamed your audio files they need to be put into a folder with a “.bbr” extension. Mine is simply called “all songs”, so the folder looks like this on the flash drive:
Using playlists sets the BlackBox players apart from the recorders and makes them a dream to use for live performance. Playlists are simple text files written in XML format and need to follow a prescribed format. I found them fairly straight forward to create, even with my limited experience of using code. Here’s the playlist file from a recent tour:
The first line tells the BBP which folder to look in for the audio files and each subsequent line contains a song reference. Rather than starting a new playlist from scratch I prefer to cut and paste songs into a new sequence and then rename the playlist appropriately e.g. playlist_April_Tour.
Once the unit is powered up and the flash drive is attached you simply select the playlist you want using the controls on the front panel. Pressing play starts the first song and when it’s finished the next song automatically loads in less than a couple of seconds. Brilliant.
As with most backing track machines the BBP sat next to the drummer and for the first few rehearsals and gigs we mounted it in a spare 2U soft rack before investing in a hard case. We found that standing it on its end gave better access to the controls and screen compared to sitting it flat on a chair or crate(s), but obviously this wasn’t the safest of options. After speaking again to the ever helpful, Joe Bull, we ended up going for a foam lined, off the shelf 2U rack which was deep enough to store the coiled up 5m loom and power supply. As Joe explained, the D type connectors don’t typically endure as much use as XLR or ¼ inch jack connectors so being able to leave the loom plugged into the BBP and stored in the back of the rack case makes a lot of sense.
After some thought about how better to sit the BlackBox on stage someone suggested putting the rack case on an amp stand and turning it backwards so the front of the unit would be at a 45º angle facing up at the drummer. This would get it off the ground and be much more stable than standing the case directly on to the stage. And guess what, it works a treat!
Pros and Cons
- easy to use
- very dependable
- separate monitor mix via onboard mixer and headphone socket
After about 6 months of use there’s only a handful of niggles I have with the BlackBox:
- Power supply: The BBP uses a very common type of power supply which is easily available from any PC store, which makes it very easy to replace, but it does come unplugged from the back of the unit quite easily. Thankfully it’s only ever fallen out once (during a sound check), and it was probably helped on its way by a combination of the 45º angle it was on at the time and the drum riser being particularly bouncy that day. Gaff tape came to the rescue on this occasion but it would be great if there was a small hook on the rear of the BB to wrap the power cable around to prevent this from happening.
- Flash drives: One of the big attractions of the BBP was that it can run from a USB flash drive. While the manual does say, “Most standard Flash RAM drives (aka Pen Drives) are not fast enough to take the full USB2 data rates that the BBP requires at 96kHz but the 200X ones normally work OK at 48kHz and will typically provide up to 18 tracks at 96kHz”, we were only going to use 44.1kHz audio so maybe the complimentary branded USB drive on my key chain would be sufficient? Wrong. Very wrong.
After the BBP had destroyed a couple of my (too slow) drives I called Joe Bull and he recommended a couple of different drives to go for. We went with the Transcend 32GB 600 Jetflash drives and they’re both still going strong.
I appreciate that flash drive models come and go very quickly but it would be a nice touch to have some recommendations in the user manual or on the website.
- Cost: Once you’ve purchased a BBP, flight case, cabling and a couple of flash drives you’ve spent the best part of £3,000.
Hot or not?
If you’re looking for a dedicated, simple, dependable playback system for backing tracks as part of a live performance then you’ll be hard pressed to find anything as good as the BlackBox. The one I spec’d has now done 3 tours and numerous one off gigs and has never missed a beat. I’d recommend one to anybody.
The BlackBox has more features and options available than I’ve mentioned.
[info]To find out more about these fantastic machines and what else Joe Co have on offer I suggest you visit their website www.joeco.co.uk [/info]