JOECO BLACKBOX MADI RECORDER & DIRECTOUT ANDIAMO.MC PREAMPS
Remote control is the way to go.
Review: Matt Dever
The idea of having 64 channels of standalone recording in a 1U device is a relatively new and exciting one. So the idea of strapping 64 broadcast-quality microphone preamplifiers to it, fitting it all into a 10U case and controlling it with an iPad is just crazy, right?
Not if you can get your hands on a JoeCo BlackBox and a pair of DirectOut Andiamo.MCs!
Lucky for me I was sent the BlackBox MADI recorder and an Andiamo.MC just in time for a gig with a lot of channels and a spare multicore split available. Let the games begin!
NAVIGATING THE BLACKBOX
JoeCo’s BlackBox Recorder has been around since 2009, with various versions available that differ in I/O connectivity. The MADI version on review here is one of the newest additions to the family, more than doubling the track count of its older siblings.
It’s a lot of channels to fit into 1RU, and what’s more, the whole thing weighs 2.3kg. While it initially seemed a little lightweight compared to the stocky Andiamos. It’s the perfect travel companion.
Working with MADI is very straightforward, especially for anyone who has used ADAT or most other digital audio standards; simply decide which device you want to be the master and set the others to slave. The clocking is generally looked after by the MADI connection – configuration done!
As far as recorders go, the BlackBox has a fairly unique user interface. A touch-sensitive jog-wheel and seven buttons to the left of a small, full-colour screen. The jog-wheel and buttons provide control over all the parameters on the device, including all menu functions and headphone monitoring options. The main screen displays useful information regarding the current file, remaining disk space (displayed in time rather than gigabytes, which is handy) and clock synchronisation or lack thereof. Hitting the Menu button allows you to delve into the settings of the device, such as track arming, synchronisation settings and disk utilities.
The feel of the touch-sensitive controls is similar to a smart-phone, or perhaps not quite as sensitive. The system generally works well, however damp or greasy fingers can make things tricky. The saving grace here is that once you have everything set up, there’s little need to access the menu.
The test rig was shipped with the JoeCo Remote hardware, which essentially creates a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect an iPad to the BlackBox.
The Remote app is very elegant; it provides high-resolution metering of all 64 channels simultaneously, which you can’t get on the unit itself. It also allows wireless control of the recorder, including all settings and transport controls. I used the iPad app during the test recording, where I was also mixing front of house. The app put all of the recorder controls and metering within arm’s reach, allowing me to focus on the mix and occasionallyglance at the recorder… great!
Setting up the remote was simple enough, however the iPad needs some specific network settings in order to function, which is where the manual came into play. Once set up, the BlackBox essentially commandeers the iPad. You have to be connected to the BlackBox network to control the recorder, so you need to set up proper network infrastructure to flick between your BlackBox app and your digital console control app.
The Remote links to the recorder via a serial cable connection, but also requires a separate DC power input. Placing the Remote as high as possible helped maximise the Wi-Fi range, so it was best to leave the unit loose in the rack ready to position it high. However, the two cables always got tangled and its reach was limited by the length of the power cable. It would make for a much sleeker solution if the Remote unit could be powered by the transmission cable.
According to JoeCo’s Joe Bull, this was an acknowledged tradeoff. While he agrees the unit would have been sleeker if powered from the 9-pin cable, it would have required existing users to return their units for an upgrade, as standard 9-pin connectors don’t provide power. Knowing how crucial JoeCo’s recorders are to its customers, as it would have been too much downtime, and a great inconvenience.
When I use a recorder in a live situation, I always like to know what happens if power is lost while recording; I need to know that the files will be recoverable if something goes wrong. I was pleased to find the BlackBox deals with this situation very elegantly indeed: it’s called Safe’n’Sound Record Recovery.
If the unit loses power, or even if the disk is unplugged while recording, the files will remain on the disk but they will not have been closed properly. The files will appear as 4GB each regardless of length and won’t work in many DAWs. Once the BlackBox is powered up again, or the disk is plugged back in, Safe’n’Sound will automatically detect that the recording wasn’t closed properly and repair the files.
DIRECT IN WITH DIRECTOUT
The BlackBox MADI recorder is perfectly complemented by the selection of boxes from DirectOut Technologies; including analogue (mic or line) to MADI, AES to MADI and ADAT to MADI. The test rig came with an Andiamo.MC, which is the 32 I/O microphone preamplifier version.
The gear from DirectOut has that ‘built to last’ look and feel to it. The Andiamo is heavy and void of anything that can break off or be easily scratched. The dual-redundant power supplies are another clear indication of the build quality of these units — a very impressive feature indeed!
The front panel is almost purely for visual feedback, featuring 137 LEDs to indicate everything from input signal level to clock sync information. Four buttons provide control over the whole unit by cycling through each function, however this is not terribly user friendly and can be quite time consuming to use if you have to change a lot of settings. I also noticed that adjusting the gain of a preamp using the front panel buttons actually feeds an audible click through the channel. This is where the Andiamo Remote saves the day!
ANDIAMO: HERE WE GO
The Andiamo Remote software works on a different principle to the BlackBox Remote software. The Andiamo is attached via USB to a PC loaded with the Remote software, which controls the device — no fancy Wi-Fi or iPad app here! The software takes some concentration to install and set up, however the instructions are simple and there were no issues with my install to a Windows XP netbook.
Once installed, the software provides you with fast and comprehensive control over all settings on the unit, such as channel gain, pads, patching and phantom power. You can also control utility settings such as clock source, MADI format and even the fan speed. I will point out that, unlike the physical buttons, changing the gain using the remote software does not produce any audible clicks through the channel.
If I owned an Andiamo, I would definitely keep a little netbook in the back of the rack to control it. I was even able to control the unit with the iPad by using a VNC app to control the netbook!
DirectOut has done well to fit 32 microphone preamps into a 2U case, but how do they perform? The results of my test recording were very impressive, however given that it was a noisy rock concert, I can’t be as critical of the sound as I could if I used the unit in the studio. Something that did impress me was on an acoustic guitar DI channel. It was padded for the main act but the support acts acoustic was much lower in level — to the point where it almost didn’t meter at all in my DAW. I was able to gain this channel up enough for it to be usable, which I think says a lot about how quiet the preamps are.
A SOLID TEAM
The BlackBox MADI and Andiamo.MC team up perfectly to create an incredibly powerful mobile recording system. There aren’t too many situations where you need 64 channels to record a live gig, however, it certainly opens up some possibilities. Something that comes to mind is recording multiple stages at a festival to the same recorder. MADI cables can be long, so you could have an Andiamo unit at each stage running back to the BlackBox at a central location.
I was more than happy with the performance of both units, although I was more impressed with the build quality of the Andiamo.MC overall. Both units are expensive, but you really need to think about it on a ‘per channel’ basis to be fair.