JoeCo BlueBox (BBWR24MP) by Arthur Stone
JoeCo Bluebox (BBWR24MP) 24-channel Workstation Interface Recorder
The JoeCo Bluebox is a high-quality 1u rackmount digital recorder (Live mode) and computer/DAW interface (Workstation mode); 24 analogue input channels featuring individually-selectable microphone preamp or line level inputs each with DSP high-pass filter, limiter, phase reverse, phantom power and metering with clip indicator; and, 24 balanced analogue outputs; two separate TRS stereo outputs for monitoring. Main analogue I/O is on DSub connectors wired to Tascam format (in banks of 8 channels). Digital I/O on USB; S/PDIF (AES). Word-clock and video sync. Bluetooth WiFi 802.11n remote control (or wired).
Bluebox operates up to 24-bit/96kHz.
Bluebox rear panel
In 'Live' mode the Bluebox records to an external hard drive or USB key; in 'Workstation' mode the Bluebox shows up as 24 I/O via the JoeCo ASIO driver or Core (Mac).
The Bluebox comes in 3 flavours:
24 x mic pre/line;
24 x line only;
8 x mic pre/line & 16 line-only.
A 40 input channel version as a special order; Blueboxes can also be daisy-chained for greater channel counts.
The Bluebox can easily be controlled via the units front panel (capacitive touchscreen); and/or via a software app for PC (W7+), Mac or (iOS 8+) iPad. Bluebox appears and operates as typical soundcard via DAW.
Remote control options such as assignable foot-switch and keyboard are available. JoeCo also supply a nice 24-channel XLR>DSub 'breakout box' and a variety of looms and splitters (at a reasonable price).
JoeCo Breakout Box (accessory)
The Bluebox arrived well-packaged and included was a Bluetooth aerial, power supply and documentation. The set-up is straightforward with a gentle learning curve; the menu system is painless yet offers a wide range of functionality.
JoeCo - founded in 2007 and based near Cambridge, England - designs, locally-manufactures and distributes high-quality audio equipment to over 40 countries. To date, you'd be more likely to see one of JoeCo's Blackbox products in a live rig or tracking/remote rig; the Bluebox is their first foray into the studio/DAW soundcard scene.
The Bluebox's technological roots go back further: Joe Bull, the company founder, has a long history in audio engineering specifically high-end recording tech. With a background in studio and live sound, computer graphics cards and the highly-regarded SADiE systems, Joe deserves a more knowledgeable introduction but the point of interest is the company’s heritage in audio electronics.
JoeCo say: it is “renowned for its innovative approach to design, and trusted worldwide for the reliability of its products in mission critical environments.” Having used the Bluebox for the last 3 months I'd say that's a fair description.
The JoeCo logo “is created using a mathematical construct called a prolate cycloid. A line equal to the radius extends outside a wheel that rotates along a flat surface leaving a trail of the distinctive shape of the logo in its wake.” The logo is a good visual metaphor for my experience with the Bluebox: smooth, discreet, balanced, reliable.
The Bluebox differs from JoeCo's BlackBox recorders in that it can act as a AD-DA digital soundcard/audio interface in addition to a standalone recorder/player.
Standalone: connect a hard drive via USB2/3, plug the Bluebox into mains or 12v; connect a hard drive, ready to record.
Computer: connect with a USB2/3 cable, power on and 24-channel audio interface ready.
Ten seconds boot up time for both modes.
The Bluebox can be controlled from the front panel touchscreen, via an iPad app, or from a PC or Mac; also via foot-switch and MIDI.
The 1u front panel is a clear material with a smooth, plastic/acrylic texture and behind this the 98 metering/status LED's (arranged in blocks of 8 as per DSub); a rather fetching backlit JoeCo logo; a circular touch-dial; the transport and navigation controls and an information and menu screen. The touch-dial and transport/navigation buttons are touch-sensitive and this is the primary means of operating the Bluebox standalone without apps. The transport controls start, stop, wind and navigate the recording; the menu buttons lead to system, session and utility settings; menu operation is intuitive and well-laid out with the most used functions one or two layers deep and set-and-forget stuff in layers three and four. It's easy to use/navigate and packs in a lot of features.
The front panel metering may appear perfunctory/basic at first glance but from a distance in a difficult environment it is easy to read and the main output meter runs across the bottom 24 LED's...a nice visual from a distance. The menu font size is small but clear at eye-level, arm's length (which gives some insight into the design ethic); the clock can be seen from approx. 6ft/2m and the transport status and meters from 15ft/5m. Detailed metering and remote control are also available via the iPad and PC/Mac apps.
The app is an important feature as it offers detailed touch-control of most of the Bluebox operating features, plus mixer views and monitor controls not available on the touchscreen. The visual simplicity works well in the home-studio; the transport and info are clear, detailed in soft light. Easy to spot mid-session. In a dark room with a bright window the contrast reflected off the touchscreen at the mirror position but not a problem when tilted from the light source or outdoors in more diffuse light.
The key to using the touchscreen is that it best responds to finger pad rather than tip; this felt most comfortable vertically at eye level but angled horizontally would work too. With the main page on screen, the touch-dial acts as a very nice monitor control accompanied by an on-screen level meter. I tested the touch controls to cover a variety of situations: dry finger, wet finger, buttered/oily finger, thin cotton glove – and these all worked perfectly; a thick winter glove, rubber glove and inanimate objects didn't work. So the touchscreen should operate perfectly in a variety of commonly-encountered situations.
I wondered if the Bluebox could be racked at an angle or vertically in a desk or bag: I contacted Francis Duggan at JoeCo who said 'yes, any angle' and claimed that the Bluebox would even work perfectly whilst skydiving (on 12v obviously).
At Gearslutz we will test these manufacturers claims so I contacted the local airport – unfortunately there is a restriction on carrying equipment during dives so we will have to take Francis at his word. The Bluebox worked perfectly horizontal, vertical, upside-down and angled, although I preferred face-up or angled to use the touch wheel as a monitor controller.
I did try to 'break' the Bluebox but it remained immune to both my 'feigned' technological ignorance and the clumsy, scratchy stuff that happens in studios.
There were very few 'duh' moments when learning to operate. The manual and online support is concise and covers the bases but the logical operation of Bluebox is a quick learning curve; literally, out of box, plug in, hit record. The other operations and menu layers are learnt intuitively on first use; but, the user will need to gain some familiarity especially before important recording sessions and this seems reasonable given that it's professional equipment.
The external power supply is available globally.
I Got The Blues for You:
The Bluebox is small footprint, big capability. I installed it in a 4u Trojan portable rack case. The Bluebox took 1u of rack space, a DAV passive mixbus (1u), an RME breakout box (1u) and an Elysia Xpressor (1u) for make up gain and bus compression. The rear allowed access to connect 8 channels into the Bluebox (up to 24 available) and 16 channels of balanced analogue (24 available) out to the DAV summing box, all via DSub. With a few mics, a wedge monitor and headphones, it's a neat high-end portable recording set-up. Easily carried in one hand. The full 24-channel set-up might require 2 hands.
I stripped the system down to look at the very minimum I could get away with: the Trojan case, the Bluebox; the RME breakout box, mics, cables and headphones. Enough to record 8 sources off 12v battery if needed. For more inputs the JoeCo breakout box looks like a good choice as it offers 24 XLR inputs (3x DSub out) in a 2u rack unit with additional USB and timecode features. So with a headphone distribution amp you'd have a 24-channel studio in a 4u case – hand held!
Relevant features are: talkback and multiple monitor/headphone feeds via a dedicated software mixer and DSub output in addition to the 2 TRS stereo outputs. The software channel strips have all the features needed for tracking. With a laptop or iPad this is a potent portable studio.
Live mode enables standalone use for track recording and playback; all facilities are usable and the Bluebox can be run on 12v with power-saving features available. Power saving has no effect on audio quality.
Control is implemented via the front panel touchscreen and/or, wired or wireless remote app, or computer. An external hard disk/drive must be used in Live mode as this is what the audio files are stored on (given that the Bluebox has no internal storage).
In Workstation mode the Bluebox is connected via USB2/3 to a computer: Mac (Core audio)/Windows (JoeCo ASIO driver). An external drive does not have to be connected in Workstation mode as audio files are stored in the computer's drive with the Bluebox acting as a multichannel digital converter (AD/DA); a drive is required for the Bluebox to make a safety copy of audio passing through the unit.
In my home-studio the Bluebox connected via USB2 to my trusty Carillon PC (W7); I had downloaded and installed the JoeCo driver and control app. I selected the JoeCo ASIO drivers in the Propellerhead Reason DAW. Now I had 24 channels of high quality I/O; my mind raced with routing possibilities...I could have all my hardware, instruments, synths and mics hooked up and ready to go. 48 channels? Just link 2 Blueboxes...
I tested the JoeCo Control app on iPad4 and PC and it works beautifully – fast, responsive, not glitchy. On the PC it shows up as a fully-functional miniature display of 4 mixer sections: mix/line input mixer (here the audio inputs/channel strips can be configured); low latency monitor mixer, workstation/DAW out mixer; and a transport/info screen.
These windows are miniaturised but still workable with a mouse and offer a complete visual guide to the status and metering of the Bluebox and all audio activity in a small area of screen real-estate; by clicking on a button in each mixer section it detaches and resizes as a touchscreen-workable app. It is very useful to be able to control the Bluebox hardware inputs via a touchscreen control; the app is unobtrusive when not in use. Neat.
The app also offers internal bus and monitoring options e.g. mono, stereo, L/R, Dim, monitor selection, headphone assignment, talkback and control, etc.
JoeCo Control app
The JoeCo Control panel has pages for: Status, Format (channel count/bit depth), Buffer Settings (ASIO Auto-64- 8192 samples; USB 'minimum' to 'extra safe') and Info (v2.16 for this review). I liked this approach; simple but with a range of control for different operating environments especially the USB buffer.
One thing the Bluebox app will not (currently) do is control the DAW transport controls but JoeCo will be able to easily implement this if there is sufficient demand; it would be a very useful option.
During the review, the JoeCo software was glitch-free and reliable with useful features laid out in a logical manner; no hidden windows or menu-diving; pleasant to look at, and gave clear, instant feedback on system status and metering.
In general, the unit runs pleasantly-warm rather than hot (local temp is usually mid-50's to 60 Fahrenheit /11-13 Celsius); I might take care not to rack it next to hot-running units but it wasn't more than warm to the touch. As I was finishing the review we had the hottest consistent temperatures (30c/86f) for 40 years (in fact, since 1936 in Camden, London); the Bluebox was on all day and night and although painlessly hot it worked perfectly at temperatures that stopped my hoover working.
Given that Gearsluts exist all over the planet (and beyond), +33c/+90f is only 3 degrees more than I tested but it indicates that the Bluebox would benefit from a cool environment in hot places. In fairness, the Sound Devices 702 will do +52c but that is purposed specifically for that application whereas the Bluebox is rack gear. I researched the max. operating temperatures of units that fulfilled a similar function to the Bluebox; some of these were higher (up to 50c) but had less preamps, less functionality or channel count or were larger than 1u. I think +33 and air-con will cover most bases but if I was going into the desert, tropics or jungle I'd find a cool space to work in.
The Relative Humidity specs (20-80% non-condensing) are similar to the 702.
The fan is so silent I didn't hear it until one very, very quiet night – a mid-high pitched hum (which couldn't be heard in the daytime). I had to put my ear within a few inches to hear it properly. Not an issue at all.
The Bluebox remained on for long 20+ hour sessions for multiple days (and one 60 hour session) and it remained stable at all times...absolutely no crashes, freezes or any problem whatsoever.
Audio test of the Bluebox:
Although some of the Bluebox's audio processing is digital (filter, limiter, etc.) the preamp gain is digitally-controlled but analogue. I never once heard anything 'digital' just a quality I associate with great analogue gear, nothing to suggest anything other than high-end. Since I'm writing for Gearsluts I can say '10% Eventide: 20% Neve: 70% Sound Devices' as a complementary character reference.
The digital channel utilities had good settings for music/audio and spoken word/vocals; the HPF at 100 Hz and limiter fixed at -3 dB; perfect for tracking without intruding on the signal path except in emergencies and even then without fuss. Very smooth and clean.
I tried 2 types of test: a preamp comparison with a BAE 1073mpf (below) and a reggae-style track (inspired by Burning Spear's early 80's gig in Tiger Bay, Cardiff). Traditional Welsh music!
I started by recording a reggae-style chop guitar over Reason beats: Fender Custom Tele, bridge pup, split into DI>Bluebox pre; and, a Yamaha 01X amp sim (Hiwatt)>PA then mic'd with a Rode K2 tube mic (omni) and an sE Electronics V3 dynamic mic (supercardioid), these passing to the Bluebox pre's; the mic, pre's and circuitry had done an admirable job of capturing the dynamics and excitement of the Tele chop and also the subtleties of the fx; a bright source without harshness in the recording.
Next a bass part (Ibanez SR500), fingerbass-style rolling, into the same chain but using a Radial JDI and the Vibrolux amp sim; again the Bluebox did a great job of capturing what I wanted to hear...a lifelike, realistic copy of the bass sound in the room. No harshness, no bloom, no drama.
Next I added a synth/piano pad using a Waldorf Streichfett string synthesizer (modded by Gearslut Cozmik Producer). By now I had the impression that the different sources were creating a nice ambience and soundstage in Reason DAW...sparkly, nice high-end – no mud. No latency issues when tracking multiple times whilst monitoring via the Bluebox.
I added some vocals using 3 different dynamic mics (sE V3 and V7 and SM58) through the Bluebox pre's, and a DI'd Tele lead guitar (thanks to Rob Lewis!) and more Reason/sample percussion; also, a (Augustus Pablo-inspired) Melodica.
The track, whilst unfinished, is arguably OK for Bluebox demo purposes. I enjoyed mixing the Bluebox-tracked sources.
Bluebox pre's compared to BAE1073 'Neve-style' pre's:
I am super-impressed by the Bluebox preamps; they sit somewhere between Sound Devices and BAE in terms of tone colour and are clean, lifelike, smooth glass with a hint of honey.
The BlueBox pre's are electronically-balanced: my research shows that electronically-balanced preamps overcome the 'ringing' and impedance-matching problems of transformers but can be susceptible to noise; however, the Bluebox EIN (Environmental Input noise) of <-124dBu (20-22kHz) is amongst the best available at any cost and all the more remarkable with 24 pre's in 1u. In use, this means lot's of clean gain and headroom, and a pure sound.
I asked JoeCo about the signal path (AD/DA) and their practise is to convert the audio as close to source as possible. A lot of design time went into super-clean power rails and jitter-free clocks to give a transparent and colourless capture. In fact, the Bluebox has over 10 separate power rails and more filtered power rails feeding the analogue circuitry.
Link to an audio comparison of the Bluebox and BAE preamps - WAV files below: https://soundcloud.com/gearslutz-rev...073-comparison
BBox Bass tone
BAE Bass tone
BBox Elec Gtr
BAE Elec Gtr
BBox Ac Gtr
BAE Ac Gtr
BBox Hand Drums
BAE Hand Drums
BBox Trem Gtr
BAE Trem Gtr
The JoeCo preamps didn't disappoint me. They sound great; better than I expected and close to, but lighter than, the darker BAE. Would I use them as the only preamp? In the studio: no. No disrespect to the JoeCo's but it would be the same whichever preamp I used; I like variety. But. I'd be perfectly happy to use them on everything and re-track through hardware later, if needed, or transfer to DAW session and use plug-ins.
So are the JoeCo preamps 'high-end'? Yes. That's my subjective impression, in use, in comparison with other 'high-end' preamps, and also what the specs and JoeCo's company lineage suggest. If these preamps were available standalone in 4 or 8 channel units; I'd buy.
In a way the quality of the preamps was the fundamental question in my review: the stand-out point of the JoeCo is it's portability and compactness which is irrelevant if extra kit is needed to get the best out of it. That is its natural niche: portable, small form, high-quality, multichannel, ergonomic, reliable, sturdy. To prosper it must own that niche like a Boss...and it does. That said, I would take an extra pre or two anyway for Gearslut reasons. Be prepared.
Blue for You?
Scenarios for use would be:
- studio interface to DAW/computer or standalone without computer (akin to a multitrack tape recorder);
- live recording with a mixer or as a substitute with iPad control;
- mobile/remote recording with battery power;
- venue installation for playback in different rooms;
- performance tool for studio or live e.g. source for sounds into a console for a dub mix;
- a creative tool for musicians and bands e.g. track backing or attention-free recording.
The Bluebox is also a 'Swiss Army' problem-solver together with I/O breakout, software routing and analogue/digital connectivity. The small form and preamp quality translates well to modern studio applications; a lot of high-end capability in a tight space.
Even when using the Bluebox set-up with a DAW the hard disk recording has value; from power on it's ready to record in 10 seconds. Many times I've lost some impetus powering up the PC or setting up the DAW session (even with templates); with the Bluebox I'm 10 secs from recording and I can add the files to a DAW session later.
A small potential issue (for the DAW soundcard user) is lack of sync between device transport controls and DAW (JoeCo will revisit this if demand requires it); in practice though, given the Bluebox's heritage as 'recorder,' this means that all the session is recorded (in the Bluebox-attached drive) and not just in the DAW (computer drive). ]
JoeCo recommend recording the whole session and this makes a lot of sense particularly in safety-critical sessions or for client/archive duplicates. It's only once in a blue moon that I forget to hit record in the DAW but I have lost one or two classic takes, which wouldn't have happened with the Bluebox. This, together with the 'no delete' policy means file security/integrity.
If there is demand, JoeCo are also open to enabling/modifying certain features via firmware update e.g. limiter settings. I like this proactive approach to customization.
Which problems can the Bluebox solve?
1/ It is a space saver in a studio.
2/ It offers full capability for remote or studio.
3/ It has specific sonic qualities that are very desirable.
4/ It can streamline workflow.
5/ You want safety copies of all original audio.
6/ It's a high-end top quality studio interface.
Mr. Blue Sky?
After 3 months I was kinda sad to return the Bluebox demo unit to JoeCo; it had been fun and I wondered what kind of audio adventures we would have had together: recording a woodland orchestra on battery power; advanced sound capture for film projects; a small business remote recording local artists; a portable travel studio for anywhere...hotels rooms, holidays, etc. The Bluebox would certainly add high-quality flexibility to my studio work and open up new possibilities and business ventures I had never previously considered.
The Bluebox also excelled as a studio soundcard/interface: 1u of 24 I/O with remote control. The DSub I/O also offers a lot of flexibility for customization: patchbay or mixer e.g. X-Desk or RND, or DSub to various jack combinations to suit all scenarios.
One (slight) disappointment was the colour; though not seen once racked. I'm a huge blue fan; especially IKB. The Bluebox is azure blue but with a liberal hint of aquamarine. Still damn sexy though. It graces the studio with its presence and sits well with other equipment, not dominating the scene.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 At around £150/$200 per channel the Bluebox offers great economy of scale especially given the functionality and quality of the hardware, software and sonics. There's a lot of features/functions I haven't covered but add to the value.
Ease of use: 5/5 Reasonable menu-diving given the range of features and functionality. You might think 4/5 in the first week or so. The preamps and dynamics 'grab' the source very well and without fuss. Quick start and gentle learning curve.
Sound quality: 5/5 It would be unfair to award less; I'm sure there are preamps that would score higher on a 0-100 scale but the Bluebox preamps and converters are firmly in the top 20%.
Features: 5/5 Everything you'd need. I'd love to be able to overdub per-track in standalone mode but as JoeCo aren't selling it as that - no points lost.
A very positive review. The Bluebox does everything expected (and that JoeCo suggested); it doesn't interrupt the artistic/engineering process or add complexity, in fact, it simplifies operation of a multi-channel system. My only disappointment (as a musician/artist) was not being able to overdub per channel in Live Mode (despite workarounds); this ability would enable the adventurer musician...remote albums in woodlands, moors and crumbling castles, or complex multi-channel soundscapes.
I think the audio engineer will recognise the facilities, features and control/connect options as professional and proficient; for a novice, a system to grow with and a good long-term investment for music-making or remote recording.
Problems? I tried very hard but could only find one, a small software bug, in the PC app alone. In general though the way the software and hardware integrate is a credit to JoeCo. It's simple and uncluttered with smooth integration: the hardware, PC app (touchscreen or mouse) and iPad work seamlessly, all settings and display updated in real time across devices.
Following the review tests I used the Bluebox as my general everyday soundcard for a few weeks; this was a revealing time as the Bluebox wasn't the focus of testing, it was one integral part of a modular studio system. Apart from the wonderful sound, the Bluebox distinguished itself in facilitating and not hindering workflow; with remote software control the 1u hardware can be racked distantly or be within arms reach and completely silent.
The Bluebox worked perfectly at all times during constant use, often powered on for several days. The JoeCo drivers worked perfectly with minimal latency (not measured but I didn't notice it even when tracking). The software app (a 3-part mixer with transport control) is simple and controls the hardware; personally I find this simplicity an advantage over some of the more complex interface applications.
As always, I tried my hardest to find a reason not to award maximum points: but the sound quality, features, ease-of-use, and bang-for-buck are 5*
Sample rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz
Bit depth: 16/24 bit
Local disk interface: USB2 (compatible with USB3).
Local disk format: FAT32 – Mac and PC compatible.
Local file format: Broadcast WAV (BWAV).
External drive: USB2/3 hard drive or fast memory stick.
Latency: <10uS foldback; 6.5ms av. workstation round trip(depending on computer).
Gain: mic pre 0-+60dB continuously variable.
Selectable high-pass filter:- 12dB/per octave -6dB @ 100Hz
Selectable limiter: hard limiter with near instant attack with threshold at -3dBFS. Recovery set by ear to sound as usable as possible; not adaptive.
DC reject filter in the ADC: 48kHz: [email protected], [email protected]; 96kHz: [email protected], [email protected];
Cross talk rejection: >[email protected]
Impedance: ZIN: >10kOhm (single ended); >2kOhm (differential)
Audio clock sync: Word clock, AES/EBU or SPDIF clock, Video reference* and SMPTE linear timecode* (all std frame rates supported)
Environmental Tech specs: Operating temperature: 0 to +33°C, Relative humidity: 20 to 80% RH (non-condensing)
Power: 12V dc (Kycon 4-pole connector, 35W max.
Physical: 19” rack-mounted 1U (435x44x170mm) – >3kg
References and further reading:
IKB 191 (1962) By Yves Klein - Yves Klein, Weitemeier, Taschen 1994., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/inde...curid=19313447
All other photos with permission from JoeCo and Arthur Stone.