Friday, October 9, 2009

BBE Sonic Maximizer: Guitar Tone Friendly?

Despite of being endorsed and used by high-profile Heavy Metal guitarists and bassists during the late 1980s and early 1990s, does the BBE Sonic Maximizer really improve your guitar’s tone?

By: Ringo Bones

After listening to Liz Phair wring out righteous tones from her Fender Duo Sonic guitar on Red Light Fever from her eponymous 2003 album for the umpteenth this past few years. I can now safely conclude that a) you don’t need to play at warp speed to perform a really beautiful guitar solo and b) gorgeously loud midranges are a guitarist’s birthright. Given my recent experiences on how the BBE Sonic Maximizer tends to make those very midrange tones sound like the visual equivalent of an airbrushed photo, I now wonder if the guitar world still really needs this quirky black box. But when it comes to Liz Phair’s guitar playing, I just couldn’t airbrush her already excellent tone - Especially not somebody with that kind of soul. Thus the question now is why did the BBE Sonic Maximizer ever gained inroads into the tone obsessed world of electric guitar playing?

After being endorsed by Megadeth and Skid Row during the Golden Age of Heavy Metal – i.e. the late 1980s and early 1990s. Almost every guitarist around the world coveted of using a BBE Sonic Maximizer just because a growing number of guitarists with a major label deal had began using one. Plus given the growing number of boom-boxes and as an audio system ad-on in both pro recording and domestic hi-fi setting, one could safely say that this is one piece of kit that’s aggressively marketed. But how did it sound?

After obtaining one rather cheaply from our local pawnshop that accepts electric guitars and related pro audio gear. All I can say that the BBE Sonic Maximizer – though can do wonders if you are recording into cassette tapes and intend to use cassette tapes as master tapes – is one of those technologically driven products that can sound mediocre, even awful, in its intended application. Its ability to boost the bass and treble ends of the spectrum tends to ruin the sound of most – if not all – applications related to electric guitar recording and / or connecting your axe to a concert PA system.

One of the main reasons that a very distorted guitar tube amplifier sounds so good is that guitar amp speakers can’t reproduce the higher-order harmonics generated as the guitar player overdrives the tubes by cranking up the amp to 11. If it does it tends to make your guitar rig to sound very shrill and somewhat weak. And there is a surprising amount of infrasonic to low bass energy put out by a typical guitar amp. Due to the guitar strings reacting in a resonant manner with the magnetic bias of the guitar’s pickups. And probably the only time when the BBE Sonic Maximizer produced a righteous guitar tone on the intro of Megadeth’s Train of Consequences from their Youthanasia album. But most of the time, the BBE Sonic Maximizer when used in electric guitar applications tend to make your guitar tone shrill and overly weak while making the bass frequencies honk like a drunken tuba player during Oktoberfest.

While I never compared one side by side, there was a similar audio processor intended to enhance the high and low end of the audio spectrum that came out during the height of the BBE craze. It was called the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² with Big Bottom. It was supposedly claimed to enhance the high-frequency region of your recordings or electric guitar while making your 8-inch woofer sounds like a 15-inch woofer without making your rig and recordings sound muddy due to tape saturation and / or system overload. Though it was favorably reviewed in some forums by a number of guitarists for improving their tone, I haven’t yet heard it being compared in a side by side showdown with the BBE Sonic Maximizer.

From my point of view I think the BBE Sonic Maximizer and the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² with Big Bottom were probably produced as tone enhancers by their respective makers - Probably because during the time of these products release, vacuum tubes were getting very scarce. And their respective manufacturers probably decided that since vacuum tubes – and their tone enhancing properties – are going the way of the dodo, it is only logical to create a solid-state based replacement. I can only guess how a BBE Sonic Maximizer could sound – tone wise - if the folks at BBE Sound Inc. decide to make one using Electro-Harmonix 12AX7 preamplifier tubes or equivalent.


  1. Liz Phair's Red Light Fever is probably the best song I ever heard in my 30-year or so existence on this planet. Proof that you don't have to play at Warp Speed to create a very beautiful guitar solo. With a guitar tone that rich, I think Liz Phair probably replaced the tubes of the Fender Twin she's using with a Record by Mullard EL84 tubes.

  2. If Liz Phair really did use her signature (?) Fender Duo Sonic guitar in the actual recording session of Red Light Fever, she might had set the pickups in their hum bucking mode to get that mid-prominent tone. Though I personally have reservations in using short-scale guitars - like the Fender Duo Sonic - because it tends to make me harder to be more skilled in playing a normal sized guitar.
    When it comes to my own experience in emulating Liz Phair's guitar tone on Red Light Fever, I first tried it with my trusty old US made (a family heirloom bought by my granddad in a car boot sale back in the 1960s) Fender Stratocaster. I had sinced tweaked it after buying a heavily discounted single-coil pickup of a Robert Cray Custom Strat and a Lace Sensor pickup similar to the one used by Jeff Beck in his custom Strat. With this set-up, I more or less successfully managed to emulate Liz Phair's mid-prominent / somewhat honky tone on Red Light Fever by switching my tweaked Fender Strat in the hum bucking / hum canceling mode - i.e. switches at positions 2 and 4.
    While the second technique that I tried resulted in a much closer match to the Red light Fever's guitar outro as it was captured on the recording session on Liz Phair's eponymous 2003 album was from my other guitar. It is an old US made Gibson Les Paul also bought by my granddad back in the 1960s in a car boot sale which I since tweaked by connecting the bridge pickups in series and in-phase - as opposed to the standart hum-canceling series and out-of-phase connection of two single-coil pickups. This defeated the bridge pickups hum bucking / hum canceling properties of my Gibson Les Paul, but it did result in a tone that was closer to Red Light Fever as it was recorded.
    When it comes to hum avoidance issues, during the recording session of this particular track, Liz Phair probably avoided serious hum pickup with the help of her trusty seasoned guitar and amp "roadies" who knew how to take measures against hum pickup by a series and in-phase connected non hum canceling guitar pick up. Liz Phair and her session band's recording gear and other equipment was probably powered - like I did - from a Furman IT-1220 Power Conditioning Balanced Isolation Transformer or something similar like Cinepro PowerPRO 20 AC Line Balancer (which I also own in my hi-fi set-up). Both power transformers can lower the inherent 50-Hz or 60-Hz hum of the 110-volt / 220-volt AC line down to inaudible levels as balanced power has already been recognized by the National Electric Code Article 530 for technical power applications for some time now.
    A Record by Mullard version of the EL84 tube? How old is Sherry's guitar amp? Does it date back to the time when Tom Brokaw was still doing a live coverage of the Tet Offensive? I only have six of such extremely rare but tonally-rich tubes. Some of the letters of the labels have already rubbed out in my set, Does it really read "Record" or is there some letters missing? Due to it's extreme rarity, I only use such tube - as opposed to the standard 6V6 tube - in my since tweaked Black Face Fender Champ on special occasions. I had also read that most Alternative Rock musicians prefer Mullard EL84 tubes rather than the more common EL34 tubes when it comes to guitar tonality.

  3. I've searched this particular topic and Michael Penn's name keeps coming up. Vanessa's second set up is probaably right in Emulating Liz Phair's tone on Red Light Fever.

  4. I wonder if Vanessa hangs out with Russell Fischer, the sound engineer for Veruca Salt during the 1990s. I tried a similar pickup - connecting two single-coil pickups in-phase which obviated their hum-canceling properties - configuration back in 1998, though I've abandoned it because I was still a newbie back then when it comes to creating "dampening fields" against airborne RF interference. An in-phase connected pickup such as these gives a very loud and gorgeous tone despite of the disadvantage of hum pickup. Line conditioners such as the CinePro only works with mains-born noise, though it is very effective in protecting your audio and other gear against catastrophic lightning strikes. Did they upgrade the National Electric Code Article 530 for technical power applications because it is ratified over 10 years ago?

  5. Russell Fischer does sound engineering duties for both Veruca Salt and Garbage. As far as the actual guitar set-up used by Liz Phair in the recording session of Red Light Fever, I think you folks should consult Michael Penn on this. Michael Penn also worked with Aimee Mann on the famed Just Say Nöel Christmas album.

  6. Russel Fischer also does FOH work with Queensrÿche - one of my all time favorite guitar based metal bands. Though Liz Phair's Red Light Fever is my current guitar driven songs of the 21st Century. I think the BBE Sonic Maximizer somewhat neutered the overall sonic impact of Heavy Metal Music. I noticed this when Megadeth and Skid Row began to extensively used the BBE on most of their tracks.

  7. Red Light Fever by Liz Phair is one of my all-time guitar based tracks of all time. You guys should do a
    'Pet Sounds" like thing like that of Guitar Techniques magazine to play this song on one's guitar as Liz Phair intended.

  8. Red Light Fever is my favorite guitar driven song of the 21st Century. Up there with Revolution Calling by Queensrÿche from their Operation: Mindcrime album, and Summerland by Kings X from their Gretchen Goes to Nebraska album - especially since this was the time when Kings X guitarist Ty Tabor still kept his guitar amp set-up a closely guarded secret.

  9. Thanks for the valuable feedback. I think that strategy is sound and can be easily replicable.Great posts. I love this article. We build quality rockin blues vintage style Buy electric guitar and matching tube amps. BootLegger Guitar are designed in LA Calif. quality affordable.