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.