The guitar modelling revolution continues apace with M-Audio's latest interface.
The Black Box from M-Audio is based on the amp-modelling and effect technology developed by Roger Linn (inventor of the Linndrum) for his ambitious Adrenalinn guitar effects box. However, this unit has a completely new user interface designed to make it much simpler to use.
The Black Box is more than a simple modelling unit. It provides a Pro Tools M-Powered-compatible USB audio interface for Mac and PC that includes a mic input and an S/PDIF output, enabling it to function as a recording system as well as a performance front-end for guitars. The bundled copy of Ableton's Live Lite 4 GTR will get you off to a good start if you don't already own a sequencer. M-Audio have also released an optional floor controller (available separately) with two switches and a pedal, to make operation more practical in live situations.
The latest units ship with the v2 firmware (for anyone who buys one without it, the firmware is a free download), and with this the Black Box offers 40 amp models, 121 effects, 100 drum patterns and a guitar tuner, as well as 100 factory presets to help you hit the ground running. As with the Adrenalinn, the drum patterns are there mainly to jam along to but they do include some great drum sounds and grooves that would work well as part of a serious composition. You can't chain these patterns to create songs, but I guess that's not really the idea.
Sensible tempo-sync'ing options mean that rhythmic effects, such as stepped filters, choppers and panners, can automatically (via the USB MIDI connection) beat-sync to your song tempo, as well as to the internal drum patterns.While it's not unusual to offer such a tempo-sync'ing facility, the Black Box differs from most of the modelling competition in the scope of its tempo-related filtering and arpeggiation effects. The majority of these aren't offered by any competing guitar processor — in fact, the nearest thing to some of the tuned, resonant effects is the 'Resonant Chords' preset from Lexicon's upmarket PCM81 effects processor.
The Adrenalinn was criticised for being too complicated for the average guitar player, but M-Audio have done a great job in making the Black Box as friendly as any other guitar-modelling preamp. This has a lot to do with the unit's large LCD window, and the four knobs beneath it that always relate to the parameters that are currently shown on the LCD.
To use the Black Box with a computer, you must be running Windows XP or Mac OS X (v10.3.7 or later). You can operate it as a USB plug-and-play device without installing the included driver software, but that limits the I/O to its most basic and means that you can't use the MIDI sync either. The full manual comes as a PDF file on the included install disc, but you can explore most of what's on offer without ever delving into the manual. However, it's worth at least running through the very brief quick-start guide in case you miss something.
Powered by the usual external power supply, the Black Box is made from a tough plastic with a metal base-plate. The guitar input socket and headphone jack are located on the front edge, with the remaining sockets on the back. These comprise a pair of stereo jack outputs, the XLR mic input (no phantom power) and a standard USB connector. The S/PDIF digital output runs at 44.1kHz and is on the usual RCA phono connector, and there are jacks for connecting an optional expression pedal and a couple of switches, for more immediate control. It is into these that the Black Box pedalboard can be plugged. The top panel is dominated by a very large, backlit display showing patch and parameter information, and four accompanying knobs, of the continuous shaft-encoder type. To the right are more conventional rotary level controls for the mic input, input/playback monitor mix, overall output and the guitar input. Both the mic and guitar inputs have simple metering in the form of green signal LEDs and red Clip LEDs.
To the left of the display are 10 buttons relating to preset selection, drum-beat selection and effects, which are broken down into amp models, effects and delay. There's also a tap tempo button for setting the rate of delays and other time-dependent effects, a start/stop button and access to a utility page and guitar tuner. The tuner is called up by pressing the Delay and Utility buttons together but other than that, all pages follow the same format, with the four encoders adjusting the on-screen parameters. Presets can be recalled or stored and in all cases, pressing the relevant button brings up a simple menu that's easy to navigate. Drum patterns are stored alongside the guitar and effects setup but the drum/guitar balance is a global setting, not stored per patch.
At the heart of the system is the guitar amp and speaker modelling, which is couched in the usual legal jargon enabling the manufacturers to list the 'real life' amplifiers that were studied to create the models. Most of the usual suspects are included and encompass emulations of classic Fender, Vox, Marshall, Hiwatt, Mesa Boogie and Soldano amplifiers, as well as some lesser-known boutique amplifiers. These tend to sound unnaturally dry until you add a little delay, but on the whole they compare favourably with other modelling products and convey the essential flavour of what they're trying to emulate. The cleaner tones are particularly nice, especially in view of the fact that such tones can tend to sound a bit dull on some modelling devices or plug-ins.
Roger Linn is clearly a rhythm kind of guy, and this direction shows up in the delay and effects sections, where you can set delays to various note values, including triplets. The overall tempo can be tapped in manually or extracted from incoming MIDI Clock, or you can enter delay values directly, up to a maximum of 2.7 seconds. The same sync system is used to lock up those stepped filters, tuned flangers and rhythmic chopping effects, some of which change the guitar sound in such an abstract way that you're hard pushed to recognise that it is still a guitar. Although guitar models and their effects can be saved as patches, it is possible to call up guitar setups and rhythm patterns separately. As with the Adrenalinn, it is also possible to use effects to process the drum loops, so although you can't edit them to give different rhythms, you can certainly influence the way they sound.
The effects section is comprehensive and offers all the usual studio and stomp effects such as tremolo, flanger, chorus, phaser, wah-wah and a simulated voice-box using formant-type filtering. Then there are the esoteric resonant filters, arpeggiated filters and tuned flange effects, but no reverb. All the effects have fairly simple controls, much in the style of a stomp box, for altering effect depth, rate, level and so on, and in the case of the wah-wah this can be automatic or controlled from an optional expression pedal. For me, the big departure from the norm is the range of filter-sequencing effects that allows the guitarist to create things like sample-and-hold filter effects or resonant flangers that pick out different notes from a distorted power chord. If you need to play the intro to 'Won't get fooled again' and the keyboard player is stuck in traffic, this box will get you out of a hole!
If you're into MIDI control, you can use note value, velocity or modulation information to modify the behaviour of the filters and flangers in a very direct and controllable way, and because the effects are so precise and rhythmic, they may even attract the attention of dance music composers who shy away from guitars. Even the more obvious guitar effects, such as tremolo and vibrato, can be locked to MIDI tempo. The drum-loop library comprises mainly solid, bread-and-butter rhythms that are actually useful rather than fancy licks that nobody can play along to, and there's a good variety of acoustic and electronic drum sounds.
If you just want to use the Black Box as a simple modelling preamp with effects, you can ignore the USB connector entirely and just play guitar through the box, although this means that you lose the ability to sync the effects via MIDI. Instead, they simply sync to the drum-loop tempo. For recording, the Black Box shows up as a four-input USB Audio interface once you've installed the included support software for Windows or Mac, and you can then access the MIDI sync feature to get your effects running along with your sequencer. You can record either the mic input or guitar on its own, or both together on separate sequencer tracks. The way the routing works is that the unprocessed guitar shows up as input three while the unprocessed mic is on input four. Inputs one and two source from the stereo output of the effects processor, so what you hear is what you record — complete with models and effects. Because the sounds are created using DSP chips inside the black box, you can switch off the software monitoring in your sequencer and hear the processed guitar or mic signal mixed with the sequencer output without suffering any latency, which can be useful on overstretched systems where you need to set a large buffer size to keep your computer stable. Here, the Input/Playback knob balances the DAW playback level with the level of the guitar or microphone that you're recording.
I had some initial problems getting the unit to sync up in Logic, because after I'd made all the apparently correct settings, Logic refused to start when I hit the Play button. Disabling Logic 's Auto Sync function fixed this, and as the Black Box can also be set to respond to MIDI Machine Control (MMC), it also starts and stops correctly, as well as running in sync. This all works fine once you have the right settings in your software, but some form of confirmation display on the Black Box, to show that it is receiving MIDI Clock and MMC, would make troubleshooting easier.
When hooked up via USB, the Black Box monitors the computer output via both its main stereo outs and the headphone out, although you can mix in the direct monitoring via the relevant control to set up zero-latency monitoring. To avoid annoying echoes, you need to either mute the track you're recording on to or disable software monitoring in your host program. I managed to kill the entire system once, while scrolling through effect options, and had to reboot the computer and the Black Box to get my audio back, but that's the only time I experienced any problems.
Personally, I don't like having additional audio interfaces hooked up to my computer, as they tend to complicate things, so if you're not using the Black Box as your main or only interface, you may prefer to use the USB link just to provide MIDI sync and select your usual I/O box for making the audio connections. This may not have the zero-latency monitoring, but with buffer sizes lower than 256 samples, the delay is negligible anyway. I tried this and it worked fine, so whichever way you want to work, you're covered.
On a more subjective level, the guitar sounds seem to me to be a little on the bright side, which gives them a very American vibe that cuts through well in a mix and is particularly well suited to modern rock styles. The mildly distorted blues tones seem less authentic to my ears, but they are still very usable. Clean sounds work well too, and where some of the models may lack a little in authenticity, the ingenious and often unique effects more than make up for it. As with all modelling boxes played through studio monitors, you shouldn't compare them with the sound of a real amp standing next to you but rather the sound of the real amp on a record. The Black Box doesn't have options to switch speaker boxes and virtual mic positions, as some of its competitors do and, as I said earlier, there's no reverb in the effects section, but it can still get pretty close to most of the established guitar sounds, as well as offering lots of abstract effects.
I have one of the original Adrenalinn boxes, and while it offers a little more flexibility if you want to customise the sequencing effects, the 'no-brainer' user interface of the Black Box makes getting impressive results infinitely easier. While you can't actually edit the arpeggio effects you can, where appropriate, change their pitch or musical key, and there are patches that allow you to 'play' the filter or flange resonances using MIDI notes, sweep them from MIDI controllers or change the filter frequency according to MIDI Velocity. Not only is this great fun, it's also very easy to do by simply routing a MIDI sequencer track to the Black Box's MIDI In. On the whole, the drum grooves are also very solid and easy to play along to, but they don't replace the capabilities of a drum machine where you can program a complete performance. I also like having the delay as a separate effect, so it's always available, and it's easy enough to add reverb after recording in just about any DAW. If I were to make a suggestion, it would be that some kind of rhythm editor software be provided for creating your own rhythmic chopping or modulation patterns using a simple grid like the old drum machines. This would make it easy to set up custom rhythms to drive the effects.
I loved the concept of the Adrenalinn but found its operating system too clunky to be friendly, and it was eventually consigned to my 'life is too short' drawer. The Black Box seems to deliver almost everything the Adrenalinn does, but in a straightforward and intuitive way that renders the manual almost unnecessary. If all you need is modelled guitar sounds, there are probably more appropriate choices, but if you invest in a Black Box you also get a practical USB audio interface, an instant-gratification beatbox and some truly unique sequenced filter and resonant flange effects, as well as rhythmic chopping, sync'd pan/tremolo, and all the rest. For me, the sequenced effects are the clincher, and although you might not use them in every song, they stand out from the crowd. In a studio processor, this feature alone is worth the price, as it enables the guitar to be used in a much more flexible way across a range of musical genres, especially dance and experimental.
The availability of a (optional) dedicated floor controller adds to the attraction for live performance, but in my view the Black Box really stands out as a creative studio tool, where all its sync options can be used to full effect. Even if you already have a perfectly good modelling preamp, the Black Box is a very worthwhile addition to any studio setup for that very reason, and of course you can also use it to process vocals and other instruments. The price has recently dropped, which also makes the Black Box something of a bargain!
If you're looking for an all-in-one-box solution, Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, along with its audio interface and controller pedal, is an obvious candidate. There are other options out there too, and with a suitable interface an all-software solution might suit you in the studio. However, there isn't much out there to compete with the Black Box on the tempo-syncable effects — at least, certainly not in this price range.