1010music's Blackbox packs an awful lot of sampling action into a very compact case.
If you're of a certain age, the name Blackbox might make you involuntarily erupt into the chorus of a late-'80s dancefloor smash. Or perhaps it puts you in mind of indestructible aeroplane flight recorders. In some ways, 1010music's Blackbox could be inspired by both. Let's just overlook the fact that it's dark grey!
Sampling is making quite the comeback lately. For a while, it seemed that everyone had abandoned hardware samplers in favour of the infinite possibilities of software. Even Akai stopped making stand-alone MPCs for a while, favouring dedicated MIDI controllers, until 2017 when, to the delight of many, they introduced the current Live and X models. Now it seems like drum–orientated samplers are more popular than ever. Elektron, Roland, Pioneer, Korg, Jomox, MFB and Synthstrom all have sample–based groove-box products on the market.
Outside The Box
The first thing you'll notice about the Blackbox is just how sleek the unit is. At 14 x 13 x 3cm, this is one compact sampler, which you can genuinely fit in a backpack. In fact, you could throw 10 in and still have room for your sandwiches! There is a reassuring weight and sturdiness to it, the knobs are rock solid and the buttons are high quality. On the desk, it won't slip about thanks to its weight and rubber feet underneath.
The action centres around a crisp, colour 3.5-inch LED touchscreen. This is flanked by four endless encoders, two on each side, which take on different roles depending on what screen you're looking at. There are no actual drum pads, so any finger drumming is also done on-screen, or on a suitable MIDI controller. The screen isn't pressure or velocity sensitive, so a large Velocity slider accompanies the on-screen 4x4 grid so you can set the velocity of any notes being recorded.
A row of eight backlit buttons change the current mode, with the brightest button indicating the current selection. Where a mode might need more than one screen, the Info and Back buttons at the top can be used to cycle through them. Finally, there's a trio of backlit transport controls for play, stop and record.
Round the back we find a USB Type B socket for power; a suitable cable and wall wart are included. There's also a USB Type A jack for connecting MIDI controllers, or if you prefer, MIDI in and out is also available via TRS 3.5mm jacks. Two TRS to 5-pin DIN adaptors are included. All audio inputs and outputs are also on 3.5mm jacks. There's one stereo audio input and three stereo audio outputs, plus a stereo headphone output. Lastly there is clock input and output for synchronising with other sequencers via analogue clock pulses. The Blackbox expects four pulses per quarter note (ppqn) or a pulse per 16th note, or you can synchronise via MIDI Clock.
Loading and saving of files, plus firmware updates, is done via a micro SD card. An 8GB card loaded with presets and samples is included to get you going. On-board RAM is 64MB, however files are streamed directly from the card, with the RAM being used more like a cache, so you're unlikely to run out of memory. File format is limited to WAV, but can be mono or stereo, and most common bit depths and sample rates are supported.
Inside The Box
The Blackbox can hold a single drum kit in memory, comprising of 16 sample slots. There are also 16 sequences of variable lengths. Sequences can be played simultaneously, and triggered live or arranged into a Song. There are two send effects, a delay and a reverb. Only a single sample can be loaded to each of the 16 slots and there's no way to load new kits or projects without stopping the sequencer, which would make it tricky to use the Blackbox in a live set without stopping and starting the music. You can get round the 16 sample limit with some clever use of slicing, a trick well known by Elektron Octatrack users.
The workflow is simple enough that one can easily master the instrument without consulting the manual — always a plus. The white mode buttons are arranged roughly in the order you might need them. You start with Pads mode, where you will load samples, record new ones, tune, trim, edit, slice and perform by tapping out on the 4x4 on-screen pad grid. Keys mode turns the screen into a virtual keyboard and allows you to play the currently selected pad chromatically. The Seqs mode turns the on-screen 4x4 grid into 16 sequencers, which can all play either the on-board pads, or be routed to the MIDI output on a channel of your choosing, for sequencing external instruments. Recording is simple: select a sequence slot and then record into it using either Pads or Keys mode or an external MIDI controller.
Once you've recorded a few sequences, you might want to arrange them into a Song. Song mode allows you to record what it calls Sections. These can be variable length and you can record muting and unmuting of sequences into each one. Up to 16 Sections can be recorded. They can then be renamed and played in order as a Song. You can set Sections to loop indefinitely and trigger them manually instead if you don't want auto-advancement. One nice touch is that you can still launch and stop sequences whilst a Song is playing, so you can improvise over your pre-programmed Song. Song mode is also where you set the tempo and swing value, which are both global.
Moving along the chain we come to the FX button. Here, we see the familiar 4x4 sample grid, along with two effect send sliders on each side of the screen. The effects are fixed, a delay and a reverb. They are simple to say the least. The delay comprises of just delay time and feedback, with the ability to turn tempo sync on or off. The reverb is even simpler, with just decay and pre–delay times. They're good to have, but unlikely to amaze.
Next up is the Mix page. Here you can adjust level and pan for each sample from the 4x4 grid. This layout allows you to mix your kit quickly without diving into subpages. You can also switch to Mute mode, which allows each sample to be muted by pressing the touchscreen.
Preset mode grants access to the micro SD card for loading, saving and naming files. When you save a preset, it contains everything except the WAV files, which are referenced and reloaded from other directories on the card. A preset contains pad configurations, sequences and song information. There's no way to save kits, pads or sequences separately.
The last mode is Tools, where you'll find various preferences such as screen brightness, headphone volume, global MIDI channel, MIDI Program Change enable, metronome setup and a few others. There's also a master compressor in here, but it only has on and off options, and nothing else. As far as I could tell, all it really did was lower the volume of the master output. If it was doing any compression at all, it was subtle, but given the lack of any tweakable parameters, that's probably a good thing.
The workflow is simple enough that one can easily master the instrument without consulting the manual — always a plus.
Diving In Deeper
Going back again to Pads mode, we can delve a little deeper. Each pad can be opened up into a waveform view. Here you can fiddle with start and end times, zooming in and out using the familiar finger-pinch techniques. Here you'll select playback options too. Sample mode plays the sample back with no synchronisation, either as a one-shot or a sustained loop. Clip mode allows for samples to be looped, quantised and synchronised, much like Ableton Live clips. And lastly there's the Slicer. You can cut up your audio using either threshold transient detection or even divisions of your choosing. You can add and delete slices manually if the auto-slicers don't get it quite right. When a sample is sliced, it's possible to select which slice to audition, and this selection remains when you head back to the 4x4 grid screen and becomes the slice which is triggered by the on-screen pad. If you want to play multiple slices, you need to do so from the Keys screen, where the slices are laid out chromatically across the keyboard. Alternatively, you can set the sequencer to cycle though slices in various ways: forwards, backwards, random and a probabilistic drunken 'stagger'. Another nice touch is that the Slice number can be assigned to a modulation source (more on modulation shortly), so you can control which slice will trigger with something like velocity or modulation wheel. What seems to be missing is any way to convert the loop into a sequence, although you can use a sliced loop in Clip mode, which plays back the loop using the slice information to adjust to the current tempo.
Each Pad has four–voice polyphony and can be put in to Mono or Poly mode, and assigned to a choke group. There's also either high- or low-pass digital filtering (but not both). Whilst there's no resonance, the filter is calibrated with a little bite to it, and sounded great to my ears. There are various launch modes for each pad, depending on whether you want one-shot, gated looping or toggle behaviour. Finally, a basic amplitude ADSR rounds off the options for each pad.
Which brings us nicely to the topic of modulation. Some, but not all, parameters have three modulation slots underneath. Each slot allows you to choose a source and modulation amount. The number of sources and destinations is a bit limited. For example, you can modulate pitch, level, slice, start, end and loop points, but not filter, envelope controls or anything relating to sequences or effects. Also the selection of sources is small: MIDI velocity, pitch bend, mod wheel and a couple of control changes. There are no LFOs and no assignable envelopes. To make things worse, the only modulation source which can be recorded into a sequence appears to be velocity — all others are ignored when recording. And even then, if you want velocity to affect, for example, pitch, you have to assign that pad its own MIDI channel. Modulation will not work at all when using the Global MIDI channel. Unfortunately, by this point, I felt like the modulation was so restricted, I gave up trying to use it.
Thankfully, sampling itself is pleasingly simple. Select a pad and sample directly into it. Sampling is fixed at 48kHz/24-bit, but can be stereo or mono. If desired, a length can be set in beats and bars, otherwise you simply start and stop manually. Being able to synchronise transport and recording allows for perfectly timed loops. There's also an option to start sampling at a certain threshold, although not one to stop it. There is no option to resample, so if you want to capture a sequence internally, you'll have to route an output back to an input.
Apart from the obvious drum machine application, the Blackbox's flexibility means it could turn its hand to some less apparent tasks. For example, it would make a great little ident launcher for radio programs. Thanks to disk streaming, it could perform a DJ set. It could even find itself in multimedia installations. As long as you don't need deep sound design or modulation capabilities, it's a flexible little box. The touchscreen feels responsive, slicing audio files is a breeze, and general sequencing and performance is fun and creative. I also really like having three stereo or six mono outputs on a device of this size and price.
The limit of 16 sample slots could be problem for some, along with the inability to load multiple presets or kits. An entire live set is unlikely to fit into 16 samples and 16 sequences, so if you're looking for a gigging sampler, make sure you have time to load songs on stage. It's also a bit weak on the sound design front, modulation capabilities are bizarrely limited, and the effects aren't anything to write home about.
But having a box that can sample, slice, loop and sequence, with generous audio outputs, plus MIDI and USB hosting, will be enough for some. If you already have a sequencer and a few synths, it could easily bring lightweight sample playback and loop slicing to the party. With a suitably large micro SD card, you could have your entire sample library ready to stream at a moment's notice. And, rather like the aforementioned aeroplane safety recorder, it's built to last.
For the price, the Blackbox is reasonably unique, especially if you're looking for something with multiple audio outputs, a proper LCD screen, sample slicing, etc. At a very similar price is the Elektron Digitakt. It offers more sound design potential and that very popular Elektron sequencer, but only has a single stereo output and, for reasons I still can't comprehend, only supports mono files. If you save a little more money, Akai's MPC Live will give you a bigger screen, a more mature platform and proper pads to hit. But it's considerably bigger and doesn't support disk streaming.
- Disk streaming for effectively limitless sample time.
- Flexible audio playback options.
- Great slicing features.
- Plenty of audio outputs.
- Superb build quality.
- Only 16 sample slots.
- Finger drumming on a small touchscreen won't suit everyone.
- Modulation possibilities are limited and cannot be recorded into sequences.
Despite some limitations, the Blackbox manages to pack a lot of sampler into a box no bigger than a Nintendo DS.