M-AUDIO Black Box - EMusician

M-AUDIO Black Box

Although the Black Box is a brand-new product, it has an established pedigree. M-Audio teamed up with Roger Linn of Roger Linn Design famous for designing
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Although the Black Box is a brand-new product, it has an established pedigree. M-Audio teamed up with Roger Linn of Roger Linn Design — famous for designing Akai's MPC MIDI-production centers in the 1980s and subsequently his own AdrenaLinn and AdrenaLinn II beat-sequenced guitar processors — to design this new device.

The combination of Linn's experience (and algorithms) from the AdrenaLinn series and M-Audio's considerable expertise with USB audio interfaces was fruitful. It resulted in a distinctive product that's part guitar processor and part USB audio interface. In my opinion, it provides more for the recording guitarist than anything previously released by either developer.

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FIG: 1: The Black Box combines a USB recording interface with an AdrenaLinn-inspired -guitar-modeling and sequenced-effects processor, as well as a drum machine.

New Jack City

The Black Box is a tabletop unit that gives you the connectivity you need to record guitar and vocals (see Fig. 1). The front of the unit sports a mono, unbalanced ¼-inch guitar input and a stereo ¼-inch headphone output.

A pair of stereo TRS ¼-inch balanced outputs and an XLR microphone input reside on the rear panel of the unit. The functionality of the latter is limited. Although the 40 dB of gain that it provides is enough to power a dynamic mic on a loud source such as vocals, it may not be enough for acoustic-instrument sources. The mic input has no phantom power, which means that if you want to use a condenser mic, it will need to have its own power supply.

You also get an RCA jack for S/PDIF output. Because the Black Box has no S/PDIF or word-clock input, it must be the clock master when used with other digital audio devices. Additionally, the rear panel has three mono, unbalanced ¼-inch inputs for expression and momentary pedals (see the sidebar “Three on the Floor”).

All of the unit's ¼-inch jacks are bolted securely to the chassis, which helps make the Black Box one of the most solidly constructed M-Audio products that I've seen. The unit comes with a USB connector and an input for the included 9V, 1A power adapter. The Black Box cannot be bus powered.

On the Button

The user interface is composed of buttons, knobs, and an LCD display. Two vertical rows of five buttons are located on the left side. The left-most row contains a Tap Tempo button and two sets of Up-Down buttons; one for selecting between the 99 drum rhythms, and one for choosing from among the 99 presets. The next row features Amp, FX, Delay, and Utility parameter buttons, and the Stop/Start button for the internal drum machine.

The backlit LCD screen takes up most of the Black Box's top panel. It gives users a clear readout of the name of the preset; the currently selected processing block; whether the effects, delay, or the drum machine are active; and which parameters the four knobs beneath the LCD will adjust. Level-adjust knobs for the mic input, the monitor mix between the input signal and the playback signal, the output level, and the guitar-input signal are on the right side of the screen.

What's Inside

Using the Black Box couldn't be easier. Just plug your guitar in and start playing. You can monitor yourself through the headphone jack, the speaker outputs, or through your computer monitors if you're using the USB connection. The guitar-processing section features goodies that are similar to the AdrenaLinn II, including amp models, effects, filters, sequenced filters and arpeggiators, and drum rhythms. There are lots of those to choose from, but you get only about half as many amp models and less effects than are in the AdrenaLinn II.

The Black Box gives you single-channel models of 12 amplifiers. The usual suspects are all represented, such as Fender Blackface, Marshall Plexi, Vox AC30TB, and Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. You also get some less-common classic amps (Hiwatt and Mesa/Boogie Maverick) and boutique amps (Soldano SLO and Bogner Uberschall).

You can adjust only three parameters for each model: drive, bass, and treble. That is quite limited compared with other guitar-interface modelers such as the Line 6 Guitar Port. The Black Box's parameters, however, can be adjusted by turning knobs on the unit itself, rather than having to make adjustments on the screen of a connected computer (as with Guitar Port).

To my ear, none of the Black Box's amp models were totally convincing. Nevertheless, many of them are usable. The Soldano SLO model, for example, sounds nothing like the lead channel of my SLO, but I could still get a gritty, enjoyable tone from it. The parameters all are adjustable between 1 and 99. If you want, you can easily tweak a conventional amp tone into digital burping and “motorboating” (self-oscillating distortion), which is sure to please fans of industrial-metal music.

Effects Box

The Black Box has 43 effects to choose from, including various tremolos, filters, flangers, choruses, autowahs, and more. As with the AdrenaLinn units, it's the sequenced filter and arpeggiator effects that really stand out. Those go far beyond the normal guitar effects and allow you to create exciting modulations, pulsating rhythms, evolving melodies, and spacey soundscapes (see Web Clip 1).

My favorite use of the Black Box was to produce beat-synced effects. I'd pull up a guitar sound that I liked, find a sequenced arpeggiator or filter effect that complemented the rhythm I wanted to play, and then let the effect inspire my creativity. Although the Black Box doesn't let you program your own sequences like the AdrenaLinn II does, it has enough of them to keep a creative user busy for quite a while.

Like the amp models, you can adjust only three effects parameters: Speed (or frequency, depending on the effect), FX Depth (or key, depending on the effect) and FX Wet-Dry (mix). Although you have plenty of sequenced filters, arpeggiators, and modulation effects to choose from, the Black Box does not offer a reverb effect, which I missed. Like the AdrenaLinn II, the Black Box lets you access only one of its effects in addition to the delay in a given preset.

The Black Box's beat-sequenced effects and dedicated delay effect can be synced to the tempo of host software, to MIDI clock (if controlled through its USB drivers), or to the user-adjustable tempo of the internal drum machine. (Even if you choose to turn the drum sounds off, the effects will stay synced to the selected tempo.) You can control the delay time, the repeats, the volume, and the amount of drum machine signal that goes to the delay or the input signal. The delay is very clean and usable, and sounds good when used with the guitar signal and the drum machine (for more tripped-out rhythms).

The drum machine has a solid sound and 99 preset patterns, which can't be edited. Luckily, the presets cover a wide variety of styles and patterns, from four-on-the-floor rock and techno to more exotic styles and odd time signatures.

Safe Driver

As you would expect from M-Audio, the Black Box can be used as a USB recording device and as an audio interface. It's a class-compliant USB device, so connecting a USB cable to your computer and the Black Box instantly gives you recording and playback capability, even before you install any drivers. True to form, when I plugged the Black Box into either my Mac or my PC, it was immediately recognized and selectable as an audio-input source.

If you install the included drivers, you will gain MIDI sync capability, access to the dry guitar signal, and access to the XLR input. You will also gain the ability to update the Black Box through USB, download presets from M-Audio's Black Box Tone Room (www.blackboxtoneroom.com), and process the XLR signal through the Black Box. It is unfortunate that the unit has to be hooked up to a computer to set the effects to process the XLR input. I would love to be able to use the unit live as a sequenced filter for vocals.

Ready, Willing, and Ableton

The Black Box ships with Ableton Live Lite 4 GTR. Although its feature set is stripped down from the full version of Live — it's not capable of MIDI remote-key operation and is limited to four audio and two MIDI tracks — it can record unlimited numbers of clips per track and has Live's other innovative and unique features. M-Audio also throws in 160 MB of Pro Sessions drum loops to use with Live Lite 4 GTR. Black Box owners can upgrade to a full version of Ableton Live if they choose. The Black Box comes with drivers for ASIO II, WDM, and Core Audio, making it compatible with all popular DAW software.

Overall I was impressed with the Black Box. With it's roots in the unique AdrenaLinn processor and M-Audio's affordable USB audio interfaces, the unit should appeal to guitarists who are looking for a simple yet fully capable guitar- and vocal-recording station and processor that doesn't break the bank. This device won't be everything to everyone, but it offers a lot of value for a reasonable price.

Orren Merton is the author of Logic Pro 7 Power! (Course Technology, 2004) and co-author of Logic 7 Ignite! (Course Technology, 2005).

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FIG. A: The optional Black Box Pedal Board adds an expression pedal and two momentary switches to the unit.

SIDEBAR
THREE ON THE FLOOR
At press time, M-Audio disclosed that it is releasing a dedicated foot-control unit for the Black Box, the Black Box Pedal Board ($59.95). The announcement came too late for it to be included in the testing for this review. The unit is scheduled to be released well before this issue hits the stands.

The board (see Fig. A) features a metal chassis, two momentary switches, an expression pedal, and a cable snake for connection to the Black Box. The switches control functions such as turning the tuner or the effects on and off and starting and stopping the drum machine. The expression pedal can control functions such as wah and delay volume.

BLACK BOX SPECIFICATIONS

Analog Inputs (1) ¼-inch TS instrument,
(1) XLR mic
Analog Outputs (2) ¼-inch TRS output,
(1) ¼-inch stereo headphone
Digital I/O USB, S/PDIF (output only) Sampling Rate 44.1 kHz Input Gain 40 dB (mic input), 30 dB (instrument input) Output Gain +14 dBu (analog outputs) Signal-to-Noise Ratio -98 dB (A-weighted) Dynamic Range 98 dB (A-weighted) THD + N .0049% (XLR input),
.003% (instrument input)
Frequency Response ±0.5 dB, 20 Hz to 20 kHz (XLR input);
±0.3 dB, 20 Hz to 20 kHz (instrument input)
Crosstalk -100 dB Dimensions 9.84" (W) × 1.88" (H) × 6.69" (D) Weight 3.54 lbs.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

M-AUDIO Black Box
guitar processor and USB
audio interface
$329.95

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 3.5

PROS: Affordable. Good sound quality. Excellent sequenced effects. Useful drum module. USB class compliant for basic functionality. XLR input. Solid construction. Ableton Live Lite 4 GTR included.

CONS: Few adjustable parameters. Only one effect at a time. No sequence programming. No reverb. Can't process XLR through effects without USB connection to computer. No phantom power.

MANUFACTURER

M-Audio
www.m-audio.com