Simple: It fits the theme.
The Black Box (BB for short) is ideal for EQ’s style of applications-oriented reviews, because just saying what it is doesn’t help much in understanding the way it can applied. The BB is a indeed different from the norm, because it doesn’t follow the traditional interface/processor paradigm.
What’s more, M-Audio recently relaunched the BB with Version 2 firmware, which alters its personality even further. Aside from adding features, the BB is now compatible with M-Audio’s Pro Tools M-Powered software, which is also somewhat misunderstood (see sidebar).
First, do some homework: Surf on over to www.m-audio.com/products/ en us/MAudioBlackBox-main.html for the details, so we don’t have to waste space here on repeating the specs. You’ll also find info there on the Black Box Pedal Board accessory, which has an expression pedal and two footswitches.
SO IS IT A POD OR AN ADRENALINN?
Neither. The BB was designed in conjunction with Roger Linn (the drum machine/MPC guy), and borrows liberally from his outstanding AdrenaLinn guitar processor. But what many people don’t know about Roger is that he’s a songwriter with a few hits under his belt. So it’s not surprising that perhaps the primary BB application is as a songwriting tool for guitarists — just scan the feature set, and you’ll see what I mean.
-It’s a recording interface. So if you’re working with a host program, you can catch any inspiration and blast it into a track.
-There’s a mic input and a guitar input, which can record simultaneously (with direct monitoring, which means you’re monitoring the processed signal going into the computer — not the one coming out of the computer, which is subject to latency).
-Pretty much everyone agrees it’s more inspiring to write to drums than a metronome, and the BB includes some fine “load and go” drum patterns for its built-in drum machine.
-There’s guitar processing, because like having drums, a good guitar sound will inspire you as well.
The other main application is more specific: The BB provides unusual, tempo-synced effects — perfect for any kind of highly rhythmic musical genre, like hip-hop, trance, techno, etc., but which can also add a new dimension to pop and rock parts. You can put the drums and mic through the effects, as well as delay and reverb, which can be especially cool for drum overdubs.
This is the AdrenaLinn part of the equation; overall, BB is slightly more limited in terms of tweaking, but includes more amp models and is easier to use.
WE ALL WANT A NO-BRAINER INTERFACE
One of the requirements for a songwriting tool is that it have a no-brainer interface, so I did the “musician reality test” of trying to make it work without reading the manual. I/O is obvious: Four knobs on the right control levels for the mic in, guitar in, output level, and a control for mixing the direct monitoring inputs with playback from your host. Simple enough.
Ten buttons access the various editing functions (drums, amp type, effects, etc.). These take a little bit of thought, but not much. When you call up a function, four related parameters show up in the display, and each has an edit knob. For example, if you call up the FX function, one knob chooses the effect. The other three choose effect parameters (e.g., for chorus they’re FX speed, which can be tempo-synched, FX depth, and FX wet/dry). Bottom line: Upon installing the drivers, I had no problem getting audio in and out of the host, choosing effects, and editing them.
However, the latest firmware adds a “Shift” function to some controls, where you “double-click” a button to access a different function. This is not obvious, so check the updated manual or manual addendum (both available online). For example, the original BB amp models had bass and treble parameters. In the update, if you double-click the “Amps” button, the bass control does double-duty and affects the midrange. Similarly, double-click on the dedicated Delay button to access parameters for the reverb that’s new to V2.
Incidentally, BB V1 owners can grab the update for free. And yes, it’s worth the download time — even if you’re on dial-up.
Product type: USB interface with built-in guitar processing, tempo-synched effects, and drum loops
Target market: Guitarists, particularly those into songwriting, who need innovative effects and computer I/O.
Strengths: Novel, inspiring effects. Pro Tools M-Powered compatible. Includes drum machine and mic input. Easy to navigate. About half the price of an AdrenaLinn but has more amp models and the same effects pedigree.
Limitations: Can’t monitor drums while recording stereo processed guitar without recording the drums as well (you can do this with both in mono). Can’t mix and match amps and cabinets. No software editor/librarian.
Price: $329.95 list price