New from M-Audio and Roger Linn Design is the multifaceted guitar processor, the Black Box ($329). Unlike most other stomp-box type of effects, the Black Box is a stylish four-pound tabletop device. What makes this unit different is the combination of amp modeling, beat-synched effects, a drum machine and an audio recording interface (Win XP or Mac OSX 10.3.7 or higher).
Readers not familiar with Roger Linn may be interested to know that he designed the first programmable sampled-based drum machines 25 years ago. Many hit records from the 1980s used his products (which originally sold from $3,000 to $7,000). Fast forward to 2005. Roger Linn Design now manufactures the AdrenaLinn II line of guitar performance processors. As to be expected, the M-Audio Black Box is based on AdrenaLinn II technology.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, live
Key Features: Amp modeling, Drum Machine, Beat-synced effects and delays, Expression pedal to control effects parameters, Two Footswitch inputs for internal functions, Computer interface, Chromatic Tuner
Contact: M-Audio at 626-633-9050, Web Site.
Gracing the top panel is an ergonomically-designed combination of buttons, knobs and a large LCD. Around the sides are a variety of connectors including a guitar input jack, 1/4-inch TRS balanced outputs and a S/PDIF output, several multifunction pedal jacks, a headphone connector, Kensington lock slot, and a USB connector for a computer. Another nice touch is an XLR input and level control for a dynamic microphone. A mic stand mounting bracket is also included. These guys think of everything!
At the heart of the Black Box are 100 factory and 100 user presets. Each preset is comprised of an amp model, effects and delay. To divide it out further, there are 12 virtual amps including classic models by Fender, Marshall, Vox, Mesa Boogie and others. Basic amp settings handle the amount of distortion along with bass and treble controls.
To spice things up, the Black Box offers 43 effects. The first 32 are beat-synched to the internal drum machine. Play a note on your guitar and the effect’s tempo will be perfectly synchronized with the drum pattern. Tempos may be set with the tap tempo button, manually via an internal menu or by external MIDI clock. As to be expected, there is the standard collection of chorus, flange, tremolo, and wah-wah in addition to more esoteric filter sequences, random filters, arpeggiators, and MIDI effects. Users can adjust the speed of each effect, tonal qualities, and depth. Interestingly, you won’t find any mention of reverb or pitch shifting effects in the Black Box.
Rounding out each preset is a Delay section. Values may be fixed or beat-synched with control of note division, repeats and volume. The coolest feature, however, is the Drums to Delay/Input setting. This enables the onboard drum machine’s signal (or a microphone’s signal) to be routed into the Delay effect or directly to the input path of the Black Box. Depending upon the DSP effects and delay parameters used, the results can wonderfully warped and original.
Speaking about the drum machine, there are 100 fixed drumbeats in a variety of styles. Simply hit the Start/Stop button, adjust the tempo, pick up your guitar and start jamming.
One of my criteria for user-friendly gear is to see how far I get without cracking the manual. The Black Box passes with flying colors. It’s easy to navigate and logically designed. With that said, I still recommend reading the documentation. M-Audio includes a Quick Start booklet and more extensive information on one of the CDs.
The next thing I look for in this kind of box is the “fun-factor.” What happens after I play a few presets? Am I glued to this machine or would I rather clean the bathroom? Needless to say, I had a hard timing pulling myself away. I imagine most guitarists, like myself, will feel like rock stars when they start playing with this box!
With that said, I found most of the presets overhyped and saturated with distortion. Adjusting the parameters is easy, but don’t expect the plethora of settings found in most pro audio gear. By far, the best parts of this box are the ripping amp models and creamy effects sections. Unfortunately, I did not find much inspiration in the drums patterns. They seemed utilitarian at best with no adjustable parameters. As mentioned before, routing the drums through the effects and delay sections really brought them to life.
I recorded a bunch of jams into Pro Tools both digitally and through the TRS connectors. This box sounds really good although the presets are heavily compressed. I also compared the amp models to the Amp Farm and Amplitude plug-ins. They all sounded great with no clear winner. One complaint, however, the Black Box’s S/PDIF and USB connectors only function at 24-bit/44.1kHz. Hey, there are musicians out there still using older HD recorders, DAT machines and CD recorders. How about a 16-bit option?
M-Audio was smart to include drivers for WDM, ASIO and CoreAudio for sequencing programs like Ableton Live, GarageBand, SONAR, Digital Performer, Logic and others. In fact, there’s even a copy of Ableton Live Lite 4 GTR in this package. And if that’s not enough, M-Audio also provides 160MB of free drum loops from their ProSessions Sound and Loop Libraries. How can you say “NO” to that?
Astute readers may wonder what the differences are between M-Audio’s Black Box and Roger Linn’s AdrenaLinn II. As he puts it, “The Black Box combines the most popular AdrenaLinn II sounds with simpler panel controls and a computer audio interface at about 60% of the cost.” In other words, the Black Box is a straight ahead plug-and-play device; whereas the AdrenaLinn II will appeal to tweak-heads looking for more power and control (and a higher price). Take your pick.
Anyway you look at it, M-Audio’s Black Box offers the best bang-for-the-buck money can buy. I’m sure guitarists will love that. And yes, it really is black!