You'd think a guy who changed the way music was made not once but twice would be content to take a break and go fishing. But no. After creating the world's first programmable, sample-based drum machine (the LM-1) and the groovetastic Akai MPC60 and MPC3000 sampling workstations, Roger Linn returned to his first love--guitar. His AdrenaLinn and AdrenaLinn II guitar processors introduced rhythmically synchronized effects and filters, delivering yet another breakthrough sound for musicians.
Then in 2005 Linn teamed with M-Audio to make the Black Box, adding that company's manufacturing and recording expertise to his AdrenaLinn effect concepts. Last month, the partnership released version 2 of the Black Box firmware, adding more effects, more control, and enhanced computer features.
So what is the Black Box? According the press release, it's "the first creative tool for guitarists that combines amp modeling, powerful beat-synced effects, guitar/mic preamps, and drum tracks with an audio interface for computer-based recording." According to this reviewer, it's just plain cool.
You might expect the Black Box to be a stealthy, coal-black cube. Actually, it looks a bit like an oversized game controller (see Figures 1 and 2). It doesn't take up much room on your desktop, and you can also mount it on a mic stand via a socket on the bottom. Connect the optional pedal board for a potent gig rig.
The Black Box debuted in January 2005; version 2 is a significant improvement. (Owners of the original can download the update from M-Audio for free.) Inside are models of 40 guitar and bass amps (up from 12 in the original), 121 beat-synced filter and modulation effects (up from 43), 100 drumbeats, a separate beat-synced delay, essential goodies like a tuner and noise gate, and a new stereo reverb and compressor (neither was included in the original).
Here's how it works. Say you want to dial up a nice twangy cowboy-surf tone. First, select an amp model--a Fender Twin, say. Touch the FX button, select Tremolo 1, and things get very interesting indeed. In addition to the usual numerical settings for tremolo rate, your choices include note values--everything from eight bars (!) to 32nd-note triplets, perfectly synced to either the internal metronome or your sequencer (check out Example 1). As someone who has struggled to match tremolo to a track more times than I care to count, I was sold right there.
Figure 1. The Black Box is neatly laid out: two columns of buttons on the left for moving through the presets and drum patterns or selecting parameters to edit, four knobs on the right for level adjustments, a great big LCD screen, and four continuous soft knobs. There's a single Hi-Z input for your guitar and a 1/4-inch headphone jack in the front. Metering is limited to signal-present and clipping LEDs for the guitar and mic inputs.
Figure 2. A microphone input lets you process or record your voice or acoustic instruments. (There's no phantom power, limiting you to dynamic mics unless you have an alternative power source.) Output choices include balanced left and right line outs, S/PDIF digital, and USB 1. Output resolution is always 24-bit, 44.1kHz for both the digital outs and USB port. Inputs for two momentary switches and an expression pedal, and the receptacle for the wall-wart power adapter, round out the panel. Note the slot for the Kensington lock.
But wait a minute. What's a Twin Reverb without the 'verb? As originally released, the Black Box had none. Nor did it have midrange tone settings, even on models of amps with that control. Compression? Nope.
You must use Shift mode to access the new features. For instance, to add compression, first twist the second knob from the left and double-tap on the Amp button, and then twist the knob again.
There is no way to lock into Shift mode, so setting all three reverb parameters takes a whole lot of twisting and tapping. And we haven't even set the noise gate yet. If ever a device were in need of a software editor, this is it.
Among the 40 amp choices are numerous models of modern high-gain and boutique amplifiers. That puts me at a disadvantage; I've never played through a Bogner Ecstasy, ENGL Powerball, or Matchless Chieftain, to name but three. So do the models sound like the real thing? I haven't a clue. All I know is that they sound very good:
The models do not faithfully recreate every parameter of the originals. You get just four controls: bass, midrange, treble, and drive. (Though Nigel Tufnel would be envious--the drive on this one goes to 99!) Nor can you choose among speaker cabinets or mic placements.
I asked Linn how the amp models--specifically the cabinet settings--were developed. He replied, "We modeled the cabinets that come with each amp. Where cabinet options existed, we chose the one users liked best. And we didn't actually apply the same set of tone-shaping parameters to each amp. The entire audio path of each model is uniquely modeled after the real amp: the preamp overdrive, tone control frequencies and range, power amp, speaker, cabinet, and the mic most often used in classic recordings of that amp."
That's good to know, but I'm not sure how much the authenticity matters. I look at amp modeling as a creative tool, and the Black Box delivers a wide palette indeed. Check out the audio clips on M-Audio's website for more examples. For those who crave more flexibility, there's the AdrenaLinn.
The Black Box now includes a handful of bass amps as well. But watch out--I encountered clipping and distortion sometimes, even with levels well in the safety zone. M-Audio is working on the problem; for now, tech support suggests lowering the preset volume (via the Utility menu) when you play bass. Preset 00 bypasses all of the modeling and effects for the pure DI sound many bassists prefer.
I was curious how the unit would sound with my acoustic guitar. I recorded Example 3 direct, using a piezo pickup and the Microphone Preamp model. Not bad, but I wish I had some parametric EQ and microphone modeling to fatten up the tone.
(Insider tip: Although there's no true parametric EQ, setting the effect to Fixed Filter calls up a variable-frequency, mixable bandpass filter, giving you most of the benefits of a parametric EQ.)
The amps are cool, but effects are what it's all about. I already mentioned the slick beat-synced tremolo, but wait until you hear some of the others:
It's a huge tool kit. There's everything from chorus, flanger, phaser, and rotary speaker simulation to variations on the auto-wah theme, to oddly compelling filter sequences, to drool-free talkbox effects. Many effects were ported from the AdrenaLinn and simply cannot be described without resorting to bad poetry. To say the effects are inspiring is sort of like saying the Grand Canyon is a ditch.
The 20 arpeggio sequences are weirdly wild. No, they won't arpeggiate chords held on your guitar. Instead you trigger a fixed sequence of notes--major, minor, Lydian, etc.--no matter what you play:
Everything syncs flawlessly to tap-tempo, the internal drumbeats, or (when connected to a computer) your sequencer's tempo map.
By default, the microphone input bypasses all of the modeling and effects. You can change the routing via a computer control panel (see Figure 3). Isn't it nice to know you can create sonic mayhem on your vocals, too?
Figure 3. The software control panel is pretty basic. Use it to archive and restore your patches and to route the signal from the Hi-Z or mic input through the effects.
Although the Black Box isn't a true multi-effects processor, the intoxicating beat-synced delay effect is always available. Oh, I can quibble--where's the panning-multitap-ping-pong-lo-fi tape delay? For that matter, where's the panning? But let's talk about creating a delay that repeats every two measures! Of course, you can always dial in delays manually (up to 2,511 milliseconds) for that old-school sound. And most of the 121 effects include auto-panning, albeit with fixed settings.
Although it's loaded with 100 drum patterns, the Black Box isn't a drum machine. There's no way to link patterns together to create songs, though you can assign a particular beat and tempo to a preset and step through the presets with the optional foot controller. There's also a rudimentary intro/ending function.
Given Roger Linn's expertise in drum machines, I wondered why the Black Box's drum section was so basic. Did he intend the drums mainly as a practice tool? For inspiration? Where did the patterns come from?
"The basic idea of the product is that it's a very powerful guitar processor with a simple drum machine," he explained. "The drum machine serves two purposes: it provides basic beats to play along to when you're not connected to the computer, and it provides a metronome for the beat-synced effects. For example, if you select one of the beat-synced effects when you aren't connected to the computer, how would you know when to start playing? If a user desires a drum arrangement, his recording software can provide either sequenced beats or loops in perfect sync. Regarding the patterns, they came from the AdrenaLinn II, as did the rest of the Black Box technology."
By and large, the patterns get the job done, with rock and electronic beats predominating. You can't edit the patterns or load your own. Ah, but you can send the drums through the filters or delay for more rhythmic variety:
The optional foot controller (Figure 4) combines two momentary switches with an expression pedal. (You can also use your own pedals.) Everything's customizable, naturally. All well and good, but what if you want more control? Sadly, you cannot connect a MIDI foot controller such as the DigiTech Control 8.
And speaking of control, although you can store and recall your edits via the software Control Panel, there's no way to edit patches on your computer. Nor can you use the foot controller to automate effect parameters through your sequencer.
However, you can automate some effect parameters by sending MIDI messages over USB from your computer. MIDI notes can transpose arpeggios up and down or alter the filter frequency and flanger delay. You can control the filter and flanger with MIDI Velocity and Control Changes as well.
Figure 4. The optional pedal board's momentary switches let you tap the tempo, select presets and drum beats, start and stop drums, and turn the tuner, effects, amp, and delay on and off. The expression pedal controls amp drive, effects speed/frequency/depth/key, wet/dry mix, delay volume/repeats, drums-to-delay amount, and drums-to-filter amount.
By Roger Linn
Black Box mastermind Roger Linn built his first drum machine to accompany his songwriting and guitar playing. We asked what he especially liked about the Black Box, and he sent us these notes and custom audio examples.
One of my favorite parts of Black Box is the filter sequence effect. These two-measure looped sequences of filter tones can make your guitar sound absolutely magical, inspiring you to go down new and different musical paths. Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of this effect. (By the way, if you haven't yet downloaded the free version 2 firmware upgrade from the M-Audio website, do it now, because it dramatically increases the capabilities of the product.)
Arpeggios: Play simple, sustained notes and chords, letting the moving filter tones provide the rhythm for you. Arpeggiated chords produce excellent results. Here's an example of arpeggiated chords played with version 2's preset 93:
Overdrive: When combining sequences with overdriven amp models, simply hold sustained power chords at first, until you get the feel for what you can do rhythmically. Here's an example played with version 2's preset 87:
Random Flanging: If you'd prefer random filter tones to preprogrammed sequences, use the Random Filter effect instead. This will generate a randomly selected filter tone at each 16th note (or whatever interval you choose). Also, try Random Flanging for a different sound. Unlike Random Filtering, flanging changes the tone without cutting off high or low frequencies. Here's an example played with version 2's preset 56:
Clock it: All of these effects can play in perfect sync to your recording. Simply set your recording software to send MIDI Clock to the Black Box.
The Black Box is class compliant with Windows XP and Mac OS X, which means you can plug it in via USB and start recording without installing drivers. However, the included drivers for WDM, ASIO, and Core Audio unlock more capabilities. These include MIDI sync, multi-channel recording, and the ability to save presets to your computer.
Surprisingly for a USB 1 device, the Black Box can send four simultaneous channels of audio to your computer. Channels 1 and 2 are the left and right outputs of the effects; channel 3 is the unprocessed signal from the Hi-Z input, and channel 4 is the signal from the microphone input. Because all four channels are always active, you can record your processed guitar and simultaneously lay down a dry track for re-amping. Best of both worlds, eh? The Black Box can also play back a stereo mix from the computer. However, there's no way to send a signal from your computer back through the Black Box's effects section over USB.
The good news is that, because all of the effects processing happens outside of the computer, latency is virtually nil. (Latency is the time it takes the computer to process an audio signal and spit it back, which can be a feel-killer when recording through plugin effects.) A nifty hardware knob balances the mix between the hardware inputs and the computer playback. (Be sure to mute the track you're recording so you don't hear two copies.)
Another plus: the Black Box puts very little demand on your computer. Minimum system requirements for a Windows machine are just 500MHz and 128MB RAM. Finally, a recording device that doesn't make you buy a new PC!
The version 2 firmware also supports Pro Tools M-Powered (Figure 5), bringing professional recording features to the masses. Of course, you're free to use whatever recording software you want. The Black Box comes bundled with Ableton Live Lite, a four-track version of the popular recording and performance software. I didn't run into any problems there, but when I switched to Pro Tools and increased the track count, I encountered the dropouts and hiccups common to USB 1. Increasing the buffer size (and thus, the latency) fixed the problem. For that reason, I wouldn't necessarily want the Black Box as my only audio interface, though it would make a terrific portable rig with a laptop.
Figure 5. Here's what Audio Example 4 looks like. I recorded the dry signal (red waveform) and the processed one simultaneously in Pro Tools. Notice how the beat-synced effects (green) line up with the drums (blue). (Click to enlarge.)
Like many guitarists, I'm always looking for the one piece of gear that will do it all. Is the Black Box it? Well, it's darn close.
Sure, I can list what I don't like: limited MIDI control, no user-editable drum patterns, meager pedal-board control, and a less-than-ideal user interface (though, to be fair, that's a function of adding all the new features). Nor am I fond of USB 1 audio interfaces. I should mention that the documentation is weak, too. Pretty short list, isn't it?
The Black Box has a multiple personality--one part creative tool, one part live processor, and one part audio interface. It brings something new to the table in each instance, and that's saying a lot. Simply put, it deserves a place in every guitarist's tool kit.
As I write this, several retailers are bundling the Black Box with the pedal board for under $200. That's about what it costs for a basic USB audio interface. So the fat amp models, the cool effects, the drum patterns, and all the rest are basically free. How do you put a price on inspiration, anyway?
(Windows 98, Windows ME, and Windows 2000 not supported)
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