M-Audio Black Box

Isn’t it weird that the next AC/DC or Kiss will likely run near-invisible guitar rigs from the tops of tiny café tables? Will future generations ever thrill to the sight of colossal amp stacks dwarfing the band? Well, stacks of tube amps are far from an endangered species, but digital-modeling technology has definitely proven that big sounds can come from itty-bitty boxes. M-Audio’s Black Box ($329 retail/$279 street) is one of the latest mini-modeling workstations optimized for guitarists.

Co-developed by M-Audio and Roger Linn Design, the Black Box offers butt simple control of the amp-modeling/drum machine/time sync technologies that Linn developed for his fabulous AdrenaLinn II. For firepower, you get 12 amp models (Bogner Uberschall; Fender Bassman, Deluxe, and Twin; Hiwatt DR-103; Marshall JTM-45, plexi, and JCM-2000; Mesa/Boogie Maverick and Dual Rectifier; Soldano SLO-100; Vox AC30), 43 beat-synced effects (including delay, tremolo, auto wah, arpeggiator, and flanger, but no reverb), and 99 drum patterns. Also included is the very fine Ableton Live Lite 4 GTR digital-audio software, and everything you need to interface the Black Box with your USB-capable computer of choice. For PCs, you’ll need a Pentium III, 500MHz or higher, 128MB RAM, and Windows XP with DirectX 9.0b or higher. Mac use requires a G3/G4, 500MHz or higher, 512MB RAM, and OS X 10.3.7 or later.

Into the Black

Meaty. That pretty much defines the Black Box’s amp models. Every tone packs a wallop, and although the parameter control is merely adequate—you can only tweak amp drive, bass, and treble, and you cannot change speaker cabinets—the basic options are enough to tailor sounds to most needs. The amp choices obviously favor rockers, and full-bore riffage is what the Black Box excels at, because all of the models lack dynamics. Pick very softly, and you get a stark, almost “bypassed” sound. As you pick harder, you’ll notice a slight hiccup when the processor kicks in, and then the roar begins. The effects are absolutely marvelous—real dimensional, chewy, vibey, spacey, bizarre, and. . .well, you get the idea. I don’t use effects very much these days, but the Black Box renewed my giddy joy of toying with signal processing. The Black Box’s drum grooves sound big and ballsy, and they’re a gas to practice to, or to employ as rhythmic inspiration for generating cool guitar parts.

Studio Moves

Although you can use the Black Box as a personal practice joy toy, the inclusion of Ableton Live Lite 4 GTR gives you a digital-audio workstation with four audio tracks and two MIDI tracks. I loaded the Live software and M-Audio drivers into my 500MHz, G3 iBook from the included CDs—which was a breeze. Then, I connected the USB cable from the Black Box to the iBook, and got. . .nothing. In my case, the Black Box did not automatically enable itself, and I had to select it from the Mac’s Audio MIDI Setup screen. After that, all was well. A test run through Apple’s GarageBand captured all the Black Box sounds with girth, punch, and shimmer. As with many digital-audio interfaces, however, it can take a little time to adjust the various gain stages to avoid undesirable distortion.

As Live Lite is basically a digital 4-track, the software will not serve full-scale audio production needs—unless you’re in a power trio that tracks live-to-disk. To my mind, however, the real value of Live is not as a virtual tape recorder—it’s as a loop generator for slicing up licks and making them real nasty. I had a blast dialing up sounds on the Black Box, and riffing away into Live. Then, I’d cut out the cool parts, and edit them into Frankenstein-esque abominations of tone and technique—which was way more fun than blasting aliens in the new Area 51 video game, and I adore video games. Best yet, I could work at home on my laptop, and then transfer the best bits to the Pro Tools HD system at my studio. The upside was that I never stopped playing and discovering licks. The downside? I was chained to the Black Box and my laptop for days—which made it hard to eat, drink, and co-exist with other humans.

Going Live

While the Black Box isn’t as stage-friendly as pedalboard-oriented modelers such as the Line 6 PODxt Live or Vox Valvetronix ToneLab SE, it can still get the job done. I did a rehearsal session with the Black Box, one momentary pedal (to change presets), an expression pedal (for wah), Crate’s new Power Block amp, and a Mesa/Boogie 1x12 cabinet, and felt very comfortable. I programmed my presets prior to the session to ensure I could get some basic tones without fumbling about, and the sounds definitely had enough punch to cut through the small band mix.

Overall, whether I used the Black Box as a rehearsal tool, a studio tool, or a live-performance option, I was constantly entertained and challenged. I love it when professional tools are also a kick in the pants. I mean, you can never get enough joy—right?