The choices for guitar players willing to take the plunge into the digital world of effects and amps are increasing each year. M-Audio’s entry into this market fits snugly between computer software and larger, less mobile stomp box (effects pedal) devices. The Black Box is a hardware device that provides guitar amp and effects simulation. It allows guitar players to play through a variety of simulated amplifiers and add an almost endless array of custom effects.
There is a lot to like about the Black Box—especially its seamless integration with your instruments and the Mac, its ease of use, and the variety of effects you can obtain by using it. With its USB connection to the computer, the Black Box was easily recognized by all of the software applications I used with it, including Logic Pro 7 ( ), Cubase SX 3 ( ), and GarageBand 3 ( ). The Black Box also comes with a control panel that allows users to upload and download presets, as well as an interface to update the firmware.
The unit comes with a variety of connection methods making it a snap to connect to an instrument and then hook up to the computer or other output device: It has a 1/4-inch guitar input, a 1/4-inch headphone jack, balanced 1/4-inch outputs, a S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) digital output, an expression pedal jack (for plugging in your favorite effects pedal), and a dynamic mic input.
It also has the largest screen of any guitar-related device I’ve ever used, making it very easy to see what you are doing. The screen focuses on three main items—the preset number, the amp type (for example Plexi) and the effects status (on or off). The large screen comes in really handy when you are editing presets. While editing, for example, you can see clearly what effect you are adding or adjusting. Plus, you get a live sound preview while you are working with the effects.
A recent firmware update for the device made a huge difference in the operation and functionality of the product. When I first starting using the Black Box, I thought it was good, but very limited—it featured 12 amp models and many effects, but it still wasn’t enough to get the tone I really wanted.
The firmware update boosted the number of amps from 12 to 40 and added reverbs, compression, and new modulation options, for a total of 121 effects. The additions are compelling—the new amps included some staples of rock music like the Fender Deluxe Reverb, Marshall JCM 800, Roland Jazz Chorus, and Peavey 616 MKII.
While some of the effects sound more processed than I would like, the majority of the effects like Chorus and Flanger hit the mark. I was very impressed by the JCM 800 amp model—I expect one of these amps to deliver crunch, and a lot of it. This new amp simulation did just that, allowing me to build presets capable of achieving the tone I wanted, complete with a nice sweet spot for pinch harmonics (that squealing sound on the strings) without an unreasonable amount of feedback.
The Black Box has a total of 200 presets—100 factory set and 100 user-editable. I don’t think I would use the majority of the presets for most of the playing and recording that I do, but there were some very nice warm, clean sounds mixed in with the crunchy presets that I played the most. Other presets seemed to focus on strange sounds—but I’m sure these would be right for some musicians.
You can edit the presets directly on the Black Box via a complete set of buttons and controls—as opposed to editing them on the computer and uploading them to the device when you’re done. Scrolling through and editing effects or amp models couldn’t be simpler—just click on a button to enter the Edit mode. Saving your changes is a bit more of a challenge because you have to hit two buttons simultaneously. This caused me a few headaches because when I’m editing a preset, I’m also strumming the guitar on my lap so I can hear what it sounds like. Given the choice, I would much rather have one dedicated Save button.
The Black Box also has a built-in drum machine that includes 100 factory drum patterns and syncs to tap tempo or an external MIDI clock. As drum machines go, the one included in this device certainly serves its purpose, but if you’re looking for something other than a practice pattern, you’ll probably want to go with some drum loops from a company like Beta Monkey Music.
Macworld’s buying advice
M-Audio’s Black Box is a good addition to your collection of guitar based musical effects. It’s lightweight and compact enough to take with you on the road, and offers much of the power and options you’d expect from a much larger device.
[ When not emulating Zakk Wylde, Jim Dalrymple is Macworld.com’s news director .]M-Audio Black Box