Guitar Tools
Thinking Inside the Black Box
By Joe Gore

Pro Tools 7 software positively oozes new features: The ability to work with REX and ACID files. Instrument tracks. New drag-and-drop options. Region grouping. Vastly improved MIDI functions. More powerful and subtle groove tools. But there’s one new feature of special interest to guitarists: With Pro Tools M-Powered 7 software, you can now use M-Audio’s Black Box as a Pro Tools interface.

What’s a Black Box? An audio interface designed for guitarists that was inspired by — and developed by the creator of — the Adrenalinn pedal. What’s an Adrenalinn pedal?

Here goes...

The Linn Factor
Figure 1: In Pro Tools 7 software, the MIDI Beat Clock control
is now located under "MIDI" in the Setups menu.
Designer Roger Linn is a legend in music technology. Before contriving the Adrenalinn and Adrenalinn II, he’d already revolutionized music twice: In 1979, he introduced the first programmable sample-sound drum machine. The LinnDrum (his second version) went on to defined the beats of ’80s pop and rock. Then in the late ’80s, he began working with Akai to develop the MIDI Production Center (MPC), a full-featured sampling drum machine and MIDI sequencer. MPCs added sampling features in the mid ’90s, and they became a ubiquitous hip-hop composing tool.

Linn describes the Adrenalinn as a “guitar groove box.” It’s an amp simulator/multi-effector that specializes in time-synchronized effects. Guitarists can simply plug into an Adrenalinn, tap in a tempo for a click or use a pre-programmed drum beat, and then generate a kaleidoscopic array of groove-perfect delay, filter, and modulation effects, using tones cloned from dozens of amps, classic and modern.

Linn’s Black Box is a USB audio interface designed in collaboration with M-Audio that is inspired by the Adrenalinn. All the key Adrenalinn features are here, plus a single XLR mic input and preamp, S/PDIF out, and an Mbox 2–style input/playback mix knob. Simply connect the Black Box to your computer with a USB cable, and you’re ready to record guitar, bass, keyboards, and mic’d tracks. (The Black Box requires AC power, even when connected via USB.) You can record the Black Box’s stereo outputs into any DAW, but it only works as a Pro Tools interface with Pro Tools M-Powered software — not Pro Tools LE software.

Why might a digital guitarist want a hardware amp simulator, given the wealth of cool software amp modelers? The Black Box hardware option has two advantages: It frees up computer resources (the best software amps can be CPU-greedy), and it lets you hear your processed guitars with no latency. Many guitarists recording on modest Pro Tools systems have to choose between suffering slight but irritating latency and tracking guitars with no processing and then adding effects later. With the Black Box, what you hear on input is what you get on playback.

Big Knobs, Big Sounds
The Black Box is easy to navigate. The controls are ergonomic, the LCD screen is huge, and the streamlined edit options are logical. Take the twelve amp simulations, for example. They include only four simple para-meters: amp model, drive, treble, and bass. The models include three Fender-based sounds (Bassman, Deluxe, and Twin), three Marshalls (a JTM45, Plexi, and JCM2000), two Mesas (a stripped-down Maverick and macho Dual Rectifier), plus one each cribbed from Vox, Hiwatt, Soldano, and Bogner.

Dialing in effects is easy too — there are never more than four parameters, and often just three. You can choose one effect plus delay. The effects include tremolo, flange, chorus, resonant filtering, and an assortment of pre-sequenced trem, filter, and arpeggio patterns. These effects sync to tempo at values ranging from one cycle every eight measures to a cycle per 32nd-note triplet. Additionally, you can use an expression pedal (not included) to control parameters such as amp drive, modulation speed, filter frequency (think wah), and wet/dry mix. Nice.

The Black Box’s 99 preset drum patterns are bare-bones stuff — you can’t edit them or program your own. But they’re great for headphone practice and quick song sketches. You can also use those presets as scaffolds for constructing the time-sync’d effects that are the Black Box’s specialty. These head-spinning tones flicker and burble, bob and weave. The results tend to be, for lack of a less criminal adjective, druggy. And I don’t mean the acid-reflux kind of drug that the television urges you to ask your doctor about.

Smooth Moves
Figure 2: With the new Group command under the Region
menu, it's easy to edit multiple tracks at the same time.
Let me walk you through some recent experiments to demonstrate a few Black Box tricks and some cool new Pro Tools 7 software moves. I’ve recorded MP3s so you can hear what I’ve done.

After firing up Pro Tools M-Powered 7 with the Black Box connected, I made sure that the device was sync’d to the Pro Tools clock. This control has migrated to a new location in Pro Tools 7 software — now it’s in the Setups pull-down menu, under MIDI > MIDI Beat Clock.

Then I constructed a little groove with a beat loop and a bass loop in REX format. (When you import REX files into Pro Tools software, they automatically change their tempo as you change the session’s master tempo.) Next, I defined these two regions as a single element using the new Region > Group command. This lets you move, loop, and trim multiple regions (multi-track drum performances, for example) with a single edit. Figure 2 shows how the two regions now appear as a single object.

Next, I selected the Region > Loop command, which opens the spiffy new Region Looping dialog. Dig how REX files, region grouping, and the looping command allowed me to set up a basic rhythm bed with a few quick moves.

Something from Nothing
I created a new stereo track, plugged in an old Strat, and dialed through a few presets. One of the first things I stumbled onto was a sequenced tremolo pattern, which you can hear in Tremolo Guitar.mp3. All I did was strum a single open-position chord every two measures, and out burbled this trippy oscillating effect. Talk about getting something for nothing!

The input latency on my Mac G4 laptop isn’t bad. But to track in perfect sync, simply mute the guitar track input in Pro Tools and dial in the right monitoring blend with the Black Box’s input/playback knob.

Black Box effects don’t need to be extravagant to add color to your recording. I played a simple groove figure over the same rhythm bed, processing it with a subtle synchronized auto-wah setting then adding a touch of delay. The result — Subtle Guitar.mp3 — is a pretty, Roxy Music–style tone.

But unless you’re a guitarist of phenomenal restraint, it’s difficult not to get seduced by the Black Box’s over-the-top filter/delay effects. Check out Filter Guitar.mp3.

Tempo Tantrums
Figure 3: The REX rhythm tracks change their tempo as you
change the session tempo.
The Black Box’s time-sync’d effects dovetail beautifully with the tempo-chasing capabilities of REX and ACID files. For example, I raised the master session’s tempo from 88 to 120 BPM, and the rhythm loops automatically resized themselves. Figure 3 shows how they’re still locked to grid after the tempo change.

Obviously, the guitars recorded at the original tempo didn’t change length — you still need a time-compression AudioSuite plug-in to do that. But the Black Box’s delay and filter effects automatically shifted to the faster tempo, so when I resumed playing, my freak-out filtering stayed right in time, as you can hear in Fast Filter Guitar.mp3.

There are no effects in the Black Box that you couldn’t generate with good amp simulator, filter, modulation, and delay plug-ins. But you probably won’t be able to create such sounds as quickly with software alone, and you’d probably have a lot less fun. Guitarists seeking the perfect entry-level system or a slick mobile rig should definitely consider using the Black Box with Pro Tools M-Powered 7 software.

Joe Gore has worked with Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman, Courtney Love, the Eels, and many others. He writes extensively about music and audio and has interviewed hundreds of the world’s leading players, composers, producers, and technicians. Joe’s latest collaboration is Clubbo (www.clubbo.com), a sprawling “music fiction” project.