by SAM CHITTENDEN
Some devices have the inherent flexibility to do what you expect them to do but to also inspire you to do things you may not ever have considered doing. The 1010music Blackbox is such a device. A standalone desktop sampling workstation with an intelligent blend of inspiring work flow, ease-of-use, and a powerful feature set, at just around 5.5" square and only an inch or so at the thickest, the Blackbox won't intrude on a packed studio tabletop, and is small enough to easily slip in a backpack or bag, and can be powered via a USB powerbank. Go to the park and make some music!
Housed in a sturdy, dark grey metal housing, it sports a large LCD touchscreen along with a handful of great feeling, soft-touch knobs and buttons. The touchscreen offers a familiar navigation experience [even pinch-to-zoom where appropriate], the knob assignments seem perfect for dialing in each parameter, and the dedicated buttons for the Blackbox's different function pages all combine for a streamlined user experience, and I found the interplay between the touchscreen, knobs, and buttons to be a great combination.
Along the rear of the unit are the inputs and outputs as well as a USB port used to power Blackbox. All the jacks are 3.5mm and include: clock in and out, MIDI in and out [TRS], a stereo audio input, a stereo headphone output, and three stereo audio outs which Blackbox allows to be split [the signals from the left and right channels on a single jack can be from different sources].
Included with Blackbox are two 5-pin DIN to TRS adapters, a USB cable and wall wart, and a microSD card containing a variety of presets and close to 1000 samples to get you started. Take into account that Blackbox is polyphonic—up to 16 simultaneous notes can be played, up to 4 notes per pad, on up to 4 pads—and the potential of this diminutive powerhouse begins to come into focus.
The Blackbox lays out a set of function pages which are quickly accessed via their dedicated buttons. From left to right there are: PADS, KEYS, SEQS, SONG, FX, MIX, PSET, TOOLS and the intention of the layout is to prescribe [loosely] a certain workflow, moving from the sample-triggering touchscreen pads and on-screen keyboard through sequencing, song structure, onboard effects, and then to a final mix. The workflow is very fluid and the interface lends itself well to any style of navigation. In practice I found myself popping back and forth between the different function pages in a much more non-linear fashion.
The PADS section is where samples are recorded and assigned as well as triggered. Samples are triggered by either touching their respective grid space, via an external MIDI controller/sequencer, from Blackbox's built in sequencer, or its KEYS section [a scrollable touch keyboard]. Each sample can be set to either a one-shot, gated, or toggled mode. Furthermore, each pad can operate in one of a few different modes: Sample, Clip, and Slicer.
Blackbox's Clip mode allows for tempo-synced playback and works well with drum loops or anything with well defined transients. Slicer mode splits a sample at user defined slice markers [these can be either automatically assigned by Blackbox or manually edited] and allows each slice to be triggered independently [splitting a drum kit across a section of a keyboard for example]. Depending on what you've sampled, a lot of fun and interesting ideas can be found by setting arbitrary slice points and jumping between disparate parts.
Sample mode is used for unsynchronized play back and looping, and lets you control the start and end points of both playback and looping if enabled. Blackbox allows samples to be played both forwards and in reverse, as well as bouncing bi-directionally back and forth. Pitch a sample up, pitch it down, or tweak it manually in the middle of playback; you’ll get no complaints from Blackbox. Sample start and end points as well as the loop points can be modulated as well. Added in the latest firmware version are two additional modes: multi-sample and granular mode. Multi-sample allows for multiple WAV files to be spread across a note range allowing for more realistic sounding acoustic instruments, or even splitting different samples across a keyboard. The granular mode plays back small sections of a sample [grains] and Blackbox provides control over the size of the grain, count, spread and playback speed.
While the provided samples and presets sound great and are more than enough to get started with, eventually [or immediately] you will want to create your own. Fear not, as recording samples directly into the Blackbox is straightforward and painless. After connecting a source to the audio input [there is the ability to resample from Blackbox's playback as well] and selecting the pad slot in which to record, you can specify the length of time you would like to record for [in a few divisions and multiples of bars, or as a free running with sample time limited only by the amount of memory available on the microSD card], whether or not to "punch in" your recording based on a certain musical interval, or trigger recording when the incoming signal level passes a certain threshold. In addition to recording audio samples, Blackbox's inputs and outputs are DC coupled and allow you to record and/or playback control voltages of any variety. Putting together a grid of super complex envelopes or steadily evolving LFO shapes is as easy as setting up a bank of audio samples. Complex modulation sources can be sequenced, modified, and recalled with ease. Consider the fact that each of the Blackbox's three stereo outputs can be separately split and you have a potential six channels of CV modulation to send to an external rig.
Blackbox also features an onboard sequencer with 16 pattern slots. Each sequence is a pattern of triggered samples or MIDI notes up to 128 steps in length. In addition, patterns can be sequenced into what Blackbox calls “Song Sections” by recording pattern playback over time. Each Song Section can then be combined into a song [again by recording the section playback], and in practice the workflow is straightforward and intuitive. Bobbled a take? Not to worry, as both sequences and song sections can be edited after recording. Sequence editing takes place on a piano-roll grid and song sections can be cut, pasted, and reordered as needed. Blackbox has many options for quantization, both for individual pattern events as well as sequence triggering. Couple the aforementioned CV playback options with Blackbox's ability to simultaneously output MIDI information from its sequences and it really opens up a mind boggling amount of options.
Blackbox is really, really fun. It slips easily between functioning as a musical sketchbook, a quick way to whip up a beat, a tool for creating layered and ever-evolving dronescapes, and more. It paves a smooth path to laying down full-fledged compositions with its simple but flexible sequencing and song section features, and additionally, with its easy sampling setup, the Blackbox can be a great way to record live performances without the need for a DAW.
Blackbox's two onboard effects are a beat-syncable delay and a reverb with control over decay, damping, and pre-delay. Each effect can be applied simultaneously to as many pads as desired and both sound great. While on paper it sounds like a scant amount, the small offering of effects are by no means a deal breaker and I view them as a bonus feature to the already extensive feature set. The fact that 1010music offers a dedicated Eurorack effects module opens the door for the potential that some other effects could be ported over to the Blackbox in future updates.
If there are any nits to pick, those used to a plethora of modulation options may notice that there currently aren't a ton of slots or routing possibilities within Blackbox. Most parameters are limited to a select few options such as velocity, pitch, and mod wheel, but the latest firmware does add support for modulating a fair amount of parameters via MIDI CC from an external controller. While it would be amazing to have the ability to route sample output to a modulation slot [allowing for samples to interact with each other] or to route a sampled LFO to another of Blackbox's pads, with what Blackbox already has to offer, asking for more seems needlessly greedy.
While more modulation points would be a welcome addition, in practice Blackbox provides a formidable amount of sound creation and sonic possibility in a framework that remains straightforward, uncluttered, and simply a pleasure to use.