I wanted to spend some time getting into my thoughts on the Universal Audio Ox Box attenuator as a dedicated practice tool. Over the last few months, it’s clear to me that attenuators are a must for any tone conscious guitarist in quarantine. Attenuators can save your hearing when wanting that luscious, cranked amp tone at home. The added speaker emulation features that the Ox provides with iPad control for practice through home studio DAWs and headphones is intuitive yet easy to use to make practicing fun again!
Growing up as a guitarist who trained in the old school tradition of playing amps loud gets great-sounding tone, I’ve always been extra suspicious of anything that gets placed in between my purist tastes of a great guitar plugged into a great sounding amp. I’ve always found that what you’re going to use between these two timeless variables can make even the best combinations of gear sound horrid.
After years of wasting lots of my spare time fretting over running into audio problems after using some gear that a trendy musician on the internet unofficially endorsed, I tend to hold prejudices over new pieces of equipment before I even try them. And that dose of healthy suspicion was on full display when my Universal Audio Ox Box arrived at the door.
At first, it felt a particular bit like defeat holding one of these newly unboxed attenuators in quarantine. Why defeat, you ask? Well, there’s a certain machismo involved in cranking loud amplifiers and playing power chords. To the silent guitarist majority, It’s about being tough enough to handle the auditory onslaught and master it well enough to ride the wave. Adding a volume-controlled attenuator to your guitar rig just isn’t cool. It’s not right. It’s not anything listed in the “What Would Jimi Hendrix Do?” Manual. Is this what music reduced to because of the pandemic? Is this what the new normal is? But desperate times call for desperate measures, and boy, was I glad I took the risk and threw the manual out on this one. The Universal Audio Ox isn’t just a guitar attenuator; it’s a revolutionary practice tool that can use your inspiration to make you a better guitarist.
Ox Front Loaded Presets:
In my previous blog, I wrote about the lovely tone preserving properties of the Ox when used strictly as a standard amplifier attenuator. For a few weeks in quarantine, this was enough for my playing. I never once thought about delving into the other features on the Ox until necessity struck. It was midnight, and I needed to jam. Too late to crank the amp, and too late to use the attenuator’s speaker out option. So I decided to try what I only assumed would be a disappointing headphones practice run through the Ox. What? Had you ever had a good headphone amp simulations experience in headphones before hearing about the Ox? Me neither.
To my surprise, when using headphones, the Ox allows you to select and pair commonly used speaker cabinets that suit a broad spectrum of playing styles and genres and faithfully reproduce them during playback. And it sounds convincingly good. Universal Audio has a reputation for bringing realism to their emulations. Speaking as someone who owns all the amplifiers/cabinets UA chose to emulate, they sound very close to the real thing- as if you’re listening back in a studio mix. Inspired late night and want to play some Jimi Hendrix through a Marshall stack without bothering anyone? No problem, that’s the first preset hardwired into the Ox on the Rig Knob, and it sounds darn near perfect in the headphones. There’s a total of six different speaker cab settings set as default rigs on the front of the Ox. They range from everything from the classic Marshall Plexi basket woven greenback loaded cabinet, to the Vox AC30 with Bluebells, to the Fender Tweed Deluxe and its single speaker. Right away, the six presets cover a vast sonic territory and make following practice regiments fun instead of a chore without having to waste time finding the perfect setting.
The speaker presets are voiced with a blend of two direct mics, with a third room mic option to blend in more room control on the front of the Ox. If you switch guitars and the tone isn’t gelling for you anymore, usually a quick tweak of the room knob can help either add some presence or darkness to smooth out the guitar change. It’s an excellent feature for those who like to practice with a bit of a guitar collection! Universal Audio also made it easy to take these preset features and travel with them to rehearsals or performances by including line outs on the back of the unit. Using line out connections, located on the rear of the Ox, allows you to send whatever preset speaker emulation you are using in the Ox’s headphone section and route it directly to a mixer for a live sound engineer. The benefit gives the front of house engineer more tones to mix with your direct live sound from your attenuated amplifier, which translates to more reliability and control for your sound on the road. Bandmates can also expect quieter stages and rehearsal halls with the ability to send your more massive emulated cabinet sound to the audience and your band’s monitors. You’ll also save your back because you won't be lugging around any heavy speaker cabinets to and from the gig!
Integrated iPad Control:
The added Ox room control features shine in Universal Audio’s penchant for pairing their products with great downloadable apps for further tweaking and experimentation. The Ox app, which is available for OS from the app store, allows you to sync your Ox to your iPad and go through hundreds of speaker emulations at the speed of your swipe. The app not only allows players to tweak the six preset speaker emulations on the front of the Ox, but you also have the option to save your changes to the front of the Ox for iPadless jamming.
The tweakable parameters Universal Audio included in the Ox app is staggering. Every change made to your speaker emulation reacted in real-time and was programmed by UA to respond like the real speaker cabinet would with your guitar rig. Do you have a personal preference for how you like your guitar amps mic’d? The Ox app allows you to control how you Mic your cabinets with similarly successful sounding different microphone emulations of famous recording dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics. Need to add some studio EQ or compression to your amp tone? Universal Audio included faithful sonic reproductions of their 1176 preamp and compressor, as well as delay and plate reverb to add to your signal in post. While not quite as sexy as a real analog signal and speaker cabinet making music, the sonic signature is exceptionally close and, more importantly, good enough to work in quarantine.
Lastly, and more critical for those of you who don’t frequent recording studios and are unfamiliar with all the controls to tweak your sound within the Ox, Universal Audio created about a hundred presets in the app of popular speaker cabinet/microphones/post-studio production combinations of influential guitarists. It’s simple to change from something as drastic as U2 echo driven guitars to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Lenny” clean tone by just swiping through the preset list. Once you find a few presets, you can save your app adjustments as user settings for easy access. I wouldn’t say that every style is well represented in the preset settings, it leans heavily towards classic rock, but you definitely can find something that works for you fast once you’re connected.
One other useful feature I found with the Ox is that it produces its own WiFi that your iPad can connect to during practice sessions. I’ve had a few problems getting the Ox app to work on my MacPro while doing Zoom lessons or being connected to AVID Cloud to work online in ProTools. The Ox’s WiFi broadcast allows me to stay connected for changing speaker emulations on the fly while I teach or record music simultaneously on an iPad. But I think that the real gem is how the Ox’s wifi broadcasting allows you to bring your iPad to a live gig and adjust the line levels you send out of the Ox to the front of house sound guy. Either way, while the Ox is a bit of an investment on price, the tonal quality and flexibility give guitarists of all styles an easy and satisfying way to practice with their favorite vintage tube amplifiers and save their ears in the process.