PG Music Band-in-a-box

Auto-accompaniment Software

Published in SOS July 2000
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Reviews : Software: ALL

Style-generation software Band-In-A-Box is one of many still-thriving music programs that started life on the Atari. These days, it's very much at home in the latest Mac- and PC-based studios, as Vic Lennard and Martin Walker discover.

Way back in August 1991, I concluded that the original Atari ST version of the Band-In-A-Box auto-accompaniment program was "cheaper than almost any ST sequencer but with facilities belying the price" in a review appearing in the now-defunct ST Format. It offered three-part accompaniment, the facility to enter lyrics, a print-out capability and MIDI File compatibility, along with incredible ease of use.

On moving to the Mac platform I tracked BIAB through versions four and five. The former added System 7 compatibility and improvements to the Style creator, while the latter incorporated more instruments, the all-important General MIDI support, and support for a single melody line, making BIAB not dissimilar to a basic sequencer. Version six was released some time later and then BIAB seemed to disappear — quite odd, when you consider that around 150 new features and improvements have been added in the course of its last two versions.

PG MUSIC BAND-IN-A-BOX
pros
Incredible functionality for a sub-£90 product.
The Melodist can create a full song in five seconds flat.
Guitar enhancements include a useful fingerboard window and a tuner.
Event List editor allows quick editing of melody or soloist tracks.
Relatively modest computer requirements.
cons
Difficult to find any, but a bass guitarist version of the guitar fingerboard would be nice.
summary
Band-In-A-Box has matured into a superb product that can create viable backing tracks for almost any style of music. Offering a choice between an easy preset approach or delving into the parameters for customisation, it's one of the few music products that sits in the 'must-have' category.

Backtracking

BIAB has certainly been around for a long time (it was last reviewed in SOS October 1992) and is clearly still being developed. So what made it — and has continued to make it — so appealing? Simple: it bridged the gap for gigging and home musicians who needed decent accompaniments but didn't have the necessary skills to create them.

By version 5, BIAB could offer piano, bass, guitar, string and drum parts, plus support for GM and Roland's GS standard. There were even special settings for Sound Canvas modules. It offered control over musical elements such as chords, key and tempo, while also allowing the user to select the 'Style' of a song. Many Styles were included as part of the package (over 100 with version 5), but the User Styles feature also allowed one to create patterns and sub-patterns, allocating a 'weight' to each, which determined, to an extent, how often it occurred. Drum patterns used a separate grid akin to the LCD display found on many drum machines. Bass and piano parts could be recorded via a MIDI keyboard, with macros included to deal with common bass runs and jazz chords. Even better, accompaniments could be exported as MIDI Files for further editing within a sequencer.

Version 7 saw PG Music, the Canadian-based company behind BIAB, introducing a host of very innovative new features, including the important 'Soloist'. What happens if, say, you're an excellent rhythm guitarist but have no pretensions on the lead-playing front? BIAB isn't a lot of use to you, even with its melody line, unless it can play a great, improvised lead line. Enter the Soloist. This feature allows you to put together the backing track for the rest of your song and then add an automatic solo on top. The programmers have analysed the playing styles of many, primarily jazz, instrumentalists and worked out a way to break down the essence of the soloist into a number of parameters. These include the instrument, note range, type of solo, phrasing style (including length of and space between phrases), and that usually indefinable quality of how far outside the norm the playing should be. The result is quite incredible. There are presets, of course, but the 'Soloist Maker' lets you loose on the parameters to create your own over-the-top lead instrumentalist. The generated solo can be viewed in the notation window and printed out — particularly useful if you've generated a solo that you'd like to learn to play. Add a harmony instrument and the result is quite staggering.

Rather than using a dedicated track for such a solo, BIAB's programmers simply created a second melody track. Essentially this makes BIAB a 2-track sequencer with an additional six tracks of accompaniment. This second melody track can be recorded to in exactly the same way as the first one or, obviously, used to store the lead line generated by the Soloist feature.

Version 7 of BIAB also saw the addition of an Intelligent Humanise function. We've all heard the results of poor-quality humanising facilities within sequencers, but BIAB's is pretty good, offering five different parameters: tempo, lateness, eighth-note spacing, legato and feel. These can be used individually or in any combination, and on any track, including the Soloist one.

One problem with earlier versions of BIAB was that you needed to know what chords you were dealing with to be able to type them in. In keeping with the program's general ethos of being usable by musicians and non-musicians alike, version 7 changed that by introducing automatic MIDI chord recognition: plug in a MIDI keyboard, play a chord and BIAB inserts it into the chord sheet.

Some new features were introduced as a direct result of movements within MIDI. Yamaha and Roland introduced their extended General MIDI protocols, XG and GS respectively; BIAB supports them with 'Mode On' commands for each. As these protocols also incorporate the use of higher-numbered banks of sounds, BIAB added EZ-Access Patches, a pop-up menu from which you could select the instrument on a given track via its patch name. Version 7 also allowed BIAB to save real-time changes to volume, panning and instrument muting, made during the course of a song, with that song, as well as its reverb, bank, and harmony on/off settings. The notation side of the program was given a facelift, too. Enhancements included highlighting of notes as they were being played and extra features on the lead-sheet printout, while the use of sharps and flats was made chord sensitive.

Band-In-A-Box has now advanced to version 8 on the Mac, and to an even more feature-rich version 9 on the PC — for more details on that, take a look at Martin Walker's opinion box below.

Creating Melodies

Version 7's Soloist was big news: here was a feature that could give you a solo line in the style of a particular musician, or in a style that you, in effect, created. Version 8 goes a step further with the Melodist. This feature allows you to create an entire song, in a specific style, in a matter of seconds — chords, melody, harmony and intro, plus the same kind of improvised solo as the Soloist provides. Fancy a guitar solo by Larry Carlton, Earl Klugh or George Benson? Or Kenny G on soprano sax? Take your pick from the numerous preset Styles.

While the Melodist's dialogue box appears rather complicated at first sight, it's quite easy to work with. First up, you can choose to generate chords and/or melody. An intro and pedalled bass-line for intro and section ends can be toggled on and off, as can control over Style changes — use your own selection, or allow the Melodist to load in the Style applicable to the preset. There is also full control over the song's form. For example, 'AABA 32 bars' would yield four sections of eight bars each and also set the desired number of choruses. The song's tempo can be set, and you can choose whether to transpose the second verse of the song.

The Melodist can be used sparingly if you prefer it that way. Got a mental block for the middle eight of an otherwise completed song? Can't come up with a good intro? Just set the start bar and number of bars to be generated and let the Melodist do the rest. If the generated part appears elsewhere in your song, the Replace Thru function will overwrite the same section throughout. You can even write the Melodist part to the track usually reserved for the Soloist part, so leaving the standard melody track free for an overdub.

Presets are all very well, but if you prefer to get your hands dirty you could try Melodist Maker, which allows you to create a melody template from scratch or edit an existing one. Having tried to create a few of my own, I must take my hat off to PG Music for coming up with some very good presets — far better than any of mine! Seriously, starting from scratch is a bad idea unless you have a lot of time on your hands and an inordinate level of patience. However, it's useful to take an existing preset, alter one parameter, save the preset under a different name and listen to the resulting changes. The default Melodist file has room for 256 presets so you don't have to overwrite, and lose, any of the original presets.

Better Solos

Working from feedback received after presenting the Soloist in version 7, PG Music have made a number of useful changes to this feature.

Custom Solo Generation is a very neat addition, allowing you to select precisely where a solo will be created and how long it will be, in bars. Even better, you can choose to overwrite any existing solo at this point or overdub into it, so that you have a number of solo tracks playing at the same time. The main use I found for this was in switching lead instruments in a kind of duel, so that each fired off a credible line for two or four bars before handing over to the other.

The Soloist has two other enhancements. So-called 'slash' chords, such as B/A, show the bass note (second letter) being used against a chord shape. BIAB now has an improved scale selection for such chords. Second, you can trade fours with BIAB by allowing it to create only the first or second half of an eight-bar solo, leaving you the space to do your own thing.

  Version 9 Enhancements — Martin Walker's PC Perspective  
  I'm sure some people must consider Band-In-A-Box the music equivalent of painting by numbers, but they are missing the point. It provides an incredible way to learn about a host of different musical styles, and once you've got past the silly stage of forcing inappropriate styles onto existing songs you soon get hooked on the possibilities. As Vic Lennard explains in the main part of this review, each new BIAB version seems to add even more useful features, so I wasn't surprised to find yet another large batch of new goodies in the PC version 9.0.

The biggest new feature is support for audio: musicians who want to add the finishing touches to their creations can now add a vocal or live instrument track to their BIAB songs using the audio facilities of their soundcard. Both recording and playback use Windows' preferred audio devices as set in Control Panel's Multimedia applet, and you can launch the Windows Volume Control utility from within BIAB to help set up recording levels. Clicking on BIAB's new microphone button lets you start recording at any bar in the song; once you finish a take you can keep it as a WAV file or try again. It only took me a couple of minutes to add a solo to an existing song.

If you want to transfer your song to another sequencer for further work you can either export it as a MIDI file and associated WAV file, or you can instead 'render' the entire MIDI song to audio, with the option of merging in any live audio track. Rather than lose quality by re-recording your live track along with the MIDI one, Render mixes the two internally, so you don't hear them together during the real-time MIDI-to-audio rendering process. However, you can stop it at any time, click on the Test WAV button to audition the mixed song so far, and then adjust the Audio track volume up or down and re-render as many times as it takes to get the perfect mix. It's a bit convoluted, but works well enough in practice.

An entirely new Audio menu provides many other audio options, including the ability to erase selected regions of audio on a bar-by-bar basis, Insert silent sections or Delete a section and close the gap. There is also a set of 19 Plug-ins, including Compressor, Distortion, Reverb, RingMod, and various EQs. These certainly sound good, but are difficult to test in the context of an overall mix since they need to be applied off-line, although there are both preview and undo functions. There are no graphic waveform editing facilities at all, although you could import your WAV file into an external editor if required.

You can now generate an impressive guitar solo within a song, based on its existing melody, but with the voicings and correct fret positions used by guitarists playing in various styles — you can even create new chord styles in the Guitarist Editor. If you fancy a bit of karaoke, the 'line at a time' lyrics of previous versions have been enhanced by the option of note-based lyrics: you can type in words (or parts of words) under each note, and then open the Big Lyrics 'Karaoke' window to see them highlighted as the song plays, with or without chord symbols.

There is a new Big Piano Window to help you learn piano parts, and choosing Styles is made easier with the StylePicker Window, where they are grouped by genre, and those with similar tempos and styles compatible with your song are highlighted and can be previewed. There is also a host of smaller enhancements and additions.

Overall, version 9.0 for the PC is another significant step forward. Its new audio functions may be somewhat basic by today's standards, but they let you add the finishing touches to your tracks, and you could then burn them straight to CD. Band-In-A-Box may not have the graphical sophistication of a modern MIDI + Audio sequencer package, but it makes up for this with the number of features it offers.

Martin Walker

 

Natural Input

At last — PG Music have realised that not only keyboard players use BIAB! The big news is a dedicated guitar fingerboard window that supports many guitar-oriented features. The fingerboard is instantly recognisable, with string names and fret markers as you would expect. You also get to choose which of the two common scales (Phrygian or Aeolian) has its notes marked up.

How do you make good use of this display? Firstly, it could help you learn a part that BIAB has generated for you. At the top of the window are buttons for each of the tracks; select the part you'd like to play and the notes are repositioned on the fingerboard. BIAB automatically sets the relevant display octave and the best position for showing the notes on the guitar, according to the key and scale. Colour is used to good effect as well, with scale notes showing up in green and non-scale notes in yellow. It's a very good way to learn jazz guitar, especially if you select a Soloist-generated part based on a favourite musician.

  QuickTime Support  
  Initially, the Mac version of Band-In-A-Box was a conversion from the original Atari ST program, but as the ST's support has waned over the years, each new version has brought something unique to the Mac. Version 7 did away with the need for users to have a MIDI instrument setup by providing support for QuickTime and its Musical Instrument set. While the sounds with QuickTime 2.5 were relatively poor, being a subset of the full General MIDI instrument list, the Roland-sourced set with QuickTime 3 and, more recently, QuickTime 4, is far better, and certainly usable.

Version 8 adds another neat QT facility in the form of the QuickTime Audio Mixer. This unassuming little panel gives access to two important functions: level/pan of the system beep and master level/pan — extremely useful when you're using the QuickTime Musical Instrument set to provide the sounds for your BIAB song.

 
The second use for the guitar window is for inputting notes. Thanks to BIAB's MIDI Thru, when you play into the software from a MIDI guitar controller, you can see the results of your efforts in BIAB and hear them from a connected MIDI sound source immediately. As someone who uses a custom Roland G707 controller ( I have the version that uses six 'B' strings across the neck, all tuned to the same pitch, allowing fast pitch detection in every position), I found this highly useful.

The settings dialogue box is used to change various defaults, such as fingerboard size and octave, the showing of index finger position, auto-set scale, fingerboard markers/inlays and fingerboard colour — yes, you get to choose between rosewood (brown) and ebony (black)! All we need now is for PG Music to accept the existence of our bass-playing brethren and offer a four-stringed version. Drummers are a bit better served, with an animated 61-instrument drum kit window. At first sight this seems to be more of a visual aid than anything else (see screenshot, above right), as the kit shows the drum part being played. The ability to actually 'play' the kit on-screen, via mouse-clicks or the computer keyboard, is a bit toytown. It responds to incoming MIDI data, so you could record a drum part on the melody channel by setting it to MIDI channel 10, but the drum kit window's real usefulness is open to debate.

  Prestige Music Services  
  It seems to be a little-known fact that the UK has a company dedicated to nothing but Band-In-A-Box. While Prestige Music Services obviously sells the program and upgrades for Mac and PC, the story only starts there. They also handle a vast range of add-ons, including:

• All the official PG Music Style Disks, plus the additional Soloist and Melodist Disks.
• The Norton Music range of Fake Disks and Style Disks.
• The Roy Hawkesford Arrangements, featuring standards and Sinatra hits.

www.prestige1.co.uk

 
It's Automatic

A number of new functions create parts of a BIAB song at the click of a button. Take intros, for instance. There's nothing worse than creating a good song and then running dry for a decent intro. Now BIAB intelligently creates an intro of two, four or eight bars, using chords in keeping with the selected Style which lead correctly into the first verse. If you're unhappy with the result, just keep clicking on the button until something catches your ear.

Another common problem is naming a song, especially an instrumental. Again, BIAB comes to the rescue. Using a simple text file, it combines adjectives and nouns to come up with a song title. Words may be added to the list but the results are a real mixed bag (as you might expect).

One major criticism of previous versions was the lack of a true undo function. This has now been made good, and almost all functions can be taken back a step.

Added Value

The number of enhancements offered by the new BIAB is truly incredible, especially when you consider that the whole package retails at less than £90. How about a full-featured guitar tuner, using either the Mac's built-in mic or one attached to the line-in socket? Including little niceties such as a hum filter and a fingerboard display, the tuner shows incoming sound in cents or as a numerical value in Hertz and cents. It's also optimised for guitar or bass.

And there's more. Let's say that a jazz solo in the style of your favourite player is spot-on aside from the odd note or two. Yes, BIAB can output a song in MIDI File format, for editing within a sequencer — but it also offers a comprehensive event-list editor as well. Here, each event can be altered by clicking and typing. Not as neat as a visual editor, but a worthy addition nonetheless. BIAB also sports a full Sound Canvas editor that includes support for the Mac's VSC88 Virtual Sound Canvas.

To make life easier for those using an attached MIDI keyboard, BIAB now has a live transpose facility; simply set the required number of semitones and/or octaves. On a similar note (no pun intended), songs can be transposed to a key of your choice automatically on loading, which is very useful if you intend to solo or sing along in your favourite key.

  Pricing  
  • The Band-In-A-Box v8 Pro Pak (program only) costs £89.95. The v8 Mega Pak (includes 19 Style Disks, nine Soloist Disks, Harmony and Melodist Disks, Fake Disk and Power Guide training CD-ROM) costs £189.95.
• Upgrading from v7 to v8 Pro Pak costs £34.95 including Style Disk 12, or £109.95 to upgrade to the v8 Mega Pak; v6 or earlier to v8 Pro Pak costs £44.95 including Style disk 12, or £119.95 to upgrade to the v8 Mega Pak.

Prices do not include p&p; contact Prestige Music Services for details.

 

The new version also makes more use of colour, and has better viewing options; it offers relative tempo changes for making gradual alterations to a song's timing, and has chase patch and tempo features to ensure a song plays correctly when started halfway through; it supports OMS and the Digitech Vocalist harmony processor... The list of worthwhile improvements goes on, and the program is still modest in its computer requirements, asking for a 68030-based Mac or better, running MacOS 7.5 or higher, with just 8.5Mb available memory and 20Mb hard disk space.

Summary

When you compare the current incarnation of Band-In-A-Box with the original of almost 10 years ago, it's hard to believe that the new version is related, let alone the same product. From a very basic, but user-friendly, auto-accompaniment program, Band-In-A-Box has grown into a full-featured backing creator with two real-time tracks, the ability to create jazzy solos and melodies, and a host of easy-to-use, powerful features. And if all that's not enough, version 9 for the PC boasts even more new features (see Martin Walker's comments on page 100).

At the moment, no release date has been mentioned for the next Mac upgrade, but I imagine that many of the above will be included. In the meantime, you can buy (or upgrade to) version 8, and have fun with what I consider to be one of the best music products available on the Mac today.

 information
See 'Pricing' box.
Arbiter Music Technology
+44 (0)20 8202 1199.
+44 (0)20 8202 7076.
Click here to email
www.arbitergroup.com
Prestige Music Services
+44 (0)1527 60033.
+44 (0)1527 591115.
Click here to email
www.prestige1.co.uk

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