We conclude our review of PG Music’s unique music auto-generation package by exploring some of the more advanced ways you can shape its output.
Last month, we saw that Band In A Box 2017 is an intelligent automatic accompaniment program, a powerful music composition engine, and a source of educational and practical tools for keyboardists, guitarists, composers and music students. This month we’ll look in more detail at its composition/performance features and have a look at some of its educational devices.
In the first part of this review, we looked at how BIAB’s automatic composition features can quickly create and ‘perform’ a song. However, while these methods can produce some entertaining results, they generally won’t provide really polished songs without further work. There are many ways to gain more variety in music created with BIAB, both within the program itself, and by exporting MIDI and audio to your DAW.
Let’s start by exporting an unfinished song to a DAW. This approach is very flexible. You can create only the backing tracks in BIAB (these, as we saw last month, are tracks 1-5, nominally bass, drums, piano, guitar and strings) and send the results to your DAW to add your own melody, solos and vocals. Or you can use BIAB’s Melodist and Soloist to create a more complete song before exporting. A very useful extension of this approach is to fully regenerate a song several times in BIAB, export stems of each version to your DAW, and then compile a master version from your favourite parts. This approach provides a lot of flexibility, much like comping multiple takes from a recording session.
You can export BIAB material as audio, MIDI or both, and there are three methods to do this. A ‘WAV’ button in the File section above the Song Title window opens a menu named Render to Audio File. This will render and normalise sounds produced by all tracks if ‘Normalize individual tracks’ is ticked, and can also be accessed by clicking ‘Render MIDI to Stereo WAV file’ from the Audio menu.
Alternatively, there are also two ‘drag and drop’ methods that can accomplish the same results: the Drop Station and the DAW Plug-in. The top left of Screen 1 shows the Drop Station sitting below the Master track label. Dragging the Master track label to the ‘+’ box in the middle of the Drop Station opens a menu with options to export MIDI and/or audio, to send separate files for each track, and to normalise audio. Set these options appropriately and click OK to start rendering. It may take a minute or more to render a full set of tracks.
When rendering is finished, you need to right-click on the ‘+’ to see the menu shown below the Drop Station in Screen 1. There are several options, including ‘Choose Folder and copy files to chosen folder’, which can save your tracks, one file for each, to a location where they can be opened by any DAW. Easy peasy! In addition, you can drop any track onto one of the four quadrants (WAV, M4A, WMA or MID) around the ‘+’ to export the track(s) directly in one of those formats.
The DAW Plug-in works with any DAW that allows direct drag and drop. Clicking the ‘DAW Plug-in’ button opens a window to set Options for DAW Plug-ins and Start DAW Plug-in Mode. Set the options first, then start the plug-in. The BIAB window will shrink, allowing you to drag tracks to your DAW, which must be open at the same time. You can drag and drop individual tracks, or the Master track.
Band In A Box also features numerous ways to add expressiveness, dynamic variation and detail to auto-created songs. We’ve seen that styles guide a composition to play in a certain manner, and you can vary the style itself, change instruments on the fly, and enhance the performance throughout a song. The keys to this are chord articulations, tools accessed in the Chord Sheet, and functions in the Edit menu.
Before I explain how these work, note that the term ‘chorus’ is used in an unusual sense in BIAB. In the BIAB context the term refers to a full song, less the intro and outro. You can organise songs in a variety of ways, even beyond verse/chorus/bridge, but when using some functions in BIAB, you will find the term ‘chorus’ referring to a full pass through all sections of a song other than intro and outro. (And speaking of outro, BIAB uses the term ‘ending’!)
While styles set the overall form of a song, you can create variety within a song when entering or editing chords by adding marks for pushes, rests, shots and holds: ‘^C’ is a pushed C chord, ‘B.’ is a B chord with a rest, ‘G..’ is a G chord with a shot, and ‘C’ indicates a held C chord. A push (also called an anticipation) means a chord plays slightly before the measure: a single ‘^’ provides an eighth-note push, and ‘^^’ represents a 16th-note push. A rest means no sound is made, although you usually specify exceptions as described below. A shot means the instruments strike a ‘hit’ followed by a pause. And of course a held chord means the chord is sustained until the hold is over.
You can easily exclude instrument or tracks from these attributes. For example, ‘C.bd’ indicates a rest for all instruments except bass and drums , while ‘G...d’ will hold the chord on the bass track and continue playing drums, but halt all other instrument/tracks. Remember, these are nominal track names and tracks can contain other instruments. These articulations will normally apply until the next chord marker, but it’s possible to copy them to successive chords without changing the chord progression. A shorthand method for extending these attributes in the chord notation itself is to type a chord with a rest/shot/hold followed by a number n, and it will do this for the next n bars. For example, ‘C4’ will enter a held chord that lasts four bars, and ‘G.bd8’ will see everything but the bass and drums rest for eight bars. Audio example ‘BiaB10’ plays some of these articulations, used for an intro and the first few measures of a song.
There are a lot more performance controls available by right-clicking on the Chord Sheet, but before using these, you will want to ‘unfold’ the song if it is displayed with repeats (‘folded’). The unfolded view makes it possible to directly enter changes at any bar in any chorus. You can switch between these views using the Fold and Unfold options under Edit/Song Form, and/or the FakeSheet button in the Views pane.
As mentioned last month, most of the ‘go-to’ tools for enhancing songs are accessed using the right-click menu in the Chord Sheet. Let’s look in more detail at some of these tools.
Chord Settings duplicates control of the attributes we just saw — pushes, rests, shots and holds — and adds pedal bass control. This menu can also be accessed from the Chord Options button in the Tools pane.
Song Settings sets overall parameters for the current song, such as allowing or disabling changes of style, rests and pushes, adding tag endings, setting RealTracks options for the song, and specifying a fade-out for the song outro. There is also a control for Natural Arrangements, a humanising function to reinterpret chord progressions for a better-sounding arrangement. A Title/Chorus button lets you enter a title (no surprise!), set key and tempo, and define chorus size and number of choruses — all settings that are also available in the main screen title window, and saved with the song.
When you right-click in a specific bar or press the F5 function key, the Bar Settings menu (Screen 2) lets you refine your arrangement with changes to tempo, meter, key signature, instruments, mutes, volume levels and harmonies. It even enables changing song style, and most significantly, enables all these actions to be made at any measure. This is the real deal!
Bar Settings can be added or changed at any time, from initial entry of chords to long after the song is first completed. As you can see in Screen 2 there are a lot of possible controls. Particularly useful are ‘STY’ to change song style, RealDrums and RealTracks to change those sounds, Instrument Changes at this Bar, Patch Changes for MIDI instruments, and Harmony Changes at this Bar.
Instrument Changes provides an alternate to rests for muting instruments, and can also change levels instantly, and fade up or down over successive bars. This can also control the Melody and Soloist tracks, which you cannot ‘rest’ or ‘hold’ using chord notation. Screen 2 shows examples of these settings in the windows to the right of the instrument rows. One useful tip: after fading up or down over several bars, use a setting of ‘Change by 0’ to stop the fade if you want the track to stay at a new level.
The Patch Change pull-down windows let you change a MIDI patch at any bar, while the RealTracks button does the same for RealTracks, opening a list that can be filtered by a text string such as ‘bass’, ‘piano’ or ‘sax’, and auditioned by double-clicking any listed instrument. Likewise, the RealDrums button provides a list of drums, which you can also audition in solo or with a band. Very nice! Harmony Changes at this Bar lets you add, remove, and change harmony settings for the Melody track or Thru/Soloist track. Harmony is a very useful feature that we’ll look at in more detail later. An example of these performance enhancements, including mutes, level changes, instrument and harmony variation can be heard in the audio file ‘BiaB11’.
The Chord Builder (Screen 3) is both a functional tool and educational device that enables you to select from and audition a list of compatible chords in any key before inserting them in a bar. A new feature called Show More adds the lower half of this window, showing common chord progressions for the key of the song you are arranging. You can view, hear and Enter pop chords (triads) or jazz chords (sevenths) for Diatonic, Dominant 7, Slash Chords, Parallel Minor, Diminished and Half Diminished chord types. These are displayed in rows, with up to six possible intervals for each chord type. Note that although the song key is shown in the lower left corner, to change the key, you must do so in the main BIAB tempo window, or using Song or Bar Settings — the ‘button’ in the Chord Builder is really a window!
The top half of the Chord Builder window is not tied to the song key, and allows you to select any root and almost any extension imaginable, including mind-blowing chords like Eb7b9#11b13! There is also an intriguing chord function that can quickly auto-generate chord substitutions for an entire song, or portion of a song. This is found in the Edit menu under Chords/Auto Generate Chord Substitutions, and offers yet another quick way to add more variation to your music.
Part Markers are another useful Chord Sheet control, and can be placed at the start of any bar to allow drum fills or insert a sub-style change. An active marker shows as a coloured block (see Screen 4). Every BIAB song has a Part Marker at the first bar to set the initial style, and songs may have several others depending on the song form. You can left-click and drag/copy a current Part Marker to any other bar, then edit it to add more ‘colour’ to your song.
All BIAB styles can contain up to 24 sub-styles, and the Part Marker is the way to change sub-styles dynamically. Song sub-styles and sometimes drum sub-styles are available, so you can create many variations within a single main style. To access the sub-styles, right-click in a Part Marker (coloured area) and you will see a small menu (shown below bar 6 in Screen 4) listing ‘Allow Drum Fill for bar before this part marker’, Substyle Change, and in some styles, Groove Variations, which select drum and percussion sub-styles.
You can add additional ‘song’ sub-styles in a Part Marker using a control at the bottom of the Substyle Change section: ‘Define c/d (or Define substyle)’. This opens the Style Picker, enabling you to select another style to act as a new sub-style. Since all BIAB styles have at least two sub-styles, you will always obtain another pair of sub-styles using this method, but even if you pick a style that includes more than two sub-styles itself, it will load only the first two. You can always load a new style at any bar using Bar Settings as noted earlier. All style changes will be saved with the song.
One aside about the Style Picker: when you double-click on a style in the list, a sample of the style will start playing. This is very handy when deciding if a style will fit in as a new sub-style.
There is a shorthand method for creating song forms, using the Song Form button in the Toolbar pane. Clicking this button displays four submenus: Song Form Dialog, Medley Maker, Generate Intro and Repeats 1st/2nd Endings. Songs can be notated in the typical AABA form, or expanded forms (CAABADABA anyone?). Although, as we’ve seen, BIAB does not delineate verse from chorus in terms of an overall song, it does use the terms in relation to song form, with the ‘a’ sub-style usually indicating verse, the ‘b’ sub-style a chorus, a ‘c’ sub-style sometimes used for the intro, and ‘d’ for the bridge or middle eight. Endings do not normally use a separate sub-style.
The Song Form Dialog enables you to enter each song section once, arranging the form that you want and generating it. You can later change the form without having to type new chords, just by changing the Form String.
The Generate Intro tool is a quick way to create a two, four or eight-bar intro that will provide an appropriate chord progression leading up to the chorus of an already composed song. And the Medley Maker is a fascinating function that can string together multiple BIAB songs, supplying a user-defined transition period up to 16 measures. I find this works reasonably well if the key signatures of succeeding songs are musically related, but admit it’s not a function I’ve often needed! Finally, the Repeats 1st/2nd Endings tool helps ‘frame’ a song using standard notations that show in the Lead Sheet window and can be printed, as we’ll see later.
We looked at BIAB’s Melodist and Soloist tools last month, but I only briefly mentioned one excellent feature available in both: the ability to create a melody or solo over a specified range of measures. In the Melodist this is an obvious option at the right side of the window: there are tick boxes to select Part of Song (and boxes to Set Range), or to select Whole Song. Be aware that any backing tracks not frozen can get changed when you use the Melodist.
In the Soloist, the equivalent feature is not so obvious. You cannot limit the range of soloing if you use Add Best RealTracks Soloist: in this mode, the solo will last for the whole song, though of course you can use Bar Settings to selectively mute sections. However, the Soloist Dialog can limit solo length using the Custom button.
Using either the Melodist or Soloist to create MIDI tracks for only part of the song will automatically start playing two bars before the measure that you specified for the new part, so you can quickly hear how it fits in with the previous song elements. Oddly, if you use RealTracks with the Soloist Dialog, BIAB will start playing at the very first bar of the song, though you can always double-click on the Chord Sheet or on the Progress Bar to start play at any bar.
You can enhance simple melodic lines in the Melody track using the Embellisher function. This is accessed using the Embellish Melody button in the Tools pane, which yields two choices: ‘Embellish melody during playback’ and ‘Embellisher dialog’. The first choice is an ‘on/off’ switch and the second accesses a range of controls.
There is a tick box to enable ‘Live auto-embellish during every playback”, a humanising function that uses intelligent routines to alter a melody from one feel to another, from one tempo to another, and musically vary the amount of swing, and there are controls for anticipations, grace notes, doubled notes, extra notes, note turns, and even vibrato for appropriate instruments. When settings are complete, (Re-)Embellish NOW Permanent and Make Current Embellishment Permanent both do what they say, writing the embellished version to the Melody track. Note that embellishment is MIDI and does not work on RealTracks, since they are audio and not usually appropriate for a melody anyway! The audio file ‘BiaB12’ illustrates a piano solo straight and simple, and then embellished several ways.
Another way to make the melody or a solo more expressive is to add harmony. Harmonies may be added ‘on the fly’ to the Melody or Thru/Soloist tracks using the Harmony button in the Tracks pane, and may also be defined as part of a style, as well as changed dynamically in a song using Bar Settings. Never a dull moment with Band In A Box!
These harmonies are not static two-part or three-part intervals, but are dynamically generated based on probability and the settings of the Harmony Maker, accessed with the Edit button in the Harmony menu. Harmonies can be set to use only close harmonies, mainly thirds, or to combine mainly thirds with some sixths, use mostly sixths with some thirds, use only wide harmonies, or vary between close and open harmonies! For a description of what settings produce which harmonies, click Help in the Harmony Maker menu.
There are about 160 presets in the Harmony menu, including voicings in the style of many iconic musicians such as George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Les Paul. Combining a harmony with a style, such as Erroll Garner’s right hand with ‘GARNER.STY’, can produce amazing results. Examples of harmony enhancement can be heard in the audio example ‘BiaB13’.
If you want to make the harmony a permanent part of your song, it can be written to the Melody or Soloist track. If you do this, be sure to turn off the playback harmony, or you will have harmonies playing upon harmonies.
For the guitarist, and maybe even more for the non-guitarist, BIAB offers the Guitar view shown at the bottom of Screen 5. It’s a useful and educational feature that can show virtual fretboards for guitar, bass, mandolin, ukulele, banjo and even violin. By clicking the Set button in the lower left, or choosing Track Type from the Melody menu, you can change the view, and select various tunings such as Drop D, DADGAD, Open G, and others, allowing you to see fingering for these tunings.
An amazing function in the guitar view is... the Guitarist! This tool will generate a guitar chord part for any melody, inserting realistic guitar voicings throughout the piece. As well as enhancing a song performance, this can be an educational tool since the guitar fretboard and the notation views can dynamically display fingering and tab notation as the song plays.
On the Guitar fretboard, select the Melody or Soloist track, and click the ‘ChSol’ button to open the Generate Guitar Chord Solo dialogue (above the fretboard on the left in Screen 5). You can pick from presets such as jazz guitar, James Taylor open style, Close Voicings, or Pop barre chords, and there is an Edit button that opens a Guitarist Editor to create your own guitar solo styles! There are only 20 supplied, so you can create another 236 in the default Guitarist file. With a good sound module, the results are rather convincing, at least to a keyboardist like me! Take a listen in audio example ‘BiaB14’.
We’ve looked at a number of methods whereby a BIAB song can be enhanced without changing the basic style. For the adventurous, however, it’s also possible to edit an existing style, create your own, combine styles from different genres, and even extract a musical style from a MIDI file!
Let’s look at this last feature first. It is accessed with the StyleMaker button in the upper toolbar, next to New Features. Choose Style Wizard (Screen 6) and use Open to load a MIDI file from any folder. The MIDI file, with all included channels, will load into the Melody track, and the track will be changed to a MultiChannel track. The Wizard will analyse the MIDI song, listing instruments and assigned tracks. If these selections are not correct, there are transport controls to listen to the results while you mute different tracks to check and/or adjust the assignments.
The Wizard will interpret chords for the MIDI file and write them on the Chord Sheet. It will also attempt to create part markers for the song, although they will all be named ‘a’. The channels used for each track are displayed along with the patches used, and the number of notes played on each channel is tabulated.
You determine what range of measures should be an ‘a’ part and a ‘b’ part, as well as defining which bars play drum fills, then click Generate New Style. You’ll be asked for a style name, which must be no more than eight characters long with no spaces — shades of Windows 3.0! (Of course, there are about 10 million million names possible using 42 ASCII characters.) You can also add a long name of up to 32 characters using the Miscellaneous Style Settings menu described later.
One current limitation of the approach described above is that only two sub-styles, ‘a’ and ‘b’, can be defined using this function. But if you are adventurous, you can create entirely new styles with up to 24 sub-styles of your own design!
Pressing the StyleMaker button and selecting ‘Edit current style in StyleMaker’ opens a window showing rows labelled A Pattern, B Pattern, ‘drum fills’ and ‘end drums’, as displayed in the upper half of Screen 7. The initial screen is automatically set for the drum track. Use an appropriate radio button to select an instrument track and you will see rows with different labels, from A8 beat to A1 beat, followed by B8 beat to B1 beat, and a row called ‘ending’ (lower half of Screen 7). Both drums and instruments have a grid of boxes with numbers in some of the boxes. What does this all mean?
This view is a probabilistic table setting the likelihood of a particular pattern being played: each box links to a pattern, and the numbers in the box influence how often a pattern will be played. The numbers are relative, so a 6 will play twice as often as a 3, and three times as often as a 2. Using a 9 is a special case. It means the pattern will ‘always’ be played, but subject to other settings for deciding where in the song it will be used. So where are the actual patterns?
To edit drum patterns you first select one of the numbered boxes, then click the Drum Grid Editor button (the big orange grid just left of the big red Record button) and the window shown in Screen 8 will open. This view shows rows for 18 drum/percussion instruments with a grid of 16 columns (nominally 16th notes) with numbers in each box indicating the MIDI velocity of the hit on that beat. For instruments, you also select a particular box and then click the notation button (a semiquaver icon, just right of the Record button). This will open a notation window as we saw last month, with notes in the key of C: BIAB transposes as needed. You can edit notes in this view using editable notation, just as in a song.
Note that if you make any change and then click Save, you will change the pattern and style being edited, so be sure you first click Save As if you want to create a new style, rather than overwrite the current one! Once you save to a new style name (again, names are limited to eight characters), you can freely save additional changes.
As well as editing patterns by hand, you can play in instrument parts in real time using the big red Record button. Drum patterns, however, cannot be recorded in real time, and must be added or edited using the Drum Grid Editor — but then drum patterns are much simpler than multiple instrument parts. You can import previously recorded MIDI drum and instrument patterns, which may save time, and you can also copy and paste patterns and make partial edits to save time. In addition, you can specify RealDrums rather than MIDI in a style, by clicking the Misc button in the StyleMaker menu to open the Misc Style Settings dialogue (Screen 9). RealDrums Settings are in the lower left of this menu. This will save you from programming drum hits, but be sure to select compatible styles.
This same menu has access to many useful features. The long name input is here, control of pushes and volume in a style, and the Multistyle section that makes it possible to assign up to 22 additional sub-styles. There are also a couple of buttons that can provide more excellent enhancements: Guitar Macros and More.
Guitar Macros provides another way to increase authenticity of BIAB guitar parts, with functions different from the Guitarist we saw earlier. The macros are used within a style to apply performance variations when a song is generated, and include a couple of dozen settings covering chord type, strumming speed range, fretboard selections and additional performance controls.
The More button includes custom track settings for pan, reverb and tone, selection of plug-ins and loops, and maybe the most useful: the ability to select RealTracks to use for any track in a song, including Melody and Soloist.
Going back to the StyleMaker button itself, the ‘Make a hybrid style’ function enables mix and match of instruments and playing styles from up to five different BIAB styles. You can have a reggae bass player, rock drums and a blues piano if you want. And the mysteriously named ‘Save current instruments as style’ actually saves the current song as a style eliminating any muted tracks, providing a quick way to clear an instrument from a style for further editing, or just to simplify a style.
There are many more functions in the StyleMaker for those who are truly serious about creating new musical expressions. Just be sure to take frequent breaks and get some fresh air occasionally!
Going further still, you can create your own Melodists and Soloists, so that your palette of BIAB-generated songs can go from infinity to beyond! The Melodist Maker can be accessed from the main Melodist window using the Edit button: this opens the window shown in Screen 10 with the current style number and name box at the top, a memo area for notes and, down the left side, pull-downs to set ‘feel’, patches, harmony and other controls. On the right there are inputs for themes, phrases, chord progressions, tempo and form.
You can open the editor, select a Melodist number not yet used, and will have a ‘blank’ slate to start. Alternatively, you can edit an existing Melodist, but don’t change settings of a current Melodist in the editor window and then click OK unless you want to change it permanently. It’s safer to open a Melodist, click Copy and then use the upper left window to access a blank numbered Melodist. This will set the editor to nominal settings, and you can then click Paste to place all the settings you copied. So, if you copied ‘218 Action Soundtrack Uptempo’ to a previously unused 219, you would see ‘219 Action Soundtrack Uptempo’ with all the settings of 218. The name can then be changed using the Title window, upper right, and you can edit any of the settings.
There is a Save As button in the editor, which is confusing: it opens a file folder window, and expects you to save a ‘.MEL’ file. This allows you to make new sets of Melodists, but to save a new Melodist to the main Melodist folder, the OK button does it in one click.
Up to 255 Melodists are saved in a single file (DEFAULT.MEL is the normal one) and you can create more MEL files if you need more than 255. The MEL files are accessed by choosing Melody Maker/Edit a Melodists File from the Melody menu. The file manager will open, and the DEFAULT.MEL file is near the bottom of the list. You can create more MEL files, and switch between them using this menu.
The Soloist Maker is similar to the Melodist Maker, and like it, stores all the Soloists in one folder named DEFAULT.SOL. This is able to hold 2999 Soloists, and a full BIAB installation comes with more than 2800. The Soloist Maker is accessed from the Soloist Dialog (not from the Best RealTracks Soloist) using the Edit button on the right side. It is used in the same manner as we saw for the Melodist Maker, except there are fewer settings in the main edit window, but there is a button named More in the lower left that opens more settings (Screen 11). When you have completed settings for a new Soloist, clicking OK will save it to the DEFAULT.SOL file. As with the Melodist Maker you can use Save As to create a new SOL folder and save another 2999 Soloists!
So comprehensive is Band In A Box 2017 that even in two lengthy review articles, there are features that we don’t have time to describe in any more detail. So let me at least mention in passing the possibilities of creating your own UserTracks and RealDrums, the Vocal Wizard that can select the best key for a song based on a vocalist’s range, Auto Piano hand-splitting, a Rhythm Guitar Chord Tutor, Chord Breaks function for practicing tempo control, an iPhone app to control BIAB using your phone, Audio and MIDI recording, Direct Input Guitars and AmpliTube, Live Looping/Playback control using the Conductor, a Playalong Wizard, Audio Harmonies and Pitch Tracking using the provided TC-Helicon module, Fretlight support, Audio FX, a Jukebox, Chord Sheet Video Uploads for YouTube, Karaoke mode, the basic but usable CD burner, and guitar/bass tuner!
As you can surmise from all the words I’ve written in these articles, BIAB is a vast program that can prove complex if you delve into its more esoteric regions, but it is also fast and easy to use if you need only its basic arranging and composing features. Although I’ve had at least a dozen versions, I actually learned more about the program writing this article than I’d figured out in the past 27 years. That’s because I committed to reading the entire manual and trying almost every feature.
On the positive side, this program can do amazing things, and pushes the boundary for artificial intelligence applied to music creation. It’s easy to use its basic functions, and the results can be excellent. It also provides a lot of educational value. I’ve noodled around on keyboards, programmed drum machines, recorded and mixed tracks for years, and yet I learned many new facts about musical styles and notation while evaluating BIAB.
On the negative side, it’s vast and complex, and the current PDF manual is also vast and complex, with some topics described in a scattered fashion in several different areas. I’ve tried to point you to the best sections of the manual for a few topics, but it can be difficult to find the best description of what you want. The index at the end of the manual (starting on page 667) is probably the best place to search for a topic, and using the Find mode in your reader can help, but often leads you to excerpts rather than full explanations.
Another issue is the size (over 17GB for the core program) and complexity of the software, and the bug-fixing this necessitates. PG Music always add many new features, every year, mostly minor with a few significant additions. The first release is never perfect (although that can be said for any large program!), but on the positive side, PG Music use feedback from users — who can purchase the new release in December each year at a great discount — to jump on any significant issues and release software updates. During my testing, which started in December, I installed eight updates! These are free, and have always installed flawlessly, and each one fixed some important issues and a lot of minor ones. Updates are also structured well, requiring sub-100MB downloads. One point worth noting, though, is that unlike nearly all DAW packages, BIAB is still a 32-bit program. This isn’t a problem in practice as it runs fine on modern computers and doesn’t require massive memory resources, but one imagines that sooner or later it could become an issue.
Another plus is PG Music’s phone support, which is free and excellent. Although some days I had trouble getting though, they usually answer quickly and know their products. You can also use the web site support Request Form system for tech support, and there is an active user forum that anyone can access. Overall I would highly recommend Band In A Box for musicians desiring a fast way to create musical accompaniments, for music students and hobbyists wishing to improve their keyboard or guitar skills, and for anyone needing to compose, arrange and produce music in almost any style. I hope these explanations will answer any questions you might have about what Band In A Box can do, and if you already use it, I hope I’ve brought up some new ideas that will be helpful as you explore all this vast program has to offer.
We’ve looked at many ways to compose and arrange songs with Band In A Box, and for many, the musical performance will be the desired end result. However, if you are creating songs for live performances with your bandmates, you’ll want to print scores and lead sheets. All MIDI tracks can be viewed and printed as notation, as can RealTracks with RealChords.
You can also add lyrics to your printed and displayed notation, and there are two types of lyrics, bar-based and note-based. Bar-based lyrics are entered using the Chord Display button in the Views pane and choosing Layers/Bar Lyrics. These lyrics line up from the start of a bar.
Note-based lyrics are entered from the Notation view: select the Melody track, and click the ‘L’ a little right of the track selection buttons. The first melody note will sound and a small window will open for typing a word or syllable. Pressing Enter on your computer keyboard will advance and play the next note for entering more text. These lyrics link to notes, so that you can precisely indicate where a syllable should be stressed!
And for those singalongs in your studio, there is a Big Lyrics button (ironically, a tiny, narrow button with no text just left of the Tracks pane label) that opens a floating window to display the note-based lyrics — and chords, if you wish — as a song plays.
In a Notation window, the Print button will open a menu to format and print a single instrument’s part. This will always be a linear form of notation, from intro to outro, but if you open the Lead Sheet window, you can switch between the linear view and a shorthand view with repeats, first and second endings, and all that DS, DS al coda stuff! The Lead Sheet can also show and print multiple instruments as well as a single instrument. In both print menus, there is an OK — Preview/Graphics button that shows you exactly how the printed pages will look, so you can modify settings to produce just what you want. Simple and serviceable.
To play along with a popular (or unpopular!) tune, you may want to know the chord progression, but you might not be able to find sheet music. If you are better than me, you may be able to accurately transcribe the tune just by listening to it once. For the more normal among us, BIAB provides some aids: audio speed reduction and automatic extraction of chord progressions from MIDI files, and even from audio files!
To transcribe by hand using speed reduction, first load the audio file onto the Audio track. Then play it! The Tempo window just left of the Mixer panel shows BPM (likely not correct for the audio you loaded) and below that, a percentage, which is normally at 100 percent. If you click on the percentage, a small window opens with various values, including 75, 50 and 25 percent. You can also press Ctrl-’-’ on your keyboard to drop to 50 percent instantly and Ctrl-’+’ to return to 100 percent. The pitch of the notes will not change, but below 50 percent tempo, there will be some audio artifacts.
If you want to let BIAB automatically extract a chord progression from an audio recording, click the Audio Chord Wizard button in the Tools pane, and you will see a File Open dialogue. Use this to open an audio file from any directory on your computer, and a window will open showing an audio waveform at the top with a timeline and chords, and a more normal chord sheet in the lower half of the screen.
Chord detection accuracy depends on the accuracy of the bar lines, and it’s easy to align these on most songs. If you need more detailed adjustments, the full process can be a bit involved and is described on pages 397 to 407 of the 2017 PDF manual, but I’ve found many songs come out fine with minimum adjustments. When you have a chord progression that appears correct, click ‘OK — Send to BIAB’ and the chord progression will be written to the Chord Sheet, and the audio track will load the music you have analysed.
You can select a style, generate a song, and play it back along with the audio track. This can get a little ‘busy’, but a good way to hear if your chords match is to solo only the bass track and the audio track (use the Shift key to select one after the other). I’ve tried this with country music, music from the Beatles, Dire Straits and from Metallica, all with excellent results. The audio example ‘BiaB15’ illustrates a bass line created using this technique played against the original audio.
It’s also possible to derive chord progressions from MIDI files, using the File menu’s Import Chords from MIDI file option. You can make adjustments as needed for the melody channel, bass, and other settings, though it usually gets these correct. The chord progression will be written to the Chord Sheet when you click Interpret Chords Now. There is also an Import Melody from MIDI File option that can extract any channels you select from a MIDI file. Handy!
Meanwhile, Band In A Box’s Reharmonist is a neat tool that can create a chord progression from a melody line. Found in the Edit menu under Chords/Auto-Generate Chord Reharmonization, it can use either the Melody track or the Soloist track as its source, and works with or without backing tracks loaded. The Reharmonist analyses the melody and estimates a best key, although you are free to choose another. You can also select a different style from the current setting. When you click OK — Reharmonize, BIAB will generate a chord progression and play a new version of the music! The melody is not changed, and it is very instructive to hear how a different backing, even in different styles, often supports the melody (and sometimes doesn’t!). You can hear some results in the audio example ‘BiaB16’.
An alternative mode in Edit/Chords/Reharmonist Dialog (choose your own) provides a table of possible progressions to choose from, and there are tools in Edit/Chords, Chord Substitutions that can create some fascinating variations.
There are a number of features in Band In A Box designed to help with instrumental technique. The Big Keyboard and Guitar fretboard views show notes as they are played, and you can slow down tempo to help learn fingering. For guitar, the Notation view even shows tabs for all MIDI tracks and for RealTracks that include RealCharts. And RealCharts notation will also display markings for bends, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs. If you regenerate one of these guitar RealTracks, you will see not only the notes change, but the markings for these articulations as well!
You can add your own guitar markings for these articulations on MIDI tracks. In editable notation mode, right-click on a note, choose Edit Note, and select bends, slides, hammer-ons or pull-offs. These will show and print in both the single instrument format and the lead sheet. However, BIAB will not play these articulations, as only RealTracks can do that. Maybe something for BIAB 2018?
The latest BIAB version has added a small sample of RealTracks that have been recorded in all 12 keys, some with Hi-Q Guitar RealCharts, so you can see accurate fingering with a guitar. And since no audio transpositions need take place, the audio is as good as the original recording. The audio transpositions that occur for normal five-key RealTracks sound fine, but this will be valuable for learning guitar technique and I expect to see a lot more 12-key RealTracks become available.
Woodshedding is a learning technique which involves playing a part slowly to start with, then gradually getting faster and faster. BIAB’s Woodshedding function enables you to set a start tempo, a change per loop, and an ending tempo. You can also have it run up and down a tempo range or jump back to the slow speed. This is found using the Practice button in the top menu bar, which also accesses a number of other educational tools. You will find play-along features including sight reading, guitar practice, ear training, video games (really!), jazz and chord exercises, almost 1000 piano and guitar riffs, some master solo examples and other lessons. These educational tools alone are probably worth the price of the basic version.
- Freeze all tracks as soon as you have composed a song, and unfreeze only those you want to change. This will save you from an unpleasant surprise.
- Always freeze all tracks before saving a song, or it will never sound exactly the same when you open it again!
- Any track that uses the Default Synth will not respond to an effect plug-in added to its FX slots because the sound is coming from the Default Synth. If you use effects plug-ins in the Default Synth FX slots, they will be applied to all sounds from that synth, which may not be what you want. You can install Coyote (or another MIDI wavetable sound player) in the synth slot of any track, and then the effects for that track will apply only to that track.
- When opening the VST/DXi Synths/Plugin panel with effects previously set up, do not try to access an effect by clicking the pull-down arrow at the right — click the radio button of the effect you wish to adjust. Otherwise, you will end up instantiating a new copy of the effect and reset your previous settings.
- Beware of minimising windows like the VST/DXi Synth/Plugin window, as some minimised windows will ‘lock out’ access to other windows. Close any secondary window after using it. Note that you can often Play a song while a secondary window (like VST/DXi) is open and make adjustments in the secondary window, but it’s best to close it completely when finished.
- The Tilt EQ in the Mixer window works only with audio-type tracks, including the Audio track and RealTracks, RealDrums and Performance Tracks. It has no effect on MIDI tracks.
- While there are two editable notation views, the Piano Roll editor is the most effective way to edit notes and MIDI dynamics. With it you can change a single note or a group of notes by left-clicking and dragging the notes. Be sure to use the Shift key when moving multiple notes, or else the cursor will grab only the last note you click.
- Editing notes for a MIDI track or SuperTrack will change the performance, but while you can edit note data on a RealChords notation view, the associated audio performance will not change — the RealCharts are transcribed from the original RealTracks or Artist Performance Tracks, not the other way around.
- However, you can edit RealTracks or Artist Performance notes and then use these notes in a MIDI track to execute the performance. An easy way to do this is to use Copy Special/Copy/Move Tracks from the Edit menu to copy the edited track data to a MIDI track. You can also erase the RealTracks data from a track, but leave the MIDI data and select ‘Choose no RealTracks’ in the Select RealTracks dialogue. You may need to regenerate the new MIDI track.
- The Melodist will overwrite the Melody track even if frozen, and will overwrite any backing track that is not frozen. It will not overwrite the Soloist track.
- The Melodist will change the song style if the Allow Style Change tick box is ticked. Untick it unless you really want to make a style change.
- The Soloist will try not to repeat any stylistic forms in a BIAB session until allowed to refresh. Shutting down and restarting BIAB will create a refresh, as will choosing Edit Soloist/Refresh.
- Using the Soloist Dialog mode, the Soloist will change the song style if the small panel right of the Style label has a style listed other than No Change. If you want to reset a listed style to No Change, you must click the Clear button to the right of the style window each time you use the Soloist. The Soloist Dialog mode will overwrite any unfrozen tracks if there is a style change.
- If RealDrums are enabled in Preferences/RealDrums, and a song with MIDI drums is loaded, the drum track will be silent until it is regenerated (best to unfreeze only the drum track for that). If RealDrums are not enabled, previously saved MIDI drums or RealDrums will play a MIDI drum version.
- To help using functions, be sure the ‘Show text hints’ and ‘Dialog box hints’ selections are ticked ‘on’ in the main Preferences window. And almost every menu has a Help button that takes you to a detailed description of its features, most of which are up-to-date!
- A very extensive and comprehensive set of composing, arranging and educational tools enable excellent results with little effort, if you stick to the basics.
- Can automatically compose and arrange a wide variety of genres and styles — and you can create your own styles manually or from a MIDI file!
- Very low CPU load even when you set all the tracks to be audio tracks.
- All versions are fully functional: the more costly versions simply add more sound and style files.
- Good notation views and editing features from lead sheet down to note level.
- Although there’s no demo version, PG Music will give you your money back if you try it and don’t like it.
- Comes with a basic DAW program too.
- The composing and arranging tools are very sophisticated, so can take a lot of effort to comprehend if you delve into the advanced features.
- Only comes as a 32-bit program, though it runs fine in 64-bit systems (I used Windows 7).
- Only one user-input audio track, and a maximum of seven instrument tracks: this is not a DAW or full notation program for classical composition.
- Current (2017) user manual needs editing: repeated sections covering the same procedures with different details can make it difficult to find what you need.
Band In A Box is a unique and very comprehensive collection of tools for algorithmic composition, auto-accompaniment generation, improving instrumental technique and musical education.