Shakespeare had his Dark Lady for creative inspiration, Dante had his Beatrice, Petrarch had his Laura — and you? You've got your PC! JANET HARNIMAN COOK compares three different interactive composition packages which aim to provide that elusive spark...
It's a quiet afternoon with no one around to disturb or distract you; everything in the studio is working fine, and the PC is running as sweet as can be. The only thing wrong is that you're totally devoid of musical inspiration. Does this sound familiar? And what can you do about it? Well, you could play safe and rewrite your best tunes, you could recycle some clichés — you could even go away and do something completely different. But a better option might be to accept a little help from your PC...
Beating The Block
Your PC can help you beat the block if you have one of the interactive MIDI composition applications on the market. These are actually a specialised variety of MIDI sequencer, and if you're familiar with sequencing basics you should have little difficulty understanding the principles involved.
In this article we'll take a look at three packages: the Steinberg Cubase Styletrax module, PG Music's Band‑in‑a‑Box v7.0e, and Sseyo's Koan Pro v2.0. Each of these applications generates music by applying style templates to live and sequenced musical input. Band‑in‑a‑Box and the simpler Cubase Styletrax are primarily orientated towards providing auto‑accompaniment conforming to conventional musical forms, whereas the enigmatic Koan Pro is directed towards the creation of more abstract evolving and mutating atmospheric soundscapes. Koan Pro has been endorsed by Brian Eno, who used it for his Generative Music 1, released in 1996 — not on CD, as might be expected, but on floppy disk in Koan album format.
These programs can do far more than help you beat writer's block.
Both Band‑in‑a‑Box and Koan Pro pieces can be exported as MIDI files, and the output from Styletrax can be converted to standard MIDI data and edited directly in Cubase. In practice, these programs should be useful production aids, but I feel that their strength lies in originating and developing ideas rather than in creating complete musical pieces — I usually find it necessary to port the results over to a dedicated MIDI sequencer for more precise and quicker editing. It may also be productive, when experimenting with these applications, to record the audio output to DAT or HDR, and edit it in a wave editor such as Sound Forge or WaveLab.
But these programs can do far more than help you beat writer's block: by partially automating the production process, they liberate you from some of the more tedious and repetitive chores involved in song production, freeing up your time for other, more creative activities. The use of style templates can introduce new influences into your music, and the ability to build templates customised to your own styles and studio setup could revolutionise your writing process. You could even use these applications on stage if you are not averse to taking your PC to gigs. Band‑in‑a‑Box and Styletrax are also powerful educational tools, and even students with minimal formal musical ability should be able to produce musical results without too much difficulty.
The processing requirements of these programs are quite modest, and you don't need a big PC to run them. A modest 486 DX2‑66 machine with 8Mb will do the trick, as long as it's equipped with a GM soundcard or linked to an external GM module via a MIDI interface.
Steinberg Cubase Styletrax
Although Styletrax is the simplest of the three applications, it is nevertheless a very capable creative tool and is great fun to use. The Styletrax module integrates fully into the Cubase environment and has been included with the Cubase PC range from version 3 onwards. Styletrax has its spiritual roots in the Cubase IPS (Interactive Phrase Synthesizer) but is much more user‑friendly and has a simple interface and a clearly‑written section devoted to it in the Cubase Modules manual. However, as yet, Styletrax does not feature in the Cubase on‑line help.
The user interface comprises two software elements: the Styletrax Inspector on the main Cubase arrange page contains information about the currently active styles, variations and play modes, and complementing this is the Styletrax editor, which is made up of five modules:
- Library mode lets you see at a glance the names of the different styles and variations in use.
- From Remote Keyboard mode you can edit the keyboard zone configuration that governs the remote selection of variations, instrument mutes and playback stop, together with the Thru keys which are used to input chords during record or playback.
- Trigger and scale preferences are defined in Parameters mode.
- MIDI instrument definition is found in Tracklist mode and handles the settings of the MIDI instruments.
- GM mode defines the instrument map; although Styletrax defaults to a standard GM MIDI map of 128 voices and five drum kits, it can be configured to accommodate multiple MIDI port configurations.
To explore Styletrax, first create a new track and then look in the Cubase Track Class list to check that the Styles module is loaded. Select a Style, click on the Inspector mode list, select Listening and put Cubase into play. Chords on the octave above middle C are added from your MIDI keyboard to determine the key and modulation patterns that are imposed on the Styletrax backing parts.
STYLES & CHORD TRACKS
Up to 15 different Styles can be loaded at any one time, each containing up to eight Variations which, in turn, may have nested Variations that allow different chords to produce individual patterns. Variations are sequenced from Cubase Chord tracks, or may be triggered from a MIDI keyboard. There are five other keyboard input modes in addition to Listening mode: Slave mode locks to the chord playback sequence defined in the Chord track; Easy mode allows one‑finger chord input; and the remaining three modes — Roland, Yamaha and Casio modes — conform to the home keyboard auto‑accompaniment chord‑triggering conventions. Chord tracks do not contain MIDI data and are used exclusively for Styletrax control information. The MIDI channel and program change parameters in the Track list do not affect the finished recording, and are there simply to define the MIDI thru sound that is heard whilst recording the Chord track.
Another way of entering chord progressions is to convert MIDI tracks into Chord tracks, but one thing to remember when creating Chord tracks is that your input must consist of at least basic triads, otherwise the Styletrax chord recognition routines will not function correctly. Once you're happy with your track you can change it back into a standard MIDI track — the Styletrax instrument parts will then be transformed into normal MIDI parts on discrete Cubase tracks. To customise your Styletrax setup you can create your own Style templates, which may contain up to eight Cubase MIDI tracks.
The Cubase Styletrax module can be great fun, and is accessible enough to be suitable for musicians of all abilities and ages. An added advantage is that if you're a Cubase user, it's free!
Steinberg Cubase from £329.
PG Music Band‑In‑A‑Box
Band‑in‑a‑Box has been around for quite a few years now in Atari, PC and Mac versions. The standard edition of the program (£89) is a 16‑bit application for Windows 95 and legacy Windows 3.1, and comprises six floppy disks — four program disks and two soloist disks — plus a comprehensive 314‑page manual supplemented by on‑line Help and Tip of the Day. The user interface is a little dated, but reasonably well laid out. Although it is not possible to use more than a single MIDI port on your PC with Band‑in‑a‑Box, there is special provision for Roland GS and Yamaha XG extended General MIDI. I hooked up the Yamaha DB50XG daughterboard on my soundcard, and took advantage of Band‑in‑a‑Box's user bank function, with which I was able to customise the default instrument map to include instruments from not only the DB50XG's GM bank, but also those located in its higher voice banks. In addition, a wide range of general customisation options, such as harmonisation templates, styles, default instrument ensembles and drum maps, is available.
Band‑in‑a‑Box is a versatile program that can generate drum, bass and various instrumental accompaniment styles, based on a chosen Style and your choice of chords. It can also harmonise solo lines, or even improvise solos, and those with higher ambitions can create their own Styles.
You construct a Song by entering chord and part markers onto the Worksheet bar window, and then defining the key, the tempo, and a performance style. On the basis of your selections, BIAB can generate an arrangement of up to nine players or parts, each on separate MIDI channels. The melody can then be entered from your MIDI keyboard, and as you do so you can instruct BIAB to create harmony lines. You can type in lyrics from the PC keyboard, add 'improvised' Soloist parts, and, during playback, mute instruments, adjust MIDI parameters (such as patch, volume, pan and reverb) and rearrange song sections. Styles and instrumental ensembles can be mixed and matched between BIAB songs according to your own musical taste, and apparently incongruous musical styles can often provide the spark of inspiration that leads to new ideas and songs.
The MIDI editing power available in the BIAB score and key editors is limited compared with that found in dedicated MIDI sequencers, but you can export your song as a MIDI file, or copy it to the Windows clipboard prior to pasting it to your main sequencer for fine‑tuning. It's a shame you can't import MIDI files, as this would enable you to build your own style templates more easily, but the template customisation options are extensive and you can save your piece, with all its parts and settings, as a Band‑in‑a‑Box songfile. There are good basic score‑printing facilities, and the copyright on all the music you create using the program resides with you.
One of my only criticisms of BIAB concerns the gaps in the range of styles included with the package — for example, there's lots of lounge jazz and MOR, but no rave, bhangra, or Celtic; the rap tracks are pretty lightweight, and the hip‑hop is... well, more hop than hip! However, the quality of the arrangements is often surprisingly good, and although a GUI face‑lift and the addition of PC multiple MIDI port support would not go amiss, Band‑in‑a‑Box for Windows represents amazing value for money. It's a genuinely useful songwriting and music creation tool that should have a place in any well‑equipped MIDI studio — and if you want to swap files between different computer platforms, this is easy to do, as the standard BIAB file format can be read by PC, Atari and Macintosh.
PG Music Band‑in‑a‑Box v7.0e £89.95; upgrade from previous versions £45. Optional accessories include four performance styles disks, two tutorial videos and a CD‑ROM.
Sseyo Koan Pro 1.2
A Koan is a paradox or an unanswerable puzzle and derives from Japanese Zen Buddhism, where Koans are employed by Zen masters to confound the rational, mundane mind and facilitate enlightenment. Koan Pro is a powerful generative music application from UK developers Sseyo and is best suited to creating free‑flowing ambient music liberated from the constraints of conventional musical forms. This is achieved using the Sseyo Koan Music Engine (SKME), which generates music in response to your input.
The Koan Pro package consists of two floppy disks containing the installation files for 32‑bit Windows 95 and 16‑bit Windows 3.1, plus a well‑written manual. To help get you started there are tutorials, a selection of good demo songs, rhythm templates, and comprehensive on‑line and contextual Help. The Koan Pro mouse and keyboard shortcuts conform to standard Windows conventions, and there is extensive use throughout of the right mouse shortcut menu. Values are entered from mouse or keyboard, and Koan Pro will respond to input from an external controller such as a MIDI keyboard or MIDI guitar. Musical pieces can also be imported or saved as a type 0 MIDI file.
The main page in Koan Pro is the Power view: tracks are displayed horizontally, with the Track Definition table to the left. The Envelope view scrolls left to right along the time line. Track and patch names, MIDI channel and Mute status are constantly on view, and the Koan edit windows for voice types and playback parameters are shown via the buttons situated above the display. The top tool bars feature the usual file‑handling shortcuts, transport controls, piece definitions, and the rule definitions dialogues. The status bar displays information about menu, grid and toolbar items, together with tempo, time signature and play timings.
Koan Pro operates through the interaction of Voice types, Rules and Envelopes, which together determine the playback characteristics of a track and govern how a connected instrument's voices react over time. The five Voice types determine the basic role of each instrument that is used:
- The 'Follows' Voice type references and mimics the qualities of another voice and is used to create echo and counterpoint.
- The 'Repeat Bar' Voice type reiterates material used in earlier bars.
- The 'Fixed Pattern' Voice type plays notes based on a note sequence and/or note lengths entered in the Pattern Editor grid, and can be used to introduce melodic material.
- The 'Ambient' Voice type is used to create notes with specific durations and can produce drones.
- The 'Rhythmic' Voice type is primarily controlled by the program's Phrase Length and Phrase Gap parameters. The Harmony and Scale rules calculate the pitch of each note that is played, and note durations conform to the Rhythm rules. Rules are based on measures of probability — that is to say, they determine the likelihood of an event occurring over the duration of the piece. For example, when applied to the Scale rule, an event probability of zero means that that particular note will not be played at all, while a probability of 20 means that the note has a 20% chance of being played.
Envelopes are edited graphically, with changes entered from the envelope toolbar, and can be applied for the control of volume, velocity, pan, tempo, velocity range, velocity change and velocity change range. Every value in Koan Pro can have a List associated with it: this forms a pool of possible factors that the voice can be influenced by — for example, a list of specific instrument voices could be used to restrict a random program change selection setting. In fact, the interaction between the rules can be a mind‑boggling affair, since there are around 150 parameters to tweak and rules can be applied at the Piece level (globally), or to individual instruments at Voice level. You must be prepared to adopt an experimental approach!
Space prohibits more than a cursory examination of the staggering range of voice‑ and phrase‑shaping possibilities afforded by Koan Pro, but a few of the other options include controllers for reverb, chorus, portamento, sustain, expression, damper and softness. If you have a Creative Labs AWE32 soundcard, you can also take advantage of the special provision made within Koan Pro for controlling this card's EMU 8000 sound generator (featuring LFOs, oscillators and voice envelope parameters) and Creative's proprietary SoundFonts.
To get an idea of how Koan Pro works, load in the '55‑56' demo song — a slow, pleasantly mutating piano and choir piece written by Tim Didymus — from the SKD folder in the Koan Pro directory. Soloing a track will enable you to listen to it in isolation, to assess its content and hear accurately the effects of parameter changes as you make them.
As a significant proportion of my own musical output falls into the ambient/minimalist category, I was keen to find out what Koan Pro could do, and I was soon able to produce simple evolving ambient pieces, which were spoilt only by the occasional dissonant note or inappropriate phrase. These glitches were almost certainly caused by my lack of expertise, and were easy to correct in Cubase and WaveLab. Although Koan Pro is well written and stable, I did not find it a particularly easy program to learn; the user interface appears rather daunting initially, and although this is partly due to the stark, almost DOS‑like graphics and minimal use of colour, it's mainly down to the number and interactive complexity of the features available. But it's well worth persevering, and the more I used Koan Pro, the more I liked it. I'm sure that newcomers with an interest in making ambient music will find that, after the initially steep learning curve, Koan Pro is a very intriguing and exciting program with tremendous depth, and will prove to be a valuable musical asset.
A final remark on copyright: when you use Koan Pro to originate your own musical recordings, copyright resides with you as the author. However, if the program is used to generate music in real time for public broadcast or performance, or for commercial purposes (such as to provide background music for public places such as hotel foyers, reception rooms and lobbies, and telephone hold systems) a license must be first obtained from Sseyo.
Koan Pro £164.44 including VAT.
Random Composition Systems
Random composition is not a new idea; Mozart developed such a system, based on short musical phrases and using dice to determine the play sequence. Not surprisingly, the results were less than satisfactory. A similar random‑choice technique can be used for writing song lyrics or poetry:
- Cut 40 pieces of paper to about the size of a playing card.
- Write a different word on each and shuffle them.
- Pick a piece of paper at random.
- Write the words down as phrases on your lyric sheet.
If you're very lucky you might find yourself with a stunning ready‑made lyric; on an average day you may find an interesting juxtaposition that fires up your imagination.
Brian Eno:Generative Music 1
If you get the chance, check out Brian Eno's Generative Music 1 (available from Sseyo at £39). This is wonderful atmospheric music created with Koan Pro and is certainly worth a listen. The package consists of a well‑presented package featuring an eerie Anton Corbijn photograph of Eno on the box front, a booklet containing extracts from Eno's diary and a floppy disk with the musical pieces, plus Koan Plus playback software. The pieces should be played through a Creative Labs AWE32, SB32, AWE64 or TDK soundcard, as extensive use is made of the EMU 8000 controllers exclusive to these cards.