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Amiga Notes
Published February 1996

Blue Ribbon's SuperJAM has been around for quite a while, but many musicians still don't realise just how useful this program is. Paul Overaa provides a guided tour of the current version...

Blue Ribbon's SuperJAM is basically a program designed to automate the work involved in creating song arrangements. Given a small amount of guidance, it can create complete arrangements for up to six different instruments (including bass, drums and keyboards). The main reason that I've chosen to look at SuperJAM is not because of its undoubted power, but because many people still do not realise that it is a package that can be used to good effect by musicians of all abilities — and that includes would‑be musicians, as well as non‑MIDI musicians using internal sounds.

SuperJAM can be used in a number of ways, including a real‑time 'jamming' mode, where the program, given a selected style, will try to generate some suitable backing for what you play. The music styles themselves are composed of a series of stored patterns which define the riffs, fills, variations and breaks, and a whole collection of different styles ranging from country and pop/rock to classical and jazz compositions are provided. It is also possible to create new styles, although this is a more advanced area that few Amiga musicians experiment with. Perhaps of more interest is the way in which songs can be generated from a simple chord sketch, and I think at this stage a specific example will properly explain exactly what SuperJAM can do.

Song Building

The first step in creating an arrangement is to decide how you wish to split up the song. For pop music, this usually means identifying the verses and choruses that are present, and deciding on a rough overall pattern, for example: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Chorus, End.

In this case, we'd be looking to create at least four different types of sections — an intro, a verse, a chorus and an end unit (perhaps creating more than one verse or chorus section to provide some extra variation). When SuperJAM creates a section, it asks for the section's name and the number of bars needed. At this point a window opens containing six rows of coloured gadgets, and these correspond to the six instruments that SuperJAM uses. The rows are divided into bars which can be scrolled horizontally, and as it is possible to adjust the magnification, the number of bars on display can be controlled. Individual beats of instrumental parts can be selectively muted, or alternatively, a whole bar can be turned into a rest period via a special gadget situated below it.

The drum parts are particularly important for me, and I find it initially useful to listen to them in isolation. The magnification/reduction gadgets which control the amount of the score shown on the display are particularly helpful when you need to temporarily mute complete instruments from the section window. By reducing the size so that a full section is visible on the screen, it is possible to mute a particular instrument by wiping the mouse horizontally across the play/mute gadgets of that instrument. Having done this for all instruments except the drums, my next step is usually to select a style, listen to what SuperJAM decides to play, and then specify the key and the chords that form the basis of the section.

Under default conditions, SuperJAM tries to guess what chord type is required as you specify the root notes of the chord to be used. This automatic chord selection can be useful when you are using the program in a real‑time jamming mode, or for users who have no real idea of which chords to choose — but most musicians tend to turn automatic chord selection off and specify the chords explicitly. Of course, even with this latter approach, it is unnecessary to know what notes the chord consists of, or be able to play the chords — an absolute beginner can just enter chord symbols from a piece of sheet music and let SuperJAM figure out how to play them itself!

SuperJAM creates its own subtle variations as it plays, but if you'd like a bit more variety within a particular section, there are two futher possibilities. Firstly, you can create a similar (but not identical) section with slightly different chords. This is a flexible solution, but it does use up additional memory. The second option is to use the style's in‑built variations. If you click just below the chord symbol line, another menu appears which allows intro/end variations, and fills and breaks to be added. So, the user is able to build up a complete description which contains all the key, chords, break and fill details that SuperJAM needs to play the section. Each verse, chorus and so on, that is created will be given its own section window — these have their own key, tempo and instrument parameters. Sketching out and editing these types of descriptions could not be easier. If you make a mistake and enter a wrong chord, just click on the section window's erase gadget and then touch the chord you want to remove. If you put a chord or a fill directive in the wrong place, SuperJAM has a special 'hand' gadget which allows you to pick up such objects and move them around. You can also change the key of all the work you've put into a section by using the up/down key transposition gadgets.

Once the individual sections have been defined, SuperJAM's song window can present a display that contains large block gadgets representing the various sections that exist. These gadgets have names and bar number labels which show the positions at which they start within the currently defined song. The song window lets you both play and edit the overall section usage arrangements, and since it lets you copy section blocks, move them around, duplicate, or delete them, it becomes possible to reshape the format of the song in any way that you want.

The Bottom Line

SuperJAM is a valuable arrangement tool and it has an infinite number of satellite uses as well. If, for instance, SuperJAM was heard to be playing some particularly interesting drum parts, it is possible to mute the other instruments and then write out a few bars of the isolated drum data as a MIDI file. This would result in ready‑made drum patterns to use with any other program that can read MIDI file data (most sequencer programs, for example). Similarly, any SuperJAM‑generated bass lines or piano riffs can be isolated and exported for re‑use.

It's certainly one of the most interesting Amiga music programs that I use, and with MIDI work I experienced few problems. As far as the use of internal sounds are concerned, there are a couple of potential snags. SuperJAM's TurboSound arrangements can result in memory being eaten up very quickly, and the facilities are also processor‑intensive, so with slower, older Amiga's (for instance basic A500s and A2000s), you can get poor‑quality audio when composing in real‑time. If you are using MIDI equipment, SuperJAM is relieved of the task of sound sample processing completely, so such difficulties on older machines disappear.

SuperJAM costs £59.95 (inc VAT) and is available from Emerald Creative Technology on 0181 715 8866.

Amiga News In Brief

    Ami‑FileSafe, the new Amiga filing system developed jointly by Michiel Pelt and Fourth Level Developments, is now shipping in quantity and offers both speed and security improvements, along with other features such as an 'undelete' command. There are actually two variations of the Ami‑FileSafe package available: a User version costs £29.75 (+£3.50 p&p) and supports hard drives up to 650Mb, whereas the Pro version, which can be used with hard drives up to 9Gb (ie. 9000Mb!) costs £69.75 (+£3.50 p&p). The Pro version also provides true multi‑user support. For more details contact Fourth Level Developments on 0117 985 4455.
    Canadian company AmiTrix have recently unveiled the hardware for a new networking system that allows up to 20 Amigas to be linked together via their floppy ports. They've also negotiated the rights to bundle Envoy, the official Amiga networking software, with their kit. The starting price is $299, about £200, but with no UK distributors at present you'll need to contact AmiTrix direct on 001 403 929 9459 if you want further details.
    Amiga Technologies have said that new entry‑level A1200‑based Amigas will be appearing during 1996 and will include built‑in CD‑ROM drive expandability. Professional users looking ahead to the first of the new generation of Amigas based on the Power PC 604 RISC CPU chip also have good news — the first machines should be available at the beginning of 1997. Amiga Technologies claim that these new machines will be backwards‑compatible with current Amiga models!