Please repeat after me: “Band-in-a-Box is not a toy. . . . ” Although you can have a lot of fun playing with it. The program has evolved since 1989 into a sophisticated tool for music composition, practice and study. In the early days it would produce three-piece synthesised accompaniments with limited choices and a definitely mechanical feel, which may account for some lingering antipathy among some musicians.
In fact one of my criticisms of Band-in-a-Box 2011 is that there are now possibly too many choices. But before I look at some of the new features in the 2011 version I’d first like to give people who have never used Band-in-a-Box some idea of what it can do for them. For me it’s been very useful.
Over the years I’ve used it for quick creation of backing tracks for practice and performance; I’ve written songs for school musicals with it; I’ve created soundtracks for documentary and educational DVDs with it; I also used it when I was producing series 2 of the AMW podcasts to quickly create the underlying musical sound beds.
So how does it work? At the basic level you type in conventional chord symbols from your Mac keyboard such as C, A minor, Bdim, Gmaj7/D – nearly all known chords are accepted. Then choose a music style from an extensive list which includes all shades of jazz, pop, rock, blues, country, classical, Latin, techno, ambient, world and folk and hit Play. Band-in-a-Box instantly generates a five-piece musical accompaniment in the style you selected with appropriate instrumentation.
These instruments, 128 of them, are built into your Mac as the QuickTime synthesiser. They’re similar to the software sounds in the green loops in GarageBand and are completely controlled by MIDI, a universal computer language for generating synthesised music.
Most styles give you bass, drums, guitar, keyboard and strings although you can change these sounds to any others in the QT synth from an on-screen list. You can also change volume, panning, reverb and chorus settings. Don’t like the style? Choose another. Band-in-a-Box delivers a new rendition of your chord pattern in seconds.
You can also make general changes to the song arrangement such as intros and endings, number of choruses and where to introduce minor variations of the style you selected. The Style Picker dialogue box is very helpful in that it gives you a quick overview of the instrumentation and feel of each style as well as describing the various variations.
When you’ve finished your arrangement you can save it as a MIDI file which can then be imported into Garage Band. I do this quite a bit because most Garage Band software instruments sound far more realistic than the QT synth set and with the additional Jam Packs I have vastly more variety to choose from. You can also output your arrangement as an audio file – AIFF, WAV or M4a.
The Soloist feature, as its name implies, generates a solo over your arrangement, again from a wide variety of styles. This is an amazing feature. Although some Soloists sound better than others they all have a remarkably natural feel. It’s quite hard to believe sometimes that this all gets back to mathematics and algorithms.
Even more amazing is the Melodist feature. Press the Melodist button and a dialogue comes up from which you can generate a finished song complete with intro, chords and melody. When you’ve confirmed your choices Band-in-a-Box composes your song virtually on the fly. Like to hear a different version in the same style? Return to the Melodist dialogue and hit OK. Too easy!
If you’d like to add even more richness to your arrangement you can harmonise the melody in 3 to 5 parts from a wide range of vocal and instrumental harmony styles. So in a minute or two you can create a full-sounding musical composition. And these three features – Soloist, Melodist and Harmony can give users great insights into the underlying musical principles.
So much for synthesised sounds. In the last year or so Band-in-a-Box added Real Tracks and Real Drums. These are tracks recorded by professional musicians. They are not MIDI but audio files just like the blue Apple loops in GarageBand. By some amazing technology these can be changed in pitch or tempo without losing their natural feel.
There are video demos of all Real Tracks at www.pgmusic.com/bbmac.demos.htm But remember – these are accompaniments ingeniously pieced together by Band-in-a-Box from shorter samples played by professional musicians.
You can mix and match between MIDI and Real but because there are so many more standard (MIDI) styles than Real Tracks it’s not possible at present to substitute MIDI for Real all the time. Real Drums and Real Tracks are again accessed through dialogue boxes with information to assist you in your choice.
Other features? A Digital Audio Work Station (DAW) plug-in shrinks the Band-in-a-Box screen and facilitates transfer of audio and MIDI from Band-in-a-Box to other programs like GarageBand or Logic. The Drum window gives you an interactive graphic window of a full MIDI drum/percussion kit which you can practise on or record from. Another button allows you to generate guitar chord solos and watch the fingering on-screen.
And that’s just the basics. There are many other features for you to discover on the PG music website.
The main new features in 2011 are the addition of over 100 new Real Tracks in a variety of styles from gypsy jazz to Tex-Mex to gospel to country rock. The Real Tracks audio files, both new and previous, have been reduced in size to only 30 percent of previous versions. The quality of these tracks has also been improved to sound better over an even wider range of tempos. A new Mixer window now floats above the main screen which allows you to change the instrument, volume, panning, tone and reverb of individual tracks or the whole arrangement.
Between 1989 and 2011 Band-in-a-Box has evolved into a fully-featured music tool set for musicians, music students, music teachers, video and podcast producers both amateur and professional. Although it now seems to have almost every conceivable tweak and adjustable control Band-in-a-Box is still very easy to get started with. The manuals and instructional videos are still as daggy as ever but they do their job. First time purchases start from US$129 for a downloadable or DVD version all the way up to US$669 for the complete kit and caboodle on a portable hard drive. Upgrades go from US$69 to US$479.
Here’s some demos I knocked up in five minutes. The first two are variations on the same chord progression. And they’re only a tiny glimpse of what you can do with Band-in-a-Box