Hands on with Band-in-a-Box 2017

Keith White
7 September, 2017
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I’ve just been running the 2017 version of Band-in-a-Box (BiaB to its devotees). As I’ve come to expect over the years, the latest version is brimming with new features (more of which later).

First, a little background for newbies. BiaB first appeared around 1990 as a means to generate musical accompaniments. It was pretty basic and quite mechanical, but full of potential. Since those days I’ve seen the ugly duckling morph into an elegant swan. A process of continuous refinement has produced what is today a highly professional software suite with myriad functions, invaluable to not only to performers like myself, but also to teachers and students of music.

 

Here’s how its core function works. I type in a series of chords using standard symbols such as say, C – A minor – F – G7. (Although BiaB is comfortable with virtually any chord I can think of.) Next I choose a style from now nearly 5000 possibilities and instantly BiaB gives me a complete song arrangement with keyboard, bass, guitar, drums and strings or brass. These instruments can be generated using the internal MIDI sounds in my Mac, or I can opt to choose either Real Tracks or MIDI Super Tracks. These are audio or MIDI segments recorded by professional musicians which BiaB intelligently weaves together to fit my chord progression. They do sound Real! Since I’ve been using RealTracks in recent years I’ve been getting a lot more positive comments about my sound at live gigs. So what can the 2017 version add to an already impressive history?

Many of the changes are under the hood but the outcome is that the program works more smoothly and, most importantly, sounds even greater.

A couple of versions back I complained about the daggy interface. I remember I somewhat unkindly compared it to Windows 95! I obviously wasn’t the only one, as PG Music set to work to fix the problem. The latest version now puts the user in the centre of the action. Using a tabbed toolbar the main screen now has vastly more real estate for me to type in my arrangements. Also, the mixer, an important tool but screen hog, is now movable and re-sizeable. There are many other minor improvements all contributing to a much smoother operation. If all these changes get a bit confusing, one click takes me straight back to the 2016 interface. Nice touch.

A new feature in 2016, the Song Titles Browser, has been expanded as I expected and now contains over 8000 popular song titles. Here’s how it works. I want to find a style similar to say, ‘Sultans of Swing’ by Dire Straits. I type in the title and BiaB shows me a list of styles from best to worst that have a similar feel and tempo. Sometimes it’s a chillingly accurate selection, occasionally a bit off the mark but nearly always giving me some very interesting variations. As an example I currently have two arrangements of the Drifters song ‘Under the Boardwalk’. One using a Cuban trio, another using a Dire Straits quartet. Exactly the same chord pattern/arrangement but sounding totally different. Listen here and here. (Key of D, 4 bars intro.)

Generally one of the most anticipated parts of the annual upgrade is the new RealTracks, all performed by leading session musicians or specialists in the style. In 2017 over 200 new tracks include such interesting gems as Hawaiian pedal steel, a big band with 9-piece horns, 60s surf and Motown and house, hip-hop and rap. I can see many more long evenings coming up trawling through the possibilities of some of these.

Improvements have been made to the Chord Builder feature, which is very useful in suggesting the range of chords I can use in a particular key. Enhancements to the Style Picker make it easier to find my way through the maze of different styles. Pitch and tempo shifting have been improved, allowing me more flexibility to transpose or alter tempo without losing quality. This list goes on… but for more details on the nearly 80 new features may I respectfully suggest you head on over to the PG Music website for video and audio demos, and a wide range of pricing options.

I have used Band-in-a-Box for over 20 years professionally and have found it one of the most professional and useful programs in my arsenal. The 2017 version takes a great program to new heights.

Pros: vastly improved user control of interface; fabulous range of new sounds from all over the world: useful improvements to Song Titles Browser and Style Picker.

Cons: (as usual) can you have too much of a good thing?

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