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Band In A Box V5

Accompaniment Software

This popular auto-accompaniment program is gaining in features and sophistication with every upgrade. Martin Russ plays with himself...


When I reviewed PG Music's version 4.1 Band-in-a-Box program in the July 1991 issue of Sound On Sound, I commented on the rapid and sustained progress that the company were committed to. Just over a year later, the next major update is here already. At this rate, we will be seeing double figure version numbers well before the turn of the century: BIAB V12.0 anyone?

Band-in-a-Box is a computer program for producing automatic accompaniment. It works virtually identically on Atari, IBM or Macintosh computers — and so does not have impressive graphical screens with mouse-controlled everything, although it does use pull-down menus and dialogue boxes. Instead, Band-in-a-Box concentrates on keeping the cost low and the musical usability high. As the program develops in response to user feedback, it is changing from the original concept of producing raw MIDI Files for subsequent tweaking. This latest version has many additions which make it more interactive and easier to use — much more like a real accompanist.

BAR GRID



Entering music into BIAB is easy — simply place chords onto a grid of bars (four bars per line on screen). Two chords and their associated bass notes can be placed into each of the bars. Once you have the outline of the chordal structure of the song in place, you annotate it by setting the styles to be used (for each bar if you want that level of detail) and the repeats of groups of bars. You can also set patch and tempo changes. Once you're used to it, entering a song is remarkably quick and straightforward.

Playing the song involves a short wait whilst the program works out the parts; this varies with the complexity of the styles used. Listening to the MIDI output enables you to fine-tune patches, tempos and repeats, and perhaps even chords, to get the feel right. When you're satisfied, you can save the song as a MIDI File.

INSTRUMENTS



Two new instruments have been added to the Drums, Bass and Piano parts of the previous versions. The Strings and Guitar parts now enable much fuller arrangements of songs. Brass can be substituted for the Guitar part by merely changing patch. Only user styles can utilise five instruments — the preset styles still use three instruments.

The function keys are used to select an instrument whilst the song is playing:

F2: All
F3: Bass
F4: Piano
F5: Drums
F6: Guitar
F7: Horns (Brass)
F8: Strings
F9: Melody

Pressing a function key and the ALT key will mute that part during playback. Once an instrument is selected, the computer keyboard can be used to change Patches and Volume. GM/GS compatible synthesizers can also have Panning, Reverb, Chorus and Banks controlled. The 1-9 keys can be used to select 'favourite' instruments — you assign 10 GM patch numbers for each instrument. The F2 'All Instruments' function key can similarly be used to choose between 10 combinations of instruments.

Function keys, the ALT key, the QWERTY keys and the numeric keypad all play their part in controlling BIAB. It can take a while to become familiar with the (often less than intuitive) key presses needed to do things, especially the newly-added ones, and this is mainly due to the fact that the program has evolved from a much simpler predecessor. The manual has useful lists of key presses, although it too shows signs of suffering from too many revisions in its many tutorials and overviews, with no really detailed descriptions of anything. Perhaps the time is right for a complete rework of program and manual before things get out of control.

GENERAL MIDI



Band-in-a-Box version 5 has completely adopted General MIDI. The styles have been reworked using Roland's Sound Canvas as the sound source, and support is now provided for the GS Bank, Reverb and Chorus parameters, as well as control over Volume, Panning, Bank, Master Reverb and Master Chorus settings during playback. All patch numbers and drum sounds now use GM numbering, which means that you will need to set up a Patch Map if you have a non-GM synthesizer or drum machine. MIDI Channel assignment, drum note mapping and patch mapping can all be saved in the misleadingly named Drum Kit (.DK) files — a selection for popular instruments are included in the Synthkit folder on the main BIAB disk, although making your own is not difficult, and you only need do it once. If you don't want to use patch changes, they can be disabled — this can also be useful when using styles with built-in patch changes, where you want to keep your own patches. The power-up default patches can also be set — and the F1 or ALT F1 function keys are always available to display a list of GM patch names and numbers.

MELODY



BIAB now includes a simple, single-track sequencer which can be used to record a melody line. The melody line can be assigned to a separate MIDI channel and can even be saved to disk as part of the MIDI File — useful for making more complete MIDI files, or even for producing complete accompaniments by using the melody as an additional track. BIAB gives a 2-bar count in and then records in real time, but you can always cheat and record at a very slow tempo! You can also punch in at any bar to correct mistakes. The Melody pull-down menu provides some useful short-cuts — like the 'Copy Chorus' option, where you record the melody to one repeat of the song and then copy it to the whole song. The new Melody Fakebook now has 100 songs with melodies.

MAKING STYLES



StyleMaker allows you to create your own user styles. You enter 1-bar drum patterns on a step-time grid and then chain them together, whilst instrument patterns can be played in real time from a MIDI keyboard. Instrument patterns last for 8, 4, 2 or 1 beats, depending upon how the chords are placed on the bar grid. Weight values (0-8) determine how often a particular pattern will be picked when the program makes a choice. Of course, if there is only one pattern, then that is the one which is chosen!

There are all sorts of extras to mask the patterns so that they only occur on certain bars, specific chord types, particular inversions of a chord, slow or fast tempos, and so on. This may sound complex, but it is the key to the high-quality output that BIAB can produce. A little time spent in learning and planning will repay you very quickly.

Now that GM patch numbers are used, you can assign instruments to a style and then save them as part of that style, secure in the knowledge that the style will sound approximately the same regardless of the actual playback instrumentation. Styles with 3, 4 or 5 instruments are available on the additional styles disks, as well as reworked versions of the built-in styles. (See the July 1991 issue of SOS for more information on using StyleMaker).

ARRANGING



Many sequencers now offer 'arranging' pages, where you can drag boxes around and visually arrange a song from short phrases. BIAB offers the same sort of functionality but without the hard work of filling those boxes in the first place. Testing out the flow of a piece of music can be achieved very quickly and easily: you just enter the chords onto the bar grid and then see how the cadencing and verse/chorus structure work together in the song. With its new melody capabilities, BIAB moves ever closer to making instant 'guide tracks'.

There are now quite a few auto-accompaniment programs available, but BIAB still has the winning combination of low cost, ease of use and quality music output. The new real-time controls make it much easier to work with, and the General MIDI standardisation means that you can now share your work with others without messing about with converting to their MIDI setup. Fast, fabulous and fun!

Further information

Band-in-A-Box £69; Melody Fakebook £25; New Styles Disk £25.

Zone Distribution, (Contact Details).

VERSION 5 NEW FEATURES

Two extra instruments: Guitar/Brass & Strings.
Melody real-time sequencer.
Real-time controls of patch and volume.
General MIDI support (Reverb, Chorus, Panning, Banks, etc).
General MIDI patch standardisation.
Drum Note lengths now work with Casio & Kurzweil synths.
Up to 600 user patterns within a user-defined style.
Instruments can be assigned to styles permanently.
Extra chords: C69, C7Alt, Cmaj7#5, C4, C2, C5.
Pause song during playback with RETURN key.
Improved Voice Leading Options, Chord types and Next Interval Masks.
Favourite Patches allow rapid access to patches.
Now needs 1 MB RAM — not suitable for 520ST.


THE ORIGINAL

The original version of Band-in-a-Box was an auto-accompaniment generator program for the PC, Macintosh and Atari ST. It offered sophisticated 3-part accompaniment at a surprisingly low price: you entered chords into bars, then chose a performance style from the fixed options. BIAB would then generate a song consisting of Drums, Bass and Piano parts on separate tracks. You could save the song as a Format 1 MIDI File or just play it via the MIDI Output. Fixed tempo and styles meant that you often needed to rework the resulting MIDI File to avoid a lifeless 'auto-accompaniment' sound. Version 4 allowed changes to the style, tempo and other important parameters to be made for each bar, thus opening the way for much more exploration and creative accompaniments. It also added the user-controllable StyleMaker to facilitate creation of custom styles.


OTHER ALTERNATIVES

Sound Pool's Freestyle is a sophisticated Atari-only accompanist program which offers completely customisable user patterns within a more graphical environment than BIAB. It offers real-time generation of MIDI data and can provide accompaniment as you play.

MPI's Feeling Partner is more like a sequencer with auto-accompaniment features, and so offers a more complete environment for creating a MIDI File song (Atari only).

Creative Sounds' Improviser is a realtime only, interactive 'musical instrument' which you can control from the keyboard of an Atari ST. It can be used to improvise melody lines, drum parts or basslines — based on the stimulus of a MIDI File.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Philips DCC900

Next article in this issue

SOS On-line


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Oct 1992

Review by Martin Russ

Previous article in this issue:

> Philips DCC900

Next article in this issue:

> SOS On-line


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