Band In A Box V5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Band-in-A-Box £69; Melody Fakebook £25; New Styles Disk £25.
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Review by Martin Russ
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