Blue Ribbon SuperJam
Amiga Composition Software
Paul Overaa takes a look at SuperJam, the new Amiga music composition package from Blue Ribbon Soundworks.
The Atari ST has a number of programs (such as Freestyle and Band In A Box) that, when supplied with suitable chord and style directions, can create accompaniments consisting of bass lines, drum parts, and keyboard riffs, with any number of variations and fills.
At long last a similar piece of software, called SuperJam, has appeared on the Commodore Amiga. It has been developed by Blue Ribbon Soundworks, will run on anything from a 1MB A500 Amiga upwards, and comes in a package consisting of three disks and a 200-page manual.
SuperJam describes its 'musicians' as "The Band", and their output can drive either internal Amiga sounds or external MIDI equipment. You can switch any of SuperJam's band members between MIDI and the internal sounds, select relative volumes, and transpose individual instrument parts up or down by one or more octaves. The primary job of a SuperJam user, guiding the SuperJam musicians along, is a simple task which can be carried out in several ways. SuperJam can compose in real time or can be used to create any number of different sections which can be subsequently linked to provide complete songs.
To get SuperJam to play in real time you just click on a style, select a major or minor key, select a tempo, and then hit the Play gadget. One way of conducting SuperJam is to click on the notes of the on-screen piano keyboard. SuperJam drags the user's efforts into time, and adjusts the backing to suit playing bass, drums, piano, guitar, and perhaps another couple of instruments as well. This sort of use will appeal to a lot of non-musicians because SuperJam can basically create a full accompaniment from a one-finger melody. Alternatively you can use the Amiga's keyboard, or a MIDI keyboard, to enter note data.
For most serious use, though, the best idea is to sketch out a song format to tell SuperJam what chords, styles and keys are needed. The program allows songs to be created by linking shorter sections of music together, and for each 'section' SuperJam opens a scrollable window which contains six horizontal rows of gadgets (representing the SuperJam instruments) divided by vertical bar lines.
By pointing to an area above a bar and clicking the left mouse button, a mini-keyboard will appear from which you can pick the root note of a chord. Other chords can be added from other SuperJam menus, and chords can also be entered in real time. Similar facilities allow you to add intros, fills, breaks and ends patterns, and the net result is that SuperJam lets you build up section sketches using the familiar type of format of creating lists of chord changes and section names.
You can choose to use four notes in chords (7th chords) rather than triads. It is also possible to add chords and adjust the composition characteristics of SuperJam by forcing particular chords to be associated with particular incoming keyboard notes (competent musicians will find this type of flexibility very useful indeed). Time signatures are part and parcel of the chosen style, but although each defined section can only have one style there is nothing to stop you creating songs which use different styles in different sections.
The SuperJam editing facilities really are very good indeed. If you want to remove some chords, just click on the section window's erase gadget and touch the chords you want to eliminate. They will vanish leaving all the other symbols intact. Similar mouse-orientated options allow items to be edited or moved around, and song editing follows the same procedure.
SuperJam's MIDI facilities, whilst not extensive, are more than adequate for all normal MIDI use. The instrument/band set up windows associated with both real-time and song-section creation use can all have individual MIDI parameters assigned to them — each member of the band in any section can have their own channel numbers, program change commands (or named patches), MIDI volume settings, and even volume to velocity mapping characteristics. SuperJam supports Song Position Pointer messages, and a number of sync options including the generation and recognition of conventional MIDI time clocks.
It is worth mentioning that SuperJam comes set up for a Roland MT32, so you will need to create a new map unless your drum machine or sound module supports the MT32 MIDI drum note assignments. Drum map editing is easy enough, and well explained in the manual.
Since it is possible to save the performance as a MIDI file (or record it into a sequencer in real time), the option to tweak or overlay SuperJam generated data at a later stage is always available. It is also possible to run SuperJam alongside Blue Ribbon's Bars & Pipes sequencer.
For its internal sound SuperJam uses TurboSound technology, which involves mixing samples of certain instruments together before playing them via the Amiga's audio channels. SuperJam's TurboSound facilities are quite impressive, and include an editor which can both convert IFF samples to TurboSound format and edit the samples. It is also possible to create 'TurboSamples' which are effectively digital recordings of SuperJam internal sound performances. Whilst impressive, these facilities are really only going to be of interest to the Amiga's internal sound orientated musical community, and my guess that most serious users will stick to MIDI only use.
SuperJam currently comes with a collection of over 30 styles (pop, funk, country, classical, rock, reggae, jazz and the like). Styles consist of series of patterns which define main riffs, fills and breaks. Patterns are often complex because they define the actions of all six SuperJam band players, and include details of up to 16 different variations which are used to create pattern variations. Style creation can get rather complex but it is well explained in the manual.
SuperJam is a very impressive program, both in terms of the music which it can create and its user-friendliness. Main points of interest include: first-class use of the Amiga's multi-tasking/multi-window operating system; excellent editing facilities; easy project handling with support for multiple-file formats; SMPTE facilities and the option to add accessories for handling MIDI Time Code, ARexx communications and direct Bars & Pipes sequencer links. In short Blue Ribbon Soundworks have done a superb job and produced one of the most innovative music products yet to be released for the Commodore Amiga.
Serious users should remember, however, that 1 MB is the minimum memory requirement for SuperJam. For most professional use 1.5MB, or perhaps 2MB of memory, is going to be a more realistic requirement. The best news of all however is that SuperJam costs just £99, which means that virtually every Amiga owner who is interested in music will be able to afford it.
Blue Ribbon Soundworks SuperJom £99 inc VAT.
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Review by Paul Overaa
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