Is it really possible to get more music out of a program than you put in? David Hughes looks at software that takes auto-accompaniment and makes it work for the musician.
Any mention of the words 'auto-accompaniment' to a die-hard synth purist will probably receive, at best, a luke-warm reception. Auto-accompaniment sections have never really freed themselves from their early association with home keyboards, and despite the obvious advantages of speed and convenience they are still met with a certain degree of disdain, which is unfortunate.
The intention of PG Music's Band-In-A-Box package is to couple that speed and convenience with the improved flexibility of the personal computer. Versions are available for the Atari ST, Mac, and PC compatibles. Have the programmers succeeded? And can they rid themselves of the stigma of the auto-accompaniment section? Given the above state of affairs, the first hurdle that the program has to overcome is one of acceptance and, frankly, a name like 'Band-In-A-Box' is a bad start.
The review package (the ST version) contained four disks. The program itself is supplied in two versions on two disks - one for the 520ST and another for the 1040. (You can't run the 1040 version on a 520 simply because there isn't enough memory in the machine. The 520 version has fewer Styles and no lead sheet option, although the programs are fundamentally the same.) The other two disks contained prearranged demo pieces.
The accompanying manual is very good and provides more than enough information to get you up and running within minutes. Later on, as you delve deeper into the program, it provides an essential tutorial on getting the best out of the system. The program is not copy protected in any way, and the price has been kept low so as to encourage potential users to aquire a copy legally.
Once the program is up and running, you're presented with the rather spartan main page. It consists of three basic regions which are (from top to bottom): the song data area which describes the song tempo, title and key; the 'spreadsheet' area which describes the layout and form of a song; the 'text input' area, which allows you to enter chords from the computer keyboard into the spreadsheet.
Band-In-A-Box describes a song in terms of three fundamental elements. Firstly, there's a series of chords which provide a basis for the main melody. Secondly, there's the 'Arrangement', which deals with the number of choruses, repeats, instrumental breaks, etc. Finally, there's the overall Style of the song - Jazz Swing, Rock, Country, Pop, etc. The program combines these three elements to generate an automatic accompaniment consisting of bass, drums and piano parts taken from a collection of pre-defined structures in memory.
The example songs supplied consist largely of older material such as 'New York, New York', 'On Broadway', 'Moon River', as well as some more recent material such as 'Arthur's Theme' by Christopher Cross and Dire Straits' 'Walk of Life'. The examples are a pretty mixed bag - some good, some not so good - although they demonstrate the potential of the program very well. More importantly, they provide plenty of useful starting points for your own material.
The basic rhythms are good throughout and, when driving a decent set of drum sounds - I used a Roland D110 - they do sound remarkably convincing. However, the piano chord 'chops' can sound a little static after a while, something which PG Music promise will be corrected in a future release through incorporating some degree of improvisation in the part to break the monotony. It's important to point out that Band-In-A-Box already does something of the sort, in that the Jazz and Bossa styles embellish the piano chording intelligently, and appropriately to the key of the song.
Constructing a song is relatively straightforward provided that you already have a basic knowledge of chord theory. You can either modify an existing song or enter a new set of chords on a blank spreadsheet. The chord information is entered from the Atari keyboard in the form of standard note abreviations. For example, to enter a C major seventh chord you type 'Cmaj7', for an A minor chord you type 'Am' etc. Obviously, you need some knowledge of the chords that you're playing to get around this bit, so if you're not too hot on chord shape theory I would recomend you brush up immediately. It would be much more convenient if you could enter the chords via a MIDI keyboard, although this facility would probably add to the complexity and therefore cost of the finished program.
The 'spreadsheet' represents the bars and measures within an Arrangement, and you can move around it using the arrow keys or the mouse, to select a 'cell' in which to enter data. The program supports a wide range of chord shapes, covering major, minor, half diminished, diminished, dominant seventh and sustained fourths. You can specify an alternate root note for a chord simply by typing say, C7/E for a C7 chord with an E bass.
Having entered a few simple chords, the next step is to build up an Arrangement that defines where and when the chorus plays, the timing of fills and the song tempo. Unfortunately, in this version of the program the tempo is fixed during playback, although future upgrades are promised which will allow you to change tempo while the song is playing.
Once you've established your basic song material, you have to define a Style, and this is where Band-In-A-Box really starts to shine. The list of available styles - 24 in the 1040 version, fewer in the 520 version - can be selected from two pull-down menus, and the options provided cover a wide spectrum from the field of contempory music. An Arrangement can be broken up into Parts, each of which can have its own 'substyle'. For example in the Jazz Swing style, the 'a' substyle plays in a 'Two Feel', whereas the 'b' substyle plays in a 'Swing' style. Creating a part is simply a question of going to the relevent bar and hitting the letter P. Band-In-A-Box will also generate a drum fill pattern in the bar preceding the part marker.
Having selected your Style(s), the final step is to get the program to actually generate some music. Selecting the Play option from the File menu instructs the program to generate the accompaniment for you. There is a slight delay, the length of which depends on the size and complexity of the song, whilst the piano, bass and drum parts are generated. Once I'd been using the program for a few hours I found this delay to be a bit tiresome. Another negative feature of the play facility is that you can't simply hit a key to start the playback as you would on a normal sequencer. Alternatively, you can use the Cue option, which loads a file from disk and waits for you to hit a key to play, but the downside of this is that the file has to be saved to disk in the first place.
The final results are, to say the least, impressive. Band-In-A-Box achieves something that most hardwired auto-accompaniment sections have never been able to do - inject a degree of feel into the music. It really does sound more human than so many of the computer generated pieces I've heard.
Band-In-A-Box could be a very worthwhile piece of software. However, this release has a number of significant omissions which require attention if the program is to achieve lasting success. Firstly, the method of entering chords leaves much to be desired. I would say that the ability to recognise input from a MIDI keyboard is essential. Even if the machine is unable to make head-or-tail of the chord you're attempting to play, it would be a significant improvement just to record the notes held. It beats 45 minutes searching through your chord theory notes trying to figure out why things don't sound right!
Secondly, the non real-time nature of the program becomes irritating after a while. The delay involved while the machine figures out what to play is extremely tiresome and could be overcome by improved programming.
Finally, I feel that the program would benefit from a greater number of contemporary Styles and a greater variety of substyles.
I was impressed with the material it was able to generate, and the authors deserve praise for their efforts. The package has the potential to be a significant aid to your creativity. I particulary liked the ability to completely change the feel and style of a song simply by selecting a different menu option, and the ability to try out different ideas very quickly without having to spend hours re-programming drum and bass parts.
On the whole Band-In-A-Box represents a good idea which could have been implemented in a more intelligent and user-friendly manner. With some attention paid to the points that I've raised above, I'm quite convinced that PG Music will have a winner on their hands. This is one piece of software that you can get more out of than you put in.
Zone Distribution, (Contact Details).
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