Intelligent Music Jam Factory
Software for Apple Macintosh
If you're lucky enough to have an Apple Macintosh computer, you can now take advantage of a revolutionary new program that improvises its own music based on the data you feed it. Review by Jim Burgess.
Once upon a time, computer software simply recorded music and played it back, but now it can improvise music of its own. Are the results listenable?
THE MAIN SCREEN consists of the four Players; a master Control Strip where most of the overall functions of the program are located; a Preset window that is used to store settings for the Players to enable quick changes during performance; and a Conductor window that's used to store Movies of Jam Factory performances. In addition, there are a number of other windows that are accessed from pull down menus when you need them.
Getting around Jam Factory's screen is easy, thanks to some great graphics and the use of familiar Mac-type controls like buttons and toggles. Users of Opcode's DX Editor (also written by Jam Factory author David Zicarelli) may recognise the familiar Up and Down arrows that can be used to increase or decrease numerical values with the mouse.
The Control Strip is where most of Jam Factory's master controls are located. Tape recorder-style buttons are provided for functions like Go, Stop, Pause, Sync and Clear. Below these are overall tempo and metronome click values.
The Assignment Matrix is where the general state of each Player is defined. Here the functions Record, Play, Transpose, Control and Echo are available for each of the four Players, and you can alter the status of a particular Player at any time during its performance.
The Record function on the Control Strip window is used to record incoming MIDI notes or program changes into that particular Player. Any combination of Players may be set to Record at the same time, and you can switch Players in and out of Record while Jam Factory is playing.
Entering Record on a Player that has already been recorded on allows you to add new musical information to that Player. If you want to start all over again, you can clear a Player's memory and start from scratch.
"Getting around Jam Factory's screen is easy, thanks to some great graphics and the use of familiar Mac-type controls like buttons and toggles."
Jam Factory has an Input Note Limit feature which you can use to tell a Player not to record incoming notes that do not fall within a specified range. This is a great feature if you're using a synth or sampler with multi-split capability, because it lets you set each of Jam Factory's Players to respond only to a specific range that matches a certain sound.
By the way, each of Jam Factory's Players can be set to recognise incoming MIDI data on a specific MIDI channel only (the default is "All"). That way, you can have several people "jam" at once, each with their own MIDI controller. Another handy application of this feature is "bouncing" MIDI data from an external sequencer into Jam Factory - so you can record separate sequencer tracks into the four Players simultaneously.
Now, you can record one Player while you play others, but one unusual effect is using a Player in both Record and Play modes at the same time. As you record new notes and chords to the Player's existing data, you can hear the effect of doing so immediately in the playback of that Player.
If you make a mistake when you're entering musical information into a Player, you can correct it with Jam Factory's Input Editor. This is a pop-out window that lets you step backwards and forwards through the musical data relevant to the selected Player. The Input Editor can also be used as a step-time entry system.
EACH JAM FACTORY Player can have its own unique identity if you utilise the many graphic control functions available in the Player's Control Window. Here the nuances of any Player's performance may be altered by the user, permitting some sophisticated ways of interacting with a performance.
The Player's relationship to overall tempo may be controlled by changing the Time Base value. Changing from 1 to 2 causes a particular Player to play in half time relative to the other Players, for example. You can also change the phase of a Player's timing, to offset a Player's performance by a certain amount of ticks or clock pulses. Experimenting with both of these parameters can yield some highly unusual rhythmic patterns.
There's also a Swing parameter available to setup shuffle-type rhythms in much the same way as a drum machine does. The Swing factor is a variable percentage from 50 to 90, with 50% (or no swing) being the default.
Jam Factory uses a unique graphic display to allow you to alter the dynamic accents and phrasing of a performance. An Accent Pattern can contain anything between one and 16 steps. You can use the mouse to set up five different Accent levels, where zero equals no value and five equals full value. The Accent Pattern can be assigned to either Velocity or Legato/Staccato (phrasing).
Exactly how much of an effect the Accent Pattern has on these two parameters is determined by the Range Bar settings. By dragging the mouse over the desired range, you set the high and low values for both velocity and phrasing. You may also choose to use a random value rather than the Accent Pattern to determine actual range values.
"The purists may claim that what this program produces is not real music, but if they do, they'll be missing the point: using Jam Factory is fun."
This is a pretty powerful system. By assigning Accent Patterns to velocity you can dramatically alter the "feel" of a Player's performance. A value of zero can be used to create a "rest" in the Accent Pattern that will result in no note being played at that point in the cycle. And by setting up several Players with Accent Patterns of different lengths, you can create rhythmic cycles that play off each other in a constantly changing manner.
Jam Factory's Silence Algorithm provides the user with total control over the amount of randomly inserted silence in a Player's performance. You may vary the percentage of Silence anywhere between 1 and 100. The Skip control is used to determine whether a silent section will cause the notes that Player would otherwise be playing to be skipped over during the silent section. If Skip is off, those notes will simply be delayed and the Player will carry on playing from where it stopped after the silence is over.
You can also enable Sustain, which causes the note immediately preceding the silent section to be sustained over it. Otherwise, all notes are silenced at the beginning of the silent section.
The bar graph located in the upper right-hand corner of each Player's window is used to control the improvisational ability of each Player. The "bars" control the Transition Tables discussed earlier, and allow the user to specify a percentage of mix between first, second, third and fourth order. Essentially, the Transition Tables control the degree to which the program will mimic the original musical input. Using the principles of statistic probability, you control how much previously played musical information the program takes into account when deciding which note to play next. First Order will take a lesser amount of events in context than Fourth Order, for example. By the way, you can defeat the Transition Tables altogether and have the program play back exactly what you played into it, if that's what you require.
You can also use the Transition Tables to calculate the durations of the notes Jam Factory plays. Cyclic duration patterns may be created, and you can instruct the Player to either Lead or Follow pitch-changes to decide whether the rhythm determines the melody or the melody creates the rhythm.
Another unique feature of Jam Factory is known as Scale Distortion. It's designed to let you create unusual transposition patterns of a diatonic nature. By setting up a series of Scale Distortion Maps, you can define certain keys to trigger specific Maps, and thereby create a melodic variation for any combination of Players.
Jam Factory's Player controls are really designed to let you give each Player a unique identity and style. However, you may want to create quick changes in those parameters during a performance. That's what the Presets are for.
Storing a Preset is just like taking a picture of Jam Factory's screen. You recall a stored Preset just by clicking on it. Selecting a Preset during a performance can initiate a total re-configuration of all Jam Factory's settings, creating dramatic musical changes if desired.
And you can use Jam Factory's Movie feature to store a complete Jam Factory performance, including Preset changes.
THOSE ONE-IN-A-MILLION JAMS that go down wouldn't be much use if you couldn't save them. Fortunately, Jam Factory lets you save your files so you can repeat them and work on them at a later date.
By the way, Jam Factory can be synced to MIDI Clock either as a master or as a slave, so running it in sync with a sequencer, drum machine or other sync device is no problem.
If you set up some of the Players to respond to the Input Control System described previously, you can use an external MIDI sequencer to "automate" Jam Factory's controls, turning Players on and off, controlling the Step Advance feature, changing Presets, and just about anything else you might want to do. This way, Jam Factory can be "cued" in and out of a sequence when desired.
Furthermore, Jam Factory provides a means of converting a jam into a sequence file with the inclusion of the new (American) MIDI File format. When you save a Movie, Jam Factory creates a MIDI File. You can open a MIDI File directly into another program such as M or Opcode's Sequencer 2.5, allowing you to take improvisations created on Jam Factory and edit or manipulate them with other software.
That means you can combine a Jam Factory improvisation with a pre-defined MIDI sequence. Or you can use a sequencer to provide a more advanced means of structuring and arranging music generated by Jam Factory. You can even go the other way, taking an existing sequence and feeding it into Jam Factory for some jammin' fun.
I've had lots of time to get to know this program, having used a copy for several months and created over 30 pieces of music. Each piece is unique and has its own identity. Generally speaking, I've found that the program works best when you give each Player a rather limited amount of musical input. But as with most things, the more you use Jam Factory, the more you understand how to get what you want out of it quickly.
The purists may claim that what Jam Factory produces is "not real music", but if they do, they'll be missing the point. Using Jam Factory is fun. F-U-N. It makes it easier than ever for non-players to create music, but equally, the program is only capable of manipulating the input you provide it with, so some people will get great results while others simply create noise.
Programs like Jam Factory move the MIDI revolution forward in leaps and bounds. It's a musical tool more powerful than anything we've had in the past, and it's capable of adding new inspiration to the music-making process.
Gear in this article:
Review by Jim Burgess
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