MIDI-based algorithmic-composition programs have been around since the earliest days of desktop-music production, and many musicians have turned to them in an effort to break through a bad case of writer's block or to come up with a start for a new song. Venerable old favorites such as PG Music's Band-in-a-Box and SoundTrek's Jammer have remained popular because they offer unique approaches to generating new music, which allows them to fill specific musical needs. Jasmine Music Technology's Onyx Arranger 2.1, a relative newcomer to the field, offers some of the best features of both programs, while adding its own unique spin to the genre.
If you like experimenting with presets and variables, you'll love this program. It's packed with a plethora of parameters that will keep you busy for hours. The user interface bristles with toolbar buttons, drop-down presets and parameter settings, dialog boxes, and editing windows that let you fine-tune the program's output. But don't let the hundreds (possibly thousands) of parameter values and settings scare you away. You can also use the program at a basic level to quickly generate harmonies for your melodies and to add rhythm-section and instrumental accompaniments in a long list of styles.
Onyx Arranger's processing capabilities are based on three components: Musical Object Morphing, Intelligent Auto-Harmony, and Performance Modeling. Musical Object Morphing lets you transform a melody by applying a preset style template to it. You could, for example, have a classical melody by Mozart play back as a Brazilian bossa nova or in a big-band-jazz style. Intelligent Auto-Harmony analyzes a melody and generates chord changes based on different scales (major, minor, gypsy, blues, and so forth) and tonal centers. Performance Modeling goes beyond groove quantization by modeling the performance techniques of live players to yield a less-stilted sound.
These different but complementary processing algorithms are combined in Onyx Arranger to produce an array of interesting results. To see the level of control that the program affords, you need only to look at the program's main window in which myriad buttons, drop-down menus, and parameter fields await your command.
Most of Onyx Arranger's primary functions begin in the main window, which is divided into seven sections, appearing beneath a collection of small toolbars that includes a set of undersized transport controls (see Fig. 1).
Resembling a typical Windows sequencer, the Main Track pane at the top shows MIDI track parameters on the left, while the Main Measure pane to its right has a graphic MIDI display for each track. Imported melodies appear here before being harmonized or otherwise processed. You can also record MIDI tracks directly into the program.
Beneath these two sections, the narrow Chords pane shows the current set of chord changes that the program has generated for the melody. Beneath the Chords pane, the Song Manager Control pane (in the left center with the large elapsed-time display) is where you begin the process of harmonizing and “arranging” your piece. The gray area to the right is called the Song Manager pane. It shows the keys and scales that are being used, the chords that are generated, markers for triggering user-designated fills (as opposed to automatically placed fills), and selected Orchestrator styles if you choose to arrange the piece after harmonizing the melody.
The Orchestrator Track pane in the lower left shows the MIDI tracks, patches, and parameters that make up the currently generated arrangement. The MIDI data (and adjustable controller envelopes) appear on the right — in the Orchestrator Measure pane — as miniature color-coded graphic displays.
Onyx Arranger is easiest to use if you set it up with a General MIDI sound card or a GM/XG/GS — compatible sound module. I often got muddy-sounding arrangements from my Yamaha MU-90R module, but it was easy to improve the sound by choosing better patches from the pop-up patch lists in the Orchestrator Track pane. You can also solo and mute tracks and adjust the volume, panning, Velocity, and other parameters to fine-tune the arrangement.
It takes a while to get comfortable with Onyx Arranger's multipane window, but if you're used to working with sequencers, much of the layout will seem familiar. Viewing and navigating the different areas is greatly aided by the excellent Zoom controls on several of the panes and by the pop-up labels for the buttons and parameters.
Although Onyx Arranger offers a number of exotic processing capabilities, one of its most basic, and arguably one of its most useful, is its ability to generate chord changes to a melody. The program's harmonizing algorithms draw from a large internal database of chord progressions that come from actual songs with different scales and styles. The program recognizes more than 100 chord types, so it has lots of material to work with.
After an imported or recorded MIDI melody is selected in the Main Measure pane, you begin the process by clicking the Harmonizer toolbar button, which opens the multipart Harmonizer dialog box (see Fig. 2). Several small drop-down menus let you guide the harmonizing process. You can, for example, specify different chord styles to use, from simple folk-song chords to complex jazz chords. You can also specify scale types to base the progression on, and you can control how many chords per measure are generated.
If you aren't sure what you want, pick the AutoSearch option, and Onyx Arranger analyzes the melody and generates eight chord-progression variations for you to consider. The AutoSearch harmonies are quite interesting; they ranged from simple, straight-ahead progressions to unusual, even enlightening, combinations that I wouldn't have come up with on my own. Some of the more “outside” progressions had clunkers, but you can easily delete or replace any chord to smooth things out. If you're stuck in a rut trying to harmonize, Onyx Arranger can offer some fresh ideas to consider.
The Harmonizer feature generally works quite well, although it does have a few shortcomings. For example, once you select a chord progression to audition, you have to close the Harmonizer dialog box to gain access to the transport buttons so you can play the piece. If you want to try another variation, you have to open the dialog box again and start all over. It's a rather cumbersome arrangement. As a work-around, you can loop the melody and start it playing before you open the dialog box. You can then switch between the variations in real time as the music plays. That works pretty well, but I'd much rather have a Play/Stop button in the dialog box for easy auditioning.
Another thing to remember is that Onyx Arranger can process at most only 64 measures at a time, so you can't plug in an entire song and harmonize it all at once. In fact, the documentation suggests that you work in even smaller chunks of 8 to 32 measures, and then string the sections together. In theory, the program could handle files of any length, but according to the developer, processing very large files would overburden all but the fastest computers.
Once you've harmonized your MIDI melody, you can take everything to the next level and have Onyx Arranger generate a complete accompaniment. The process starts in the Song Manager pane where the OOStyle button's pop-up menu offers more than three dozen musical-style categories to choose from.
Each category has one or more variants (you can download hundreds more free from the Jasmine Web site), and as soon as you select one, Onyx Arranger instantly spits out a multipart accompaniment in the chosen style and with appropriate instrumentation. For example, the arrangements include an accordion part for the Gypsy style, a banjo for Bluegrass, congas for Latin, a synth bass for Techno, brass for Swing, a Hammond B-3 for Blues, and so forth. All of the arrangement styles use the program's Performance Modeling algorithms to help them sound more realistic by applying Modulation, Pitch Bend, and other characteristics. What's more, the styles can work in any meter, so even if a style was designed in a 4/4 meter, it can still be adapted to a 3/4 or 5/8 meter.
In spite of Onyx Arranger's sophisticated Performance Modeling algorithms, some of the accompaniments still sound a bit too mechanical for my taste. The drum fills, for example, often sound too much like drum-machine fills. On the other hand, many of the styles, such as Disco, Techno, Electronic, and Dance take advantage of the program's drum-machine-style rhythm parts. And a few of the accompaniments work well by keeping the arrangements simple. For example, one of my favorites is a Jazz style that uses only an acoustic bass, quiet drums, and a grand piano for a relaxed and intimate sound.
In general, the program's auto-accompaniments are best viewed as starting points and not finished products. To that end, Onyx Arranger provides plenty of tools to modify the arrangements. For starters, you can micromanage many of the performance characteristics by opening the Orchestrator dialog box (see Fig. 3). It lets you change the type and placement of fills, substitute drum sounds, control how the bass part is played, and specify which measures in the rhythm part to base the overall loop on. You can also change styles instantly from a pop-up menu as the music plays (you don't have to close this dialog box to start and stop the music), which is a great way to try out your melody with an assortment of different accompaniments.
Among Onyx Arranger's most powerful features are its MIDI effects, which you can apply to any of the Orchestrator tracks to enhance the performances. For example, AutoPhraser lets you add phrasing to the instrument parts that sounds more natural (important for wind instruments), Event Filter deletes specified MIDI messages (such as controller data) on the fly, and Modeler applies live-performance characteristics to a track based on the program's performance models. (Hundreds of Performance Model styles are provided; others are available for purchase.)
The Modeler dialog box (see Fig. 4) is actually one of Onyx Arranger's most important tools, and you can apply it to any track (including the original melody) or to any part of a track. The results are sometimes unpredictable but seldom uninteresting. You could, for example, specify individual performance styles for the guitarist, pianist, and bass player in your virtual band or use Modeler to generate unusual playing effects. All of Onyx Arranger's MIDI effects, including Modeler, can be chained in various combinations for even more complex processing.
And finally, if you just aren't satisfied with any of the program's Orchestrator styles or you need a wider selection, you can create your own styles using Onyx Arranger's built-in StyleMaker feature.
When you're happy with your arrangement, you can render and save the whole shebang as a Standard MIDI File for exporting to another program, such as a sequencer. However, you may not need a separate sequencer to edit your piece; Onyx Arranger includes many of the features of an entry-level sequencer, including an event list, a SysEx editor, and a full-featured piano-roll window with step-entry capabilities and a graphical controller display.
Onyx Arranger can be easy to use or surprisingly complex, depending on how you approach the program and how much you want to control its output. In this review, I've touched on just the main features; a full accounting of all the tools and parameter options would run on for many pages. Once you've spent some time with it, the user interface is relatively easy to work with. The 180-page spiral-bound User's Guide is, unfortunately, poorly written, unindexed, and badly organized, which adds to some initial confusion. (According to Jasmine, a new manual is planned.)
On the plus side, Onyx Arranger is lots of fun to play around with, and the program appears to be highly stable; it never once crashed during any of my tests. Moreover, Jasmine is to be lauded for offering hundreds of new Orchestrator styles for free from its Web site. (Several new styles are added each month.)
If you're looking for a tool to help you come up with new musical ideas or to resuscitate some older ideas, Onyx Arranger might just do the trick. You can download a demo version of the program from the Jasmine Web site and try it for yourself.
Contributing editorDavid Rubinlives and works in the foothills outside of Los Angeles.
Minimum System Requirements
Onyx Arranger 2.1
PC: Pentium II/500; 128 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/2000/ME/XP; 30 MB hard-disk space
Jasmine Music Technology
Onyx Arranger 2.1 (Win)
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE3.0DOCUMENTATION2.5VALUE4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy harmonization of melodies. Hundreds of arrangement styles. Many parameters for controlling final results. Specialized MIDI effects for improving performances. Has standard sequencer tools for editing. Good bang for the buck.
CONS: Harmonization dialog box must be closed to access transport controls. Documentation is poorly organized.