Like the Rodney Dangerfield of the electronic-music world, General MIDI (GM) gets no respect. Nonetheless, many of its protocols have infiltrated electronic sound design and orchestration practices. For example, using RPNs (Registered Parameter Numbers) and NRPNs (Non-Registered Parameter Numbers) to tweak and animate synthesizer sounds first gained popularity with GM instruments. Consistent drum-note mapping arose from Roland, and it crystallized with the GM standard. Many readers may recall the convoluted procedural hoops you needed to jump through just to get someone else's MIDI drum parts to play back properly.
Although many musicians have offhandedly slagged the sound quality of GM modules, such instruments have the option of drawing on generous timbral resources because they are sample based. My Roland SC-55 Sound Canvas, for example, has 6 MB of sample ROM. Now Native Instruments has answered the call for a General MIDI 1 (GM1) — compliant software instrument by introducing Bandstand.
Strike Up the Band
Native Instruments, with the aid of several well-known sample-content providers, gathered 2 GB of sample data to build 128 GM instruments and 9 drum kits. That's far more data than my trusty Sound Canvas holds, but it's a relatively modest amount given some of the hard-drive-busting capacities of other sample-based plug-ins I use.
Installing from the single DVD-ROM and authorizing Bandstand was a simple process; I was set up and playing in less than five minutes. Native Instruments provides AU, RTAS, and VST versions for the Mac and DirectX, RTAS, and VST versions for Windows. I used my dual-processor 1.42 Ghz Power Mac G4 with 2 GB of RAM running OS X 10.3.9. In addition to running Bandstand as a standalone app, I hosted the plug-in in MOTU Digital Performer 4.61, Apple Logic 7.1, and Ableton Live 5.
Bandstand's ability to quickly load and set up instruments in response to various MIDI commands and Program Change messages differentiates it from its software GM siblings. That ability also made it a good candidate to pair with PG Music Band-in-a-Box 12, which required a bit of additional setup, as the latter does not host plug-ins on the Mac version (instead, you must use an intermediary host such as Granted Software Rax). Another convenient feature is the software's ability to load and play Standard MIDI Files (SMFs). You can even create a playlist, potentially qualifying Bandstand on a notebook computer as a handy, all-in-one device for bands and solo performers who rely on supplemental MIDI tracks.
Bandstand is a 16-part multitimbral instrument that arranges its presets in a Browser, with 16 banks arranged according to GM-instrument categories and 8 instruments in each category. A button toggles between the first and second groups of 8 instrumental categories. A preset can include the instrument type, channel assignment, EQ and effects settings, transposition, and lots more. Bandstand provides none of the additional instruments that appear in related standards such as GS, XG, or GM2, although it supports some of the MIDI Control Change messages that those later standards allow.
FIG. 1: To load Bandstand with sounds, simply drag an -instrument from the Browser located just above the virtual keyboard. On the lower right you can load Standard MIDI Files, create a playlist, and render an audio file of the music.
Bandstand's two main regions are the Play page and the Mix page; each is a different arrangement of 16 slots. On either page, a strip dealing with preset management runs across the top of the screen. A pull-down menu lets you select from a library of presets; Bandstand gives you a half-dozen presets as starting points and a blank preset so you can create presets from scratch. Subsequent buttons let you initialize load and delete presets. To the right of those, a pair of buttons toggle between the Play and Mix pages, and an Options button lets you set global preferences for buffer size, overall Velocity response, latch or in-place soloing modes, and the sound library path, as well as the current preset automation choices.
On the Play page, you can load instruments by dragging-and-dropping them from the Browser section into one of the 16 cells occupying the upper half of the page (see Fig. 1). Also on the Play page, you can set up various performance-related parameters such as monophonic or polyphonic playback, tunings, and portamento time. Like hardware GM instruments, Bandstand automatically adjusts such parameters if they're embedded in an SMF. The MIDI automation filter lets you filter an individual instrument's response to some performance parameters. The filter is not designed to filter out specific Control Change or Channel Voice messages; instead, it gives you checkboxes for Program Changes, mixer settings, sound settings, and so on. For more precise message filtering, you are better off editing in a sequencer application.
Using the Quick Edit Bar that horizontally divides the Play page, you can shape each instrument's response to MIDI data: set scales and tunings, humanize, and quantize (with selectable percentages). Alternatively, you can choose to apply your edits to all instruments; a pair of buttons let you apply edits either to a single part or to all patches. At the bottom of the Play page is the virtual keyboard with modulation and pitch-bend wheels.
FIG. 2: Bandstand''s Mix page lets you load patches and set EQ parameters from pull-down menus. Knobs let you adjust chorus, reverb, and pan amounts, and horizontal sliders adjust each part''s volume.
In addition to EQ and master effects-send adjustments for all the individual patches, the Mix page offers Pan knobs, Volume sliders, and Solo and Mute buttons (see Fig. 2). You can load instruments for each part simply by selecting from each part's pull-down menu. Similarly, each channel's EQ has a pull-down menu with a few simple but effective presets.
The Master section and the Player section are available to the right of either page. Master section parameters include access to the master Volume slider and the built-in master effects: chorus, reverb, EQ, and limiter. Despite the pared-down programming options, Bandstand's effects sound very good. For example, the reverb section lets you choose between Small, Medium, and Large Rooms or Medium and Large Halls, and it provides an edit panel with knobs for Type, Time, and Mix. However, the big surprise is that the reverb's Type knob switches between Basic — a simple reverb — and, if you're not counting CPU cycles, Real — a fine-sounding convolution reverb. The reverbs are marginally programmable, offering only reverb time and mix parameters. You can't import your own impulse responses.
Taken as a whole, Bandstand sounds crisper and more transparent than my old Roland SC-55, if somewhat thinner overall. Most of the instruments fared much better in ensemble roles than as solo instruments in exposed situations, but some solo instruments sounded quite good. The two GM acoustic pianos were very nice, with long decays and no obvious looping or split points. Acoustic Piano Two was subtly brighter than Piano One without becoming brittle. Electric Piano One had plenty of grit, with a nice mechanical thunk when I dug in. As always, the guitars came to life when I used my Yamaha G50 MIDI guitar converter, although I found Acoustic Steel String and Jazz Guitar a tad thin for my taste; likewise, the overdriven and distorted guitars were thin and unconvincing. The banjo was great, coming from the same sample pool as the Sonic Reality Acoustic Folk set I reviewed in the December 2004 issue of EM. The string ensemble sounds were lush, with plenty of high-end sizzle. Orch Hit sounded far less complex than even the built-in Apple DLS instrument — more like someone had layered a synth pad and kettle drums; then again, the novelty of orchestra hits as dance-tune punctuations is thankfully long dead. The tenor and alto saxophone patches were not my cup of tea, but again, they sounded fine in ensemble settings.
I should emphasize that Bandstand's sounds successfully balance against each other very well; nothing sounds out of proportion, and envelopes match those of their Roland GM counterparts. For the most part, then, if your songs sound good on antiquarian GM-compatible hardware modules such as the Sound Canvas, they will sound even better in Bandstand.
Stump the Band
When I routed Band-in-a-Box's MIDI output through Rax (as a host to Bandstand), the plug-in held up to the demands of a relatively busy and polyphonically dense big-band arrangement (see Web Clip 1). Likewise, when I loaded a commercially produced SMF with lots of Pitch Bend and Control Change data into a sequencer host, Bandstand handled all the MIDI data I could throw at it. As a standalone application, Bandstand handled dense control data and heavy polyphony with aplomb, making it an ideal soft synth for small ensembles looking for an easy-to-use playback instrument for backing tracks.
I was disappointed that at a retail price of more than $200, neither the plug-in nor the standalone version offers more than a single stereo output. Otherwise, I found an awful lot to like about Bandstand, such as automatic setup in response to GM commands and program changes, and a built-in SMF player with many ways to customize playback. Bandstand can even render SMFs to audio. Most important, it offers a well-balanced and superior sound set. If you're looking for a good meat-and-potatoes sound module and you'd like to give General MIDI the respect it deserves, you should by all means investigate Bandstand.
In a former lifetime, Marty Cutler voiced GM software synthesizers for Silicon Graphics and Seer Systems.
NATIVE INSTRUMENTS Bandstand 1.0.1
PR0S: Nicely detailed sounds. Self-contained MIDI player. Automatically sets up instruments with embedded MIDI commands. Built-in convolution reverb.
CONS: Does not support multiple outputs. Some sounds are disappointing. GM1 only, with no GM2, GS, or XG variations.
EASE OF USE
QUALITY OF SOUNDS