PG Music Band-in-a-Box 2009.5 (Mac/Win) Review

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When Band-in-a-Box was first released in 1990 (for the Atari ST platform), the idea of using a computer to generate nearly instant MIDI accompaniment was a major breakthrough. Over the decades, the program—which is now Windows- and Mac OS X-compatible—has added the ability to record audio and, more recently, use prerecorded audio drum loops (RealDrums) and other instrumental parts (RealTracks). It also offers more sophisticated algorithms, analysis tools, and notation to help it instantly build songs and arrangements based on user input. PG Music reports that version 2009.5 has more than 40 new features or improvements over its predecessors.

I received Band-in-a-Box (BIAB) 2009.5 UltraPlusPak, which ships on a pocket-sized 160GB external USB 2.0 hard disk. The installer let me choose between leaving the program and content on the external drive, installing everything on my computer''s internal drive (requiring 60GB), or installing only BIAB on my computer (requiring about 3GB) and accessing the audio content on the external drive. The program worked quite well directly from the external drive, and I liked being able to spare my Mac''s system drive of yet another multi-gigabyte installation.

Box Basics
Before I dig into the highlights of BIAB 2009.5''s new additions, a quick overview is in order. BIAB is a unique tool for composers, arrangers, and students, thanks to its ability to generate complete arrangements in many different styles simply by typing chord names into a grid.

Working with BIAB is different from using a loop library as a compositional aid or to create backing tracks in a DAW. Instead of asking you to find and assemble individual parts, BIAB generates a full multitrack arrangement with drums, bass, chording instruments, etc., using General MIDI instruments, audio files, or both.

The program''s coolest feature by far is the way these parts automatically adjust to fit the chord changes you enter. To change from a C major to a C minor 7th, for example, all you have to do is type Cm7 at the appropriate location in the song. Hot keys streamline the chord-entry process. BIAB can also generate a harmony based on a melody you record into the program via MIDI.

You can leave your virtual ensemble to handle just the backing tracks while singing and playing your own melodies, or you can ask the program to generate a melody or solo for you, based on the melody and chord changes you''ve entered. For any part BIAB generates, you have the option of using the preset instrument sounds for a given style, or replacing them with MIDI or audio instruments of your choosing. A huge collection of demo songs covers each style, and these can help you start your own work.

If you do decide to create your own parts, a relatively basic audio recorder lets you capture and edit your performance. You can also use a MIDI controller to record into the program''s 2-track sequencer, which offers grid and notation editing.

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FIG. 1: PG Music Band-in-a-Box lets you create complete musical arrangements by simply selecting a Style and typing in chord changes, but that''s only the beginning. Recent versions incorporate prerecorded audio clips called RealTracks and RealDrums.

User Interface
Most of BIAB''s action is consolidated on the main screen (see Fig. 1). It looks rather old-school-PC, but the absence of modern GUI slickness doesn''t detract from the efficiency of its combination of buttons, pulldown menus, and dialog boxes, which give you access to all of the program''s important features.

In the main screen, you set song tempo, key, and time signature; load styles and call up sounds for various instruments within a style; make quick changes to audio mixes; operate the transport; and perform file operations. The main screen also lets you use myriad tools (including the audio and MIDI recorders) and access various dialogs that help you generate melody, harmony, and solo parts.

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FIG. 2: Clicking the Style button brings up a dialog box listing all the available Styles. If you like, you can restrict browsing to only those Styles using RealTracks.

The screen is dominated by the Chordsheet Area, a grid containing numbered cells that correspond to a song''s measures. You can type as many as four chords per cell and enter other vital information such as key changes, repeats, and part changes. What''s nice about the chord sheet is that it gives you a song overview that''s like a musical chart. It''s very efficient.

What comes of your various entries into the chord sheet is largely determined by the accompaniment Style you select. Styles cover a wide range of Western musical genres, such as rock, jazz, classical, folk, blues, and so on (see Fig. 2). Most Styles furnish a full band—bass, drums, at least one chording instrument (keyboard, guitar, or vibes), and instruments that are idiomatically appropriate. Each Style influences the rhythms and chord voicings BIAB uses, but you can adjust these attributes. (The Jazz Up option, for example, adds complexity to chords; another option lets you have chords anticipate the downbeat.)

In addition to relying on the programmed styles, you can customize styles and create your own styles in numerous ways and save them for later recall. This can be handy if you want a song to alternate in feel from, say, a blues rumba to a swing piece.

Starting a song is an exercise in instant gratification. Once you''ve chosen a Style from the pulldown menu, which offers descriptions of each one, you begin creating your piece by typing a chord name into a cell. (You could also start by adding the chords, and then audition your piece in different Styles.) BIAB will play a part based on the chord you typed until it sees another chord or the song ends. (The default way of working is to use chord names, but BIAB can also work with the Nashville numbering system.) You can also subdivide your song into parts and even assign Substyles to each part—a quick way to change, say, a drum part from the hi-hat to the ride at the chorus (see Web Clip 1).

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FIG. 3: The RealDrum picker lets you select drum loops based on a number of stylistic, sound, and performance criteria.

Keeping it Real
For most of its existence, BIAB has relied on MIDI to generate its parts. Although onboard sounds can be effective in many situations—especially when you''re using BIAB as a backing tool while woodshedding or trying out melodic ideas—sounds generated by a computer can come across as cheesy. You can, of course, assign the MIDI tracks to external synthesizers or to VST and DXi soft synths.

RealTracks and RealDrums offer an appealing alternative to MIDI-generated parts while retaining much of their flexibility (see Fig. 3). BIAB''s growing collection of professionally recorded audio parts adds realism to the sound and feel of many of the Styles. It''s important to note that the audio parts are not individual samples triggered by a sequencer, but one- to eight-bar audio recordings of performances by studio musicians, who bring more subtlety to the phrasing and groove than the MIDI-generated parts they replace. Unlike typical loop libraries, these recordings can follow the chord structures intelligently just like the MIDI parts. You can even use them to generate solos.

BIAB 2009.5 supplies 101 new RealTracks (in addition to the 80 or so in previous versions and updates). They cover such styles as blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, rock, and pop. The quality of the sound and performances is good, though I liked some better than others. I was especially impressed with the country and bluegrass material, which was performed with a nice flowing groove (see Web Clip 2). The jazz material was pretty good, too, if a little relaxed. The rock tracks were fine.

Each set of audio tracks has a base tempo. Though the tracks can stretch to follow whatever tempo you specify, you get the best results when the song and the original recording are close to the same tempo.

In many RealTracks, the new RealCharts feature displays the notes being played in traditional music notation; the guitar tracks also show tablature. You can export this material as a MIDI file or save it in BIAB''s song format.

I did have a couple issues with the audio tracks. They take some time to render—and not just the first time you add them to a song. After I stopped a song with several RealTracks and made no changes of any kind, the tracks still took as long as 20 seconds to load before playback.

You can reduce this load time by using the new Freeze Song feature, which converts the whole song to audio data and automatically mutes the individual tracks. You can also render both the complete song and individual tracks as WAV files, allowing you to export your work into a DAW or burn it onto a CD from within BIAB.

Overall, BIAB''s expanded audio capabilities are a big addition and make the program much more fun as a writing or practicing tool. Add tools such as the included harmony plug-in (by TC-Helicon; see Web Clip 3) and the ability to record your own parts, and you have a nice program for generating and developing ideas.

The Audio Chord Wizard is one of BIAB''s most impressive features. It can take just about any audio file and analyze its chords—even when the music is a complex combination of single notes and chords. BIAB then lets you send the chords, as well as the audio, to a song file.

Many of the other new features are improvements related to the performance of the audio tracks, loading and customizing styles, setting preferences, and creating notation. It''s nice to see that while trotting out attention-getters such as RealTracks, the BIAB team also keeps enhancing its established features.

Out of the Box
BIAB gives you numerous ways to share your work or expand on it with other production tools. It can export WAV, MP3, WMA, KAR (karaoke), and MIDI files of your arrangements, allowing you to open your song in a DAW and enhance it further. It can generate scores, lyric sheets, and so on. BIAB can also load existing MIDI and audio files, which is really cool if you like to sing melodic ideas to capture them, because it can build arrangements around your vocal recording.

Although BIAB has many applications—I could write a review twice this size on its abilities as an educational tool—and could no doubt be used as a composing and production tool, my guess is that most EM readers already use a more traditional DAW. BIAB''s most valuable use may be as a sounding board and a forum for woodshedding. If you want to work out melodic ideas, try a piece with different chord inversions and voicings, test a song in different keys or tempos, or simply get a feel for how a song written in one style might work in another, BIAB is an incredible resource.

Just as this review went to press, PG Music released Band-in-a-Box 2010 for Windows (a Mac update is forthcoming). Among its enhancements, according to the manufacturer, are considerably faster playback for tracks containing RealTracks and the ability to drag and drop tracks between BIAB and DAWs. Freeze Song now allows you to freeze individual tracks rather than making it necessary to covert entire songs. In addition, the UltraPlusPak and EverythingPak versions now include nearly 400 RealTracks.

Band-in-a-Box is a deep program that fosters the continuing education many of us engage in throughout our musical lives. From ear training and chord analysis to harmony and simple play-along fun, it offers many ways to expand your musical knowledge.

New York-based guitarist, composer, and producer Emile Menasché is the author of The Desktop Studio (Hal Leonard, 2009). His latest album, Overtones, is available on iTunes.

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Click on the "Product Summary" box to go to the PG Music Band-in-a-Box product page