SoundTrek's Jammer Professional has been growing in power and depth for more than a decade. Version 5 of the program, which automatically composes and arranges music based on your choice of style and chord progression, is loaded with features. Jammer Pro can create backing tracks powerfully and quickly; half an hour after installing the program and without laying a finger on a MIDI keyboard, I had slapped together a recognizable version of “The Girl from Ipanema,” complete with bass, piano, guitar, drums, and percussion.
Learning the program fully, however, requires some effort. Despite Jammer Pro's certain similarities with conventional sequencers (its Piano-Roll Editor window, for instance), it is in some ways more like the auto-accompaniment section of a home keyboard, providing factory styles that include intros, fills, and endings. But the program goes far beyond the typical home keyboard in letting you edit styles and create your own.
The Jam What Am
Jammer Pro 5's primary tools are the Tracks window and the Measures window (see Fig. 1). The simplest way to use the program is to enter a chord progression of your choice in the Measures window, and then insert style elements such as an intro, grooves, fills, and an ending in the appropriate measures. You can add a few drum fills, make sure the Punch In and Punch Out points are set to the beginning and end of your chord progression, and then click on the Compose button. Jammer Pro will load the instruments needed for the styles that you've selected into the Tracks window and compose stylistically appropriate parts using your chord progression. It understands numerous types of major, minor, and dominant chord symbols, and you can enter a new chord on any 16th-note.
Playback starts immediately after composing is completed. (On a modern computer, the composing process is practically instantaneous.) But although the factory styles are fine for rough songwriter demos, you may find that Jammer Pro's arrangement doesn't quite meet your needs. The program offers several ways to zero in on the musical result that you're seeking.
First, you can recompose selected measures and instruments. Because Jammer Pro uses intelligent algorithms that include some randomization, it may come up with something better on a subsequent pass. Second, you can open any of the tracks that the program has created in a conventional piano-roll or MIDI event list editor. There, you can fiddle with the voice leading, fix funny-sounding voicings or bass lines, get rid of those annoying crash cymbals at the end of drum fills, and so on. Third, you can recompose the same progression using a different style. Fourth, if you're feeling really creative and have a bit of patience, you can customize the style itself to your heart's content or create an entirely new style from scratch before recomposing. You can even design custom chord voicings for Jammer Pro to use.
Another option is to overdub your own MIDI tracks. That feature is useful if, for example, you want to add a harmony line to a song. On one occasion when I was overdubbing, Jammer Pro stopped recording MIDI Note Off messages halfway through, resulting in lots of long notes; that was an isolated problem, though, not something I was able to reproduce. Conversely, you can let Jammer Pro compose a chord progression or melody for you at the same time it's creating the backing tracks. The progression composer creates some odd progressions, but it may also produce phrases that get your creative juices flowing.
Jammer Pro's user interface is somewhat eccentric. For example, it took me a while to figure out when I needed to double-click on items as opposed to right-clicking on them. The main window works best in the maximized position; it doesn't have scrollbars if you make it smaller. Some operations are buried deep in elaborate dialog boxes. In addition, the PDF manual needs more graphics, a better index, and page numbers in the spots where it cross-references other sections. I highly recommend going through the excellent tutorials at the beginning of the manual.
Spreadin' the Jam
Jammer Pro is strictly a MIDI program; it doesn't host VST or DirectX soft synths, nor does it offer audio tracks. There are, however, several viable work-arounds. If you don't own a hardware synth, you can direct Jammer Pro to use the Microsoft GS Wavetable synth as an output device. That synth is installed as part of Windows XP, but unfortunately it can't use a low-latency audio driver such as ASIO. You'll hear a time lag if you try to play it in real time from a MIDI keyboard, which you might want to do while recording a MIDI solo into Jammer Pro as an overdub.
If you have a general-purpose software DAW, you can easily export Jammer Pro's creations as MIDI files, import them into the DAW, and then add audio tracks, loops, soft synths, or whatever you need to create a finished production. It's also possible to send Jammer Pro's MIDI output to an ASIO-compatible soft synth running on the same computer by using a MIDI utility such as Hubi's Loopback Device. SoundTrek recommends MIDI Yoke NT from MIDI Ox (www.midiox.com) for NT, 2000, and XP users.
Jammer Pro is set up to use General MIDI (GM) out of the box, which will be convenient for many users. GM program changes, effects depth controls, and drum maps are all loaded and active by default. Because the styles in Jammer Pro primarily make use of standard types of sounds, such as acoustic bass, Hammond organ, and steel-string guitar, GM makes the program and its styles highly portable. I used Jammer Pro with a Yamaha Motif 6 and was satisfied with the results.
Jammer allows you to override the GM program changes if you're using a non-GM synth, but doing that requires donning your scuba gear and diving into the program's deeper grottoes. If Jammer Pro “knows” about the factory presets in your synth, you can indeed set up the program to use those patches in your arrangements with no more than a little poking around in dialog boxes. The list of known devices is long, but some important newer synths, such as the Yamaha Motif and Roland Fantom, are not included. If you understand MIDI Bank Select messages, however, and are willing to spend a little time, you can tell Jammer Pro where to find your preferred acoustic piano, upright bass, drum kit, and so on. While this gives you some added flexibility, it also means that the reverb and chorus depth parameters in Jammer Pro's Tracks window won't be functional for those instruments, as those MIDI Control Change messages are defined only for GM modules.
Stylin' the Jam
Jammer Pro does a respectable job on Latin, country, and pop styles. (The GM soundset is not ideal for creating hip-hop tracks.) The output inevitably sounds a bit prefabricated and wouldn't be suitable for a major-label production, but for lounge work and songwriter demos, it's kind of a kick to hear what the computer comes up with.
By my count, Jammer Pro ships with 394 style files. Since that number includes intros, fills, endings, and so on, however, the actual number of discrete musical styles is 48. The factory styles include groups such as Bluegrass (Quick Pickin', Upbeat), Blues (Slow, Upbeat), Country (12/8 ballad, Strumming Ballad, Swing), Dance (Club Beat, Synthetic '70s, Upbeat), Funk (B3 Funk Rock, Medium), Hip Hop (Street Vibe), House (Power House), and Jazz (Easy Swing, Piano Ballad, and Swing Upbeat).
Many rock variations are provided, and genres from Waltz to Tex-Mex are also represented. Four additional packs of styles are available from SoundTrek for $30 each. Jammer Pro is also available for $69 in a Songmaker edition that has fewer styles. SoundTrek's Web page gives the number as 116, but that includes intros and other elements as separate styles, so the real number for Songmaker is about 15 styles.
Explaining Jammer Pro's style creation features in detail would take many pages. For example, after entering each note in a chord riff (in Jammer Pro a riff is a component of a groove, which is a component of an instrument, which is a component of a style) you have to “compile” the note. There are 39 different compile options, which have obscure names such as “Wild-card transition note using pool scale” and “Chord-based fix-up note.” An easier way to work is to use factory riffs and define a style by changing the relative randomization weightings of the riffs. Chord-to-chord transitions can also be given weights (see Fig. 2). I wouldn't guess that many Jammer Pro users will want to delve into these capabilities, but it's great to know they're there if you need them.
Jammer Pro is an excellent tool that should appeal to at least four types of musicians: lounge players who need to put together a large supply of backing tracks for gigs, songwriters who want to demo their songs easily, beginning or advanced students who would like an endless source of fresh accompaniments over which to practice soloing, and educators who are serving those students. (Note that Jammer Professional is designed strictly to generate tracks offline and then play them back. For real-time interactive accompaniment, SoundTrek offers Jammer Live.)
With version 5, Jammer Pro has matured into a sophisticated and unique program. There's nothing else like it. Beginners will appreciate its ability to create credible arrangements based on lead sheets — no knowledge of music theory or arranging is required. More advanced users will be able to take advantage of the program's almost endless array of esoteric features. Although the user interface is a bit quirky, if you need to compose usable MIDI arrangements quickly, Jammer Pro is the tool for the job.
Jim Aikin writes, teaches, and plays music in Northern California. He has a maniacal gleam in his eyes because he's working on a new novel. Details are atwww.musicwords.net.
Jammer Professional 5
algorithmic MIDI accompaniment generator
upgrade from version 4, $59.95
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 3.5
PROS: Lots of tools for crafting arrangements and styles. Compatible with a wide variety of synths, as well as General MIDI.
CONS: User interface has awkward elements. Creating new styles from scratch is complicated.