There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which one of the characters walks onto the holodeck and programs his musical fantasy simply by commanding, "1950s New Orleans jazz, small combo." The computer instantly generates a holographic combo that appears and starts playing. The character then picks up his trombone and commences to jam along with the computer-generated trio.
Science fiction? Maybe not. PG Music's Band-in-a-Box 9.0 offers a similar experience in the here and now.
THE BIG PICTUREBand-in-a-Box (BIAB) 9.0 is the latest version of software that has been in continuous development since 1989. It is a MIDI accompaniment program that automatically creates drum, bass, keyboard, and other tracks, and even generates solos. BIAB also applies a number of different musical styles to a song, generates lead sheets, and saves its song files as Standard MIDI Files.
PG Music has added a lot to BIAB since EM reviewed version 7.0 in the December 1997 issue. Among the many enhancements are new view displays, new styles options, limited audio-recording capability, and-most compelling of all-a Melodist feature that adds a melody to chords that the user (or the computer) generates.
BIAB uses General MIDI for playback and also offers a number of other patch maps. The program should work fine with nearly any computer sound card or tone module that has GM capabilities. The Windows and Mac versions contain essentially the same features; the MegaPak bundle includes significantly more arrangement and Soloist styles than the Pro version.
NEW VIEWSAmong the most obvious improvements in BIAB 9.0 are the new display windows. These include the Drum Kit, Fretboard, Big Piano, and Big Lyrics views.
The aesthetically pleasing Drum Kit view shows a screen of percussion instruments that can be triggered as the song plays (see Fig. 1). Serious musicians may not find this window useful, however: because the mouse and the computer keyboard are the only triggering options, it's difficult to create intricate patterns. Nevertheless, the Drum Kit could be a handy tool for those learning about different percussion instruments or for those who like to record drum fills using visual cues.
Version 9.0 also features a Fretboard view for guitarists. This window displays the notes of any selected track in real time. Each note on the fretboard lights up as it is played. A useful learning tool for guitarists, Fretboard enables players who don't read music to follow and learn the notes of tracks they want to play. Similar to this is the new Big Piano view (see Fig. 2), which shows the notes being played on a large keyboard. Its main purpose is to improve playing technique and assist the user in learning selected tracks.
One of the best new windows in BIAB 9.0 is the Big Lyrics view. It's a major improvement over the old lyrics display, which really didn't allow any live-performance application. With Big Lyrics, a user can make the lyrics as large as desired and easily follow along with the song. Better yet, the lyrics are highlighted as the piece plays, enabling a singer to keep on track. Font, size, color, and background are all customizable. In fact, this new feature turns your computer into a stand-alone MIDI karaoke machine. Would-be Wayne Newtons can say danke schon to BIAB 9.0 and auf Wiedersehen to backup bands and expensive stage setups.
ONE-TRACK MINDIn the past, BIAB has always been exclusively a MIDI application. With version 9.0, it makes the transition to a combined MIDI/audio program, although the step is a tentative one. BIAB 9.0 records and processes a single track of digital audio in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz format only. This grants the user the luxury of recording real sound along with the MIDI composition. Although serious digital music producers will prefer multitrack applications with higher bit rates, those who want to record a simple vocal or solo accompaniment could be quite satisfied with BIAB.
The software comes with an impressive number of built-in plug-in effects that you can apply to your audio tracks, including reverb, compression, echo, chorus, and tremolo. You can also perform some minor editing on the audio track. For more extensive alterations, you'll need to export your track to an external audio editor and then import it back into BIAB. Also new in this version is the ability to convert a MIDI track to a stereo WAV file; the audio track can be mixed with the MIDI data if you want.
CHAINED MELODYBIAB's most impressive new addition is the Melodist. This feature lets you automatically compose not only complete chord progressions and accompanying MIDI tracks, but also the actual melody of the piece. Another button even creates song titles! In short, the Melodist is an automatic song generator. But can BIAB really create full songs with credible melodies? Yes and no.
Choosing from a wide variety of styles, you can instantly generate an entire song with full melody and backing accompaniment. The music is fully competent-meaning that it conforms to the expectations of the style and the chord structure. There were very few sour notes in the songs I created in BIAB. However, just because a piece is musically correct doesn't mean that it is pleasing to the ear.
Listening to and rejecting dozens of auto-generated songs, I felt like a desktop A&R man. The true measure of a melody is its "catchiness," and creating that is still an immutably human enterprise. That said, I found that about one of every ten auto songs actually had decent melodic structure. You can also use the Melodist to generate chord progressions only, or to add a melody to chord progressions that you input.
Although the melodies created with the Melodist ranged from fair to good, all of the pieces' arrangements were stylistically impeccable. This is the real strength of BIAB: its MIDI AI (artificial intelligence) programming is truly awesome, and the jazz styles and harmony programs are especially impressive. In fact, you can learn a lot about the elements of a style, such as how to compose a techno bass line or a swing drum part, by analyzing the tracks the program creates. Some very sharp musical minds are behind this software, although I am not about to claim that it can completely replace human arrangers.
BIAB 9.0 also has a new Guitarist feature that generates rhythm guitar tracks to existing melody lines. This feature creates a multinote track in voicing appropriate for guitar. A user can adjust parameters such as the number and range of notes in the chords, and even the intensity of the "strum" factor. I found that this feature works fairly well in simulating real guitar voicings-provided that you are using a high-quality guitar sound for playback. You can also use the Guitarist in conjunction with the Soloist or Melodist to create an instant guitar solo or strummed-chord melody line.
MIDI CITY LIMITSAlthough BIAB's strength lies in its MIDI performance, the program does have some limitations. Each song created by the Melodist uses a style file that dictates the instruments to be used and the note patterns. Technically each song is different, but there are a lot of similarities among songs generated in the same style-and even among some of the melodies created in different songs.
Also, for all MIDI sequences, Band-in-a-Box's ppqn (parts per quarter note) resolution is only 120, a relatively low rate. Despite this, I found BIAB's tracks amazingly lifelike in terms of both Velocity and timing. (A Humanizer feature is available for those who want to liven up their tracks even more.)
Another limitation is that BIAB will generate some types of MIDI control data (Pitch Bend and Sustain Pedal), but not others (Aftertouch and Mod Wheel). Also, you can open just one song file at a time, and some settings (such as volume and tempo) offer only limited adjustment increments.
OLD WINDOWSAlthough BIAB 9.0 is capable of some amazing feats, the application has one major drawback that must be addressed: its user interface looks old and is hard to use. The appearance reminds me of dated DOS or Windows 3.x applications (see Fig. 3). In general, the program's controls and menus are difficult to navigate and operate. Also, BIAB doesn't support many standard Windows keyboard shortcuts, the menu choices are long and complex, and navigating through files is tedious.
Worse, some of the menus shift off the screen; I was constantly moving the window around to read and select many of the choices. (This problem doesn't occur at high display resolutions.) Also, inputting some data is inefficient, and actions that should take only one click require two or three. Despite all this, the application runs well. I spent many hours using it, and it rarely crashed or hesitated.
CLOSING BARSOverall, I found PG Music's Band-in-a-Box 9.0 a solid application with lots of features for both amateur and serious musicians. Even if you are not interested in having it compose for you, BIAB is still a great tool for auditioning styles for MIDI compositions, and it offers endless possibilities for creating arrangements and harmonies (although I do wish the bundled song files included more up-to-date material). BIAB 9.0 also makes it easy to generate backing tracks for rehearsal or jamming purposes.
Considering its capabilities, BIAB 9.0 is well worth the price, and despite its old-fashioned look, the program has many powerful features that can create contemporary-sounding music. It definitely opens up a whole new world of tools for modern MIDI composers and solo artists.
Phil Darg is a composer, songwriter, and producer of music for video and film. His latest project is the soundtrack for the upcoming independent film Bob Came from Outer Space.