Type in the chord progression of a song, choose a musical style from a long list of styles, and the program constructs the music for you. Jim Aikin thinks inside the Band-in-a-Box.
What would you like your music software to do? Should it wait, quietly obedient, while you dictate every detail, or should it step up and lend a hand? If you’d like the software to help out a little (or maybe more than a little), Band-in-a-Box could be your dream come true.
Maybe you’re a songwriter and need to present convincing demos of your work. Maybe you’re an aspiring vocalist or guitarist and want to sharpen your skills by practicing with a band, but you don’t yet have a band. Maybe you’ve been assigned to put together a set of backing tracks for karaoke night at the club. You guessed it: Band-in-a-Box.
The idea behind this software is simple: you type in the chord progression of a song, choose a musical style from a long, long list of available styles, and Band-in-a-Box constructs the music for you. Depending on the style, it may supply you with bass, drums, piano, guitar, and/or other instruments.
In the old days, when Band-in-a-Box first poked its cute little head up in the music technology wilderness, the tracks would have been entirely MIDI data, which would be piped through a General MIDI synthesizer to produce the audio.
Today Band-in-a-Box boasts gigabytes of audio performed in the studio by real musicians. As you assemble your song, this data is sliced apart at the bar lines, transposed if necessary, and stitched back together seamlessly to produce a listenable track.
If it sounds like you’re playing with real musicians, that’s because you are.
Sounds like magic, right? Well, it’s not quite as magical as I’m making it sound.
My experience with Band-in-a-Box was decidedly mixed. In some ways it’s brilliant, but in other ways it falls short of what one might desire. You can produce a listenable track in a few minutes, but mastering the program will take weeks or months.
Over the years more and more features have been grafted onto the original design. As a result, the user interface is a forest of hidden commands, pop-up menus, and dialog boxes. The Preference box (as shown in the video) has more tabs than I have ever seen in a Preferences box. As a result, figuring out whether the program will do what you have in mind, finding the feature you need, or even remembering where it was the last time you used it, will likely be a real challenge.
There are good introductory tutorials on YouTube, and the PG Music website also has tutorials. The FAQ has 185 items, which may be a record. It’s fair to say PG Music is aware that learning the software is not a simple matter, and is working hard to help users get up to speed.
The unanswered question is, do you really want to wrestle with the software for weeks in order to produce some nice Christmas music for your church?
Okay, let’s assume your answer is “yes.” Let’s have a look at the app.
First Impressions. PG Music supplied me with the UltraPak version of Band-in-a-Box ($469) for Windows. This includes more than 3,000 RealTracks – performances by studio musicians – as compressed .wma files.
They’ll ship you the content on a hard drive as an option, but I decided to try the download. Downloading 120GB of content took about 12 hours. The next day I installed it, which took another four hours. Other packages have less content, and are less expensive.
The good news is, the process of downloading and installing was totally painless. There are 90 separate files averaging over 1GB each, but PG Music provides good instructions on how to download and use the free program HTTP Downloader, which turns the entire download into a three-click process.
Then double-click on the installer program, and you’re ready to rock. Or cha-cha. Or dance a jig.
As an aid to practicing your instrument or vocals, you can easily use Band-in-a-Box stand-alone. But if you need to produce finished mixes, you’ll naturally want to export its tracks to your favorite DAW, where you can add parts and effects and perhaps do a bit of cut-and-paste editing.
Again, this process is totally painless: it just works. After entering a chord progression (a minor-key reharmonization of “Amazing Grace”) and choosing a traditional style, I converted the individual tracks to .wav and dragged and dropped them from the DragDrop folder into Reason.
I then set up the mic to record my cello, did a few takes, made some mixing decisions, and in only three hours from start to finish I had a halfway presentable track to upload to my blog.
Getting this far did require a bit of manual-diving. But the fact that I was able to do a finished track in three hours, including recording my solo, illustrates how the program effortlessly can serve up some tasty backing tracks. That said, it’s not testimony about how easy or streamlined Band-in-a-Box is to use.
I would call this software an expert system.
I encountered a number of spots where I had to execute unexpected commands in order to get it to work the way I would have expected. For instance, when it’s running as a VST plugin, if you just click the Play button in your host DAW the bars in the Band-in-a-Box display will light up one after another, but you’ll hear no sound. To hear it play rather than silently highlighting the bars, you have to click on its Sync button.
Or consider updating to a new version: after updating, I needed to click the Rebuild button in the Style Picker window to tell the software to rebuild its style database. That solved the problem. I mentioned this to the developers, and in the most recent update the rebuilding happens by default.
This is both good and bad. On the good side, PG Music is responsive to user input. On the bad side, they seem to be adding new features without giving much thought to how the whole program could or should be integrated.
In effect, Band-in-a-Box is a bit of a Frankenstein monster. Bits have been bolted together. It will do audio recording and editing. It will even compose a melody and play it above your chord progression – but its melody generator flails around and produces gibberish, nothing a songwriter could ever use.
Styles. Band-in-a-Box lives or dies by how convincing its pop music styles are. There are a lot of styles! (See below.)
Overall, I’d say the content is pretty darn good. No, I’ll go further: It’s excellent.
Your reaction may differ depending on what style of music you’re into, and how exacting your taste is. The program is strongest in traditional styles such as rock blues, country, tango, jazz ballad, reggae, hard rock, synth pop, Celtic folk, and so on. There are a few more contemporary selections scattered here and there, but if you’re hoping to find some hip-hop to practice rapping over, Band-in-a-Box may not be your best choice.
Most styles have four or five tracks: drums, bass, and two or three chording instruments. Sometimes there’s a solo instrument too.
The drums and bass tend not to be very imaginative. They provide the foundation. The chord tracks are usually more interesting and stylish. In my version of “Amazing Grace,” for instance, the mandolins noodle all over the map, as mandolins tend to do. If too much noodling gets in the way of your song, you can mute a track. There’s no way to edit the audio in a RealTrack, however, so plan to export it to your DAW and use whatever features the DAW provides.
A more interesting option is to combine tracks from other styles. This is a bit tricky to manage, since the Style Picker window doesn’t let you solo individual tracks so as to make a decision, but once you’ve found a few dozen styles that you like, you’ll find it easy and painless to swap in a different guitar part that will fit with your concept. You can even change styles in the middle of the song, if that suits your needs.
It’s important to note that if your song repeats through three verses (or two, or five, or whatever),
the Band-in-a-Box band does not play the same part on each repetition.
The piano player may serve up different chord voicings, the bass player may insert a different passing tone, and so on. This is one of the great features of the software.
The amount of variation will depend, naturally, on the style you’ve chosen. The jazz styles tend to have the most variation. Another cool feature is that the drummer will play a fill at the end of a phrase to lead up to the next phrase – and it’s not always the same fill.
Chord Charts. Band-in-a-Box understands quite a variety of standard chord voicings, including min7b5, sus, min9, and so on.
It also understands using a slash mark, for instance Dm7/C, for changing the bass note. You can enter one or two chords per measure simply by typing and hitting the Tab key, but if your song requires a new chord on every quarter-note, you’ll need to dig into the menu system to find the box for inserting extra chords.
Instead of using letters for the chord roots, you can use Roman numerals, Nashville numbers, or even solfege (do, re, etc.). Chords can be “pushed” so that the musicians will anticipate the beat.
By default, Band-in-a-Box will do a tidy two-bar ending after your last verse, but you can program a longer tag if you need to. Need to transpose to a different key? No need to retype the chord symbols: transposing the whole song is a two-click command.
In my experiments,
individual players occasionally missed a chord symbol entirely,
or played a note that wasn’t part of the chord. This happened with more than one player, in more than one style. I’m guessing the audio tracks are recorded as full bars. Depending on what’s in the style, there may be no way for the instrument to switch to a new chord in the middle of a bar.
Band-in-a-Box will do time signatures from 1/4 through 14/4. They’re all quarter-note-based, however. Lovers of 11/8 will be stymied. Signatures above 4/4 are displayed with lots of extra bar lines. 5/4 shows up as alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4, for instance. This is manageable, but perhaps less than ideal.
Other Features. You can run Band-in-a-Box as a plug-in inside your DAW. You can run a video along with your song, which might be useful if you’re running Band-in-a-Box at a karaoke event.
Opening a video file closes whatever song you’ve loaded, however. If there’s a way to open a video into an existing song, I haven’t found it yet. (I’ve been told there’s a workaround.) You can even create your own styles, but I haven’t had the courage, nor felt the need, to try that.
Band-in-a-Box lets you record your own MIDI parts, or at least that’s the theory. When I tried it, the MIDI sound I heard was very faint, and it wasn’t the sound I had selected.
Band-in-a-Box even ships with a separate DAW and its own plug-in synthesizer. The DAW is far from state-of-the-art, but if you need it for some reason, you’ll be happy that it’s included.
Add lyrics? No problem. Adjust the loudness, panning, and reverb level on individual tracks? No problem. And I’m sure there are more features that I haven’t even noticed.
Summing Up. Am I glad to have Band-in-a-Box in my software tool chest? Yes, definitely. Will I use it again? I’m sure I will, whenever I want to record a quick cello solo.
But do I enjoy using it? No, not really. The user interface is far too complex, and some of the features are under-developed.
In my opinion this would be a more useful program if the developers stuck to what they do best – auto-accompaniment in a wide variety of styles. Trying to bolt things like audio and MIDI recording onto it creates a bewildering layer of complexity without adding anything that users won’t already have in their DAW.
I encountered a few odd glitches, including a crash or two, failure to play the audio until I quit the program and reloaded it, stuff like that. If I had to guess, I’d say the code base for this software is so multi-layered that none of the developers is quite sure what’s going on in all of its nooks and crannies.
But if you’ve ever been in a real band where the guitar player got drunk and fell off the stage or the drummer failed to show up for a rehearsal, you may conclude that Band-in-a-Box is even more realistic thanks to its occasional misbehavior. Call it meta-skeuomorphism.
Whatever. There’s nothing else like this program, that’s the point. If you need it, here it is, come and get it. But you’d better hurry, because it will take hours to download!