Boxing Clever

Available from pgmusic.com

Available from pgmusic.com

Just been through a complete tech clean out and revamp chez Lyon. And I’ve decided to fess up and say something extremely unfashionable. Band in a Box (hereafter BIAB) is a great program and a seriously useful tool.

Let’s get into some backstory…

I used hardware MIDI sequencers for many years to practise and write – the Yamaha QY series in particular were favourites. These were basically little (or large) boxes that allowed you to enter chord sequences, styles and tempi and they’d generate backings, albeit with variable (sometimes rather naff and farty sounding) success…

Such things have gone the way of the dodo, but been reborn in software form. Enter BIAB.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

I’ve dipped into this program a few times over the years, and I’ll admit it has until pretty recently felt like a bit of a toy. The accompaniment styles were inconsistent, the sounds were your basic MIDI fromage and frankly the interface was a bit, erm, ’80s.

A dodo rising (well, waddling) from the ashes… hey, why should the phoenixes have all the fun?

Well, not any more. Nowadays this package will generate just about anything you can think of to a pretty convincing standard, and you can even choose real sampled performances rather than the plinky MIDI stuff. Or you can direct the MIDI to a sampler and unplink it a bit (this can still be a bit complicated, but is much easier to do now the interface has started taking some steps into the 21st century).

They call the sampled performances RealTracks. They’ve got loads of professional musicians in and recorded them performing pretty typical chord changes in hundreds of styles, keys and tempi.

The program dices, splices, pitch and time-shifts its library of recordings in a diabolically clever, pseudo-random fashion to match the chords, style and tempo you input. And the result is mostly really quite impressive.

WE GOT BOTH KINDS OF MUSIC HERE – COUNTRY AND WESTERN…

BIAB is very broad ranging. C&W styles feature heavily, as do pop and rock, but the jazz and Latin offerings are varied and very tasty indeed. Anyway – one lazy afternoon you might fancy knocking out a bit of bluegrass to have some fun. Never know, you might enjoy it. Hey, I have and my feelings about banjos are rather mixed at the best of times…

So, is it still a thing for hobbyists? Well, plenty of great musicians are happy to be associated with it and have “sat” for it to paint their portrait. For instance, one of the more recent jazz styles features playing by Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Eric Alexander – well, I guess if they turned up at my house to jam I’d be happy enough. Did I mention that it’ll also generate horn and guitar solos? And some horn sections? Often, the result is surprisingly decent. Doesn’t really fool you, but it gives a perfectly good enough flavour.

Furthermore, I gather from an industry type that when they need music “cheap but convincing and by the yard” something like 30% of what you hear has actually been generated by this little puppy.

This program is trying to be all things to all people, and making some decent strides in that direction, although I don’t think the established heavyweight scorewriting packages and DAWs are in any danger just yet. Probably one day all musical functionality will be integrated into one killer package, but for now it’s still a case of using what’s best for the particular job. DAWs, notation and accompaniment programs still have some turf wars to fight, I feel.

Or maybe they won’t be integrated. Who knows? Maybe there never will be a big enough market for musicians who need to approach things from scoring, recording, jamming and MIDI programming in one omnipotent program.

Anyway, BIAB has a decent degree of notation facility (well, for leadsheet purposes), tuition features, and it even comes with a serviceable DAW called RealBand. For my money, it’s earned its price tag, even though frankly I don’t use half of its functionality.

UNBOXING

I use it for practice, mock-ups, and occasionally to generate some rhythm tracks to stitch into projects on other platforms. The ethos fits well in this context – in real life, you tell a rhythm section “in 2 for AA, then Latin on the bridge, then walk” and expect them to just get stuck in. BIAB allows you to do just this. So for instance, I can generate a backing, sit it side-by-side with Sibelius or Reaper, just use “chord, slash’n’hit” notation and get on with the job of scoring or playing in the detail.

So props to PG Music, the somewhat earnest Canadian company behind this product. It seems to be increasingly proving, year on year, something we’ve all suspected (and perhaps dreaded). That most kinds of “blowing” music are really just about putting little bricks together in some kind of random fashion.

Which is perhaps why this program still evokes sneers in some hifalutin musical circles. Sorry if I’m a bit late to the BIAB party, but the attitude about it persists – and, I think, unfairly. I mentioned it on a gig the other day and an awful lot of noses were hoisted in the direction of the ceiling… Their loss, I’d say.

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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings, j) Sound & Vision
6 comments on “Boxing Clever
  1. phil says:

    Jason,
    I’ve been using BIAB for years, it’s a great tool and has improved dramatically over the years. Not only do I use it the way you do, but I also generate sequences of 2-5-1’s, 2-6-2-5’s, etc. To just drill – and it has a woodshedding feature which allows to increase the speed to go faster (and FASTER!). Great product can’t say enough good things…
    phil

  2. phil says:

    oops 3-6-2-5’s…

    • Jason says:

      You’re forgiven – I knew what you meant.
      I always tell students to practise turnarounds. Haven’t checked out the shedding facility on BIAB, but I’m sure it’s useful to gradually ratchet up the tempo chorus by chorus.
      (Just as long as it doesn’t get you used to speeding up when you’re performing!)

  3. Fred says:

    Also, there are lots of BIAB files created by, and shared via a yahoo group. Practically every jazz standard, plus other genres as well, someone has already created a good BIAB file for it which you can use as is or modify as a starting point.
    But it really is great if you are tired of practicing by yourself and want to jam with a group, but no such group is available or just too hard to get together, this tool fills the void.

    • Jason says:

      Indeed. I forget where I got them all from (wasn’t Yahoo) but I’ve got a BIAB directory stuffed full of just about every standard known to man. There are some very public spirited people out there. I have contributed a couple of things to the community myself – fair’s fair.
      I made some remark about practising with a bassist in a previous post and someone sarcastically commented “yeah, Ron Carter lives at my house”. Well, with this program he sort of does…

  4. Megaboxsack says:

    Very informative. Thanks for this nice Article!

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