Zen of Recording

Icebergs and Voodoo

When writing a review column of roughly 800 to 1000 words on a regular basis, one is destined to come across a tool so complex and feature-laden that it defies succinct summation. This is not always the case, of course, as there have been plenty of instances where the pursuit of reader amusement has found me devoting more Zen of Recording’s ink toward what my cat might be thinking than, say, the minutiae of transistors, circuit boards, and acoustic logarithms. Still, it can sometimes be an arduous task to simply keep this verbal sum total of exploration and expounding from amounting to little more than a big, stinky, heaping ode to befuddlement.

When I approached the fine folks at PG Music (www.pgmusic.com) about covering their flagship product Band-in-a-Box, I was thinking back to the version that I had purchased in the early ’90s. That product was able to take chord charts from a user’s input and play them back via onboard MIDI instruments in a variety of user-selected styles and tempos. This was an excellent way for songwriters and instrumentalists to get a quick thumbnail sketch of a song down and maybe experiment with other chord substitutions and extensions, getting instant feedback that helped find new musical places that maybe our hands didn’t go to instinctively. It was (and still remains) an incredibly helpful tool akin to having an accomplished musician at your beck and call, ready to answer any musical question you might ask of it. The downside was its audio palette. For all of its ease of use it still pretty much sounded like a video game, which limited its usefulness to rudimentary demos that were equivalent to chalk on a blackboard.

Things have changed.

To refer the previous three words as an understatement requires even more metaphoric analogy, because Band-in-a-Box still essentially does that same thing, but in more ways and with exponentially deeper functionality, feel, and fidelity. It’s like looking upon an arctic mountain range and realizing that each peak is but one of several tips connected to one massive iceberg.

Band-in-a-Box® 2017 is now the official product name and there are several packages to choose from, including Pro ($129), Mega Pak ($269), UltraPlusPAK ($469), EverythingPAK ($569), and Audiophile Edition ($669). All offer much of the same content, just obviously more of it as you go up the B-I-A-B food chain. The delivery of packages was via DVDs, USB flash drive, USB hard drive, or Download, with some titles being too large for flash drive or DVDs.

The version I evaluated was the EverythingPAK, which comes on a USB hard drive (shipping and handling via courier is extra) or download. Considering the content is more than 90 gigs(!) and took me almost a week to download due to bandwidth issues on my end, I would have gladly paid the extra charges to bypass the headaches and hassle that I encountered, through no fault of PG Music.
So what was all that data? Well, this is where we start counting icebergs.

In my description of the original version, I spoke of the programmed MIDI tracks that played things back in the style selected. B-I-A-B 2017 includes over 2,200 RealTracks, which are actual studio recordings (over 2,600 hours worth) of real live professional musicians performing these instruments in a variety of styles. So, instead of a synth bass playing back a musically passable part over C to Em to D to G for instance, you hear a musician grooving through those changes on a beautifully recorded upright or electric bass, with all the feel, taste, cool and confidence that comes from years of talent and experience. I must admit to being a little freaked out upon first hearing it. Considering the fact that changing the chord name can change the actual part their playing on the fly, I’m still not sure how this musical voodoo works; I just know that it does. Big time.

There is even an entire program similar to Band-in-a-Box devoted to using these performances included. It’s an iceberg tip called RealBand. This program has a more DAW-like GUI and its overall working method seems geared more toward recording, editing, importing, and exporting audio amongst other programs that exist outside the B-I-A-B world, in addition to its B-I-A-B functionality. That said, it seamlessly integrates with B-I-A-B and many users import their Band-In-A-Box files into it to take them to the next level.

Styles? It would honestly be easier to make a list of what this doesn’t have. Sure, there’s rock, pop, jazz, country, folk, and blues, but also hip hop, deep house, Afro-Cuban, mariachi, R&B, waltzes, punk, New Orleans funk, norteño, Gypsy jazz, bossa nova, smooth jazz, reggae, bluegrass, dubstep, surf and soul and so, so, so many more.

Just as each of these genres often incorporate a wildly varied set of instruments to perform them, so, too, is this reflected in the RealTracks that make up each style, from piano to Celtic harp, organ, nylon, acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars, tres, vibes, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, congas, even baby bass. I literally get dizzy trying to list them all!

If this were just about accompaniment it would be an invaluable teaching and learning tool, allowing aspiring songwriters, arrangers, singers and soloists to explore the myriad approaches to comping and voicing the chordal elements of a composition. But there’s a melodic component to this whole thing, too! There are soloists who burn over any progression you can think of on guitar or sax or piano. You can create an arrangement and ask the program to actually create a melody automatically, which is incredible, especially considering the fact that you can continually auto generate new melodies each time you click the button! In fact, you can create a new version of any RealTrack by asking it to do it again. In practice, this means that you can generate multiple takes of backing tracks or solos and then edit them together into a single master take, just like real-life producing!

There are just so many features, including notation, performances from famous artists like Jeff Lorber, MIDI super tracks, the ability to use VST plug-ins and instruments…this is truly as deep a program as anybody out there makes and it’s made all the deeper by the users themselves, as we find uses for it via karaoke, live gigs, education, rehearsals, and recordings. An incredibly deep iceberg of potential, indeed.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an artist, producer, writer, and navigator of the chilly waters of musical technology. (www.kaspro.com)

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