How I Got Here, How You Get There, and How a Whole Band Got into a Box
It was warm but dark and, for me, it was getting late. I just needed to get through this eight-measure section of the song, so I could go to bed. It was the bass line, I knew that much. It was playing in a different “mode” than the other instruments, causing certain intervals to rub dissonantly every time we entered a certain musical passage. But the session had been a few days ago, and that bass player was long gone now. Ordinarily, I’d just go in with Melodyne and tweak those offending notes, but it appeared to me that these eight measures needed a totally different musical approach then what we had. I plugged in my bass, but there was a grounding issue that resulted in a buzz I couldn’t get rid of. I tried to do it with a keyboard bass, but the sound I got was…less than convincing. Rolling my eyes, I pushed my chair back and thought awhile.
Then it hit me.
I had recently received a program for review called Band-In-A-Box 2023 UltraPAK (Win/Mac, $469 ($279 as an upgrade, 64/32 bit)
Actually, it was Band-In-A-Box 2017, but I purchased the upgrades and, to be completely honest, I am always learning how to use it, tweak it, and explore the vast array of ways its powerful engine can assist both artists and producers in unexpected ways.
In this particular instance, I “persuaded” the program to give me seven different takes of the bass part. Then I simply edited together the best performance from all of the available takes, like I always do. Yes, I had to work a little to get the tone to match that of the original, but I definitely got it more than close enough and that problem was solved. Almost six years later, I’ll share what I’ve learned about this deeply featured piece of software. While not exclusively considered an AI program, many of the ways AI can be employed are in evidence, i.e., multiple outcomes from user-input data, including selectable musical styles and feels.
Band-In-A-Box 2023 works like this: After setting the desired key and tempo, users input chord names into a lead sheet-like interface on the beats at which they occur. Each measure can accommodate up to four chord changes, but most songs change chords every measure or two on average. There is also the ability to “push” beats by a 16th or 8th for offbeat accents, etc., as well as “Shot” and “Hold.” Once you have all of the chords’ input where you want them, BIAB plays these chord changes back to you in the style and tempo you desire.
Here’s where it gets good. Although it started as a humble MIDI playback program, the “RealStyle” performances are actually performed by real humans. I’m talking every fill or filigree, every funky turnaround or rockin’ ride-out has been intelligently selected from literally thousands of “previously performed” little chunks that are related to the instrument and style. I can’t say I totally understand how it works exactly—although I do suspect the use of voodoo—only that it does, with a little help.
There are times where an instrument’s transition from one chord to another can seem unnatural or abrupt, as if they were hastily grafted together by Edward Scissorhands. Interestingly, this is not always detectable unless the track is solo’ed, but it bears mention in a column about recording.
Another reason (I came up with) for the six-year turnaround of this review, is the vast of potential it holds for each user, and there’s a variety places they come from, musically speaking and otherwise: Songwriters, producers, arrangers, musicians, karaoke enthusiasts, teachers, and students can all find in BIAB2023 a product that feels like it caters to their specific needs. That’s a difficult trick for any app. Factor in the ability to import and analyze audio content, extracting the needed song data from it and you are potentially empowering even non-musical creatives!
Okay, so there I am, in the previously mentioned warm darkness, and I open BIAB. I enter the song’s key, tempo, and chords into the interface. This can be tedious, alternately entering, listening, and correcting in a repetitive sequence, only to find other errors…But when you get it right, it’s outta sight.
I go to the “StylePicker” and select “Browse all Styles” at which point I am greeted by a screen similar to the one displayed in Figure 1. Notice that I have edited the “Filter String” to narrow down my search results. I should point out here that having entered in the chords first allows me to preview different styles “on the fly,” using the song’s actual structure (including different feels for verses and choruses), via the “Play Using Current Chord Sheet for Song” function. It’s a great way to audition a bunch of styles and feels, without the guesswork.
Once I’ve found a style that’s displaying me the bass line I like, I save that BIAB file and go to Audio > “Export Song as Audio File,” at which point I am greeted with a window like the one in Figure 2.
This is where I tell the program what format of audio I want, including type, sample rate, and bit depth, as well as how to mix the tracks with regard to panning and levels.
Then, it’s just clicking “Render” and picking a folder into which you’ll place these new audio files.
I then imported the files into my DAW (Studio One), where I used pieces from two different takes to patch up the desired sections. Now, these were not exact matches sonically, but the original’s eq and compression settings were convincingly approximated, and the problem was fixed by a real musician. I had essentially booked and recorded another session without having to book (or pay for) it, but I still did all the work that comes with it. Weird, right?
Maybe this is where all the proverbial flag planting on the topic of creative origin starts, but for now it’s a handy way to manifest inspirations.
It is at this point that I should point out that this is a grand oversimplification with regard to Band-In-A-Box 2023’s myriad features, edibility, and musical possibilities. I can’t even hint at how far under the hood this program gives its users access to, only that it’s waaay further than most any other program.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter, and record producer in San Diego. www.SvenSounds.com