Ever wanted to always have a band to play and practice with? I think most sax players would love to have a band on call in their practice room. After all, playing along with a real band is a great way to fine tune your rhythmic playing and intonation. Plus it’s great fun.
The next best thing to a real band is a recorded backing track. However, whilst there are loads of cheap decent quality backing tracks available today, they don’t help if you want to create your own practice tracks quickly.
Music software house PG Music created their instant backing track creation software “Band in a Box” a few years back but have now just released their latest 2015 version for Mac which could be the answer.
Band in a Box really is what the name suggests. And, unlike other packages like Garage Band, it makes the process of creating a really great sounding band track a simple 2 step process.
With Band in a Box you simply have to enter the chord structure of the tune (step 1), and then choose a band style (step 2). BIAB does all the rest including creating an introduction and an ending if required.
You can even choose the number of choruses (how many times through the arrangement) with a single click. BIAB has an impressive algorithm library that then creates the individual band parts for the arrangement.
Along with hundreds of genres to choose from for your track, the latest version of BIAB has the option of a bunch of “real tracks”. These use actual samples of real players to build up your songs.
And we’re talking great players here.
The samples used in the latest BIAB include bass lines from Ron Carter, piano parts from Kenny Barron and drum tracks from Lewis Nash. There are even saxophone samples recorded by Eric Alexander and Phil Woods! The result is amazing, realistic sounding tracks that you can create in less than a minute.
Depending on the bundle you purchase, there are up to 33 jazz and swing styles, 32 country styles and 36 rock and pop real styles to choose from.
The standard styles use midi sounds but the end result is still very, very good. PG Music have cleverly built algorithms for styles ranging from dixieland to dubstep meaning you get band parts that are generated for your specific arrangement in the chosen style. Amazing.
Although you can very quickly create a whole backing track with BIAB, one of the things I found myself using it for was working on individual sections of a song. It’s so quick to enter a chord progression and then loop that for as many times as needed in a practice session.
Using the Real Tracks for this means that you get an amazing sounding track too that will change and build for each chorus automatically – just like a real band.
This latest version of BIAB also has an audio track feature. This means you can actually record an audio track directly into BIAB along with your track. Of course this means creating super quick demos of tunes is dead easy, but you can also use it to record a harmony part or guide track to practice with.
There is also a ‘Practice Mode’ which you can set to change key for each chorus. Really helpful.
More under the hood
Although it’s really, really quick to create great sounding tracks, BIAB isn’t short of more advanced options if you want to dig a little deeper. Although some are easier to find than others, you have a lot of control over the way your chords are played and the structure of the arrangement. Using the “push” or “hold” features for chords, plus an extensive library of chord extensions, you can create complex arrangements.
Another great feature is the ‘Drop / DAW Plug-in Mode’ feature. This lets your simply drag your whole arrangement into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) program like Logic Pro. It’s so easy to use and each track transfers as an audio track.
This is a great way to quickly create a groove or basic arrangement (using BIAB) and then quickly transfer it to your DAW where you do more advanced editing. I’ve found this so useful when making up more complicated blues, jazz or big band type tracks where I’ve added a whole horn section to a BIAB arrangement. It’s the best of both worlds.
Charts and tabs
It is also possible to work with BIAB in a score view and, although I found it quite complicated to work use, you can produce printed arrangements directly from the program.
If you are used to a purpose built notation package like Siblius or Finale then you will find the BIAB scoring quite primitive, but it does let you quickly print out a chart from your BIAB arrangement which is very useful. And important if you’re using BIAB to sketch out a new arrangement or song idea to try at your next rehearsal.
You can purchase BIAB for Mac in a few different bundles either on disc or preloaded onto a hard drive. These start with the more basic (but confusingly named) Pro pack for $129 USD, and goes up to the ‘Audiophile Edition’ with every possible track included for $669. Going for one of the more expensive packages that comes preloaded on the hard drive is great if you work on multiple computers – you can take it with you.
I’ve been using the ‘UltraPlusPak’ which comes on a drive and is priced at $469. I have to say the range of tracks and samples included is incredible with thousands of samples, real tracks and midi styles.
After using this new package for the last few weeks I have struggled to find negatives. I’m a big fan of the ‘real tracks’ feature and found myself using them for every track I made. It can be a little frustrating sometimes to get an arrangement to sound exactly as you would like if you are building up a complex track. But to be honest, I just had to remind myself to work within the bounds of the samples as you would have to do with any other ‘sample based’ music writing.
Also, I found the scoring function to be a bit clunky, particularly after years of using Sibelius and even Logic Pro to produce my charts, although again, this feature in BIAB is really just meant for lead sheets and quick charts.
One final thing is that, although the interface has improved over the years, I still find it quite confusing to navigate with so many options presented on the main working screen. Some of the more advanced editing options can be hard to find. There is however an excellent support service via the PGMusic website who quickly answered all of my questions. And, there is a large and active community of users online where you can get help and share ideas.
Overall though, I was so impressed with how quick and easy it was to produce great sounding tracks. Once I had my head around the program’s layout, I found myself using it nearly every session and it is now my go-to tool for quickly sketching out song ideas.
Looking purely from a saxophone players point of view, I think Band in a Box 2015 for Mac is an amazing tool that is not only a great tool for practice, but an inspirational tool for building your own backing tracks and writing your own music. Even if you’ve put off getting a computer based system to record and write with till now, take a look at Band in a Box. I think you’ll like it too!
Band in a Box 2015 for Mac costs from $129 / £85
PG Music: www.pgmusic.com