PG Music Band-in-a-Box by Sound-Guy
Band-in-a-Box 2020 by PG Music
As each year for decades, PG Music have updated Band-in-a-Box for the new year (yes, I know, the year is more than half over, but I’ve been swamped!). As noted in the 2019 BIAB review, BIAB is a very complex program, and as every year before, they have added more features and functions, as well as new sound and performance content. But they have also added some effective “helper tools” that make BIAB easier to use, both for new and experienced users. And they have extended integration with DAWs so that the user can do more composition, arranging and performances in the DAW of their choice. Since BIAB 2019 was reviewed in Gearslutz last year (see below), I’ll refer you to that article for the details on what it is and what it does, and just describe some of the new features. As explained before, BIAB is easy to use if you stick to its its basic features, but there is a vast feature set, now even larger than last year’s release. One could spend months really coming to grips with it and enjoy creating new compositions, new arrangements, even new musical styles, for years to come.
2020 Content & Features
As always there are new Songs, new Styles and new RealTracks. Thousands of new Songs, 400 new styles and up to 240 new RealTracks are available depending on the BIAB version you use. And as before, you can edit styles and even create your own from ‘scratch’ if you are feeling very creative. BIAB offers far more than “canned” musical creations.
One new feature that really stands out in my mind isn’t even a composition/arrangement function – the new Feature Browser is a helper tool that even long-term BIAB users will appreciate. Even after using it for thirty years (!) there are times when I think of a function I want to use, but don’t recall exactly how to access it. The Feature Browser provides a catalog of functions using a text search and provides descriptions of the feature, how to access it, and in some cases can directly launch it. If your system is online, it provides access to even more detailed information and videos.
Another expanded feature is MultiRiffs, which in 2019 was available only in the BIAB DAW Plugin. While I found it a good feature there, I really missed the convenience in BIAB itself. It is very effective to try alternate improvisations which often result in some really impressive arrangements, but doing so manually is a bit tedious. MultiRiffs solves this by quickly generating seven variations of riffs using RealTracks for a portion of a song or the whole song. RealTracks, if you’ve forgotten, are actual audio performances of different instruments played by some pretty capable musicians (Brent Mason, Jeff Lorber, Alex Al, Sol Philcox, and Johnny Hiland to name a few). Yet they are not just static recordings – they will play riffs based on the style and chord progressions you use. Take a listen to my examples at the bottom of this review – all the instrument performance were created by BIAB as MIDI, RealTracks or RealDrums except the fiddle performance in the fourth song, the "Irish jig", which is an Artist Performance Track (courtesy of PG Music). And you can record your own audio and/or MIDI performance right in BIAB, or export MIDI and/or audio to you DAW to add, process and edit in any way you want.
Speaking of the DAW Plugin, it has been expanded significantly and can host up to 25 tracks (8 style tracks, 1 audio track, 9 special tracks, and 7 multi-riff tracks), supports replacing style tracks like you can do in Band-in-a-Box, provides the ability to generate an accompaniment harmony for an audio track in the Plugin, supports alternate chord chart displays such as Roman Numeral, Nashville Notation, Solfege, and Fixed “DO, and has dozens of other enhancements. I’ve preferred using the main BIAB program for years because of its full range of functions, but the DAW Plugin is looking like a tool I will be using more.
Another improvement I found useful is generating intros automatically using Bass/Drums or Drums only. Up to now I often manually muted instruments in an intro, so this streamlines the intro creation process. And the new RealTracks Thickening feature is impressive – it can increase the number of ‘voices’ on a track in a fairly realistic manner, not just duplicating and detuning the original. I generated a choir of 50 voices using a few gospel vocals and it sounded immense. It also works for horns and other instruments that often perform as an ensemble.
The Song Titles Browser has 3,400 new titles this year, for a total of 14,000 (!) – this function is golden for finding styles that match songs from a range of genres. This is found in the StylePicker menu rather than the SongPicker window since it does not recreate the actual melodies (which would lead to lots of copyright problems!) but provides styles that fit the chosen song so you can create original music that has the same feel. And you can not only find songs by title, but also by band, artist, and by decade.
The SongPicker has been redesigned and can now host 60,000 songs. It includes demo songs that use the available styles, and includes chord progressions and in some cases, melody tracks (about 25% of the songs). There are thousands of songs, from a few thousand in the basic “Pro” version to many thousands in the larger versions – my system currently has 15,126 songs, so I have room for 44,874 more. Probably more than I’ll ever need!
BIAB has always included educational features and this year added more RealCharts (accurate Drum Notation for RealDrum tracks) so drummers can print out charts to help get a groove. They have also added “Left-Handed” and “Student View” guitar fret views to help guitarists learn fingering. And they still have practice and learning tools such as woodshedding, ear training, and even some musical games.
There is also an expanded RealTracks and RealDrums Artist Browser feature that provides information, bios, and links for all the artists who perform on RealTracks/Drums, which can be very useful if you want to hear more of their work or learn about their careers. And speaking of RealTracks, last year they added the ability for a single RealTrack to play up to ten parts, and this year they added panning for those parts.
One issue I had with the user manual in the 2019 version (and earlier versions) is that it had grown over the years with additions and redundancy which sometimes made it difficult to follow. The 2020 manual (PDF) is still large (607 pages) but has been ‘cleaned up’. I compared the 2020 version with the 2019 version, page by page through the middle chapters (!) and found some excellent editing has been applied to improve the organization, remove some redundancy, and add descriptions of all the new features while reducing the overall length.
The first two chapters cover installation, MIDI/audio set-up, and provide a quick-start guide for new users. Chapter 3 describes the new 2020 features which starts with a short list and moves on to 19 pages of detailed descriptions with screen-shots for all the new features. I found this very informative. Chapter 4 shows all the main screens of BIAB, the tools and functions of sub-screens. The manual proceeds with ten chapters that cover playing songs, creating songs, working with RealTracks and RealDrums sounds, creating UserTracks, viewing and printing notation, BIAB automated functions, MIDI and audio techniques, educational features (like woodshedding and ear training), then other tools and utilities. Chapter 15 covers more advanced topics (user programmable functions including designing StyleMakers, converting MIDI to styles, creating RealDrums, creating your own harmony, soloist and melodist functions, and a guitarist playing style maker). Finally there is a 72 page reference chapter and a couple appendices on MIDI SuperTracks and RealTracks (over 350 of them!).
PG Music have done a good job providing everyone from the first-time user to the expert user a very good reference manual which, along with the new Feature Browser, enables easier navigation of its vast set of features.
Band in a Box continues to evolve as an expansive musical tool-set for both novice and experienced musicians to produce not only new compositions and arrangements, but also perform them with excellent musical “talent”. It also provides educational and training tools for keyboardists and guitarists. It’s easy to use the basic functions, and challenging enough to keep you occupied for years. BIAB provides education, inspiration, a “live” band to aid in practicing, and anything from backing tracks to full performances for recording.
Extremely comprehensive set of functions, but easy to use the basic features right out of the box.
BIAB is supported in 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows® 7, 8, or 10, as well as 32 bit versions of Windows® XP and VISTA! XP and VISTA!!!
The VSTi plug-in has been enhanced with more added functions and works fine in my tests with both REAPER and Studio One.
Includes many useful educational features.
Will aid (and challenge!) anyone from a novice musician to a seasoned composer.
The basic “Pro” version at $129 is a reasonable price for such an extensive program – and includes all the features and functions that the more expensive versions have, just not as many styles and sounds. More styles and sounds can always be purchased later.
Extremely comprehensive set of functions that may confuse new users if they try to understand it all at once!
There is no free demo version of BIAB, but you have 30 days to evaluate the program, and if it doesn’t work for you, PG Music will refund your money (and they are nice honest Canadians!).