PG Music Band-in-a-Box by Sound-Guy
Band-in-a-Box 2019 Windows Version
Band-in-a-Box includes thousands of styles, songs and sounds and can supply everything from inspiration to background accompaniments to complete musical productions.
BIAB is not a digital audio workstation, but like most DAWs it is a very complex program. It is easy to use its basic features, but there is tremendous depth, many functions and dozens of educational and practice tools that can keep you busy for at least months, and likely years.
What Does It Do?
According to PG Music, the creators of BIAB, “Band In A Box is an intelligent automatic accompaniment program... and a powerful and creative music composition tool for exploring and developing musical ideas with near-instantaneous feedback.” BIAB can complete an arrangement in seconds based on a musical style and key signature, or a chord progression you have specified, then play it with a ‘band’ of up to seven musicians who “live” in your computer. And with the newest 2019 version, even more than seven musicians can play at once.
I first used BIAB in 1990 when it was bundled with a sound card I bought (no idea which one that was!), and while it was fascinating, it could generate only very simple, “jingly” tunes similar to what a toy Casio keyboard demo sounded like. Over the years they added more comprehensive musical styles, more arrangement rules and moved beyond generating only MIDI data when audio was added with RealDrums in 2007, and instrument performances with RealTracks in 2008. These are not just sample sounds, but musical passages, 1 to 8 bars long, played by session players from Nashville and elsewhere. And these “session players” don’t just play fixed riffs, but will play according to the style, key and chord progression that you have specified. If you have the chops, you can even create your own RealTracks (called UserTracks) and RealDrums. If you haven’t tried BIAB, or only heard what it could do years ago, you may be surprised.
Over the years I’ve used BIAB to create music beds for later adding both instrumental parts and vocals. And with its “session musicians” it can create some pretty convincing productions. However, it’s not just a “select style and press go” tool. You can do this, and sometimes obtain something useful, but I’ve found that using more of its advanced features to “guide” a composition the way I want it to evolve can produce really excellent results. You can specify as little as just the key and musical genre or as much as a complete chord progression and melody. I've obtained some of my best results by supplying my own chords, and trying compositions in various styles. And you can specify style/sub-style changes within a song, set instruments to play or rest at a given bar, completely change instruments at any bar, change tempo within a song, change time signature, and control many other musical nuances.
BIAB also provides musical education with a number of tools such as play-along features to help improve sight reading, guitar practice, ear training, jazz and chord exercises, and examples including over 1,000 piano/guitar master solos and riffs.
If you are a guitarist, and want to practice or compose your own songs, BIAB can provide drums, bass, and other instrument accompaniments to play (and record) along with. And if you are not an experienced guitarist, functions like the fretboard display and practice tools like woodshedding can help you learn your instrument. Woodshedding enables selecting a start tempo, a change per loop, and an ending tempo to help learn a part by starting slowly, then playing faster and faster.
The fretboard displays accurate fingering with strumming and picking styles using correct guitar voicings. And it has a function to generate guitar chord solos based on single/monophonic notes in the Melody or Soloist track that both display and play the correct guitar fret positions. And you can switch a performance to alternate guitar tunings - 11 tunings are included including DADGAD, open G, drop D, double-drop D, and others. I am not a guitarist, but over the years have learned a lot about guitar voicings and playing styles from this program.
If you are a keyboardist, you can use BIAB to create realistic guitar parts in your compositions, as well as bass, drum and other background instruments. And you can record your keyboard performances along with the backing instruments. There are tools to expand your keyboard (and guitar) performances too. The Embellisher can add realistic performance nuances such as changing the timing of notes to add syncopation, changing duration to achieve staccato or legato playing, adding grace notes, slurs, extra notes, vibrato and other effects. Truly amazing stuff that I’ve used at times to “spiff up” my MIDI keyboard recordings!
The Notation view shows notes for all MIDI tracks and for many RealTracks (those containing RealCharts), and can show drum notation, enabling viewing, editing and printing lead sheets. You can even add lyrics that sync with your music, display them while BIAB is playing, and print them.
There are far too many functions to describe here (the PDF user manual is over 600 pages!), but a few unique tools include the Audio Chord Wizard that automatically determines chords from MP3 files, the Reharmonist that can generate a chord progression using only a melody, and the Melodist that can compose and perform a new song in the style you specify, complete with an intro, chord progression, melody, arrangement, etc. I have used all these tools and they work well, although the more experience you have with them, the better the results you can get. It’s like playing an instrument - practice makes better!
There is also a Soloist function that can generate both RealTracks and MIDI soloist parts that match the style, key and chords you specify. I’ve found this function to be one of my most used tools - I often have BIAB generate multiple solo versions and find different sections from different “takes” often fit together better than a single “take”. The Vocal Wizard can help determine the best key to use for a song based on a vocalist’s pitch range, there is an automatic Sound track generator that composes “sound track” style music, and even an automated Song Title Generator that, yes, creates fun titles!
Over the years I’ve used all these features at times, and there are many other functions such as Auto Piano hand-splitting, a Rhythm Guitar Chord Tutor, Chord “Breaks” function for practicing tempo control, an iPhone app to remotely control BIAB, Direct Input Guitars with AmpliTube® cab simulation, Live Looping and Playback control, a Playalong Wizard, Audio FX, a Jukebox, a Karaoke mode, a basic CD burner, and a guitar/bass tuner. And there is even more, but I better mention what’s new in the 2019 version before I run out of time!
If you are already familiar with BIAB, 2019 brings, as always each annual version does, new features and some redesigned functions. As always, the Windows version comes out right before the new year, and the 2019 version still runs on XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1, and 10 (32 or 64-bit) systems. I’m describing the Windows version here; the Mac version always follows several months later and has a somewhat different feature set, so I won’t make any other comments on that version since I’ve never used it.
For starters there is now a true 64 bit version, something people have been requesting for awhile. You get both 32 and 64 bit versions, and they both can be installed and live happily beside each other. Both version use the same sound data sets (which are the big files, over 100 GB). As I’ve found testing other 64 bit programs against their 32 bit versions, the extra bits don’t get you much in terms of performance - I usually find 10% to maybe 20% improvement at best, and I measured 15% faster processing of Real Drums/Tracks using 64 bits. One advantage to 64 bits is being able to use 64 bit VST and VSTi plug-ins in the plug-in section of BIAB, which is a very handy feature. You are not limited to only the sound modules provided, but can use whatever you have - I often use Pianoteq for piano and harpsichords, and several other synth/samplers for a variety of instruments.
Another advantage of 64 bits is the new BIAB VSTi plug-in that will work in a 64 bit DAW (there is also a 32 bit VSTi for those still using 32 bit DAWs). Although there is already a “DAW mode” in the desktop version that enables drag ‘n dropping tracks into your DAW, the VSTi plug-in provides a convenient way to do this working in your DAW, and also provides something unique that BIAB desktop doesn’t have - up to 21 BIAB generated tracks. In addition there is a new feature, Multi Riff, which is also only in the plug-in, and I’ve already found this a great time-saver since, as I mentioned earlier, I like to create multiple takes of solos. Up to now this required me to manually generate, and save each Soloist part. But Multi Riff automatically creates seven takes available right in the new VSTi plug-in. Of course, it doesn’t happen instantly since each take needs to be generated, but it’s much faster than the manual way I’ve used for years, and of course far faster than recording the takes yourself in real-time! This VSTi module is already useful, but I can think of several improvements that would make it even better - and PG Music is constantly adding (and fixing the occasional bug), so I hope to see this module expand its features over time.
Other improvements include the Event Editor (a list-type editor) is now able to show/edit any track, not just the Melody, Soloist and Lyrics as previous versions. This is a very nice addition. Real Tracks can now play more than one instrumental performance - you can specify a medley of instruments to play either simultaneously or sequentially (there have been other ways to play sequential medleys for years, but now you can create ensembles such as horn sections using multiple styles concurrently). While there are still only seven total tracks in the desktop version (nine if you include the Thru tack and Audio track), each Real Track can play up to ten parts, and levels can be adjusted for each part (not pans yet, but PG Music is always adding features, so we will likely have that in the future).
The StylePicker and SongPicker have been redesigned with more ways to find/sort styles and songs. I have over 5,600 styles in my BIAB system, and over 11,000 BIAB songs, so being able to find a particular style or song can be tedious without these functions. Note that BIAB songs are not commercial pop, rock, jazz tunes, but are songs created by PG Music to demonstrate the various styles available. However, there is also a database of over 10,000 commercial songs listed by title, artist, genre, etc. that is both instructive and very useful. The Song Titles browser can search this database using any combination of filters, by artist, by tempo, by key, etc. Note this database does not include the actual chords or melody since that would involve copyright licensing and would cost a fortune. It has only the musical specifications - BUT it does not leave you with just the information. Click the Find Matching Styles button and it instantly lists BIAB styles that fit the song, sorted with “best fit” at the top of the list. Choose one, and exit to the main BIAB window, and you are ready to create a song that fits the tempo, key, time signature, genre, and even the musical period (the decade the original song was written) of the song you specified! If you want to actually use the original chord progression and melody, you’ll need to find/buy the sheet music, but it’s educational is to experiment with your own chord progressions - or let BIAB generate progressions that match the selected song style. One thing I’ve found very enlightening is mixing genres - a bluegrass fiddle playing along with a blues band, for example. Or mixing instruments playing in swing style with backing instruments playing an even style often works. Even a soloist playing in 3/4 time with the backing in 4/4 time. Sometimes the results are surprisingly good.
There is a new 64-bit GM MIDI synth VSTi so you’re set to immediately create songs using MIDI (and it can use huge sound files if needed), and a new version of the Plogue Sforzando sound player is also included. There is an updated élastique engine that enables better audio/time stretching, and an updated Audio Harmony engine. The Melodist can now use RealStyles as well as MIDI styles, and there are notation enhancements for instruments and drums. And there is a lot more. In fact some users have complained that there is too much! I’ve found out over the years that I use about a dozen functions 95-plus percent of the time, and occasionally find something new and useful to add to my musical repertoire (like the VSTi plug-in this year). You don’t need to use it all at once!
Band in a Box has evolved into an expansive musical tool-set, able to aid both novice and experienced musicians to produce not only new compositions and arrangements, but also perform them with excellent musical “talent”. It’s easy to use the basic functions, and challenging enough to keep you occupied for years. An amazing program. Check some examples I made (Attached Files box below) using only BIAB - note I used its reverb (a rather basic one) on some tracks, and panned some instruments in the BIAB mixer, but these are not finished mixes, just some sketches I made using various styles. I did export each of these examples to my DAW and combined them there to create the "medley" attached.
Extremely comprehensive set of functions, but easy to use right out of the box.
Now in 64 bit as well as 32 versions - both are supplied.
New VSTi plug-in is useful, adds a couple features not in the full desktop version (but also has limited features, overall, compared to the main version) 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 fairly inexpensive to try, 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!
The new VSTi plug-in while an excellent addition, could use some more features like the ability to easily erase parts and rerun track and riff generation using different instruments/styles. I expect this module to “grow” in features over time.
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!).
The user manual (PDF) is large and not as concise as it could be, with many features described more than once. It would be great to see a fully rewritten manual sometime.
PG Music - Band-in-a-Box for Windows
PG Music - Band-in-a-Box for Windows - New Features