PG Music Band in a Box 2021 by Sound-Guy
Band-in-a-Box 2021 by PG Music
As each year for decades, PG Music have updated the Windows version of Band-in-a-Box for the new year, usually releasing it in the fall of the preceding year. BIAB 2021 is a very complex program with many new features and functions making it even more complex than ever, but the user manual continues to improve helping both new and experienced users to navigate all the features. And as always they have added new sound and performance content. However, 2021 brings one feature I’ve been wanting to see for decades, the ability to “re-generate” a section of a song, from just a fraction of a bar to as many bars as you want. And the way they implemented this is much different than I had envisioned.
In order to maintain backwards compatibility with projects from earlier years (many BIAB users have hundreds if not thousands of these, many “in progress”) they have not changed the basic layout of the primary “intelligent” tracks, tracks that can compose and arrange parts based on a selected musical style and chord progression. There are still the basic Bass, Drums, Piano, Guitar, Strings, Melody, Soloist and Audio tracks (although not necessarily named as such or needing to play those instruments) and they can still load previous projects and generate parts as BIAB has done for decades, but now in addition to these there are 16 Utility tracks with some extremely useful functions.
At the simplest, you can copy any track to a Utility track, either MIDI or audio or both at the same time if they are RealTracks with RealCharts. This is handy if you have a track part you like and want to keep, but want to experiment with variations. Utility tracks do not generate a new version when the main Re-Generate button is pressed, so they can preserve any data stored on them. You can also record directly to a Utility track or load an external file (MIDI or audio) to them. So in addition to the legacy single audio track (still there for compatibility with old projects), you now have 16 additional, very flexible tracks.
With audio, once a Utility track has a part loaded, you can edit the track in various ways – while not as extensively as with a DAW, still very usefully. You can copy, cut and paste any time section from one Utility track to another or to a different location in the same track. And when you cut/copy an audio region and paste it elsewhere, the beginning and ending of the regions cross-fade to make a smooth transition which I found to work very well. There are other functions for Utility tracks accessed by an Edit command in the Audio Edit window: you can change levels and fade audio in or out, you can create harmonies from any track with audio and spread them to several Utility tracks, and there is an “auto-tune” function that can fix out of tune notes even in polyphonic audio (this also works on the legacy Audio track). A very useful feature is that you can place a time mark (a vertical line) anywhere in the Audio Edit window and pressing your keyboard space bar will start to play there, pressing it again will stop play and return to the time marker, which I found very helpful for “micro-editing” audio. This is a more precise way of selecting a section of a song to work on than using the main Chord Sheet.
But the most useful function for me is that you can Re-Generate audio on a Utility track on its own, using any style and any RealTracks instrument performance. And even more useful, you can do this for any portion of the song, from a few notes to multiple measures. When I started to play with this I found I was able to hone in on a final rrangement/performance, all in BIAB, much faster that the approach I’ve used for years, exporting files to a DAW, regenerating tracks multiple times and exporting each variation to the DAW to be assembled there. With the new Utility tracks I could change a few bars, listen to it, undo back to the previous version, redo the change, and even change the selection until I had what I wanted. I could copy the part to another Utility track for safe-keeping and continue working on the same bars or different ones.
And for MIDI, you can record MIDI or import a MIDI file to a Utility track for playback, Notation display, or editing using the Notation view or Piano Roll window. And you can copy the MIDI data from a RealTracks with RealCharts track to a Utility track, edit it as desired, and use it to play an instrument plugin, either on the Utility track or copy it to a normal track. I found this a great help with drum parts, when the RealDrum tones weren’t exactly what I wanted and I could use a VSTi drum program like BFD with which I could change instruments, change tuning, damping and other parameters. It’s true that extracting MIDI from “Real” tracks has been possible in previous versions, but without the Utility tracks it’s more tedious and less flexible. If I had to choose only one new 2021 feature, Utility tracks would be it!
But there is More
The Copy/Move Track Feature has been enhanced. This works on any tracks, not just the Utility tracks, and now let’s you copy or move audio data in addition to MIDI from one track to another. And you can now filter out various types of events when you copy or move MIDI. While you can copy data from any track to any other track, there are some practical limitations with RealTracks – you can copy them to Utility tracks for editing, but if you copy a Utility track to a RealTrack, only the MIDI data will be copied, which accomplishes nothing useful since RealTracks are audio performances of different instruments (played by some pretty capable musicians such as Brent Mason, Jeff Lorber, Alex Al, Sol Philcox, and Johnny Hiland to name a few). Since they are not single note recordings but complete riffs, up to eight measures long, they do not respond to MIDI data. However, you can copy their MIDI data to a MIDI track or Utility to play it with a virtual instrument, so there are a lot of possibilities.
Another very useful feature is you can view audio wave-forms on any track with audio – RealTracks, UserTracks, and Loops not just the Audio track. And speaking of audio, you are no longer limited to 16-bit audio – 24-bit audio playback, recording, mixing, and rendering is now supported. And if your system supports it, 32-bit audio can be used, though I find that overkill. The dynamic range that can be represented by 32-bit audio data is 1,528 dB! This is greater than the difference between the silence in an anechoic chamber and a nuclear bomb blast! There are good reasons to record using 32-bit audio (which uses floating point math), but I won’t go into that here. You can look it up.
The Mixer has been improved with new customizable display options including, sizing and placement, an embedded window mode, track selection to display, and automatic show/hide during playback. The level, pan, and tone controls can now affect VSTi plugins as well as MIDI sample players, a welcome feature. And speaking of plugins, plugin control has been expanded and improved in other ways with direct access from the Mixer, the ability to view multiple plugin GUIs at once, and WAVES plugin support for those who wish it. One oddly missing capability is the use of VST3 plugins, especially considering that the BIAB DAW plugin (see below) is itself now VST3! I’m sure we’ll see VST3 support before long. A minor feature I like in the mixer is you can set Volume and Panning to display as decibels instead of MIDI values. And speaking of the mixer, when generating separate audio files for each track, BIAB can ignore the Mixer settings of each track and use volume = 0 dB, pan = 0 (centered), Reverb = 0, Tone = 0 (neutral – negative values boost bass, positive values boost treble).
There are many other new features and many minor improvements which add up to more flexibility and in many cases, easier control. Some new/improved functions are an “auto-tuning” function, ability to send MIDI track outputs to another track, the expansion of RealCharts to all RealDrums (with accurate Drum Notation and MIDI to trigger drum sounds), an expanded auto-intro generator, and improved Audio Chord Wizard that can even analyze audio files that are out-of-tune, and several improvements in the Chord Sheet view.
The Feature Browser introduced in BIAB 2020 is still here with more topics covered and I still find it helpful after using BIAB for thirty years. It provides a catalog of functions using a text search and provides descriptions of the feature, how to access it, and in some cases directly launch it.
The Song Titles Browser in the StylePicker has 7,000 new titles for a total of 21,000 (!) to help find styles that match songs from a range of genres and decades. The StylePicker has hundreds to thousands of styles with the number depending on the version you use – over 900 in the basic version to over 7,000 at the high end. As always, any version of BIAB provides the same features and functions – the “entry level” version can do everything the top version can. The higher priced versions include more Styles and more RealTracks, so if you start off at the low end, you can always add more of these. Of course, buying them all at once is cheaper than adding sets of styles and RealTracks later.
And as in earlier versions BIAB also provides educational value 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.
The DAW plug-in, introduced a couple years ago, has been updated to version 3 with enhanced audio rendering (24-bit), support for displaying two chord types, and selectable audio output channels, among other additions. Although BIAB already has a “DAW mode” in the desktop version that enables drag ‘n dropping tracks into your DAW, the DAW plug-in provides an alternate way to access BIAB functions working directly in your DAW. I found the plug-in version 3 to be much more useful than the previous versions, although I find BIAB itself now has enough features itself to produce complete music productions without needing a DAW for the final editing.
Band in a Box continues to evolve into an expansive musical tool-set for both novice and experienced musicians. You can 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. As it has been for years, it’s an amazing program. See earlier reviews (PG Music Band-in-a-Box) for a lot more detail on all the features.
Extremely comprehensive set of functions, but easy to use right out of the box.
Both 64 bit and 32 versions are supplied. And BIAB is supported in 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows® 7, 8, or 10, as well as 32 bit versions of Windows® VISTA!
VSTi plug-in has been enhanced again with many added function, and works fine in my tests with both REAPER and Studio One.
Includes many useful educational features.
The user manual (PDF) is large (590 pages) and describes virtually every feature, and there are a lot of features! I’m happy to report the manual has been “cleaned up” over the past few years and is a lot easier to navigate, though there is still a lot of information to be absorbed.
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 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!).
BIAB 2021 is Windows only for now – Mac version, as always, will be out later in the year.