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Software Review: Band-in-a-Box

Software Review: Band-in-a-Box

Is your band on the run? Did the band you're in start playing different tunes? Or maybe the band played "Waltzing Matilda," but you can't stand Australian folk music, so you quit the band. Perhaps you're just between band practices. The point is, you're all alone, you're feeling antsy, you gotta get your rock on. Well, have we got the perfect solution for you! For just $19.95, plus shipping and handling, we'll send you...

Well, nothing, actually. But here's a review of a nifty piece of software called Band-in-a-Box (bonus steak knives not included). This application is a handy tool for a variety of musical needs. Whether you're trying to become a rock guitar god(-dess), hone you're pop songwriting skills, or you're simply interested in exploring the differences between "Celtic 2-beat bounce" and "ska-funk" rhythms, Band-in-a-Box is here to help.

So, yes, it's a versatile program. It's also easy to use. Until recently, I, myself, was a Band-in-a-Box virgin. The layout is so user-friendly that the clear and simple graphics appear cheesy and dated. To fall in love with Band-in-a-Box, you have to check your hipster pride at the desktop and embrace the fact that you're interfacing with the software equivalent of those beginner-level Casio keyboards sold at grocery stores. Or, such will be your first impression. For, like the Casio (or the Lowrey home organ that preceded it), Band-in-a-Box's primary function is to provide you with preset rhythm tracks as accompaniment for your own performance. Within a few minutes of exploration, I'd found a simple song pattern and got it playing. While this pattern ran, I plucked out a lead on my guitar, which I'd plugged directly into my mid-grade USB audio/MIDI interface (a Tascam US-122). Donning headphones, this setup allowed me to hear both the program and my guitar at the same time, and without driving my wife crazy with my hackneyed computer blues.

While this is a cool feature by itself, the Casio/home organ comparison sells Band-in-a-Box short. The program is also an excellent composition tool. If you write all your songs in the same manner –– by strumming on your acoustic at home or jamming out ideas with bandmates –– then you will likely fall into a rut. Granted, this so-called "rut" is probably how you've carved out your signature style. Nonetheless, it's good to occasionally mix up the process by writing in a new way, and Band-in-a-Box is perfect for this.

Assembling a multi-instrumental backing track is simple. Click the "Style" button, and you'll find a menu with dozens of available genres, from pop to techno. When you select one those, you'll get another menu with even more choices, such as "Slow Top-40 style," "Swing 16ths bluegrass," or "GrimeUK." Next, start entering chords into the Chord Sheet area. This section is like the most rudimentary of MIDI maps. Simply input the name of a chord (like, G, Am, or Bb7b9), and that chord will play until it comes to the next entry in the Chord Sheet. You can easily copy chord patterns (e.g., a sixteen-measure verse/chorus sequence) and quickly assemble a song. Alternately, you can steer clear of repetition by continually changing tempos, styles, and instrumental arrangements, from measure to measure or even beat to beat.

Band-in-a-Box works with an external MIDI keyboard, too. And you can also tie it to a digital audio workstation (DAW) program, like GarageBand. Then again, Band-in-a-Box's basic sounds* are as retro-cheesy as its overall appearance, so it's not too likely you'd want to use the app's audio output for a recording project. (*The quality of the "Real Tracks" audio on the 2011 version is apparently far superior, but I'm too cheap to buy the upgrade.) However, Band-in-a-Box can help you expand your songwriting repertoire, improve your soloing, and provide you with fresh insights into how music is structured. It may seem counter-intuitive, but Band-in-a-Box will help you think outside the box.

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