I have dabbled with guitar for several years, off and on, and the one thing that keeps bringing me back and has sustained my interest was and is Band-in-a-Box (BIAB). Never a band-mate (minus six months as a bass player in a basement band, age 14), if it were not for having my own band at my disposal, playing what I want to play, I would not keep up with the guitar or any instrument. Introduced to me by a neighbor when I was 25 (now age 55), BIAB was nothing more than a DOS program for Windows with MIDI-only capabilities. Today, BIAB is akin to comparing a Model-T Ford with a Ferrari – both work, both do the job of transportation, but the engineering and ride in one cannot be compared to the other (sorry Model-T fans).
The massive number of functions in BIAB is nothing short of bewildering and, concurrently, inspiring. I certainly do not use all the capabilities, but this is a short run-down of how I use the program as both an improvising noodler and a composer. First, I may have an idea for a riff or concept and know the genre of music, bpm, etc., and I will choose a ‘style’ within BIAB (most often with real tracks/instruments, as opposed to MIDI-based instruments, although there are some cool MIDI styles). For example, if my composition idea is Hard Rock, then obviously I would choose that genre (or possibly moderate rock or metal), as opposed to jazz or country. From there I will narrow my choice to a handful that have the right feel (e.g., 4/4 or swing), etc. Other times, I may not know what I want to compose and merely pick an appropriate beat (e.g., 120 bpm), etc., and jam to nothing but a drum beat until a decent riff comes to light. A third option is most fun of all, whereby I’ll choose a music style and load its demo, which provides all the chords and a full band. This third option certainly gets you out of your comfort zone, as you can select a style of music you typically may not play or compose to (e.g., bossa nova, country ballad, classic funk or reggae), and the chords within that genre are supplied to you. The only thing left is the development of a melody or some chord comping.
Once a structure of some sort is created or loaded, there are several other options that I typically use. I may want a similar or slightly different style (and there often are plenty from which to choose), which can be applied to the entire composition or only part of it (you can change various elements at any point, including bpm and music style). I may want a different instrument for one track, or a different style of the instrument, e.g., a different rock, jazz or country voicing, or perhaps even a sax or piano soloist to play over a few bars while my guitar soloing focuses more on chord changes or riffing. Now, although BIAB does offer the ability to record your own tracks, I often export those tracks in wav format (mp3 and other formats available) to my DAW, whereby I add finishing touches, do mixing, etc. Again, BIAB offers this, as does its RealBand sister program, which comes with BIAB, but I’m accustomed to working in a different DAW, and so that is what I do. Sometimes, I also use the Chord Wizard, which helps in finding the right chord, based merely on knowing the root, e.g., C#, etc. That really comes in handy when wanting to develop a composition that extends beyond the usual chord changes. And often I play around with the Mixer, adjusting my levels, adding plug-ins, etc. I also, sometimes, use the transpose function, which transposes all the chords to a different key (although you can select a different key and keep all the chords). This comes in handy if I want to merge similar styles and chord progression demos (since each style has a sample demo that could be in a different key).
And so, what does BIAB offer that I typically don’t use (yet)? That could fill several pages, but consider these features. You can use BIAB as a learning tool, with access to written music, tablature and chord charts. There also are several learning tools and videos on various disciplines (e.g., jazz), as well as guitar fretboard and piano keyboard visual tools. One such tool is the Chord Soloist, which enables you to generate a comping solo in various styles, and then you can learn it via tab and/or fretboard finger placement. Other practice sections include ear and pitch training, and developing timing with an increasing tempo. You can add a harmony, melody and/or soloist to the music. You then can export any or all that information (along with the chord progression) to other musicians. The Audio Chord Wizard allows you to import a song from any CD and it will analyze it and provide the chord progression – a fantastic tool for learning new songs and then for playing along. And those are just some of the additional uses or features from a program that is the best backing-track developer, music composition tool and even production tool (the quality is high enough that you can do your mixing and burn to CD from this one program).
So far, I’ve outlined why I love BIAB and why I use it regularly, but there are a number of features new to the 2021 version of both BIAB and RealBand that make this edition so good. First, what continues to draw me to BIAB upgrades are the new styles. I tend to compose primarily in the rock, hard rock and metal genres, but also regularly compose in the areas of prog rock, new age, and even blues, country and jazz. With over 3,000 styles from which to choose, the 2021 BIAB comes with 202 new tracks or styles (51 jazz, blues, funk and Latin; 80 rock, pop and world; and 71 country, Americana and Celtic), which is exciting for someone like myself who loves variety in composition. There are 16 editable Utility Tracks that allow you to add MIDI or audio for editing, recording, etc. There is an ‘auto-fix sour notes’ function, which I think is a long time coming, since sometimes a strange note pops up with certain jazz chords (most particularly) that you can remove. The Mixer has improved, as you now can show/hide select tracks, you can embed the mixer in different ways on the screen, and there is direct access to the Plug-ins, which I very much like. The mix/solo states now can be saved with each song, which saves time (and annoyance) in having to reset the elements every time you open a song, and you now can view audio (as well as copy regions of audio to a utility track) from any track. Other features include the ability to copy and paste (as text) chords, Hi-Q Tempo Stretching for playback and rendering, generating audio harmonies into individual tracks, and the inclusion of a RealChart for RealDrums (with accurate drum notation and MIDI triggering capabilities). The BIAB DAW Plug-in has been around for a short while, but this new version offers enhanced audio rendering, displaying of two chord types, changing of audio output channels, the ability to import MIDI markers, and more. As good as all this is, the audio quality has improved, with 24-bit audio playback, recording, mixing and rendering, but also 4X faster audio DSP processing (using SIMD) for smoother playback and faster rendering (very noticeable when working with a higher number of tracks and longer compositions).
But there’s also RealBand 2021, which I seriously need to take a look at (I had issues in the past due to a low-quality interface). RealBand is an audio workstation that combines BIAB with some of the more popular features from PowerTracks (a pro audio DAW, also from PG Music), used for arranging, sequencing and digital recording. Its new features are several, including 64-bit support, as well as the same 4X faster audio processing as BIAB. There’s also improved Plug-in listing and access, drum notation, a StylePicker ‘feel filter’ (e.g., narrow your choices to even 8ths, swing 16ths, etc.), the ability to transpose at a click of a button, improved Time Signature options, and more.
Wow, this version is definitely worth the upgrade or outright purchase and the quality of sound alone will make you a believer! The demo with this review plays some new 2021 styles, with some soloing over top by myself, and addresses how I use the program and some of the new features. However, for a broader look and explanation of the features, check out PG Music’s overview: