Band-In-A-Box Review

by John Kuzmich, Jr.



Jazz education in the '90's simply amazes me. Not only do we have creative high technology advances to enhance our teaching, but equally important, the pricing of both new hardware and software products is attractive and affordable for public school applications. "Band In-A-Box" is a perfect example of exciting, new MIDI software available for a variety of computers (Atari, Macintosh and IBM) at a price that is sure to get your attention. At $59.00, this product is simply awesome for creating music and electrifying instruction.

"Band-In-A-Box," version 3, is two dynamic programs in one. It creates original play-along accompaniments and also generates an extensive library of 60 popular tunes. In addition, there are two disks available with 500 more songs for $29.00 when purchased with the program. This impressive list of songs includes country, pop, jazz and standard tunes.

Running The Product

Running "Band-In-A-Box" is delightfully easy. It runs equally smooth on a floppy disk or a hard-disk drive. When I first received the product, I purposely did not read the manual. I simply ran the program and while I do not recommend this unorthodox procedure, I had easily finished a musical play-along accompaniment in five minutes to playback to my students. With the pull-down menu design, this product really is that simple to learn and use, and besides, the manual is only 23 pages long. For playback, the program requires a MIDI interface. The IBM version needs a Roland MPU-401 compatible MIDI interface as well as 640 K of RAM. To authentically reproduce bass, piano and drum parts, a multi-timbral sound module is suggested. The Roland MT-32 or MT-100 are particularly well suited for this program.

To begin, load the floppy disk and type "BB." When the opening screen appears, you hit any key to continue. If you want to select a pre-recorded tune, hit the F3 key and you will have a library of tunes to choose from. Hit the return key and the changes for the tune appear on the screen. Hit the F4 key and the tune is played out the MIDI interface to your synthesizer with piano, bass and drum parts. If you want to change the tempo or musical style, hit the "Tab" key and you will have a menu of options that will customize the playback of the tune, even for controlling the MIDI playback options. Imagine playing "Giant Steps" as a ballad, as a medium bossa nova, as a medium fast uptempo and as originally recorded at 300 beats per second. There are presently 24 musical styles to choose from: jazz swing, country 12/8 feel, country 4/4, bossa nova, ethnic, shuffle blues, straight blues, waltz, pop ballad, shuffle rock, light rock, medium back beat rock, heavy rock, miami sound, milly pop, funky/dance, jazz waltz, rhumba, cha cha, bouncy 12/8, Irish, pop ballad, and reggae. Tempos can be varied from 10 to 500 which greatly expands the capabilities of the Roland MPU 401.

To create your own tune, simply hit "Alt D" and the screen is cleared of any chord changes. You can enter the chords of your choice and the tab key will move you to the next 2 beats or next measure. To playback, hit the F4 key and the tune with parts will be instantly generated and played back. The program allows the user to type chords onto a leadsheet-type screen using standard chord symbols like Bb13 or Gb7b5. It will then automatically generate professionally sounding bass, drum and piano parts in the style chosen. Your tune can be saved to disk as a "Band-In-A-Box" chord file or as a standard MIDI file to be imported into a sequencer or composition program for later editing or printing.

The three most frequently used editing features are to delete, copying and inserting measures which can be easily accomplished with single stroke entries. I really like how the user has full control of looping the intro, the number of repeats and an optional tag ending. With any of these editing features, you are prompted from the screen to identify the selected measures that you wish to edit.

Perhaps one of the most appealing features of the program is the flexibility in controlling the playback. For example, you can adjust the tempo, the MIDI channels and even the octaves of the piano and bass parts up to two octaves higher or lower than the original settings. l used the program with a Roland MT-100 which is a multi-timbral sound module. By selecting patch number 65, adjusting the bass line two octaves lower and putting the piano part on MIDI channel 1 where I have a Roland electric piano connected, the composite playback sound was authentically amazing. The three parts sounded as if they were each coming out of separate speakers! It is also possible to select a variety of accompaniments so the bass, piano and drums differ on every chorus. Even drum fills are possible. You can make use of 29 different drum sounds so, and specify details for other drum machines so they don't have to be re-entered each time you use the program. I appreciated the palette of 128 timbres which the software automatically triggers from the MT-100 for playback power. Because the tunes are compressed when saved, it is possible to store up to 400 of your own songs per 360 K floppy or 20,000 songs on a 20 MB hard disk.

It is possible to program up to four different chords per measure. Tunes can be up to 255 measures in length. Believe it or not, a few of my jazz band arrangements required more than 255 measures, so this large capability is practical for educators.

Common Uses

Both of my high school jazz bands immediately benefitted from this program because I made a cassette of play-along accompaniments for each of the band's tunes for each student to practice with. Not only did my soloists benefit, but the entire band practiced their own parts with more vigor. The rhythm section quickly perceive the comping style that was appropriate for each chart. When recording each tune at several different tempos, my students were able to master the fastest tempos by first practicing the slower tempos. And, because it was so easy to do, I had ample volunteers from my band to enter chord progressions for me.

Recently, a brand new novice bass player joined my jazz band. I immediately recorded the play-along tunes so he could listen to bass comping styles. Knowing that his reading skills were weak, I transported the tunes into standard MIDI files and loaded them into my printing software program, "MusicPrinter Plus." By printing out the bass parts, he was soon able to read the bass lines as well as analyze the chord and non-chord tones in the construction of various bass line styles. The pace of learning was remarkable as he saw and heard the difference between jazz, latin and funk bass lines.

My advance students love the chance to play their improvisation solos in many different keys with Band-In-A Box accompaniments. Changing the tempo doesn't alter the pitch since the music is digitally constructed.

What The Product Doesn't Do: Future Visions

The product is constantly being updated. While you can create a tune up to 255 measures, the playback viewing is frozen to the first 64 measures even though the tune is played back in its entirety.

It would be nice if newly created tunes could be listed in alphabetized order within the standard library directory instead of being tucked at the end of the list in random order. Sometimes it is desirable to let the drum fills and especially drum solos sound alone but at this time, the piano and bass constantly play. It would be nice if the bass and piano parts could be turned off at specific measures so the drum fills could clearly kick in without sounding against the other parts. Presently, the bass and piano parts can only be turned off permanently by assigning them to MIDI channel 0. Also, I would like to see a samba style available. Playing a tune back in a double time bossa nova is not as authentic as a samba style.

Perhaps in the future, it will be possible to generate your own lead sheets for your tunes. At present, a screen dump is the only way to obtain a lead-sheet. Also, multi-meter time signatures are not possible with version 3. You will have to wait for a future version to accommodate 5/4, 7/4, 9/4, 11/4, etc. Forthcoming versions will address these features and more.


This product is a no-nonsense program that delivers exactly what it claims. The price and availability on the Atari, Macintosh and IBM computer systems makes this product the best buy for contemporary musicians and music educators in my opinion. Knowing how simple the program is to use and how authentic the playback can be, you can't lose it. Try it!