Band in a Box 2013 UltraPlus PAK review: Add an audio accompaniment to your music

Band in a Box is a powerful auto accompaniment program that’s hampered by a complex and confusing interface 

Although the object of some suspicion for ‘proper’ musicians, Band-in-a-Box (hereafter BIAB) has found fans among those who believe that the musical destination is more important than how you get there. Thus, the program’s ability to generate full arrangements from what’s basically a spreadsheet - you type chords into cells like so - C, Am, Fmaj7, G - has proved attractive to solo artists, songwriters or simply those who like to try their hand at switching between a wide range of musical styles without having to learn anything about them.

Early versions weren’t taken seriously because of the cheesiness of the MIDI instruments (particularly natural sounding ones like guitars, woodwinds, violins and others) which bore little sonic resemblance to their counterparts in the real world. That all changed when BIAB introduced RealTracks and RealDrums - audio recordings of real instruments (and soloists) that can be timestretched and key-changed to suit arrangement styles that range from country, folk and bluegrass to pop, blues, jazz, swing, reggae, rock, new age and gospel. The results are amazing - not uniformly amazing because you’ll find some odd glitches and weirdness along the way depending on instrument choices, tempos, chord changes and time signatures where arrangements don’t quite work - but still pretty amazing.  

This - the most expensive and complete version of BIAB - ships on a 320GB hard drive and offers three installation types, depending your setup and how much space you’ve got free. You can either run the lot from the supplied hard disk, install the program but leave the RealTracks (this is what BIAB calls it’s impressive range of pre-recorded instruments) on the supplied disk or install everything, which requires 70GB of space. We ran the program entirely form the supplied disk and apart from the delay when a new style is loaded before playback, didn’t notice any lag, even on our ageing MacBook.

The program includes a wide range of instruments and music styles which can generate new completely arrangements with a couple of mouse clicks. 

New features include MIDI supertracks - MIDI instruments which play actual performances by real musicians, but can be edited note by note like any other MIDI track or even changed to a different instrument; then there’s support for soft synths like SampleTank, a revamped score writing module, a new arrangement feature which lets you define parts of a song as sections (A,B,C etc) and then rearrange them instantly by re-ordering the section sequence (B,C,A and so on)  and many more real instruments and solo tracks.  

BIAB still uses terminology that betrays its peculiarly jazzy roots - when it refers to a ‘chorus’ for example, it means something completely different to the more widely understood ‘chorus’ which sits between verses - and this can make understanding song structure confusing. But in a world of easy music-making dominated by dance, techno, trance and other similar instrumental styles, BIAB remains a compelling tool for solo artists to flesh out ideas with impressive results. 

OUR VERDICT

The latest version of Band in a Box adds more musical styles, enhanced musical notation including guitar and bass tablature, editable MIDI Supertracks, a new R&B horn section (Steely Dan fans rejoice) as well as SoundCloud and Dropbox integration. Despite the confusing, ramshackle interface and occasional stylistic glitches, it’s an incredible program.

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