It's been several months since I contacted PG Music about doing a review of Band-in-a-Box. Somewhere in Canada is a marketing manager wondering, "When are these people actually going to publish a review?" Hey, I intended on publishing this review quite a while ago, but the truth is that Band-in-a-Box is so much fun and so inspirational for a songwriter that it honestly was hard to break away from it long enough to get to the review. Quite simply, Band-in-a-Box is amazing.
I was offered the UltraPlusPAK of Band-in-a-Box for this review. Quite literally, this edition is a band in a box! It comes in a 3.5" hard drive enclosure and you can run Band-in-a-Box by simply plugging the USB cable into your computer. I really appreciate PG Music providing the software in this way because it means that I don't have to worry about using all the space on my Mac's hard drive. Of course, if you have a huge hard drive on your Mac and you'd prefer to run it from there, no problem. It will gladly install to your hard drive. (PG Music also offers Band-in-a-Box for those of you running Windows.)
PG Music offers Band-in-a-Box in several different packages. They also allow you to purchase add-ons individually, so if you don't want to pay for everything, you can still add just what you want at a reasonable price. The UltraPlusPAK package and higher offer the option of being sent to you on a USB hard drive, and what's really cool is that if you decide to purchase some additional add-ons later (or when you download Band-in-a-Box updates), you can install them directly to the USB hard drive. This is a feature of your operating system and not distinctly a Band-in-a-Box thing, but it's nice that PG Music offers the option of shipping their software on a hard drive so you can take advantage of it.
When you first launch Band-in-a-Box, your first impression is probably not going to be a great one. The software definitely looks dated. It looks pretty much like it was designed for Windows 3.1, and the fact that it looks pretty pixellated on a retina display (or other high resolution monitor) doesn't help. I've actually read comments from some people who closed Band-in-a-Box immediately after launching it and never looked back. I strongly urge you not to do that. Once you get past the dated look, what awaits you is pretty awe inspiring.
There are several ways you can work with Band-in-a-Box. You can load a song (it comes with a ton of them) and play around with it. You can pick a style (there are ton of those, too) and then let Band-in-a-Box load a sample for that style. You can also choose a key and tempo and enter your own chord progression. Then you can pick a style and let Band-in-a-Box generate backing tracks and/or solo melodies for you. Those actually aren't even the only ways you can work with Band-in-a-Box. I guess the point I'm making here is that you aren't boxed (sorry) into any particular way of working. You can be as simple or as complex as you want.
You aren't boxed into any particular way of working. You can be as simple or as complex as you want.
Band-in-a-Box is great for generating backing tracks, but it's also great for songwriters. You can punch in your chord progression in just a few minutes, and then you're free to experiment to your heart's content. You can change keys, change tempos, change the style of the song, and much more with just a few clicks. While Band-in-a-Box does offer MIDI instruments, the real "wow" factor is RealTracks, and they're what makes Band-in-a-Box unique. Unlike MIDI, RealTracks are actual audio tracks recorded by some of the best studio musicians in the business. The quality of these tracks will quite simply blow your mind, and PG Music has thousands of them available.
Even though RealTracks are actual audio files, you can still change the key signature, tempo, volume, and so forth. PG Music recorded RealTracks in multiple keys in order to maintain the highest level of fidelity when you change pitches. They even took it a step further and made use of zplane's Elastique Pitch technology to absolutely ensure that your tracks sound their best.
The Style Picker (shown above) makes it easy to find just the style you want. Because there are literally thousands of styles available, you can filter by category, time signature, feel, tempo, and more. If you aren't sure exactly what kind of style fits what's in your head, you can enter the title of any popular song and Band-in-a-Box will automatically locate a style that matches that song. This is an amazing feature. Suppose you're writing a song and in your head, the song has the feel of Hotel California. Simply enter "Hotel California" in the Style Filter and Band-in-a-Box will show you a style that matches that. Pick it and click OK and your song magically has the feel you're looking for.
While I was learning Band-in-a-Box for this review, I experiemented with as many things as possible. I threw all kinds of crazy combinations into a track just to see how Band-in-a-Box would deal with it. I was definitely able to create some weird tracks where you really got the feel that an instrument was out of place, but you really have to intentionally try to get to that point. At every step, Band-in-a-Box provides you with the details you need in order to pick the right style, but even if you go outside of those parameters, in almost all cases, Band-in-a-Box is able to give you good results in spite of yourself. I can't tell you how many times during this review that I broke into a huge smile and said to myself, "That's amazing!"
I can't tell you how many times during this review that I broke into a huge smile and said to myself, "That's amazing!"
I don't want to give you the impression that Band-in-a-Box is just about loading premade songs and styles and sticking you with them. That's not the case at all! You're free to change anything you want, and I really do mean anything. For example, if you don't like a particular instrument, you can change it easily. Band-in-a-Box shows RealTrack tracks in green and MIDI tracks in yellow, so you know exactly what kind of track you're dealing with.
There's nothing to stop you from swapping out a MIDI track with a RealTrack. In fact, Band-in-a-Box makes it easy to do so by helping you select RealTracks that fit the style and tempo of your song. You can actually create some incredibly interesting arrangements by swapping instruments (and you can create some seriously weird arrangements, too), and if you don't like what you hear, you can generate a new track at the push of a button. If you happen to land on something that you really like and you don't want it to change when you regenerate your tracks, simply click on the snowflake button (shown next to the Mute and Solo button in the figure above) and that track is frozen so that it won't be modified when you regenerate.
Speaking of MIDI, in addition to what you can term traditional MIDI tracks, you can also take advantage of Band-in-a-Box's unique MIDI SuperTracks. (SuperTracks are colored blue while traditional MIDI tracks are colored yellow.) Traditional MIDI tracks are generated using a C7 pattern and that pattern is simply repeated for each chord. SuperTracks are generated using actual studio musicians playing a part, so they are much higher quality. Because they aren't pattern-based, they sound much more natural. It's a great way to maintain a high-quality sound while taking advantage of all that MIDI has to offer. You can use these tracks to play your own virtual instruments, and you can also export them to your favorite DAW.
SuperTracks can also take advantage of the Notation window in Band-in-a-Box so that you can actually see what the musician played. This is a great way to learn from a complex part, but it's also an excellent way to share music that you've composed with Band-in-a-Box with musicians. I've read numerous accounts of musicians composing parts in Band-in-a-Box and then printing the notation for band members. The Notation features in Band-in-a-Box are deep and amazingly comprehensive. In fact, an entire chapter is dedicated to notation in the Band-in-a-Box user manual.
Band-in-a-Box supports both AU and VST plugins. My testing revealed mixed results. I was able to run most of my plugins successfully, but I wasn't able to get the VST version of my FabFilter plugins to work. Fortunately, these plugins also come with an AU version, and the AU version worked perfectly. I can't say whether this is a problem with the plugin or with Band-in-a-Box, but I can say that I have no problems using these VSTs in any other application.
As you've seen in this review, Band-in-a-Box is a feature-rich and complex application. It can take quite a long time to learn how to use it to its fullest potential. Thankfully, PG Music includes a comprehensive spiral bound user manual and a PDF copy as well. In addition to that, you can click the "Video Help" button on the toolbar to see dozens of video tutorials on how to use many of the features in Band-in-a-Box.
I was incredibly impressed by Band-in-a-Box. I was impressed by the vast array of features, the high quality of the sounds, the ease it affords in trying out new ideas, and the flexibility it offers for songwriters. No matter what your musical needs are, Band-in-a-Box likely has you covered. You can get Band-in-a-Box for both Windows and Mac, and I highly recommend that you check it out. Unfortunately, there isn't a demo version, but PG Music has put out enough videos that you can you can get a real feel for the application before you buy.