Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of products, books, cds, concerts

Band In A Box Mac

PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box is a great program. Sadly, it is languishing on the Mac side. After not updating it for about 4 years, the updated it to version 12 to add Mac OS X support. The Windows version was updated to 2004. We are now almost into 2006, and the Mac version is not going to be updated this year. Instead, PG Music did a maintenance release of the existing to allow the use of new styles. No new features, nada. You’d think PG Music would have been working on a new version to add support for Garageband. Or perhaps the ability to use Garageband software synths. Nope. Just new styles.

I really hope they get another Mac programmer there to get this program rolling. When you compare the PC version and the Mac version, there is a HUGE gap.

Band in A Box 2006

PG Music has released the latest, greatest update to it’s awesome Band in A Box program. Version 2006 includes these features:

  • Live looping and playback control (for people who perform live with BinaB. Though I don’t think I’ll be using it)
  • Enhanced TC-Helicon Audio Harmonies (???? ok….)
  • New notation symbols
  • (woohoo..lead sheets!)
  • ASIO Audio/Software synth driver support, VST synth/plug-in support, Three new DirectX plug-ins, PG Vinyl, PG RTA and PG Vocal Remover (*yawn….what?)
  • Direct open or import of WMA, MP3, and CD-Audio files, Half-speed (and slower) audio playback (Interesting feature to allow you to load an audio file in and transcribe it)
  • Support for different instruments (patches) for the “a” and “b” substyle (this is neat!)
  • Multi-channel Leadsheet display and specific channel recording, MIDI normalize option, Piano Roll improvements, Bar range for MIDI file creation (Um…..won’t ever use them)
  • Two new ear training games (Games? Someone say games?)
  • 11th chord support (FINALLY!)
  • Batch conversion from Band-in-a-Box songs to MIDI files (Could be interesting…)


You get Styles 58, which sounds damn good. If you opt for the MegaPak ($99 from a previous version), you get ALL the styles. Some of them are very nice, like Styles 53 to 57.

Sadly, the Macintosh version is now seriously lagging behind the PC version. The Mac version is 12, the PC is on 2006, and they have been through 12, 2004, 2005. So we are three version ahead. Sad. PG Music is promising some add-ins soon for the Macintosh version. We will see.

In all, if you don’t own Band in a Box, get it. It is the best practice tool out there. It beats Smartmusic with both it’s arms tied behind it’s back, both legs tied, blind-folded, and suffering from the flu. Yeah, no comparison. SmartMusic does not let you print anything from it. Band in a Box will let you print lead sheets, piano parts, drum parts, solos, EVERYTHING.

My former teacher, Guido, has put away his Vinyl (yes, he uses records…..poor guy….probably also has a leisure suit somewhere as well that he wears, but I digress…..) Aebersold LPs in favor of Band in a Box. This version does not add a lot of really NEW features, but it is worth it just for the styles.

Smartmusic 9.0

SmartMusic has been updated to version 9. MakeMusic is hyping it with Wynton Marsalis who gives little “talks” about how to use the software. If you have used SmartMusic before, you know how the interface sucks. It still sucks. The sounds still suck. However, they have added some jazz things.

A couple of things sounded interesting, so I downloaded (finally!) the upgrade (500+ megabytes) and installed it. First off, NONE of the jazz exercises are printable. In fact, hardly anything is printable. In my opinion, it cripples the program. How can you promote the “on screen drum charts” when I doubt anyone can get their computer anywhere close to their drum set. Also, on the Mac Mini system I tested it on (1.42 gigahertz), the follow cursor (line or whatever you want to call it) seems to be behind the music, which kind of blows the whole reason for having the cursor there. SmartMusic needs to be able to PRINT examples, exercises, lead sheets. Adopt a print feature like has and print an “authorized for use by So and So” on the bottom right of every page.

SmartMusic has a lot to offer, such as great backgrounds to all kinds of Classical literature. Avoid the Beatles stuff in there, as it’s super cheezy. The Jazz stuff has a long way to go. There needs to be the ability to create loops, and perhaps freely take patterns and combine them with other patterns and create a practice loop. I’d recommend Band-in-a-Box over SmartMusic for Jazz any day of the week. Not only does Band-in-a-Box allow you to create progressions of any length or style, but you can PRINT out charts.

I give SmartMusic a 5 out of 10. It’s a love/hate relationship with this program. I like the classical pieces and hate the interface and sounds.

Jazz Saxophone Etudes By Greg Fishman

Greg Fishman has released a great new book titled Jazz Saxophone Etudes. What sets this book apart from others is the addition of two CDs, one for Alto and one for Tenor. You use the same etude for both instruments. So, you don’t have to deal with bad transposition jobs that you find in say, Bob Minzter’s books. Plus, the CDs feature extended rhythmn section only parts that allow you to stretch out and play on the tunes.

The tunes are based on standard changes. There are two blues etudes, two rhythmn changes etudes, and etude based on the changes to “A” Train, etc. All the etudes are named after streets in Chicago, which figures as Greg Fishman is from Chicago.

The one thing I would want more of in the book is voice leading. It would have been great to include the voice leadings to the solos, along with some analysis of what was used. It was mentioned briefly in the front of the book, then….nada. It would really make this book stand out if it had detailed, one page sheet on the voice leadings used in the solos. Anyhow, I’ve done a bunch of them for my students so they can see how he constructed the solos.

Rating for this book. 10/10. For $20, this book rocks. You get excellent solos, great sounding CDs, and a lot of information. Go get it!

EM Reviews Field Recorders

Electronic Musician reviewed a bunch of field recorders, including the the Marantz 671, Marantz 660 and the Edirol R1 among others.

Basically, they panned the Marantz 671 (successor to the 670, which I love) for having firmware issues causing the mic preamps to be noisy. The Edirol R1 came out on top of the two Marantz units. Though I would really call the article a “introduction” to field recording. They do not list exactly what they tried to record, and with what. We all know that the microphone is key to getting a good recording.

I would totally recommend the Marantz 670. I used it this weekend and got some great recordings putting it about 6 feet infront and 7 feet above the band. Of course using my Rode NT4 mic (awesome piece that it is).

I imagine the issues with the 671 have been fixed. I would take the EM article with some grains of salt. The reviewer used these units to record a snare drum (why??), the “ambience in a suburban neighborhood” (um, ok), and dialog. Ok, great tests there. NOT.

Oh, and EM was reporting, like it was news, that Sony introduced a new format called MiHD. Um, guys, these things have been out for OVER A YEAR. Get with the program!

Oleg Strap

About two months ago, I purchased a Oleg Strap to replace my Ray Hyman strap.

The Oleg strap is VERY COMFY. Very. It’s leather, and padded, and feels great. Blows away those Neotech straps. However, the cord adjustment drives me nuts. The one thing I loved about the Hyman strap was the easy ability to adjust to the right level right away. I can’t seem to do it as easily with the Oleg. Ok, it’s nitpicking, but, that’s my only complaint.

If your looking for a great, durable strap, get the Oleg strap.

EWI Buying Advice

Professor writes “Advice needed: I am an alto player who would like to buy a MIDI wind controller. I read Scott Wilkinson’s May 2001 Electronic Musician piece, which was helpful but provides no buying advice for the uninitiated (and is out of date). Does anyone know where I can try out and/or buy these various controllers (EWI, WX5 or Softwind Synthophone– or the new EWI Brecker was playing recently). Any advice on which one to buy, where to try it, and where to buy it would be greatly appreciated. (I’m on the East Coast). Thanks.”

From what I can tell, the one Michael Brecker has been playing is current is a prototype from Niles Steiner. The Akai 3020s are being produced, but are still hard to find. And it’s really it’s own instrument, as it requires some practice to get used to and sound good on. The best solution right now seems to be the Yamaha WX5 coupled with the Yamaha VL70m. Some sites to check out are:

Garritan Personal Orchestra

I recently bought the Garritan Personal Orchestra as part of a group buy. If you haven’t heard this program, listen to the demos. Good stuff.

Anyhow, I’ve played with it a while, and I feel I can write a review now of it.

First off, you need a LOT of processing power. The requirements in the manual list this:

  • Mac OS 10.2.6 or higher G4 733Mhz
  • Windows Pentium 4/Athlon 2.8 Ghz or better.

Ok, so, knowing this, my 933Mhz G4 was NOT going to run this program. I already knew this from the get go. I prepared my Athlon 2.5 Gigahertz PC to run it (though it is under specs). Defragged the drives, added more memory, and got a M-Audio card. So, the system has 1 gig of ram, a fast 80 Gig hard drive, and Windows XP service Pack 2.

I decided to try a couple of things with it. I loaded up Kontakt player, and loaded up some patches. I chose a string section consisting of the “wet” versions of Violin 1, Violas, and Cellos on channels 1, 2 and 3. I then loaded up a Trombone Section patch, a French Horn patch, and a Trumpet patch. Not a lot of stuff I thought. I played back an arrangement I was working on.

Sound wise, these patches sound great. The strings are awesome. When I layer them with the Strings on my Roland XV2020 and SC8820, it sounds great. The trumpets sound a LOT better than either module’s trumpet patch. The french horns, layered with the other two modules, sound great, as do the trombones. I was in midi-heaven.

Then, I hit a section where, by my counting, I asked the Garritan program to do something I did not have enough processing power for. 3 notes sounding in the Trombones, 3 in the French Horns, 1 in the Trumpet, and 6 notes total in the strings (2 for each, in octaves). It pretty much brought the processor load to 100%, and effective killed the sound generation until I did a ALL MIDI NOTES OFF command.

What does this mean? It means that I need a faster PC to use this program effective. Pentium 4, 3.6Gigahertz or faster. Dual maybe. Dedicated to JUST sound. No virus crap, nada. Just Windows, and a blank, defragmented drive.

My only gripe is that if you use the Kontakt player as a STAND-ALONE, you can’t save all the instruments you loaded. Hopefully an update will fix this.

This program is great, but you need the power to use it. Horsepower. Don’t try it with a G4. G5 might work great, I don’t have one (yet 😉 ). But if you are looking to augment your setup. To take it to another level, get this. Go to Fry’s or something, throw together a FAST PC, get an M-Audio 4096 or something, and enjoy!

9.5 out of 10. .5 deducted for the stupid stand-alone Kontakt player