Playing music can be satisfying just sitting alone and playing for your self. But if you want to do more you need more. Teaming up with others is great, but arranging times across peoples' schedules, traveling, hauling equipment, dealing with egos, people coming and going, these problems come with the territory. Luckily there's another option. Whether you just want a simple backing track to play along with, want practice your composition skills, or even produce a multi-track recording with many instruments to serve as your personal backing band, you can do all these and more, easier and for far less money than you'd think.
Imagine: you pick one of over 100 musical styles and beat pattern samples, set the tempo, then start stringing together colored blocks representing the chords you select (in many variations, including “slash” chords with different bass notes, and several possible inversions). Then with the built in mixer you adjust the levels of the up to three main instruments in that sample, as well as the bass and each drum in the drum kit. Once you have a line down, you can add other lines (up to 36 different lines) and repeat any arrangement of the lines that you choose, by stringing together a different set of blocks. With even modest musical skills you could construct, say, an intro line, a verse line, and a chorus in minutes, then arrange them into the order and length you want in just seconds. Press a button, and out comes your song.
Too good to be true? It's better than that, and it's true. Welcome to ChordPulse (http://www.chordpulse.com). I've had the pleasure of using this program for two years. I've used it for backing tracks on songs for several of my albums and even have one album of which 90% of the material was made with it. I've not only explored it and the many examples provided in order to expand my musical knowledge, to be honest I've often sat down and played around with it because it's just plain fun.
The instruments are MIDI based and internal, so they're always consistent, and are of higher quality than most MIDI instruments I've heard. You can use your PC's GS Synth table or another MIDI controller of your choice. Output can be through headphones or speakers of course, or captured internally by a recording program such as Window's Sound Recorder or any other program that can do so, including multi-track studio software (I use Audacity).
Multi-track? Sure. Record your track using the “Swing” setting, lock the tempo and change to “Country” (but zero down the drums and bass so they don't compete with the first), and do the same again using the “Old Blues” setting (maybe boost the bass on this one). Align your three tracks, and you now have a complete and highly consistent Rockabilly version of your song. Another option is to string together versions of the same track using different settings, to produce “variations”. Here's a track from one of my albums that does only this, using no other capabilities of the program, creating a series of (some rather extreme) variations on the opening phrase of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Everything on this track other than the electric guitar in straight out of ChordPulse using a single line repeated in different instrument/beat sets:
There also arrangement points that can be set (and cleared) anywhere with your tracks, allowing you to break, hold or resume the drums, bass and/or instruments in any combination. Insert a cymbal crash and shut off the drums while holding the bass and chords for a bar or two, then resume everything as it was, to get a nice “rest” between the chorus and next verse. And with the trivially easy transpose function, that break can be a key change. Each block representing a chord can be split, up to the 1 beat limit within a bar, which can then be individually edited (say, slash chords with different bass notes), or you can grab it with your mouse pointer and shrink or stretch it to any length of beats. Need even more control? Set the tempo (adjustable range, 25 to 220 BPM) for twice your desired tempo and use bars twice as long, and get half-beat resolution on the chords. Set it for 220 BPM, build your tracks, and boogie out with Beat Me Daddy, Eight The The Bar at 110 BPM.
Over the years ChordPulse has developed into a very powerful music development and editing tool. With power comes complexity. In most software, complexity means loss of ease of use. I've seen this happen time and again since I first started using computers (Apple II, 1980), particularly for music (Alpha Syntauri, 1981). Not so here. At every step the developer has seen to it that everything is as easy to find and use as possible, with various means of feedback like a miniature keyboard display during playback and color coding for notes and chords. This focus on ease of use and visual feedback makes ChordPulse a superb teaching tool (teachers, take note).
Not convinced? A picture can speak a thousand words, but a musician needs notes. You can get a scaled down but still very powerful version, ChordPulse Lite for free. You can also get the full commercial version for a 14 day free trial. And when you are convinced, this program soars past the competition (if there is in fact any) with the lowest price-per-possibility at US 24.95 (EU19.95).
So what can't it do? The built in time signatures for the instrument/beat sets are 3|4 and 4|4 (plus one 9|8). You can't change between these within a single piece, nor can you use different signatures like 5/4 (Dave Brubeck's “Take Five”), or 7/4 (Jethro Tull's “Solstice Bells”), much less change between any signatures between 1 and 9. Similarly, you can't do triplets, three notes of equal duration in a 4 beat signature (think: most of the fancy finger work in the lead at the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Freebird”).
While you can manually control speed during playback, you can't program in speed variations, making speed changes between variations quite a problem. You also can't swap any of the three main instruments in and out with other instruments on the fly.
Yet. According to the developer, “This all will be addressed by a comprehensive music style editor that will allow you to edit anything to the last musical note. You will be able to change instruments, choose from several time signatures, define style variations, etc. This is what I'm working on currently. I hope to release it as part of version 3.0 in October ”. Release date aside (though he has always been on time with his many updates), every shortcoming I could think of and more was already in the works when we spoke.
To quote the numerous TV ads for all manner of gadgets and gizmos, “NOW how much would you pay?”. I can't say whether or not ChordPulse 3.0 will cost more, but I can say that if you buy the current version, the upgrade to 3.0 will cost the same as every other upgrade has: zero, zip, nothing, and nada. And my money says that if you get the current version, you will not have mastered even half of it before 3.0 arrives, even if you read all the documentation, also on the web site.
Should you happen to find need for a highly accurate and tight click signal metronome, a keyboard/mouse operated virtual keyboard with MIDI controller, or a simple 4 chord repeating practice track program with a few simple instrument banks and beats, you can download these from the ChordPulse web site. They all cost exactly the same amount as any of the upgrades – nothing at all.
All this power for 25 Dollars/20 Euros, plus free stuff between upgrades, it's a great product and company. And with the promise of what's to come, putting it even farther ahead of the pack, you can't lose. Oh, and I tried to pay him for 3.0 anyway because I felt he deserved the support. He wouldn't take it. That's kind of business that's here first and foremost to support you, the musician, and works hard to earn your support in return without trying to earn more than they feel is fair. Try to name three others.