Free backing tracks for practicing!

Practicing can be quite boring,especially if you play sax,flute,trumpet,clarinet,or another monophonic wind instrument . Worse,practicing with your instrument alone can bring to some bad musical habits,including not being able to play “on the beat”and not being aware of the relationships between the notes/scales/arpeggios you play and the chords these notes were supposed to be playing upon.

Virtually all teachers recommend to use a metronome to prevent bad timing habits,but what about the inability to hear and “feel”the actual harmony implied by the scales you are playing?

Many players remedy to this issue by using play-along records (e.g. Aebersold,Hal Leonard). For example,Aebersold’s volumes 1,3,and 16 offer great backing tracks for practicing scales,II-V progressions,and turnarounds,respectively. Other musicians prefer making their own backing tracks with Band-in-a-Box (BIAB). However,both approaches have limitations.

Play-along CDs include realistic backing tracks,but limited choice of keys,chord sequences,and tempos. Most recording tracks are medium speed,which can be problematic for beginners,who should practice scales and arpeggios VERY slowly to master the subtleties of rhythm,such as playing “ahead”or “behind”the beat.

Band-in-a-Box and other similar programs far more flexible,in that you can enter any chord sequence as well as easily change the key and the tempo. Recent BIAB versions include features such as RealBand and RealTracks,which can produce natural-sounding tracks that are much more realistic than the computer-generated sounds of its earlier versions. However,all these additional features make BIAB quite a complex software to learn,so complex that BIAB maker PG Music had to produce many tutorial videos to let users learn how to master all these features.

Finally,both play-along CDs and BIAB surely don’t come for free. Aebersold CDs are 10-15$ each,whereas BIAB starts at 129$ and goes up to 669$ if you want all the RealTracks you might need. No pocket money,really…

—————

In a recent post I introduced ChordPulse,a simple yet useful Windows program that can generate backing tracks in a very easy manner.  Chord Pulse accompaniment styles are simplicistic –if compared to BIAB,at least  –yet they exactly what you need to practice rhythms over basic harmonies. More important,ChordPulse is so simple that it takes only a few minutes to discover all its features. Like BIAB,you can define chord sequences of (almost) any length,define loops inside the sequence,change the tempo,the accompaniment styles,and the key. You can even tune the software to frequencies other than the standard 440Hz.

What I overlooked in my review is that there are as many as THREE versions of ChordPulse,namely:ChordPulse (full version,$27.95 or 19.95 euros),ChordPulse Lite (freeware,has limited number of chord types and accompaniment styles),and ChordPulse Player (also freeware,can play songs created with the full version but can’t create new songs). The great thing about the Player version is that you are still able to change the tempo and the key,define loops,etc.  It was perfect for what we need!

Using the full version I created a few chord sequences that are specifically meant to be played while practicing with a wind instrument. You can download and play these files with ChordPulse Player at the speed you prefer,starting at lower tempos and going faster once you feel comfortable to do so. Most sequences are available in all keys,but you can change the key by pressing the Up/Down arrow keys.

You can download these sequences as a single ZIP file,which contains the following exercises:

Simple Chords -Major,minor,dominant 7th,augmented,diminished,and half-diminished chords,played by themselves or in simple sequences (e.g. Major to Minor). The first 12 sequences (or pages,according to ChordPulse terminology) only contain chords in C key,but you can easily transpose them using the Up/Down arrow keys. Pages from C to Z include sequences of chords of same type that raise or descend chromatically,whole tones,minor thirds,perfect fourths,etc. Great for practicing Brecker-like patterns!

II-V-I Sequences –The first 12 pages contain the basic II-V-I sequence in all keys. If you want to practice on the II-V sequence,you just create a loop that includes only the first two chords in each page. You can practice each page separatedly,until you feel confident in that key,or you can play these 12 pages as a loop (read later). The remaining 24 pages contain II-V or II-V-I sequences that raise or descend chromatically,by whole tones,minor thirds,major thrids,and perfect fourths.

II-V-I Sequences (Minor) – Same as previous exercises,except it contains IIm7/5b –V7+alt –Imin sequences. (Unfortunately,ChordPulse can’t easily generate complex chords such as dominant augmented chords,therefore the sound of the V7+alt chord isn’t perfect.

Turnarounds –Contains many variations of the common I- VIm7 –IIm7 –V7 turnaround,including variations with tritone substitutions. The first 10 pages contain only turnarounds in C key (use arrow keys to transpose),the remaining pages contain turnaround in all keys,in ascending or descending sequences. When creating these turnarounds I used this page as a reference.

A few tips for using ChordPulse and these chord sequences:

  • Use the File-Session Notes menu command (or just press the N key) to read a description of the contents of each file.
  • Use the Up and Down arrow keys or the commands near the bottom-right corner to transpose to different keys.
  • Use the Repeat All command to play the entire sequence,or the Repeat Page command to loop over the chords in current page. (You can alternate between these modes by clicking the third button from the right,near the top border.
  • You can loop over chords in the same page by clicking the mouse immediately under the first chord of the sequence,and then dragging the mouse to the last chord in the sequence.
  • You can loop over chords in different pages by right-clicking the first chord and selecting the “Loop from this Bar”menu command,then right-clicking on the last chord of the sequence and selecting the “Loop to this Bar”menu command.

ONE LAST WORD! If you find ChordPulse useful,consider purchasing the full version! Even if you don’t do it immediately,at least send its author Laszlo Oroszi an email saying how much you appreciate his work and his generousity (don’t forget that the Lite and Player editions are completely free!).

200 new solo transcriptions

I found two French websites that contain solo transcriptions and other interesting material,Le Saxophone and Continuum. As it name suggests,the former is mostly for woodwind players. The latter is for all musicians and features solos for many other instruments. (It’s a pity that they use a rather non-standard user interface which makes navigation more difficult than it should). The non-standard interface plus the French language makes these sites opaque to most search engines.

I also found a couple of e-books on the Charlie McNeal web site,named “The Keith Oxman Sonny Stitt Solo Transcriptions –Book 1″ and “The Keith Oxman Sonny Stitt Solo Transcriptions –Book 2″. In total they contain 150+ pages and 47 transcriptions,mostly of Sonny Stitt on tenor. Keith Oxman did an incredibly great job and the quality is superb,also thanks to Charlie McNeal editing work.

I added these and other solos to my transcription page,and I updated the trumpet and guitar pages,too.

With these new items saxopedia has now more than 2000 solo transcriptions. All for free!

Introducing ChordPulse…sure you need Band-in-a-Box?

I purchased a license of Band-in-a-Box in 2009 and recently updated it to version 2011. Overall,I am quite satisfied with it but I have some complains.

BIAB is surely a great piece of software,but at times I feel overwhelmed by all its features. After all,I purchased it mainly to practice over common (and not-so-common) chord progression,or improvise over jazz and rock tunes that weren’t available as an Aebersold play-along,or improve my playing over any key and any tempo. I wasn’t the least interested for 90% of the remaining features,that were added mostly for song writers and composers. For example,I don’t really care for the ability to generate a solo over a chord sequence,or add lyrics,recording vocals,etc. Granted,BIAB lets you precisely define every minor detail in its music,but many of these advanced features require some effort to learn,which I don’t have. I prefer spending my time playing,not learning how to use this software. To make things worse,BIAB user interface isn’t exactly modern and intuitive.

More recently I have found myself more at ease with simpler programs,such as the fantastic iRealB (formely iRealBook),which is available for iPhone,iPad,iPod Touch,Android,and Mac. If you own an iPhone,odds are that you already know this app. If you don’t,let is suffice to say that it’s a sort of pocket Real Book (only chord sequences,no melodies) that has been enhanced with additional play-along style packs (jazz,pop,latin,fusion,etc.) that let you practice over more than one thousand popular songs,or define your own. (iRealB enthusiasts often post new songs to iRealB forum.). The quality of the computer-generated accompaniment is good:it can’t match BIAB’s Real Track feature,but it’s more than sufficient for practicing. For less than 20 euros –including the main app plus all style packs –I have all the BIAB features that I like most in my iPhone,and I can often leave the Real Book home when I join a jam.

iRealB isn’t available for Windows so it seemed to me that no viable alternative to BIAB is available for some million players that have neither an iPhone nor a Mac,until I found this little gem named ChordPulse. Its feature list is so short that I can summarize it in a few lines:

  • you can quickly enter chord sequences of any complexity;it supports 16 common chord types,plus inversions,slash chords,and bass notes
  • chord sequences can be arbitrarily long and are subdivided in “pages”that can contain up to 16 bars;chord length can be modified with the mouse
  • you can repeat the entire sequnce,or just the current page,or play the sequence only once
  • over 100 comping styles are provided,and new styles are added on a regular basis at each new minor release –styles range from jazz,blues,rock,pop,and fusion to more traditional styles such as waltz,shuffle,and bluegrass
  • chord sequences can be transposed to any key and BPM value can be changed very quickly,with the mouse or keyboard
  • limited ability to customize the accompaniment style on specific measures and beats
  • mixer for the four instruments,export to MIDI file,precount,fade out,tuning
  • resource-savvy:takes only 5M on disk and 64M of memory,downloads and installs in a few seconds,works on all Windows versions starting with XP,works at 1024×768 resolution…runs nicely on a 300$ netbook

and above all

  • very simple and intuitive user interface,no real need to study the manual.
  • only 28$ / 20 euros

Again,the best thing about ChordPulse is that it’s so simple,easy and intuitive that you need less than one minute to use it,and less than five minutes to explore all its features. Watch these videos for more information.

According to its author Laszlo Oroszi,the software is also good for songwriting,but I don’t fully agree with this as it lacks a few features that might be necessary. For one,you cannot change style,time signature,and BPM in the middle of the chord sequence. These minor limitations,however,don’t decrease ChordPulse’s usefulness as a great tool for practicing and improvising.

You can download ChordPulse and use it freely for 14 days. After the trial period,you must register. The trial edition has all the feature of the real product,including the ability to save your chord sequences.

Quite generously,the author makes a Lite version available for free. The Lite version has only 5 chord types and 24 styles,and fewer options to customize the comping style,but is otherwise as powerful as the complete version. If you just want a better metronome,it’s more than enough. But if you are looking for something more inspirational,have a look at the complete version.

Wireless MIDI for just 8.99$

I recently bought the MIDI Jet Pro for my EWI,so that I send my melodies to my PC,my Yahama VL70-m or Roland SonicCell without a cable in between. I am quite satisfied with it,but admittedly I wasn’t very happy to pay $425 for the joy of wireless MIDI.

Now a cheaper alternative exists for whoever has an iPhone,iPad or iPod Touch. MidiBridge by Audeonic costs only 9 bucks and offers much more than any hardware MIDI wireless system. (I should add “theoretically”because I haven’t tested it yet…)

In short,MidiBridge works as a virtual MIDI patchbay:it takes the MIDI data entering the iPhone/iPad/iPod and sends it to a PC,Mac or another iOS device that sits on the same wireless network. This is where the similiarities with a hardware wireless MIDI device ends,though,because there is a lot more.

  • You can dispatch (clone) the MIDI data to multiple devices,withouth the need of dedicated hardware
  • You can analyze input MIDI data and send it to different devices depending on their MIDI channel
  • You can filter out MIDI data based on several attributes,such as Control Change values,aftertouch
  • …etc. etc.

The vendor claims that the latency is very low with hardware devices and is in the range 3-8 milliseconds with CoreMIDI networking (RTP). Of course,your iOS device needs to be equipped with a MIDI interface (e.g. Line6 MIDI Moblizer,IK Multimedia iRig,or the camera kit if you have an iPad),but if you are a musician and own an iPhone,odds are that you already have them.

As an EWI player,I guess the most natural use of MidiBridge is with the iPhone or iPod Touch,which can be connected to the EWI and still be carried in a pocket or arm band. The iPad is a bit too large and heavy for that. Also,if you want to connect your MIDI instrument to an expander instead of a computer you need another iOS device (including an iPad) that sits near the expander.

BTW,Audeonic has another interesting MIDI app named MidiVision,which allows you to monitor MIDI data flowing into your iOS device. Very useful if something doesn’t work as expected and you need to understand why.

Will we throw away our Aebersold’s play-alongs?

I started playing sax when I was sixteen,and that was some years before James Aebersold begun producing his wonderful play-along albums. (Yes,I am *that* old…even if we prefer the term “experienced”).

In those days,the only way to practice a solo on My Favorite Things or Impressions –short of having a very patient friend who could spend hours on the piano while you assimilate the subtle differences between Dorian and Phrygian modes –was to play over the actual Coltrane’s record,trying to ignore their immensely beautiful melodic lines and concentrating on piano,bass,and drums.

Aebersold changed all this,and since then virtually every jazz player on the planet has perfectioned his/her style thanks to these or similar play-along albums. It is great to “virtually”jam with professional studio musicians (in some cases,*great* musicians). After all,what can be more inspiring than a pianist comping behind you in the same style of McCoy Tyner?

Of course,that McCoy Tyner is far more inspiring than any other pianist who plays in his style,but –again –it’s hard to play over Coltrane’s solo and still preserve some sort of self-confidence about your playing 🙂

Today I read an announce from Roland that might change all this. The new R-MIX software promises to be the next new killer-app for improving your music skills. In short,this audio processing software allows to “visually”manipulate an audio track and do a few wonders such creating “minus-one” type karaoke files from existing songs by lowering the level of the pre-recorded vocal or any other instrument you select.

This appears to be much more sophisticated than any “vocal canceling”software seen so far,none of which works particular well. These programs simply remove sounds that are equally balanced between left and right channel,on the assumption that the vocal part appers at the center of the stereo image. This is seldom true for the voice and rarely true with sax,trumpet,guitar,and other jazz solo instruments.

Not only does R-MIX allow you to play with your favorite pianists,bassists and drummers,it only allows you to change the tempo and/or the pitch of the song. Now you can practice your favorite blues in all 12 keys and speed. That’s even better than Aebersold!

R-MIX can also perform sophisticated audio processing. For example,you can remove the noise from the amateur recording you made the last time you saw Michael Brecker on stage (something within reach of other similar software) or add reverb or delay to only your sax in the recording you made at your last rehersal (something no other software can do,as far as I know).

The great news is that R-MIX will be also available on the iPad,in a reduced (and less expensive,I guess) version that is still capable of producing the “minus-one”playing-along thing that I am so interested in.

R-MIX Tab (the iPad version) will be available in November 2011,whereas the full Mac and Windows versions will come in January 2012. Until then,it’s impossible to know whether it will keep its promises,even if this video is quite intriguing. In the meantime,I think I’ll keep my Aebersold collection under lock…just in case 🙂

More solo transcriptions:guitar!

I love studying Pat Metheny themes and solos on the EWI,thus during the weekend I scouted the Internet for transcriptions. The result is a new section with nearly two hundreds guitar solo transcriptions,one third of which are from Pat.

I also added new solos to the sax and trumpet section.

New section:trumpet solo transcriptions

I don’t play the trumpet,but I do believe that you have a lot to learn from any great jazz player,regardless of the instrument that he/she or you play. Moreover,the EWI comes with some great trumpet sound (especially in conjunction with Yamaha VL70-m and the incredibile Patchman Turbo VL chip)

Thus,this summer I scouted the Web and collected over 500 trumpet solo transciptions,which I orderly classified by artist and album. In many cases,there are companion MIDI files (for playing-along) and MP3 files,in case you don’t have the original album. This new section is also reachable from the top-level menu.

I also updated the saxophone solo page, which now counts as many as 1140 transcriptions.

Everything saxophone (reviewed) …reviewed

There are so many saxophone blogs around and it’s hard to keep track of all the good material out there. The beauty of running a blog myself is that I can publish my favorite bookmark list instead of just keeping it for myself.

Today’s choice is Everything Saxophone (Reviewed) site,run by Ben Britton,an experienced sax player who lives near Philadelphia. Ben posts about 3-4 articles a month and virtually all of them are worth reading (and often re-reading).

As the blog’s title suggests,you can find many reviews of saxophones and related accessories and I was delighted to find articles about most of the stuff I use,including Mayer and Vandoren Jumbo Java mouthpieces,Vandoren Optimum Ligature (see image),Jody Jazz DV NY mouthpiece,and Zoom H4N handheld digital recorder.

Interestingly,Ben provides sound clips for all its reviews. For example,here’s a comparison between filed and unfiled Rico Select reeds (incidentally,the reeds that I use regularly).

Ben’s blog abounds of practical suggestions for jazz sax players,such as how to experiment with ligature position,practicing the altissimo register,playing odd time signatures,improvising using motifs and large intervals (see also here).

Ben also transcribed a Coltrane’s solo,which I promply added to the solo transcriptions page.

Fingering diagram builder

I wish I had discovered this great tool a couple of months ago,when I built the fingering charts for the normal and altissimo register.

The Fingering Diagram Builder,courtesy of Bret Pimentel,is an online tool that allows you to create a fingering chart for a variety of woodwinds,including saxophone,clarinet,flute,oboe,and recorder,plus the AKAI EWI 4000s and Yamaha WX5. You can select the key size and colors,and you can save the image to your computer or your Dropbox account.

The most serious limitation to date is the fingering diagram builder doesn’t support any version of Internet Explorer,even though it should work fine on most other browsers. For sure,it works great on FireFox.

You can learn more about the fingering diagram builder in these blog posts.

EWITool,the “other”EWI 4000s editor

The Akai EWI 4000s comes with 100 presets which,quite frankly,don’t do justice to its internal synt. There are just a handful of patches that are really playable,and none of them vaguely resemble an acoustic instrument,including those that are relatively easy to reproduce with a synt (e.g. clarinet or recorder).

Short of using an external expanders or computer,for us EWiers the choice has always been between these two options:

1) purchase the fantastic Patchman Music EWI4000s collection of sounds by EWI guru Matt Traum
2) create your own sounds with the Vyzex UniQuest Editor that you can download from AKAI website,available for PC and Mac.

(Incidentally,if you don’t have the Patchman collection you are leveraging only a small fraction of the EWI 4000s potential,thus you should order a copy as soon as possible from Matt. At 90$ it’s a bargain.)

However,if you are looking for “that specific sound”and even the Patchman collection doesn’t have anything like it,your only option is to built the patch yourself with the Vyzex editor,which isn’t exactly fun. Or at least,I always found it a bit counterintuitive and unnecessary difficult to use.

Only recently I discovered a third option,in the form of an alternative,open-source EWI 4000s patch editor named EWITool,which you can download from here. Its author Steve Merrony did a great job,and the fact the the documentation is very concise is just another evidence of how simple the software is.

Obviously,to use it at its best you still need to understand how the EWI oscillators and filters work,but in general everyhting seems simpler than with the other editor. By the way,there are two versions,for PC and Debian (but I tested only the former).

EWITools has several neat features,including the ability to load and save all the 100 patches in the EWI,a clipboard where you can store as many patches as you wish (and the clipboard is preserved between sessions!),the creation of multiple libraries,and the ability to work with SYX and BNK files,including single-patch SYX files. Plus a few unique features,such as

  • the ability to create random patches,either from scratch or by randomizing some parameters of an existing patch
  • the ability to “merge”two patches,to create a sound that combines the characteristics of two patches
  • easy acccess to the EWI Patch Exchange.

EWI Patch Exchange was an attempt to create a “marketplace”for EWI players wishing to exchange (for free!) their favorite patches. Unfortunately this attempt should be considered as a failure,because after 3 years there are only about 20 patches in the marketplace,and there haven’t been any new items in the last year. But it’s there and it might resurrected when needed. If nothing else you can find a few new sounds for your EWI.

It seems that –like the EWI Patch Exchange –EWITool is a “dead”project that hasn’t been updated since 2008,which is a real pity because it was a very interesting project. At any rate,the source code is available and maybe not all is lost,because some other developer might pick it from there. Regardless,even in its “current”version 0.6,EWITool is an editor that all EWI players should have at hand.