|www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997|
by Ethan Winer
This article first appeared in the July 1997 issue of Strings magazine.
Like many adult musicians, I started with violin lessons in elementary school. Playing in the school orchestra was always fun, and by the time I got to junior high I really enjoyed playing pieces at my weekly lessons while my teacher accompanied me on the piano. But I never liked having to practice at home alone, and one of my most vivid memories from those days is how much I had wanted a tape recorder. If only I could have recorded my teacher performing the piano accompaniments for me to play along with, I would have enjoyed practicing much more. Im certain I would have continued with the violin, rather than quitting in high school to instead learn the guitar.
When I decided to take up the cello five years ago as an adult, I was determined to make the learning process more enjoyable by using accompaniment tapes to play along with. Since I own a professional recording studio, I recruited pianist friends to play the accompaniments for several sonatas and other pieces. Further, with a computer and MIDI software - which I will cover in detail momentarily - you can perform piano parts one hand at a time and at half speed or even slower if necessary, and then play back both parts together at the correct tempo. For complex parts you can even enter the notes one at a time. What you end up with is admittedly inferior to a real performance by a skilled pianist, and Ill have more to say about this issue later.
Besides the accompaniment tapes I recorded myself, I also purchased several recordings from Music Minus One. MMO has been in business since 1951, and they offer an extensive collection - minus one instrument - of concertos, sonatas, quartets, and trios. They also sell recordings of popular songs and show tunes for vocalists that you can play along with on any instrument. Several other companies have recently emerged that sell pre-recorded and MIDI file accompaniments and other practice aids, and you can even download MIDI files for free on the Internet. In this article I will describe what is available and assess the relative quality of these products. I will also explain the practical differences between using MIDI files and conventional audio recordings for accompaniment.
For me, the most compelling reason to use accompaniment recordings is to make the process of practicing and learning fun. Further, it is difficult for most beginner and intermediate players to convince a highly skilled accompanist to partner with them. With these products you get to play along with someone who never makes a mistake and who doesnt mind playing the same piece again and again, whenever you have the urge. Another advantage to playing with an accompaniment is that any problems you may have with timing are immediately apparent. If you tend to rush ahead as you play, or fail to hold a sustained note long enough, you will quickly hear your error at that place in the score. As much fun as these products are to play along with, there is no escaping the hard work of going over a problem passage repeatedly by yourself. But there is also much to be gained by playing a piece over and over - especially if its so much fun that you dont mind doing it for hours at a time.
IS IT LIVE OR IS IT...VIRTUAL?
There are fundamental differences between a live recording of an accompanying orchestra, pianist, or partners in a string quartet, and an electronic realization of the same written score. A real recording has the obvious advantage of sounding, well, more real. Nowhere is this more evident than in Music Minus Ones concerto accompaniment tapes and CDs, where you hear a full orchestra in all its glory. By comparison, synthesizer versions of an orchestra always sound artificial at best - even with the most modern and expensive equipment.
Good synthesizers can do a credible job imitating some instruments - notably piano and drums - because those instruments dont allow expressive manipulation of the sound after it has started. Once you hit a key on a piano, the sound can only fade away. But strings, woodwinds, and brass instruments can change their tone quality after the initial attack by swelling in volume and varying the timbre, adding vibrato and changing its speed, and so forth. Most modern synthesizers use a technique called "sample playback," whereby high-quality digital recordings - the samples - are made of a real musical instrument playing a variety of notes at different pitches and volumes. Then when the synthesizers keys are pressed, those recordings are played back. For the piano, drums, and other percussive instruments, the realism can be quite good if the synthesizer maker went to the trouble and expense of creating high-quality sample recordings of the original instruments. But synthesized versions of the more expressive instruments are almost always disappointing.
There are, however, a number of advantages to using synthesizers for creating accompaniment tracks. Perhaps the most obvious advantage is that its a lot cheaper than hiring a conductor and 60-plus musicians! The potential market for accompaniment products is a tiny fraction of that for commercial music recordings. Without an inexpensive way to produce these products, many would never even be made, or they would cost so much nobody would be able to afford them. (Another way to cut costs is to record a piano - either real or synthesized - playing a piano reduction of an orchestra score. Many of these accompaniment products are piano versions of works originally written for a full orchestra.) But there are other advantages to using synthesizers besides reduced production expense. With a MIDI synthesizer or computer sound card, you can vary the tempo of the accompaniment without affecting the pitch, or play a selected portion of a piece repeatedly without intervention. Since MIDI lets you vary the tempo, you can start off at a slow pace when you begin learning a piece, and then gradually speed it up as you become more proficient. By the way, MIDI - which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface - is a technical standard devised by the electronic music industry to ensure that instruments made by different manufacturers will communicate properly with each other.
Another benefit of a MIDI synthesizer is that the pitch is always exact. When you play along with a cassette tape, slight variations in the tape speed may require you to retune your instrument for each piece, which is a nuisance and an inspiration-killer. This is much less of a problem with modern CD recordings, but even a CD can be slightly off pitch if the original tape from which the CD was made was not exactly in tune. Yet another advantage of MIDI is being able to use the built-in metronome to help you keep your place in the music. This is especially important for romantic and modern pieces where the tempo may change frequently. When you play with a live accompanist or orchestra, you have eye contact with your partner or the conductor. Moreover, when you are the soloist the accompaniment rightfully should follow you! A metronome is also helpful when the solo part begins a piece or plays alone for more than a few measures, to ensure that the accompaniment resumes at the correct place. Some MIDI playback-only programs do not have a metronome feature, but MIDI sequencer programs that can record always offer this.
To play MIDI files you need a "multi-media" computer having sound capability and a MIDI playback program. If you dont have a multi-media computer, youll need a dedicated sequencer program that records and plays MIDI files, plus either a MIDI-capable sound card or an external synthesizer. Even if you already have a multi-media computer, buying a full-featured sequencer program and, optionally, a stand-alone synthesizer having a piano keyboard is a good investment because that allows you to record your own MIDI files. A dedicated sequencer also lets you control the volume level and instrument sound (piano, French horn, and so forth) for each track, as well as set the overall tempo. Because most of the MIDI files available on the Internet also include the solo part on a separate track, you will need a program that lets you switch off selected tracks. While some of the MIDI file players that come bundled with multi-media computers have these features, not all of them do. Entry-level but capable sequencer programs can be bought for well under $100, and decent external keyboard synthesizers start at around $200. If you do buy a stand-alone keyboard synthesizer be sure it has touch-sensitive keys, which means that the notes sound louder as the keys are hit harder. The least expensive models have keyboards that play all notes at the same volume, which is unsuitable for serious music recording.
Many modern sound cards for computers have decent instrument quality, but some older or less expensive models use "FM" synthesis, which is not nearly as good as sample playback for re-creating the sound of real instruments. Most large music stores have an electronics department where you can see and hear these products and discuss your needs with a knowledgeable salesperson. MIDI piano sound quality varies greatly, and only the most expensive synthesizers really sound like a piano. But less expensive models are still good enough to play along with.
ALL MIDI FILES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
There is one final issue regarding MIDI file creation that should be explained, to help you understand the accompaniment products that use this method. A MIDI sequencer operates much like a conventional tape recorder; you press a Record button and begin playing a piano-like keyboard. But as I mentioned earlier, you can optionally enter the notes one at a time either on the synthesizers piano keyboard or the computers typewriter keyboard. This is called step-entering. There are several problems with step-entering the notes, most notably that any Ritards and Accelerandos must be programmed manually by entering metronome numbers at the appropriate places in the score. Also, step-entered MIDI files are often devoid of expression because the volume level and duration of each note are unnaturally uniform. Therefore, the end result is not as musical as a piece played by a pianist in real time. However, a step-entered accompaniment, if not elegant, is still adequate for its intended purpose.
THE CAST OF PLAYERS
Following is a list of vendors that sell accompaniment recordings and MIDI files. As you might imagine, it is illegal and unethical to make copies of these products for your friends. Further, the purchase of these products does not necessarily include a license to make a recording of yourself playing along with them if your intent is to sell or distribute the final recording for profit. If you want to record yourself - perhaps to make a demo tape - you should contact the individual companies to ask what arrangements or fees may be required for your particular purpose.
Music Minus One (MMO) was the first company to offer accompaniment products, and they have by far the largest selection. Their current catalog lists four dozen concertos and other works for violin, half a dozen each for the cello and double bass, as well as a collection of viola solos with piano accompaniment. MMO also offers a large number of works for other instruments, including clarinet, oboe, saxophone, French horn, flute, trumpet, trombone, piano, and voice. Most are recordings of a full orchestra, and all come with printed sheet music for the solo instrument. Even their piano-only, quartet, and trio titles use excellent real players. Besides the classical music concertos and solos, MMO has an enormous selection of popular songs, musicals, and show tunes. However, most of their popular music selections include only printed lyrics and not complete sheet music.
I have all of MMOs available cello accompaniments, and they are uniformly excellent. With MMO recordings, you get two renditions of each piece: First is a complete performance with a professional musician playing the solo part; this is followed by an accompaniment-only version of the orchestra or pianist. Where appropriate, audible "taps" were recorded to cue the solo entrances; these taps are notated in the included printed sheet music. An A-440 tuning note helps you tune your instrument. Most of the offerings from Music Minus One are now available on CD, and these are much better than the older cassette versions - some of which suffered from excessive tape hiss. Each MMO CD costs $22.98 plus shipping.
MMO Group/Pocket Songs
50 Executive Boulevard
Elmsford, NY 10523-1325
Orders and catalog requests only: 800-NOW-SING (669-7464)
Customer service, voice: 914-592-1188
Web Site: http://www.musicminusone.com
Shar Products Company offers three accompaniment products. Solos for Young Violinists is a collection of six volumes available on either CD or cassette, with the printed music sold separately (both the solo and piano parts are included). Each volume contains a collection of pieces recorded first with a violin and piano, and then with the piano only. An A-440 tuning note is also provided. The six volumes are graded from elementary to advanced levels ranging from, for example, Donkey Doodle and The Puppet Show on Volume 1, to works by Bartok and Rachmaninoff on Volume 6. I tried the Volume 3 CD which contains seven fairly advanced works. The piano and violin performances are both excellent, as is the recording quality. Each volume costs $9.60 for the cassette version or $11.15 for the CD, and the optional printed music for each volume is $10.35.
The Piano Accompaniment series is a collection of three cassette tapes for violinists studying the advanced repertoire. Each tape contains a piano-only accompaniment for three or four complete works. An A tuning note begins each movement, and metronome ticks fill the gaps where the solo part plays alone. A nice added touch is that the "ticking" is performed by a person who adjusts the volume of the ticks appropriately for that point in the music. I listened to Volume 1 which features Mendelssohns Concerto in E Minor, Concerto #4 in D Major by Mozart, and the first movement only of Lalos Symphonie Espagnole. The piano playing is superb, and my only (minor) criticism is that Dolby noise reduction was not used to minimize tape hiss. Each of the three volumes costs $9.95, and printed music is not included.
Finally, the Virtual Academie is a collection of cassettes, each containing one of the 17 Beethoven string quartets rendered by synthesizers. There are actually 68 separate cassettes, because every quartet is available for each of the four instruments. Side 1 plays the quartet at "rehearsal" tempo (5 to 20 percent slower than normal), and Side 2 is played at full performance speed. The left audio channel contains the selected instrument plus a softly tapping metronome, and the right channel plays the other instruments. Thus, you can either play along with the full quartet, or use your stereos balance control to turn off the performance of your instrument only. Each side begins by sounding an A-440 note. I auditioned the cello version of Opus 18, #1 and was surprised at the high quality of this all-synthesizer ensemble. While few people would confuse whats on these tapes with real musicians, the spirit of the music was clearly captured. The cassettes cost $13.95 each, and printed music is not included.
Shar Products Company
P.O. Box 1411
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
Voice orders and information: 800-248-SHAR (7427)
Fax orders: 800-99-STRAD (78723)
Web page: http://www.sharmusic.com
John DeWitt Music offers a number of titles, most of which are collections of short pieces arranged for a string instrument and piano, but there are also several complete sonatas. All of the accompaniments are offered as either audio cassette tapes or MIDI files. The cassette versions are recorded at several tempos, with one side of the tape having the accompaniment only and the other side also including a metronome click. An A-440 tuning note begins each cassette side. The MIDI file versions are supplied on a 3-1/2 disk in IBM format, but they can be played on Apple computers using the Apple File Exchange utility. No installation program is provided, nor is one needed. You simply copy the supplied files to your computers hard disk.
The MIDI versions are furnished as two sets of files. One set follows the MIDI system of measures and beats, with any Ritards and Accelerandos programmed into the MIDI file; the other set of files is for use with sequencers that do not offer a tempo scaling feature. (All sequencers allow you to set an overall playback tempo, but not all of them will do that and also honor tempo changes that occur within the piece.) An additional file simply plays an A-440 note that you can use to tune your instrument.
These MIDI files - and the cassette tape which was made from a MIDI file - were step-entered. However, it is apparent that a great deal of time and attention went into producing these accompaniments. The note volume levels were handled well, as were the Ritards. If I have to offer any criticism, it is only that there wasnt quite enough dynamic variation within the loud and soft passages. That is, the parts marked Forte in the piano music were consistently Forte rather than varying slightly, as would be the case if a live pianist had been recorded performing the piece. But the end result is still musical and a lot of fun to play along with. All of the catalog titles sell for $19.95 for the MIDI file version, and $12.95 for the cassette version. Printed sheet music is not included.
John DeWitt Music
20 Nevinwood Place
Huntington Station, NY 11746
Web page: http://www.netcom.com/~dewmusic
The Virtual Virtuoso offers two types of accompaniment products for computers running Windows 3.1 or Windows 95: the Practice Assistant and the Performance Assistant. Both come with custom software designed to play the supplied music performance. The Practice Assistant is based on existing popular method books. The program plays the various scales, arpeggios, and etudes - at any tempo you choose - and you play along with it. Pitch buttons help you tune your instrument, and a segmented playback feature lets you select which sections to practice. An installation program copies the software to your computers hard disk. The Practice Assistant software costs $59, and the price for each of the 30-plus available violin, viola, and cello method books ranges from $6 to $8. A sound card or external synthesizer is required; printed sheet music is not included.
The Performance Assistant is a series of concertos, sonatas, duets, and string quartets that are purchased individually, and each comes with a custom player program. The pieces are provided as standard MIDI files, so theres nothing to prevent you from using any sequencer to play them. However, the included software is optimized for practicing and performing, and is simpler to use than a full-featured sequencer program. As with the Practice Assistant, an installation program copies the software and MIDI files to your computers hard disk.
The Performance Assistant displays the movement names on pushbuttons at the left side of the screen, and you select one by clicking on it with the mouse. The right side of the screen has slide controls to set the current measure and overall tempo, and switches to turn on/off the solo and piano tracks and built-in metronome. At the top of the screen are File, Configure, and Help menus, from which you select the piece to play and set up and learn how to use the program. The Help system is well thought out and implemented, and it contains most of the information found in the printed manual. Also at the top are a tuning pushbutton that defaults to playing A-440 but can be changed; two pushbuttons to start and pause/stop playback; and controls to set the beginning and ending measures for playing a selected portion of the piece repeatedly.
I tried the Beethoven Cello Sonata, Opus 5, Number 1 in F Major. The program installed and ran as expected, though it was very apparent that these files were step-entered: The dynamics changes that occur throughout the piece happen suddenly and without much finesse. But the program does serve its intended purpose well, and its a lot more fun than playing alone. The Performance Assistant requires a sound card or external synthesizer. Prices for each piece range from $20 to $30, and printed music is not included.
The Virtual Virtuoso
P.O. Box 760
La Honda, CA 94020
Web page: http://www.webcom.com/virtvirt
Deitrich Gewissler offers a single disk full of MIDI files for violin players. Most of the pieces are works by Bach (five concertos, twelve sonatas), but a few are by other composers. This disk stands apart from the others in that some pieces, where appropriate, use multiple string instrument parts instead of a piano reduction. However, it is clear these files were step-entered; most have a rather stiff feel to them. This is less of a problem with Bach pieces than it might be with more modern works, and one could even argue that a rigid tempo is better suited for practicing than one that varies even slightly. This disk is available in versions for IBM, Macintosh, and Atari ST computers, and it sells for $19.95. Printed sheet music is not included.
Mr. Gewissler also sells the Head Start program, which is a series of bowing and timing exercises that comes on a MIDI disk with optional printed booklet. This is an exhaustive series of exercises that includes more rhythms than you can imagine, many of which are syncopated. The Head Start program disk costs $10.00, plus $2.50 for the printed booklet.
92 Smith Street
Howell, NJ 07731
The final three products are intended mainly for the popular and jazz idioms, rather than for classical performances. Two are software programs: You enter the chords into a table of measures and bars, pick from a list of pre-defined musical styles (or create your own), and the programs then generate a complete performance of bass, drums, piano, and so forth that you can play along with. Although these programs are intended mainly for jazz and popular music, they can also be used for learning to improvise in classical music styles. You can even enter the chords for a popular tune such as "Over the Rainbow," and play along with that. Because you can enter any series of chords and pick from a large number of styles, these programs are also ideal for songwriters and arrangers. And being computer programs rather than pre-recorded audio tracks, you can transpose the key or change the tempo very easily.
Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc. offers an enormous collection of backing tracks in CD format played by real musicians. Some of the CDs contain chord progressions in various jazz and pop styles; others feature well-known pieces by popular artists such as Miles Davis (Volume 7), Sonny Rollins (Volume 8), Herbie Hancock (Volume 11), and so forth. Each CD comes with a workbook of printed music in four parallel versions: for treble and bass clef instruments, and also for Bb and Eb instruments. I tried two of the Aebersold chord-based CD volumes, and found both the audio quality and musicianship to be first rate.
Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc.
P.O. Box 1244C
New Albany, IN 47151-1244
Mel Bay has been publishing method books for as long as anyone in the business, and they now offer a series of book/CD play-along products they call Backup Trax. I listened to three offerings from this series: "Traditional Jazz and Dixieland," "Old Time and Fiddle Tunes Volume 1," and "Swing and Jazz Volume 1." All come with printed music intended for the violin and mandolin, though you can use them with any non-transposing treble clef instrument. Each CD in the series contains high-quality recordings of real players performing a number of popular songs in the featured style. The pieces are played slowly at first with a pre-recorded soloist, then again at normal speed with the soloist stopping after the first verse and chorus. Each volume costs $17.95.
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
#4 Industrial Drive
Pacific, MO 63069-0066
voice: 800-8-MEL BAY (863-5229)
web page: http://www.melbay.com
Band-in-a-Box was the first popular program to offer automatic accompaniment, and versions are available for IBM, Macintosh, and Atari computers. The newest release of Band-in-a-box, version 7.0, is for Windows only, and it offers 24 built-in musical styles with names such as Jazz Swing, Waltz, Ballad, and Country 12/8. You can also create your own styles, and the program can even compose melodies. The chord entry screen is organized much like a computerized spreadsheet, except that you enter chord names such as D, Am, F7b9, etc. into each square instead of numbers and formulas. The music backings created by Band-in-a-box are surprisingly realistic, though the quality of the instrument timbres of course depends on your synthesizer or computer sound card. Demo versions and a feature list for most of PG Music's products are available for free downloading from their web page. The basic Band-in-a-box program costs $88, though product bundles are available that include additional style disks.
PG Music, Inc.
29 Cadillac Avenue
Victoria, BC, Canada V8Z 1T3
voice: (toll-free) 888-746-8742; (outside the US and Canada) 250-475-2874
fax: (toll-free) 877-475-1444; (outside the US and Canada) 250-475-2937
web site: www.pgmusic.com
Although Jammer Professional is similar in concept to Band-in-a-box, it is capable of creating more complex and more interesting music backings. Where Band-in-a-box draws upon pre-defined musical patterns, Jammer Pro actually composes the various instrumental parts. In exchange for what I feel is a better overall result, Jammer Pro is ever so slightly more complex to set up and use. In particular, the music created by Jammer Pro is very "hip," with swinging bass lines and outstanding drum beats and fills, and it comes closer than Band-in-a-box to playing the kind of music I like. More than 200 pre-defined musical styles are included, and you can create your own styles if you are so inclined. Jammer Professional costs $129 and is available for IBM-compatible computers running Windows. Complete product information and a demo version are available for free downloading on SoundTrek's web page.
3408 Howell Street, Suite F
Duluth, GA 30136
voice: 800-778-6859; 770-623-1338
web page: http://www.soundtrek.com
MIDI FILES ON THE INTERNET
Besides the commercial products Ive described here, you can also download classical music MIDI files from the Internet. These files are provided free by people who create them for fun and as a public service, and finding them is often by luck and happenstance. I found some through the Internet Cello Society (www.cello.org), which has links to other Internet sites of interest to cellists. I found others by searching for "MIDI" and "cello" or "violin" on InfoSeek (www.infoseek.com), a popular and free Internet search service. Some of these files are intended as accompaniments, but most are complete performances meant to be listened to, as an alternative to buying a recording. For the latter you would load them into your sequencer and turn off the solo instrument track. These are just a small sampling of the files available on the Internet; more are added daily.
The site www.prs.net has an enormous collection of classical MIDI files, and I listened to Bachs Double Violin Concerto in Dm and Bruchs Violin Concerto Number 1 in Gm, Opus 26. Both of these were step-entered and lack any real dynamics changes, but they are (barely) useable and, of course, are free. Both violin parts on the Bach concerto are included, so you would turn off either of the parts while you perform the other. Finally, I have my own Internet web site with a page for cellists that offers a half-dozen (for now) MIDI accompaniment files, none of which were step-entered. The address for the cello section of my web site is www.ethanwiner.com/cello.html.
Ethan Winer is a retired programmer and audio engineer who now devotes his time to playing the cello and writing music. Ethan plays in the Danbury (Connecticut) Symphony, and he also produced the Bernard Greenhouse Cello Master Class series of video tapes, and two cello CDs for Music Minus One.
Entire contents of this web site Copyright © 1997- by Ethan Winer. All rights reserved.