A virtual drummer that jams? Seems impossible, well, let's see...
For the last couple of years there has been an incredible rush of virtual instruments coming to market that help the songwriter and/or home studio musician write and record their music more easily, each promising their own unique addition to your studio. It can be overwhelming for a newbie to home recording to weed through all the technojargon and marketing propaganda and figure out exactly what one needs.
Jamstix, a product of Rayzoon Technologies, is part of a rather new trend in the world of virtual instruments. This new trend involves products that actually have enough "virtual intelligence" to be able to jam along with MIDI (and in the case of Jamstix, audio input as well) in a free-form jam style including fills and pattern shifts that stay along with the BPM of the host application and the rhythm and timing of the MIDI or audio being played.
This trend in instruments fascinates me, and has since the first time I have heard about it. I have, however, never had a chance to actually sit down a play with one and see what it is really capable of. That said, I was delighted to get a chance to check out Jamstix for myself, and see what promise this technology really holds. It sounds sort of like snake oil to this old-school musician/programmer/computer geek, but with the trend doing nothing but growing, there has to be something to it, and right now, I intend to find out what.
Jamstix Requirements and Specifications
Jamstix is a VST2 instrument and requires Windows XP or 2000 to run (98SE and ME should work, but they are not officially supported). 500MHz CPU and 512 MB of RAM are required along with 500 MB of disk space. Most of that space being taken up not by the instrument itself, but by the percussion samples that the app uses.
The instrument supports sample from 44.1 to 96 kHz and can be mapped to have anywhere from 4 to 16 separate outputs to your host application. It has a rhythm library of over 250 rhythms, 100 accents, fills, outros and such change-ups.
In the image to the left you can see all the screens of Jamstix which include rhythm editing, composition, rhythm loading, mapping, output and more.
There is much more to Jamstix than just this, but I tried to list what I found as some of the most profound features.
You can see by simply looking at the small screenshots to the left that Jamstix is a very in-depth, highly customizable, application. There are a lot of controls and multiple screens of info to page through. I have to admit, upon first opening it, I was sort of intimidated.
I did spend the first couple hours just poking around in the application, going from tab to tab and associating any given control with the user manual and try and figure out what everything does.
Regardless of the tab you are in, the bottom inch or so of the app is a panel that shows the bar and beat currently playing, as well as the transport controls (which control only the drums and some only when the host app is not playing...this was weird to me, it seems those controls should just go away due to lack of any real usefulness or functionality. The one thing I found out later that it did do was help decouple the sync between the host and Jamstix soone could scroll back and forth in the arrangement grid. There is also velocity control, various leveling controls and the control to jam with MIDI or audio.
Getting Down To Business
After a while of reading, flipping screens and such research, I was surprised that when I first opened the app in a MIDI project my young daughter and I had been working on for fun, that Jamstix went right to work kicking out a beat that evolved as the song progressed. Due to the fact my 7 year old wrote the riffs we were playing with, they were relatively simple beats, but Jamstix livened them up with cool beats, and it was a perfect song in it's simplicity as it allowed the drums to really stand out.
They were changing up periodically by adding little rolls, fills and ghost beats that were quite fun and generally fit the song pretty well. Upon finding this basic kit and set of rules rather enjoyable I decided to loop the song a dig a bit deeper into the options.
The arrangement window was a lot of fun. It has a list of all the measures it sees in the song you can click on any measure and customize the playing a bit by choosing from it's extensive library if fills, intros and outros. I had a song of 100% fills before long which got quite overbearing, but it was my own doing by simply wanting to listen to a lot of the different beats in the library. One thing I did notice during this time was how the app reacted in time with volume and velocity changes within the MIDI data. When a slower bridge or chorus of the song came up it would lighten the beat up accordingly just as a real drummer should do.
Setting up rules for the random jamming is reasonably simple to do, but can really add to the results, giving it guidelines to stay within while jamming to your song. Rules include which beat to use the snare and kick. When, if ever to change to a side stick, the power of cymbal hits, which beats to open and close the hihats on and a few other things that relate mostly to the specific beat of the music. After those rules are provided Jamstix just free-wheels it thru your music providing added hits and various types of fills. It seems to me, by default it adds a fill every eight measures or so (which was confirmed by the author) and is configurable to your liking in the "jam" tab.
Below I have links to two little clips of the song written by my 7 year old daughter with Jamstix doing the drums. The first is just it doing its thing with minimal rules and no planned fills or anything like that. The second is me just being weird and adding in a lot of fills to give you a taste of the beats it can generate.
Now, in listening to the drums themselves, you may find in the clip packed with fills, some fit, some don't, but all "sound good" as far as drum riffing goes. That is somewhat expected since I just tried to fill in as many different beat styles as I could. The default setting actually went smoothly, the artificial intelligence of Jamstix impressed me as compared to some of the other similar products I have used.
OK, with all this we get to see what the app is capable of. Overall it's pretty cool. But that was only the app jamming along with MIDI. A new feature of Jamstix is the ability to jam along with audio. As a programmer, in my mind I can see multitudes of issues arising from this, so, let's give it a go...
Jamming with audio gave me problems...first, the little graphic next to the words "Jam With MIDI" and "Jam With Audio" is actually the switch to flip it, it didn't look like a switch to me, I kept clicking on the words and nothing happened. It also happens that only half the graphic makes it switch...there is a small usability problem there. I was told by the author that the text labels will be clickable in the next update. Once I hit the graphic I got into audio mode, I thought I was good to go...however, there are many steps to go thru to get audio jam working. The app comes with a "bridge" plugin called audioM8, which sits in your plugin list like any other plugin. What this does is send the audio information to the Jamstix app.
There is some trial and error to setting proper velocity thresholds and such to get it working it's best, but once I did get a track working the results were quite impressive. Not only as good as with MIDI, but, when I used my bass guitar audio to trigger the Jamstix, the results were quite a bit better than with MIDI in some cases, and rhythms and fills fit the songs much better.
My playing around with audio jamming really made it very obvious that the results you get strongly depend on the track you choose to lock with...which makes sense.
For a little bit more of a real world test, I took a piece of one of my instrumental things and muted the drum part, adding in Jamstix to let it do its thing. I gave the app little direction, pretty much just telling it to add a fill every four measures. I let it have it's way by MIDI jamming, audio jamming (using the bass guitar track as the source) and have two "Key Word Jams" just to show the variation of the app.
With little to go on other than being told to fill every four measures, I am pretty pleased with the results. Sometimes the fills seem out of place, but on the whole, it seemed to adapt and evolve pretty nicely for what I typical expect for artificial intelligence.
Jamstix has three different mode of jamming; those being manual, free and key word jams.
About Rayzoon Technologies
Rayzoon Technologies is a group of computer professionals in software design and development to focus some of their combined talents into a passion of theirs...music.
They are using their skills in this effort to create intelligent virtual instruments affordable to most any musician.
They are now also working on a bass guitar equivalent of Jamstix. A virtual instrument that will jam bass lines along with your music, and, of course, Jamstix drums. I hope HRC has a chance to look at that when it is release as well.
My Final Thoughts
Jamstix is only one application in a growing field of software applications that "jam" along with the music. It's a trend that few implement well, at least of the ones I have had the chance to play with, which is by no means all of them. Rayzoon has done an admirable job putting together a functional, and very adaptable A.I. at a very reasonable price compared to much of the competition.
Jamming with audio is much more difficult to set up the first time, that was frustrating, since with MIDI you pretty much just plugin and go. After doing it once or twice though, the setup of it seems easy and logical, and the results were really cool.
Both MIDI and audio based jams are capable of some very good results, or some very bad results, depending on how much interaction the user wants to make with the application. To get the most out of it, it took me about as long to configure and program as it does to program beats with any typical drum sequencing software, however, the results of Jamstix do come off as more realistic and human sounding. And admittedly, the time to get it set up to it's fullest probably does decrease with familiarity. Don't, however, fool yourself into thinking you just opent he app and and let it rock out. You can do that (with MIDI jam anyway) but to get decent results, and beats that fit your music the best takes time and some interaction.
If you plan to use Jamstix in manual mode, and are a sucker for micromanagement of your drum beats, you may be further ahead sticking with any sequencer you already use, since it will do exactly what you tell it. But, if you don't want to think about drums that much, or just are not that good at programming drums, Jamstix could be a great addition to add some spice and realistic sounding drum beats to your music.
The usability is pretty good, but I did have a few problems getting around, much like my issues with the audio/MIDI switch, but nothing real show-stopping, as the applications results trump the usability problems.
I fully intend to get familiar with it in coming weeks...it's going to be a welcome addition to my arsenal, since I do use at least one beat keeping MIDI track in most of my music, it seems to have worked well with much, but not all, of my music.
One last thing I should mention is that Ralph, who I presume is the head-dude at Rayzoon, was available quickly, and frequently with great help and support, and have read on various newsgroups and such during my research that level of support is common with their products, which is awesome.
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