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"Jam Central Station"



The Story Behind Jam Central Station...

Jam Central Station was officially launched in the Spring of '98, about nine months after the birth of Vision Music, but the original notion of using a "virtual band" in conjunction with instruction was something that started many years ago for me.

I began teaching full-time in 1971 in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it wasn't until the mid-eighties that personal computers and music combined forces with the totally fascinating MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) language, which permitted computers to "speak" to synthesizers and drum machines. This cool new technology ushered in a whole new era of creative possibilities, yet MIDI by itself wasn't what attracted me at first.

The entire reason that I bought my first home PC during that time period was to do computer-based scoring. Like my late father, I had written music by hand for many years, and was completely intrigued by the idea of owning what in effect would be a "musical word processor". The day I bought my first computer, an antiquated Atari 1040ST (8 mhz clock speed, 1 meg system ram, and no hard drive), I also purchased a scoring program called "The Copyist" by the now-defunct Dr.T's Music Software. Shortly thereafter I purchased the original "Keyboard Controlled Sequencer" (KCS) program by the same company, and the creative ideas really started to flow.



The Rhythm Workshop is Assembled...

The Rhythm Workshop was my first significant MIDI development, using the KCS program. While most musicians were busy composing original songs with the new format, the idea of creating a PC-based "Music Minus One" jam session had great appeal to me. After all, I loved to jam and to improvise during lessons with many students. What better way to add excitement than to have a computer "trio" ready for action at the push of a button during lessons, or when I wanted to improvise?

The procedure involved learning the basics of drum machine programming, then combining that with my knowledge of bass, harmony, and well-known classics for soloing. Of course, there weren't many alternatives on the market at the time for good quality jam tracks, but the main one was a source of inspiration for me.



The Jamey Aebersold Recordings...

Jamey Aebersold's LP-based "A New Approach to Improvisation" series was a great improvement on the earlier "Music Minus One" play-along records, as top-flight jazz artists were brought into the studio to create trio accompaniment tracks for aspiring musicians to use. I was one of the first in line to buy the albums, but it still wasn't a perfect scenario in my book.

As inspiring as it was to play along with the likes of legendary bassists such as Ron Carter, Rufus Reid, Sam Jones, or keyboard players like Kenny Barron, there were inherent drawbacks as well. Tempos were often not ideal, and both my father and I agreed that the rhythm section would also appear "too busy" with accompaniments at times, perhaps because there was no real soloist that they were backing up. No knock on these superb players, but we both concluded that the feeling of satisfaction could have been improved with other tempos and a simpler "pocket" to work in.

Nevertheless, I have to say that I learned a great deal from the series, mainly by transcribing so many great bass lines and piano chord voicings. Recommended!



Band In A Box Software...

Peter Gannon's terrific "Band In A Box" automatic accompaniment software hit the scene a few years later. Despite all the impressive "bells & whistles" that have been added with constant upgrades, the basic premise of providing accompaniment with tempo and key control was enough by itself to make this program invaluable to the aspiring improviser. My father loved the concept, and would routinely give me a personal list of tunes, keys, and tempos to make him jam tapes.

The only drawback of this software is actually its strength. While Band In A Box can often have you shaking your head with how it creates the spontaneous "illusion" of a real band, I'd just as often wish that I could determine a specific role for the piano, bass, or drums, especially the exact parts from a pop or blues standard.

Band In A Box continues to be an important part of my arranging process, mainly due to my limited keyboard skill. I will routinely create a version of a given song, very carefully picking the chordal harmony to my taste. If I basically like what I hear and think I can work with it, I'll then export the result as a MIDI file, then strip out everything but what I need in my favorite editing program of all time.



Putting It All Together...

Encore has been my preference in computer scoring programs for years, due to its intuitive use and flexible power. Originally created by Passport Designs (and now supported by GVOX), I use it for just about everything you see and hear at Vision Music, from the charts themselves to the actual sound files.

Within Encore I can put together my own rhythm section, using 30 years of actual bass experience, a fundamental understanding of drum machine programming, and the acquired knowledge of the tunes themselves.

Despite my background, it still takes a lot of work to turn out a satisfactory track for Jam Central Station. I will usually go over and over the parts, until my ear is basically happy with the result. Then I'll pick up my guitar and both audition the melody over the arrangement as well as jam on it. I'll consider the job complete when I'm having fun and nothing causes me to "wince" at the accompaniment.

When the arrangement is done, including some of the cool "velocity fades" that you hear on the JCS tracks, I'll export the result again as a final MIDI file, eventually to be embedded in html code behind the rhythm chart that you see on each page. By the way, the rhythm chart is first created in Encore, later being exported to Photoshop for cropping, and finally exported as a GIF file for the web. Easy, eh?



Final Thoughts...

Jam Central Station is one of the most popular pages at Vision Music, and an online jam session without equal on the web. It seems like it was only yesterday (April '98) that I had just started successfully adding audio to the lesson pages and was discussing that success with a student (and fellow web author), when the idea struck us "what if...?" JCS was born that day, and the rest is now history. Have a great time, and jam on!


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