SuperJAM! (musical composition program) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by David Sears
Blue Ribbon, save me! I can barely read sheet music, and I'd slop tunes out of a bucket. Am I hopeless? Not anymore. More powerful than a Lowry organ, able to shed musical inhibitions in a single bound--it's SuperJAM! With this versatile composition program, even the tone-deaf will make beautiful music.
Through a series of linked pop-up windows and universal editing tools, SuperJAM! allows anyone who can move a mouse to improvise tunes in various styles such as jazz, rock, or bossa nova. Want to compose a song and have SuperJAM! back you up? Just click on the Section indicator, click on the Play Section button, and play. Use either the keyboard or the mouse to enter the notes; fills, intros, breaks, and endings are yours for another click of the button. You can choose either to play the monophonic lead instrument or to dictate which chord sounds next. And with SuperJAM!'s pop-up chord editor, you can enter chords manually or have the program generate some for you. Like the way your section sounds with accompaniment? Just begin on the next section, or copy an already completed one. Click on graphic representations of finished sections; then drag them wherever you wish to structure your song. That's it--instant music!
SuperJAM! might seem to be little more than a software drum machine at first glance, but experimentation reveals that you have nearly complete control over your band. You set the tempo from section to section, as well as the instruments played. You can add an unlimited number of chords to your musical toolkit. The automatic five-piece plinks away if you're not doing anything, but if you take control, it will follow your lead. Just click on a key in the Keyboard window, and the ghost band shifts up or down the octave to stay in tune. Besides, the variations never stop; SuperJAM! simulates a live jam session, with over 16 million musical combinations possible for each style. Toward the end of the concise SuperJAM! manual, you'll even discover that you can edit individual patterns for each instrument and thereby customize the improvisations to your personal taste. For instance, if you want to build a disco style, you can just by filling the pattern screen with appropriate sequences.
While software can't widen the Amiga's 8-bit sample bottleneck, SuperJAM! does address the Amiga sound hardware's secondary limitation--the number of available oscillators. Four instruments hardly constitute an orchestra, and Blue Ribbon's TurboSound Technology provides two more, for a total of six voices on stock 68000 machines. Now you can add an extra drum or two to your rhythm section. The SuperJAM! manual promises that on sufficiently speedy Amigas, such as the 3000, SuperJAM! will play up to 16 Turbo Instruments simultaneously.
TurboSound Technology uses a small distinct sample for each note of an octave rather than a single sample that the Amiga sound hardware adjusts appropriately for each note. In order to simulate six or more voices, SuperJAM! mixes samples together on the fly. If you listen closely, you can hear your Amiga play more sounds at once than it normally would.
One of the program's three constituent disks holds a number of Turbo Instruments to supplement the default combo, and the built-in TurboSample editor allows you to wrangle standard IFF instruments over to SuperJAM! compatibility. Cut, Paste, Loop, and Cross Fade--all the necessary options for smooth sample conversions are there. What's the tradeoff? Without an accelerator of some sort, your band won't play more than six instruments at once--raspy instruments at that.
SuperJAM! will save songs in the widely compatible MIDI file format (MFF); in the primitive Amiga-specific SMUS file format; and, of course, in SuperJAM!'s native format. Though the manual tries to keep expectations low for SMUS conversions, SuperJAM! songs saved in that manner make the transition with notable grace.
SMUS exports arrive naked; you must supply the 8SVX or Sonix instruments for each of the four standard hardware voices. The resulting jump in sound quality paired with SuperJAM!'s improvised runs can generate heaps of respectable music in very little time. Sonix or SMUS players can't hope to mimic the dynamic response of SuperJAM!, though, so exported scores play at a steady tempo and may seem a bit cold by comparison. Finally, SuperJAM! will save songs as a Turbo Song file essentially a monophonic IFF sample ready for tinkering in Audiomaster or playback with the included TurboSound player (or just about any public domain sample player).
SuperJAM! delivers what it promises. Both professionals and novices can put the program to immediate good use, thanks to the logical interface and its surprising ability to translate the tiniest musical idea into a sophisticated score. The manual repeatedly makes a good point, however: MIDI-compatible instruments provide sound far superior to anything the clever TurboSound technology can hope to muster. Keyboardists looking for a compositional aid might find SuperJAM! to be a perfect companion. Output to MIDI shouldn't slow down the system in the least, and the improvisational elements built into the software will boost timid musicians' confidence, possibly even within a performance context. For the owner of a basic Amiga system, though, the glacial screen refreshes and tinny, now-you-hear-them-now-you-can't TurboSound instruments make SuperJAM! more of an educational toy--and one that makes users envious of MIDI-capable systems besides. If nothing else, this exciting Blue Ribbon release could put MIDI hardware sales through the roof.