Review: Riffstation jam software for guitar
By Paul Ridden
May 29, 2013
Not too long after its launch in 2005, you'd be hard-pushed to visit any friends without being challenged to a round or two of Guitar Hero. Interest in learning to play a real guitar also blossomed, but many found the transition from guitar-shaped controller to actual instrument a difficult one, and perfectly good axes have been gathering dust ever since. Irish company Sonic Ladder has now released some interesting software called Riffstation that gives you the opportunity to break out your much-neglected guitar and play along with your favorite bands to onscreen prompts. Gizmag takes a look at what this software has to offer.
Riffstation is divided into three parts. The Chord Viewer auto-detects a song's chords and displays them in real time under a scrolling audio waveform graphic, while simultaneously providing diagrams to show you where on your guitar neck your fingers need to be placed, and when. Jam Master allows you to slow down the music so you can practice your newly-learned solo at more manageable speeds. It can also isolate and remove guitar parts from a song, so you can take the lead, and gives you control over the pitch, to allow you to jam in a key that you're familiar and comfortable with. With Riff Builder, you can grab sections of a song and create your own custom backing tracks to play along to.
It's like Guitar Hero for real
First under the microscope is Chord Viewer, which is activated by clicking the appropriately-marked third tab in the middle section of the user interface. When you load in an MP3 source track, a waveform graphic appears in the top section. There'll be a brief message underneath stating that the chords are being calculated, and then a fairly cramped set of chord blocks will appear. You can zoom in for a more detailed look at the chord structure by hovering your mouse over either part of this section, then use the scroll wheel to move in or out as desired, or by clicking the plus or minus symbols above the word "Zoom" on the left.
There's a button marked "Scroll" on the right which needs to be clicked if you want the chord prompt graphics to follow the song. This is turned off by default, but it's quite disconcerting for the chord strip to remain static as the song moves on, so you'll likely want this to be active. There's an overall track timeline below the chord strip that allows you to keep an eye on exactly where you are in the big scheme of things, or to choose precisely where you want the song to start from. Annoyingly, the scroll feature seems to disable itself after clicking anywhere on the timeline, so you'll need to remember to activate it again.
The Chord Viewer tool sits in a box underneath. All of the chords detected are shown on the left so you can familiarize yourself with the shapes before attempting to play along. A large graphic of the current chord shape and its name underneath is displayed in the center section. The next chord to be played is displayed next door, along with a countdown timer. Move right again and you will see a column of controls.
The uppermost control is the Key Shift. While you might think it strange to want to change the key of the song you're trying to play, it can be useful when the software detects sharps or flats, or the chords offered are just plain awkward. Under the Key Shift is a Tempo control. Though you're unlikely to want to speed the song up, you might want to slow things down to a more comfortable learning pace.
Moving down again brings you to the Chord Type buttons. Acoustic players might prefer to opt for open chords, while electric git-fiddlers will likely want power chords to be shown. The last control is used to switch between four different neck types for displaying your chord patterns. The default is no neck type, then there's what looks like rosewood, followed by lacquered maple, and natural maple.
The box on the right is home to a Chord Finder. Selecting the chord name from the two boxes at the top results in the appropriate chord shape graphic appearing below (though this does appear to be limited to open chords only). A useful extension would be to allow users access to the neck diagram, to click on the strings where fingers need to be placed and be presented with the appropriate chord name.
The bottom part of Riffstation is given over to playback control, with a metronome dial on the left to increase or decrease the presence of a timing click in the mix, and an overall volume knob on the right. In addition to play/pause/stop and forward/back buttons positioned inbetween, there's also a looper. You can highlight sections of the song in the top window (in much the same way as you would highlight text in a document), and clicking on the looper repeats that section over and over again until you've nailed it.
Striking the right chord
So that's the theory out of the way, but how did the Chord Viewer perform in tests? For my first track I selected Let's Lynch The Landlord by the Dead Kennedys. The software took just a few short seconds to pick out the chords for this power punk classic, but the algorithm didn't always present them correctly.
While the detection algorithm seemed to get off to a good start, there were a few minor errors dotted here and there and numerous places in the track where it seemed to just give up altogether. Instead of correctly showing a number of chords across several beats, for example, only one long single chord was shown.
Also, at the end of each chord run, there's a little four-note flurry before the rhythm repeats. Unfortunately, as the minimum interval is one beat, there's no way to accurately reproduce the four notes across two beats. However, you can just about get away with selecting the first and last chord in this sequence by manually entering those chords into the strip. This is achieved by right-clicking on the errant chord name at the appropriate point in the orange chord strip and then placing the dot in the correct place in the grid.
The company's Mikel Gainza says that future revisions of the software will allow players to dig a little deeper into notes per beat.
"Chord Viewer makes certain assumptions about the songs it's analyzing," he reveals. "For example, it assumes there is only one chord per beat, which explains why you cannot throw four chords over two beats. This assumption will be relaxed in the next version of Riffstation, but it was found to be the best compromise to increase detection accuracy in as many popular songs as possible. In other words, there are plenty of internal algorithmic settings that could be tweaked to improve the accuracy for a given genre/style. However, we chose to use the settings that would work best with basic chord progressions in popular music, limited to one chord per beat and major/minor/seventh chords."
Despite the relative simplicity of this brief track, I had to make a good many corrections before the chord strip displayed something I could effectively play along to without having to apologize to any avid DK fans who might be within earshot. Interestingly, though I didn't save the corrections or the file upon exiting, the next time I loaded the song into Riffstation, all of my alterations were present.
Errors in the detected chords of my next few selections (including BB King's The Thrill is Gone, Neighbor, Neighbor by ZZ Top and Beth Hart's The Ugliest House on the Block) led to even more corrections, before I had something I could convincingly play along to. The developers say that the software's chord detection algorithm will yield the best results for basic rock and pop songs, which prompted me to ask for some example tracks that might fair well in Riffstation's Chord Viewer.
Of the 10 titles offered, I decided against contributions from Tom Petty, Def Leppard and Bob Seger and, though I already had MP3s of Sweet Child O' Mine by GNR, Learn To Fly from the Foos, and Creedance Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son, I chose to buy fresh digital downloads and load them into Riffstation.
In reverse order, Riffstation's algorithm correctly identified G, C and D major for the chords in the Creedance track, but completely missed out an F major. I wasn't be able to strum along with the descending intro with any enthusiasm, as the whole section was shown as one chord (G). I tried playing along to the song using the suggested chords, but it just didn't sound quite right so I spent a little time making the necessary placement and selection corrections.
The chance to play alongside Fogerty and the boys, at least in the virtual sense, was worth the effort, and that's where I feel this software really shines. You get the opportunity to play a song with the band that performed it. If only the accuracy was a little tighter, this would be a great learning tool and an indispensable jam package.
Time for some Grohl love now, and possibly one of the best music videos ever made. Now, I have to admit that, given the amount of corrective work Riffstation has required of me so far, I wasn't too hopeful when I loaded in this FF favorite ... but knock me down with a feather and call me Susan, Riffstation went and nailed almost everything. Top marks, and a really fine example of the kind of experience this software can offer.
As I was playing at concert pitch for Sweet Child O' Mine, I needed to use the key shift to raise the key since GNR detune the guitars by half a step. I didn't have a chord chart for the long melodic intro from Slash, so started my comparison from when Axl joins in the proceedings.
Riffstation's chord detection started well, but threw in the odd unnecessary chord from time to time and things went a bit askew at the chorus. The solo sections were handled pretty well, but the finish was a bit of a letdown. Even when the mistakes are played, though (which I did), it doesn't sound too out of place for most of the song. After making some corrections (by now I was getting pretty quick at this), it was game on for my first try out as a GNR rhythm guitarist.
Time to isolate and manipulate
Once you've nailed your power chords, you can head to the Jam Master tab of Riffstation to play along without referring to the Chord Viewer. The chord strip and audio waveforms are still displayed along the top, and playback controls still appear along the bottom, but the middle is dedicated to tempo, isolation and pitch.
The Isolate tool allows you to see the mix of a song and zero in on an instrument, such as the lead guitar, and remove it from the track. The width knob widens or narrows the focus, the separation dial allows you to control how much of the background music is allowed through, and there's also a Hi/Lo filter to further clean up the isolated signal, in case you have two instruments active in the same area. To the left of the knobs are S and M buttons (which may be quite suggestive, depending on how your mind works) that determine whether the isolated part is played or muted.
After powering on this tool, I moved the slider left and right to locate the lead guitar part of the last song I'd loaded in when using Chord Viewer. Once located, I muted the signal, removing it from rest of the music and was able to (attempt to) play the lead part instead of Slash.
To the left of the Isolate box is a Tempo tool to slow down or speed up the song with more control than is offered in Chord Viewer. Over on the right, Riffstation offers precision tweaking of the pitch of the song.
Essentially Jam Master gives you the opportunity to have your favorite bands be your very own backing musicians, as well as fine tune the playback to suit your own pace or to set a preferred key. And it's very effective at doing so.
Creating custom jam tracks
The Riff Builder tool is an interesting proposition. With it, you're able to generate brand new backing tracks based on sections of a loaded song that have caught your attention or fueled your creative muse. Unlike other Riffstation tools, this one sports just the one section. Though it looks simple enough, I actually found the process quite time-intensive.
The top section allows you to create up to six riffs to a maximum of 16 beats each. The pitch can be altered, and the beat can be offset by half a step more or less. Once you're happy with your new riff, you can select its place in the song builder below and move onto the creation of the next one.
I found a place in the loaded song that sounded interesting and started to build my new riff. The number one box was already selected in the Riff Builder field, but the corresponding highlighted beat on the audio waveform to the top of the screen was nowhere to be seen. After a bit of searching I located it at the very beginning of the song. Double-clicking on beat highlight one caused it to flash red, meaning it was ready for placement at the appropriate spot on the waveform.
Fortunately, as I'd actually clicked on the chord at the start of that interesting section of music before activating Riff Builder, its place was marked with a vertical white line on the song timeline. After moving to the appropriate point, a double click at the start point confirmed the first selection by turning green.
I presume that this behavior is just a bug, since subsequently clicking on the number two in the Riff Builder field produced the desired beat marker when I moved my mouse up onto the song's waveform at the top of the screen.
A slider below the numbered boxes is moved to select the number of beats in your new riff, and the tool allows you to raise or lower your selection's pitch, which is achieved by right clicking the appropriate numbered box. If a mistake is made, you can use the beat marker elsewhere or move the slider back so that it's not used in playback (though there doesn't appear to be a way to completely remove extra beat highlights from the upper waveform graphic).
Once happy with the selection of beats that made up my new riff, I added Riff A to the Song Builder field lower down the screen. Repeating the process a few times, I built up a nice little backing track from the body of an existing song.
Creating riffs using this tool was a good deal of fun, though I don't really think I'll be using it nearly as much as other tools in Riffstation.
Should you be interrupted during your Riffstation session, you can save what you've done up to that point and return to it later. You can also save whatever changes you've made to the source MP3 as a separate WAV file. Similarly, section selections, created riffs and Chord Viewer corrections can also be stored as new files.
The bottom line
Despite never really tuning into the Guitar Hero craze (perhaps because pressing all those buttons and pretending to play never really appealed to me, or maybe due to the fact that I was always losing to folks who couldn't play a note on a real guitar), I admit to being keen to try this software. I used to regularly jam with someone who had a magic ear, and he could show and tell exactly the right notes after just one listen. This is a gift I don't possess, so the prospect of loading in favorite songs and unlocking their rhythm mysteries with the Chord Viewer is very attractive indeed.
Sadly, I found the reality to be somewhat disappointing. In the majority of cases, Riffstation's chord detection algorithm was just not accurate enough to be of use to those who are hoping to learn the rhythm parts of a song. This may have something to do with the way the algorithm works.
"Riffstation will calculate the chords for any type of music whether there is guitar in the song or not," says Gainza. "It calculates the overall chord harmony as opposed to a specific instrument so it will be useful for other instruments too. The chord detection algorithm keeps improving all the time. The more songs we analyze, the more the algorithm can learn for future use. We are also considering collaborative editing of the correct chords, which will organically improve the results."
If accuracy is central to your very being, then you really do need to have a chord chart handy to get the best from this part of the software. The automatic detection will return major, minor and seventh chords only, and has a claimed accuracy of 85 percent for basic rock and pop songs. If your tastes lie outside of those genres or you're looking to use this software as a learning tool, you may struggle.
"The app assumes you have a certain degree of proficiency, and you can see the Chord Viewer as an aid to help you learn a song much faster, assuming you know the basics," explains Gainza. "If a beginner cannot use the ear as a guide, but still is interested in following the chords on the screen in sync to the music, the best way would be using the chord editor to correct the errors just once, using external chord charts as a guide. Then, all edits will be saved in a session file and you won't need the chord charts anymore."
Without making edits, the chords presented are often near enough so that you won't sound like a total novice, so you can indeed jam along to your favorite bands, but you can't really take what you've learned any further without putting in some time and effort.
If you're already practiced in the art of frantic fretting, Riffstation may also prove frustrating. This is simply because, as a seasoned player, you're likely to want the software to help you play songs correctly, rather than just strum along in a "near enough" kind of fashion. This can be achieved by making (sometimes significant) corrections in Chord Viewer of course, but with powerful guitar tab reading software (like Guitar Pro, Power Tab or alphaTab) already pretty well established, this can seem like a lot of effort just to jam along to a favorite song played by those who recorded it.
Throw Jam Master and Riff Builder into the pot, though, and Riffstation becomes much more valuable. Whether you're wanting to isolate the lead guitar part of a song so that you can take it yourself, or slow it down so you can pick out and copy each note at a learner-friendly pace, Jam Master is an excellent tool. Riffstation doesn't show you where on the neck you need to press your fingers down, but if you already have the score or tab and just need to practice, Jam Master is the place to go.
"The Jam Master tools will give you a lot of power to learn and practice your songs," says Gainza. "Using the tempo tool, you can learn a guitar solo or a riff that is too fast to follow by slowing down without affecting the pitch. This is a crucial tool to learn new songs/riffs/solos. The isolate tool will allow you to hear the solo in isolation and focus in the detail. Finally, the pitch tool will allow you to practice you songs in any key without affecting the tempo. For example, you could practice any song in the keys you know."
Riffstation is described as a tool to jam, learn and practice your favorite songs. Though I certainly had a lot of fun fooling around with the various tools that make these activities possible, the software is let down by accuracy issues in the Chord Viewer's detection algorithms.
Will you be able to strum away to your favorite songs like a real Guitar Hero? Sure, but unless you're a good deal luckier than I, you'll probably need to spend some time editing the chord strip before you can really rock out. To that end, I'd recommend having some good chord charts or guitar tab nearby.
I think that this package has a lot of potential, and the developers tell me that it's constantly evolving, with new tools in the works, and new features on the horizon. Though updates will be free, major upgrades and revisions will carry an additional charge.
You can watch a demonstration of the main tools and features in the video below. If you then want to try before you buy, Riffstation is available as a 30-day free trial download for Mac/Windows. Otherwise, the full version is priced at US$49.99.
Product page: Riffstation