The Riffstation Low Down
Riffstation is a modest and appropriately titled three-in-one stand alone program that’s primary function is based around helping you, the budding guitarist and/or seasoned expert guitarist, through learning songs the old fashioned way with modern approaches pitched in as well. That’s right. Riffstation is all about learning with your ears. Being the anti-tab guy that I am I pretty much crapped right in my pants with joy over this and jumped on the chance get a more in depth look to see what the gun metal grey and orange themed program has to offer.
What we have when opening Riffstation up is a generally not very intimidating to look at. The interface can be divided into three sections. The audio track that dominates the top, the play tools that hang out across the bottom, and the features in the middle, which are divided among three tabs of their own titled “Jam Master”, “Riff Builder”, and “Chord Viewer”. Each tab offers you the means to bend the imported song to your will per your needs.
The Audio Track
The audio track is any MP3 you can get your grimy mitts on. Importing is as simple as it is in any other program be it importing from the file menu or just dragging and dropping. Upon doing that you will see the track itself appear and below it a slimmer track for zooming and scrolling purposes. Below the main audio track is a bar that shows the processed progression giving you a good nudge on where to start.
The Jam Master section offers you the first line of defense to transcribing songs with the tempo control that tells you the starting tempo of the imported song and lets you slow it down or speed it up by 50%. The pitch control allows you to increase and decrease the pitch up to one octave in either direction, one semitone at a time. The isolate section is a filter that allows you to isolate specific parts of the song by frequency so you can hear a given part, be it the rhythm guitars, or a lead melody more easily.
The Riff Builder is a fun and potentially incredibly funny way to take a song and rearrange it to either form a brilliant backing track or a manifestation of chaos. You can divide a song up into 16 pieces through 6 banks that can be organized through the riff bank selector.
The Chord Viewer is an extension of the chord bar in the audio track and gives you a suggested chord shape to work with as well as giving you a heads up on the next chord to pop up. You can also tinker the pitch, tempo, and switch from open to power chord suggestions from this view.
Riffstation In Action
Riffstation’s learning curve is easily among its greatest asset. While there is an online help option available it’s probably only necessary for the most perplexing cases. None of the tabs are so mired in tools that it’s remotely easy to get confused and, as I prefer it, just tinkering around with things will clear up any such mystery.
In the case of the tempo and isolation filter you’re in a circumstance where you’re tinkering with the song and the quality becomes altered. If you simply just reduce the tempo the sound quality is preserved quite well, but it can get a bit grainy sounding if you drop it down to the slowest tempo and then crank the filters up.
Speaking of the filters. If you’re aim is to learn lead melodies then rest assured that’s as easy as it gets. It can be a bit cumbersome to isolate rhythm guitars and that will offer a bit steeper of a learning curve, but even that’s not too bad.
The biggest concern regarding the filter is what song you are loading into it. The guys at Riffstation have made it clear they are targeting guitarists, but I wanted to see just what all Riffstation could handle. I’ve imported some Satriani songs, Tony MacAlpine, Guns n’ Roses, a couple of songs from the Mass Effect 2 and Super Meat Boy soundtracks, the haunting Torgo theme, some of Bach’s harpsichord fugues, and a couple of songs from my improv band Hulk Big Knife.
In regards to the guitar-driven songs it Riffstation does a really good job. You can drop the low frequencies easily and trim off the higher ones to get a specific range and it will come through quite clearly. You’ll still often hear some higher cymbals or some snare, but the melody will be isolated very well. The lower frequencies are shared with bass and drums and aren’t quite as straight forward. It’s doable, but just takes a bit more knob turning to make happen. The more electronic songs I toyed with were actually about as easy. Super Meat Boy was as easy to tweak as MacAlpine and Satch were with similar results.
A lot of classical music really didn’t work well for me. You’re not going to get good results filtering a harpsichord. Orchestral songs that have varieties of instruments that share frequency, but with different timbre are a bit cumbersome as well since you can’t fully isolate some brass from some strings for example. While it is still easier than when the whole orchestra is playing it the challenge of ear transcriptions is still present to some extent.
The Riff Builder is a lot of fun to toy with just because of the tinkering alone. You could isolate the lead out of a track, toy around in riff builder, and make your own backing track to loop while you jam over it and the results are quite good, but also partially depend on what song you’ve imported. Some songs just aren’t backing track material. If you’re easily amused like I am then you’ll get a lot of laughs just turning the whole damn song into a big cluster so you can confuse your friends when you tell them you view this as authentically funny.
The Chord Viewer is a handy guideline, but it’s probably not what you’re really buying a program like this for. It gives you the right direction in terms of a given harmony, or a chord, and sends you on your way, but specific voicings it recommends are limited and usually aren’t the exact one being played at a given time. It’s a good point in the right direction, but it could use some refining.
There is a basic chord dictionary that presents you with the shapes of the common chords used in a song, but what would probably really make it excel is if they don’t add more shapes themselves then permit the users to add new shapes, save them, and replace the recommended shapes with the user created shapes. Also having options for 7-strings would come in handy for some people I’m sure.
In conclusion Riffstation is a solid program. What it aims to do it does well. It’s easy to use and apart from the few details it’s fairly priced at 40 euros or about $50. A 30-day trial is available at riffstation.com so you can see for yourself. The trial does have a periodic window that pops up and forbids you to do anything for a short amount of time to remind you you’re using a trial version.