Phrasebox from Venomode (https://venomode.com/phrasebox) is a fascinating and powerful MIDI utility designed to help you compose music more easily. As the name suggests, the focus of the tool is on building musical phrases, which is a much needed fresh perspective on traditional arpeggiator or chord progression tools. After all, musical phrases are how musicians think. As a composer, you often want to try out your musical ideas in different keys, different locations in the score, or with different arrangements. Phrasebox makes this exploration so much easier, especially for a very reasonable price. This review will hit some of the highlights I've found in my first week of using it.
Phrasebox works within your DAW. (This reviewer uses Cubase). In Cubase, it seems to work best when using one instance of Phrasebox to play one instrument, and you can of course add as many instances as you need for your tracks. The basic concept is that you will feed into Phrasebox chord progressions either by playing on your keyboard live or by routing a MIDI track with chord notes on it - and those notes will be transformed by Phrasebox into the musical idea you've laid out in the grid. Ostinatos, driving bass lines, wild arpeggios are all possible. Want to build a four-part fugue? Go right ahead. This tool ensures your melodies, harmonies, and counterpoints are all right on key. Phrasebox could be used powerfully with a wide variety of VST instruments - piano, guitar, synths, orchestral instruments, and sound design instruments. Setting up Phrasebox is relatively straightforward, somewhere between easy to intermediate in complexity. It's not going to read your mind, yet with just a bit of practice you're going to be doing some great creative work a lot faster than you did before and having a lot more fun doing it. After just a week's use, I can see I'll be using this for most if not nearly all my composition projects from here on out.
Phrasebox also succeeds by not trying to do too much. You couldn't, for example, sequence the entire first movement of Beethoven's Fifth with it, but you definitely could create some great variations on that opening. Feeling a little Zimmerish? Build those lower string ostinatos on one track and layer some high string and brass melodies on top of it. Those tracks will all blend beautifully, even when you switch from D minor to G major or later change your mind to hear it in B-flat lydian. Because the tracks are following your chord progression, you don't have to make substantial changes to a bunch of MIDI just to experiment with different keys or scales. You can also constrain your patterns to a specific scale mode in each key - you get twelve modes per key from which to choose (major, harmonic minor, natural minor, dorian, phrygian, lydian, lydian flat 7, mixolydian, locrian, jazz melodic minor, pentatonic major, and pentatonic minor).
Many of the features are what you'd expect in this kind of tool, but a few features really stand out. First, each instance can include up to seven different CC automation lane assignments of your choice, in addition to velocity, transpose, octave, chance, and pitch bend. This means if you want to add some increasing vibrato to your phrase (for example), and your instrument supports vibrato through a CC channel (e.g. CC 11), you can include that expression as part of the phrase. Use CC 64 to apply the sustain pedal to all or part of your phrase. If your instrument uses a CC value to switch articulations, you can accommodate that too (although, from what I can tell, keyswitches are not supported directly). Overall, you can be as precise as you need to be to fit your target instrument or more generic to suite a wider variety of VST instruments. Phrases can be copied and pasted as you'd expect, and an entire Phrasebox setup can be saved as a user preset. What all these features ultimately give you is the ability to compose freely and still get the playback quality you want, to the degree of preciseness you want.
Then to make your phrases a permanent part of your project, you would record the MIDI output from Phrasebox in you DAW, and the output includes your CC and automation data too.
Another hugely important capability is being able to make fine adjustments to the length of notes whether for more realistic performances or to trigger legato transitions that require overlapping notes.
(Cubase users, if you've ever tried to use the Cubase Chord Track to modify individual MIDI tracks based on scale or chord, you'll find that Phrasebox makes that process so much simpler and in many ways better because you get more predictable results.).
For future versions, I'd like to see a keyswitch lane added to the grid similar to the "Fixed" note lane with different fixed notes per step. For longer compositions, I could also use more than twelve phrases per instance and at least twice as many steps per phrase (you get 32 right now, which is a lot already). Lastly, more scale modes like exotic scales, or perhaps user-defined scales, would be really fun. I'd love to see a future version where you could record a phrase live from keyboard or import MIDI from the DAW into Phrasebox for that nth degree of humanization.
That said, this is a very well designed and user-friendly compositional aid that has been made with a composer's perspective front and center. For version 1, it's incredibly deep and powerful. I would pick this utility over any of the other scale, chord, and pattern MIDI tools that I've purchased in the last couple of years.