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GarageBand for the Musical Newbie

by Giles Turnbull
04/20/2004

Let me tell you a couple of secrets.

(1) Since I was very young, I have been a compulsive singer. I sing all the time, usually to myself, in my head. In recent months I joined a proper singing group so that I could get some of the music off my chest every few days. I've even been known to compose my own songs.

(2) All of which is unfortunate, because in all other respects I am a complete musical ignoramus. I can't read music, I don't properly understand what a "key" is, and I cannot play any instruments whatsoever. When I was about 10, my mother paid for piano lessons but I was so rude to the teacher that she put me over her knee and gave me a smack, which I thoroughly deserved.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard about GarageBand. Software that could help me write songs! I can't play any instruments, but I know how to use software! At last, I thought, I shall be able to produce real-life versions of my own songs. GarageBand would be the answer to all my prayers.

Maybe. Recently I got my hands on a copy of GarageBand and a PowerBook G4 to run it on. What, I wondered, could an ordinary musical ignoramus like me actually create using this software? Let's find out.

Let the Music Take Control

The first time you start GarageBand it asks you to provide certain details about your first song. A name, a chosen tempo, time signature, and key. This is disconcerting to the music newbie. I know that the key makes a difference to a song, but I can't tell you what any particular key sounds like. I certainly couldn't say what key the song in my head is in.

Opening dialog box
The dialog box you see when you start GarageBand.

It's also a bit strange to name a song before it's created. Forgive me for sounding pernickety, but I'd rather write my masterpiece and then give it the name that describes it best. The only way around this is to give the song a random name and use the Save As... command later on to change it to something else. I suppose it's no different to songs having different working titles while they're being recorded in the studio.

Choices made, it's time to get to work. GarageBand opens up (refreshingly not hogging the entire screen like iMovie does) and the first thing you need to do, as a newcomer, is allow your eyes some time to wander around and take everything in. It's all fairly self-explanatory.

Click for full-size view
Garageband's main window. (Click for full-size view)

The left and right edges of the application window are displayed in a completely unnecessary wood-effect pattern, unlike the top and bottom edges that appear as a slightly darker-than-usual brushed metal. What's going on here? Perhaps the designers are trying to make the application look like real studio equipment, but frankly the effect just looks half-hearted. It would be better either radically zipped up, so that the application really does look like equipment, or (a better choice in my opinion) ditched so that GarageBand uses the same brushed metal look as every other app.

Now to the important stuff. The working area is divided into three main sections, although these change while you're making use of the program and can be further subdivided as your song grows. At the top is the main editing area, where different instruments and sounds are listed on the left, with loops representing their use in the song shown to the right. Every loop can be dragged around in this area to edit the basics of the song structure. Along the top is a time scale measuring bars.

Click for full-size view
The main song structure editor. (Click for full-size view)

Below is the main control panel, where essential functions like the play/stop buttons, volume control, and track information are displayed.

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The central control panel. (Click for full-size view)

Finally, occupying the lower quarter of the application window, there's a section used for browsing loops and samples (the Loop Browser) and editing sounds on a fine scale (the Editor).

Click for full-size view
The Loop browser... (Click for full-size view)


Click for full-size view
... and the sound editor. (Click for full-size view)

For anyone who has ever created any video in either iMovie or iDVD, this layout will be very familiar and it makes a lot of sense for Apple to use this kind of continuity between creative applications. This means that it's easy for someone with some Mac experience to know where to start in terms of what to click, and where.

Which is a good thing, because there's no tutorial or walkthrough. This is a shame -- GarageBand would seem to be priced to appeal to consumers, but it has so much power built-in that some people will find using it somewhat daunting. The Help is fairly detailed, so new users are advised to sit down and read through as much of it as possible before starting -- it will save you a lot of time and frustration.

It's also worth reading Apple's GarageBand Hints and Tips page, which contains a pile of helpful little gems. For example (and this is something I'd have never worked out on my own), the arrow at the top of the play head (the moving bar that shows where you are within your song) changes color to reflect processor load. If it turns orange or red, it's a sign that your song is starting to make serious demands of your computer and a signal that perhaps you should cut it down a bit.

The default setting for all new songs is 120 beats per minute, 4/4 time signature, in the key of C. In an attempt to mess around with this program as much as possible, I deliberately tried to choose obscure settings, going with 75 beats per minute for my first song, and a time signature of 6/8 and D key.

Boy, was that a mistake. With these obscure settings in place, I discovered there were only two prerecorded loops available to me in the Loop Editor (one harmonica, one guitar, since you ask). That's not a lot to start with. The only way to take the song further was to manually edit new loops using the built-in recording system, which is really only suited to users with a real instrument, such as a guitar or a MIDI keyboard, to plug in. Using the mouse to edit tracks on a virtual onscreen keyboard is no joke. Nor are the results particularly musical.

That was getting me nowhere. I decided at this point that I was better off starting with something more (stereo) typical, and using the default settings for a new song.

Gettin' Jiggy with It

In my teenage years I was an Indie Kid, which in my corner of the UK meant someone brought up on 1980s miserablism like The Smiths, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and The Cure. These days my tastes have warped and changed and (thankfully) diversified a lot, and I'm interested in various shades of world, country, bluegrass, and reggae (although I still need a fix of '80s pop every now and then to keep me going).

The day I started playing seriously with GarageBand, I was feeling in a jiggy, acoustic sort of mood. This time, I accepted the default tempo settings so that I could make full use of the Loop library, and dived in.

It's no surprise that the first few instruments I added began with 'A' and 'B'. Browsing through this list is done alphabetically, and there are so many choices that it's easy to get impatient after a dozen or so, and choose anything just so you can feel you've made some progress.

My song began with a nice little banjo riff I found in the Country section of the Loop Editor. I quickly found an acoustic guitar noodling sound that seemed to accompany it well, so added that. Things were still sounding a little empty at this point.

Thankfully the main editing pane responds well to keyboard commands. As in iTunes, the spacebar starts and stops the music playing. The arrow keys allow you to zip back and forth through your song, even while it's playing, much like the skip keys on a CD player. This makes it easy to repeat a section of music over and over, and to try new things and delete them quickly if they don't work.

An upright bass sound seemed to fit OK too, so that got added as well. So far so good, and it hadn't taken long. But there was an issue only just dawning on me -- trawling through this ocean of loops is taking forever. There's so much here, it takes a lot of time to flick through a couple of dozen loops and decide which, if any, will work in this song. It's a slow process and there seems to be no other way of exploring the loop library.

So here's my feature request for the next release of GarageBand: I'd like to be able to switch to Browse mode, and sit back with headphones on while a series of loops is played to me. I'd be able to select a group, or just listen to all of them. By pressing a key I'd be able to skip to another loop, replay the last one, and mark one as a Favorite. Then, browsing session over, I'd be able to come back to the editing function with a bunch of noises I like ready to use.

A system like this might not reduce the total time required to create a new song, but by separating out the editing and browsing functions, the user's brain could concentrate more on song construction. I found that I was constantly detouring from my song to try and find a loop that I could hear in my head, but might not have a hope of ever finding in the list.

This is GarageBand's strength and weakness. It can help you create a song from the loops it offers, but if you want to create a song that you have already started to write in your head, you will almost certainly find the loops limiting. Perhaps in that instance, you're better off picking up a real instrument.

One minor annoyance is that a song's tempo must remain the same throughout the song. No sudden changes of pace, or progressive-rock workouts that switch from chord-blasting guitar blowouts to flute-laden whimsy at a moment's notice. You gotta chose your mood and stick to it, which I can't help feeling stifles creativity a bit.

After about four hours of loop browsing and editing, I have precisely 17.5 seconds of music that I'm half-happy with, and the beginnings of sore eyes. Time for a break.

A Non-Musical Interlude

Let's take a look at the window I have in front of me as I relax from the strenuous task of becoming a global music sensation.

Click for full-size view
My song, after four hours. Not much there yet, is there? (Click for full-size view)

The more I use the interface, the more I like it. The most frustrating thing is the lack of right-click (I'm a two-button mouse guy) or Control+click options, so I've had to delve into the Help section to find a bunch of keyboard shortcut commands that aren't obvious from flicking through all the menu options. Pressing M while editing the tracks mutes the selected one; pressing S plays it solo, muting all the others. This is great for zooming in on details of the song, finding beats that don't quite fit, or recalculating fades in and out.

Bring the Noise

It's amazing what a cup of tea can do for your creativity. Returning to the song refreshed, I can use good, old-fashioned cut-and-paste techniques -- no different to those you'd use every day in a word processor -- to slice my song up, create a quieter midsection, then repeat the main sequence after it. Wow! With 10 minutes work, I've more than doubled the length of the tune, which now stands at 40 seconds long. I'm starting to get into this.

With more confidence, I'm starting to make use of the editor function. There's a hi-hat sound I want to use, but it doesn't fit. Easy to solve -- I'll cut it in half, then join the two halves together so that they do fit.

Elsewhere, there's a bass sound that fits nicely, but I want to give it some more oomph. In the editor, I drag the transpose slider up and bingo, it has a deeper, richer sound.

You can perform other tricks by calling up an Inspector panel for each musical item in your song. Click on a loop, hit Command+I, and in the Inspector edit other functions to suit. One part of my banjo riff needs oomph as well, so I use the Inspector to boost the reverb and give it some echo.

Editing a loop in the Info Inspector
Editing a loop in the Info Inspector.

Don't Give Up on Me, Baby

Just as I was getting into the swing of things (literally, jigging up and down in my chair), something unexpected happened. An alert appeared, telling me that the song was getting too much for my processor to handle. By this point, I had 12 different tracks comprising less than a minute of music. And I was using a relatively recent G4 PowerBook. Sheesh.

GarageBand politely suggested that I open System Preferences and change the settings so that the computer was running at "Highest Performance." I did, but was reluctant to add much more to my song afterwards. If 50 seconds of mild acoustic jigging was going to stretch a G4 laptop, what would a full three-and-a-half-minute pop song do?

To be honest, this wasn't such a big surprise. I knew GarageBand would make demands on any machine, but the warning I got serves as a reminder that if you intend to use this application to make any serious pieces of music, you're going to need as powerful a machine as you can get your hands on. G5 laptops, anyone?

Not long afterwards, I looked up at the clock and saw that the day was almost over. The song would have to be wrapped up. I was surprised that it had taken me so much time to create a mere 46 seconds of music, but much of that was down to the lengthy process of selecting loops. It was hard work, too. I felt exhausted. No wonder proper pop stars have to take so much time off.

The next task was to export the song to MP3 format and play it in iTunes. Click File, click Export to iTunes ... and wait. Just when I was beginning to think that GarageBand had crashed, up popped iTunes, with two surprises. The first was that in the iTunes library, my song had been mysteriously re-titled "Bounced." The second was that it cut out about a second before the end of the song, ruining my carefully crafted, echo-dependent, atmospheric ending. Huh?

It took the removal of four bars of music, and two resaves, to get the song exported as expected. I have no explanation for either of those two surprises. They didn't show up with other songs I created.

Bum Note?

Well, I told you I was no musician. I enjoyed the process of playing with music like this, of slicing up sounds and throwing them back together. Believe it or not, I even enjoyed hearing the same tune over and over again, 50 times or more, for a whole day.

And having created one song, I was able to work on others much faster. Familiarity with the interface helped a lot, but so did an appreciation of the capabilities -- and limits -- of the bundled loops.

But a few hours later, when I listened to it again in iTunes, I was disappointed. The songs I wrote sound as though they were created with copy-and-paste. There's little life or spark in them, no sign of that elusive quality that makes a song something you want to listen to again and again.

GarageBand is a fantastic tool, though. At the price, it's an astonishing piece of software, and something that any Mac user with a powerful enough machine should not hesitate to purchase if they feel inclined. There's enough fun built into GarageBand to provide many hours of creative entertainment.

But if you're like me, and your knowledge of music-making could easily fit into one of the holes in a blues harmonica, you need to set your expectations at the right level: Using GarageBand will not make you a musician. The best a non-musician can expect is to be able to create pleasant little doodles that may or may not entertain friends.

If you want to create great music, you need to use GarageBand with other instruments, real and electronic, to get the most out of it. Either that, or invest money in professional-level music software.

The loops provided with GarageBand are impressively varied, but you have to remember they offer a finite number of listenable combinations. Just 'cause you got loops, it don't mean you necessarily got soul.

Nul Points

Is Giles Turnbull the next music sensation? We've got two audio files of his songs for you to download, so you can decide for yourself: Don't kernel panic on me, Baby and Towns of Roman Britain.

If you think you can do better (you probably can), why not download the GarageBand files for each song and remix or add to them -- see what you can create? My examples can be downloaded here.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.


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