Apple's new Music Memos app is instant gratification for musicians, backing band included

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When a bolt of musical inspiration hits, many musicians will reach for their smart phones, pop open the built-in voice-recorder app, and make a quick recording of some combination of guitar, voice or piano, hoping to capture the essence of the idea before it fades.

But a voice memo is a blunt tool for capturing a song idea, and the artist is left on their own to figure out how to translate a rough recording into something more substantial -- or even to remember what chords were played.

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Press this big button to record.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Enter Music Memos, a new iOS app from Apple. This simple app is a new type of voice-memo recorder, built around capturing musical ideas, giving them a slight polish, and sending the best ones on to a more powerful music tool, such as Apple's own GarageBand or Logic Pro. It's completely free, and should be available on the App Store later today.

Music Memos starts with a simple record button in the middle of the screen. Tap it and the app starts recording -- it's optimized for guitar or piano, but you could really record anything: voice, ukulele, klezmer, whatever, although other instruments may miss out on some of the advanced features.

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Trim and loop the recording and edit the chord information here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's what happens next that makes Music Memos stand out from a standard memo-recording app. If you recorded some acoustic guitar or piano, Music Memos analyses the audio input and attempts to chop your song demo into bars, in the appropriate time signature, and then adds chord labels.

You can tweak the recording a good deal, trimming the start and end to form a loop, and overwriting the chord information with your own notations. In practice, I found it worked best with strummy, coffee-shop open chords in 4/4 time. Trying to get a little more complex, such as throwing in jazzy major-7th chords, forced me to manually enter the appropriate chords for each bar.

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Songs can be exported to GarageBand or shared via services including SoundCloud and email.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But once that's all set, you can turn on the surprisingly satisfying auto-accompaniment tools, and a simple bass line and drum track will follow along with the rhythm and chords, like a bare-bones backing band. It offers just a few basic beats, and again seems targeted at the strummy, coffee-shop singer-songwriter crowd, but it's also very satisfying to hear a fleshed-out version of a song idea almost instantly.

Song ideas can also be labeled with tags, and you can add comments or even song lyrics to a notes section for each recording. Music Memo recordings can be synced to iCloud, or you can export the actual files to GarageBand or Logic Pro in order to work on them further in a more full-featured music app.

A big update for GarageBand

The next step up from Music Memos is GarageBand, Apple's consumer-friendly music recording and editing program. Included on most iOS and OS X devices, it takes an iMovie-like approach to recording, throwing out some of the traditional user interfaces found in programs such as ProTools or Apple's own Logic Pro (which were, in turn, copied from actual real-world recording studios), and instead creating a new, hopefully more intuitive, way to record music.

Having used old-school music DAWs (shorthand for "digital audio workstations," a term used to describe computer-based recording programs) such as ProTools and Logic extensively over the years, I've always found the GarageBand approach hard to wrap my head around. But, this new 2.1 update adds some interesting new features that make it easier than ever to get started crafting or arranging music, even if you have little or no experience.

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The Live Loops interface in GarageBand.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The most notable is an entirely new (and entirely optional) interface called Live Loops. It's a performance-friendly sequencer for arranging samples and loops, which can be lined up to play in order, or simply triggered on the fly by tapping on the appropriate square-shaped loop. Apple includes several preloaded templates in different music genres, or you can start with a blank field and import various loops and samples, or original recordings made in GarageBand. With the right tempo and note information (routinely included with commercial samples and loops) the Live Loops interface keeps all the parts in sync and flowing together naturally.

The idea reminds me of performance-friendly music programs such as Ableton Live, but this version is much more pick-up-and-play, and my four-year-old was having a great time with it, triggering samples and creating on-the-fly arrangements in under a minute. Live Loops is fun to play with, but probably more useful for live improvisation from the DJ booth or creating EDM arrangements than traditional songwriting and recording.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Outside of Live Loops, there's also the standard music recording and editing tools in GarageBand, augmented by some new automation features and EQ tools for tweaking the overall sound.

You can still record audio via an external mic or your device's built-in mic (although the latter is not really recommended) or play virtual guitars and keyboards on-screen, which is fun but involves a lot of trial and error to get a feel for. "Smart" versions of these instruments will play preset patterns based on chord information you provide. That can give you an instant backing band for ideas, but again, there's a robotic sameness to the performances and the styles are on the dry side, so it's not going to replace calling your musically talented friends up and asking them to play on your album.

New for GarageBand 2.1 is the addition of Drummer, a high-concept AI drum tool previously found only in the $200 Logic Pro software. Drummer starts with several fictional drummer profiles, each with his or her own music genres and drum kits, and builds a drum track for your song that can be adjusted on the fly to be louder, softer, more or less complex, using different cymbal or kick/snare variations, and with more or fewer fills. The end result is pretty good, and much more human-feeling than basic drum loops or samples. Although, again, the genre choices tend to run towards EDM, straightforward rock, and commercial-sounding hip-hop/R&B. I'm still waiting for a specialized bossa nova drummer, or a virtual version of Bernard Purdie.

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The Drummer app inside GarageBand.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new iOS version of GarageBand feels like it was built around the big 12.9-inch display on the iPad Pro, as it has enough screen real estate to accommodate a large number of tracks and a reasonably playable on-screen keyboard. As with Music Memos, tracks can be exported and shared, directly to a service such as SoundCloud or YouTube, or just via email or Facebook. (And if you want to hear full version of the new track I wrote and recorded for this review, I exported it directly from GarageBand to Soundcloud here.)

Music Memos is for free for iOS users and will work on iPhone 4s and later, and iPad 2 and later. GarageBand 2.1 for iOS will be included on new iOS devices with 32GB or more of storage, and owners of previous versions can upgrade for free if they have iOS 9.

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