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Learn to rock with GarageBand

Step-by-step instructions on setting up your own home recording studio.

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Rock hair? Check. Leather pants? Check. Air guitar skills? Check. Move over Rover and let the music nerds at show you how to set up a simple home recording environment with GarageBand.

Setting up your own digital recording environment used to be a fairly specialised area only a short time ago. Hardware was expensive, software was difficult to learn for beginners or hobbyists, and recording instruments into a digital format cumbersome. With recent software, hardware, and plug and play technology, the job is much, much simpler.

In this tutorial we'll use Apple's GarageBand to record a variety of instruments for you to mix and export. This piece of software comes free with every new Mac (at the time of writing) and gives users an easy introduction to digital music production. The downside for Windows owners is that GarageBand only works on Mac OS X.

If you're using Windows, some alternatives to GarageBand with comparable features include:

Band-in-a-Box | Sonar Home Studio | Sony's Acid Studio | Steinberg's Sequel

What gear will you need?
Your gear will vary depending on what type of music you would like to play and record. There are three ways to import music to GarageBand. Out of the box GarageBand comes with hundreds of loops for guitar, piano, drums and bass. Apple sell Jam Packs which can increase the amount of loops you can use. Secondly, you can input real instruments such as a guitar, bass, or microphone via USB or audio interface. Lastly, you can create software instruments using a MIDI keyboard or Mac keyboard, though we've found using a computer keyboard is clumsy for this task.

For this tutorial we'll focus on recording real instruments and presume a band is recording basic rock 'n' roll instruments such as drums, keyboard, bass, guitar, and vocals.
To do this you'll need the following gear:

  1. Mac running OS X Leopard with GarageBand. The better the Mac specifications, the faster GarageBand will run. For older Macs it might be required to purchase an audio interface to prevent latency when recording.
  2. Your favourite instrument(s). Electric instruments can be recorded directly into the computer but acoustic instruments will need a microphone.
  3. Guitar/bass cables to connect to a computer or external audio interface
  4. Microphone cable to connect to a computer or external audio interface
  5. USB MIDI controller for keyboard/drum recording (optional)
  6. Audio interface (optional, but preferred if recording multiple instruments)
  7. A good set of speakers or headphones. (Optional, but preferred to hear your masterpiece in full glory.)

Hardware set-up
For hobbyist recording, there are two ways you can set up your Mac to start recording your digital masterpiece. One is to input real instruments via USB and line-level inputs directly into your Mac. This is fine for most newer Macs and those who only want to use one instrument at a time. If you own an older Mac and switch often between instruments then the second option is to plug all your instruments into one audio interface.

Here is a visual comparison of the two set-ups:

Option 1: Connect instruments
directly into the Mac

Option 2: Connect instruments
via an audio interface

If you're going to connect instruments directly into your computer then you'll need the correct cables. For guitars, MIDI keyboards, and microphones Griffin Technology provides instrument to USB cables at a reasonable price.

If you're after a slightly more professional set up via an audio interface then there's quite a few different devices out there. Cheap audio interfaces are available for less than AU$100, but we recommend devices a little bit more expensive that will do the basics plus have a few more bells and whistles that will allow you to do more advanced capturing and exporting once your skills become more advanced. M-Audio's Fast Track Pro is one of those devices which works well with GarageBand.

Setting up your recording environment
Whichever set up you choose, connect the relevant cables to your Mac. If you have PC speakers or headphones, make sure they are connected but volume is set low, you don't want to blow out your eardrums just yet.

For direct input recording, such as electric guitars and MIDI players, the environment isn't that important. However, if you're going to record instruments or vocals through a microphone then it's best to have a quiet, preferably insulated environment to minimise the chance of outside noises being captured in the recording process.

Getting started with GarageBand
Now that you have all the hardware set up, it's time to fire up GarageBand. Open the application and click on "Create New Music Project". This will open up a dialogue box that looks like the figure below. Pick a name for your song or recording session and a tempo, key, and signature. Don't worry if you don't quite know all of these details yet as you can change them later. Click on "Create".

This will open up the GarageBand interface. If this is the first time you've played with GarageBand it's worth spending some time getting used to the way the application works. While we'll cover the basics in this article, this is a large topic so if you want to know every feature and functionality then Apple's support website is a great resource. For a quick overview see the visual map below:

By default there will be a track called "Grand Piano" on the screen when first starting GarageBand. If you have a USB MIDI keyboard plugged in then click on Window -> Keyboard, otherwise you can use the Mac's keyboard as a musical keyboard by clicking on Window -> Musical Typing. This will prompt a keyboard on the screen and will allow you to start playing and hearing sounds from the USB MIDI keyboard.

To play a different type of software instrument, simply double click on the Grand Piano icon and pick another instrument. Out of the box there's more than 100 or so instruments to choose from with the possibility of thousands of different sounds. If that isn't enough, there are Jam Packs available from Apple for around AU$150 per pack.

Once you have the sound, riff, or melody you like it's time to record. Before rushing to press the record button allow for a count in by clicking on Control -> Count In. Now, press the big red button to start recording your software instrument. At this stage, it's not important to play perfectly, one of the benefits of GarageBand is you can create loops or riffs and mix your work later.

Congratulations, you can now record software instrument sounds on your Mac.

Recording real instruments
Now we'll try capturing and recording from a real instrument. Grab your axe or microphone and make sure your connections are set up correctly and ready to go. If in doubt check the recommended settings mentioned previously or instructions from the hardware vendor of the audio interface or USB cables.

On the left-hand side of GarageBand is a plus sign icon. Click on this to create a new track. A prompt will appear that will give you two options; create a Software Instrument Track, or create a Real Instrument Track. Click on the radio button next to Real Instrument Track and click "Create".

This will create a new track in GarageBand. On the right-hand side a prompt will appear called "Track Info". Select the type of instrument you have plugged in to your Mac. To play and hear your instrument make sure that you have clicked "monitor on" from the drop-down list.

To tune your guitar or bass select the instrument track in GarageBand. Click Control -> Show Tuner in LCD and play a note. Tune your instrument as desired.

At this stage you can start playing your instrument and should hear yourself through the computer speakers. With the monitor on you can change the effects by clicking on the "Details" tab. Here you can change the sound of your instrument by selecting different amp, echo, reverb, compressor, and gate settings. If you're a guitar or bass player this is the same as having a multi-effect pedal — which is a hell of a lot of fun to play around with. If you lack musical talent, try using a distortion amp — it's an easy way to make music sound cool and tough without the gazillion hours of practice it takes to master a guitar or bass.

Hot Tip:
If there's a considerable lag between playing an instrument and the sound coming out of the speakers then try and free up your Mac's system resources by closing down applications you don't need open.

Having found your groove, recording a real instrument is the same as the software instrument. Simply allow a count in, and press the red button to start recording. If it helps, GarageBand has a built in metronome to help you keep time. Click on Control -> Metronome to enable or disable it.

If you're looking to have a jam session with band mates to record vocals, guitar, bass, and drums together, GarageBand can record up to eight real instruments at the same time. To do this, simply click on the Record Enable button next to each track you've set up. To do this you will require an audio interface with input channels for each instrument.

Editing and Mixing
Once you've added tracks, loops, riffs, and various hooks in GarageBand you may actually want to arrange them together into a song. The basis of arranging your music in GarageBand revolves around "regions". Different types of regions will appear differently on the GarageBand timeline:

  • Blue regions are real instruments created from loops
  • Purple regions are real instruments you've recorded
  • Green regions are software instruments from recordings and loops
  • Orange regions are imported from audio files

These regions can be arranged and edited via dragging, dropping, resizing, copy and pasting, and splitting. Most of these are fairly user-friendly to get the hang of. However, the task of arranging, editing, and mixing your music is going to vary greatly depending on the style of music you want to end up with. It will also take some time to master some of the more advanced features of mixing and arranging your music.

One of the most extensive resources to learn every trick in the GarageBand book is the free PDF provided via Apple on its support website. This guide is worth the read if you're looking to master GarageBand.

Export your work to MP3, CD or iTunes
Once you're happy with your soon-to-be number one hit, it's time to export and share your music. Click on Share in the top navigation and choose your export option of choice and follow the prompts. GarageBand will allow you to burn directly to a CD, move your music to your iTunes library, or export to MP3, AAC, or CD quality on the hard disk. To save your work in the highest quality then de-select the compress box. If you want to share your music on the Web or iPod it's best to compress your music.

Now that you've set up a simple home recording studio using GarageBand, it's easy to continually progress and add new dimensions to your music. Eventually you may want to invest in more expensive software and hardware, but starting off with GarageBand will provide a solid grounding for music recording and editing. But for now, have fun with GarageBand, and in the words of Bon Scott "Let there be rock"!