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mac.column.ted: Making music with GarageBand

mac.column.ted: Making music with GarageBand

by Ted Landau
February 2004

Making music with GarageBand

Warning: GarageBand can be hazardous to your health. How can you tell if you have fallen victim to this malady? Here are some of the warning signs: Are you mixing loops during times of day that should be spent on more trivial activities, such as eating and sleeping? Do you record your voice over and over, striving for that perfect take, while your spouse consults a lawyer to see if endlessly singing off-key qualifies as spousal abuse? If so, you've been hooked. I know. It's happened to me. I can't recall the last time that a software program (other than a game) has so captured my attention.

I ordered GarageBand and the Keystation 49e MIDI controller/keyboard as soon as I returned from the Macworld Expo last month. GarageBand arrived about two weeks before the Keystation. So, at first, I contented myself with combining prerecorded loops into small compositions. While this was entertaining, and helped me to master the nuances of the software, it turned out to be just the appetizer of GarageBand's talents. After the Keystation arrived, I moved on to the main course.

With a MIDI controller such as the Keystation, you can easily spend days exploring all the different instruments and effects that the keyboard can produce. Which is exactly what I did. If you have a real piano in your house, chances are you do not also have an organ. Or vice versa. You just can't afford to have both. With the Keystation and GarageBand, you no longer have to limit yourself. You can shift from one to the other, in a matter of seconds. In fact, you have a choice of 50 different instruments, from several different types of pianos and organs to guitars to a saxophone to an orchestra string section to a full set of drums to virtual instruments that have no real counterpart (called synths).

Eventually, I decided to move on and test out GarageBand's ability to record what you play. This opened up a whole new level of possibilities. I could record a melody with a virtual saxophone and then shift to a piano accompaniment for a second track.

Finally, I returned to the loops I had been working with before the keyboard arrived. By combining loops with my own playing, I could create recordings that sounded as if an entire band had stopped by my house for the evening.

Seeing a demo of all this is impressive enough. But it is only after trying it out yourself that you realize how truly amazing it all is. Yes, GarageBand is not the first program to offer these capabilities. Other programs can do most of what GarageBand does (and even offer some features that GarageBand lacks). And yes. You can purchase an electronic keyboard that includes virtual instruments and loops. But the cheap ones don't have nearly the quality and range of instruments included with GarageBand. And the expensive ones cost thousands of dollars (and still don't offer the recording options of GarageBand).

Put simply: There has never been an easier or less expensive (assuming you already own a Mac) way to do all of this.

Okay. Enough gushing.

In truth, I had one glaring problem with GarageBand: me. More specifically, my lack of certain musical skills.

I took piano lessons (mainly classical training) for about 12 years. That was many years ago. The last time my fingers attempted a piece by Chopin was closer to the Vietnam war than the Gulf wars. Today, I content myself playing mostly pop tunes on my (very non-electric) upright piano. This, as it turns out, is not the ideal background for exploring the depths of GarageBand.

For starters, I am a soloist. I have never played with a band before. Having to keep pace with the constant rhythm of a GarageBand loop was a new (and not especially easy) task. One plus: If you are using a software instrument (such as the Keystation), a Fix Timing button (located in the Track Editor) can help remedy your worst miscues.

Second, I had no experience using MIDI devices. This made it more difficult to decide what instruments to use with a particular song and if (and how) to adjust effect settings. I was especially green when it came to working with the "synth" instruments - the ones that do not correspond to any real instrument and have names like Martian Lounge, Blip Side and Cloud Break.

Finally, I had no experience with mixing tracks. True, one of GarageBand's strengths is how easy it is to combine loops that sound good together. In fact, Apple touts this as a way you can use the program even if you have no musical skills at all. But selecting and combining loops that sound good with what you are recording is another story altogether. And trying to figure out the best place for each loop to begin and end, plus how to shift tempos within a song as needed, can wind up making you feel like you need a course in music arranging to do it right. And none of this even begins to address all the track editing options that GarageBand provides.

It also didn't help any that my musical repertoire consists mostly of pop music and folk blues. With a name like GarageBand, I didn't expect Broadway show tunes to be its speciality. But unless I wanted a hard driving beat behind my music, my loop options in GarageBand quickly and radically dwindled.

Selecting a time signature was also a problem. Almost all of GarageBand's loops work best (or only) in 4/4 time. If you want 2/4, for example, the number of accessible loops drops to zero! On the plus side, GarageBand did a great job accommodating my shifts in key and tempo.

None of this detracted from the immense amount of fun I was having with GarageBand. But clearly, it was going to take more than a few hours before I would be creating compositions that I would want anyone outside of my immediate family to hear. If you already have experience playing in a band or doing your own arranging, you will likely fare better than I did. But for those of you who are missing these skills, be forewarned: GarageBand is amazing but it still requires hard work to use it effectively.

What you absolutely need to know

No matter how you intend to use GarageBand, it will help immensely if you have certain key concepts nailed down. These are (a) loops vs. recorded music and (b) software instruments vs. real instruments. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get these distinctions down. Your choices here have implications that cascade throughout the rest of GarageBand. For example, in GarageBand's editing window, software instruments display actual notes while real instruments display a graphic representation of the sound.

Figure 1. The Track Editor for a software instrument. Each small rectangle represents a note. Notes can be added, deleted or moved.

Figure 2. The Track Editor for a real instrument. A region of the timeline can be selected to be cut and pasted .

Loops vs. recorded music. Understanding the difference between loops vs. recorded music is pretty easy. GarageBand comes with a collection of pre-recorded riffs called loops. You can add these as tracks to a song, extending each loop to play for as long as you want. Recorded music, in contrast, is any music that a user, such as yourself, records.

Can you record a riff and then add it to the collection of built-in loops? The brief answer to this is a qualified yes. The hitch is that the riff must be in Apple Loop format. How do you get a sound file to be in Apple Loop format? By using Apple's Soundtrack Loop Utility. It's free - documentation is included and gets installed in /Developer/Apple Loops SDK/; the utility itself is installed in /Applications/Utilities. Although designed to work with Soundtrack, it can produce loops that work with GarageBand as well. Essentially, you use it to add tags to an .aif sound file that provide the metadata needed for GarageBand to work with the file. Here's the way I did it:

1. Export a GarageBand song to iTunes. This converts the file to an .aif file.

2. Open the .aif file in Soundtrack Utility and enter at least one tag (such as Genre).

3. Save the file.

4. Drag the file's icon to the loop browser in GarageBand's window.

This imports and indexes the file. A copy gets stored in /Library/Application Support/GarageBand/Apple Loops/SingleFiles. It is now available for selection from the loop browser.

Software vs Real Instruments. The distinction between Software vs. Real Instruments is a bit more subtle - and ultimately much more significant. Both loops and recorded music can be based on a software or a real instrument - creating a sort of 2 x 2 grid of all the different possibilities. For loops, Apple makes the distinction easy to see by assigning a separate color and icon for each instrument category (e.g., a note icon for real and digital wave icon for software). In most cases, you can select loops without much concern for what type they are. But if you are connecting your own instrument to the Mac, the distinction becomes critical.

Figure 3. The New Track window with the Guitars option for Real Instrument selected.

Figure 4. The New Track window with the Guitars option for Software Instrument selected.

  • Software Instruments. If you click the plus ( ) button in the GarageBand display, a New Track window appears. It contains separate tabs for Real and Software Instruments. If you are using a MIDI/USB device, such as the Keystation, your selection must be from the Software Instruments list. Real Instruments selections will not work. Software instruments work with devices, such as the Keystation, that generate digital signals rather than real sounds. These devices are incapable of making any sounds on their own. GarageBand, in this case, works with the device to produce sound from the input it receives.

    The Keystation is particularly convenient for entry level users in that all the necessary hardware is built in. Just connect the keyboard to the Mac via a USB cable and you are done. The USB port even supplies power so no separate AC adapter is needed. When GarageBand is launched, the keyboard is detected. You are now ready for take-off. Whichever software instrument you select, start playing the keyboard and it sounds just about the same as if you are using the real thing. With a high quality set of speakers (which I definitely recommend!), the sound is awesome - especially considering that the keyboard only costs $99.

  • Real Instruments. Real instruments refer to exactly that - real instruments. These include such common band mainstays as an electric guitar or bass. There are a variety of ways to connect a real instrument to GarageBand. It can be as simple as a cable that connects directly from your instrument to the Mac's Audio In port. Or it can require an intermediate audio interface device, costing hundreds of dollars. Once connected, you select a Real Instrument track from GarageBand. Although you can mix and match Real Instrument selections to the actual instrument you are using, you will almost certainly want to select a Real Instrument that "makes sense." Thus, if you are using a guitar, you'll select one of the guitar options (which mimic different types of amplifiers).

    Your own voice qualifies as a real instrument. To use it, all you need is a microphone. If your Mac comes with a built-in microphone (all laptops and iMacs have one), GarageBand will automatically access it! Just set up a Vocals track (you have several options here, such as Male Basic and Female Basic), hit the Record button and start singing. The sound quality is not great compared to using a good quality external mike, but it's decent enough for just playing around. You don't need to limit yourself to recording a voice. With a microphone, you can record anything you want, from an acoustic instrument to your dog barking. If there is no matching track setting for what you want to record, select Basic Track. You can edit the exact setting parameters later, if desired.

Aside from the voice option, I expect that most users will either use a keyboard controller (and thus be limited to software instruments) or a real instrument (such as a guitar), but not both. This, in turn, will have a significant impact on how you perceive GarageBand's capabilities. Still, that GarageBand even gives you this range of choices is another facet of the flexibility and surprising depth of the program.

Figure 5. One of the demo songs that comes with GarageBand. It uses a combination of real and software instruments. None of them are loops.

Performance revisited

I had previously noted on MacFixIt that, unless you have a speedy G4 (or any G5) plus a healthy amount of RAM, GarageBand quickly reaches its limits. As you add more tracks, stalls, distortions and skipped notes start to occur. Apple has since posted a Knowledge Base article on how to deal with this problem. As it turns out, my "first-look" assessment may have been more negative than deserved. I have since found that the threshold for performance problems varies a great deal from session to session - for no clear reason that I can determine. One day, playing a song will result in frequent System Overload messages. The next day, the same song will play fine (and yes, I have checked for obvious causes, such as differences in available RAM). Overall, the good days have outnumbered the bad. So this problem has lessened for me over time.

What about Jam Pack?

Once I was comfortable with GarageBand, I debated whether or not to get the Jam Pack collection of additional instruments and loops. As Apple sent me a copy for review, it was an easy decision. Is Jam Pack worth it if you have to pay for it? If you intend to use GarageBand often, I would say yes. What comes with GarageBand, as it ships with iLife '04, is not skimpy. And it may seem as if Jam Pack's 2000 additional loops are overkill. But, once you pick a particular style of music, your compatible options quickly start to narrow. If you have a MIDI keyboard, you'll especially appreciate Jam Pack's 100 additional instruments. I got a particular kick out of the combo instruments (especially the one that combines a vibraphone with a bass; playing with only that instrument already made it sound as if a jazz combo was at work). On the downside, the new instruments are mainly additional variations of existing categories (e.g., many more styles of pianos, organs, and guitars), so your choices do not expand in quite the way you might have hoped. That's why I can't call Jam Pack a must-buy. But, if you get it, you won't regret it.


If you are looking for a place to go public with your own GarageBand creation, I recommend, a slickly-designed new site for all things GarageBand.

As for me, it's back to my new "recording studio." The heck with sleep.

Utility of the Month: MidiKeys

GarageBand includes an onscreen keyboard. It can be useful for listening to the different software instruments. You can even use it to add filler notes to a composition (such as an occasional bass note). But for anything else, it is severely limited. Playing notes requires that you use the mouse to click keys. This means you can only play one note at a time and even that at an agonizingly slow pace.

There is a better way! Get MidiKeys. With this software keyboard, you play notes by pressing keys on your Mac's keyboard (one row plays white keys, the next row up plays black keys). This allows you to play multiple notes at once and at a decent pace. It's not nearly as good as having a Keystation or equivalent, of course, but it's far better than GarageBand's keyboard.

Tip of the month: GarageBand's hidden loops

When you select GarageBand's Loop Browser, only 35 keyword buttons are visible. Another 28 buttons are hidden. To see them, click-hold the cursor when it is directly to the left of the Record button. The cursor changes to a hand. Drag the hand up to enlarge the browser section, revealing the additional buttons.

Want even more keywords? OK. Control-click on any of the listed keyword buttons. A pop-up menu appears with the complete list of keywords. Select any item and it replaces the keyword currently displayed on the button.

Figure 6. GarageBand's expanded list of keywords for loops. The contextual menu to access still more keywords is shown on the right.

Ted Landau is the creator of MacFixIt and author of the soon-to-be-published Mac OS X Help Desk (Peachpit, 2004). To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here.

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