Conquer digital music with GarageBand
With the release of iLife '06 ($79), Apple improved upon its already popular digital media suite. The latest version of this Mac-only collection includes all of the user-friendly programs from the previous iteration, including the music-production app GarageBand 3. Although this creative audio tool takes up a boatload of drive space and won't satisfy some advanced users, it's a fantastic starting point for novice music enthusiasts with a desire to experiment with digital tunes. Podcasters too will appreciate the various helpful and user-friendly tools added for their enjoyment. GarageBand 3 and its empowering abilities alone justify purchasing iLife.
GarageBand 3 installs automatically and quickly with iLife, which requires 4.7GB of space (most of it due to GarageBand itself), and there are no setup steps. You simply add samples, loops, and other audio files once you open a new project at start-up. The various and recommended Jam Packs--Rhythm Section, Remix Tools, Symphony Orchestra, and World Music--cost $99 apiece and take up 6GB, 4.5GB, 6GB, and 12GB, respectively, on your hard drive. In case you weren't counting, that's a whopping 33.2GB to install the entire GarageBand 3 package, or 6GB more than version 2 required. It would have been preferable to have the option of selecting specific Jam Pack audio files à la carte, as is the case with Adobe Audition, instead of having to copy the entire disc over to your hard drive. As it stands, the Jam Packs integrate seamlessly with the program, which is nice for usability, but we'd recommend that you forgo installing them unless you have the space and a need for more loops. We also noticed a slight decrease in system and application performance with the addition of new Packs.
GarageBand 3 is undoubtedly one of--if not the--simplest music-creation tools that we've used. A quick read of the Getting Started guide that's found in the Help menu is all you'll need to be on your way to making your own unique groove, and the software-savvy can likely figure out the basics with a bit of exploring. The start-up interface is a two-tone gray window with a ruler scale across the top; a large track-arrangement section in the middle; and a zoom slider, shortcut keys, playback buttons, the timer display, and the master volume control lining the bottom. When you open the Loop Browser or the Track Editor, the bottom of the window slides up to reveal either the selections by instrument or an editing grid, respectively. There are plenty of keyboard shortcuts for speedy navigation. Version 3 offers improved integration with the rest of the iLife suite, such as remote interview recording via iChat and automatic podcast posting on iWeb.
More than 1,000 high-quality loops come with GarageBand 3 and are segmented into instrument sets such as Brass, Synths, and Beats, as well as moods such as Cheerful and Dark. Within these, you're treated to a variety of affected loops such as Bongo Beat 01 and Orchestra Brass 03. Each of the Jam Packs adds more than 2,000 loops related to its individual title, in addition to a selection of new software instruments. Using the loops within GarageBand 3 is the quickest and easiest way to create a song; via this method, we were able to produce this track in just a few hours. But thanks to the program's ample feature set, you aren't limited to loop-based tunes. You can hook up real instruments to record into the program, and GarageBand 3 provides several preset effects that you can also tinker with to your liking. There's even a built-in tuner. Alternatively, you can use the embedded software instruments, which you play with your keyboard, your mouse (a piano-key tool pops up on the screen for this method), or a MIDI keyboard. There are 15 software sound kits--for example, organs, synth basics, and horns--each of which has a selection of instrument types. As with real instruments, you can adjust these with various effects, such as Distortion, Flanger, and Track Echo.
Finally, there's the new Movie Score project option and several useful podcasting tools. GarageBand 3 includes a drag-and-drop artwork feature that allows you to easily add visual enhancements to your podcasts. (Newer iPods are capable of playing these tracks with the timed-in art.) Apple has also added more than 100 royalty-free jingles and a generous number of radio-style sound effects, called stingers. But the icing on the cake are the speech-enhancer effect, which reduces background noise and brings vocals forward, and the ducking effect that automatically lowers background music when a speech track comes in. The latter is especially time-saving.
While audio pros won't be satisfied with GarageBand 3 alone, the program is a good choice for novice music production. In addition to the features mentioned above, there's a basic mixer for each track that lets you adjust the left and right balance as well as fade the volume in and out. You can also import audio (AIFF, WAV, MP3, Apple Lossless, and unprotected AAC) and MIDI files by dragging and dropping them into the interface, and GarageBand 3 has the ability to display recordings in full musical notation. The app also lets you edit individual tracks, but we were unsatisfied with the level of editing; you can't get down to the audio sample level. Pick up a separate audio-editing tool such as Bias Peak if you need this functionality. Once you've completed your GarageBand music project, you can export it to iTunes as an AIFF file. Within iTunes, you can then convert the file to an MP3 or AAC track.
As one would expect, GarageBand 3's performance varies based on the system. Interestingly, when we tested the latest version of the program on a G4 PowerBook with a 1.67GHz PowerPC processor and 512MB of RAM, we got the same performance as we did when testing version 2 on a G4 iBook with a 1GHz processor and 256MB of RAM, even though the PowerBook had a more optimal configuration. (Apple recommends 512MB of RAM and requires that you have Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later or Mac OS X 10.4.3 or later.) Essentially, performance was a bit sketchy at first, with the app skipping and halting with as few as four tracks playing. Luckily, the help menu includes tips for optimizing GarageBand 3--for example, not running apps in the background and locking individual tracks--and once we utilized these tricks, we experienced few problems.
All editing and effects processing happens in real time, with little if any delay. However, we had some latency issues when previewing loops while consecutively playing back tracks that were already laid down. Results varied, but there was always a noticeable delay between clicking the loop and the playback of that preview; occasionally, the main tracks would stop playing completely. As such, we found it more useful to drag loops into the interface and listen to them there; sometimes, we noted a lag between dropping the loops and their actually showing up. This lag became more and more noticeable as we continued to add Jam Packs. These performance issues combined with the huge amount of space required by the program leads us to the conclusion that GarageBand is best suited to a powerful desktop configuration.
In addition to the tips found in GarageBand Help, Apple has a GarageBand support Web page. Here, you'll find community forums for each program in iLife, as well as software updates and an extensive list of linked support topics. Apple also offers complimentary support via e-mail, chat, or phone for the first 90 days that you own the software.