GarageBand

At the risk of giving away this review's punch line, let me state from the very beginning that GarageBand is the hippest, easiest-to-use, and most empowering creative application to come from Apple since iMovie. With a fast Mac, even people who have never played a note can produce professional-sounding musical tracks. And in the hands of musicians, GarageBand is a useful musical sketch pad and a terrific rehearsal tool.

But let's not get carried away. GarageBand is hardly groundbreaking. Macs have been in professional and home recording studios for years, and they've run applications that can do everything GarageBand can do (and a lot more) -- recording and playing MIDI data, recording and editing digital audio, adding effects to live instruments, and (recently) stringing together prerecorded audio loops to create a piece of music.

What makes GarageBand so revolutionary is that Apple has combined the most accessible elements of these programs into one highly approachable and highly affordable application that is useful to both the tin-eared and the conservatory-trained.

The Power of Three

GarageBand comprises three discrete musical components: prerecorded audio loops of both traditional and synthesized instruments, MIDI tracks created with software instruments (software synthesizers that you control through a MIDI keyboard or GarageBand's on-screen keyboard), and digital audio tracks for recording real instruments or vocals through the Mac's audio port or that of an audio interface (see " Center of Attention," March 2004, for more details).

All three components display as separate tracks within GarageBand's main timeline. You can add as many tracks as you need in order to complete your composition -- for example, you could lay your own guitar riffs over several instrument loops.

Inside the Main GarageBand window, you can move blocks of music, extend or shorten loops, and adjust panning and volume. Double-clicking on a track opens an editing pane where you can transpose (change the pitch of) your track and, in the case of MIDI files, change the velocity (loudness) of selected notes.

GarageBand's interface couldn't be easier to understand, and the quality of its loops is reasonably good (though variety is limited, in regards to time signatures, key signatures, and genres). Clicking on the browse button opens a pane in which you can select from the available loops for the time and key signature you designated when you first created your tune.

Apple has made it a cinch to locate the loops you'll like. You can select sounds in this browser pane by instrument (Piano, Bass, Drums, and Guitar, for example), genre (Rock/Blues, Electronic, and Country, for instance), and mood (such as Cheerful, Intense, and Relaxed). Click on a loop once to audition it, drag it into the main window to create a track, and stretch it out for as long as you'd like it to last. Just add additional tracks to build a song -- what could be easier?

MIDI and digital audio tracks are just as easy to insert. Click on GarageBand's Add (+) button, and a window opens that lets you choose Software Instrument or Real Instrument -- digital audio tracks that include effects appropriate for the kind of instrument (or vocal) you intend to record.

The program includes enough software instruments to cover the basics and a bit more -- bass, drums, guitar, horns, mallets, bells (but, oddly, no marimba or vibraphone), organs, keyboards (including electric and acoustic piano), strings, synthesizers, and woodwinds are represented. The quality of these sounds varies. The bass, guitar, drum, organ, and electric piano sounds are close to the real things. Typical of most synthesizers, the horn, woodwind, and string sounds are thin and unrealistic. The acoustic piano sound is bright -- which helps it stand out in a mix of instruments -- but in a solo setting, its tone is harsh and lacks dynamic subtlety.

Effective Effects

The real-time effects built into GarageBand's Real Instrument component are particularly nice. The most touted of these effects are the amp simulations that let you plug a guitar into a Mac and sound as though you were wailing away through a Marshall or Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. But amp simulation is only one flashy effect. GarageBand has a variety of effects presets for specific instruments or vocals. For example, to record a solo saxophone, you can select Band Instruments: Solo Sax from the Real Instrument window, and appropriate equalization and reverb will accompany the recording.

I say accompany because the effects aren't recorded with your performance. GarageBand records tracks dry (without effects), but it lets you listen to your performance with effects applied in real time. This feature is extremely helpful because monitoring a performance with effects tends to make people sing or play with more confidence (the "singing in the shower" syndrome). If you like what you're hearing, you're less likely to worry about how you sound, and you can concentrate instead on the feel of your performance. After you've recorded a track, you can decide whether to change or remove these effects.

Cons for Pros

Professional musicians will find GarageBand useful for creating simple musical sketches -- laying down a basic drum-and-bass groove, for example, and improvising over that groove. In this regard, the program is also a helpful practice tool -- it can substitute for an absent backup band.

But if you have greater musical aspirations, you need to be aware of GarageBand's restrictions. The program lets you transpose its loops, but digital audio loops moved more than a few steps sound unnatural and can stutter. This makes it difficult to use these loops in songs where you occasionally need to move to a chord far away from the root chord (transposing a loop based in the key of C to the key of G, for example). It would have been nice if Apple had included versions of its digital audio loops in a variety of keys to avoid this problem.

If you do work with the included loops, you'll have limited options when you venture outside of the default settings, 4/4 time and the key of C. Although you can choose 5/4 time in the Time Signature pop-up menu, the program includes no loops in this meter. Similarly, 6/8 time is barely represented, with a few instrument loops but no drum loops (GarageBand Jam Pack does include four analog-drum-machine loops in 6/8 time).

GarageBand's import and export options are also severely limited. For example, you can currently export songs only as AIFF files.

To export a subset of the tracks in your GarageBand tune, you first have to isolate the tracks you want and then choose Export To iTunes from the File menu. To import audio files saved in AIFF or WAV format, you can drag the files into the GarageBand window. You can also drag MP3 files into GarageBand, which converts them to AIFF. (GarageBand doesn't support AAC files.)

Although you can't directly import MIDI files into GarageBand, Bery Rinaldo provides a tool for doing so with his free Dent du Midi ( http://homepage.mac.com/beryrinaldo ). Drag a MIDI file into the program, and it is converted into separate GarageBand-compatible tracks that you can drag to the program's main window.

Apple promises that upcoming versions of its professional music applications, Logic Express and Logic Pro, will be able to read GarageBand files (and, presumably, to let you export the programs' MIDI tracks). However, I hope the first major update to GarageBand supports importing and exporting of standard MIDI files, so I can use the MIDI tracks I create in GarageBand in any MIDI application.

And even though Apple recommends a G4 processor or faster if you want to use GarageBand's software instruments, the program can be sluggish or unresponsive on single-processor G4 Macs that have 800MHz processors or lower. Apple's professional loop-based music application, Soundtrack, doesn't suffer from these kinds of slowdowns and errors, which suggests that GarageBand could be better optimized.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Given the wealth of things that GarageBand does well and the power it places in the hands of people who never imagined that they could create original music so effortlessly, I can forgive many of the program's shortcomings. For many people, GarageBand alone is worth the price of iLife '04.

Tip

Bouncing Tracks If your Mac chokes on too many GarageBand tracks, do what the pros of old did and combine multiple tracks in one track (a process called bouncing): Create as many tracks as your Mac allows, mix them to your satisfaction (balancing volume so they can still be heard when you add other tracks later), and export them to iTunes. Create a new GarageBand session, and then drag the exported file into GarageBand's window to import the recently merged track. Record additional tracks. Repeat as necessary until you've completed your project.

Tip

Midi Overdubbing When you record software instruments in a looped GarageBand track, you can continue to add to your recording as the track loops (this technique is called overdubbing). To build a drum track one drum at a time, for example, first lay down the beats for a bass drum. On the next pass, press the key assigned to the snare-drum to overdub the bass-drum sound. On subsequent passes, add the hi-hat, tom-tom, and cymbal sounds. GarageBand can also overdub some controller data, such as the Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels on a MIDI keyboard.

GARAGEBAND JAM PACK

GarageBand provides a decent selection of the basic instruments, loops, and effects you'll need in order to create professional-sounding pieces of music. When you're ready to go beyond the basics, there's Apple's $99 GarageBand Jam Pack. It includes more than 2,000 additional loops in a variety of styles -- seventies rock, funk, dance-club beats, folk, and a fair smattering of world percussion loops (using non-Western instruments such as the saz, the sabahar, the balalaika, and the santoor). Also included are more than 100 additional software instruments, including a new grand piano, a 12-string guitar, a vibraphone, organs, drums, synthesizers, and basses. You'll also find 100 additional effects and 15 amp simulations.

Jam Pack fills in the sounds and loops offered in GarageBand. For example, Jam Pack includes richer string and horn patches. It also provides a far better selection of acoustic guitar and rock organ sounds (though it would be nice if Apple allowed you to engage the rotating-speaker effect with the Modulation Wheel in these patches). The sampled Bösendorfer grand piano, unfortunately, isn't a great improvement over GarageBand's Yamaha piano. It offers a mellower sound than the Yamaha, but like the GarageBand piano, it was sampled at too few volumes.

Those who prefer not to tweak GarageBand's Real Instrument effects presets will be impressed when they see how many new presets appear after they install Jam Pack. However, some of these presets are only marginally different from others. For example, the String Ensemble preset offers a touch more reverb and emphasizes high frequencies a bit more than the Warm Strings preset.

Guitar players are sure to be thrilled to learn that Jam Pack adds 15 new amp-simulation effects. These effects are based on the same four simulations in GarageBand -- British Gain, British Clean, American Gain, and American Clean -- so you could re-create many of these presets in GarageBand. But installing Jam Pack saves you that drudgery.

Macworld's Buying Advice

GarageBand offers a solid collection of loops, instruments, and effects. However, when you've exhausted GarageBand's offerings and are ready to extend your tonal palette with richer instruments, funkier and more exotic loops, and a broader variety of effects presets, reach for Jam Pack.

M-AUDIO KEYSTATION 49e

M-Audio's $99 Keystation 49e is a USB MIDI controller that sports 49 velocity-sensitive plastic keys, spanning four octaves, from C to C. It's bus-powered, so the power that operates the keyboard is provided by the Mac it's plugged into. And the Keystation 49e does not require additional drivers. However, unlike many of the inexpensive keyboards sold at music stores and warehouse outlets, the Keystation makes no sound on its own. Any sound it controls must come from the machine it's plugged into (your Mac running GarageBand, for instance).

The keyboard's controls are as sparse as you'd expect from an inexpensive MIDI controller; it has a Pitch Bend Wheel, a Modulation Wheel, a volume slider, two octave keys for changing the keyboard's range, and an Advanced Functions button for altering the keyboard's behavior (sending MIDI on a specific channel or changing the function of the Modulation Wheel, for example). This sparseness is fine for the likes of GarageBand, which doesn't let you tweak many MIDI functions, but it's not appropriate for programs such as Ableton's Live and Propellerhead's Reason. For these programs, a batch of controller knobs and sliders for twiddling the many on-screen controls is helpful.

The ports on the back are just as austere. Here you'll find an input for a sustain pedal (pedal not included), a USB port, an AC-adapter port for the optional power supply, and a MIDI port for when you want to connect the keyboard to a MIDI device such as a drum module or synthesizer.

Although the Keystation is a fine input device for players who want to create a MIDI drum or guitar track, or comp a few electric-piano chords with one hand, pianists accustomed to having a full 88-key complement at their disposal will find themselves hemmed in by the four-octave limit. These people will likely be pleased, however, that the keyboard's action (the pressure necessary to push down a key) is stiffer than that of many inexpensive plastic keyboards.

Macworld's Buying Advice

This keyboard has a lot going for it -- a simple setup, a decent feel, and an attractive price. Unless you require a keyboard that makes sound on its own, has a full set of keys, or boasts a horde of knobs and faders, the Keystation 49e is a good value -- and a great companion to GarageBand.

How Does It Stack Up? > GarageBand > iPhoto 4 > iMovie 4 > iDVD 4 > Putting a Price on iLife

Making Tracks GarageBand lets you create three kinds of musical tracks --prerecorded loops A, MIDI tracks using software instruments b, and digital audio of real instruments c. Very Effective With GarageBand, you can leave the stomp boxes at home. The program includes a complement of common instrument effects.

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