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First Look: First Look: GarageBand 4

With iLife ’08 , GarageBand turns 4. And in its fourth iteration, Apple’s music creation/podcasting/movie-scoring application adopts improvements largely targeted to musicians and musician wanna-bes, though podcasters will find a couple of less-touted features to like.

Among these major new features are Magic GarageBand, a limited backup-band-in-a-box; arrangements, which lets you view your music by sections (verse, chorus, verse, for example); multi-take recording where you can loop-record and automatically save “takes” from each pass; Visual EQ, a way to graphically adjust frequencies in each of your tracks; support for higher-resolution audio; and an automation feature that lets you change a track’s (or the entire composition’s) EQ and effects (and, in the case of the Master Track, tempo). Less noticeable changes are a Print command for printing notation from a selected Software Instrument track, the Normalize export option that attempts to raise the overall volume of a recording if it’s deemed too quiet, the ability to apply a greater number of effects to a selected track, configurable Compressor and Track Reverb effects, and a Fade Out command for gradually fading the last seconds of your project.

Certainly, a lot to digest. So here’s how the new features shake out.

Magic GarageBand

During the August 7 Apple briefing, Steve Jobs spent the bulk of the time allotted to GarageBand on the new Magic GarageBand, a feature that creates a virtual 5-piece band (bass, guitar, drums, keyboard, and lead instrument) that plays tunes in nine different genres—blues, rock, jazz, country, reggae, funk, latin, roots rock, and slow blues.

To work Magic GarageBand, just select a genre, choose to listen to either a snippet or an entire song, and click the Play button. The professional-sounding band begins playing. Click Audition, a curtain opens, and you can select each of the five instruments.

Once selected, you can change the specific kind of instrument that player plays. For example, change a Straight Ahead guitar in the jazz ensemble to a Gypsy guitar. Changing instruments alters not just the sound of the instrument but the part it plays. For instance, when you select Drums and change from Bebop Sizzle to Funky Groove, you hear a completely different drum set and part—one that, well, grooves more.

By selecting an instrument and choosing the None option, the instrument is dropped from the mix. This is useful if you want to play the bass part, for example, without one of the virtual instruments stepping all over you. When you drop a part and later export the project, that part is missing from the mix. This is a good thing if you want to pull just the drum part from one of the tunes and leave the rest of the band behind.

Choosing instruments in Magic GarageBand

You can also click the empty My Instrument area of the stage (front and center) and choose an instrument. You can’t play this instrument, you’re simply selecting the kind of instrument you’ll play when you jam along with the band—either a real instrument (that guitar in your arms) or as a virtual instrument when you export the arrangement you’ve created in Magic GarageBand to a GarageBand music project.

My guess is that Jobs chose to show off Magic GarageBand because it demos well. The recordings sound great—they’re real musicians playing these parts rather than MIDI tracks—the graphics for the virtual stage are cute, and it’s fun to flip between parts. But in practical application, Magic GarageBand quickly wears thin.

To begin with, while it’s great that you can change instruments (and therefore the accompanying parts), the band always plays the same tune. Regardless of how you juggle instruments, you’re left with just nine basic tunes. And that gets old after awhile, particularly given that, because these are jam tunes designed to be easy to follow, their structure isn’t very interesting. Far more useful would be if you could select a genre—Latin, for example—and then choose a sub-genre such as Salsa, Afro-Cuban, and Bossa, for instance, and get a whole new tune.

While in Magic GarageBand, you can’t change the key the band is playing in so if you’re not adept at playing along with a jazz blues progression in F, you’d better figure it out. (I will say that it appears efforts were made to not put the tunes in impossible keys—no one is going to force you to play in C# major, for example.) Once you’ve brought an arrangement into GarageBand, however, you can change the key. So if you want to jam with the band but would feel better in E than F, you have to settle on an arrangement and then take that additional export step.

Arrangements

A feature that’s been available in digital audio workstations (DAW) forever, it’s nice that GarageBand now lets you view and edit your music projects in parts such as verse, chorus, and bridge.

Just choose Track -> Show Arrange Track and a thin track appears at the top of your music project. Click the Plus button and the first eight bars of your tune now have a blue Untitled bar over them. Double-click Untitled to rename it and move the sides of the track’s edge to resize the part. All the material beneath the bar is now highlighted. You can now drag this bar to another location on the timeline and all the tracks under it move right along with it.

GarageBand 4 adapts a feature long-available in digital audio workstations—the ability to view and edit music projects by section such as verse, chorus, and bridge.

You can’t copy and paste arrangement parts in the traditional way—by choosing a command from the Edit menu, for example. Instead, just Option-click on an arrangement heading and drag it to make a copy.

A drop-down menu by the yellow Take marker lets you choose among the multiple takes you’ve recorded.

Multi-take recording

Another feature that traditional DAWs have sported for a long time, this lets you set a loop in your music project, hit Record, and GarageBand records what you play and then creates an additional take every time the loop starts over (it will record up to eight takes). Switch off recording and you can then click on the yellow Take marker at the beginning of the track and, from the resulting menu, choose which take you’d like to listen to.

Find the one you like and choose Delete Unused Takes from this pop-up menu. You can also combine takes by splitting the track. Once split, the Take marker will appear at the beginning of each section, allowing you to choose Take 1 for the first section, Take 2 for the second, and maybe Take 6 for a third.

Visual EQ

Peer into GarageBand’s effects area (click the Info button and then the Details triangle to see effects) and you’ll discover that the old EQ setting is gone and has been replaced by Visual EQ. This is a graphical equalizer (an effect for boosting or cutting audio frequencies—think the bass and treble controls on your stereo) that’s really easy to use.

Choose a track and click the Edit button next to it to see it in action. Here you’ll find frequencies broken into four ranges—Bass, Low-Mid, High-Mid, and Treble. Click within one of these ranges and drag the blue band up or down to increase or decrease frequencies within that range.

Clicking the Analyzer button in GarageBand’s new Visual EQ feature produces a waveform of your sound so you can see how Visual EQ is changing things around.

As with many of GarageBand’s effects, Visual EQ includes common presets for everyday tasks—adding more punch to drums or brightness to vocals, for example. To get a better idea of what Visual EQ is doing to your sound, click the Analyzer button while your track plays—that will produce an ever-changing waveform of your sound. As you adjust frequencies, you can see the character of the waveform change too. Visual EQ is a very intuitive way to view EQ changes.

Higher-resolution audio

GarageBand now supports recording and exporting audio at up to resolutions of 24-bit. 24-bit audio offers a more accurate representation of sound than CD-quality 16-bit audio. This is controlled through an Audio Resolution pop-up menu in the Advanced system preference. You’re offered three options: Good, which is 16-bit audio for both recording and export, Better, for 24-bit recording but 16-bit exporting; and Best, recording and exporting 24-bit files. Sample rate remains 44.1kHz for all three settings.

Automation

In previous versions of GarageBand you could impose a limited amount of automation by exposing a track’s Volume or Pan curves, adding control points, and dragging those control points up or down to change volume and panning. Similarly you could adjust the Master Track’s volume and pitch curves the same way. GarageBand 4 expands the number of things you can automate.

For tracks, you can now automate parameters of effects you apply. Just select a track, click the downward pointing triangle in the Tracks area, and choose Automation from the pop-up menu at the bottom of the instrument track. In the Add Automation sheet that appears, select the element you want to add automation to. For instance, if you’ve applied a Phaser effect to a clavinet part you’ve laid down, you can adjust automation curves for its speed, feedback, and intensity settings. To avoid visual clutter, you can see only one curve at a time. Choose the setting you want from the Automation pop-up menu to automate another parameter.

Automation capabilities have been expanded in GarageBand 4.

The Master Track offers a new global automation option—Master Tempo. Yes, you can finally change tempos within your GarageBand music projects. Thank you, Apple. The Master Track offers its own Add Automation command to the Automation pop-up menu. It works just like the track Automation pop-up menu.

Notation printing

Previous versions of GarageBand allowed you to view Software Instruments (read: MIDI) tracks as notation. This version of GarageBand lets you print a track’s notation. For simple parts, this is a nice feature. If you’ve played something a little funkier, the notation may not be very accurate—GarageBand takes its best guess at what you intended but a score where you’re asking GarageBand to show notation at a 64th note resolution is likely to be a little messy. (For example, GarageBand really seems to like notating my playing with triplets.)

Scores include the title of your file, the instrument track you’ve selected, your name as the composer, a tempo marking, key and time signatures, and pedal markings. Scores don’t include any chord headings and everything is notated in concert pitch. (Musician Minutia: So if you’ve recorded a trumpet part, for example, which is read by those players a whole-step higher, don’t expect your score to be transposed up that whole step. For creating transposed parts, temporarily adjust the Pitch slider in the track’s editing window while looking at Notation view.)

The rest

While Apple says this version sports improvements for musicians, there are additional benefits in GarageBand 4 for podcasters as well as musicians. The program’s Advanced preference now includes an Auto Normalize option. When enabled, the program increases the overall volume of your file when it exports your project. Note the word overall . Unlike utilities such as GigaVox Media’s free The Levelator, it doesn’t seek out really quiet parts, boost them, and leave the loud parts alone. Instead, it treats the project as a whole and increases the loudest part to the point just below distortion and raises the rest of the project’s volume proportionally.

GarageBand 4 lets you adjust Track Reverb settings.

When you select a track you now have the ability to apply not only Compressor, Visual EQ, Echo, and Reverb effects, but you also have four additional selectable effects to choose from—the previous version of GarageBand included two. A couple of GarageBand’s effects have become more configurable. The Compressor effect, which, in the past, offered nothing more than a 0 - 100 slider, now has manual controls for Threshold, Ratio, Attack, and Gain. This makes for a much more useful compressor. And you can now choose a Track Reverb effect, which lets you adjust Reverb Time, Reverb Color, Reverb Volume, and Original Volume sliders.

And there’s now a global Fade Out command available from the Track menu that affects the Master Track’s volume. This fades out everything, not just the selected track, and slowly fades the final 10 seconds or so of your project.

Coda

As Apple claims, GarageBand-using musicians will gain the greatest good from the latest version of the program, but podcasters will be anything but offended by more flexible effects and an auto-normalize feature.

The magic of Magic GarageBand was quickly lost on me, but you may like it. As a musician, it’s possible my expectations were set too high. I need a backup band with a bigger book than the nine charts Magic GarageBand’s band capably blows through. Apple has been anything but shy about releasing new GarageBand instrument sounds and loops in the form of add-on Jam Packs (a new Voices jam pack was released to coincide with iLife ’08’s release) so perhaps we’ll see a GarageBand Charts Jam Pack some day.

At first glance, this is a nicely-refined, if not earth-shaking, update. We’ll have a more definitive take on GarageBand 4, as we complete the full review.

[ Senior editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide , second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007) and host of the Macworld Podcast.]

This article was reposted at 12:50 p.m. Eastern on August 13, 2007, to clarify information about 24-bit audio.

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