Review: GarageBand ’09
At a Glance
Unless you have an active interest in producing podcasts or creating a musical score, it’s likely you’ve opened GarageBand once and then never bothered with it again. Of all the programs that make up the iLife suite, none is more overlooked than this application. And, given its original focus, that’s not too surprising. Making music requires a skill not common in the general population of computer users.
And so, with each version, Apple tries to explore a different angle, hoping to bring in a new audience for GarageBand. Two versions ago, with GarageBand 3 ( ), it was podcasting. In GarageBand ’08 ( ), Apple introduced Magic GarageBand, a feature that allows you to jam along with a canned band. With GarageBand ’09, the new lure is guitar and piano lessons—nine basic lessons for budding musicians as well as a handful of optional artist lessons for learning specific songs by such well-known musicians as Norah Jones, John Fogerty, and Sting.
Veteran GarageBand users who’ve already mastered their axes aren’t left out of the mix. Guitar players now have the opportunity to play through five newly modeled amplifiers and a host of stomp box audio effects. Players who were frustrated by Magic GarageBand’s inability to record what they noodled will be pleased to learn that recording is now part of the magic. And, regardless of who opens the application, users will discover a redesigned interface that makes existing features easier to find.
The marquee feature of GarageBand ’09 is Learn to Play, the application’s basic and artist piano and guitar video lessons. GarageBand ’09 includes the first basic guitar and piano lessons. You can obtain eight additional free lessons for each instrument by choosing the Lesson Store entry in the New Project window, selecting the Basic Lessons tab, and then clicking the Download button next to the lessons you want to download from the Internet. Artist lessons are obtained similarly, but cost $5 each. Unfortunately, these lessons work only on Intel Macs with a dual-core processor, though the rest of GarageBand ’09 works with PowerPC-based Macs.
Each basic guitar and piano lesson is taught by “Tim,” an approachable instructor who begins with the physical layout of each instrument and, in later lessons, walks through the basics of playing the instruments. For the piano lessons this includes left and right hand notes and fingering, sharps and flats, rhythm, major and minor chords, and scales. The guitar lessons include basic major and minor chords, major and minor barre chords, strumming, single note melodies, and power chords.
Nearly every lesson ends with a song that you’re welcome to play along with. Each lesson also includes a Play section that allows you to play along with the teacher (and record what you play). The lessons are nicely produced, well paced, and presented in a way that you can easily zero in on exactly what you’d like to see. You can, for example, use the Mac’s number keys to switch views. In the piano lessons, nearly every view includes Tim at the top of the window and a keyboard at the bottom. But you can switch views to see the treble clef, bass clef, grand staff (both clefs), or chords in between Tim and the keyboard. In the guitar lessons, there’s Tim above and a fretboard below with switchable views that include guitar chord boxes, chords, tablature, and notation. Lefties can also change the orientation of the fretboard at the bottom of the screen.
When Tim plays, you can see what he’s playing reflected on the piano keyboard or fretboard at the bottom of the screen—when he places his third finger on E above middle C, for example, a blue 3 appears on the keyboard’s E key. It works similarly on the fretboard—when he fingers a chord, those frets associated with the chord gain a blue dot and the strummed strings vibrate.
When you plug a MIDI keyboard into your Mac, it becomes available to GarageBand, allowing you to play a piano sound within the lessons. If you’re using a guitar, you tell GarageBand whether you have an electric guitar plugged into an audio interface attached to your Mac or you’re using an acoustic guitar and a microphone. GarageBand will record it accordingly. You can switch on a metronome as well as slow down the speed of the music so it’s easier to play in time (when you adjust the tempo, Tim’s voice is muted). You can also change the sound mix, adjusting the teacher’s voice, teacher’s instrument, the band (and each instrument within the band), and the volume of your instrument. You can also loop sections of lessons so you can repeatedly practice them.
The Artist lessons are just as beautiful to look at and offer the same kind of interactivity. The teaching ability of the artists varies—some are more thorough instructors than others. Norah Jones, for example, speaks as if she’s had formal musical training and explains the way she voices her chords by describing their position (root, first, or second position). One Republic’s Ryan Tedder doesn’t offer this level of detail but rather shows you how he plays a particular chord. Sting assumes you know how to make more complex chords on the guitar and so simply tells you the chord names and shows you how to finger them. Not surprisingly, none of the artists completely agree on technique so you may see them do something—finger a chord, for example—that contradicts something Tim has taught you.
Some of the artist lessons are offered in both Simple and Advanced versions, allowing both beginning and experienced musicians to get some enjoyment from them. And each artist lesson includes a video of the artist speaking about the song or another subject close to their heart. (Norah Jones doesn’t touch on her song at all, for example, but rather discusses the advantage of hauling a relatively portable Wurlitzer electric piano to a gig versus the back-breaking Fender Rhodes.)
Getting you started
GarageBand’s approach to teaching piano and guitar is an intriguing one—providing enough information to have you playing a song as quickly as possible. It’s a great approach for giving nascent players the kind of success they need to keep at it, but there are compromises as well. Some subjects aren’t covered very deeply and, of course, there’s no one standing over you to check on what you’re doing. But depth isn’t what Learn to Play is about. Rather, it’s a starting point for learning to learn how to play.
Fortunately, you have other choices as GarageBand ’09 isn’t the only instructional game in town. You can get more in-depth computer-based lessons from iPlayMusic, iPerform3D, and eMedia Music. And iVideosongs offers some beautifully filmed artist lessons. (I discuss some of these and other instructional methods in Learn to Play an Instrument.) Of course, there’s still no substitute for a real teacher who can give you customized assignments based on your ability.
In previous versions of GarageBand, you could play real instruments through the program’s amplifier simulations (or apply those simulations after the fact) as well as apply effects to that instrument. But many people missed these features as they weren’t easy to find. GarageBand ’09 includes interface changes that make many features more obvious (as I discuss later), and none more so than the guitar amps and effects. Not only did GarageBand’s designers bring these guitar features to the fore, but they completely rebuilt the amps and effects from the ground up.
These features are found in the new Electric Guitar tracks. These tracks are real instrument tracks that place one of five amp models (modeled after Marshall, Mesa Boogie, Vox, and Fender Combo and Tweed amps) front and center. You can easily change amps as well as adjust the settings of each amp—the amps carry knobs for adjusting Gain, Bass, Mids, Treble, Presence, Master, Output, Reverb, Tremolo Rate, and Tremolo Depth. (Those who find adjusting virtual knobs clumsy with a mouse will be happy to learn that you can click on a knob and then twist it by moving a mouse’s scroll wheel up or down.) You can also edit the amp’s master echo and reverb settings. The work that went into these amp models is apparent—they sound very much like the real deal, complete with noise when you’ve cranked them up.
Electric Guitar tracks use stomp box effects—effects modeled after the small effect boxes that routinely litter the floor around electric guitar players. Stomp boxes include Phaser, Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz, Chorus, Flanger, Vibrato, Filter, Delay, and Sustain. You can have as many as five stomp boxes at a time and changing the position of where the stomp boxes appear in the interface changes the sound coming from the track (so the boxes work in serial order). Each stomp box includes an On/Off switch as well as knobs for adjusting the parameters of the effect. The stomp boxes also sound very much like the real deal.
You’re welcome to create your own arrangement of amps and stomp boxes, but before you do you might care to try one of the 37 included presets. If you want to sound like The Edge from the early ’90s, for example, choose Dublin Delay. Dick Dale wannabes can dial in Surf, which features the Combo amp with a fair bit of amp reverb and tremolo and a Sustain stomp box.
Before you toss your outboard gear in favor of GarageBand’s amps and stomp boxes, note this crucial omission—like much of the rest of GarageBand, amps and stomp boxes can’t be controlled via MIDI, and that’s a shame. Guitar players like to kick in effects as they play and the only way to do that in GarageBand ’09 is to take your hand off the guitar and click a stomp box’s virtual buttons. You can control parameters for stomp box effects after the fact using GarageBand's automation controls, but it’s not the same thing. Electric Guitar tracks demand some way to stomp a real switch while you’re playing and a MIDI controller is the means. It’s time, Apple.
Magic GarageBand has seen some needed improvements. While the band is still limited to the same nine songs as before, you can now record what you play and export that recording as a multitrack project in the usual GarageBand interface. You also have the ability to shuffle the backing instruments by clicking anywhere other than on an instrument. This makes for some unexpected (and sometimes welcome) combinations. You can also now mix the levels of each instrument as well as quickly mute or solo each one with the click of a button. And you can choose any software instrument sound you like as your instrument when playing through a MIDI keyboard. You’re no longer limited to a handful of instruments as you were in GarageBand ’08.
Finally, Apple has rejiggered the look of GarageBand in helpful ways. It now bears the same gray tone as Aperture ( ) and Logic ( ). The New Project window contains a broader variety of projects including Piano, Electric Guitar, Voice, Loops, Keyboard Collection, Acoustic Instrument, Songwriting, Podcast, and Movie, making it easier to start with a template configured for the kind of project you want to create. For example, choose Podcast and the resulting GarageBand window is populated with Podcast, Male Voice, Female Voice, and Jingles tracks. (Regrettably, you still can’t have more than one GarageBand project open at a time.)
When you add a new track, you see a redesigned window that lets you easily choose a Software Instrument, Real Instrument, or Electric Guitar track. Loops are now found on the side of the main window rather than below. Effects are no longer hidden at the bottom of the Info pane but rather available from an obvious Edit tab in the Info pane. And text is larger throughout the interface. Taken together, it’s easier on the eyes as well as easier to find the functions you’re after. Veteran GarageBand user though I may be, with the new interface I was able to find features I’d forgotten existed.
Macworld’s buying advice
As a musician and podcaster, GarageBand remains one of my favorite iLife ’09 applications—I’m able to pull compelling results from the program without a lot of work or worry. Nothing about the latest version changes that. What GarageBand ’09 brings to the table is the possibility that more people—specifically those looking to get some use from a guitar or keyboard crammed in a closet or electric guitar players seeking a more authentic sound—will stick around for a second look.
[Senior editor Christopher Breen is a professional musician and hosts the Macworld Podcast.]