Profile: Logic Studio versus GarageBand

With GarageBand ( ), Apple has done a lot for musicians seeking an affordable and easy-to-use package. Using the music creation software from the iLife suite, you can record demos, play one of many included software instruments with a MIDI or USB controller, lay down a loop-based groove to inspire a new song, and thrash away on a guitar routed through the program’s simulated amps and pedalboard effects.

But despite the wealth of wonderful things GarageBand can do, it has its limits. And eventually some of those limits—whether it’s the inability to change tempo in the middle of a song, too little control over software instruments, a desire to create and print elaborate scores, the wish to export your creations as standard MIDI files, or simply the need to exert ultimate control over your work—will drive some to seek a more powerful tool.

Apple would like that tool to be the newly released $499 Logic Studio. With such new features as Amp Designer, Pedalboard, Loopback, Playback, and Flex Time, it makes a compelling case. I’ve had a week to audition the new Logic Studio from a GarageBand user’s perspective and these are my impressions.

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The bundle

As with the original Logic Studio, this version is a collection of applications, sounds, effects, and software synthesizers. The suite's major applications include Logic Pro 9, Soundtrack Pro 3, MainStage 2, WaveBurner 1.6, and Compressor 3.5. Logic Pro 9 is the suite’s digital audio workstation (DAW), which you use for recording, editing, and mixing your work. Soundtrack Pro 3 is a video post-production tool for combining soundtracks created in Logic Pro with a video project’s other audio. MainStage 2 is a live-performance tool for playing Logic’s synthesized instruments as well as accompanying yourself on stage. WaveBurner is a professional audio disc-burning application. And Compressor 3.5, as its name implies, is for video compression.

In addition to these applications, Logic Studio includes a variety of software synthesizers (including FM, analog, subtractive, vocoder synth models plus organ, clavinet, electric piano, a drum machine emulators), all six of Apple’s Jam Pack loop collections plus additional loops and sampled instruments, and a large collection of effects (and the Space Designer and Delay Designer for creating reverb and delay effects of your own).

A new version of Apple’s $199 Logic Express will ship in August. It lacks Logic Studio’s professional features such as support for Digidesign’s Pro Tools TDM hardware, surround sound production, distributed audio processing (the ability to have multiple Macs devoting their horsepower to a Logic project), and professional control surfaces (computer-controlled mixers). It also lacks Apple’s Jam Packs, any of the additional applications, the space and delay designer components, and the Sculpture, EVB3 Tonewheel Organ, EVD6 Clavinet, and EVP88 Electric Piano synths.

The interface

In the years before 2002, when Apple bought Emagic (and Emagic’s Logic, as part of that acquisition), Logic had the reputation for being one of the most comprehensive DAWs on the planet. It could do anything (as defined by the standards of the day). It was also considered one of the most confounding DAWs thanks to multitudes of menus and windows, non-standard names for items and functions, and features that could only be found by delving into a manual the size of a telephone directory. When Apple brought it on board, the company set about making the application more approachable without compromising its power. The results of that work were most apparent in Logic Pro 8, the main component of the first iteration of Logic Studio ( ). Within that version of Logic much of the application's functionality was available from a single Arrange window and you could create new projects using a template chooser similar to what you see when you first launch GarageBand.

Logic Pro 9's Arrange window.

GarageBand users will find some familiar elements when they open a Logic project—tracks, media and loops browsers, and transport controls among them. The Sample Editor, Piano Roll, and Score tabs at the bottom of the Arrange window will also offer familiar views of waveforms, MIDI data, and notation. Beyond that, you’re now playing in the big leagues with scads more options and an interface that’s far more professional looking (and acting). Instead of the basic controls found in GarageBand’s stripped-down Track Headers, for example, you get full-blown channel strips complete with inserts and accurate faders. When viewing your MIDI data as notation you get a real score editor that allows you to create and print professional looking parts. And when you need to “fix it in the mix,” Logic provides umpteen ways to do it.

Logic is very deep and no one facing the application for the first (or second, third, or fourth, for that matter) time will be able to go it alone. Apple provides help, but not as it once did. The company has dispensed with the massive manuals found in the first version of Logic Studio and every previous version of Logic going back through the Emagic days. Except for a short Getting Started guide to help you to get up and running, all the programs’ documentation is electronic and available via the applications’ Help menus. Apple has also said there will be tutorials available on its Web site.

I have mixed feelings about online documentation—particularly with programs this complex and that fill an entire screen. But when seeking a way to achieve a particular task, the documentation provided the answer.

Guitar center

If you're a guitar player, this version of Logic Studio has a lot to offer you. It brings modeled amps and stompbox effects to Logic—termed Amp Designer and Pedalboard, respectively—similar to the Guitar Tracks found in the last version of GarageBand. As you might expect, these amps and stompboxes have been significantly enhanced for Logic.

Amp Designer lets you create amp, speaker, and microphone setups to simulate the sound of classic and modern amps and cabinets. It includes 25 amps—think Marshall, Fender, Boogie, and Vox—25 matching cabinets (that need not match), and three virtual microphones for recording the sounds of your setup. Unlike with GarageBand, you can pair any amp with any cabinet. So, for example, if you want to hear what a Marshall head sounds like pumped through a Bassman bottom, you’re welcome to give it a go.

Amp Designer lets you mix amp heads, cabinets, and microphones.

As with GarageBand’s amps, the amplifier’s controls—gain, bass, presence, and depth, for example—are managed by twisting knobs and flipping switches just as you would with a real amp. Unlike with GarageBand, you can choose the kind of microphone (condenser, dynamic, or ribbon) that’s used to capture the sound of the amp and speaker. Additionally, you can change the mic’s position—drag it farther away from the cabinet and/or move it off center from the speaker cone to pick up a different tone. Each amp supports 10 reverb effects (including several spring reverbs) and five EQ presets. (You can, of course, dial in your own EQ using the amp’s controls.) Logic includes a large number of amp/cabinet/mic presets that you can choose from a pop-up menu should you want to dial in a sound without creating it on your own. You can also select amp/cabinet/mic combinations by tone—clean, crunch, and distorted, for instance.

Pedalboard is similar to GarageBand’s stompboxes. In this case, however, you get 30 stompboxes that include effects such as overdrive, fuzz, flange, tremolo, and phaser. There are even a couple of Wah pedals included. They can be arrayed in any order you like and, if you care to, you can split and mix them for even more routing control. Unlike with GarageBand, you can use a MIDI or USB controller to kick-in and control an effect while you’re playing. (Break out that expression controller pedal, admirers of Isaac Hayes.)

As with GarageBand, you can create pedalboards full of stompbox effects.

Live, on stage

With the original Logic Studio, Apple introduced MainStage, an application that allowed you to play Logic’s many instrument sounds without having to dive into Logic itself. Intended for live performance, you could call up an instrument sound or create one yourself and play and control its effects in real time from a MIDI or USB controller. In addition to now allowing you to record your performance, MainStage 2 brings a couple of very interesting new features that should appeal to one-man-band musicians as well as those bands that require pre-recorded content.

Playback is a new MainStage plug-in that, as its name implies, plays back prerecorded material. This may be a background vocal track you trigger when you get to the chorus of a song you’re performing or a repeating vamp that plays while you introduce the band. Moving to the next cue is as easy as stomping a foot switch or pressing a button on a controller.

Those old enough to be familiar with the Maestro EchoPlex—a sound-on-sound tape-based echo effect popular in the 1970s—will understand the idea behind the Loopback plug-in. It emulates a tape-loop echo—one where you hit record, start playing, wait for the loop to come around, and layer more music on top of what you’ve already played. (KT Tunstall used a similar technique in a live performance of Black Horse and the Cherry Tree during an Apple Event that introduced the iPod touch in 2007.) As with the EchoPlex that inspired it, it’s best operated with a foot controller.

The Loopback plug-in brings sound-on-sound performance to MainStage 2.

Added flexibility

Logic is capable of performing the kind of miracles that are simply unimaginable in GarageBand. For example, suppose your lead singer lays down his part and then disappears for an inspirational trek in the Himalayas. After his departure, the band comes up with a funkier groove and wouldn’t it be great if the singer could spend more time on the upbeat than the down? If this were a MIDI part, no problem, you just drag notes to the right place.

You don’t have that luxury with digital audio tracks without a lot of work—until now. Logic’s new Flex Time feature allows you to grab portions of a digital audio track and drag them forward or back in time as well as lengthen and shorten parts within a phrase to change the rhythmic feel. Flex Time lets you do this without forcing you to slice the audio or take complicated steps to compress or expand nearby audio. Just select the Flex tool, choose the point where you want to push the audio forward or back, and drag the Flex marker. As you do, you see the adjacent audio compress or expand to accommodate the audio portion you’re moving. The interface provides visual feedback in the form of colors that brighten the more you drag, indicating that you’re stretching this effect to its limits (where things can get ugly).

With Flex Time you can shift digital audio snippets as easily as you can move MIDI data.

Flex Time is an example of Apple making once-difficult studio tricks easy. Another is Drum Replacer. True to its name, it replaces a recorded drum track with triggered samples from Logic’s EXS24 software sampler. It does this by looking for transients (attacks) in a drum track, creates MIDI notes based on those transients, and then triggers sampled drum sounds in place of the original recorded sounds. I performed this trick years ago with a faulty drum track (the mic had fallen on the snare's head) and it took the better part of the day to do it with an audio-to-MIDI converter. And even then the results were less than perfect. Logic can do it in a snap.

Backing out of the garage

GarageBand is a terrific tool for aspiring and working musicians. If you have a musical bent, it’s iLife’s secret jewel. But it’s unquestionably limited. If those limitations are becoming clearer to you with each passing project, it may be time to consider a more powerful tool. Challenging though Logic Express and Logic Studio’s advanced features can be for new users, the flexibility they bring to a complex musical endeavor make them worth the investment in time and money.

Macworld will publish a full review of the latest version of Logic soon.

[Christopher Breen is a Macworld senior editor.]

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