GarageBand on the Run

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GarageBand on the Run: We got the beat

The last time I drummed, I was still in elementary school. But even without a lot of skill or talent, playing drums in GarageBand is a delight—mostly thanks to its virtual tap-based drum sets and machines, along with a laughably simple-to-use Smart Drums sequencer. Strung together, they're powerful enough to make even an amateur feel a bit like Keith Moon.

With the virtual Drums instrument, the velocity and location of your tap affect the sounds you'll coax from the drum.

The virtual Drums instrument offers three traditional kits: Classical Studio, Vintage, and Live Rock, along with three drum machines. To me, the hardest part of recording the drums is that they’re too much fun to sit and jam with: Each kit presents you with a bass drum, snare, three toms, a hi-hat, a crash cymbal, and a ride cymbal, each of which you can play with just your fingertips. You can even evoke different sounds from a given percussive instrument depending upon where and how forcefully you tap it.

The drum machines, on the other hand, each offer a 4x3 soundboard grid, with separate buttons for various drums, claps, shakers, and other effects. With each machine, you can adjust various effect levels to further customize your sound.

But even if you (like guilty feet) got no rhythm, you can probably create successful beats with any of the drums sets, for two reasons. First, you can quantize your recordings. Quantizing adjusts each note you play so that it lands on the nearest beat of your choosing, even if you didn’t play it quite that way. Even better, you can create a rich percussion layer—combining multiple takes on the drums—all within a single track. That's because, by default, GarageBand automatically merges percussion recordings. If you record over, say, a guitar part, you replace what’s already there. When you record a second take over a percussion layer, however, you add the new part instead of replacing the old one. Thus, when I add drum beats for "The Barnyard Dance," I first lay down the bass drum alone, then loop back to add the snare and toms, and finally get the cymbals on a third pass. That makes things a lot easier on my fingers!

By dragging percussion instruments onto the Smart Drums grid, you can create all sorts of unique rhythms.

Equally wonderful in their own way are GarageBand's Smart Drums. While they use the same six kits and machines as the Drums instrument, their appearance is completely different. Rather than present realistic drums, Smart Drums employ an 8x8 grid, with complexity on its x-axis and volume on the y-axis. To create a beat, drag the icon of the drum you’d like to use onto the grid at the volume/complexity intersections of your choosing, and GarageBand will take care of the rest. For fun, you can also roll a virtual die and let GarageBand create a unique beat for your song by randomly placing percussion instruments on the grid.

Although I like my tap-drummed beat for "The Barnyard Dance," it lacks polish. Frankly, as much as I like the idea of playing my drums manually, I find the Drums suffer from a fatal flaw: It’s too hard to consistently coax the volume I want from the drums. Since the iPad’s screen is a flat surface, it must rely only on the accelerometer to determine how hard you’ve tapped a drum, and I find that GarageBand’s interpretation of my taps is inconsistent. So my snare occasionally sounds much too quiet, or the cymbal crash comes in way too loud. There’s got to be a better way. And indeed, there is.

So I delete the track (tap the instrument icon along the left side of the timeline, then tap again to bring up the Delete option), and add a new Smart Drums track instead. Smart Drums are terrific because they’re so easy to tweak. During recording, you can see the drum icons you've placed and move them in real time to update the sounds. That makes it simple to, say, add a cymbal part during the chorus and remove it (or change it) during the verse. Five minutes of tinkering later, my song has a great beat.

But the beat alone does not make the song: As this is a song about barnyard animals (and, of course, the dances they throw), I want to add in a chorus of moos before I lay down the vocals. To accomplish this, I’ll need to add another of GarageBand’s Instruments to the song: The Sampler. With the Sampler, you record audio that you can then play back, pitch-shifted, on a piano keyboard for all kinds of effects—including moos.

With the Sampler, you can record any sound you'd like and play it back, pitch-shifted, on the virtual keyboard.

After I open the Sampler, I tap the big red Start button. GarageBand immediately begins listening, and starts recording as soon as it hears you. I let loose with the best Moo I can. For my main vocal tracks, I like to use a USB microphone; for sampled moos, though, the iPad’s built-in mic suits me just fine. When I'm finished singing my moo, I tap stop.

Now, I can use the Sampler’s minimal waveform editor to tweak my recording. You can trim the audio, shape it, and even adjust its tuning—though GarageBand will also automatically try to take care of the tuning bit on its own. When you record audio with the sampler, GarageBand attempts to pitch-shift everything so that the virtual keyboard you use to play sampled sounds works as expected. If you sample a perfect middle C, the Sampler uses that note as C and makes the necessary pitch shifts for the other notes. If you instead start by sampling, say, a G, GarageBand can handle that too (and pitch shifts accordingly), but in my experience sampling a C is the more reliable option. You can only record a single note, so for my purposes I sang my initial moo with as pure (and monotonous) a middle C as I could muster.

Once I’m happy with my sample, I play and record the Moo chorus just as I would any other keyboard track. I can use the on-screen keyboard or a connected USB instrument to play the moos; in my case, I decided to use my trusty USB keyboard.

The one disappointment with the Sampler is that you're limited to a single sample per track. If I try and record and play back some moos, then go back and lay in some oinks, GarageBand will just replace my earlier moos with oinks instead. You need separate Sampler tracks for each sound you're after, and—thanks to that pesky eight track limit—I just don't have room for that many animals!

With my beat in place and my moos rocking, it's time to add the vocals.

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