capsule review

GarageBand for iPhone and iPad

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder GarageBand

    Macworld Rating

When reviewing the 1.0 release of GarageBand for iPad, I wrote: “This amazing tool—complete with eight-track recording, easy-does-it interface, customizable and easily played virtual instruments, on-board loops, sampler, guitar amps and effects, drum machine, and tuner—may be the most inspiring musical iOS app I’ve ever used. And at a meager $5, it’s an astonishing bargain. Musician or not, it’s a must-have app.” To underscore the point, I slapped a 5-mouse rating on it.

So how does Apple improve on what was already a remarkable music app? By making it a universal app compatible with the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch and later; adding support for 3/4 and 6/8 time signatures; allowing you to configure custom chords for autoplay instruments; providing new swing and triplet quantization settings; adding an arpeggiator feature to Smart Keyboard instruments; and tweaking GarageBand’s velocity sensitivity settings for more predictable results.

I understand that, after running your eyes over these improvements, non-musicians may be thinking, “Ohh-kay, not for me.” I implore you to stick around. GarageBand was developed, in large part, with you in mind. Sure, “real” musicians will find it an invaluable tool for sketching out their more harmonious thoughts, but it also exists to allow those without a dominant music gene to experience the thrill of creating a tuneful composition.

My colleague, Serenity Caldwell, has taken an admirable first look at GarageBand 1.1 and many of its new features, so I needn’t repeat her efforts. What I can do is provide a bit more perspective on how these features can help musical newbies as well as those with more sonic seasoning.

GarageBand on the small screen

At first blush, it’s hard to imagine how GarageBand could work on any iOS device other than an iPad. After all, the app demands not only that you be able to view multiple tracks (in the iPhone/iPod touch implementation you can see four tracks at once), but also muck around with settings screens and configure and play instruments. Apple has cleverly redesigned the interface for the iPhone and iPod touch so that you use pop-over menus and tabs to select the functions you need. For example, to travel to the My Songs or Instruments screens, simply tap the downward-pointing triangle at the top-left of the display and choose the function you desire. When within the Keyboard, Drums, Guitar Amp, Smart Drums, Smart Bass, Smart Keyboard, or Smart Guitar screen, you use this same pop-over menu to choose instruments sounds or, in the case of Guitar Amp, another amp model.

Should you wish to play with track, section, or song settings, tap the Tools pop-over menu in the top-right corner, and in the resulting screen tap the Track, Sections, or Song tab to be taken to the corresponding screen.

Organ Effects: The Effects pop-over menu provides access to effect controls such as these organ drawbars.

You also use a pop-over menu in the iPhone/iPod touch version to adjust instrument parameters that are normally found on the main screen in the iPad version. For example, if you want to adjust an organ’s effects or draw bar settings, tap on the Effects button at the top of the screen and the effect pane rolls down from the top of the screen. When it does, you can still play some or all of the instrument—you can tap on some of the drum pads in the Smart Drum instrument or play chords using the Smart Guitar, for example—allowing you to hear how the effect alters the sound of the instrument. This Effects button is also the avenue for exposing the smart instruments’ Autoplay controls.

By default, the Tracks screen shows you an icon of the instrument associated with the track—a guitar or organ, for example—along the left side of the screen. On the iPhone/iPod touch version of the app, swipe this area to the right to expose each track’s mute, solo, and volume controls.

On Track: On the iPhone/iPod touch version, swipe to the right to expose the track controls.

A nice new feature found on both the iPhone/iPod and iPad versions that makes it easier to edit tracks on either size screen is the mini-track. When in an instrument screen—the Keyboard screen, for example—you see a green bar just under the play controls where measures are denoted. If you swipe down on this bar, a mini-track appears. This is exactly like the track you find in the Tracks screen and behaves in much the same way. Within the mini-track, you can edit the track to the extent that GarageBand allows (meaning you can cut, copy, delete, loop, split, shorten, or split the track—the ability to edit notes still isn’t supported). To hide the mini-track, just swipe up from the bottom of the display.

Performance and sound

Anyone who’s attempted to make music on a surface about the size of a playing card likely wonders how easy it is to perform on an iPhone or iPod touch GarageBand instrument. It depends on which instrument you’re playing. The guitar and bass instruments feature the same eight frets. Naturally they’re roomier on the iPad, but it’s not difficult to tap the correct fret on the app’s smaller version. It’s also very easy to whap the correct drum when using Drum instrument.

The Keyboard instrument is a different matter, however. By default the iPad version offers a two-octave keyboard (though you can also choose a two-and-a-half or one-and-a-half octave layout in a one or two keyboard arrangement). With the small version of the app, you get a one-octave keyboard only. GarageBand’s developers have done a nice job ensuring that the note you intend to play actually plays, but an octave doesn’t give you a lot to work with. Two-hand playing is out of the question and playing a triad with one hand can be challenging. As with the original version of the app, you can configure the keyboard so that when you drag the keyboard to the left or right, you move up or down the instrument. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to and not one you can use when you’re playing fast. Still, it’s a nice feature to have when you can’t be bothered or have the time to tap the Up or Down octave buttons.

The size of the screen is also a factor when using an instrument’s autoplay feature. When using autoplay, you can invoke different variations of a guitar, bass, or keyboard pattern depending on the number of fingers you tap with. A single-finger tap produces a basic pattern. A two-finger tap is a little more complex. And a three-finger tap, more interesting still. However, unless you have small fingers, it’s difficult to register a three-finger tap on the iPhone or iPod touch.

What isn’t lost is the sonic quality of the built-in instruments and loops. They’re the same sounds as found in the iPad version. As before, these elements are more limited than with the version of GarageBand that ships with the Mac. Fortunately, there’s now a way to import additional sounds, which you can use as loops in your songs. I discuss how to do that when addressing GarageBand’s new import and export features.

Timing is everything

GarageBand was largely designed with popular music in mind, and most popular music is written using the 4/4 time signature (meaning that there are four beats in a measure). However, 4/4 isn’t the only time signature on earth. 3/4 (three beats per measure) and 6/8 (six beats per measure “felt” in two groups of three beats) are also popular choices for ballads and pop. GarageBand 1.1 supports these two additional time signatures. However, they’re not as well supported as 4/4.

You find them reflected in autoplay patterns. From the Settings menu in the iPad version and Song settings screen on the small version, tap Time Signature and choose 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8. When you do and then choose an instrument that offers autoplay (Smart Keyboard, Smart Guitar, Smart Drums, and Smart Bass), the pattern you hear will be based on the time signature you’ve chosen. For example, choose 6/8 and then the Classic Clean guitar’s fourth autoplay pattern, and you hear a country doo-wop riff when you tap on a chord name. Choose 3/4 with that same guitar and fourth autoplay pattern and you get something more appropriate for a country waltz.

Timing Is Everything: You hear the new 3/4 and 6/8 time signatures reflected in autoplay patterns.

Regrettably, GarageBand includes no 3/4 or 6/8 loops. Choose one of these time signatures and then attempt to add a loop and you’ll be told they’re not supported for your chosen time signature. That’s too bad given that a lot of people start building tracks from a drum loop. The remedy is to fire up the Smart Drum instrument and construct a drum pattern there. The Smart Drum will play in these time signatures. While this is one way to approach the problem, dedicated loops would also be welcome. I hope a future version of the app includes loops for these time signatures.

Creating new chords

In the original version of the app, you were confined to specific chords when using the autoplay feature. For example, when playing in the key of C major, your choices were C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major A minor, and Bb major (for musicians: the diatonic chords of the scale except for the flat 7). And that was fine as a lot of popular songs use these chords. But suppose you had a chorded song book that included C major 7th, B diminished, or A minor 9 and you wanted to recreate those chords in GarageBand? You couldn’t—but you now can.

Call up the Smart Bass, Smart Guitar, or Smart Keyboard instrument; tap Settings on the iPad or the Song settings tab on the smaller version; and tap Edit Chords, and you have the ability to dial in four chord parameters—the chord name (A, B, or C, for example), the triad structure (major, minor, augmented, diminished, Sus2, Sus4, or 5), a fourth chord note (6, 7, major7, add9, 9, 11, or 13), and then any root note (the lowest note played with the chord or pattern).

Custom Chords: The new Edit Chords feature allows you to create richer chords for autoplay instruments.

When you edit a chord, it remains edited for all smart instruments. For example, if you change C to C major 7 when using the Smart Keyboard, all C chords will be played as C major 7ths when using the Smart Guitar. Note, however, that when you create complex chords—a C13, for instance—you lose the variation patterns you hear when tapping with more than one finger.

While chord editing may seem like a feature useful to musicians only (and it will certainly benefit them), keep that song book example in mind. I like the feature a lot and couldn’t be more pleased that the developers took the time and care to add it.

Changed velocity philosophy

By way of gentle reminder, the GarageBand app attempts to detect how hard you’ve tapped the screen and produces a louder or softer sound based on the fierceness of that tap. As I noted in my initial review of the GarageBand app, this velocity sensitivity feature was, quite literally, a hit and miss affair. You could tap on the iPad with seemingly the same force, yet the volume of your playing could vary wildly. GarageBand 1.1 addresses this issue by giving you the option to adjust the sensitivity setting.

On the small-screen version, tap the Settings icon, choose the Track tab, and tap on Velocity Sensitivity to view the High, Medium, Low, and Off settings. You can adjust the velocity of the Drum, Smart Keyboard, and Keyboard instruments using this technique.

In the iPad version, within the Drum and Smart Keyboard instruments, you tap the Track icon and choose Velocity Settings. Within the Keyboard instrument you find a two-handled Velocity slider for those keyboard instruments that actually react to a harder hit (piano and electric piano, but not organ, for example). The bottom handle limits how softly the instrument can play and the top handle limits the loudness of the tone. (Note that you’re not simply changing the loudness but also the timbre of the sound. You hear more of the percussive part of a piano’s hammer, for example, when you trigger high-velocity notes.)

The High setting means that the app is highly sensitive to your taps. Tap very lightly, and the sound will be soft. Medium means you can be a little more cavalier about the strength of your taps. The Low setting forces you to tap the bejeebers out of the screen to produce a really loud sound or barely touch it to get a softer version. And Off produces the same result regardless of how delicate or overbearing your effort.

Which you should choose depends on the instrument you’re playing. For the Drum instrument, skip the High setting as you’re sure to produce inconsistent results. If you’re careful, you might try the High setting when playing the Classic Grand piano in the Keyboard instrument, but I find my playing is more accurate when choosing the Medium setting. Good on GarageBand’s designers for devoting their attention to this feature, as it was a clever idea that now works better.

Expanding the band

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder GarageBand

    Macworld Rating
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