Review: GarageBand 1.0 for iPad

GarageBand ’11, part of Apple’s iLife suite, is a versatile application. With it, you can create musical scores by stringing together audio loops, play and record virtual instruments, record “real” instruments plugged into your Mac, create iPhone ringtones, record and assemble podcasts, create movie soundtracks, and play and record your guitar through modeled amps and effects.

Wonderful as the Mac-based GarageBand is, however, far too many people ignore it completely, or open it once to see what all the fuss is about and never do so again. They do this because GarageBand is perceived as a musician’s tool.

With GarageBand for iPad, Apple is sending a different message: Yes, GarageBand is a tool for making music, but anyone—from musicians to tin-eared newbies—can use it. No talent required. It underscores this message by eschewing the podcast, ringtone, and movie-soundtrack elements and focusing entirely on making it easy to compose music. It includes a variety of “smart” instruments that allow you to play pleasing notes, chords, and beats on virtual keyboards, guitars, basses, and drums without requiring that you have a lick of musical training.

That doesn’t make GarageBand for iPad a toy or somehow unworthy of trained musicians. In addition to its smart instruments, this eight-track recorder includes a wide variety of virtual instruments (synthesized and sampled) that you can play and record; lets you record real instruments jacked into a compatible audio interface as well as sounds recorded with the iPad’s microphone or a compatible external mic; includes modeled guitar amps and stompboxes for guitar players; offers a couple of different ways to create drum tracks; and even includes a sampler instrument that allows you to use an onscreen keyboard to play back sounds recorded with a microphone.

After spending many hours with GarageBand for iPad, my first-generation iPad, and a few music gadgets, I’m a believer. By the time you finish reading this, you may be too.

Making tracks

When you first launch GarageBand for iPad you see an Instruments screen where you swipe through a variety of options including Keyboard, Drums, Smart Drums, Smart Bass, Smart Keyboard, Smart Guitar, Guitar Amp, Audio Recorder, and Sampler. Keyboard and Drums are instruments similar to their real-world counterparts. To play them, you tap on virtual keys or drums, respectively. Smart Drums, Smart Bass, Smart Keyboard, and Smart Guitar are instruments designed so that it’s much easier to hit the “right” notes by tapping chords, preprogrammed patterns, or notes limited to a particular scale.

GarageBand's Instruments screen

Guitar Amp allows you to apply amp and stompbox models to a guitar you’ve jacked into your iPad via a compatible interface. The Audio Recorder instrument is for recording with the iPad’s microphone or a compatible external microphone (or one plugged into a compatible interface). And the Sampler is used to capture and modify sounds recorded via a microphone and play those sounds on a musical keyboard.

You start working with GarageBand by choosing an instrument. Do so and you’re taken to an instrument screen. At the top of each instrument screen are standard transport controls that include Go to Beginning, Play/Stop, and Record buttons. Nearby is a Master Volume slider for adjusting GarageBand’s overall volume (the iPad’s Volume toggle switch serves the same purpose). Also at the top of the screen there are Mixer and Song Settings buttons that, when tapped, produce menus that you use to control track volume and panning, echo and reverb levels, quantization setting (designed to improve timing that moves notes to a rhythmic grid so they play on the closest chosen beat—an eighth or sixteenth note, for instance), tempo, and key. You can also switch on a metronome and choose to have GarageBand play a four-beat count-in before you record a track.

You can choose to record by section (an eight-bar section is enabled by default though you can increase or decrease the number of bars) or, by switching on an Automatic option within the Section menu, you can record a track for as long as you like.

Find GarageBand's controls at the top of each instrument screen

When GarageBand reaches the end of a section, it loops back to the beginning and switches from Record to Play mode so you can immediately hear what you’ve just recorded, except for the Drums instrument. When recording a drum track, the playhead returns to the beginning of the track and continues recording, allowing you to build up a drum track by layering sounds on top of each other (called overdubbing). This is a typical feature of real drum sequencers and it’s nice to see it included in GarageBand.

Once you’ve recorded something with one of the instruments, a Tracks button appears at the top of that instrument’s screen, indicating that you can now access the Tracks screen. This screen looks very much like the Mac-based GarageBand’s main window. Instrument icons appear in a column on the left side of the screen and tracks appear to the right. You zoom in and out of tracks using pinch and stretch gestures. If you tap an instrument icon and drag to the right, the instrument column expands to reveal mute, solo, and volume controls for each track. (These same controls are found by selecting a track and tapping the Mixer button at the top of the Tracks screen. Additionally the resulting Mixer menu contains track pan, echo level, and reverb level controls for the selected track as well as a Quantization command and a Master Effects entry that you use to apply echo and reverb to all of your project’s tracks.) To contract the instruments column, just drag the right edge to the left.

Mix and edit tracks in the Tracks screen

It’s also within this screen that you edit your tracks. Regrettably, you can’t move, delete, or add notes when editing tracks. (To do this kind of thing you must export your project to iLife’s GarageBand for editing.) You can shift tracks forward or back in time by tapping and dragging them. And you can select all or just some of the sections within a track. To trim the end of a track, tap on it to select it and drag the left or right edge. (Green tracks—those you record using one of the included instruments—can be trimmed only at the right edge. Although you can trim silence from the beginning of these sections, you can't move the left edge past the beginning of the first note.) If you double-tap on a track you see Cut, Copy, Delete, Loop, and Split commands.

The Split command is cleverly implemented. Select it and a Split marker appears within the track. Drag it to where you want to divide your track and drag the marker down, as you would push a knife through butter, and the track splits. Because you can’t move, delete, or add notes within tracks, the split command becomes more important for perfecting a track. If you flub a note or passage, split the track at the measure where you’ve made your mistake, return to the instrument by tapping the instrument icon at the top of the screen, place the playhead at the point where you want to begin recording, tap Record, and take another crack at recording the portion of the track you’re unhappy with.

To add loops (audio snippets included with the app) tap the Loops icon in the Tracks screen. In the Apple Loops menu that appears tap an Instrument entry and choose an instrument type (drums, bass, guitars, synths, strings, mallets, woodwind, and vocal, for example). Once you select an instrument you’re taken to the Apple Loops menu where you can narrow your search by Genre (Country, Electronic, or Urban, for instance) as well as choose loops by descriptors (keywords such as Single, Clean, Acoustic, Relaxed, or Grooving). To audition a loop, just tap on it. To add it to your project, drag it into an empty track. You can then drag other loops into this track—even those that have a different kind of sound. For example, you can place a synth pad app in a track’s first four bars and then a conga track in the next four bars. Much like with iLife’s GarageBand, you can make repeating copies of a loop by tapping on it and dragging the right edge to the right.

The Apple Loops menu

When you’re happy with your work, tap the My Songs button at the top-left corner of the screen and you’re transported to the My Songs screen where you can access all your saved projects. By tapping an Export button, you can choose to send your song to iTunes or e-mail it. When you send your song to iTunes you have the option to export it as an AAC audio file or as a GarageBand file.

If you choose the Email Song export option, GarageBand mixes your project as an AAC file and then creates an e-mail message, complete with boilerplate text that lets the world know which app you used to create the attached song. All you need to do is edit the text to your liking, add recipients to the To field, and tap Send.

To transfer a track to your Mac, attach the iPad to your computer via the sync cable, launch iTunes, select the iPad in iTunes’ Source list, click the Apps tab in iTunes’ main window, and choose the GarageBand entry in the list of apps. Here you’ll find your exported GarageBand files. Drag the file to your Mac’s Desktop and then either double-click it to play it in iTunes or, if you’ve saved it as a GarageBand project, open it in iLife’s GarageBand for further tweaking. (Note that Apple has not released the updated version of GarageBand that allows import of these files so this is a feature I couldn’t test.)

Yes, this absolutely is a tiresome way to move tracks, but it’s the regrettable reality of syncing data between an iOS device and a computer. I’d love to see a future update that allows you to wirelessly export projects and songs to MobileMe and Dropbox.

Note that while you can import iPad’s GarageBand projects into the Mac’s version of GarageBand to work on them, you can’t do the reverse. Projects you create in iLife’s GarageBand can’t be ported to GarageBand for iPad. Similarly, you can’t import audio tracks to GarageBand. As with iLife’s GarageBand there’s no option to import tracks from your iTunes library, for example.

Keyboard and Drum instruments

One of the challenges of any iPad musical instrument is input—finding an intuitive way to turn taps into musical expressions. Another is making a musical app that can still be fun for non-musicians. GarageBand attempts to address both in the way it presents instruments.

The Keyboard and Drums instruments are the most straightforward and will be familiar to people who have spent some time behind a piano keyboard or drum kit. You play these instruments much like the real thing.

The Keyboard instrument presents you with a musical keyboard (which you can make larger or smaller as well as arrange in a stacked two-manual style). The default keyboard displays two octaves. To play, just tap on the keys. The harder you tap, the louder the notes. This is a polyphonic keyboard, meaning you can play more than one note at a time. There’s also a Sustain switch. Turn it on and the notes sustain, much as they would with a real piano when you’ve depressed the sustain pedal. To stop the sustain, just tap the button.

Unlike a real piano, this one allows you to map the keyboard to specific scales. Just tap the Scale button and a pane appears where you can choose a scale—Major, Major Pentatonic, Minor Blues, or Dorian, for example. Once you’ve chosen a scale, the keyboard changes so that you no longer see black and white keys. Instead, root notes (C in the key of C, for example) are displayed in dark gray and other scale tones are shown in a lighter gray. Only notes that belong to the chosen scale can be played (so, if you’re in the key of C major, only a piano’s white notes). This means that if you’ve cobbled together a blues project, you can play a lead without hitting any “wrong” notes. (Hint for beginners: Try Major Pentatonic, which produces an exotic sound where it’s impossible to play a “bad” note.) This is the kind of advanced feature found in last decade’s professional music sequencers, and Apple has made it understandable and easy to use. Beginners as well as seasoned musicians will find it helpful.

If you love electronica, you’ll also want to check out the Arpeggiator feature. Switch it on and any notes you “hold down” play in a repeating pattern. (To get a feel for this effect, listen to the first minute of The Who’s Baba O’Riley .)

Instruments available within the Keyboard instrument

Within the Keyboard instrument you can choose from a wide variety of keyboard sounds—acoustic and electric pianos, organs, clavinet, synth pads, leads, synthesized basses, and FX sounds. Each instrument’s interface reflects what the “real” instrument looks like. For example, the Grand Piano’s interface is a matte black while the Classic Rock Organ resembles a Hammond B3 (complete with working drawbars!).

Many of the keyboard instruments have controls for modifying the sound (nearly all the electric keyboards have pitch and modulation wheels). For example, when you choose Electric Piano (a Fender Rhodes sound) you can control decay, tremolo, bell, and chorus. The synthesizer instruments include such controls as cutoff, resonance, volume attack, and volume release. After adjusting some of these parameters, you can save your edited instrument sound to a collection of custom instruments.

The Drum instrument doesn’t provide nearly as many options but then, after all, it shouldn’t. They’re just drums. Rather, you’re presented with a drum kit—three “real” drum kits and three drum machines. To play the drums, just tap on a drum, cymbal, hi-hat, or, in the case of the electronic drums, drum pad. The harder you tap, the louder the drum.

A few words on GarageBand’s tap-harder-for-louder-sound velocity sensing, which works with most instruments: It’s possible thanks to the iPad’s accelerometer, which calculates the intensity of taps and increases or decreases volume accordingly. Cool as this idea is—and, at the risk of making a poor pun—this is a hit-or-miss feature. Particularly when overdubbing drum tracks, GarageBand can produce inconsistent volumes, even though you’re tapping with the same verve throughout. You’ll be most successful when placing the iPad on a hard surface. I got poorer results when the iPad was in my lap.

Smart instruments

GarageBand’s smart instruments are designed with easy input in mind. The Smart Guitar nicely demonstrates the idea. Choose this instrument, and you’re presented with a guitar fretboard that displays eight chords, reflecting the key’s diatonic chords (chords that include only the notes in the chosen key) plus an extra flat seven chord thrown in for good measure. For example, if you’ve created a project in the key of C major, the chords would be C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished, and the flat seven—Bb major. Strum the virtual strings and the chord plays (and yes, the strings sound in the direction you strum—so strum from bottom to top and the low notes play first). You can also play quickly strummed chords by tapping the chord symbol at the top of the fretboard as well as play each individual string by tapping on it. Smart Guitar includes four instruments—Acoustic, Classic Clean, Hard Rock, and Roots Rock. The latter three also include two stompbox effects that you can switch on or off with a tap.

Strum chords on the Smart Guitar screen

Then take a gander at the 5-position (this includes the Off position) Autoplay knob. Click it to the first position, tap on a chord, and, with the acoustic guitar, you hear a simple repeating strumming pattern. When you tap with two fingers the pattern changes—adopting a new rhythm, other notes (becoming a major seventh chord, for example), or both. Move the knob to a different position to hear a different pattern—maybe one that’s arpeggiated rather than strummed. The patterns and chords differ depending on the kind of guitar you’ve chosen. For example, you get folky-sounding patterns with the acoustic guitar whereas the hard rock guitar plays power chords.

You can also choose between chords and notes. When you choose Notes, you can play a note by tapping on a string. By dragging toward the side of the fretboard you can bend the string to change its pitch. As with the Keyboard instrument, you have the option to assign a scale to the guitar by tapping the Scale button. And it’s the same idea—assign a scale and never tap the “wrong” note.

Smart Bass works similarly, complete with string bending, though without the stompbox effects. Basses include Liverpool, Muted, Picked, and Upright. (I’d love an electric fretless, please.)

The Smart Keyboard instrument doesn’t need a Chords/Notes switch because you use the separate Keyboard instrument to play individual notes. The Smart version of the keyboard includes four instruments—Grand Piano, Classic Rock Organ, Electric Piano, and Smooth Clav. The latter three include some tone or effects controls. Here too the chords screen features the seven diatonic chords plus the flat seven chord. The lower part of each key is divided into three slots that play a single note each—arranged, from bottom to top, as root, fifth, octave (so, for a C chord, low C, the G above, and the next C up the scale). Above are four slots for the “right hand.” These are inversions of each chord triad. If you play the first slot of a C chord, you’d hear the first inversion, which is arranged from low to high as E, G, and C. The next slot is second inversion—G, C, and E. The third slot is root position—C, E, and G. And the fourth slot is first inversion an octave up. Why is first inversion featured so prominently? It’s easier for some people to discern the character of a chord when the highest note is the root.

You’re welcome to mix keys between the top and bottom areas. So, if you’re playing a C major chord and want the third of the chord in the bass (E) because it’s not available in the lower C chord’s slots, just tap one of the C chord’s top slots and the lowest slot on the E minor chord. Similar to the Smart Guitar, you can switch on the Autoplay feature and play patterns by tapping with one, two, or three fingers within the top areas of the chords. (The “left hand” notes don’t respond any differently to multi-finger taps.)

Playing the Smart Drums

The Smart Drums instrument is a different beast. Instead of presenting you with an interface similar to a standard drum kit, you see an eight-by-eight grid. The horizontal row is for the complexity of the drum pattern and the vertical row is for loudness.

To play the Smart Drums you can drag individual drums to the grid. (Multiple drums can occupy the same space on the grid.) They start playing immediately. To alter their complexity or volume, just drag them to a new grid position.

Alternatively, you can tap a die (as in “dice”) icon and a random drum set will be placed on the grid and start playing. These semi-random patterns must have some kind of logic imposed on them as none I auditioned sounded unmusical.

Again, drag drums around to change their beat and loudness. Drum sets include Hip Hop Drum Machine (6 drums), Classic Drum Machine (10 drums), House Drum Machine (10 drums), Classic Studio Kit (8 drums), Vintage Kit (8 drums), and Live Rock Kit (8 drums). Patterns change depending on the kind of kit you’ve chosen. You won’t get the same pattern if you replace Hip Hop with Live Rock Kit, for example.

Guitar Amp, Audio Recorder, and Sampler

No, GarageBand’s not done yet. It has three more instruments for your music making pleasure.

Guitar players should flip over to the Guitar Amp instrument. This is very similar to the guitar effects you find in iLife’s GarageBand. Plug a guitar into a compatible interface, select Guitar Amp, and like the Mac-bound GarageBand, you can play and record your guitar through a variety of guitar amps and stompbox effects. You can monitor your playing with amp and effects applied directly from the iPad’s headphone port. So conceivably, you could use the iPad as an effects box and plug it into a real amp, though I’d be very careful with your stage moves as an attached cable could easily send the iPad flying.

If you don’t like what you hear you might not want to blame GarageBand. It’s possible that your guitar is out of tune. To find out, use the strobe guitar tuner included in the Guitar Amp instrument. (The tuner also works with the iPad’s microphone so you can also tune instruments not plugged into the iPad.)

One of the amps found in Guitar Amp

Guitar Amp includes nine amps (Small Tweed Combo, Blackface Combo, English Combo, Vintage Stack, Modern Stack, Stadium Stack, British Blues Combo, Sunshine Stack, and Small Brownface) and 10 stompbox effects (Phase Tripper, Vintage Drive, Hi-Drive, Fuzz Machine, Heavenly Chorus, Robo Flanger, The Vibe, Auto Funk, Blue Echo, and Squash Compressor). Both the amps and stompboxes are a joy to look at. The detail of the interface and controls is impressive. You can include up to four stompboxes in a preset and stompboxes work in series—the sound of the first is channeled through the next, and so on. You can shift the position of stompboxes in the chain by dragging them to a new or occupied slot. If a slot is occupied, the stompbox in that slot will shift aside.

All of the amps and stompboxes have working controls, so you can adjust an amp’s EQ, reverb, tremolo, presence, and gain and a stompbox’s on/off switches and parameters. Additionally, Guitar Amp includes multiple presets categorized by Clean, Crunchy, Distorted, and Processed. Pick a category and a preset within it and start playing. You can also configure an amp and stompboxes any way you like and save them as a custom preset.

The Audio Recorder instrument is for recording audio through the iPad’s microphone or with a compatible interface. After you finish recording something with this instrument, a pane containing effects appears—Small Room, Large Room, Dreamy, Telephone, Bullhorn, Chipmunk, Robot, and Monster. Tap an effect and it’s applied to the track (you can easily remove the effect later by returning to the track and tapping Dry or choosing a different effect). When you select an effect, two sliders appear at the bottom of the screen. Their purpose changes depending on the effect you’ve chosen. For instance, tap the Large Room effect and you can adjust Compressor and Track Reverb sliders. Tap Monster and you can move Pitch and Gain sliders. Most of these effects aren’t musical, but your kids will get a huge kick out of them.

The Sampler instrument

Speaking of kids and GarageBand, there’s the Sampler instrument that will prove to be a favorite for the pre-teen set that enjoys hearing the sound of their burps and cackles played back to them at varying speeds and pitches. Tap start and record sound through the iPad’s microphone or compatible external microphone or audio interface. When you stop recording the sound is mapped to an onscreen keyboard.

Normally the Sampler will assign the unaltered pitch to Middle C, but if you produce a sound with an identifiable pitch (you sing a G above Middle C, for example) Sampler will assign the sound to the appropriate key. You can then “play” your captured sound and its pitch and speed will change as you move higher or lower on the keyboard. You can trim your captured sound, adjust its pitch, make it play backward, loop it, and change its envelope (the ADSR envelope, for those musicians reading). This too is a polyphonic keyboard, so you can play multiple sounds at once. And, like other keyboards, its volume is controlled via the accelerometer. Unlike “real” samplers, you can’t assign different sounds to different keys—a single sound is mapped across the entire keyboard.

External control

An important question for musicians is whether you can control GarageBand for iPad with external devices. Based on our tests with a first-generation iPad, the answer is yes. But you need Apple’s $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit to do it. Just string a standard USB cable between a compatible device and the kit’s USB dongle. Note the word compatible. Not all devices we tested worked. We found that generally, any USB input devices that require a driver to work with a Mac won’t function with GarageBand. (Technically, the device must be a class compliant music input device to work.) For example, an Edirol PCR-30 USB keyboard wasn’t recognized, but M-Audio’s Keystation 61es was. An old Edirol UA-700 mixing board (which requires a driver on the Mac) was incompatible, but not so Belkin’s driver-less TuneStudio.

While this may be discouraging for those with incompatible gear, it’s wonderful news for those who have or plan on getting gear that does work with GarageBand for iPad. The ability to jack in a keyboard and play GarageBand like a portable sound module—complete with velocity sensitivity and support for modulation and pitch controllers and sustain pedal—is a huge boon. It turns the app into a viable (and highly portable) musical sketchpad and demo-creation tool for musicians.

Power is another consideration. Some USB microphones require more power than the iPad can deliver. For example, when I plugged an MXL USB.009 microphone directly into the camera connector attached to a first-generation iPad, a message appeared indicating the microphone required too much power. However, the less power-hungry USB.006 from the same company functioned perfectly. Similarly Blue Microphones’ Yeti Pro mic didn’t work when connected directly to the camera connector, but its Snowball did.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround. If you plug the USB microphone into a powered USB 2.0 hub and then plug the hub into the camera connector, the microphone will work. It just needs the extra juice the hub provides. Not only does this give you more choice in the microphones that you can use, but many of these mics have headphone jacks—complete with volume controls—that you can use to monitor the sound coming out of the iPad.

Sound quality, variety, and limitations

If you’ve used GarageBand on the Mac, you have a good idea of what the iPad’s version sounds like. As with iLife’s GarageBand, the sound samples are of high quality, though some are more convincing than others. You don’t get the range of loops that you find with iLife’s GarageBand, but there are plenty of loops to get you started. Effects are certainly more limited as you can’t apply more than reverb and echo to a track when mixing. The app supports only the 4/4 time signature and you can't change keys in the middle of a song. And, as I stated earlier, your ability to edit notes and recorded audio is very limited. For those who bump up against GarageBand’s limitations, there’s always the option to export your projects and take them into iLife’s version of the application.

Open to the public

Despite my pronouncement that this app can be used by beginners, non-musicians who’ve read this far may be put off by talk of keys, scales, inversions, velocity, and envelopes, fearing that GarageBand for iPad is really best left to “real” musicians. That’s the beauty of this remarkable app. It can admirably serve each kind of user.

While GarageBand may indeed be an invaluable companion for trained musicians, musical newbies are just as welcome. Regardless of your musical skill, GarageBand has something to offer. With very little effort you can strum out the chords to a favorite song with the Smart Guitar instrument. If you need a funky beat to get you out of bed in the morning, you can assemble it with Smart Drums. If you want to do nothing more than piece together a podcast theme with loops and a voiceover, it’s easily done. And if your nine-year-old is getting antsy in the back seat, pass along the iPad and suggest that she play with the Sampler.

Macworld’s buying advice

There are sour individuals among us who claim that the iPad is a tool for consumption rather than creation. GarageBand for iPad proves them wrong. 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.

Updated 3/10/11 to mention that ability to use power-hungry mics with a powered USB 2.0 hub.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld.]

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