How Apple could make GarageBand better for podcasters

In 2006 Apple introduced GarageBand 3, an update that put features for podcasters at the fore. In the intervening seven years, GarageBand has reached version 6 (or, if you prefer, ’11), but Apple has done little to make it more useful to creators of spoken-word audio.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours editing podcasts in GarageBand, including Macworld’s own. And I’ve met countless podcasters, with audiences both large and small, who rely on GarageBand to create their shows. Every Mac comes with the wood-grained multitrack audio editor, and that’s awesome. But it could be better—a lot better.

Learning from Logic

Recently I started editing podcasts using Apple’s $200 Logic Pro, and I’m vastly more productive as a result. Logic Pro is overkill for most podcasters, but if GarageBand could pick up just a few new features, it could become a podcaster’s dream.

A keyboard shortcut to select all following segments, as in Logic, would be a boon to GarageBand.

Select All Following. When you’re editing a podcast, sometimes you need to snip out a passage that’s off topic. What you’re left with is a gap where that part of the conversation was. The logical next step is to close the gap by sliding everything in your project backward in time. To do this in GarageBand, you have to use your cursor to lasso every single item in every track that’s in front of the gap. If you’ve got a big project, that means zooming out as far as you can, then doing a lengthy click-and-drag-and-scroll from top left to bottom right. Once it’s all selected, you zoom back in to where your gap is (this probably requires a lengthy side-scroll to orient, and don’t misclick or you’ll lose your selection), and then a click-and-drag to close the gap.

It’s all ugly and unnecessary. In Logic, I can click on the next object in the project and press Shift-F—the shortcut for Select All Following. One short drag and the gap is closed. I can’t tell you how much time this has saved me. And the feature’s cousin, Select All Following of Same Track, can be useful if you just need to slide a single track a little bit one way or another.

In Logic it’s easy to quickly select and delete part of a segment.

Arbitrary region deletion. In Logic, you can quickly clip out a region of an audio segment (a cough or a stammer, for example) by holding down the Command key and clicking and dragging the cursor over the region in question, then pressing the Delete key. It’s fast and it's easy.

In GarageBand, by comparison, I'd select a region, position the playhead at the start of the part I wanted to remove, and use the Split Clip command. Then I'd either shorten the region by clicking on its edge and dragging, or just by repositioning the playhead again, using Split Clip, and then deleting the new extraneous clip. An alternate method would be to use the Audio Region pane, which does let you select a region and press Delete—but you have to be sure you’ve selected the right track and moved the playhead to the right location. With Logic, you can see a bit you don’t want and make it go away in no time, without fiddling with the playhead or item selection.

Logic’s Strip Silence command breaks a single segment in multiple bits.

Strip Silence. Podcasts are usually conversations and (unless your podcast participants are argumentative creeps) when one person’s talking, other people aren’t. As a result, there are usually huge silent gaps in the audio tracks. Logic’s Strip Silence feature scans a track and deletes all the bits that contain nothing but silence, leaving a bunch of individual regions that contain actual noise.

This feature has two productivity-boosting effects. In GarageBand, I spent a lot of time splitting one long single track into a bunch of smaller pieces so that I could move around or delete as necessary, but Strip Silence does that work for me. The results of Strip Silence also make it much easier to see where there’s noise on my audio tracks—because the only visible regions are places where there’s noise! This lets me zoom in on the places where my panelists are interrupting each other, where several tracks have simultaneous visible regions. But it also lets me quickly notice places where, while one person is talking, someone else has bumped their microphone or coughed or otherwise made an extraneous noise. Those unwanted noises, easy to miss in GarageBand, are easy to spot and delete in Logic.

Ripple Delete. I thought this feature would be higher up on my list, but Logic’s Strip Silence and Select All Following features have made it a non-issue for me. Still, some editors could gain huge benefit from just being able to snip out several seconds of a project and have GarageBand close the gaps automatically—no dragging required.

It's only logical

Not every feature I want has a direct analog in Logic. But that doesn't mean they aren't good ideas, too.

Recording from other apps. Sometimes you want to record the sound made by individual apps, most notably Skype. Apple has never done a good job letting users control their Mac’s sound inputs and outputs, and with Lion and Mountain Lion the job has become even harder for longtime third-party workarounds such as those developed by Ambrosia Software and Rogue Amoeba. Wouldn’t it be easier if GarageBand could intercept sound output from any app and record it?

Don’t force compression in Podcast mode. The podcast mode introduced in GarageBand 3 has one particular quirk that drives podcasters nuts: It forces you to export a compressed audio file unless you hide the podcast track. Why not let users decide if they want lossless-quality tracks (to run through an outside tool such as Levelator), MP3s, or AAC files?

Removing room noise. One of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever seen a computer do is turn an audio file recorded in a noisy room (say, with a fan blowing in the background) into one that sounds like it was recorded in a real recording studio. It’s a pretty straightforward feature: Point your Mac at a quiet piece of audio that contains just the background noise and let it remove that noise from the whole track. The audio in podcast recording sessions can be highly variable; room-noise removal makes things sound vastly more professional.

But wait, there’s more. Of course, this is just the start. I could go on and on, thanks to all the suggestions my Twitter followers made. Applying easy project-wide compression, a la The Levelator, would be a huge help. I’d love some sort of smart audio balancing, to even the volume on two different tracks. GarageBand creates preset tracks with audio effects by default; it would be great if those weren’t there, or better yet, if users could create their own templates with their own preset tracks and effects.

A lot of podcasts (including mine) are recorded using the “double-end” technique; rather than having the moderator record the output of a Skype session, each participant records his or her end of the conversation locally and sends in those recordings for editing. The editor then needs to align all the tracks, since nobody ever presses the Record button at exactly the same time. An auto-sensing feature that would compare an audio track to a reference track from Skype and automatically align those tracks properly would save podcasters a whole lot of time.

So will it happen?

What is GarageBand to Apple? Since 2006, the answer has seemed to be “a fun music app.” Maybe podcasting just isn’t a priority for Apple. It’s a shame, since I’m a believer in the podcasting medium; even today, despite its shortcomings, GarageBand is still widely used by podcasters. With just a few of these new features, an updated GarageBand could make those podcasters much more productive—and their podcasts would sound that much better.

I’m not sure Apple will care enough about this market segment enough to devote the resources to adding podcasting features to GarageBand. If not, perhaps there’s a chance that a lighter-weight version of Logic—one that doesn’t cost $200—could appeal to low-budget and amateur podcast pioneers?

In the meantime, I’ll count myself lucky that I’ve got a copy of Logic Pro, and keep dreaming of a GarageBand that’s just a bit better than the one we have today.

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