Getting started with GarageBand

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Wait!! Yes, you—you who absent-mindedly clicked the link that led you here; realized that you were about to receive instruction regarding Apple’s affordable audio/music application; thought “Heck, I’m no musician, I think I’ll read about user permissions instead”; and now have your finger poised over the mouse button, trackpad clicker, or iOS screen that will whisk you elsewhere. You needn’t be a musician—trained or otherwise—to get some use out of GarageBand. In fact, the application was designed with nonmusicians (or the minimally musical) in mind. And best of all, no talent is required. So stick around, at least for the next couple of paragraphs, so you can learn what GarageBand can do for you.

With GarageBand you don’t have to be able to play a lick to create musical scores for your movies. If you can place blocks end to end, you can use GarageBand’s loops to create a compelling score. You can also create your own ringtones from your favorite songs. You can edit any compatible audio file—not just music files but recordings you’ve made with your iOS device (of class lectures or business meetings, for example). And if you’d like to try your hand at playing guitar or piano, GarageBand includes introductory lessons for doing just that.

And if you’re a musician, GarageBand offers much more. It can serve as a musical sketchpad for writing tunes. You can use its built-in stomp box effects and amps to wail away on your guitar at 3 a.m. without waking your neighbors. The application’s Drummer feature helps make your tracks sound more lifelike. And its software instruments offer you the kind of synthesizer palette that once cost thousands of dollars to replicate.

Let’s begin our look with a stroll through the interface.

Choosing a project

When you first launch GarageBand, it presents you with a project chooser. If you’ve downloaded the free version of the application, you’ll see options for 'New Project', 'Learn to Play', and 'Recent' along the left side of this window. If you’ve paid the $5 in-app purchase fee for the complete set of content, you’ll also see an entry for the Lesson Store.

Select New Project and you’ll be presented with seven different kinds of projects: 'Keyboard Collection', 'Amp Collection', 'Ringtone', 'Hip Hop', 'Electronic', 'Songwriter', and 'Empty Project'. We’ll look at each of these project types shortly.

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GarageBand's Projects chooser.

Choose Learn to Play and the main portion of the window includes 'Guitar Lessons', 'Piano Lessons', and 'Artist Lessons' tabs. Included in Guitar Lessons are 'Intro to Guitar' and 'Chord Trainer'. Piano Lessons includes an 'Intro to Piano' lesson. And the Artist Lessons tab is empty by default.

These lessons won’t get you very far, so select Lesson Store (again, available with the in-app purchase) and you’ll see options for downloading additional guitar and piano lessons and individual artist lessons. With your in-app purchase, you can download all guitar and piano lessons for free. Artist lessons—tunes taught by their original recording artists—are based on a single song and cost $5 each.

Choose Recent to see a list of projects you’ve recently worked on.

In the New Project window, the bottom of the project chooser displays a Details entry with a downward pointing triangle. Click the triangle to see controls for modifying a project’s tempo (how fast or slow it goes), its key signature (the root major or minor key such as C major or E minor), its time signature (the number of beats in a measure and the kind of note that gets the beat—4/4, for example, which means four beats to the measure and the quarter note gets the beat), and pop-up menus for choosing the audio input and output to use with the application. These settings are almost entirely intended for people who want to use GarageBand for musical purposes. If you don’t know what they do or if you’re using GarageBand to create a ringtone or a movie soundtrack, leave the settings alone and click Choose to launch your project.

About those seven projects

I mentioned that I’d talk about GarageBand’s seven project types in greater depth, and now seems like as good a time as any to get started. Let’s do so in a musical context.

Imagine that you’ve booked time in a local recording studio to record your five-piece band. It would make little sense for you and the other band members to show up and find the studio set up for a symphony orchestra or for a single voice-over artist. Naturally, you want to find the room configured for the kind of audio you intend to record. And that’s the idea behind GarageBand’s projects.

When you select Keyboard Collection and click Choose, GarageBand creates a project that includes 15 preconfigured tracks, each with a different keyboard sound—from a Steinway grand piano track to classic electric piano to synthesizer lead. Select Amp Collection, and 15 other tracks appear, each using a different amp and collection of effects. The Ringtone project bears a single track and exposes GarageBand’s Loops browser (which I’ll explain in a future lesson). The Hip-Hop project includes seven tracks, including a classic drum machine, grand piano, string ensemble, and some synthesizer instruments. Electronic has nine preconfigured tracks, composed largely of synthesizers. Songwriter includes six tracks designed for drums, vocal, guitars, bass, and piano. And the Empty Project is just that—a trackless project that prompts you to select the kind of track you wish to create ('Software Instrument', 'Digital Audio', 'Guitar', or 'Drummer'). For an overview of the interface, let's choose Empty Project.

The GarageBand interface

We have to select some kind of track, so let’s select the first audio selection—the one that displays a microphone on a stand—and then click Create. The GarageBand interface appears in full force. It contains the control bar and a number of pane options, including the Library pane, the Tracks pane, and the Workspace pane.

The control bar

GarageBand’s control bar is packed with features. Let’s run through them.

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The control bar can save you trips to GarageBand's menus.

'Library', 'Quick Help', 'Smart Controls', and 'Editors' buttons: These buttons that appear on the far left of the control bar toggle various panes within the interface on and off. By default the Library button is enabled, which means that the Library pane is exposed below. Click the Quick Help button, and a small window will appear. Hover your cursor over any GarageBand element, and an explanation of that element will appear in this window. Click Smart Controls, and its pane will open at the bottom of the GarageBand window (I’ll explain Smart Controls in a future lesson). Click Editors to make the selected track’s editor pane appear at the bottom of the window. (I’ll explain editors in the future as well.)

Play controls: As with iTunes, you’ll find play controls in GarageBand’s toolbar. These controls include buttons for rewind, forward, stop (or locate), play, and record.

Display: The display tells you a lot about your project. It can broadly be toggled between two states—'Beats & Project' and 'Time'. (You toggle the display by clicking the first item in it, which is either a note-and-metronome icon or a small clock icon.) In the Beats & Project view, you’ll see a readout of bars, beats, divisions, and ticks, as well as the project’s tempo, key, and time signature. Opt for the Time display to see hours, minutes, seconds, and frames. The readout within this display changes as the project plays or as you move the playhead in the workspace’s ruler.

Cycle, Tuner, Count-in, and Metronome buttons: Enable the Cycle button, and you can select a portion of your project to repeat. When creating a ringtone, you use this feature to indicate which portion of a track to include as part of the ringtone. GarageBand has a built-in tuner that can work with instruments plugged into your Mac’s selected audio input or picked up via a microphone (including your Mac’s built-in mic). When you enable the Count-in button and click Record, you’ll hear a measure of clicks before recording begins. This helps establish the tempo before you start playing. If you’d like to hear a click matched to the project’s tempo as you record and play back the project, enable the Metronome button.

Master volume slider: As its name implies, this slider lets you adjust the overall volume of your project.

Note Pad, Apple Loops, and Media Browser buttons:These three buttons reveal or hide their associated panes.

The Library pane

The Library pane, which appears at the far left of the GarageBand window, is contextual, meaning that its contents change depending on the kind of track you select. For example, if you select an audio track, the pane displays a number of presets including 'Drums and Percussion', 'Voice', 'Studio Instruments', and 'Electric Guitar and Bass'. Select a preset, and more-specific settings will appear to the right. Select Voice, for instance, and you’ll find a series of subsettings including 'Bright Vocal', 'Classic Vocal', and 'Telephone Vocal', among others. For audio tracks, these settings control GarageBand’s effects. So, for instance, if you choose the Voice preset’s Bright Vocal setting, the EQ settings will pump up the midrange frequencies and GarageBand will add a touch of reverb and compression.

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The Library pane lets you select a software instrument.

Select a software instrument, and you’ll find a list of instrument families in the left side of the Library pane. Select one of these families to see the instrument sounds it contains. This is how you choose different instrument sounds.

If you select a guitar track, the Library pane will display different guitar and bass tones. Choose one—Clean Guitar, for example—and a subset of effect collections will appear to the right. Similar to audio tracks, these settings are related to GarageBand’s amps and stomp box effects.

If you’ve created a Drummer track, the Drum Kit entry will be highlighted in the Library pane and you’ll see a list of any installed drum kits to the right.

The Tracks pane

GarageBand is a multitrack Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) application. This means that you can record one track, create a new one, record something into this new track to accompany the first track you created, and continue layering tracks atop one another. The Tracks pane provides you with a list of all your tracks. Within each track header are, at the very least, buttons for Mute and Solo. Click Mute, and you won’t hear that track. Click Solo, and you’ll hear just that soloed track. (You can mute and solo multiple tracks.)

If you see nothing more than an instrument icon, the track’s name, and the Mute and Solo buttons, click and drag the Tracks pane's right edge to the right. This expands the pane to display Volume and Pan controls for each track. Drag the volume slider to the right to increase the track’s volume; drag it to the left to decrease the track's volume. Twirl the Pan knob to the left, and the track’s sound moves to the left side of the stereo field. Drag it to the right, and the sound moves toward the right speaker.

If you choose Mix > Show Automation, the track headers will get taller to reveal a pop-up menu below. Using this pop-up menu, you can draw in volume and pan automation (have the volume increase or decrease at points you select) and automate an instrument’s Smart Controls (which I’ll get to at another time).

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The Tracks pane and workspace area.

The Workspace pane

The Workspace pane displays the contents of your tracks. Software instrument tracks are green and contain dots and dashes that represent notes played by GarageBand’s virtual instruments (this is called MIDI data). Audio and Guitar tracks are blue and display audio waveforms. Drummer tracks are yellow and also display audio waveforms. Double-click within one of these tracks and its editor pane will open below.

Within the Workspace pane, you can select clips within tracks and split, trim, delete, or repeat them.

Notice the ruler at the top of this pane. If you’ve chosen the Beats & Project view, the ruler will display measure numbers and beat divisions within each measure. If you’ve selected the Time view, you’ll see time divisions. You can expand or contract the ruler by using the Horizontal Zoom slider found at the right side of the ruler.

And more

I’ve told you something of the other panes that can be exposed—Smart Controls, Editors, Note Pad, Loops, and Media Browser—but I’ve taxed your patience enough for today. We’ll look at these and other features in future lessons.

Next week: Creating a ringtone

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