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GarageBand: The finer (and final) points

As a writer/musician who’s spent a lot of time with GarageBand over the years, I must resist the temptation to explore its every nook and cranny simply because I’m enthusiastic about it. Features that I find fascinating may appeal to only a few of you and I’d rather not tax your patience. Given that, I’d like to wrap up my look at the application by pointing out a few of its nuances that the majority of would-be GarageBand users will find helpful.

Instrument editing

I’ve shown you how to “play” GarageBand’s instruments with an external keyboard, onscreen keyboard, and even the Mac’s keyboard. And while I expect that many of you have done so perfectly, there may be a person or two who has hit a clunker. Thankfully we’re no longer living in the days of tape where you either played every note and chord perfectly or relied on a very talented engineer with a box of razor blades. GarageBand is a music processor meaning that, like a word processor, you have the ability to correct your mistakes.

This is most easily done with software instruments—the built-in synthesized instruments that you trigger via some kind of controller (often a musical keyboard).

When you play these instruments your key presses (and the velocity of those key presses) is recorded as MIDI data. Click on the Edit icon in the control bar (or press the Mac’s E key) and the edit pane appears at the bottom of the window. Here you’ll see notes represented by green dots on a grid. This, as the pane’s tab tells you, is called a Piano Roll view in reference to player pianos that made music produced by scrolls that had holes punched in them.

The higher the dots on the grid, the higher pitched the notes are. The longer they are, the longer their duration. The horizontal span of the grid represents time (and you can see that time divided into bars and beats at the top of the grid).

When you click on a dot, that note will sound using the instrument assigned to the track. So, if you’ve recorded a piano track, click on a note pitched at Middle C and that’s exactly what will emerge from your Mac’s speakers or headphones. You can move selected notes not only up and down to change their pitch (so correct that Eb you played instead of a D) but also change their timing by moving them to the left or right. You can additionally change a note’s length by dragging on its right edge. You might do this, for example, if the organ chord that ends your piece holds out longer than the other instruments. And if you'd like to add notes, you can do that as well. Just hold down the Command key and click in the grid where you'd like to place your notes.

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Just follows the dots to edit GarageBand's software instruments.

You can also edit “real instrument” tracks (tracks where you record an instrument or microphone connected to your Mac). You can, for example, split, trim, and rearrange them. (Another feature called Flex Time allows you to change a real instrument track’s “feel” but it’s obscure enough that I’m not going to get into it.)

Fixing rhythm

Making music is really no mystery. All you have to do is play the right notes, play them at the right time, and play them the right way. There’s a feature called quantization that can help with the second task.

The idea is pretty simple. When you quantize software instrument notes you force them to align with rhythmic values on a grid. Say what!? Try this example on for size.

You’re playing a bass part and you want to play the note E on the four counts of a measure—so, play on exactly beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. But your timing wasn’t perfect and you hit beat 1 but slop over a bit with the remaining beats. You can fix this by quantizing the measure.

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Using the quantization feature you can move notes to their correct spot.

Just select the track, expose the Edit pane, and select those four notes. From the Time Quantize pop-up menu choose 1/4 Note. Like magic (or a bit like musical chairs) the selected notes will move to the nearest quarter note. When you play back the measure, the notes will fall exactly on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Choosing 1/4 Note is pretty strict. If you do that with all your music you’ll find that it's very measured and static (and some of the fast notes you played between the beats will simply disappear). Fortunately you can choose finer values—the range is 1/1 Note to 1/64 Note. (You can also choose Triplet, Tuplet, and Swing values but, again, I’m venturing into music nerd territory.)

Transpose your tune

You’ve recorded all the instruments for your master work, you place your microphone in front of you with the idea of delivering the perfect vocal, you press Play and... holy smokes, that’s high! No worries (mostly).

Software instrument tracks can be moved up or down in pitch (called transposing) with ease. Just choose Track > Show Transposition Track and a new track will appear at the top of the GarageBand window. Click on the orange line that appears in this track where you’d like to change the tracks’ pitch and drag the line up or down. The software instrument tracks will adjust accordingly.

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Easily alter your song's pitch through the Transposition track.

Real instrument tracks, however, are more challenging. You can change one of these track’s pitch by selecting it, exposing the edit pane, and dragging the Transpose slider up or down. Note, however, that these tracks can sound funky (in a bad way) if you transpose them too much. Drag the slider too far to the right and the sound can get chipmunky. Drag it to the left and it sounds like Darth Vadar is playing the track. You can somewhat safely move up or down by three or four increments, but beyond that the sound will venture into the territory of the unnatural. This is not something to chide Apple over. It's just what happens when you make extreme pitch adjustments.

Change tempo

Just as you can change a song’s pitch, you can also adjust its tempo (or speed). By default, all new GarageBand tunes are configured to play at a speed of 120 beats per minute (BPM). You can adjust that tempo for the entire tune by entering a different tempo when you first create the project or by clicking and dragging up or down on the tempo in GarageBand’s LCD.

But if you want the tempo to change over time you can do that as well by choosing Track > Show Tempo Track. This track will appear near the top of the GarageBand window and will have an adjustment line of its own. Double-click where you want the tempo to change to create an adjustment point. Then drag that point up or down to increase or decrease the song’s tempo respectively. (Alternatively, hold down the Command key and click where you want the point to appear.)

Mixing your music

GarageBand doesn’t have a separate track mixer as does Logic Pro X, but that doesn’t mean you can’t automate your GarageBand tracks over time. Again, say what!?

What I mean is that with GarageBand’s automation controls you can configure your piano track to be quiet for the verse, increase in volume for the chorus, and then drop back down to a pleasant pianissimo for the second verse.

To do that choose Mix > Show Automation (or press the Mac’s A key). Each track will fatten up a bit and display a pop-up menu that’s labeled, by default, Volume as well as an automation button. Click that button and a yellow line appears within the track’s timeline.

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GarageBand has no mixer window, but you can still automate your tracks.

You can now click on that line to add adjustment points. Drag those points up or down to change the parameters of the item selected in the track’s pop-up menu (again, which is volume by default). When you play back the track it will follow the automation you’ve configured.

Click on one of these pop-up menus and you’ll discover that you can change a variety of things about the sound. You can change all tracks’ volume and pan (where the sound sits in the stereo field) as well as individual smart control parameters specific to the track type. For instance, if I’ve selected a Steinway Grand Piano track I can automate the instrument’s low and high frequencies, compression, delay, and reverb settings.

About the Master track

Some of you may take this as “Aw geez, man, does that mean I have to draw in an automation curve for every single track just so that all the instruments in my tune fade out together?” The answer is No.

Traipse back to the Track menu and choose Show Master Track. As its name hints, this track allows you to impose volume, pan, automation, smart controls, and EQ settings over every track in your song. So, if you wanted to fade out all of your tracks, enable the master track, enable its automation, choose Volume from the pop-up menu, and click in an adjustment point where you want the track to start fading. Click in a second point where the track will completely fade out. Drag the second point all the way to the bottom. If you find that the fade is too fast or slow, just drag the first point to the left or right to change where the fade begins.

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Use the Master track to fade out your tune.

The Master track has its own set of presets. If the Library pane isn’t showing choose View > Show Library. There will be at least a Factory entry in that pane. Select it and you’ll see a variety of presets. Choose one and expose GarageBand’s smart controls if they’re not already on screen. As you select presets you’ll notice that different controls appear in them—some have a reverb effect, for example, while others include an exciter effect. Find one that approximates the overall feel you want for your song and start making adjustments. You can also compare the current adjustment with the default by clicking the pane’s aptly-named Compare button.

Indulge me

I swore I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the little things, but there are two additional features that may have no interest to you that I’d like to point out for those who want a slightly deeper dip into GarageBand. The first is keyboard sensitivity.

I’m a keyboard player and so have a measure of control over how hard I press down on keys. So, through pure physicality I can cause a piano to play quietly or loudly. Those who haven’t spent a fair amount of time banging on the faux ivories don’t have such fine control. These people may want a software instrument to play at the same volume regardless of how hard or softly they press a key. GarageBand makes accommodations for all of us.

Select a software instrument track, expose its smart controls, and then click on the Info button in the pane. You’ll see a Keyboard Sensitivity slider. If you adjust it to the right, GarageBand will be less sensitive to how hard you bang on your controller. I know this seems counterintuitive, but what you’re really adjusting is the interpreted velocity level. I know, I know, say what!?

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Adjusting GarageBand's Keyboard Sensitivity slider.

When you drag the slider towards More, GarageBand interpets this as “make my playing more powerful because I have weak baby fingers.” Drag it toward Less and it hears “Out of the way, dude, I can totally handle the nuances of my keyboard with my powerful phalanges.” Of course if you drag the slider to either extreme your playing will be either too strong or too weak all the time. So, adjust according to your taste and keyboard controller. (For example, if you have a keyboard with semi-weighted keys and are accustomed to a piano’s weighted keys, you’ll want to drag that slider a bit to the left of Neutral as your keyboard offers little resistance.)

The other feature I'll like a further peek at is the ability to add global echo and reverb effects to every track. In previous versions of GarageBand you found echo and reverb controls attached to any track you selected. By default, the latest GarageBand lacks those effects. That’s inconvenient when you’d like to add reverb to a particular track and its smart controls doesn’t offer it.

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Echo and reverb for everyone!

To enable these effects, choose GarageBand > Preferences, select Audio/MIDI, and enable the Global Echo and Reverb option. When you do this, Echo Send and Reverb Send knobs will appear within each track’s smart controls pane.

And more

I could go on and on about GarageBand—to the point of being a bore. As I hope I’ve made clear, GarageBand is a remarkable tool that needn’t be used solely by musicians. There’s a little something for everyone here—including ringtone creation, movie soundtrack production, songwriting and recording, piano and guitar instruction, onboard synthesis and samples, and guitar shredding. And it’s five lousy dollars. Get it. You won't regret it.

Next week: That’s a wrap

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