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My relationship with music is, like most people's, somewhat complicated. I vigorously resisted years of piano lessons and became an adult with only rudimentary piano skills and the ability to read sheet music. As for my abortive yearlong attempt to learn the trumpet back in the sixth grade, let's just say that it's the low point of my academic record.

But none of these hardships stopped me from becoming a voracious consumer of popular music. I think a lot of us ended up this way -- not really able to express ourselves musically, but sampling and consuming as much music as possible.

With the iPod and the iTunes Music Store, Apple satisfied our immense appetites for music. I will never willingly give up my iPod, iTunes, or my Slim Devices SliMP3, because they have allowed me to enjoy more and more-varied music than I could have imagined as a cranky 13-year-old kid listening to the radio while waiting for a piano lesson to begin.

But serving consumers of music was the easy part. The real trick is to create a product that turns many of those consumers into creators -- to do for music what iMovie and iDVD did for video.

I didn't believe it could be done until a couple of months ago, when I began using Soundtrack (   ; December 2003), a $199 Apple program that's also included with Final Cut Pro 4. Soundtrack is a serious tool for creating royalty-free soundtracks for your video projects, yes -- but it's also an amazing audio toy. I spent many hours mixing different drum, guitar, and keyboard loops, and created melodies so catchy that they stuck in my head long after I'd shut off my Mac. Even though I wasn't playing a note, I was expressing myself through music. It was a revelation.

With Apple's release of iLife '04, which includes the groundbreaking GarageBand program, Apple is bringing that revelation to the masses (see our cover story about iLife and the new iPod mini). Sure, a lot of what's created with GarageBand will be ugly, dissonant, or amateurish. But you could say the same thing about iMovie and iDVD. With GarageBand, Apple has reduced the size of the barrier that prevents people from expressing themselves musically. GarageBand won't make anyone into a guitar virtuoso overnight, but it might help a person with brilliant songwriting talent communicate that talent, even though he or she never learned to play an instrument. And kids who are learning an instrument just got a complete backup band for $49, which should reduce the crushing boredom of practice a little bit.

New and Notable

Every January, the Macworld Expo trade show in San Francisco brings a flood of interesting new products, large and small. This year was no different, but Apple did come in for more criticism than it has in recent years, and most of that disapproval had to do with the prices the company is charging for its products.

I can understand the frustration of people who must now pay $49 to upgrade iPhoto and iMovie. But I don't blame Apple for charging for the upgrade -- developing that software isn't cheap. It's appropriate that owners of new Macs will get iLife '04 for free, though I'd hoped that Apple would give a price break to .Mac customers, Panther purchasers, or both. Still, I'd argue that each of the components available only through iLife '04 -- iMovie 4, iDVD 4, iPhoto 4, and GarageBand -- is probably worth $49. Together, they're a steal.

The other debated Apple pricing decision involved the iPod mini. I was disappointed in the iPod mini's price, mostly because I'd like to see Apple create a really low-cost iPod. But I suspect that its $249 price tag won't be around for long -- it just makes sense for Apple to cut the price after it produces more of them.

Price aside, the iPod mini is remarkably cool, with a scroll-wheel interface that beats the original iPod's and a shockingly small size. Apple will sell a bunch of the new iPods -- and once the price comes down, it will sell even more.

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