PC World review: Making music with GarageBand 2

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Some new features should make Apple's GarageBand 2 more attractive to actual garage bands than its predecessor. Chief among them: The ability to record eight live tracks simultaneously, versus the original's single-track limitation. Add to that capability a simple-to-understand menu and self-explanatory icons, and the application -- part of Apple's US$79 iLife package -- represents an easy introduction to multitrack recording.

GarageBand is largely successful in its attempts to be an all-encompassing music-making machine. The Macintosh-only app offers numerous software instruments and loops -- short audio snippets -- for creating songs. Also, you can apply a variety of effects -- such as compression, echo, and reverb -- to each track.

You can also use the software to record real musical instruments (assuming you have the necessary hardware). Once you've made the recordings, the program offers an assortment of presets that should help beginners get a palatable sound without having to do a lot of tinkering.

Apple calls these Real Instrument tracks, versus the Software Instrument tracks it creates for the virtual variety. For electric guitars and bass guitars, there are about a dozen amplifier simulators to help you sound like you're really plugged in and cranked up, instead of simply connected to your computer.

However, it's a good thing that most of GarageBand 2's functions are easy to figure out because documentation is scant: There's neither a paper manual nor a digital one.

Playing and editing

I tried out GarageBand 2 on an iMac G5 and quickly learned that a MIDI keyboard is a necessity. I tried playing the simplest of melodies with the iMac's QWERTY keyboard, but it was nearly impossible to trigger the notes accurately due to latency -- a lag between when I pressed a key and when the software played the note. Also, you can use the mouse with the on-screen software keyboard to trigger sounds, but this option is only good for auditioning sounds, not tinkling the virtual ivories.

Thankfully, GarageBand's edit window made it easy to correct my uncoordinated attempts at rhythm and melody. The edit window displays the notes of software instruments either in a grid or as musical notation. By using the Align button in the edit window, I was able to move all notes to the nearest quarter note or eighth note, and so on. You can also change their duration or delete them altogether.

Similarly, you can edit the audio recordings of real instruments you record, to improve your less-than-perfect performances. Audio files show up in the edit window as a waveform, which resembles a seismograph's scrawl during an earthquake. GarageBand 2's loops show up the same way. First-timers to audio editing will likely appreciate the one-button fixes for out-of-tune singers and out-of-time instrumentalists. However, more advanced users will find these features a bit too simplistic.

While extremely straightforward, I found the application's edit window more cumbersome to use than several freeware audio editors I've used. For example, in GarageBand 2 I could highlight a section of a waveform by dragging the cursor over it, and then copy it. But I couldn't paste it in the same way -- I had to select the paste point in the timeline ruler running along the top of the edit window, which is time consuming. Also, GarageBand 2's editing window shows only one track at a time, so you can't view and edit multiple waveforms side by side.

Minor irritations

Though GarageBand 2 simplifies many recording tasks to good effect, some of its attempts to help can get in your way. For example, when I forgot to select a track for recording, GarageBand2 armed a track when I hit the Record button -- apparently the last track I'd edited. Since this wasn't the intended track, I had to undo what was recorded in order to recover what had been erased. I'd rather the software warn me that I haven't armed a track for recording than have it record over my previously edited work.

Apple's Web site says you can add your own audio files to GarageBand's loops library, but after following instructions in the help file, the loops I imported from an audio CD failed to show up in the loops library; I had to drag them to the tracks window in order to use them.

Another way to add loops to your library is with Apple's $99 Jam Packs. Each one comes with roughly 2000 loops, plus roughly six to 12 software instruments in 13 categories, such as drum kits, strings, pianos, and horns. The sound quality of the loops and instruments is generally very good, and they cover a wide variety of popular musical styles.

Slow running

One downside to loading up all those instruments: A sluggish computer. Even though I was running GarageBand 2 on an iMac G5 with a 1.8-GHz processor and 512MB of SDRAM, a song I created with 11 software instruments and two tracks of drum loops significantly slowed down the software's response time. Whether I was changing a track's volume or scrolling in the edit window, the interface was hesitant, though the audio continued to play correctly.

Apple's solution for computer overload is that you "lock" some of the tracks, creating an audio file for each one rather than having each software instrument generate its sounds on the fly, which is a processing-intensive task. Locking the tracks unstuck the halting interface, yet didn't lock me into what I'd created: I was still able to unlock tracks later and adjust their effects as I saw fit.

All that said, GarageBand 2 is has a lot of impressive features considering that it's part of a $79 suite. Beginnners should be thrilled with how easily they can alter the sounds of instruments and combine them to create songs.

GarageBand 2 (in iLife '05)
4 stars out of 5
Helps beginners create multilayered tunes, but experienced musicians will find it too restrictive.
List: $79

This story, "PC World review: Making music with GarageBand 2" was originally published by PCWorld.

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