GarageBand 10 review: Great tool for musicians (sorry podcasters)

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What’s new

With the understanding that we’re looking at a lighter Logic, which Logic Pro X features made the cut? Let’s run through them.

New sound library: GrageBand ’11's sound library had changed very little from the application's very first release. You could add more sounds via Apple’s Jam Pack bundles and by dragging in compatible loops and sounds but this release contains the first real refresh of the sound library and instruments we’ve seen. And the sounds are good—some culled from Logic’s library and others a “rethinking” of previous GarageBand sounds and loops. With the free version of GarageBand you get 50 instrument sounds and 500 loops. The in-app purchase provides you with 200 instrument sounds and 2000 loops.

Speaking of instrument sounds, there are fresh new instruments as well. As a keyboard player I’m thrilled to see that the vintage electric piano, vintage B3 organ, vintage clavinet, and some of the old-time synth models from Logic are available to me in GarageBand. At one time you paid a small fortune for the real versions of these instruments and—a decade or two later—paid a somewhat smaller fortune for their virtual counterparts. You can have them all today for a measly five bucks. This is an astonishing value.

Drummer track: Introduced in Logic Pro X, the Drummer track is designed to provide the sound and feel of a human drummer. Unlike in the past this is done without static loops. Instead, the “drummer” generates a performance using the nicely sampled work of some of the world’s most popular players. It does this based on the drummer you select, the preset you choose, which drums are played, plus the current configuration of the X/Y pad you use to determine the drummer's volume and the complexity of his or her work. It sounds complicated (and under the hood it undoubtedly is). But in performance, it's a snap to use.

The drummers play in a variety of styles—rock, alternative, songwriter, and R&B. In the free version of GarageBand you get a single rock drummer named Kyle who generally plays in a straight-ahead rock style (though he can play over a million unique grooves). He can use eight presets and play on one of a few drum kits. With that in-app purchase you get 14 more drummers, more styles and presets, and more drum kits.

The beauty of the Drummer track is that non-drummers (I count myself among them) can create drum tracks that sound like the real thing rather than piecing together loops that can quickly sound static. That’s helped along by a few options.

After picking a preset you can then use a control on the X/Y pad. By moving a dot around this pad you can vary the pattern between soft and loud as well as simple and complex. So, if you drag the dot to the pad’s bottom-left corner, you’ll have a quiet, simple pattern. Drag it to the top-right and the pattern becomes both louder and more complex. You can adjust this control to change the drummer’s playing in real time, which is great when trying to zero in on a groove while other parts are playing.

GarageBand 10's new Drummer track rocks.

You can additionally use sliders to determine how frequently the drummer uses parts of the kit—kick and snare, hi-hat, toms, cymbals, and percussion. You can choose which percussion instruments are used (tambourine, claps, and shaker) and switch off certain parts of the kit altogether. In this same area you can adjust the amount of filling the drummer does as well as increase the “swing” in his or her playing. You can also choose another track for your drummer to “follow,” meaning that the track will cop some of the groove in that other track.

The ability to choose the kit the drummer plays is also useful. I put together a funky blues riff as a test project and some of the “lighter” kits just didn’t cut it. Adding the East Bay kit (part of the in-app purchase kits) made all the difference.

Overall the Drummer track is a terrific addition, though to get the most out of it you’ll want to collect all the drummers, patterns, and kits as part of the in-app purchase. But it also can’t be all things to all musicians. In my funky blues project I really wanted something in the style of the legendary funk/soul band Tower of Power, and I just couldn’t find it. And if you use GarageBand to put together jazz or country songs you’re out of luck as genres outside of those mentioned aren’t available.

Smart Controls: Another Logic Pro X feature, Smart Controls are a way to present instrument controls and effects in a contextual setting. In the past, when you selected a track you could click on an Info button and bring up presets and controls for manipulating the sound—adding reverb and a chorus effect, for example. When you did this, all of GarageBand’s effects were available to you.

That’s no longer the case. When you now select a track and click on the Smart Controls button, the controls that Apple believes are most appropriate for that track appear. So, in the case of a vintage B3 organ track you’d see drawbars, switches, dials, and a rotating speaker toggle that would be found on the real thing. If you select a vocal track and click Smart Controls you find dials and switches for controlling a compressor effect, EQ, and reverb. If, in the Library pane, you choose one of the Voice presets—Tube Vocal or Natural Vocal, for example—the controls change. In the case of Tube vocal a De-Esser dial appears along with a dial and switch associated with “Warmth.”

A vintage Hammond B3 organ sounds great, but this emulation isn't bad (and weighs a lot less).

There’s a small Info button in the Smart Controls pane that I wish were a bit more obvious. When you click on it you’ll find controls appropriate for the kind of track you’ve selected. For a vocal track or real guitar track, for example, you can employ a Record Level slider as well as choose an input, as you might with a multi-input audio interface. Software instrument tracks have a Keyboard Sensitivity slider that helps you adjust how sensitive the software instruments are to your keyboard pounding.

If you’ve opened GarageBand’s preferences and enabled the Audio Units option in the Audio/MIDI tab the Info area will also include an Audio Units entry. It’s here that you can choose any compatible Audio Units effects and instruments plug-ins that you’ve added to your Mac. (Again, these must be 64-bit.)

The Smart Controls pane also includes an EQ button. Click on it and you see the application’s Visual EQ pane, which makes it easy to drag portions of a graph to adjust equalizer settings. Click the Info button and you can choose from among a variety of EQ settings.

I find Smart Controls useful as I expect a lot of other musicians will. I grew up on a Fender Rhodes electric piano and so very much like the familiarity of the silver and black knobs for adjusting the amount of “bell” in the tone as well as the bass and treble controls, and tremolo, chorus, and reverb controls. And, for the most part, all the controls presented to me are ones that I’d reach for anyway.

At the same time, I wish that I could live in both worlds—one where I have this kind of convenient contextual control and the other in which I can access any effect or controller GarageBand offers. Logic Pro X provides this in the form of audio effect inserts. Those more advanced users who want to really dig in can do so by adding Audio Unit effects and instruments but it’s not the same thing as having permission to wrestle with the guts of GarageBands sounds and effects.

Logic Remote compatibility: Having life-like controls to play with naturally leads to a desire to twiddle knobs and flip switches with some kind of external controller. Apple offers exactly that via its free Logic Remote iPad app. With that app you can remotely control many of GarageBand’s instrument, controller, and mixing features as well as trigger the application’s transport controls. Although I’d additionally like to see GarageBand allow me to assign controllers from my MIDI keyboard to these knobs and sliders—as I can in Logic Pro X—at least I have some option for using a control surface. Guitar and bass players may be the tiniest bit disappointed that they have to control their stompboxes with their fingers rather than feet. (Though Apogee's $395 GiO foot controller can be used for exactly that.)

Amps and stompboxes: Speaking of guitar and bass players, thie version of GarageBand inherits all 25 of Logic’s modeled amplifiers and 35 stompboxes. And, as with Logic, bass players get amps of their own rather than having to work with amps designed with guitarists in mind.

Bass players as well as guitarists benefit from all of Logic Pro X's amps and stomp boxes.

Arpeggiator: In the world of traditional music, an arpeggio is a chord sequence played as single notes, running up or down the chord—the notes C, E, G played in order, or example. In the electronic music world, an arpeggiator does the work for you by playing notes you play simultaneously on a keyboard in a pattern. The opening of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is an example of a classic arpeggiator effect.

GarageBand, like Logic before it, now offers an arpeggiator feature. You’ll find a handful of arpeggiated loops in GarageBand’s new library. You can also create your own arpeggiators by creating a new software instrument track and exposing its Smart Controls. The Arpeggiator button is found in the top-right corner of the Smart Controls pane. Click the pop-up menu that appears and you can choose the effect’s note order, rate, octave range, and then one of a variety of preset patterns.

iCloud support: You can now save GarageBand projects created in both the iOS and Mavericks versions to iCloud. However, while you can open iOS-created projects on a Mac, and Mac versions on another Mac, you can’t open projects created in the Mac version on an iOS device. This is understandable given that the iOS version doesn’t support some of the Mac version’s features but I can understand that those who recorded a song with their band on a Mac will be disappointed that they can’t mix it on their iPad on the bus ride home.

And more: Apple has made improvements to the tuner and additionally offers native sharing with the SoundCloud audio sharing service.

Bottom line

What you’ve done with GarageBand in the past will largely influence how you feel about the application. If you used it only for podcast production, this version of GarageBand isn’t for you. Stick with the old one. Likewise, if you filled your days banging away with Magic GarageBand, that band still exists in the previous version.

I’m hard-pressed, however, to see how a musician could be anything but delighted with GarageBand 10. The new sounds and instruments are really good. Drum tracks can now sound more like they were played by man rather than machine. While the application’s Smart Controls may not provide you access to every effect you desire, they make sense in the musical context in which you’re working. And anything (in the form of an iPad control surface) that lets you spend more time with your hand on your instrument (and off your computer) should be cause for celebration.

Updated 11/17/13 to better explain the mechanics of the Drummer track.

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At a Glance
  • Musicians will be delighted with GarageBand 10. The new sounds and instruments are really good and Drum tracks now sound realistic. Podcast producers should stick with the previous version.

    Pros

    • Great new instruments and loops
    • Drummer tracks helps create real-sounding drums
    • Smart Controls provide contextual effects and settings
    • Solid collection of amps and stomp boxes
    • Support for Logic Remote app

    Cons

    • No support for enhanced podcasts
    • Magic GarageBand goes the way of the dodo
    • No ability to access all effects
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