At the risk of making this all about me, when I played piano professionally one comment I heard over and over was, “I wish I’d kept playing as a kid.” To which I unvaryingly replied, “You could always start again.”
But of course that ignored the practicalities of doing so. It meant getting a piano if one wasn’t already ensconced at home, risking other people hearing them while they got back up to speed, and finding a teacher to help them along.
Were I presented with the same comment today I’d reply differently: “Get a copy of GarageBand, an inexpensive keyboard, and a set of headphones.”
Setting it up
In our last lesson I told you that GarageBand has a collection of prerecorded loops and a Drummer track. But this isn’t the only sound it’s capable of producing. Embedded in the application are software instruments. Essentially, GarageBand turns your Mac into a music synthesizer—one capable of playing purely synthetic sounds as well as mimicking real instruments such as pianos, other keyboards, guitars, drums, basses, voices, and orchestral instruments.
You have a few ways to play those instruments. To begin, we’ll concentrate on a real keyboard that you connect to your Mac.
Connected musical keyboards use something called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to transmit the keys you’re playing on the music keyboard to your Mac. At one time these keyboards had a special five-pin MIDI connector and required that you used a MIDI interface between the keyboard and Mac to make the connection. That’s no longer the case. Most of today’s keyboards have a USB connector. To set things up, just string a USB cable between the keyboard and the Mac, switch on the keyboard (if it’s not powered by the USB connection), and you should be ready to go. There’s no need to install drivers or do much in the way of configuration—GarageBand can automatically sense when such a keyboard is connected to your computer.
MIDI keyboards from companies such as M-Audio can be had for about $100 and up. These use plastic keys and a “semi-weighted action,” meaning that the keys don’t offer nearly as much resistance as a piano when you depress them. You can purchase a sustain pedal to go with the keyboard as well. It plugs into the back of the keyboard and serves the same function as a piano’s sustain pedal—it holds notes when the pedal is pressed and then cuts them off when you release the pedal.
The playing’s the thing
Once you’ve connected your keyboard, you can use it to play GarageBand’s instruments. To do that, launch GarageBand, and from the project chooser window select Keyboard Collection and click Choose. The GarageBand window will open and display a long list of keyboard instruments in the track headers. The first track—Steinway Grand Piano—will be selected by default.
Drop your hand on the MIDI keyboard, and you should hear the sound of a piano. If you don’t, choose GarageBand > Preferences > Audio/MIDI and look at the MIDI Status entry. It should display at least one MIDI input. If it doesn’t, simply click the Reset MIDI Drivers button. (Also, be sure to check the volume on your Mac and whether the right device—connected headphones or speakers—is chosen in the Output Device pop-up menu.)
To play one of the other keyboard sounds, click on its name in the list of tracks. If you’d like to record what you’re playing, click GarageBand’s red Record button. (We’ll talk about recording and editing in another lesson.)
Other input options
I said before that there were other ways to “play” GarageBand. Although it’s hard to imagine a more painful way to do it, you can play single notes by clicking your mouse or trackpad. To do that, choose Window > Show Keyboard. An onscreen keyboard will appear. You can resize the keyboard by dragging on its edges or corners. To play it, just click on keys. Click and hold, and the note sustains until you stop holding. To move to higher or lower parts of the keyboard, either click on the arrows that appear on its right and left side, or click somewhere in the smaller representation of the keyboard. The key plays with greater velocity (which usually means louder) the farther toward the edge of the key you click.
Slightly more useful is the Musical Typing keyboard, which you can invoke by choosing Window > Show Musical Typing (<Command>-K). When you activate this keyboard you can play GarageBand’s instruments with your Mac’s keyboard. The Mac’s A key corresponds to the Middle C pitch. S is the D note a whole step above Middle C, D is E, F is F, G is G, H is A, J is B, and K is C, an octave up from Middle C. So, the keyboard’s middle row of keys acts as the piano’s “white keys.” The W, E, T, Y, U, O, and P keys are the piano’s “black keys.”
With the Musical Typing keyboard you can play multiple keys at the same time. For example, press A, D, and G to play a C major chord.
But wait, there’s one more thing. If you have an iPad 2 or later running iOS 6 or later, download Apple’s free Logic Remote app from the App Store. Launch it, and it will look for any open copy of GarageBand (or Logic Pro X or MainStage 3) on your local network. On the Mac you’ll be cued to grant it access to GarageBand. Then, back on the iPad, tap on the View menu (in the app’s top-left corner), tap Smart Controls & Keyboard, tap the keyboard layout below, and a virtual keyboard appears. Tap on this keyboard’s keys (it too can play multiple notes simultaneously), and GarageBand’s sounds play through your Mac.
Above the keyboard you’ll see the current instrument’s smart controls. For a piano, this includes knobs for controlling low and high tones and reverb. For an organ sound, you see drawbars and switches. To change instrument sounds, just tap on the right or left arrows that sit beside the instrument name at the top of the Logic Remote screen. You’ll find that you can also control GarageBand’s transport (the Back/Stop, Play, and Record functions) from Logic Remote (along with several other features that we won’t go into in this lesson).
A little extra help
You’re now set up to revisit “Bone Sweet Bone” and other childhood favorites except for one thing—you’ve almost entirely forgotten what the keys are called and how to properly manipulate them. GarageBand (with the single $5 in-app purchase that gets you all of GarageBand’s content) can help with this as well.
Close the current project to return to the project chooser window. In that window select Learn to Play and then click the Piano Lesson tab. You’ll spy a single lesson called Intro to Piano. Click on it and in a short time a young man named Tim will take over your Mac’s screen. Tim is the instructor for both GarageBand’s guitar and piano lessons. I won’t waste your time explaining how the lessons work, as the interface is quite intuitive.
When you’ve learned everything you can from that lesson, close the window and click the Lesson Store entry in the project chooser. Click Piano Lessons and you’ll see three artist lessons along with Pop Piano, Classical Piano, and Basic Piano lessons. If you’re starting out or looking for a quick reminder on how to play, select Basic Piano. In the resulting window you can choose to download all eight lessons or download lessons singly. And yes, they’re free with that in-app purchase.
Of course, if you’ve already mastered the piano and wish to take up the guitar, choose those lessons instead. While GarageBand’s lessons are no substitute for a real teacher who can give you feedback, they’re organized and presented well and cover the basics.
And that’s it. When we next meet, you’re welcome to begin with, “I wish I’d kept playing as a kid,” but I hope that you’ll then ably close with, “so I did something about it and am trying again with GarageBand.”
Next week: GUITAR!!!!!
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Chris has covered technology and media since the latter days of the Reagan Administration. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, he's a professional musician in the San Francisco Bay Area.