GarageBand is a music creation software application that is part of Apple’s iLife suite (GarageBand, iMovie and iPhoto) and ships on all new Macintosh computers. For this column, I jumped into learning how well GarageBand might work as a musical sketchpad to rough out a basic song demo. I enlisted the help of two friends, vocalist Josh Washington and songwriter/percussionist Dan Faughnder, for the home sessions. In the process, we recorded live vocals and electric guitar to go along with the software-based instruments and loops found in the program’s library. We wondered just how good a song demo could be created in a couple of hours by GarageBand rookies.
As we got started with our session, Dan commented that the current version of GarageBand has some of the same functionality found in Logic Express, the “Light” version of Apple’s premiere audio workstation software, Logic Pro.
First, Dan opened a new project, gave it a name, and selected “New Track” from the Track menu. A pop up window appeared with three choices: A) Software Instrument, which draws on the library of available GarageBand instruments playable by a USB or onscreen keyboard; B) Real Instrument, which is any instrument or voice you choose to perform live into GarageBand; and C) Electric Guitar, which allows you to play your guitar into the program using the amp and stomp box combinations found in GarageBand. We decided our test drive would utilize all three methods of adding tracks to compare the various methods to create a song demo using GarageBand 5.1.
After checking out the various guitar, drum, and keyboard sounds available in the software library we started out by creating an acoustic guitar track using a pattern and sound from the Loop Browser library called “Classic Rock Steel 02.” This two-bar loop is a short guitar pattern with a descending line.
The range of choices in the Loop Browser is very broad, and one interesting feature is that you can combine an instrument, genre, and mood, and then GarageBand will find and display the loops that fit your criteria. We tried “guitar/metal/intense,” and “piano/country/cheerful” and found the results pretty accurate in most cases.
You’ll also note that some loops have a green icon showing a note next to them, while other have a blue icon with a waveform next to them. The green icons represent software instruments found in the library, which include MIDI data so that you can readily change the pitch, duration, velocity, etc., for any note. The blue icon denotes a real instrument recorded as a digital audio file that can be edited, but not to the same extent as a software instrument with its editable MIDI data. As we built our tracks for this song, GarageBand automatically differentiated the different types of audio files use for each new track: green for software instruments, blue for real instruments, and purple for recorded instruments including any electric guitar or bass you play live into a song.
After experimenting with the acoustic guitar loop we started with, we decided to scrap the loop and just build a part from scratch using the acoustic guitar sound we liked in the Piano Roll editor. Creating and copying note patterns in GarageBand is easy to do. After creating the acoustic guitar part in the key of F, which started with a descending pattern similar to the one in the loop we had experimented with, Dan highlighted all the notes from the first two bars, copied and pasted the pattern into a new region, and then dragged the note pattern he had just pasted up to the correct notes to fit the B-flat chord for bars five and six.
Next, he highlighted those notes, again copied and pasted into a new two-bar region, then dragged that pattern up to a C-7 chord for bar nine, then back down to B-flat for bar ten, finally returning to F for the final two bars of the first verse. We now had six two-bar sections that made up the verse. He played it back to confirm we had a usable guitar part. To make copying the verse guitar part easier, Dan then used the “Join” command from the Edit menu after selecting all six regions to convert them into one 12-bar region.
After finishing up the guitar part for the first verse, we decided to add a basic drum part and chose to make the song demo four verses long, a total of 48 measures. For the drums, we went back to the Loop Browser and chose a simple rock loop named “Live Edgy Drums 12” in 4/4 meter. We proceeded to extend the loop out for 48 bars to make a four-verse song. Dan then copied the 12-bar guitar part three times by grabbing the edge of a region and dragging it until it looped three times before we moved on to the bass part.
As we checked out various bass sounds, we decided on a stand up bass software instrument named “Round Latin Bass 04.” Dan and I traded places and I proceeded to use the same method to program the bass part in the Piano Roll editor: “Command + Click” on the note value I wanted, then extending the right edge of the note value for as many beats as a I wanted a bass note to sustain. We both found that while using the Piano Roll editor to create instrumental parts, we would sometimes have to adjust the velocity setting for a preset instrument. For instance, on the software instrument stand up bass we were using, the velocity had to be increased to get the nice attack a bass player can create when she/he really pulls on a string. And by varying the velocity a tad between notes, a little more texture results in the overall bass pattern. It took about fifteen minutes to create the bass part, once again, copying and pasting the basic note patterns in two-bar regions. I also added a chromatic walk up to the C-7 chord in bar nine. Then, as we had with the acoustic guitar, we joined the six two-bar regions into one verse-long region. Finally, we dragged the edge of the joined 12-bar region until it looped three times, giving us the completed bass part.
At this point we played around with the track volumes, which are controlled by small horizontal faders on each track. Adjacent to the track volume, are buttons allowing you to engage Record, Mute, Solo, or Lock each track, along with an Automation control which allows you to program changes in volume, such as fades. We boosted the volume of the string bass and decided to add an electric piano, which took about fifteen minutes to program in the Piano Roll edit window once we had selected a software instrument sound we liked. As we played back the whole track, we realized a human drummer would hit a few crash or ride cymbals to accent chord changes and such, so we added another drum track, which would only be used to add cymbals. Dan clicked around the vertical keyboard in the Piano roll editor until he came up with crash and ride cymbals, hit the record button on the new track, and then added cymbal crashes, along with a nice ride cymbal accent in the third verse that would become an instrumental verse. He missed two cymbal hits along the way, and rather than re recording them, we located each mistake, and repositioned the crash right on the beat using the mouse. We were ready to wrap up our first session, but realized a normal band would hit a final F chord together and let it ring out for the end of the song. Dan added a one-measure region and programmed a final chord/beat for each instrument.
Adding Live Tracks
A few days later, vocalist and songwriter Josh Washington dropped by to add a vocal part. Although the MacBook we were using has an internal mic, we decided to use a better quality vocal mic and at the same time test out the Shure X2u USB to XLR computer recording interface. Plugging the mic into the XLR end and using the Shure-supplied USB cable, we were quickly up and running.
The Mac recognized the X2u almost immediately and asked permission to make it the Audio Input. We plugged a 1/8” headphone splitter into the headphone output on the X2u allowing both Josh and Dan to monitor the overdub on headphones. Next, Dan adjusted mic input level, overall volume and the mix between the backing track and the live vocal Josh was performing. (See the companion mini-review and more photos of the X2u.)
Josh was ready to improvise a blues lyric over the backing track, but Dan and I realized we had neglected to program a song count off. No problem. Dan moved all the backing tracks down exactly one measure, leaving a four beat gap before the song began. Lesson learned. Always program a measure or two of click track to use later in case you want to overdub any live performances. Josh practiced his entrance a few times and when he could come in correctly we were ready to record. After three takes, we had a vocal everyone liked and Josh headed home. The final test would be to record a live electric guitar part for the third verse solo section using GarageBand’s amp and stomp box emulations.
I got out my Fender Tele-Coustic, which has an active preamp on board (I had experimented earlier with an older passive electric guitar and found the input level was too low to get a decent tone.) We used a regular guitar cable and put a 1/8” adapter on the end and plugged directly into the Mac’s audio input and turned the Tele-Coustic’s volume up all the way. As I played, Dan started experimenting with the various amp and stomp box combinations found in GarageBand. The small LCD at the bottom of the page offers an option for an on board guitar tuner which we found was incredibly accurate. We settled on an amp-stomp box combination dubbed “Vibrato Blues,” a black face Fender-style amp with a distortion box and chorus pedal. I started out trying to add a lot of licks to the song, but after we had run it down a number times, realized that a simple retro swamp boogie part on just the instrumental verse seemed to fit best with the overall sound and feel of the demo.
After playing back all the parts, we decided to do add a few effects and then do our mix. For vocals, GarageBand offers a number of preset effects packages some of which are highly specialized (Helium Breath, Megaphone) to more traditional (Male Rock Vocal, Female Dance Vocal, etc.) We liked the “Male R’n’B Vocal” preset on Josh’s vocal. It uses a nice delay, a touch of compression and some reverb, each of which can be further adjusted very easily. We added some reverb to the drums and acoustic guitar and boosted with the amp emulator’s vibrato in addition to the chorus for and even swampier sound. I also decided to use the Track Automation, a really nice feature to remove one glissando I threw into the solo, which didn’t really fit after a number of listens.
With track automation, I also faded the last notes of the solo so that they didn’t conflict with the last verse vocal entry. (You can also automate Pans, which can be a cool effect.) As the mix was getting a little busy, we panned the electric piano and acoustic guitar to opposite sides to open things up a bit. The last step was to tweak levels a bit more, boosting up the bass and automating the ride cymbal during the solo. Last, I exported the mix to iTunes using the “Share” pull down menu so I could burn the song to CD, email it to friends or include it in an iTunes playlist.
After two short sessions totaling about three and a half hours, we had a complete song (named “Springtime Blues,” a whimsical reference to the seasonal allergies that Josh had been suffering on the day of our vocal session). The current version of GarageBand offers a wide range of instruments and features that make it a good choice for someone just getting started creating music. Using the library of loops, even non-musicians can quickly create new song ideas. Since we didn’t have a USB keyboard at the time we were doing the sessions, we found it easier to use the Piano Roll editor to create various instrumental parts. For anyone with basic keyboard proficiency, an inexpensive USB Keyboard would make creating parts even faster.
Did I forget to mention GarageBand comes free on any new Mac? (PC users, sorry to report that there isn’t a PC-version of the program available.) GarageBand’s effects, automation, editing and live recording capabilities elevate the program to the point where it can be useful for creating song demos, certainly at a quality suitable to share with other musicians, for learning arrangements, sending to the Copyright office to register a sound recording, or just for fun. Apple also offers five different extensive sample libraries ($99 each) with even more instruments, loops, background vocalists and a wealth of real instruments to choose from.
Listening back to our mix, I noticed that the overall sound quality of the drum loop lacked the texture and spontaneity that a live drummer adds to any recording. However, for a song demo, if we would have spent a bit more time programming drum parts rather than relying on a two-bar loop repeating throughout with a few overdubbed cymbals, we could have created a more nuanced drum part in GarageBand. How good your GarageBand song demos sounds all comes down to the amount of time a person is willing to invest in programming the nuanced fine points that help any track sparkle. Likewise, the tonal colors and shadings available using the software instruments were pretty impressive, but a talented live musician is often able to create and add texture and personality to a song arrangement in ways that a programmed part seldom equals in my experience.
When I asked Dan to share his thoughts, he agreed that it certainly is possible for a songwriter to make a serviceable demo using GarageBand. However, he also felt that, “In the end, it seems as though GarageBand’s attempts to simplify so many functions ended up making things a bit more difficult. For instance, although there is a track compressor available, there is no metering to see how much the compressor is affecting particular track. The guitar amp modeling in GarageBand was fun to play with, but hard to customize in the time I spent with it. It seems we ran into some of the limits that the program has doing this project. I was extremely impressed with the Shure X2u and how easily we were able to record vocals with it.”
From my perspective, I believe that GarageBand offers plenty of power and flexibility to get a songwriter started with learning how to make DIY song demos at home, with the addition of an audio interface such as the X2u. We only scratched the surface of what this free program is capable of in the few hours we invested to create a quick song demo. However, Dan’s comments about the greatly simplified features found in GarageBand are true.
If you start out on GarageBand with its very simple learning curve, you may eventually consider moving up to Apple’s Logic Express (street price $165-199), a program that has a more comprehensive approach to the art and science of sound recording, and a much more fully featured set of tools, plug-ins and effects. The good news is that the feel and basic layout from GarageBand is instantly transferable into Logic, so you’ll likely be creating and mixing your tunes in Logic Express in no time at all.
Special thanks to Josh Washington and Dan Faughnder for help in preparing this article.
Apple’s GarageBand Home Page
Shure X2u XLR->USB Audio Interface
DIY GarageBand Resources
ART Tube MP preamp – an inexpensive tube preamp (street price $30) to boost the signal of instruments like passive electric guitars or basses when recording direct into GarageBand
Apple’s GarageBand User Forum and Discussion Board (find just about any topic under discussion in the more than 1300 pages of postings!)