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Two New Products That Make GarageBand Even Better

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- Episode 42 - July 22nd, 2005

Being the author of GarageBand For Dummies has its advantages. Because of that book, many vendors of audio gear-both hardware and software-want me to be the first one on my block to try their new gadgets. Which means I receive a decent amount of audio hardware and software before it's released to the general public.

Here are some impressions of two just-released USB devices I think are awesome. iControl is a control surface for GarageBand. It mimics a traditional mixing console (kind of), and allows you to control volume, pan, effects, mute, solo and record for multiple tracks without touching the mouse. It also includes a set of transport buttons and a jog wheel, making both recording and playback more convenient. And, with its faux wood side rails, it's cute as hell.

The Snowball, from Blue Microphones, is also very cute. It's also the best-sounding USB microphone I have ever used (and I have owned at least 4 or 5 of 'em over the years). That should come as no surprise if you're familiar with Blue, which is well known for high-quality microphones. What is surprising is its price, a mere $139 (and worth every penny).

iControl

M-Audio's iControl gives you finer control over most of GarageBand 2's functions. And it's a true plug-and-play device-it requires no software drivers and GarageBand 2 recognizes it as soon as you plug it into your Mac. Better still, it's USB bus-powered, so it doesn't need a bulky power adapter, making it a dream to use with a PowerBook or iBook for truly mobile recording.


Figure 1: iControl lets you tweak up to eight tracks at a time without reaching for the mouse.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)
(Photo courtesy of M-Audio)

As you can see on the right side of Figure 1, iControl lets you work with 8 tracks at a time. Each track has a rotary control for volume or pan, plus a Select, Record, Mute, and Solo button. There are also convenient buttons to access Track Info, Generator, Effects, and EQ for the selected track. And, of course, there are transport control buttons (Record, Rewind to beginning of song, Rewind, Play/Pause, Fast Forward, and Loop), a jog wheel, and a master volume fader. (“Fader” is what audio professionals call sliding controls such as Master Volume.)

If you've used GarageBand very much, I'm sure you've noticed how hard it is to adjust volume (level) and pan, or to click the tiny Record, Mute, and Solo buttons using only the mouse. That's iControl's greatest strength-the rotary volume/pan knobs and finger-sized Record, Mute, and Solo buttons are much easier and more precise than a mouse. The rotary jog wheel is also for precise positioning of the playhead.

There are two things I'd change if I could. First, because it doesn't require any driver software, you can't reconfigure its functions. That means, for example, that if you'd prefer one of the buttons turn the Metronome or Snap to Grid feature on and off, you're out of luck.

Second, although the rotary volume/pan controls are much better than the mouse, I'd be happier if they were real faders. I realize that good faders would increase the cost of iControl, probably by quite a bit, but I also suspect an iControl with faders would be desirable even at a higher price.

The more you use GarageBand, the more iControl will increase your productivity (and possibly lower your blood pressure, too). While it's not exactly cheap at a suggested retail price of $179, it's worth every penny to anyone who is serious about producing audio with GarageBand.

I give iControl my highest recommendation: When it's time to send the review unit back to M-Audio, I'm definitely going to buy one.

iControl. M-Audio. MSRP - $179 ($129.99 - Amazon)

One last thing: If you're brave enough to want to listen to some tunes I recorded in GarageBand, you'll find five of them (and a photo of the "studio") at my .Mac page:

Snowball

The Snowball is, according to its maker, Blue Microphones, the first USB microphone designed for professional recording applications. I have to agree-I've got a bunch of other USB microphones and none sounds nearly as good as the Snowball. And, for those who care about appearances, it's also the coolest-looking USB mic I've ever seen:


Figure 2: My Blue Snowball perched on its (included) chrome desk stand.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)
(Photo courtesy of Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus)

Like iControl, the Snowball is truly a plug-and-play device. Just connect it to a USB port and select it in GarageBand's Audio/MIDI preference pane, as shown in Figure 3, and you're ready to rock.


Figure 3: Select the Snowball in GarageBand's Audio/MIDI preference pane and you're good to go.

Don't get me wrong… a good condenser mic will almost certainly sound somewhat better than the Snowball in many cases. But then you need a FireWire or USB audio interface, and have to supply the mic with phantom power. While I (of course) have all of the above in my little home/office studio, I frequently find myself using the Snowball with my big dual G5 rig because it's so easy to set up and use.

One of the reasons the Snowball sounds so great is that Blue used an innovative dual-capsule design where most inexpensive mics offer only a single capsule (and usually a cheap one at that). Because of it, Snowball has three settings you select with a small switch on its backside. The first setting provides a rich, smooth sound with lots of presence-perfect for most vocal recordings. The second setting provides an airy, open sound better suited to musical instruments than vocals. And the third setting is just right for recording louder sound sources such as drums or percussion instruments.

My Snowball is a pre-production model, so it arrived without documentation or even a spec sheet. So I fired off an email to find out more about these settings:

Dear Blue Microphones:

I have a couple of questions… First, when is the Snowball shipping? And second, since there was no documentation for my pre-production unit, I'd love know more about the switch settings-1, 2, and 3-and what they mean. I know what they sound like to my ears, but I'd like know why they sound that way.

Thanks a million.

Within a few hours I had received this reply (from Eli Probst, CEO of Blue Microphones):

Bob,

The Snowball is not going to be released until June 1st. The documentation that will accompany it has not been completed. I will do my best to answer your questions.

  1. Cardiod_
  2. Cardiod w/10dB pad _
  3. Omni

So there you have it, for those of you who care about such things.

The bottom line is that the Blue Snowball is an incredible microphone, especially considering its low price. If you're looking for one good mic, and don't want to mess with an audio interface, XLR connectors and cables, or phantom power, the Blue Snowball is the way to go.

I give the Snowball the same recommendation I gave the iControl: I wouldn't hesitate to buy it with my own dough.

Blue Snowball. Blue Microphones. MSRP $139

There is one last thing… Just before I submitted this column, I checked the Blue Web site and discovered that the Snowball is still listed as, “coming soon.” So you probably can't purchase one just yet. Still, it's an awesome mic, so if you can hold out for a few more weeks, it's worth waiting for.

And that's all he wrote...

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.

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