First Look: Hands-On With GarageBand
January 16th, 2004
Episode #10

I got iLife '04 yesterday, and iPhoto 4, iMovie 4, iTunes 4, and iDVD 4 will have to wait -- for a few months -- because I'm having way too much fun with GarageBand. I haven't done much else since I installed it, but I dragged myself away, kicking and screaming I might add, from my PowerBook (now known as "the little recording studio that rocks"), just so I could write this epistle for you, gentle reader.

For those of you who have been hiding under a rock the past week, GarageBand is Apple's new iLife app that turns your Mac into a recording studio with hundreds of instruments. And I, for one, having toyed with a career in rock and roll record production, couldn't wait to get my hands on it.

At precisely 2:58 PM I got my wish when my friendly neighborhood Federal Express guy laid a huge box on my doorstep. It contained a complete recording studio -- a PowerBook 15-inch, iLife '04, the Jam Pack for GarageBand, an M-Audio Keystation49e 49-key USB MIDI keyboard, an M-Audio FireWire 410 FireWire mobile recording interface, a Shure SM58 microphone and cable, and a sustain pedal for the keyboard.

Brief aside: That was nice and somewhat unexpected. I asked Apple for GarageBand, and said I'd like to have it in time for this column (officially, it ships today). They said it was no problem and the very next day this huge box of stuff -- including a PowerBook G4 with iLife '04 pre-loaded -- showed up on my doorstep.

In less than an hour I had everything connected and operational and had recorded my voice, "Lisa, come here, I need you."

Setting up my little recording studio was a breeze, and it's a darn good thing, since documentation was virtually nonexistent. I installed the Jam Pack (from a DVD), and drivers for the keyboard and FireWire interface, restarted, connected the keyboard via USB and the FireWire 410 via (duh) FireWire. Plugged the mic (Shure SM58) into channel one, and my guitar (a well-worn Fender Stratocaster) into channel two of the FireWire interface and with less than an hour elapsed since slicing open the box, I fired up GarageBand for the first time and hoped for the best.

It wasn't bad. The keyboard worked right off the bat, letting me "play" the hundreds of instruments, loops, and effects using its 49 velocity-sensitive and relatively piano-like keys. That was the good news. The bad news was: I couldn't see or hear my guitar or the microphone; though they were (I thought) connected properly, it was as if they didn't exist.

A quick visit to the Sound System Preference pane was all it took. I needed to select the FireWire 410 as my input and output device. Once that was done I could hear my guitar and voice as clear as crystal. So I slapped on a set of cans (Sony MDR-V600 headphones) and issued myself what has come to be known as the GarageBand Challenge: To learn how to use the software, write, produce, arrange, record, and master a song before bedtime.

The time was just past 4 PM

First things first -- I ran to Guitar Center and bought a second mic stand (for my "good" mic, a Chinese knockoff of the venerable Neumann U 87 that sounds pretty good). Got back, set up the second mic and stand, then had dinner with the family. Around 8:00 I got back in the office and went to work (more like play) in earnest.


I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. The song was "in the can," and I was "in the bed," long before midnight. It ain't great, but it doesn't suck and shows off many of GarageBand's strengths. And, had I not felt obligated to add cheesy 70's synthesizer riffs and triple-track some of the vocals, I would have been in bed a whole lot sooner, but I was having too much fun.

Also, though I always tell others to "R.T.F.M." or "Read the Fine Manual," in this case I didn't follow my own advice. There wasn't a manual anyway; all the documentation is in Help files, PDF tutorial, and some tips on the Web, none of which I used last night.

As I told you in my last column, I have a background in audio engineering and have produced and engineered many recordings in traditional analog studios as well as on my Mac. I've used Pro Tools, Logic 6, Peak, Final Cut Pro, and many other fine audio production software. So I'm not a music-making novice, but I'm not a pro, either.

The point is that GarageBand was easy to get up and running, and easy enough to use that anyone with the desire ought to be able to get great results. OK Maybe "great" is too strong a word, but I think I did a decent job for only 4 hours of work.

I could have polished it a bit more but I wanted to maintain the integrity of the GarageBand Challenge -- create a song from start to finish in one evening, using a program I'd never seen before.

8:00 PM

I launched GarageBand and saved my project (as "SongSungBadly"). My blank canvas looked like this:

Figure 1
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Figure 1: This is what a new song project looks like -- one instrument (a Grand Piano here) on one track and nothing more.

Having seen a menu item called Show Loop Browser in the Control menu during my pre-dinner poking around, I figured that would be a good place to start. I was right -- this was where I chose the percussion loops that would become the backbone of the song.

In the Loop Browser (the bottom portion of the window shown in Figure 2), clicking a loop in the list on the right plays it continually -- in a loop. You can use the arrow keys to move up and down in the list, making it easy to check out a lot of loops in a short time.

I found one I liked a lot (Hip Hop Beat 10) and dragged it onto the timeline:

Figure 2
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Figure 2: Dragging a loop to the timeline…

When I dragged the loop to an empty spot on the timeline, GarageBand created a new track -- Drum Kit -- automatically. I wanted the song to go on for a couple of minutes, so I selected the loop in the timeline, copied it to the clipboard, and then pasted it into the same track about a dozen times. I listened to the extended track (spacebar plays and pauses the song) and declared it close enough for rock and roll (or hip hop, as the case may be).

Note: I suspect there's a better way to extend the length of the loop, but I was in a hurry and this worked.

8:23 PM

Loved the groove of the loop but wanted a little extra oomph on the low end, so I changed the track supplied by GarageBand when I created the new document from Grand Piano to Hip Hop Kit, and then pressed every key on the 49-key keyboard looking for a big thumping bad ass kick drum. When I found it, I enabled the Hip Hop Kit track for recording (by clicking it), began recording (by pressing the R key or the clicking the round button with the red dot), and played the kick drum (by pressing the middle C key on the keyboard) in time to the loop (Hip Hop Beat 10). It wasn't anything fancy -- just a kick on the 2 and 4 beat, so I recorded a couple of measures of it and then copied and pasted it a dozen times. At this point song consisted of two all-percussion tracks and looked like this:

Figure 3
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Figure 3: The basic percussion tracks are now in place.

8:45 PM

I created a new track for my lead vocal (Track>New Track or Command-Option-N):

Figure 4
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Figure 4: Creating a vocal track.

This was the big moment -- my first live vocal. I pressed R on the keyboard and belted it out. After a few more tries I had a take that didn't suck completely.

It was just before 9 when I saved the project and had a bowl of Blue Bell Country Vanilla ice cream (which was purely for the medicinal purpose of soothing my throat, I assure you). So far, so good -- in under an hour I laid down a decent set of drum and vocal tracks and was ready to move along to the fun stuff…

9:09 PM

I was almost satisfied with the vocal and percussion loops, but I knew the song needed additional instrumentation, particularly in the second half, after the lead vocal. Knowing my limitations as a musician (which are many), I chose a 12-string guitar from GarageBand's selection of software instruments. It played these gorgeous Tom Petty chords when I pressed any single key on the Keystation 49e, so these incredible 12-string power chords rang out beautifully without my even touching a guitar. Which was a darn good thing, 'cause I lack the skills required to play gorgeous Tom Petty chords on a 12-string, and don't have a 12-string guitar.

9:26 PM

Drunk with power, I decided what this song really needed was a swirling 80's style disco synth pad, so I added a track for it, found a software instrument that sounded the way I remembered cheesy synths sounding, and added a swirly electronic sound to the end of the song.

So now, less than 90 minutes into the project, I had a song that sounded almost like a song.

Figure 5
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Figure 5: After an hour and a half, my song has drums, guitar, and even a cheesy synthesizer…

9:41 PM

Almost isn't good enough for me, so I added some additional vocal tracks. First I copied and pasted the lead vocal to a second track and slid it forward a tick or two, then panned one vocal hard left and the other hard right. This thickens the vocal and makes it sound more like a "real" vocal recording. That was so much fun I decided to add some "harmony" vocals -- and I mean that in the very loosest sense of the word. (This will become painfully obvious should you choose to listen to my finished song…)

10:11 PM

I liked the way doubling the vocal sounded so much that I copied the 12-string guitar power chords I recorded earlier and pasted it into a new track, sliding it forward a teeny-tiny bit to provide a fuller sound. And since it worked before on the lead vocal tracks, I panned one guitar track hard left and the other hard right.

10:33 PM

I think it's done…

Wait…there is one more thing…

Now please understand that I'm among the world's worst lead guitarists, but the tune was screaming for some smokin' guitar under the refrain near the end.

I broke out the Strat and tried my best to comply, using the aptly-named Texas Blues guitar and amp model. After 45 painful minutes, I finally laid down a take I could live with (but only 'cause I want to be able to say I wrote, recorded, produced, and mastered this thing in less than 4 hours).

11:14 PM

It's done now. Really. I changed the relative levels of some of the tracks, added a bit of echo and some compression to the background vocals, and choose Export to iTunes from the File menu:

Figure 6
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Figure 6: The finished song being exported to iTunes.

11:36 PM

Last but not least, I converted the file to an AAC in iTunes (GarageBand exports .aif files), and headed off to bed.

See what you think. Here now, for your listening enjoyment, the world premiere of my latest delightful ditty, a little piece I call, "GarageBand -- The Song."

Download The Song:


I was shocked at how quickly and easily I was able to create a real piece of music, especially when you consider there is no real documentation and I had never used the program before.

Better still, it was the most fun I've had with my clothes on in years.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that GarageBand is a point release (1.0), and while I didn't encounter any data-losing crashes, I did see more than a few error messages such as this one:

Figure 7
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Figure 7: This message kept popping up; I kept clicking OK. It was annoying but didn't appear to hurt anything.
And cosmetic glitches like this one:

Figure 8
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Figure 8: Expanding this window to reveal the Details pane causes it to extend under the Dock, where it's of no use whatsoever.

Again, annoying but no big deal -- rearranging and resizing the window fixed it right up.

Overall, this was one of the best computing experiences I've had in the 17+ years I've been having computing experiences on my Mac.

GarageBand truly rocks.