How To Improve GarageBand's Performance On Your Mac
March 26th, 2004
Episode #15

If you've been playing with GarageBand lately, (and I don't know many Mac users who haven't been playing with it), you have no doubt encountered one of the most irritating dialog boxes ever created:

One of the most irritating dialog boxes ever created

OK. If you have a dual-processor G5 with a couple of gigs of RAM and fast hard disks, or you make songs with only a handful of tracks, you may have avoided it so far. On the other hand, I do have a G5 DP loaded with RAM and fast drives and I've seen it more than I care to admit.

The point is that even the fastest rig may not be immune.

Of course you can do as the dialog box says and look in GarageBand Help under Performance, and the tips you'll find there are extremely helpful and may do the trick. But alas, every single one of them includes a trade-off, and in many cases, the cure is as bad as the ailment.

Fortunately, while working on GarageBand For Dummies I discovered another technique that reduces the load on your Mac, and has a trade-off I can live with. It's called ping-ponging, or bouncing tracks, an age-old technique used in analog recording when the equipment (usually the multitrack tape recorder) has a fixed number of tracks available.

How do I know such things? Well, before I became a full-time Mac geek I studied audio engineering with multi Grammy-winning producer Bill Lazerus in L.A. for two years. I thought audio engineering was going to be my life -- I played guitar in a bunch of L.A. bands, produced several artists (and even managed to get one of 'em signed). It was fun, but the pay sucked. So instead of starving, I switched to advertising and producing audio and video for commercials. Only after becoming sick of that gig did I decide on full-time geekdom. So, while it's true that I am a huge GarageBand fan, I also have real-world experience in audio production.

But I digress...

Anyway, before we get to the ping-ponging part, let me quickly review the tips you'll find in GarageBand Help and what bothers me about each of 'em.

Monitor processor use with the playhead

The triangular playhead indicator changes colors to indicate processor load: White for low or no load; yellow for a moderate CPU load; and red for the heaviest load.

The color of the playing head lets you know how much load you are putting on your CPU

Put another way, when the indicator goes red you're almost dead.

Adding tracks and effects increases the load so Apple recommends turning off some effects or reducing the number of tracks to reduce processor load.

So there's your trade-off: Fewer tracks or effects. I don't like it a bit.

Change the maximum number of Software Instrument Tracks and/or Real Instrument Tracks in GarageBand Preferences

Sure, you can (again) turn off tracks to improve performance, but the obvious trade off (again) is fewer tracks to work with.

Again I say, "I don't like it a bit."

Change the number of notes Software Instruments can play at once

This one's the worst of 'em all -- because I happen to like the sound of CHORDS, for example. And I often play lots of notes simultaneously; reducing this number improves performance but hamstrings the artist forcing a different style of playing (with fewer notes).

Yet again I say, "I don't like it a bit."

Before the ping-pong performance begins, there's one more performance tip I couldn't find in GarageBand Help that I use often, namely:

Hide the Track Mixer

The Track Mixer column is the one that has the level (volume) fader (slider), the pan pot (knob), and the simulated LED level meters. To hide it, merely choose Hide Track Mixer from the Track menu or use the keyboard shortcut Command-Y.

It turns out those little animated level meters use a ton of processing power and you really don't need them much of the time. So once you've set your level(s), press Command-Y to hide the Track Mixer. Your Mac will thank you for lightening its load by allowing GarageBand to do more before it croaks.

This one's a winner; give it a try.

The Soon-To-Be-Famous GarageBand Bouncing Ping-Pong Tip

Last but definitely not least, here's how to ping-pong (a.k.a. bounce) tracks to reduce the processor load and allow you to continue building your song without having to deal with any of the irritations mentioned above.

Here's how I discovered it: I was using the PowerBook (G4 800) to make a song. I was recording drums on software instrument tracks and percussion instruments on real instrument tracks. Alas, when I got to about seven tracks, that damned dialog box stopped me in my tracks.

That wasn't good. I still needed to add guitars, keyboards, vocals, a sax solo, and some handclaps, but my processor was crapping out with just the seven drum tracks. How would I ever complete this song on the PowerBook?

The answer was to take a page from analog recording and bounce the seven tracks down to one (or two).

What that means is that I mixed the seven drum tracks the way I wanted them to sound in the final song, and then exported them to iTunes. I saved my GarageBand project under a different name, deleted the seven drum tracks from the original project file, and replaced them with the submix I just exported to iTunes.

That sounded a bit thin to me so I added a second track with a copy of the same submix, panned one track slightly to the left and the other track slightly to the right, and that did the trick -- I had a great sounding drum and percussion track using very little of my processing power.

Did you get all that? I thought not. Let me go through it again, but this time with illustrations…

It all began when I started this song (PingPong4KingKong); by the time 7 tracks were in the can, I saw that the playhead indicator was very red:

Mixing the drums
(Click the thumbnail for a larger view)

I soon began seeing the dreaded dialog box more and more often so I decided to try my old analog trick, ping-ponging (or bouncing) tracks to reduce the load on my CPU.

So I mixed the seven tracks the way I wanted them to sound in the final mix, and then exported them to iTunes:

Export to iTunes
(Click the thumbnail for a larger view)

Next, I saved the GarageBand project with a descriptive name (PingPongDrumTrax), just in case I need to remix the original drum tracks someday.

Saving the drums as a project
(Click the thumbnail for a larger view)

Next, I grabbed the exported AIF file by opening iTunes, selecting the song, and then choosing Show Song File from the File menu (I actually used the keyboard shortcut, Command-R, but the menu looks better in pictures).

Grabbing the right file in iTunes
(Click the thumbnail for a larger view)

Meanwhile, back in the original file (PingPong4KingKong), I deleted all my old drum tracks leaving a single real instrument track (Detailed Drums) to contain the newly mixed drum track, which I then dragged onto the track from the Finder:

The single drum track for the imported mix
(Click the thumbnail for a larger view)

For what it's worth, I could have deleted all the tracks and GarageBand would have created a new track when I dragged the song onto the timeline, but it seemed that keeping one track would be slightly faster.

Anyway, I gave it a listen and decided it needed to be "thicker," so I dragged the AIF file from the Finder onto the timeline, creating a second track. I panned one slightly left and the other slightly to the right and gave it a whirl:

The same drum track, doubled, & panned left and right
(Click the thumbnail for a larger view)

It sounded exactly like it did before the submix and ping-pong, but the playhead indicator was now pure white, telling me the two drum tracks used a lot less processing power than the original seven tracks.

YEA! Mission accomplished.

So there you have it. If you plan your recordings carefully it's easy enough to create submixes like my little drum example above, which reduce the load on your Mac and let you continue working without reducing the number of anything -- notes, tracks, or effects. And that's a Very Good Thing™!

Doctor Mac's Rants & Raves will return, as always, in two weeks. Until then, have fun playing GarageBand ping-pong.