Doing More With GarageBand (Again)

by - Episode 22 - July 23rd, 2004

This is a tale of a couple more ways I've been using GarageBand to do things I am relatively certain it was not designed to do. First, I used my PowerBook, GarageBand, and the incredible AmpliTube plugin (more about that in a moment) to learn and practice around thirty songs for what was then our band's upcoming gig. Then, at the gig, I used the PowerBook as my effects processor live in front of hundreds of enthusiastic Mac enthusiasts.

But before I tell you about GarageBand and how well it performed for me in both of these admittedly unorthodox uses, allow me to provide a bit of background:

You know me as Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus, author, columnist, raconteur, and all-around Mac geek. But I am also proud to call myself a guitarist in the greatest rock and roll band you've never heard of: The Macworld All-Star Band.

At present the band consists of: The Mac Observer's very own Dave Hamilton and Bryan Chaffin on drums and guitar respectively; Chris Breen of Macworld Magazine on keyboards; Paul Kent of Mactivity (and the Macworld Expo Conference chairperson) on lead guitar; with Chuck LaTournous of and Duane Straub (I could tell you where he works, but then I'd have to kill you) sharing bass duties (never, of course, playing at the same time). We have no lead singer; everyone sings (some better than others; most better than me).

The Macworld All-Star Band plays a maximum of two gigs each year, coinciding with the US Macworld Expo shows. So we've played together in front of a real audience maybe 7 or 8 times.

We all live in different necks of the country: California, Connecticut, Texas, and New York. So we don't practice together in the same room very much. But since we don't play any original material -- just good old rock and roll by Bruce, Elvis, The Beatles, the Stones, and when it's my turn to pick, The Ramones -- we learn our parts by playing along with the original recordings at our homes. Then a few days before the gig, we hold one marathon rehearsal for four or five hours or until Dave's voice blows out, whichever happens first.

In the past I used iTunes or my iPod for rehearsal, playing the original song through my Mac's stereo multimedia speakers, and then playing my guitar through a couple of effects pedals and my little baby Marshall amp.

It worked just fine, but I was limited to a handful of guitar sounds using my two effects pedals and the meager EQ and reverb controls on the amp. So this year I tried a new way to rehearse using GarageBand. Not only did it work beautifully, I learned to play better because my guitar sounded just right on every song. And I didn't have to bend down and turn stupid little knobs on the stupid little effects pedals.

Instead, here's what I did this year:

First, I imported the songs I wanted to learn into GarageBand. Then I created one Real Instrument track for each song (for the guitar), then used the totally awesome AmpliTube GarageBand plug-in to create presets for each track that sounded just like I wanted my guitar to sound for each song. In the end I had a separate guitar track under each song I wanted to learn; each guitar track was assigned an AmpliTube preset that sounded perfect to my ear for that song.

Here's what the project looked like:

Figure 1: One of my GarageBand rehearsal projects.
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

In Figure 1, when I press the Play button (or tap the spacebar) I'll hear the original recording of Cherry Bomb along with the Seventies Rhythm guitar track I'm playing into in real time.

To switch songs I would engage the solo buttons on the tracks I want to hear (Cherry Bomb and Seventies Rhythm in Figure 1), so all the other tracks remain silent while I practice Cherry Bomb.

Once all the guitar tracks sounded good to me, I played each song over and over again until I knew it backwards and forwards and could sing my part while I played (no mean feat for me).

Tip: I used the Cycle Region a lot, which was great for learning certain parts of songs that were beyond my skill set (and there were many).

Moving right along and with the big day rapidly approaching, I had to make a big decision: Should I play through a rented amp and my two crummy effects pedals as I'd done at every previous show? Or should I risk playing through my PowerBook using GarageBand and AmpliTube, which would give me the (hopefully) perfect guitar sound on each and every song I played.


Of course I went with the PowerBook (wouldn't be much of a column if I didn't, would it?), and I felt good about it. During my many lengthy rehearsal sessions I had no issues whatsoever -- no latency, no unexpected quitting, no kernel panics, and nothing else that would make me hesitant to play through the PowerBook live for the first time.

So I created a new GarageBand file with a Real Instrument track for each song, then I assigned the proper AmpliTube preset to each track.

That project looked like this:

Figure 2: The GarageBand file I used to play live.
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

Tip: Notice that I've hidden the Track Mixer column, which sucks an inordinate amount of life out of the CPU and is totally unnecessary once you've set your levels to your liking.

Tip: If I had needed even better performance I would have minimized the GarageBand window after selecting and starting each song, ‘cause that reduces the CPU load even more than just hiding the mixers. But I didn't have to; my 1.25GhZ PowerBook with 512MB RAM was more than capable of the task and never even broke a sweat.

So let's talk a little about AmpliTube, the most phenomenal guitar/amp/effect modeling plug-in around. While it's not exactly cheap (around $400), it is fabulous and worth every penny.

Note: There is a less expensive stand-alone version (AmpliTube Live for $129, or US$99 from Amazon.) that works without GarageBand, but I had everything ready to go in GarageBand and didn't have a copy of AmpliTube Live anyway.

Another Note: The AmpliTube plug in is available in most popular plug in formats including VST, RTAS, and Audio Unit, so you can use it with almost any audio application that supports plug ins, on both the Mac and the PC.

Bottom line: AmpliTube made my guitar sound so good I used it on almost every song.

Here's what it looks like; these are the settings I used for the Ramones 3-minute masterpiece, Rockaway Beach:

Figure 3: Main AmpliTube settings for Rockaway Beach alongside
the GarageBand Track Info window for the Rockaway Beach track.
(Click the thumbnail for the very large, full-size image)

Figure 4: AmpliTube's stomp box settings for Rockaway Beach.
(Notice that the Overdrive is cranked waaay up, as it should be for a Ramones tune).
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

Figure 5: AmpliTube's FX settings for Rockaway Beach.
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

By using the Solo button and arrow keys, I was able to quickly select the proper track (usually, but not always, before Dave began counting out the start of the song).

Anyway, as has been our tradition from the start, we had our one "all in the same room" rehearsal the Monday before the Boston Macworld Expo began (e.g. a couple of weeks ago). This year Dave found us a stellar rehearsal facility called Jamspot just outside Boston proper in Sommerville.

Alas, I am an idiot, and in my rush to make it to the studio on time, I neglected to pack my precious pre amp, an M-Audio Audio Buddy (around US$130 retail, or US$85.53 from Amazon). And, of course, without the preamp, the guitar wasn't loud or authoritative enough and couldn't be heard. So I had to play through Bryan's effects pedals and amp for our one rehearsal.

Still, I was totally committed to the PowerBook for the gig. I arrived to set up my gear with less than an hour for a sound check. This was the moment of truth: Would my PowerBook (with the pre amp, which I didn't forget) be up to the task?

There was only one way to find out so I plugged the pre amp's output into the PowerBook's Audio input, connected the PowerBook's audio output to the small Marshall combo amp the club had provided, and then tweaked the Marshall so it was as flat and colorless as possible. I hoped that what I would hear coming out of the amp would be mostly my AmpliTube presets with no added effects or equalization.

I fired up GarageBand and as I had expected and hoped and even dreamed, it worked flawlessly during the entire sound check.

So I asked the band to make the final call -- did it sound good enough to use in front of real people? To my great relief, the band agreed, saying it sounded fine. Even Dave and Paul, who have ears far younger than mine, said it sounded just the way it should.

And so I played an entire 2 hour plus gig through my PowerBook and it never faltered for a moment. I never had to reboot, log out, or even a quit and restart GarageBand; everything worked flawlessly all night long. And everyone told me my guitar sounded better than they'd ever heard it sound.

My conclusion: GarageBand with AmpliTube ROCKs is a great combination for a live performance. (And, of course, a great combination for recording songs, too.)

…and that's all he wrote.

P.S. The actual setup I used on stage can be seen in this exclusive TMO photo:

(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

You can see about 30 other pics from the party in TMO's full pictorial for the Macworld Attendee Party.

P.P.S. The all-important pre amp can't be seen in the shot; here's what it looks like for those of you who give a hoot.

My M-Audio pre amp made all the difference.

P.P.P.S. If you liked this column, you will probably enjoy my column from a few weeks ago -- Episode #18: The Amazing GarageBandOke or, How to Turn Your Mac Into A Rockin' Karaoke Machine Without Spending A Dime.