Want to do some serious home recording? If you’ve bought a Macintosh lately, you already have a surprisingly capable multitrack recorder. Macs ship with Apple’s iLife software suite, which includes GarageBand.
iLife also boasts consumer-friendly photo and movie editors, and is obviously aimed at home computer users – so musicians tend to think of GarageBand as not a “real” music program. Okay, it’s not Pro Tools. Nor is it in the same class as Apple’s own Logic, Mark Of The Unicorn Digital Performer, or Ableton Live. But if you launch GarageBand and start looking around, you may be surprised by just how powerful it is.
Even if you’re not planning to do any tracking at home, you may find GarageBand extremely useful for setting up grooves that you can practice to. It’s also great as a songwriting tool.
As a multitrack recorder, GarageBand is far more capable than any of the recording equipment The Beatles used. So, if you don’t sound as good as The Beatles, you can no longer blame the software. Sorry. Okay, they had great mikes and preamps, but they didn’t have cut-and-paste track editing, and they didn’t have automation.
In this article we’ll look at some of GarageBand’s deeper features, the kinds of things that non-musician users may not notice or want to delve into, and give you a few ideas about how you might want to use them.
Fig. 1: Everything in GarageBand happens in one big window. The main track area is in the upper left, the Browser along the right side, and the edit window along the bottom. All of the tracks in this song (one of the demos in the World Music Jam Pack) are MIDI, not audio, so the clips in the tracks show notes rather than audio waveforms.
Apple has striven mightily to make the GarageBand interface (Fig. 1) clean and easy to navigate, but there are a few little things that are not obvious. As you’re learning GarageBand, take the time to hover your mouse over every little squiggle on the screen to see if a ToolTip pops up. Among the cool but obscure features:
Fig. 2: Choose the track and effect parameters you want to automate from this dialog box.
At the right end of the time ruler along the top of the window is a little square with what looks like a diagonal comb on it. This is the pop-up for the click-and-drag grid. Usually, Automatic is the right setting, but if you’re trimming audio regions, you may want to switch to the finest possible setting, which is 1/64 Note. The setting you choose here will control what rhythm values objects will snap to when you drag them.
After switching on loop playback in the transport at the bottom of the screen, you can drag the orange loop region (along the top of the track area) left or right by clicking anywhere in it other than at the left or right end.
When you first click on the downward-pointing arrow at the right end of a track’s button bar, you’ll see an automation lane for track volume. This lane is hugely useful for automating your mix – but there’s more: Click on the Track Volume bar at the left end of this lane, and you’ll see a drop-down menu with an option to Add Automation. This opens a dialog box (Fig. 2) in which any automatable parameter can be added. Try automating the send level for the global reverb, the track EQ, or other effects that you’ve added.
By clicking on the instrument icon at the left end of a track’s control area, you can drag the track up or down. GarageBand doesn’t have track groups or track folders, but it’s still a good idea to position related tracks close to one another.
If you’re serious about using GarageBand (or any other music software), one of the first things you’ll need is a decent-quality audio interface and one or more good mikes. You won’t be happy for long using the built-in mike and speakers. To record a drum kit, a multi-channel audio interface would be more than handy. GarageBand can record up to eight mono or four stereo audio tracks at once, each from a different input, but it can only use one audio interface at a time, so you won’t be able to cobble together a recording system using several two-channel interfaces.
Fig. 3: After recording a number of takes while looping a section of the song, choose the one you want to audition from this dropdown menu.
It’s easy to record several takes of a part of a song in order to select the best solo or groove. Just activate GB’s transport loop button and start recording. Each time the region loops, GB records a separate take. When you’re finished, the most recent take will be visible in the track.
If you know which take is the keeper, just select it from the drop-down below the yellow take number (Fig. 3), and you’re good to go. You can also delete unused takes to save disk space, but I recommend not using this command until you’re absolutely sure you have a final mix that you like. If you need to cut and paste parts of several takes to create a composite (“comp”) track, GB will do the job, though not with the elegance or convenience of a professional recording program.
Fig. 4: If you need to cut and paste sections of several takes to create a comped track, the first step is to put each take on its own track.
Fig. 5: After arranging the takes as shown in Fig. 4, slice them apart and delete the sections you don’t want.
Create a new audio track for each take. Option-drag the audio clip from the original recorded track into the new tracks, thus creating copies of the clip, and select a different take for each clip (Fig. 4). Now you can audition the takes by muting and unmuting the tracks. As you find sections that you don’t want, use command-T to split one or more takes at the current time position and delete sections to leave a single comped track (Fig. 5). GB can’t mute individual clips within a track, so deleting clips is the only way to silence them.
You’ll find that you can shorten an audio clip by dragging its end to the left, but GB won’t let you drag the start of the clip to the right: That’s one of those pro features that it doesn’t have.
There’s another quick way to cut out sections of takes. Clicking on an audio clip in a track opens that track for editing. If you then drag across a portion of the waveform in the editor pane, the chunk of audio that you dragged across is selected. If you then click on an already selected area within the audio in the edit window, that area will instantly turn into a separate clip. You can then delete this clip in the track window, or drag it to a different track for some special processing, or even loop it (by clicking and dragging in the upper-right corner). This is a quick way to create stuttering effects by repeating short blocks of audio, or just copy a good measure on top of a measure where you flubbed a note.
Fig. 6: After bouncing the piano and organ tracks to a new submix, I’ve muted the source tracks. The clips on muted tracks appear dark gray.
GarageBand stores your audio tracks as part of its own song file. This makes backing up your projects a breeze. (You do make a habit of backing up your music projects to a separate physical drive after each work session, don’t you?) Just drag the song file to a different drive, and you’re done. Apple’s Time Machine can automate this chore so you don’t even need to think about it.
If you’d prefer to have audio tracks stored as separate files, you’ll have to do it yourself by soloing one track at a time and exporting it. Soloing a group of tracks and bouncing them to a single submix by exporting them can also be useful. One reason to make submix tracks is because you’re running short of CPU power – not too likely with today’s Macs, but certainly possible. Making submixes (called “stems”) can also be useful when you want to do your final mix and master on a pro recording system (at a Pro Tools studio, for instance) or when you want to send the song to a friend who doesn’t have a Mac. A submix track is also convenient if you’re planning to do a complex fadeout or crossfade on a number of simultaneous tracks and only want to create the automation data once.
Making submix tracks is easy in GarageBand: Just mute any tracks that you don’t want to be part of the submix and then select the “Export Song To Disk” command in the Share menu. For best results, leave the Compress box unchecked.
Your new AIFF file won’t show up in GB’s Media Browser – but there’s an easy workaround. Go to Finder, create an alias of any folder that has audio files in it, and drag it into the upper part of the Media Browser panel. The folder will show up in the browser, and you can then drag files from it into GB tracks. You can also drag single audio files directly from a Finder window into an audio track. After doing this with your bounced submix, mute the source tracks that were used to create the submix (Fig. 6).
Fig. 7: Automation data appears in GB as breakpoint envelopes. Just click on a dot to drag it up, down, left, or right.
Automation is essential to any professional-sounding mix. In addition to balancing the levels of various tracks and doing a fadeout at the end of the song, you may need to do a variety of tricks, such as pulling back the vocal track’s reverb amount in the chorus and pushing it up in the bridge.
GarageBand handles automation with multi-point envelopes, which you can edit graphically (Fig. 7). For each track, you can edit volume, pan, and most of the insert parameters. To get started, open the automation lane for a track by clicking on the down-pointing arrow at the right end of the track’s button panel. In the dropdown, choose Add Automation... and use the dialog box (Fig. 2) to select the parameters you want to automate.
Echo and Reverb are send levels. These parameters control the amount of track signal that will be sent to the global reverb and delay line.
GarageBand doesn’t support hardware-control surfaces, nor can you record automation data by moving faders on a mixer panel with the mouse. But while editing the automation envelopes is a little fiddly, it will definitely get the job done.
Fig. 8: GarageBand’s EQ (one of the track-insert effects) can be edited graphically or “by the numbers.”
GarageBand’s built-in effects processors aren’t fancy, but they can handle the basics and more. Spend a couple of hours auditioning them to find the items that work for you – and then save any rack setups that you like as presets.
To get started, choose a track and click the Inspector button in the lower right corner of the GB window. The Browse tab offers a variety of preset effects racks that you may find useful as starting points. To customize the rack, click the Edit tab.
All audio tracks have a noise gate as the first insert effect. Apple’s assumption is that your mike and studio setups probably aren’t too good, so you’ll most likely want to gate out any background noise. All tracks have a compressor and an EQ. You can’t replace these with other effects, but you can drag them up and down in the rack, so as to put your effects in the desired order. You might want the compressor and EQ either before or after a distortion or reverb effect, for instance.
Each effect (except the gate) has a panel with between two and five parameters that you can edit. The EQ has four editable bands: Click the Details button to edit them (Fig. 8).
I’d be reluctant to use any of GarageBand’s included MIDI instruments as a solo voice, but they’re certainly respectable enough for sweetening tracks and laying down songwriter demos. Add some chorus and the reverb to the Strings synth and you could definitely use it for a background pad in a radio-ready track.
If you don’t have a MIDI keyboard, you can use the on-screen keyboard to record MIDI notes. Another option is to command-click in an empty part of a MIDI track to create an empty clip, then select the clip and command-click in the piano-roll editor to add notes. I can’t recommend either method as a way to get good-feeling musical results. If you’re not a keyboard player and want to rough out a song, you’ll probably like the results better if you click on the Loop Browser button and audition some of Apple’s included loops.
If you don’t have a band to record, Apple would love to sell you additional loop content in the form of Jam Packs.
GB’s MIDI track editing is basic. You can quantize recorded notes to a rhythm grid, for instance, and use a strength slider to tighten up the timing just a little. But if you need to quantize different phrases to different rhythm values (if you played some triplets in one bar, for instance), you’ll need to use the split command (command-T) to slice the MIDI part into separate regions, because GB can’t apply quantization to groups of notes within a region while leaving other notes unaffected.
As you’re working in GarageBand, here are a few tips to keep in mind. These did not originate with me – I lifted them from a GarageBand tips column by Michael Molenda in EQ magazine, and they’re not original with him either: They’re generic advice that has been rattling around in the infosphere for years. But they’re solid, and apply equally well no matter what recording software you’re using:
Clean up the individual tracks before you start doing the final mix.
Don’t go crazy adding effects (especially important in GB since the effects aren’t that great).
If you’re planning to have the tracks mixed at a pro studio, don’t do any compression.
Do test mixes and listen to them on various systems.
And above all, remember to pick the Mac up off the floor before you pull the car into the garage! Realism can be carried too far.
What it will do: Multi-track audio recording. Looped recording and comping of multiple takes. Automation envelopes. Insert effects. Hosting third-party AU plug-ins. Submix bouncing. Score to video. Export to iTunes.
What it won’t do: Automatic crossfades on overlapping audio regions. Group tracks. Aux bus sends. Super-hi-res audio quality. Real-time automation recording. MIDI sequencing of external hardware synths.
If you’re serious about using GarageBand, and if you don’t have a whole band ready to lay down tracks, you may want to check out Apple’s Jam Packs. Currently there are five Packs in the series – Rhythm Section, World Music, Voices, Symphony Orchestra, and Remix Tools. Each one has dozens or hundreds of loops and software instruments. At $99 per Pack, you’d expect to get gigabytes of data, and Apple delivers. Remix Tools weighs in at 2.35GB, while Voices is only 1.63GB – but that’s still a lot of good stuff.
Like the starter library, the Jam Packs have both sampled loops and software instruments – the latter are coupled with MIDI loops. MIDI loops can easily be transposed to any key without distorting the sound, but they may not have the live performance expression you need. Sampled loops, on the other hand, sound real because they are real, but when they’re transposed or time-stretched, the sound quality will no longer be pristine.