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Doing More with GarageBand

July 1, 2005
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Apple's GarageBand audio recording application has recently been upgraded to version 2, and the program offers several welcome improvements. GarageBand can now import MIDI files, automate panning, tune your guitar, and view your MIDI tracks as music notation, among other features. The new version also provides pitch correction, making GarageBand a more powerful creative tool and a more worthy alternative to higher-priced applications.

Since its initial release, GarageBand, which is included with new Macs, has offered a surprising number of useful features. The capabilities that have been added, such as the ability to import Standard MIDI files and multi-track recording, are familiar to regular users of more-established digital audio applications. As the following examples show, certain tasks can be accomplished with relative ease in GarageBand (in the original and in the newer versions). For many Mac users, this built-in audio application is all they will ever need.

Backing into the Garage

I wanted to use GarageBand's automation feature to simulate a backward-guitar effect. I began by recording a short solo guitar lick (see Web Clip 1). You can load the clip into GarageBand by dragging it onto the Timeline of a new song in GarageBand's Track view. Name the track something simple, such as Backward Gtr. Listen to the part and notice that the notes generally have the typical volume envelope of a recorded guitar. Each note starts out with a prominent attack, sustains briefly, and then gradually fades out. If you could hear that performance backward, the notes would fade in and abruptly end with a strong peak.

If you click on the volume automation arrow on the track, a new window will drop down. You will see a horizontal line extending the length of the track (see Fig. 1). That line represents the playback volume of the track. If you click on that line, an automation point (which resembles a small ball) will appear. By holding down the left mouse button, you can move the ball and the line up or down. At the beginning of the clip, where the first note starts, click on and drag the volume line down. To create another automation point, place your cursor slightly to the right of the line, then click on and drag the volume line back up as that note continues. Just before the next note sounds, click on and drag the volume line straight down so that the first note ends abruptly. You can then fade up on the next note and end it abruptly as well.

Some experimentation is necessary to achieve the effect that you want. I prefer to listen to the track while creating new automation points and volume levels. Those points along the track can be moved right or left and up or down. I worked my way across the guitar track to create a final volume graph for my backward effect (see Fig. 2). GarageBand makes it easy to apply amp simulations and effects to the guitar track. I added some multiple delays to further process the track, creating even more interesting sounds. When I was finished, the guitar track sounded backward without playing backward (see Web Clip 2).

Right Where It Belongs

Another feature new to GarageBand is the ability to import Standard MIDI Files. You can easily test that capability by downloading one of the thousands of MIDI files available on the Internet. Some of those files are free while others are available for a nominal fee per song. (Be careful to use only MIDI files from reputable sources that pay applicable royalties to the copyright owners. Even so, the files are generally licensed for use with live performance only.) Available MIDI files cover most every style, from Beethoven to classic rock and contemporary hits. To use those files in GarageBand, drag a MIDI file onto the Timeline of a new song. The program will create new tracks, and you can choose software instruments to play them. You can also change the tempo and even view the track as music notation.

In the original version of GarageBand, the only way you could import a MIDI file was by using third-party software such as Dent Du Midi (homepage.mac.com/beryrinaldo/ddm/). That is still a useful freeware application for those using GarageBand 1.0, and the utility has some nice features, including the ability to split a MIDI file into separate tracks for each instrument. In addition, it can remap drum kit sounds from MIDI files to more easily match the drum kits in GarageBand.

I purchased a MIDI file online for the song “Hey Joe,” arranged in the style of the recording by Jimi Hendrix. I dragged the file from my desktop onto the Timeline of a new song in GarageBand 2, and its channels were split into individual tracks with instruments assigned to each (see Fig. 3). There was, however, one small problem. My relatively slow Titanium PowerBook couldn't play all of the tracks simultaneously, because the processor couldn't keep up. Some editing was in order.

First I deleted the melody track, which sounded cheesy when played by the assigned MIDI sax. Then I took advantage of another new GarageBand 2 feature called Track Locking. Locking a track renders the track and its effects to an audio file, freeing up processor resources. I locked all of the song's remaining tracks and was able to play the song back with nary a hiccup. Now I can add my own guitar and vocal.

You can add effects, panning, new instrument sounds, and so on until the song's arrangement suits your needs. That is typically the way to create a backing track for live or Karaoke use. Because someone spent a lot of time getting this particular MIDI file to resemble the original recording (including programming an ambitious drum track with lots of fills in the style of Mitch Mitchell), purchasing and importing it saves you countless hours of work. Bear in mind that some commercial MIDI files sound better than others, so whenever possible, you should audition files before buying them.

The Fix Is In

GarageBand 2 now makes it possible to quantize real instrument performances using the Fix Timing feature. That tool lets you apply a varying amount of fix with a simple slider. It also allows you to record as many as eight tracks and one virtual instrument at one time, a big improvement over GarageBand 1.0, which allowed recording of only one track at a time. That capability requires an audio interface with multiple inputs, and recording all eight tracks would require a FireWire or other high-speed audio interface.

Another big improvement in GarageBand 2 is the new guitar/bass tuner built-in to the transport bar. That is especially convenient for users who want to play along with some of the thousands of loops available. You also can now tune a real-instrument track after it's been recorded in GarageBand 2.

An Open Door

GarageBand may not be ready for a headlining gig in the music-production world, but its new capabilities make it a solid opening act for those eager to produce an entertaining show with some top-shelf tracks.


Roger Adler is an Emmy-nominated composer/producer/performer whose album (made entirely with GarageBand) is available at www.thegaragealbum.com.

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