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APPLE COMPUTER GarageBand 1.1 (Mac)

7/1/2004

If you're a Mac user, you're aware that Apple Computer has taken a keen interest in the music industry. In 2002 it acquired pro-music-software developer Emagic, and in 2003 it began selling recorded music on the iTunes Music Store Web site. Earlier this year, Apple introduced GarageBand, a virtual recording studio for Mac OS X. As part of the iLife '04 creativity suite, GarageBand is bundled with iTunes 4.2, iPhoto 4, iMovie 4, and iDVD 4 — all without an increase in price. In addition, iLife '04 is included with every new Macintosh that Apple ships.

Just as Apple put video DVD production on the desktop of every Mac user who wants to make movies, GarageBand aims to put unprecedented music-production capabilities into the hands of even those who are nonmusicians. The program encompasses MIDI sequencing, loop arranging, multitrack audio recording, soft synths and samplers, and effects processing in a nonthreatening environment that anyone can enjoy.

GARAGE DOOR OPENER

You need an up-to-date, fairly powerful computer to run GarageBand. I don't have the latest Mac G5, but my setup is probably not too different from what is used in the average Mac-based project studio: a dual-processor Power Mac G4/1.0 GHz with 1.5 GB of RAM, four internal hard drives (which I defragment frequently), a 4x SuperDrive, and Mac OS X 10.3.3. My audio interface is a MOTU 2408mkII with a PCI-324 card, and my MIDI interface is an Emagic MT4.

iLife '04 took 21 minutes to install from the DVD, which upgraded prior versions of iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD and installed GarageBand (I already had the latest version of iTunes). If you're installing iLife for the first time, expect it to take longer. Fortunately, installation ran in the background and involved no participation from me once it was underway. Before turning in this review, I updated to GarageBand 1.1.

Although GarageBand is a surprisingly deep program (especially considering its cost), documentation is a bit skimpy. In addition to a collection of Apple Help Viewer files, it supplies 35 pages divided among four PDF files. Support pages are also available on Apple's Web site. Most of GarageBand is so easy to grasp, however, that detailed documentation is unnecessary. If you want to explore its finer points, though, you're either on your own or you'll need to purchase a book like Mary Plummer's Apple Training Series: GarageBand (Peachpit Press) or David Pogue's GarageBand: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press).

NEATER THAN MY GARAGE

Like other iLife applications, GarageBand was designed to be easy to use. If you're familiar with how sequencers are laid out, you should have no trouble finding your way around the program's user interface (see Fig. 1). Even if you aren't, you should be up to speed in a short amount of time.

When you create a new file, you are required to name it and specify the tempo, key, and meter in advance (you can always change those parameters later). GarageBand opens with a sampled grand piano track ready for you to play. The Track view takes up most of the main window, with controls on the left and the Timeline on the right. Each track shows the instrument's icon and name (both of which you can change), as well as the Mute, Solo, and Track Volume buttons. Each track also provides a level meter and controls for pan and volume. When you record something, data appears in the Timeline. At the top of the Timeline is a ruler that's divided by measures, and you can click and drag within the ruler to move the playhead or to define loops. Convenient keyboard shortcuts make navigation quick and easy.

Below the tracks is a strip containing the Track Add and Track Info buttons, Loop Browser and Track Editor buttons, transport controls, time display, and the master volume fader and level meters. Brief explanations of GarageBand's various controls appear when you hold the cursor over them — a useful feature for beginners (and for reviewers trying to explain them using Apple's nomenclature).

THROWN FOR A LOOP

One feature that distinguishes GarageBand from most Mac software is its facility for working with prerecorded loops using techniques borrowed from Apple Soundtrack (see the February 2004 EM, online at www.emusician.com). Arranging loops in GarageBand is a lot like using Sony Acid. GarageBand furnishes over 1,000 Apple Loops in both audio and MIDI varieties. Each type is color coded (blue for audio, green for MIDI) and provides meta-data containing keywords, tempo, key signature, and the like. You can edit the content of MIDI loops, and you can transpose and change the tempo and length of audio loops. GarageBand lets you create music in any of ten time signatures, but if you want to use the Apple Loops provided, it had better be in 4/4.

Clicking on the Loop Browser button reveals a cluster of buttons in GarageBand's lower portion, organized by instrument families on the left and genres on the right (see Fig. 2). Click on the control panel, and drag it upward to uncover additional choices. (An alternative view of the Loop Browser lets you display loops in hierarchical columns rather than buttons.) Clicking on any instrument button grays out all but the genre buttons, which offer styles such as Rock/Blues, World, and Acoustic, as well as moods such as Relaxed, Intense, and Cheerful. A list of Apple Loops that fit the categories you select will appear to the right of the browser buttons, each with its name, original tempo and key, and duration. Clicking on the list plays the selected loop in the current key and at the current tempo. For audio loops, you should select something close to its original key and tempo to get the best results.

Create a new track by dragging an Apple Loop into the Timeline, where it will snap to the nearest gridline. In the Timeline, you can transpose it, copy and paste it, drag its start and end points to shorten it, or drag its right edge to make it repeat. If it contains MIDI data, you can edit it as if you'd recorded it yourself.

The included loops cover a lot of territory, from basic instrumental riffs to complete arrangements. Unlike many loop libraries, the emphasis is not on dance-oriented grooves; a good variety of rock, jazz, orchestral, and other popular musical styles are well represented. If you want a larger library of Apple Loops, you can purchase additional content, such as Apple Jam Pack (see the sidebar “A Jam-Packed Garage”) or one of several third-party offerings.

You can import loops from other sources simply by dragging files from the desktop into the Browser. If an AIFF, WAV, MP3, or unprotected AAC file contains its own metadata, GarageBand can translate it, but if the metadata doesn't exist, the Browser can't classify it. I imported Acid loops with their keywords intact, but GarageBand could neither transpose the loop nor change its tempo. Fortunately, you can use Soundtrack Loop Utility (available from http://developer.apple.com/sdk) to enter and edit Tags and Descriptors to convert any audio files into Apple Loops.

VIRTUAL OR REALITY?

GarageBand accommodates multitrack audio and MIDI recording, allowing you to record just one track at a time. When you click on the Add Track button, a dialog box lets you choose between a Real Instrument track and a Software Instrument track. Selecting Software Instrument adds a MIDI track with either a modeled soft synth or a sample-playback sound engine. Selecting Real Instrument adds an audio track with effects and dynamics processing appropriate for the instrument you select.

Clicking on a track type reveals a hierarchical list of instruments. If you click on Real Instrument and then Vocals, for instance, your choices will range from Female Basic and Gospel Choir to Male Speech and Radio Effect. If you choose Female R&B Vocals, GarageBand will add a touch of compression and EQ, some bright overdrive, and a bit more echo than reverb. You can reassign the effects by clicking on the Info button and either selecting a different Real Instrument or changing the effects parameters. If the track is a Software Instrument, clicking on the Info button lets you edit synthesis parameters.

GarageBand's range of basic effects is respectable for any software, regardless of price. You can apply effects to any track, including Apple Loops. In addition to compression, EQ, reverb, and echo, each track provides two slots in which you can insert either one of GarageBand's 12 other native effects or an Audio Units (AU) plug-in.

GarageBand's most talked-about effect is guitar-amp modeling, and it is impressive. You can choose from four simulations: British Gain, British Clean, American Gain, and American Clean. Beyond that, the magic is in the presets, which allow you to vary preamp gain, three fixed bands of EQ, master gain, and Output Level. You also can add chorus, auto wah, and any of the other native effects. If you can play the electric guitar, GarageBand will show you a very good time (see Web Clip 1).

SYNTHS AND SENSIBILITY

Software Instruments let you edit their parameters, but you need to know where to look. Click on the Details button in the Track Info dialog box, choose a sound engine from within the Generator menu, and click on the pencil icon to see a list of editable parameters (see Fig. 3). The type of instrument you've chosen determines its selection of controls. Selecting a synth model might access sliders for waveform, filter cutoff and resonance, three or four envelope stages, and similar parameters. Sampled instruments typically provide access to volume, cutoff, attack, and release.

The assortment of Software Instruments is vast. It ranges from the basic guitar, bass, and drums to more esoteric selections such as Caribbean vibraphone. According to Apple, most of the sampled instruments have at least three Velocity layers, and some are as many as ten layers deep. Most guitars have six layers, including slides and string noise. The 200 MB, 8-layer Yamaha Grand Piano isn't great by modern sample-library standards, but it's probably as good as one you'll find in most synthesizer workstations. Considering the cost, though, it is unbeatable. (A marginally better Bösendorfer comes with Jam Pack.) All told, GarageBand provides about 1 GB of sampled instruments.

While exploring GarageBand, I noticed that the sampled Software Instruments have an EXS extension. Consequently, if you're an Emagic Logic user, EXS24 can read GarageBand instrument files.

AUDIO UNITS AND REWIRE

I had heard that GarageBand supported Audio Units, but I had no idea to what extent. I found no information in the PDF manuals, in the Help files, or on Apple's support site. I finally found the information I needed elsewhere on the Web.

AU support gave me access to some of my favorite effects and instrument plug-ins. To load an AU instrument plug-in the first time, you must add a Software Instrument track first, and then select Track Info to change it to an AU instrument. After you've done that, you can save an AU instrument along with its current preset so that it will appear in GarageBand's list of Software Instruments. Experimenting with various AU instruments, I was pleased to discover that LFOs, arpeggiators, and drum machine programs properly synced to GarageBand's tempo.

I tried using GarageBand with an enormous range of effects and instrument plug-ins. Some were native AU and some were converted using FXpansion's VST-AU Adapter. Out of dozens, I found only three that exhibited any problems at all, and those were graphic anomalies. Consequently, I was extremely impressed at GarageBand's AU compatibility.

The latest version of GarageBand supports ReWire, but it isn't mentioned in the PDF manuals or the Help files. I did a search on Apple's Support site and found a brief document describing how to use GarageBand as a ReWire host: with GarageBand open, simply open a ReWire client and their transports will sync automatically. It doesn't get much easier than that. I tried it with Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason, and it worked perfectly with both.

EDITING AND MIXING

Compared with more expensive audio sequencers, GarageBand's editing features are basic but functional. When you select a MIDI track and click on the Track Editor button, a familiar piano-roll display replaces the Loop Browser. A pull-down menu lets you display MIDI Note, Modulation, Pitch Bend, or Sustain data. GarageBand displays the latter three as straight lines with breakpoints. You can move the breakpoints, add new ones, or select and delete them. Although GarageBand does not allow you to edit other MIDI data, it records all MIDI Control Changes up to number 122; the only exception is MIDI Volume (CC #7), which you can enter and edit manually.

You can click and drag any note up or down to transpose it, drag it left or right to change its location, or type in a new Velocity. To change its duration, just click its right edge and drag. A Fix Timing button quantizes the selected note or region at the current grid level.

Mixdown is a straightforward affair. Each track's pan and level control lets you alter its position and balance in the mix. Clicking on a track's Track Volume button reveals a straight line to which you can add breakpoints for automating level changes. The Master Track provides volume automation, echo, reverb, EQ, compression, and one slot for insert effects. The Master Track Info dialog accesses control over echo and reverb parameters such as time, color, and volume. If you have a reverb that you'd rather use, the insert slot lets you select from your AU plug-ins.

When you have finished making your adjustments, all that is left for you to do is export your mix to an AIFF file. Just choose Export to iTunes from the File menu and you are done. If you want to save your work in MP3 or AAC format, you can do that from within iTunes.

PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

My complaints are few, and totally insignificant in light of GarageBand's price. When I first upgraded to the current version, I discovered that running GarageBand 1.1 simultaneously opened the application VirSyn Tera. I contacted Apple, which determined that I needed to remove Tera's ReWire extension to solve the problem. A more permanent solution should be available by the time you read this review.

I have more than 70 Audio Units plug-ins installed on my computer. Consequently, every time I opened GarageBand, it took a full minute and a half to appear onscreen — exactly the same length of time as Emagic 6.3.3 Platinum. Given the ephemeral nature of inspiration, it's easy to grow impatient waiting for any sequencer to open.

When I opened Preferences and clicked on the Audio/MIDI pane, I realized that GarageBand offers only two buffer sizes: large (“Maximum number of simultaneous tracks”) and small (“Minimum delay when playing instruments live”). I'd like to have a bit more control over latency than that. You can, however, improve performance by specifying the maximum number of Real Instrument tracks, Software Instrument tracks, and voices per instrument.

DELUXE VALET PARKING

I have no doubt that GarageBand will fulfill its goal of making music production accessible to the masses. Furthermore, it makes a pretty good sketchpad for more experienced musicians. It's also useful for laying down grooves for improvisation in many musical styles. GarageBand is easy to learn and fun to use, and it offers enough flexibility and depth to be a truly useful songwriting tool (see Web Clip 2).

Apple has announced that a future version of Logic Pro will have Apple Loops functionality and the ability to open GarageBand files, so you will be able to begin projects in GarageBand and then finish the projects in a more professional environment. I wish that GarageBand could import and export Standard MIDI Files, but until it does, a third-party utility called Dent du Midi will import the individual MIDI tracks into GarageBand (www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/macosx/22281).

Now that I've grown accustomed to using Apple Loops, I'm hooked. Throw in audio recording, virtual instruments, some nice effects, and basic editing features, and you have a winning combination. For the price, nothing comes close to GarageBand. If you use all five applications in iLife '04, it works out to just $10 per app. Even if you use only GarageBand, half a C-note is a bargain in anyone's book. And if you buy a new Mac, it's free; who wouldn't like the sound of that?


Associate Editor Geary Yelton has been reviewing Mac software for EM for more than 18 years.

Minimum System Requirements

GarageBand 1.1

MAC: G4/600 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS X 10.2.6; 2 GB of hard-disk space

A JAM-PACKED GARAGE

When you're ready to expand your timbral palette beyond the content supplied with iLife '04, the first add-on you'll want is Apple's Jam Pack for GarageBand ($99). Jam Pack is a 3 GB collection on DVD-ROM that furnishes more than 2,000 Apple Loops, over 100 Software Instruments, and better than 100 effects presets.

In addition to the Bösendorfer piano, new instruments include a 12-string guitar, more Eastern percussion, various synthesizers and organs, and a much wider selection of drums and basses. The loops cover an assortment of instruments and styles ranging from analog drum machines, club dance beats, and upright funk bass to jazz piano, lounge vibes, and orchestral strings. World music is particularly well represented, with loops containing non-Western instruments such as didgeridoo, santoor, oud, balalaika, saz, and even gamelan ensembles. Dozens of new acoustic guitar loops cover a lot of territory, too.

Although Jam Pack contains no actual effects plug-ins, it supplies plenty of fresh presets for GarageBand's existing effects. Of special interest are the electric guitar presets, which more than double GarageBand's complement of amp-modeling sounds.

The overwhelming bargain that is GarageBand extends to Jam Pack. It is without a doubt the best enhancement you can buy for under $100. If you enjoy using GarageBand, there's no question: get Jam Pack.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Apple Computer
GarageBand 1.01
digital audio sequencer
$49 (iLife '04)

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.5
DOCUMENTATION 3.0
VALUE 5.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Easy to learn and easy to use, yet surprisingly deep. High fun factor. Excellent AU support. Loads of included content.

CONS: Can't control external MIDI instruments. Only two buffer settings. Can't import or export Standard MIDI Files. CPU hog.

Manufacturer

Apple Computer
tel. (408) 996-1010
Web www.apple.com

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