A Workshop in the Garage

Apple Computer's GarageBand is revolutionary. Never has it been easier or less expensive to record, mix, and master studio-quality audio. Though GarageBand
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FIG. 1: GarageBand supplies 32 effects for you can apply to Software Instrument or Real Instrument tracks, ranging from Amp Simulation to a Vocal Transformer.

Apple Computer's GarageBand is revolutionary. Never has it been easier or less expensive to record, mix, and master studio-quality audio. Though GarageBand is an entry-level application, it has features that compare favorably with those of programs five times as expensive and ten times as complicated. GarageBand is almost certainly the easiest way to create multitrack recordings on a Mac, but it offers much more than meets the eye. For this article I will assume that you already know the basics, so let's jump right into some of the less intuitively obvious tips, tricks, and techniques.

Get More from Presets

GarageBand ships with hundreds of presets for Software Instruments, Real Instruments, and audio effects. Apple went to great lengths to make the presets sound great, and most of them do. A novice might be satisfied with so many presets, but experienced musicians want to tweak every parameter of every instrument and effect. Thank heaven for the Track Info pane!

GarageBand provides three ways to open the Track Info pane, and you should memorize at least one of them. First, click on a track to select it. Then, either double-click on its icon in the Tracks list, use its keyboard shortcut (Command + I), or click on the Track Info button (the little encircled i to the right of the time display).

Notice that the Track Info pane has a small Details triangle that expands and contracts the pane's Details section. If you don't see a bunch of effects checkboxes, sliders, and pop-up menus in the Track Info pane's lower half, click on the Details triangle to reveal them.

Five effects for Real Instruments are always available: Gate, Compressor, Equalizer, Echo, and Reverb. For Software Instruments, the always-included effects are the same except for an instrument generator, which takes the place of the Gate effect.

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FIG. 2: Clicking on the pencil icon opens a window for setting Multiband Compressor parameters.

Software Instruments and Real Instruments furnish two pop-up menus that let you choose from GarageBand's 16 included effects and another 16 AU effects that come with Mac OS X 10.4 (see Fig. 1). Most effects have presets of their own in the pop-up menu to the right of the menu for selecting the effects type. If none of the included effects presets is just what you need, or if a preset is close to what you're looking for, you can modify the effect by clicking on the pencil icon just to the right of its presets menu (see Fig. 2).

If you've created settings for an effect and think you'll want to reuse them in the future, save them as a new preset by choosing Make Preset from the presets menu. GarageBand will ask you to name your new preset; do so, click on Save, and voilà — you have a custom preset.

Now let's say you've tweaked a track's settings for several effects and want to save them all for reuse. You could save a preset for each individual effect, but there's an easier way: click on the Save Instrument button at the bottom of the Track Info pane, name your new instrument, and click on Save, and you have a custom instrument with all its effects presets just the way you like them.

One last thing about presets: if you modify a preset or an instrument, GarageBand will ask if you want to save your changes if you select a different preset or instrument. If you find this behavior as annoying as I do, you can turn it off in the General pane of GarageBand's Preferences. But be careful — after you do, any modifications you make to presets or instruments are blown away unless you expressly choose Make Preset or click on Save Instrument before you switch to a different preset or instrument.

Mobile Recording Tips

GarageBand paired with a PowerBook, iBook, MacBook, or MacBook Pro makes a pretty darn good mobile recording studio. Still, even if your laptop has Intel inside, at some point you may push your song project beyond GarageBand's ability to play all your instruments and effects in real time.

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FIG. 3: Locking a track renders it to disk, which may improve GarageBand''s performance.

First and foremost, GarageBand needs lots of RAM. If you don't have enough, it will almost certainly pelt you with arcane error messages. Although 512 MB is the very least you should have, more is better. If you are seeing error messages, you could do a couple of things to improve performance. In GarageBand 3, the easiest way to conserve resources is to lock any track you're not working on by clicking on its lock button (see Fig. 3). The track will be rendered to disk the next time you click on the Play button.

In a similar vein, Software Instrument loops (which appear green) use more RAM and processor power than Real Instrument loops (which appear blue). Fortunately, GarageBand 3 makes it easy to turn a Software Instrument loop into a Real Instrument loop. Just press the Option key before you click-and-drag a Software Instrument loop to the Timeline, and it will be converted to a Real Instrument loop.

Locking tracks and turning Software Instrument loops into Real Instrument loops has a downside. Although both techniques free up CPU and RAM, they make your hard disk work harder. If you have a slow hard disk, those techniques may not help much. If you see error messages during playback or recording, give one or both techniques a try — it couldn't hurt and will probably help.

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FIG. 4: Musical Typing lets your QWERTY keyboard function as a polyphonic MIDI keyboard.

My next tip won't improve GarageBand's performance, but it might get you out of a jam if you're on the road without a MIDI keyboard. GarageBand 3 has a feature called Musical Typing. It's not that dorky little click-the-notes piano keyboard that appears when you create a new project; rather, it's a way to use your Mac keyboard as a MIDI controller. Choose Musical Typing from the Windows menu or use the keyboard shortcut Command + Shift + K, and your QWERTY keyboard will turn into a MIDI keyboard of sorts (see Fig. 4).

Because Musical Typing is polyphonic, you can play several notes simultaneously. And though it's not Velocity sensitive, you can edit individual note Velocities by double-clicking in the green Software Instrument region containing the notes whose Velocity you want to change. That feature could be a lifesaver when you're in a hotel room or on a plane and a brilliant musical idea pops into your head.

While I'm on the subject of typing, if you haven't reviewed the list of GarageBand keyboard shortcuts, you should; just choose Keyboard Shortcuts from the Help menu. There are a lot of 'em — you'll do more with less effort if you memorize the ones you'll use most.

Working Around Limitations

Every so often, you'll decide a track needs three or more of GarageBand's user-selectable effects. Unfortunately, each track has only two user-selectable effects. Fortunately, GarageBand provides a work-around. When you're happy with your performance on the track, add the first two effects. When you're satisfied with the way it sounds with the effects, click on the lock button and then click on the Play button to render the track to disk.

Now switch to the Finder and locate the GarageBand project file you're working on. Control-click on its icon and choose Show Package Contents from the contextual menu. Open the Freeze Files folder and drag the track you just froze onto GarageBand's Timeline. GarageBand will import it as a Real Instrument track, and you can add two more effects.

If you've locked other tracks, you'll find more than one file in your Freeze Files folder. If you do, switch to List View (shortcut: Command + 2) and then click on the Date Modified or Date Created column. The file with the most recent creation or modification date is the one you want.

Another limitation of GarageBand is that a song can have only one time signature. The work-around isn't perfect, but it does allow you to record songs with more than one time signature. Start by creating two (or more) GarageBand projects, each with the appropriate time signature. Record the first portion of your song up to the point where the time signature change occurs. When you're satisfied with your performance and mix on that part of the song, choose Send Song To iTunes from the Share menu. Now close the first project and open the second (which should have a different time signature). Drag the song you just sent to iTunes from iTunes onto GarageBand's Timeline. Now you can record the second part of the song by punching in at the appropriate place on the Timeline. Repeat as necessary for songs that change meter more than once.

Real Instrument Magic

You can, of course, record guitar or bass with a microphone if you want. But for many projects, you can get the sound you want by leaving the amp and microphone out of the equation and recording direct using GarageBand's built-in Amp Simulation models. Just plug your instrument into your Mac (or into an audio interface that's plugged into your Mac), create a Real Instrument track, open its Track Info pane, and choose the appropriate guitar or bass preset.

Now for the really cool part: Real Instrument effects are nondestructive. Let's say you record a guitar track using the Metal preset. The next day you decide that track should have less distortion. Merely choose a new preset, say, Clean Jazz, and the track loses its distortion and instead sounds like the cool, sweet tones of a jazz guitar.

Nondestructive effects are not just for guitars; they work with any Real Instrument track and allow you to focus on your performance when you're recording. After you've recorded a perfect take, you can experiment with different presets as much as you want without altering your perfect performance.

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FIG. 5: Clicking on the tuning fork icon reveals a handy instrument tuner. Here I''m tuning my guitar''s E string.

Watch out, though: because tone generators and effects used on Real or Software Instrument tracks are nondestructive, they are applied to the tracks on the fly. The result is that the more tracks you record, the more you demand of your hardware. At some point, you'll probably need to lock some or all of your existing tracks before you can record any additional tracks.

I'm sure you already know it's a good idea to tune your instrument before you record a single note. What you might not know is that GarageBand 2 and 3 have a simulated stroboscopic tuner that works with guitars, basses, and other instruments that require tuning. To tune up, connect the instrument to your Mac and create a Real Instrument track for it. Access the tuner either by choosing Show Instrument Tuner from the Control menu, by using the keyboard shortcut Command + F, or by clicking on the tuning fork icon in the time display's left side (see Fig. 5).

When you pluck a string on your guitar or bass, the tuner (usually) guesses what note you're trying to play. If you see red lights on the left of center, you're flat. If you see red lights on the right of center, you're sharp. When you see a green light in the center, the string is perfectly in tune. Note that the instrument tuner works only with Real Instruments; Software Instruments are always in tune.

Whenever I'm trying to learn how to play a new song, I put the audio file on its own track in GarageBand and play along with it. If it's in my iTunes Library, I just drag it from iTunes onto GarageBand's Timeline. If it's an MP3 or M4A file in the Finder, I drag its icon onto GarageBand's Timeline. As soon as I drop it on the Timeline, GarageBand creates a new Real Instrument track for it. Then I can play along with the new track to my heart's content.

When I'm trying to learn a particularly tricky passage, I turn on the Cycle Region function (by clicking on the circular-arrow button in the transport controls) so that part of the song plays over and over again. The only downside to this trick is that it won't work with songs you've purchased from the iTunes Music Store. If you want to play along with one you've purchased from Apple, you'll first need to burn it onto an audio CD and then rip it from the disc to create an unprotected (but slightly degraded) copy.

Not Just for Audio

GarageBand 3 does more than ever before, including digital video scoring. That's right — GarageBand 3 lets you create a multitrack soundtrack for video. Start by creating a New Movie Score (as opposed to a New Music Project or a New Podcast Episode). Your project will appear with a special track for video at the top of the Timeline. Click on the Media Browser button — the one that looks like a musical note, a piece of film, and a picture frame and is immediately to the right of the Track Info button — and then click on the Movies tab at the top of the Media Browser. Now you can drag any movie in your Home directory's Movies folder or any picture in your Home directory's Pictures folder onto the video track. Or you can drag digital movie or picture files onto the video track from the Finder. Your video will appear in the topmost track, and its audio (if it already has audio and it's in a compatible format) will appear on a Real Instrument track just below it. In addition, the video preview will appear at the top of the Track Info pane.

Now I'll offer a couple of tips that will help you make your videos sound as good as they look. First, don't forget you can use GarageBand's Apple Loops to create your film score; you don't have to play a note. Or you can use one or more synthesizer instruments to create a moody bed of background music. If your movie is more romantic, try playing string instruments. Adding background music to your video gives it a professional sheen that's sure to impress your friends, family, clients, or whomever.

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FIG. 6: GarageBand comes standard with a nice variety of Foley and other sound effects. Here I''ve added a short string riff that fades into some crowd noise.

The other really cool sounds for video are the included Foley effects. Open the Loop Browser and click on the FX button to choose from more than 200 sound effects that add realism to your video. You'll find at least a dozen kinds of crowd noise, a variety of doors and windows opening and closing, phones, footsteps, vehicles, and many other first-rate sound effects that will sweeten your video like never before (see Fig. 6). You'll be amazed at how much more professional a soundtrack and some Foley effects will make your video productions.

Throw Money at It

GarageBand does more than any other entry-level digital audio sequencer for the Mac, but it can do even more if you're willing to throw a little money at it. Last but not least, then, here are a few add-ons to make using GarageBand even better.

M-Audio's iControl ($179.95) is a plug-and-play desktop control surface and MIDI interface that gives you complete tactile control over GarageBand. It has knobs, buttons, a jog/shuttle wheel, and more. It lets you control volume, pan, effects, mute, solo, and record functions for up to eight tracks at a time. iControl is USB powered, so there's no power brick, and GarageBand automatically recognizes it without requiring you to install any pesky drivers. If you use GarageBand a lot, iControl is an elegant way to save hundreds of mouse-clicks and drags each day.

If you don't already have good microphones and a FireWire or USB audio interface for your Mac, consider the Snowball ($189) from Blue Microphones. The Snowball is a cool-looking dual-capsule USB mic that's switchable between three patterns (cardioid, cardioid with -10 dB pad, and omni). Use it to record just about anything, from a whisper to a screaming Marshall double stack.

To assist in pitch correction, GarageBand provides an Enhance Tuning slider for Real Instrument tracks that's okay in a pinch. But if you tend to sing slightly off-key all the time (like yours truly), you'll get better and more realistic results if you pop for the Antares Auto-Tune 4 plug-in ($399). It isn't cheap, but if you want to perform miracles on your vocal tracks, you need Auto-Tune.

GarageBand comes with over a thousand Apple Loops and more than a hundred Software Instruments, but that's not nearly enough for many Mac musicians. If you want even more, take a look at Apple's four GarageBand Jam Packs ($99 each) — expansion kits for GarageBand, Soundtrack Pro, Logic Express, and Logic Pro. World Music supplies more than 3,000 loops influenced by music from around the world, as well as 40 unusual Software Instruments. Rhythm Section contains over 1,000 drumbeat loops; over 1,000 guitar riff, chord progression, bass line, and keyboard riff loops; and over 50 new guitar, bass, and drum Software Instruments. Remix Tools gives you more than 2,000 loops in club dance, urban, electronica, and hip-hop styles; sound effects that include scratching and needle drops; and an assortment of new keyboard, beat kit, and analog drum machine Software Instruments. Symphony Orchestra has more than 2,000 symphonic loops and more than 30 new string, brass, woodwind, percussion, and keyboard Software Instruments.

Finally, if you simply need more horsepower or flexibility than GarageBand provides, Apple offers an excellent upgrade path. Check out Logic Express 7 ($299) or Logic Pro 7 ($999), Apple's intermediate and advanced recording-studios-in-a-box. The transition will be relatively painless, because your GarageBand projects, Software Instruments, Apple Loops, Jam Packs, and AU plug-ins are all completely compatible with both versions of Logic.

Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus is a leading authority on Macs and the author of 49 computer books, including GarageBand for Dummies (Wiley, 2004). You can listen to some of his GarageBand cover tune recordings athttp://homepage.mac.com/boblevitus/FileSharing17.html.


Antares Audio Technologieswww.antarestech.com

Apple Computer, Inc.www.apple.com

Blue Microphoneswww.bluemic.com