New features such as Magic GarageBand make Apple''s entry-level sequencer more versatile and easier to use than ever, but you''ll need a powerful Mac to make the most of all its features.
GarageBand '08 is part of Apple's iLife '08 bundle ($79, or free with any new Mac). Based on Logic's technology, it includes plenty of editable software instruments and effects and a large library of MIDI and digital audio loops. The new version has so many powerful capabilities that for certain types of music, it may well be as much DAW as you need. To test GarageBand, I used a late-model dual-core 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro with 4 GB of RAM and Mac OS X 10.6.
GarageBand now lets you divide your song into sections using the new Arrange Track. You can name, duplicate, and change the order of sections such as verses and chorus. Moving an Arrange Region moves all the audio and instrument regions within that section as well, making it easy to rearrange your song's structure.
GarageBand's new Multi-take Recording feature enables you to overdub multiple takes in a row over a given region. Turn on loop mode, select the area, and hit Record. GarageBand will loop repeatedly until you hit Stop. Clicking on the region name brings up a drop-down menu to select from different takes. While recording, I noticed that regions adjacent to the recording area were occasionally erased. The work-around was to zoom in with Snap To Grid turned off and trim the edges of the adjacent regions, leaving a small gap between the recording area and the adjacent regions.
An alternate visual interface called Magic GarageBand is aimed at novice users who might be intimidated by a traditional timeline approach. For creating new songs, it uses the metaphor of a stage with six instruments. You can choose one of nine songs, each in a different genre, to play backing tracks — typically guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, and melody — that you can jam over. The My Instrument option lets you either select a MIDI-driven software instrument or plug your instrument of choice into the Mac's audio input.
GarageBand's automation capabilities have been greatly expanded. Whereas previous versions supported breakpoint automation of panning and level, now you can select all parameters of every instrument or effect for automation. The uses are limitless — for example, you can add a reverb bloom at the end of a vocal phrase, change the Leslie rotor speed on a Hammond organ part, or sweep a synth patch's filter cutoff. If the instrument's or effect's edit window is open, automation changes will be visually reflected in the corresponding slider setting. Another excellent addition is that the Master Track now supports tempo changes. But if you want to control automation parameters with MIDI, you'll need a more advanced sequencer.
Visual EQ is a new 4-band shelving and parametric EQ plug-in. You can sculpt the equalization curve by clicking-and-dragging within its frequency window. The Analyzer feature superimposes a real-time frequency analysis of the source material over the EQ curve. A large collection of usable preset EQ curves is nicely organized by instrument.
A mastering chain is now strapped across the main bus. You can chain as many as six effects in sequence here. GarageBand organizes dozens of mastering presets by musical genre. It is great fun to experiment with different mastering presets once you finish your mix, as they can radically change the song's sound. You can adjust all of your mastering chain's parameters to taste and save the chain as a custom preset.
I had a few problems with the program when I began this review, but they disappeared when I downloaded the latest update. However, although GarageBand '08 4.1.1 behaved itself over the course of my tests, laying down more than a few software-instrument tracks taxed the system resources, even on a current-generation Mac. Fortunately, locking tracks enabled me to render completed tracks into audio files, and adjusting the buffer further maximized my mileage. If you don't have an Intel-based Mac, especially, you will need to use GarageBand's software instruments sparingly.
For the money, though, GarageBand '08 is spectacular. It packs a powerful punch behind a deceptively simple user interface. Having such a fabulous songwriting tool with good software instruments, effects, and loops already installed on every new Macintosh is a huge win for musicians of every variety. Audio pros and serious hobbyists have a great foundation to get ideas down quickly (and then open them directly in Logic if desired), and beginners have a fun and easy-to-use app to begin exploring music. GarageBand '08 is a fantastic product, and its new features increase its power greatly.
Value (1 through 5): 5