Garageband 1.0, by Apple Computers
Posted: 31-Aug-2004

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Apple Type: FREEWARE

Reviewer: Diane Love Class: MULTIMEDIA
     
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Introduction
Apple seems to thrive on making specialized activities available to "the rest of us". They've done it with video chat, movies and DVD making, and now Garageband leads us into the territory of music.

Many people, no matter how well they can play an instrument, feel they lack the creativity and imagination to come up with a new song. How can those faculties be developed? Planting yourself in Garageband's fertile environment of loops could be the answer. But what else can Garageband do for the average home musician? Or indeed for me, since I play in a band and frequently need to take music apart to learn it or transcribe it for others to play.

NOTE: Garageband is listed as freeware, but it is actually "Appleware". It is free when you purchase a new Mac, but for existing Mac owners that don't have it, you'll have to purchase iLife, a commercial product.

Review system
iMac 1Ghz G4, 1GB memory, 80 GB hard disk, 1440 x 900 display

Installation
Having 3 Macs on which I wanted to run iLife, I purchased the family pack. The other machines are a 600Mhz iMac whose optical drive is CD only, and a 500MHz iBook with a DVD reader and no more than 3Gb free on its 10Gb hard disk. Garageband requires a 600Mhz or better processor and a DVD reader in order to install. We managed to install Garageband on the 600MHz iMac using a disk image and an external firewire drive.

First impressions
Garageband gives you three ways to create multi-track music:

  1. you can use it like a tape recorder to record audio;
  2. you can enter notes directly into the user interface either with the mouse or from a connected MIDI instrument;
  3. you can assemble music from pre-recorded "loops".


A little background may be helpful. In the days before computers, if you wanted to hear a particular piece of music in your home you had two choices: buy a recording (vinyl or tape) or buy some sheet music for whatever instruments you could play.

With the advent of computers, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard was developed to take the place of the sheet music for your computer. A new class of musical instruments emerged which the computer could play via the MIDI interface. Also, some computers were able to play MIDI files on their own as they contained a hardware synthesizer chip that could turn the playing instructions in the MIDI file into sounds.

In the early 80s, the notion of a home computer with a massive megabyte of RAM and a massive 20 megabytes of hard disk actually storing and playing recorded music (or "audio") was impossibly remote. Such a hard disk would hold about a couple of minutes of CD audio. Gradually, processors, memory and hard disks improved to the point where not only is it possible for a computer to play audio, it's actually easier than playing MIDI since, for MIDI, the computer has to use its processor to create the sounds you hear rather than just reading them from the hard disk.

In a nutshell then, modern computers can handle both "audio" and "MIDI".

So why does Garageband offer a choice of "Real Instrument" or "Software Instrument"? Is "Software Instrument" MIDI? Or is it a set of samples of each note? Or is that what "Real Instrument" means?

I soon discovered that Real Instrument means "audio and Software Instrument", means "MIDI". Depending on the instrument, the sounds may be generated by your Mac or samples stored on your Mac. I can't help thinking that it's quite wrong to make up new terms for these concepts just because your market research tells you that the average person doesn't understand the established ones. If someone can't speak English, then teaching them baby talk is not going to help them get by in an English speaking country. Better just bite the bullet and learn the new terms you need to operate in the new territory.

Second Impressions
I set out to discover what Garageband could do to help me with my musical workflow. To get my band to play a typical song, I may do any or all of the following:

  • use Roni's Amazing Slowdowner to shift the pitch of an AIFF or MP3 file up an octave so I can hear the bassline
  • load a MIDI file into Myriad's Melody Assistant and turn off guitars, vocals and horns so I can hear the bassline
  • listen to a recording and write out saxophone parts in Melody Assistant, properly transposed for soprano, alto, tenor and baritone
  • print saxophone parts from either my edited version or a MIDI file in Melody Assistant.


Other musicians in the band may turn MIDI files into guitar tab or piano notation in order to learn their parts.

Garageband can import an audio recording (AIFF file from a CD or MP3 file or unprotected AAC file), but can't transpose it, so can't take the place of the Amazing Slowdowner.

Although Garageband can create and store MIDI files, it amazingly cannot import or export them. There is a free program called Dent du Midi which can help you import a midi file into Garageband, but there is no way to export MIDI. Once I discovered Dent du Midi, I found it generally preferable to use Garageband for listening to MIDI files.

Unfortunately Garageband has no notation capability. I think this is a major deficit for a program for domestic use where many users may be in music education. Entering music into a notation program can be very difficult, whereas entering MIDI information via a piano keyboard and turning the results into notation is easier. The Melody Assistant program is particularly frustrating to use for entering notation, and I was hoping to find an alternative. If Garageband could at least export MIDI, I could import it into a notation program and print it. No dice!

Making music
Given that Garageband can't take over all my music related activities, how does it cope with the task it was designed for - making music ?

Loops are a hit with anyone who listens to music, whether or not they can play an instrument. It's like a musical lego kit. You browse through the loops, listening to one after another and all of a sudden one of them grabs your attention. You put it in a track, stretch it out for a few more bars, find something else that goes with it, and you're on your way.

Garageband has its own built in software piano keyboard that you can play with the mouse. It's not that easy to enter music this way; however, if you do you will be able to edit it very easily in a matrix view where you can drag each note up and down in pitch, earlier and later in time, and longer and shorter in duration. Once you've done this for a while, you'll be tempted to get a MIDI keyboard in order to enter the notes more efficiently. The other alternative is to get software (MidiKeys, LoudK) that lets you use your computer's keyboard as a piano keyboard.

If your computer has a line in socket, you can connect a guitar and record your playing into Garageband, and if that isn't miracle enough, there's a plethora of effects to try out on your recorded sound. Apple recommend a $20 Monster cable for connecting guitars, but you can get something that does the same job for a few dollars at Radio Shack. You need to convert quarter inch mono to eighth inch stereo. If you want to connect a microphone, you need an interface to connect audio to your computer via USB.

Whether you are working with loops, audio or MIDI, Garageband is very easy to learn and use. Its user interface makes everything visible and discoverable, and follows existing Apple standards; the + button that you use to make a new playlist in iTunes or album in iPhoto adds a new track in Garageband; playing and pausing is done with the spacebar just like iTunes and iMovie. Audio and MIDI are distinguished not only with color, but with drawings of sound waves for audio and musical notes for MIDI.

Hardware
One of the things you get used to in OS X is that when you buy a new camera, printer or mouse, it "just works" without you loading any drivers. It's not that drivers aren't need - it's just that the common ones are already built into OS X. However, for music gear, you have to load drivers yourself.

It's tempting to rush out and buy a USB MIDI keyboard, but before you do, think about what else you want to do and what other gear you may also need to connect now or in the future. Do you want to be able to play the keyboard on its own without the computer? Do you need a keyboard that also acts as an audio interface for a microphone? Do you have other digital music equipment like a DAT player or hard disk recorder with a digital audio interface?

Summary
Garageband is a sensational entry-level tool for creating multi-track music, one track at a time; it has some powerful features, yet it is easy to learn and easy to use. While it lacks important features for handling MIDI files and musical notation, it inspires personal creativity and allows you to make music without having skill on any particular instrument.
I recommend it for both experienced musicians as well as those with no musical background wanting to create music.

Pros

  • very usable and easy to get to know
  • loop library
  • can import MP3 and AIFF, and export MP3


Cons

  • nonstandard terminology
  • no midi import and export
  • no music notation


Overall Rating

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice