Hands-On Review: GarageBand on the new iPad

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There are a vast number of powerful music-making apps available for the new iPad, but if you’re interested in creating tunes with this ubiquitous touch device, one app that’s really worth checking out is the iOS version of GarageBand by Apple. The same company that’s responsible for the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad has put its energy into creating a mobile music production app, and its knack for reinvention, innovation and providing an excellent user experience really shows.

The first time you open a music-production program, you’re usually presented with a blank slate. In order to start making music, you need to create a track, set up a mic or launch a virtual instrument, and possibly configure a few more parameters as well. This isn’t the case with GarageBand. The first time you launch it on an iPad, you’re presented with a large keyboard-instrument icon. Tapping on the icon opens a grand piano that you can start playing immediately. Tapping the Record button starts the recording session just as easily.

Getting a virtual instrument to run in GarageBand was simple; however, just as quickly as I was impressed by the speed and intuitive design of the app, I was let down by the feel of playing a grand piano on a touch screen. This is not the fault of the iPad or of GarageBand. A touch screen is just a sheet of glass, after all, and not a worthy replacement for the responsive physical keys of a real grand piano. It was obvious right away that I would really benefit from using a keyboard controller to play the pianos, organs and synthesizers. Line 6 makes two keyboards that can plug directly into an iPad and get all of the power they need to operate directly from the device: the Mobile Keys 25 and the Mobile Keys 49.

If you’ve used Pro Tools or any other full-blown digital audio workstation programs that run on desktop and laptop computers, you might be a little taken aback by the appearance of GarageBand on the iPad. Its user interface is totally different. It was designed from scratch to be controlled with multi-touch (rather than a keyboard and mouse), so it has a radically different look and layout. For example, if you hunt around for the “mixer” screen in GarageBand, you’re not going to find it. Big graphical mixer screens with virtual faders and rows of EQ knobs tend to be very complex looking. Something like that just wouldn’t fit in with the stream-lined nature of GarageBand.

If you own an iPad as well as an iPod touch or an iPhone, you can use this mobile version of GarageBand on all of those devices. You can also sync the songs that you create with iCloud, so that you can start working on a song on your iPhone, and then access the same song file later on your iPad, without needing to manually transfer any files. It’s just one of the many ways that Apple has streamlined operations to a nearly obsessive level with this app.

Making a multi-track audio recording program that’s both powerful and easy to use is no small feat for designers and programmers. Apple has done a remarkably good job of this with GarageBand, but even though I’m somewhat of a veteran music software user, there were still some things that confused me. For example, by default, GarageBand comes configured to only record an eight-bar loop. If you try to record a linear three-minute song, you won’t get very far before you’re abruptly cut off.

To GarageBand’s credit, I had been fooling around with the included Smart Guitar instrument, and I was inspired enough to try to record an entire song with it when I ran into the eight-bar loop limitation. After fishing around through its various settings, I was eventually able to figure out the changes that needed to be made. There’s a ruler above the tracks in the arrangement screen, and all the way to the right you will find a “+” button. This is the “Song Sections” button, and if you tap on it you can change the “Section A” setting from “Manual” to “Automatic.” Now you will be able to record freely beyond the first eight bars without stopping.

With that little foible behind me, I was free to attempt to perform an entire song with the Smart Guitar. The Smart Instruments in GarageBand are called such because they can be played by people with no musical ability. For example, you can set the Smart Guitar to “Auto Play,” tap on a chord button, and it will start strumming or finger-picking the chord flawlessly. You can also choose to pluck, strum and bend the notes yourself on a virtual guitar neck, without computer assistance. There is a range of different guitars and effects to choose from to suit different musical styles.

GarageBand comes with a bunch of Smart Instruments: Smart Guitar, Smart Drums, Smart Bass, Smart Keyboard and the latest addition to the family: Smart Strings. They’re all pretty fun to play around with; however, time will tell if I use them more as a novelty than as serious musical tools. But it isn’t hard to imagine other kinds of people getting good use out of these instruments. I can picture grade-school kids who can’t play real instruments using the Smart Instruments for writing impromptu songs, and then singing over them. They enable you to create all kinds of music that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

The Smart Drums instrument makes the act of creating an original rhythm sequence ultra easy (with either acoustic or electronic drum sounds). You just drag little drum icons onto a simple matrix and your beat evolves organically. Tapping on a dice icon randomly switches up the drums in the beat matrix, giving you totally unexpected new drum patterns every time. There are some really easy-to-use effects that you can apply to your voice if you record vocals into GarageBand. Reverb, echo and special effects like Robot and Chipmunk are all represented by cute little cartoon-like icons that you just tap on to activate. If you’ve never preformed an entire string arrangement before, you can do it in seconds with the Smart Strings instrument. I play a few instruments myself, but I’m most comfortable on a bass guitar, and I had a pretty good time playing the Smart Bass instrument. The upright bass sounds particularly good, considering it’s just one tiny element of an elaborate five-dollar music app.

In addition to the Smart Instruments, there are a number of other virtual instruments included in GarageBand as well: Keyboard (pianos, organs and synths), Drums (acoustic and electronic kits) and Sampler. There are also lots of guitar-amp simulators in GarageBand (complete with virtual effects pedals); however, playing them requires a real guitar and a separately available guitar interface, such as the IK Multimedia Amplitube iRig, the Apogee JAM, the Sonoma Wire Works GuitarJack Model 2 or the Peavey AmpKit LiNK.

You use an “Audio Recorder” instrument to record vocals and real acoustic instruments directly into GarageBand. By default, it uses the built-in microphone on the iPad. Depending on your environment, it’s possible to get good results using the built-in mic, but if you take sound quality seriously, you will need an iOS-compatible audio interface and an external microphone to get the best-sounding takes possible. Audio interfaces like the Tascam iU2 and the RME Fireface UCX enable you to connect professional studio microphones (like the Rode NT1-A and the Studio Projects C1) and record directly into your iOS device.

The most striking feature in this iteration of GarageBand is called Jam Session. If you have more than one iOS device with GarageBand loaded on it, Jam Session enables you to play and record music together wirelessly, through the air. Up to four Apple mobile devices can be sync'ed together for a session, and a designated “bandleader” can create a multi-track recording of the jam on their device (and they can perform in the Jam Session with their device as well). The iPads, iPhones and iPod touches need to connect through a Wi-Fi network or via Bluetooth, but once they do, Apple has made the process of creating a Jam Session painfully simple. You can play any instrument in GarageBand, and even use the built-in mic or an external interface during the jam. It’s space-age technology that’s somehow already a reality and available today. Crazy but cool.

GarageBand is limited to eight tracks, which isn’t so bad when you consider that The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on tape machines that were limited to four tracks. However, if you fill up all eight tracks and find that you need to add more to your creation, you can “bounce” your tracks down in GarageBand. For example, if you have eight tracks filled up, you can bounce them all down to one track, which will free up seven tracks for you to record on. Keep in mind that when you bounce tracks, you have to commit to the levels at which they’re set. You can’t go in and make a specific drum louder or a certain guitar softer once they’ve been bounced down. 

Another welcome addition to GarageBand is its MIDI editor. When you record one of GarageBand’s virtual instruments into a track, you’re actually recording MIDI notes as opposed to creating audio tracks. When you look at a recorded instrument track in the arrangement screen, you can see the MIDI notes that you recorded in the track. Double-tapping on a specific instrument track will display a small menu, and one option is “Edit.” Tapping on Edit brings you into the MIDI editor, and I found that editing MIDI notes with the iPad’s multi-touch control was a very intuitive process. I liked it so much that I was disappointed to discover that the MIDI editor was not available on tracks that you create with the Smart Drums instrument.

My overall impression of GarageBand on the iPad was a very good one. As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to make audio production software that’s both powerful and easy to use at the same time, and Apple has done an incredible job of this. The layout of GarageBand remains consistent from screen to screen, so you can always find essentially important controls (like the “Instruments” button in the top left corner). The Smart Instruments are really fun, and the Jam Session feature is just plain wild, but it’s the little things like the intuitive user interface that really makes it a winner.

Thanks for reading through this B&H InDepth review. If you have any questions or comments about Apple’s GarageBand or making music with an iPad, please submit a Comment, below. This article is one of an on-going InDepth series on the new iPad. Be sure to check back for more iPad-centric articles.

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Your review was written too soon. You may want to fool around with this app a little more. You will find that you can record more then just eight bars of musical time and you can even perform a midi instrument without having to keep in perfect time or have garageband correct your mistakes if you so choose to. It's a wonderful app

Thank you so much for your very informative overview and review of this app.
I understand and appreciate how much time and effort it takes.

I am definitely going to give this app a try, thanks to you.

Regards,
Joe

Not as intuitive as I would have liked. Had a hard time figuring out how to monitor recording through headphones, and never did figure out how to undo changes. Pays to read up on the process and/or watch a lot of videos to get a good recording.