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January 30, 2004

Caution: Garageband may be Gateway Drug

I haven't spent any money yet, but it's only a matter of time. GarageBand is a cheap program (part of the 39 iLife) that makes you yearn for expensive things. I've delayed the process with some free workarounds. The rest of this post is Alison's brief guide to the things you can do with GarageBand and the stuff it makes you want.

The first thing you can do is build songs out of Apple's own loops. These come in two varieties; recordings of musicians (which you can transpose, retime and chop up), and software sequences (which you can transpose, retime, edit individual notes or groups of notes completely, and change the software instrument used). This is Lego music, but, hey, you can make cool things with Lego.

You'll want more loops. Make sure you've dragged the divider at the top of the loops section, because there are lots more loops hidden offscreen without a scrollbar. Turn off loop filtering, too; GarageBand can transpose all your loops so they don't need to be in key. But you may still want to Buy More Loops.

But pre-recorded loops won't really do. You can also record yourself singing or playing an acoustic instrument. Only one track at once, so you can't mic vocals and guitar and record both at the same time. You can use the inbuilt microphone for this, with surprisingly good results considering. But I guess a proper mic (and maybe also a pre-amp) are in my future. If you're like me, you'll also be struck by an urge to buy sheet music; I'm inclined to get the complete set of Purcell's catches, but you may want something quite different.

You can export projects to iTunes as an .aif, and convert them to loops using the Apple SDK. I haven't yet managed to find a loop I've made show up in the lists, but it's easy enough to drag them in from the Finder.

You can drag any AIFF file (which you can make from any of your music in iTunes by changing the encoding preferences) to your project and then sample to your heart's content. These samples are less versatile than any of the Apple Loops; you'll want to make sure that key and tempo match first.

You can also plug in an electric instrument. This is the one thing that I don't think you can do at all without at least an adapter, and people talk about pre-amps a lot. I don't own any electric instruments, though I faunch after a Bridge electric violin. GarageBand ships with a whole set of guitar amps, and there are more in the Jam Pack. I guess they'd work with fiddle, right? All academic for me at the moment.

Finally, you can use the software instruments. So you'll need a MIDI controller; and to prevent you from buying it straight away you can use MidiKeys, a beta that lets you use your Mac keyboard as a MIDI keyboard. This isn't remotely as good as having a proper MIDI keyboard, but it's a whole lot better than clicking on a tiny onscreen keyboard with a mouse. There's a slider for velocity, but you'll need to edit it afterwards.

Using MidiKeys and the amazing power of the Internet, I learnt a ton about drumming that had previously passed me by completely. I found Bill Powelson's site was a mine of information, in the sense that you really have to get in there, hunt through the dross and dig out the useful stuff with a pick. But there was plenty of useful stuff there, especially if you have no great desire to be a drummer but just want some tips for quickly producing four bars of plausible sounding rhythm.

Here you come up against one of the real limitations of GarageBand; it's hard to use it to tweak drum lines to sound only-just-not-quite-perfect, which unless you want only to produce techno, is what you need. Other, more expensive programs do this.

Guitar will be harder; the software instruments sound great, but my playing of them on MIDIkeys doesn't sound remotely like guitar. That was the point at which I diverted to drums, and I will return to guitar when I have a real keyboard to use.

The basic GarageBand doesn't include anything that sounds remotely like a fiddle; there is a violin in the Jam Pack, but I'm suspicious. Woodwinds are also pretty limited. If, on the other hand, you want really dodgy brain-frying synth noises, there are plenty. Martian Lounge, for example, which is a cantina.

GB only allows you to have one project open at a time, and there's no way to save snatches of MIDI for later use. (This contrasts with music, which you can save out as AIFF). The solution is to set up GB projects with names like '6/8 drum rhythms', containing lots of suitable bits of MIDI, and then cut and paste from one project to another, in the order 'copy', Open, 'new track', paste. That works, but is butt-ugly in a very 1.0 sort of way.

GB itself doesn't import or export MIDI, but Dent du Midi is a beta designed to address the lack of MIDI i/o support in GarageBand. It provides a perfectly serviceable workaround for the lack of MIDI import, so you can import MIDI files as a set of sequenced tracks. You then have to assign them each a software instrument in GB, but you've got the midi notes to play with. Export, however, is an unsolved problem at present; it doesn't export either to MIDI instruments or to .mid files. I don't believe you can cut-and-paste MIDI sequences to other MIDI software either (but I don't have any, so I can't check.)

If you use a lot of software instruments in the same piece of music, you may also need more RAM or a faster computer. I have 768Mb of RAM on the iMac, which seemed pointlessly much when I bought it. I'm sure GarageBand could soak up much more.

It may have more functionality that I haven't spotted yet; in which case, well, I'm sure I'll want to spend more money.

Posted by Alison at January 30, 2004 04:29 PM

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