GarageBand for iPad – music app review

GarageBand - AppleIf you are a musician with a smartphone or tablet device, there is an abundance of music apps to tempt you. However, for Apple device owners, one such app is difficult to miss – GarageBand. For Mac users, GarageBand has been around for some time, making up one third of the ‘creative’ iLife suite that also includes iMovie and iPhoto. On the Mac, all three programs are highly regarded but perhaps considered more consumer-level than ‘pro’ in nature – in essence, a stepping stone from which novice users can move up to Logic Pro (music), Aperture (photography) and Final Cut Pro (video). While this is probably Apple’s intention with all of these programs, it is unwise to dismiss the iLife suite as pretty fluff. While the toolsets might be more restricted than their more expensive counterparts can boast, all are very capable. Easy to use for the novice, yes, but also with enough firepower for the more experienced user to exploit. And, certainly in the case of GarageBand on the Mac, enough to create very creditable recordings.

So, what about GarageBand on the iPad? Less processing power, less screen real-estate (well, in terms of square inches if not in terms of numbers of pixels with the new 3rd generation iPad), less RAM and less storage space but, on the upside, more portable and, because of the touch screen, very intuitive in use. As we will see in a minute, while the iPad (and iPhone/iPod) app lacks some of the Mac version features, the tactile nature of the iPad has allowed Apple to add something unique for the iOS platform; Smart Instruments. Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what about the basics?

GarageBand – U.K. iTunes GarageBand – U.S.A. iTunes

Key Features

While it can’t compete is a feature-list shootout with the likes of Logic Pro, Cubase, Pro Tools, Digital Performer or Sonar, GarageBand for iPad qualifies as a digital audio workstation (DAW). Essentially, this means it provides you with the ability to record musical performances, whether played on sample-based ‘virtual’ instruments, recorded via a microphone (either the iPad microphone or a ‘proper’ mic connected via a dedicated iPad compatible audio interface) or a real instrument (either via a microphone or, in the case of something like an electric guitar, via something like the inexpensive IK Multimedia iRig or Peavey AmpKit LINK hardware). A collection of audio loops featuring a range of different instruments and musical styles (including a good number of drum and percussion loops) are also included. These can be dragged and dropped onto tracks to help you build song ideas quickly.

Each instrument can be recorded on its own track and, within the limit of a maximum of eight tracks, a full musical composition can be built up in musical sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) the length of which (in musical bars) can be defined by the user. Tracks can be balanced and panned across the stereo field, effects can be applied and, once the musical masterpiece is tweaked to your satisfaction, songs can be exported in a variety of ways to share with others (or to build the complete album).

Guitar Star

GarageBand includes some useful amp simulation for recording live electric guitar parts.

As a guitar player, I was keen to explore the guitar amp simulations offered by GarageBand on the iPad. The user interface for this section is easy to navigate and a total of 9 different amp types are offered (slightly fewer than GarageBand on the Mac which now features 12). If you know anything about ‘real’ guitar amps, it is pretty easy to guess what the inspiration is behind each of the models (for example, the Blackface Combo which is based on one of Fender’s classic amps or the Vintage Stack which is Marshall derived). There is plenty of tonal range offered – from sparkling cleans through to modern metal – and each amp does have a distinctive flavour.  There is also a good selection of presets tones offered covering clean, crunch, distorted and processed sounds to get you started and you can also create and save our own custom tones. However, unlike some amp sims, the front panel control set on each amp is identical – the models don’t take the accuracy so far as to copy the contrasting control sets offered by the original amps – but, on the upside, this means that all the amps include the very useable tremolo with both depth and speed controls built into the amp front panel.

A few other things are worth noting. First, unlike dedicated amp sims such as AmpliTube, you can not mix and match different amps with different speaker cabinets. This is not a big issue but it does mean there is slightly less flexibility to craft tonal variations. Second, there is no dedicated bass amp model. While you can, of course, use any of the guitar amps with a bass, it might have been nice to have at least one generic bass model to play with. Third, like most of the software-based amp sim software I’ve experience of, things do tend to get a bit hissy when you crank up the gain. While the Input setup includes an adjustable noise gate to control this somewhat, I also found I needed to roll off some of the top-end via the treble and presence controls on the amp. Interestingly, I’ve always found my own hardware amp modeller of choice (a Line 6 unit) much better in this regard. Given that this is also, ultimately, based on software, I’m not sure what magic Line 6 have built into their hardware products to make this less of an issue but it does suggest it can certainly be done.

Up to four of the stomp box effects can be used together.

Also included are 10 stompbox emulations covering the usual overdrive, distortion, compression and modulation style effects.  Up to four of these can be used simultaneously. These work very well and, while you can always think of a few additional effects you might like to have access to, the selections here are sensible and offer plenty of additional sound shaping. All things considered, GarageBand’s GuitarAmp section is well beyond the needs of the ‘novice’ user and, while perhaps offering slightly fewer options, in terms of the basic sound quality, is comparable with other guitar amp sims for the iPad.

Get Smart

GarageBand on the iMac allows you to use virtual instruments (that is, software-based synths, samplers and drum machines) made by other manufacturers as sound sources within your compositions. While you cannot use surd party instruments with the iPad version, Apple have built a series of such instruments into the app from the ground up. So, as well as being able to record real vocal or guitar parts, you also have access to virtual instruments that include guitars, bass, drums, keyboards a sampler and, in the latest release, orchestral strings. While the range of sounds and the ability to edit them doesn’t match that available on a fully-blown DAW running of a desktop Mac or PC, what is supplied is surprisingly good given the compact format. As a suite of sounds for demoing song ideas, GarageBand for iPad goes well beyond being ‘adequate’.

All of the virtual instruments can be played manually if required. Here the keyboard instrument is being used via a double keyboard for two handed play.

All of these instruments are playable – that is, you can play parts in via the virtual keyboard or virtual fretboard that appears on the iPad screen when any of the instruments is operating in ‘Notes’ mode. There are some neat touches here. For example, there is a certain degree of velocity sensitivity; hit a note harder on the Keyboard instrument, for example, and the note is played both louder and, where appropriate (such as an acoustic piano), with a slightly different tone. Equally, with the guitar instruments, you can actually bend the strings – great for emulating a few blues licks – although it doesn’t work quite so well if you try a really fast vibrato.

The Smart Drums instrument makes it easy to build your own drum parts and includes a number of different drum kit styles.

A number of these virtual instruments also come in a ‘smart’ format. Essentially, this means that the user doesn’t have to do all of the playing for themselves and, given a little guidance, the instruments will generate parts themselves. For example, the Smart Drums allow you to adjust the volume and complexity for each drum within your drum kit on an grid. Once you place the drum icons on the grid, GarageBand does the rest and creates the resulting drum part. These parts can be recorded to a track for use within your song and any changes you make to the positions of the drum icons get ‘recorded’ as part of the performance, allowing you to change the dynamics of the performance to add variety. For the ‘smart’ versions of the keyboard, bass, strings and guitar, you get a choice between manual playing of notes, manual playing of chords (this is very cleverly done and allows for a lot of creative scope) and an autoplay mode where the user can select the chords within the sequence and GarageBand will then ‘autoplay’ a pattern that adjusts as you change chords. For example, for the Smart Guitar, these autoplay parts include simple strummed chords and picking patterns. While the range of these autoplay parts is a little limited (and you would soon learn to pick them out in other people tunes created with GarageBand) as a route to something musical for novice musicians or even as a quick song-sketch tool for serious songwriters, these tools really are so much better than they deserve to be given the price of the app.

The Smart Strings instrument – any chance of brass, woodwind and percussion to go with it?

The Smart String instrument is the latest addition to this virtual instrument collection added when GarageBand was updated at the time of the 3rd generation iPad launch. It really does sound very good and, hopefully, Apple will eventually get around to adding some orchestral brass, woodwind and percussion to go with the strings :-)

Opps, I Did It Again

One of the main gripes with earlier versions of GarageBand on the iPad was the lack of editing facilities to correct or adjust notes played with the virtual instruments after they had been recorded. These sorts of editing facilities are an integral part of all modern DAWs and, in their absence, it some becomes a bit frustrating to have to re-record a part just because of one or two duff notes.

Thankfully, the latest release (v.1.2) has, at least in part, addressed this. The Note Editor, which can be accessed by tapping on a part within the track view, and selecting Edit from the pop-up menu. Once opened in this way, a fairly standard ‘piano-roll’ editing environment appears that will be familiar to most existing DAW users. On the left edge of the screen either a piano keyboard, guitar fretboard or drum list is displayed while the rest of the screen shows the positions of the notes played along the timeline of bars and beats.

As of v.1.2, Garageband now allows parts to be edited to correct the occasional duff note.

Positions and pitches of notes can simply be dragged around using your fingers (much move intuitive than using a mouse on a desktop computer!). If you pinch to zoom in, you also get a handle to adjust the note length while it you tap on a note an pop-up menu allows you to cut, copy, delete or adjust the velocity (loudness) of a note. If you hold your finger on one note and then tap of other notes with another finger, you can select multiple notes for editing. In addition, if you hold a finger on the red ‘pencil’ icon (located top-left), you can then use another finger to add new notes or tap on existing ones to delete them. While this new editing capability is perhaps not as fully featured as on a desktop DAW, it is easy to use and a great addition to the iPad version.

Join The Band

One other featured added in the v.1.2 release Jam Sessions. These allow multiple players to join a recording session using other iPads, iPhone or iPods via Bluetooth. One device acts as the master device (‘bandleader’) to control playback while other devices can join the session. All the performances are then recorded on the master device.

I experimented with this using an iPad and iPhone with the Smart Instruments and it seemed to work fine. I’m not sure how much use it might be to serious musicians but I suspect it might be a lot of fun for a few friends after the odd beer or three.

More By Merge

While eight track recordings are pretty impressive in their own right, v.1.2 also adds the ability to merge existing tracks down to a single track. This then frees up the merged tracks for further parts. This merging process is similar in principle to the track ‘bouncing’ that can be done when recording to tape.

Tracks can be selected for ‘merging’, freeing up additional tracks for additional parts.

The tracks that are merged are rendered as an audio track based upon their existing track level, pan and effects settings and, as with old-fashioned tape, once bounced (or merged in iPad-speak), you are then locked into those level and effects settings. This is not as drastic as it might sound, however, as GarageBand makes a duplicate copy of the song when you execute the merge operation so, providing you do it before you start to add further tracks, you can repeat the merge process until you are happy with the results.

Album On An iPad?

If we go back just a few years in time, if you had been able to buy a dedicated hardware digital multitrack recorder that offered the functionality of GarageBand on the iPad it would have been considered something pretty special. Yes, current versions of such hardware devices do include built-in mic preamps to enable vocals and acoustic instruments to be recorded in a more professional fashion that possible with just the iPad’s built-in microphone, but you would struggle even today to find one that offered such a comprehensive collection of virtual instruments or such easy to (if basic) use on-screen editing. So, aside from the issue of getting a decent mic hooked up to the iPad (it can be done – it just requires an extra investment in 3rd party hardware), what else is missing here to stop you getting some serious recording done? Well, perhaps access to some additional effects processing options, maybe the ability to simultaneously record on multiple tracks and, given the ubiquitous use of such processing, built-in automatic pitch correction for vocals.

In essence, what you get with GarageBand on the iPad is some of the features of a dedicated hardware mutltitrack recorder (e.g. modest track counts but in a very portable format and some built-in digitial effects) plus some of the features of a modern DAW on a desktop computer (e.g. virtual instruments and guitar amp modelling). As in many other contexts, the iPad (or iPhone/iPod) has taken an existing application (mutlitrack music recording) and defined a new – and different – approach to how it can be done.

Tim Cook has talked about the post-PC era when launching the 3rd generation iPad and, while the vast majority of recording studios (home, project and commercial) are currently built around a desktop computer running DAW software. It will be fascinating to see just how far Apple can go with this the iPad/GarageBand combination given that one can only imagine we will see progressive improvements in processing power with each generation of the iPad/iPhone/iPod. Just how soon might we see home and project studios being built around tablet computers instead, with the added advantage that they can become mobile if required? Five years….? Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was less than this. Either way, it’s going to be a fun ride.

If this platform it is to become a really serious musician’s worktool, I suspect that we will need to see a wider range of add-on audio hardware for getting signals in and out of the iPad – and that hardware will need to be both priced to be accessible and in a format that is going to work beyond the annual cycle of iPad development (that is, Apple are going to have to play ball and not change the iPad connectivity hardware too radically so these 3rd party add-ons become redundant too quickly).

Summary

So much for gazing into my crystal ball – what about now? Is the current iPad and GarageBand combination a capable tool for the serious musician as well as the musical novice looking for occasional entertainment? I think the answer is a qualified, but enthusiastic yes – and, in particular, if you add good quality 3rd party hardware for getting audio in and out of the iPad, then GarageBand is capable of excellent results.

It is interesting to make a comparison with hardware digital multitrack recorders or older generations of tape-based portable multitracks. Seen in that context, the iPad and GarageBand combination is just amazing. Perfect? No – but if you own an iPad anyway, GarageBand is just unbelievable value for money. It is already a very useful song-writing tool for the serious musician and a serious lot of fun for the novice or occasional musician.

GarageBand for iPad – probably, the best £2.99 anyone with a musical bone in their body could spend.

GarageBand - Apple iTunes U.K.
GarageBand - Apple iTunes U.S.A.

 

Update

March 21st, 2013; Apple have released the v.1.4 of Garageband for iPad and the key addition is support for Audiobus. See the full details here.

 

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