With my geeky ‘Apple fan’ hat on, I sat and watched the live stream of the keynote launch event yesterday (October 22nd , 2013) mainly to get details of the new iPad (iPad 5th gen. or iPad Air as we now find out it has been named) and to see just how scary the pricing of the new Mac Pro was going to be (answer; very scary but the spec. does look pretty awesome if you can justify needing it).
One rather nice surprise during the event was the updates announced for all the iWorks and iLife software for both OSX and for iOS. This includes Garageband and, as of yesterday, if you buy a new iOS device or Mac, Garageband – as well all the other iWorks and iLife software – Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie and iPhoto – will be included for free. O.K., saving UK£2.99 on the cost of Garageband for iPad is not going to instantly turn a new iPad Air into ‘bargain’ territory, but it is a nice touch…. well, sort of…. but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
While I haven’t had much time to explore the new version of Garageband of iPad as yet, the two headline new features are obvious; an expanded track count and support for the new inter app audio protocol built into iOS7. These are both very welcome additions.
No bouncing required
The eight track limitation for Garageband under iOS has generally been explained as Apple trying to ensure that the app remained responsive and avoided placing too great a demand on earlier (less powerful) iOS hardware. While many users – even non-musicians – perhaps dabble with Garageband out of curiosity (it is, after all, simply fun to use), the app is a perfectly respectable audio+MIDI recording environment. And as such, for more serious users, the eight-track limit has been a source of frustration.
Thankfully, that has now been lifted to 16 tracks for existing iOS hardware and, if you buy one of the newer iOS devices featuring 64-bit processing, you can go up to 32 tracks. This is excellent news and, in the context of the current state of iOS as a recording platform, ought to be enough to satisfy most users.
Inter app audio
The IAA support is also likely to please more serious Garageband users. However, the way Apple have implemented IAA is quite interesting and, it has to be said, not without its limitations. Essentially, when creating a new track, users are now offered the ability to base that track on an IAA compatible sound source. If your IAA app is a synth or drum module, then this makes perfect sense and works fine (I tested it with Arturia’s excellent new iSEM synth and it worked well). If it’s an effect app like a guitar amp sim, then it also makes sense and is likely to fit the most common forms of recording workflow.
Where the implementation doesn’t really cut it is for other types of effects – a reverb or delay for example. Yes, you can record through these apps capturing your processed audio onto a Garageband track, but this doesn’t allow you to use effects in their most flexible forms; as insert or send-return effects where you can add a dose of effects processing after the recording has been made, setting the effect level during the mix stage. The main problem here, in short, is that Garageband for iPad still needs a proper mixing environment.
Going free…. or not
As I mentioned earlier, the other surprising part of the iLife/iWorks announcement was that all the apps are now going to be ‘free’ with new iOS devices. Existing owners can also download the new versions without charge. For Garageband there is, however, a catch to this rather nice marketing sound bite; if you are getting Garageband for iPad for the first time, you now have to buy an in app purchase to get the best of the virtual instruments that, in the previous (paid) version of the app, were already included.
In essence, while the app has obviously been upgraded (more tracks, IAA support), in another sense, it has also been downgraded (the best of the ‘smart’ instruments have been removed)… until you buy the UK£2.99 (what a coincidence) IAP to unlock all the instruments.
It’s worth noting that if you already own Garageband and download the free update to the new version, you don’t have to fork out for the IAP. Be aware, however, that when you first try to load an existing project into the new version, you may well get a message telling you that it can’t be loaded because you don’t have access to some of the virtual instruments used and encouraging you to buy the IAP. Thankfully, if you follow the prompts, you eventually get to an option to ‘restore previous purchases’ that, for me at least, returned all the virtual instruments to full working order.
I don’t want this to come across particularly as a criticism of Apple; it’s not. It’s entirely up to them to make their business and marketing decisions and entirely up to us (as customers) how we choose to respond. And whatever way you look at it, the new version of Garageband for iPad is a significant improvement over the previous version once you have access to the full range of the virtual instruments.
At UK£2.99, it is still an unbelievable bargain. And if you just want to use Garageband to record other IAA-compatible apps, then you don’t need to spend the UK£2.99 on the IAP; the choice is now yours. It just felt a bit disingenuous in the keynote to announce that the app was now going to be ‘free’ without also mentioning that some of the best features – the smart instruments – were not part of that ‘free’ model.
This is a significant upgrade to Garageband on the iPad. With more tracks you can construct more sophisticated recording projects and, as a new user, as long as you are happy to pay for the IAP, you still have access to an excellent range of virtual instruments in a very easy-to-use format. The IAA support is welcome and Garageband still works fine with Audiobus if you need to work with apps that, at present, don’t have IAA support.
So, a day after the first major upgrade in a while (!), what might still be on the wishlist for the next upgrade? As I indicated earlier, personally, I think Garageband for iPad needs a proper virtual mixing environment. Indeed, I think I could express that as ‘deserves’ a proper mixing environment. In so many respects this is a brilliant app. It makes a great starting point for those just discovering what music and recording technology is all about and the creative fun that can be had. But, if after taking those first steps with Garageband on the iPad you want to take your recording passion further, within iOS at least, you need to turn to another app like Auria or Cubasis. Without that virtual mixer, Apple are missing out on retaining customers within the ‘Garageband iOS to Garageband OSX to Logic OSX’ pathway.
I suspect addressing this particular shortcoming requires a more fundamental reworking of Garageband for iPad than Apple really feel able to justify (currently at least). It requires building a proper mixing environment as you might see in more ‘professional’ DAWs. Perhaps they see this as adding too much complexity to the app when their target user is those just starting out with music-making rather than the already experienced musician.
Let’s hope they do consider it though…. And I’d consider it a shame and a missed opportunity if they don’t. Garageband is already a capable and engaging music creation environment; one more substantive upgrade could make it a serious proposition for dedicated iOS recording fans.