How to use virtual instruments in GarageBand

Duncan Evans
28 January, 2013
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In our previous tutorial, we looked at how to put the structure of a song together in GarageBand. But using the default settings on all the instruments means that before too long, all your music will sound the same. Happily, it’s a very simple process to tweak the virtual instruments almost infinitely. You can add reverb, sustain or echo, adjust cut-off and resonance, add an arpeggiator, or even tweak the resolution and filters for a drum machine.

This is your chance to stamp your personality on your music. Do you want your synthesisers to chime like bells or buzz like chainsaws? Do you want your drums to sound like a murderer breaking into a house, or the pitter-patter of raindrops on a forest canopy? Here we walk you through the steps of getting a distinctive, original sound from your virtual instruments, as well as discussing other ways of introducing a bit of variety to your songs.

In the next tutorial we’ll drop the virtual and you’ll learn how to sample the world around you to add real instruments to your music.

Vital Info

Device: iPad

Difficulty: Beginner

Time required: 15 mins

What you need:


iOS 5.1 or later


01 Find a sound you like

Open up a keyboard (not a smart one) and swap the instrument from a piano to a synth by tapping the picture in the middle and selecting from one of the tabs along the top. Play around with the knobs and dials until you discover a sound that suits your track.


02 Master the arpeggiator

If your chosen sound is short and sharp, try the arpeggiator. Tap the button to the right of ‘Scale’, and turn Run on. Hold down a few keys at once and play around with the settings until you come up with something that matches the song you’re trying to compose.


03 Drum Machines

Now let’s try some drums. Swap from a classic kit to a drum machine and record a beat. Then look at the top – the Resolution dial allows you to choose how ‘crunchy’ you want the drums, and the Lo Fi slider lets you make it sound like a chiptune track. High and low cut filters adjust treble and bass.


04 Guitar Hero

Guitars have fewer options than the other virtual instruments, but you can still tweak the sound. The classic clean option comes with chorus and echo, a hard rock guitar has drive and flange stomp boxes, while the roots rock option allows you to add echo or boost treble.


05 A String Thing

The last virtual instrument is a virtual string ensemble comprised of violins, violas, cellos and basses. This doesn’t have too many options, but as well as tapping the bars for stabs in chord mode, you can stroke them for a more subtle effect. In note mode, try hitting the headstock for more options.


06 Reverb and echo

Finally, there are some effects that can be applied universally. Hitting the sliders button in the top right of the screen gives access to reverb and echo effects. A pan slider lets you move audio to the left and right side – great for double-tracking vocals.

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