More free keyboard and guitar lessons; expanded set of guitar amp and effects; Flex Time and Groove Matching address poor timing
Very limited external control of amps and effects; Chord Trainer doesn’t always hear correct chord
$69 (as part of iLife '11)
GarageBand, the musical component of iLife, has long been the application of choice for many podcasters and Mac musicians. Regrettably – but unsurprisingly – it’s ignored by the vast majority of iLife users. Unless you’re a podcaster, musician (aspiring or otherwise), or have stumbled upon GarageBand because you heard it could help you create ringtones or edit audio, there’s seemingly little in it for you.
With GarageBand ’09 Apple focused the program on musicians rather than podcasters, attempting to market the program not only as a lightweight digital audio workstation (DAW) but also as a music teaching tool. It did so by incorporating into GarageBand basic guitar and keyboard lessons as well as song-centric lessons from a handful of famous artists. Unfortunately, there was little follow-up on this front. No additional basic lessons appeared and only a smattering of artist lessons were added after the initial release.
GarageBand ’11 takes further steps into the musical world by not only expanding and refining its pedagogical efforts but also adding more amps and effects to its Guitar tracks. It also incorporates two features found in Logic and Logic Express – Flex Time and Groove Matching – to help you adjust the timing and rhythm of the music you record. Other than this, little has changed in GarageBand. Podcasters will find no additional features, and while the interface has been tidied somewhat, today’s GarageBand looks little different from its predecessor.
In fact when you launch the latest version of GarageBand, it looks identical to the previous version. The Project screen for each version is exactly the same, containing the same New Project, Learn to Play, Lesson Store, Magic GarageBand, iPhone Ringtone, and Recent Projects listings. Select New Project and you see the familiar Piano, Electric Guitar, Voice, Loops, Keyboard Collection, Acoustic Instrument, Songwriting, Podcast, and Movie entries in the main part of the screen.
Tim, the engaging instructor from GarageBand ’09, reappears in GarageBand ’11’s lessons. In addition to the eight basic guitar and keyboard lessons that were available with GarageBand ’09, GarageBand ’11 offers four additional free collections – Rock Guitar (five lessons), Blues Guitar (seven lessons), Pop Piano (six lessons), and Classical Piano (four lessons). As with the basic lessons (excluding the first guitar and keyboard lessons, which are bundled with GarageBand), you must download these lessons via GarageBand’s Lesson Store. This can be slow going – it took my Mac an entire day to download all of the lessons over a 4Mbit DSL connection. This isn’t surprising given that the complete collection of free lessons is over 25GB (low quota users beware).
The additional lessons are as good as the basic lessons – clearly presented in a nice interface that shows Tim in widescreen at the top of the window, a keyboard or fretboard below, and a speed slider, play controls, and volume controls along the bottom of the screen. Within this screen you can access the new Glossary feature, which presents common musical concepts linked to pages that offer text and, sometimes, video examples taken from the lessons. The Glossary entries are very basic, including such concepts as articulation, chords, hand position and posture, dynamics, music notation, and scales. If you’re new to playing an instrument, these pages can be helpful. Those with more experience won’t gain much from them.
As with the previous version of GarageBand, this lessons window also provides access to the Mixer and Setup windows, where you respectively adjust the volume of the teacher’s voice, teacher’s instrument, background band, and your instrument, and configure your input and output devices (an audio interface or microphone, for example) as well as choose a notation view. A new View menu lets you quickly select from among these views. When you explore How Did I Play (which I address shortly) you’ll be happy for the full page view. Scrolling notation is an awkward way to read music.
I’m a professional keyboard player so the keyboard lessons didn’t have much to offer me. However, I’ve recently purchased a guitar with the notion that I might actually learn to play it. The GarageBand lessons have been helpful. Their pacing is just about right and the ability to loop just the bits I want to concentrate on has helped me get the hang of chords that tie my fingers into knots. I hope Apple continues to feed us new lessons, as this is a nice way to learn.
New with this version of GarageBand is the How Did I Play feature. In the past you were welcome to play along with the instructor and record your performance. The difference here is that GarageBand ’11 ‘listens’ to what you play through a connected audio interface or microphone and provides feedback on the accuracy of your performance – not only whether you’ve played the right notes, but also if you’ve played them at the right time. Correct notes and chords briefly turn green. Incorrect notes or chords are marked in red and measures that contain mistakes are likewise coloured red. Timing errors cause a measure to turn yellow. A bar at the bottom of the window gives you an overview of your performance, marking good sections in green and those with mistakes in red. A percentage indicator to the left displays an overall score – 68 percent, for example. Click a History button and you see a chart that shows you how you’ve done with every attempt at the piece or lesson.
How Did I Play is a clever feature that works with both keyboard and guitar lessons – and is found in free lessons as well as the artist lessons that you can purchase separately. It should help motivate a lot of people to return to lessons with the idea of bettering their score.
Also helpful is a new Chord Trainer feature found in the Guitar Lessons area of Learn to Play. Here you can run through common major and minor open chords and major and minor barre chords at your own pace. Play a chord correctly and the displayed chord diagram briefly turns green and a check mark appears in its lower right corner. You’re then advanced to the next chord in the sequence. A clock runs in the lower left corner, keeping track of the time it takes you to get through all the chords in the series.
Regrettably, the Chord Trainer occasionally failed to recognise correctly played chords on both electric and acoustic guitars – to the point where I tried playing them with and without a pick and at varying degrees of ferocity in the hope that GarageBand would accept them. Granted, I’m a terrible guitar player and could use the extra practice, but in some of these instances I had the chord right and GarageBand was simply being stubborn.
More for electric guitar players
GarageBand ’11 adds seven modelled guitar amps and five stomp boxes to its previous collection of amps and effects. The additional amps include the Stadium Stack Amp, Brownface Combo Amp, British Blues Combo Amp, Large Tweed Amp, Octane Stack Amp, Studio Combo Amp, and Sunshine Stack Amp. The new stomp boxes are Hi Drive (distortion), Rawk (overdrive), Heavenly Chorus (chorus), Wah (wah wah), and Candy Fuzz (fuzz). As before, you can edit each amp’s controls, mix and match effects, and save custom setups. If you liked the amps and effects in the previous version of GarageBand, you should like these as well.
In my review of GarageBand ’09 I noted, with much regret, that amps, stomp boxes, and setups couldn’t be controlled externally – if you wanted to make any changes, you had to take your hands off the guitar and manipulate your Mac. You can now choose setups and switch effects to be on and off via Apogee’s GiO USB controller. Unfortunately, much as I like the GiO, it’s the only external avenue for doing this. Starving musicians are unlikely to have the US$400 necessary to purchase a GiO. I hope that one day Apple will allow GarageBand to be controlled by other, less expensive external devices.
Tinkering with timing
The expanded lessons and additional amps and effects are enhancements to existing features. What’s new are the Flex Time and Groove Matching features brought over from Apple’s professional music applications, Logic and Logic Express.
Flex Time lets you grab a portion of a digital audio track and drag it forward or back in time as well as lengthen or shorten the selection to change the rhythmic feel. It allows you to do this without forcing you to slice the audio or take complicated steps to compress or expand nearby audio. Just expose a real instrument’s waveform by double-clicking on the real instrument track, click on the waveform where you’d like to impose Flex Time, and drag a handle to move the audio forward or back. Surrounding audio doesn’t move in time but rather compresses to make room. This means that if you have a lot of notes close together and drag Flex Time-selected material into them, they’ll shorten. You can turn Flex Time off for a track where it’s previously been imposed by clicking a Flex Time icon in the waveform’s editor header.
Flex Time isn’t for changing the timing of phrases – you’re better off using cut and paste or quantising the note timing. Rather, it’s for subtly adjusting where specific notes fall. If, for example, a kick drum plays a little before the beat, you can shift it over to fall on the beat. It can also be used to extend material – a song’s last ringing guitar chord, for example. It’s a worthwhile addition and one that’s easy to use.
Groove Matching is a feature for dealing with overall sloppy timing. For instance, you’ve recorded your band and the guitar and keyboard player just aren’t locking to the drums and bass. Simply hover your cursor over the drum part and click the small star that appears in the left margin. This tells GarageBand that the drum track is the Groove track – the one that all other selected parts should look to for their timing. Now click the checkboxes that appears in that same margin of the guitar and keyboard tracks and they fall in line with the drums.
In my tests Groove Matching does a good job with typically off-by-a-bit parts. But it can’t perform miracles. If your keyboard player hits a chord close to the second beat when it should have been played on beat one, that chord will align with the second beat.
Looking to Logic
Musical though GarageBand ’11 is, there remain places where it refuses to go. You’re still allowed to use only a single time signature. If you have a tune that has mixed time signatures – 4/4, 3/4, and 12/8, for example – you’ll either have to find a way to fake it or look to a more flexible application such as Logic Express. Likewise, while you’re perfectly free to change keys all you like when you play, GarageBand won’t reflect those key changes in its scores. And speaking of scores, although you can still view software instrument tracks in musical notation, you have limited editing options and you can’t view a score full-screen.
But these are features for the more advanced musician. GarageBand can be a great musical sketchpad for any musician, but if you’re working on projects with multiple time signatures, key changes, and require full-score viewing, Apple will point you to Logic Express.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice
Were GarageBand ’11 sold separately, this largely evolutionary version might have merited a .5 release rather than a bump to a new version number. But where iLife goes, so goes GarageBand. All the changes that have been made – expanded lessons, How Did I Play, the greater variety of guitar amps and effects, and the addition of Flex Time and Groove Matching – are useful for those who take advantage of them. As both a musician and podcaster, I’ve found GarageBand to be an invaluable tool. And it remains so. If you’re one of the many people who have never bothered with it, perhaps it’s time to dig out that old Casio keyboard or beaten up guitar and give it a try.