Notice how the sides of the GarageBand window are simulated wood (click above for a slightly larger image). This is an interesting (or is it ironic?) gesture towards the current vogue for vintage, analog equipment. The White Stripes, for instance, record only on vintage, ’60s-era equipment.
One of the things I really like about this program (and I’m sure there are other programs that work the same way) is how it turns one sensory experience, sound, into another sensory experience, vision. All the parts of a song are laid out in front of you and they scroll from right to left as the song progresses. If the song is short enough or the screen wide enough, you can view the whole song as a static object, like a short text, from start to finish. You’re not forced to listen your way from start to finish in order to get a sense of the whole. It makes understanding the structure of songs much easier.
I need something like this for the rest of my life. When you’re right there in the middle of your life, you’re not sure what’s coming next and you can’t remember all the details of what went before. And it’s hard to pay attention to more than one track at a time. With a real iLife program, that would no longer be a problem. You could step back and say, “Aha, this class needs a bit more reverb, but the other one’s doing fine. I’m going to turn down the volume on this committee assignment for a little while so it doesn’t distract from the research track. Up ahead we can see where the tenure decision is made, so let’s jump ahead and see what’s going on there. Then we’ll come back to this part and make sure everything leads up to where it’s supposed to.”
Well… read on for a more prosaic explanation of GarageBand as it actually works:
As with most of Apple’s iLife software, you don’t even need to read the instructions to start using it. (The advanced features are another story, and I’m not certain this suite of programs is as user-friendly as it could be.) If you click on enough buttons and menus, eventually it starts to make sense. GarageBand mimics a mixing board in a recording studio, and you can add as many tracks as your computer can handle (warning: it’s a real processor hog). So you can create a track for a guitar, one for a bass, one for drums, one for vocals, and one for keyboards. Then you have a choice of using either a “real instrument” or a “software instrument” in each track. You can record each track individually, and soon enough, you have a song with all your instruments playing together.
If you choose “real instrument,” then you just plug directly into the computer and start to play. Although my percussion has been computer generated, the guitar parts in the 3 tracks I’ve posted have come from my Telecaster (tracks one, two, and three). Of course, you can also specify what you want your “real instrument” to sound like when it’s recorded on the computer. So on some tracks I adjusted the settings to make the guitar really crunchy and mean (track 3), and on other tracks, I made a more dreamy kind of sound (track one). I think the software designers tried to emulate common amplifiers and common guitar effects pedals so that if you were already familiar with the settings on non-software equipment, you could make GarageBand work the way you want it to.
Pretty much anything that can be plugged into an amplifier can be plugged into your Apple and recorded using GarageBand. (You’ll need one of these, which costs between $20 and $30.)
But you don’t even need “real instruments,” because the program can emulate just about anything, it seems like. You can use a virtual keyboard on screen to play notes, which is not easy when you’re using a mouse (or worse, a touchpad). Or you can open up an interface that allows you to construct your music note by note. Alternately, you can pick from a large number of “loops,” short sound files of instruments like percussion, bass, drums, piano, and strings that, when repeated in a loop, make up part of your song. You click on a loop, drag it to the place you want it to appear in the song and drop it. If you want it to repeat, you just click on the end of the loop and stretch it out for as many beats as you like. Use these loops exclusively, however, and I think your music would sound pretty canned.
There are lots of other bits and pieces, but I don’t know what they are, yet. This program can clearly do more than what I’ve been using it for. For more info, check out MacJams, an online GarageBand community.