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GarageBand iOS, Portable Composing on the iPad

by Matthew F. Hibben


The iPad and other touch based computing devices are changing the way people currently access and view media. The touch based UI has even seen its first significant cross over into the desktop computing market with Microsoft's preview of Windows 8.  Touch based technology lends itself to a myriad of possibilities when it comes to software interface, and this Product Review article explores how the touch based UI performs when merged with musical composing in Apple's GarageBand  for iOS.

GarageBand at First Glance

GarageBand at its core is a Multi-track sequencer and sound generation tool that is completely governed by the touch interface.  Beyond the nice variety of sound banks or "Instrument kits", of which there are approximately 100, is the ability to customize any sound further with synthesis modeling.  The range of instruments and their subsequent variations gives the user a wide palette to work with. The strongest point of GarageBand out of the box is that it really is for everyone. From novices to veterans alike, GarageBand provides a great blend of intuitiveness and control, giving people a great platform to explore sonic arrangements.

GarageBand Specs

GarageBand at the composing level is an eight track sequencer that can chain various melodies into more complex arrangements. In GarageBand strings of measures often called loops, can be copied in their entirety or as parts into other tracks or other measures.  Sequences are shown in simplified notation, which are in a format akin to step notation found in other sequence type programs.

The sequence notation is limited in the fact that it does not allow editing at the step level.  Users can edit tracks by deleting parts, copying parts, or by layering recordings, or simply by using undo and rerecording their track.  These recordings are done in real time and are tapped in using the touch surface.  Each track can have quantization that is unique to the track recording.

GarageBand at the sound creation level is very impressive.  As stated earlier there are approximately 100 sounds internally to choose from.  The sound banks within GarageBand are sectioned into four basic groups, Keyboards, Drums, Guitars, and Bass.  Keyboards are the largest array of instruments to choose from with pianos and classic synthesizers galore.

Each track and the instrument associated with it is further adjustable with volume controls and effects processors.  It is important to point out that synthesis changes and volume/effect changes are global for the track and not to the melody/measure.

So changes made later on to a track will impact the entirety of the track whether the track contains 1 measure or 40.  To make volume changes or sound modeling changes to the same instrument while retaining the notation played requires creating duplicate tracks of the same notation and base sound, assuming the user has tracks not in use.

In addition to the basics of sound creation and sequencing states, there are a number of features in GarageBand that beginners will find useful. For users just starting out with sound creation and melody construction the Auto play feature is very handy.  Auto play is available for each type of instrument and gives beginners a general idea of how some instruments, like a guitar for example, would sound. These Auto play notations are recorded via the sequencer and can be further edited using copy, paste, and split features.

About the Guitar and Bass UI

Special attention should be given to how notation is input with the string based instruments in GarageBand.  The input for Guitar and Bass notation is actually based upon a virtual guitar fret board.  Notes are generated by strumming the virtual guitar and are modulated in the same way they would be with a real guitar. 

This is unique to GarageBand in terms of guitar modeling and playback, and much more fun than simply using a guitar bank and playing notation via a keyboard controller.  The UI for guitar and base modeling certainly isn't perfect, but gives users a nice off the cuff mode in which to create believable guitar arrangements.

More Features

In addition to the previously stated instrument features, GarageBand also includes a sampler.  The sampler input is actually right on iPad itself, and although fairly stripped down in terms of functionality is still pretty impressive.  Samples once recorded can be modified in basic ways, such as reversing the recording, speeding up or slowing down, as well as modifying the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) waveform.  It is important to note that only one sample can be played using the sampler instrument, and multiple samples would require multiple tracks.

Another understated gem in GarageBand is the arpeggiator.  The power of this feature available while using any of the keyboard banks comes from its simplicity. The UI to set arpeggiation is very simple yet very powerful versus other programs.  Arpeggiation can be quickly set with values affecting note order, note rate, and octave range.  Now these are pretty much standard issue in most keyboards and sound creation programs but the strength in GarageBand's version is the ease of set up. 

GarageBand's Limitations

To be fair GarageBand does have it share of shortcomings in addition to triumphs.  The sequencer comes to mind as both a great strength and weakness.

I found myself running out of track slots rather quickly, which could easily be remedied (at least in part) by the addition of recording volume changes and effects changes across the course of a song.  The lack of step editing and recording was also a big flag for me as well, and also something I feel could be added to the iPad version fairly painlessly. The lack of any sort of sequenced volume control including amplitude and panning is the largest hurdle for anyone wishing to attempt fully contained song creation.

Another shortcoming related to sequencing and playback is exporting from GarageBand.  Users can only export notation  if they have GarageBand for Mac. Exportation from GarageBand is limited to wave files for PC users or users that plan on exporting to programs like Sonic, FL, or Reason.    It is possible to simply export out track by track audio files and resample them, but then you are at the mercy of the iPad's sound quality and the labor of recombining and remastering in a program like Reason.

The Final Verdict

These issues point to the larger question "So I've written something cool, but now what?" The best answer is think of GarageBand for the iPad as a sketchbook.  When an artist uses a sketchbook, he or she then redraws ideas from the sketchbook into a more realized format later on.    So basically users of GarageBand who create something with promise will need to reprogram their ideas later on, unless they are also using Garageband for Mac.

GarageBand for iPad is impressive and well worth the 5 dollars US. for anyone looking to produce music from the novice to the expert.  The portability and immediacy coupled with a good amount of functionality , topped off by a great price, makes this a no brainer.  I've been around music hardware for going on two decades now, and if asked 10 years ago if a device this functional and compact could exist, I would have thought the idea too far fetched.  A room full of hardware in your lap, and expect future generations of GarageBand iOS to deliver even more.

Garage Band for iOS Video Review

  • 1.
    At First Glance
  • 2.
  • 3.
    Input UI
  • 4.
    More Features
  • 5.
    Final Verdict
  • 6.
    Video Review
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