GarageBand for iPad and iPhone is packed with innovative features. We get jiggy and explain how to get to grips with it
In 2010 Apple unleashed the iPad onto an excited but slightly bemused world. Yes, it looks very nice, but what’s it for? A year later, GarageBand for iPad arrived, kick-starting an explosion of creative apps that has been flourishing ever since. It was simple to use and its inventive use of the touchscreen interface let it do things that desktop software could never deliver.
Today, GarageBand costs just £2.99 and works on all iOS devices (iPad, iPhone and iPod touch) running iOS 7.0 or later. Devices that use the latest A7 chip can use up to 32 tracks per project, while others get up to 16 tracks. It’s a fairly big download at 611MB, but unless your iOS device has completely run out of room, there’s no excuse not to install it.
Breaking the mouldiphone
Music-production techniques fall into three camps, all of which are included in GarageBand. There’s audio recording, where you plug in a microphone or an electric instrument such as a guitar and capture a live performance. There are samples, which are ready-made audio recordings that are arranged in a collage style to build up your composition. Then there are virtual instruments, the modern day equivalent of the digital synthesizers, where the sounds are generated internally and performed as an instrument.
Back in the early days of digital music production, producers would plug synthesizers together using MIDI cables. A MIDI keyboard would tell the synthesizer which notes to play and the synth would make the sound. These days, music production is usually done inside a single computer, but software such as Cubase and Pro Tools still use virtual MIDI cables to connect all the virtual instruments together. That’s fine for capturing a MIDI keyboard performance, but it’s much less suited to describing how a violin is played, for example.
GarageBand isn’t so hung up on using MIDI. If you load up a virtual piano or analogue synth, it’ll give you a virtual MIDI keyboard to perform on. You can also plug in a USB MIDI keyboard if you have one, via the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit. However, load up a guitar and you’re greeted with a virtual fretboard, while the virtual drum kit looks like a drum kit.
It’s not just about making virtual instruments look fun. These interfaces also affects how they’re played. The snare drum produces a different tone depending on whether you hit it in the centre or towards the side. You can bend strings on the guitar to alter the pitch, or gently wiggle your finger to add some vibrato. This is the kind of expressive control that’s so often missing from digital instruments, and to have them in a £2.99 home-oriented app is nothing short of stunning.
One limitation of a touchscreen compared to a hardware MIDI keyboard is the lack of velocity sensitivity to measure how hard a key has been struck. GarageBand gets around this by using the iOS device’s motion sensors. It’s not as accurate as having pressure sensors under each key, but it does a reasonable job of letting you play louder and quieter notes. However, this won’t work when the device is placed directly on a table, as tapping the screen won’t result in any movement of the device.
GarageBand also caters superbly for a wide range of technical abilities. There’s a sample library for a montage-like approach to composition, and many of the virtual instruments come with built in musical phrases that play in time and in tune automatically. For those who want more control, there’s an option to play individual notes, but keep it within a predefined key so you don’t have to worry about hitting an off-key note. You can also remove all the hand-holding features and be free to make any kind of noise you want.