Update Takes iPad GarageBand From Bread and Butter To Jam [Review]


The instruments browser offers a range of keyboards, guitars, basses, amps and effects, and a sampler.

The recently-updated version of GarageBand — Apple’s popular music-making app for the iPad — finally turns it into a serious tool for bands rather than something limited to solo artists and their session collaborators. With a shared connection, up to four band members can play or jam to a piece of music, be it a pop song or a classical overture. For the first time, it brings live performance to the iPad app.

To accompany the new iPad this month, Apple updated GarageBand (Version 1.2) with some great new features to supplement the wealth of music-making and recording functions that were already offered in previous versions of the app. The 1.2-GByte update is available for a paltry $4.99 on the Apple App Store (or a free upgrade to current users).

Bigger and better

The possibilities of this app are huge. GarageBand is so big, it is almost impossible to review it succinctly. I mean, take the app’s keyboards, for instance. GarageBand has a range of virtual instruments, including many keyboards. Not only pianos, organs and synths, but loads of different varieties of these, and each of them has the full range of sounds and effects of the real thing. And then there are guitars, basses, amps, and effects pedals. And drums. And a sampler. The app contains a multitude of fine instruments, faithfully reproduced.

And now there are even more.

How it works

Tapping on the app icon opens the Instruments Browser, with a range of musical instruments including a choice of virtual (playable on-screen) keyboards and drums in addition to a selection of Smart Instruments such as Smart Drums, Smart Keyboard, Smart Guitar, Smart Bass, and Smart Strings — this latter being a new introduction to the latest version of the app. Also in the browser are icons for Guitar Amp into which you can plug your guitar, Audio Recorder for inputting a microphone, and a sampler that allows you to record, manipulate and playback sounds at different pitches on a keyboard.

I’m going to sound really greedy here, considering the sheer amount of musical instruments offered by this app — but I did notice the lack of brass instruments. I would exchange some of the strings and percussion for sax and trombone — or a Smart Brass Section.

Selecting one of the instrument icons opens an interface for that instrument. A useful tip for beginners new to the app is to tap on the question mark help button on the top right-hand corner — this opens flags on the screen that explain how each function works. Nice and simple. Opening the instrument interface also readies the app to play / record a new song by default.

Instrument interface for Smart piano -- with helpful flags.

Along the top of each instrument interface is the control bar featuring play, record, and go-back-to-the-beginning buttons as well as a settings menu for the song. Users can alternatively select and open a previous song-in-progress from the songs library using the control bar. This constant of having the control bar at the top is a useful navigator for the app as a whole.

Logically for composers, the GarageBand app is based on first selecting for a new song its tempo, time signature (4/4, 3/4 or 6/8), and musical key (ie, A–G# major / minor). Songwriting and recording in GB is also structured to working in sections (eg, intro, verse, chorus, solo, chorus, verse, coda, etc).

First, the song’s tempo is defined using the metronome (ie, click track). The easiest way to choose the tempo is to imagine the song in your head and tap along to it on the metronome — the automated counter will calculate the tempo in beats per minute. One limitation is that only one tempo can be selected to last the entire song — the song cannot change tempo midway. Although you can change the song’s overall tempo, that is, make it faster or slower for its entirety, you cannot speed up or slow down different parts of the song, or vary their time signatures. This is not a problem for most Western music though (classical, pop, rock, country, R&B etc).

The default key for a new song is set to C major, with an option to change key from the drop-down settings menu. Having to select the song’s key means that users will either have to know, or not care, about their song’s key. Between these two groups are those who don’t know, but would like to know, the optimum key for their song — this especially when it comes to adding vox to recordings. You don’t want to put down a backing track that is out of the singer’s vocal range. The way out of this obstacle is to experiment with different musical keys while singing along, so as to find the right key.

Good Looking and Smart

As mentioned above, while some instruments on GB such as keyboard and drums come in regular (virtual) versions which you yourself have to be able to play as you would the real thing, other instruments (guitar, bass, strings) are Smart versions, which will do most of the hard part of mastering for you. The regular-type keyboard, for instance, is a keyboard on the screen. This is touch-sensitive, utilizing the iOS accelerometers for velocity of attack. Smart instruments, on the other hand, offer selections of chords / arpeggios / scales already in the preordained key of the song, so that playing anything on them sounds in tune. This is good instruction for budding songwriters: all the masters of songcraft put their melodies to the same few simple chords, roughly speaking.

You can also use your own real electric instruments with GB — your guitar, for example, will need an adaptor for a jack plug to the iPad’s headphone jack. The Alesis iO Dock is probably the fanciest one on the market, or the Tascam iXZ microphone and guitar interface is an inexpensive minimal solution.

Guitars, bass and strings on GB are Smart versions only. Because of this lack of reality, at first, I thought that I would really, really hate this app. But I love it! Switched to chords mode, the hard rock guitar has a great tone, like a really expensive guitar played through a good amp with overdrive or a decent effects pedal. And on single-note mode, it’s enthralling to play around with — by tapping on the guitar fingerboard, trills, shreds, and noodles are all made easy and sound like a pro. It helps if you know the blues scale, for instance, and with an index finger you can play neat solos with note bending, sliding, and vibrato.

One gripe here though for the left-handed. Although there is probably no point in hoping for musical instrument manufacturers to cater for lefties, there is no excuse for GB to ignore these individuals as well. Er, don’t forget that the most awed lead guitarist of all time and probably the most influential rock bass player were both lefties! (Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney) So why the general lack of lefty instruments? As a leftie, I find GB’s virtual drums especially hard to play right-handed. On this app, it would have been easy to give lefties the option to invert all the instruments.

Fingerboard for cello -- slide notes, add vibrato, bow and pizzicato for your own masterclass.
Bash the virtual drums as though sitting at the kit... as long as you play right-handed, that is.

Apart from regular instruments, GB can also add loops to your songs. Loops are little pre-recorded musical snippets such as drum beats and bass lines that you can insert into songs repetitively or at random. There are loads of these in the app’s Loops Browser. You can also import your own audio files for insertion into your song.

To record your vox you need a mic, either with a USB jack or you’ll need an adaptor to input analog signals… the same input used for an electric guitar will suffice.

The GB 8-track recorder operates as follows. With any instrument opened, press record on the top of the screen and the click track will start ticking. Record the first section of the song. Once recorded, what you’ve put down will play back; you can then keep it or re-record as appropriate. In this way, each instrument can be recorded one at a time to build your song. As you go along, you can view your song in the timeline, which facilitates editing the song with a professional range of cut, copy and paste options. These are more-or-less intuitive and need just a little bit of playing around with to familiarize yourself with it.

Unlike the higher-spec OS X version of GB available for the desktop, the iOS version does not have Flex Time and Groove Matching, but the new iPad app does have quantization to improve your timekeeping if needs be. This is really useful I find, particularly if you only occasionally go out of time and don’t want to keep having to record take after take.

The timeline shows all the instruments employed on your song, for easy mixing and editing.

Ready to Jam

OK, now for the new features offered in the latest update of GB. Previously, if you wanted to collaborate with other iPad musicians, you would typically have to share the song by e-mailing them the song file.

With the new version of GB, however, now you can jam along with others on a shared Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection. Let’s say you are the band leader. You open the app’s Jam Session controls and tap Create Session. This allows other band members to tap on their iPad to Join Session. Now everyone has the same new song on their device, with the same tempo, key, and time signature to allow synchronized playback and recording. The bandleader collects all the recorded instruments on his or her device. The collected recordings then can be manipulated as required and finalized using the above mixing / editing controls.

Alternatively, all band members can control the song by turning off bandleader control.

Up to four band members can play together in tune and in time

The other main new feature of the new GB is Smart Strings. Opening Smart Strings reveals a string quintet featuring a double bass as default; any one or more of these instruments can be switched off or on as desired. Depending on which instruments are selected, they combine to play chords for the basic structure of your musical piece. There is a selection of pre-recorded rhythm patterns or you yourself can play / record your basic chord structure.

By switching to individual-notes mode, each of the instruments (violins, viola, cello, double bass) can be used as a Smart Instrument as described above, with its virtual strings displayed on the screen. This is incidentally good ear-training for the relatively tone deaf, since musical notes on stringed instruments have to be held at precisely the right place on the fingerboard, otherwise they sound cacophonic. For those who don’t have a clue how to do this or the patience to experiment with finding the notes, the screen can be switched to Scale button mode to reveal note bars at the right positions.

The Smart Strings are an extremely welcome way to make orchestral arrangements. Not only do the strings, beautifully sampled, sound incredible, but also they can be played with touch and finesse on a virtual fingerboard instead of the hitherto necessity of a keyboard for strings — ugh.


The new features of the latest GB version 1.2 for the new iPad, then, are Jam Sessions functionality which allows up to four people to get together and play live in a rock / pop band setting, and Smart Strings for composing classical pieces using an ensemble of stringed-instruments to play clusters of chords simultaneously. At first glance these latest two features might seem quite different, but actually they both have something in common: they transform GB from formerly a toy you play with on your own to an interactive device for use with others. You can now really be in a band, be it playing guitars with mates in the garage or violins with chamber musicians in a concert hall.

GarageBand goes interactive: now you can jam along with fellow musicians for the full live band experience.

Pros: Loads of great-sounding instruments, wide range of recording tools, real-time play-along.

Cons: No brass sounds, no tempo changes, no lefties.

[xrr rating = 90%]