How to use Music Memos like a cut-down GarageBand

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music memos in action

Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Apple’s Music Memos app is just about about the best way to record musical ideas before they evaporate into the ether. For years, musicians used the built-in Voice Memos app to record snippets, but Music Memos, as you’d expect, is much better suited to the task. It can listen to you and record only when you start playing, it can detect the chords you play, and it can even add drum and bass tracks to your recording automatically.

This last feature is what we’ll look at today. We’re going to record a simple guitar track, add drums and bass, and send the whole lot to GarageBand on iOS for further work. That sounds like a lot, but once you lay down your recorded track, all it takes is a few taps of the screen. And remember, I use a guitar, but you can use any instrument.

For an in-depth look at everything Music Memos can do, take a look at our great review from last year, when the app launched. You can also pick up a few tips on plugging an electric guitar into your iPhone here.

Today we’re going to focus on a few of Music Memos’ core features:

  1. Record a track.
  2. Add drums and bass.
  3. Share the result to GarageBand for further tweaking.

Why start a song in Music Memos instead of GarageBand? First, it’s a lot easier. You can launch Music Memos and be recording in a second, whereas GarageBand forces you to create and arrange a project before getting started, leaving plenty of time for the muse to desert you.

Music Memos also does a few things that GarageBand doesn’t. For instance, Music Memos can analyze your playing, determine the key and the chords, and lay down a bass line. GarageBand can’t do that, but what it can do is edit your Music Memos-created bass line. The apps, then, are designed to work together, and that’s how they shine.

Recording your guitar with Music Memos

This is the easy part, requiring nothing more than a single tap (plus years of painful hard work to learn your instrument). Just launch the app and tap the big blue button. Music Memos is optimized to be ready to record immediately, so you really don’t need to wait for anything.

Music Memos makes it easy to add an accompaniment to your 'musical' din.
Music Memos makes it easy to add an accompaniment to your “musical” din.
Photo: Cult of Mac

However, one trick helps with cleaner recordings: Tap Auto in the top left of the screen, and wait a few seconds. Now, whenever you start playing, the app will start recording immediately, stopping when you do. You can use this trick to grab multiple takes, with each one saved as a new recording. Music Memos manages this by constantly recording after you tap the Auto button, keeping a buffer of the last few seconds so it never misses the start of your awesome song.

I’m going to go ahead and record a snippet. I’ve tuned the guitar to open G to try to confuse the app. Let’s see what happens.

Auto-record lets you grab take after take, hands-free.
Auto-record lets you grab take after take, hands-free.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Of course, it all worked fine. The only thing that went wrong was my guitar playing. Now, I rename the track, add some stars to rate it (usually I give a track three stars if I plan to work on it in future, but this one was easily a five-star recording). Next, we take a look at the built-in drummer and bass player.

Drum and bass

Music Memos uses GarageBand’s Drummer, a virtual drummer that can match the tempo of your recorded track and kind of improvise a drum part around it. In GarageBand, Drummer is an amazing way to get a song started, or just to create a beat to jam along to. The Music Memos version is cut down to the essentials, but when we move to GarageBand later, you get the full lineup of features back.

If you want to dig in, there are a ton of options here.
If you want to dig in, you’ll find a ton of options here.
Photo: Cult of Mac

To toggle the drums and bass, you just tap their icons. To edit them, long press one of the icons and you get the controller above right. This lets you fine-tune the volume and complexity of the accompaniment, as well as picking modern or vintage drum kits, and electric or upright basses. To enter the advanced drum editing mode, you just tap the song waveform. Here you can change the detected chords, trim the song itself, choose a time signature (3/4, 4/4 or 6/8), and pick the tempo of the drums, setting them to half or double speed. You can also move the position of the first downbeat if the app didn’t do a good job of detecting it.

You’ll also find also options to add notes on tunings, whether you used a capo, and to add tags.

That might be enough. You come out with a short demo, or a great jam track, or a sketch for future work. And Music Memos can surprise you sometimes, too. I’ve played riffs into it and the app added some unexpected drum and bass parts, which inspired me to record whole songs. In this way, Music Memos acts like a real musician, riffing off your performance to inspire new creative directions.

But it doesn’t end there: Next we move Music Memos tracks to GarageBand.

Into GarageBand

You can export your creation to any compatible app, send it via email, save to Dropbox, and so on. But if you send the project to GarageBand it arrives still split into three tracks, all of which can be edited. We’ll assume that your guitar part is perfect, and take a quick look at what can be done with Drummer and your Music Memos bass track.

You can pick different bass sounds, as well as editing all the notes.
In GarageBand, you can pick different bass sounds, as well as editing all the notes.
Photo: Cult of Mac

While Music Memos offers just two sound options each for bass and drums, GarageBand opens things up. You can choose synth basses, various electric basses, as well as the upright bass. You can also switch drummers, picking anything from heavy rock to electronic dance, all while still following along with your guitar part.

You can also tweak the actual tracks. Using Drummer, you can tap different drums on a virtual kit to toggle them on and off, as well as tweaking complexity, volume and the number of fills. It’s all standard GarageBand Drummer stuff, only it’s applied to your custom drum track instead of one of the built-in ones.

GarageBand's Drummer is like having a real drummer, only it doesn't try to steal your girlf/boyriend.
GarageBand’s Drummer is like having a real drummer, only it doesn’t try to steal your girl/boyfriend.
Photo: Cult of Mac

The bass is equally malleable. It’s a MIDI file, which is like a computer version of the punched paper roll from an old player piano. You can move any of the notes to fine-tune the bass line, although in my experience Music Memos usually comes up with pretty solid bass parts.

Like a band in your pocket

That’s it for this tutorial. You can now go on and create your masterpiece in GarageBand. I usually re-record my original part to better fit the rest of the “band,” and maybe use a better mic to do it. At the very least, you now have a solid demo that you can build on, or — if you’re in a band — show to your fellow musicians instead of just humming their parts to them badly. And you can do all of this with free apps on your iPhone.