GarageBand for iOS often gets dismissed as a toy by more experienced musicians. That’s partly because it’s free, and partly because it looks so simple when you first fire it up. And it is dead easy to use — making some great music is simple even for a first timer. But if you take a while to dig in, you might be surprised at just how music power GarageBand for iOS now packs. And the latest 2.3 update adds enough amazing new features that it really could be called 3.0. Lets take a look.
GarageBand is a cut-down version of Apple’s pro-level Logic for the Mac, and shares the underlying engines that power Logic. Both these apps let you record sounds from the real world — guitars and voices, for example, or samples of any other noise — and combine them with music made inside the app. There are synthesizers, pianos, drums, stringed instruments, basses, and more. You can also hook up other music apps on your iPad or iPhone, as if you were using a virtual cable to connect it.
Then, you can edit these sounds into a song, add loops, and finally export your song for anyone to listen to.
GarageBand 2.3 adds a new sound library, kind of like a sound-based App Store for audio and instruments; a new Beat Sequencer (a drum machine); and full iOS 11 support (for Files app, and dragging sounds into the app). Let’s take a look at them.
The little extras
Before we get to the fancy stuff, it’s worth noting some small additions that make a big difference. The big one is 24-bit recording. This allows you to record audio in higher quality than the existing 16 bit, at the expense of larger file sizes.
There are also new instruments — the guzheng, koto and taiko, from China and Japan — and new drummers (the Latin drummer is great), as well as the most I’m portent part of the entire 2.3 update: an iMessage sticker pack.
The name might sound boring, but the new Sound Library is awesome. It lets you add packs of instruments, loops, and presets (for the guitar amps, for example). In the past, new content has had to wait for the more-or-less yearly GarageBand updates. Now they can be added at any time. The new GarageBand comes with eight packs, ranging from the new Chinese and Japanese Traditional packs, a huge set of sounds for the new Beat Sequencer, new Drummers (the virtual drummers that can come up with their parts automatically), and the Tone Collection.
The other advantage of these packs is that you can add and delete them at will, so anything you don’t need will not suck up storage on your iDevice. Some packs, though, like the new Tone Collection, take up almost no space because they are just presets for existing instruments — in this case the guitar amps and effects.
Getting around the Sound Library is just like using the App Store.
iOS 11 support, and drag-and-drop
Previously, iOS GarageBand used a custom file-browsing view like that in Pages and the other iWork apps. And like those, it was terrible: locked-down, frustrating, and limited. Now GarageBand uses the new iOS 11 Files view, and the iOS Finder. You can now browse to any folder on your iPad, or in iCloud, right from inside GarageBand. You can also access all your GarageBand files from the Files app itself, and therefore from other apps. This is super important with audio, because you often move a piece of music between apps to work on it.
You can also just stick to the Files’ recent view to see something akin to the old GarageBand file picker (only better). All Files’ features are supported. You can tag your files, as well as drag-and-drop them into Folders, or to other apps. You can also drag a file from the Files app itself (in Slide Over view), and drop it directly into GarageBand’s timeline.
One other neat trick worth knowing about is the ability to change GarageBand’s default save location. It defaults to iCloud, but it’s easy to change it so that GarageBand will save to your Dropbox, locally to your iPad, or to the local storage areas of any compatible apps on your iPad. For instance, you could have GarageBand save all its files into the AudioShare app.
The new default iCloud location has a few advantages. One is that you can easily work on your creations from your iPhone or iPad without having to explicitly upload each project to iCloud first. And if you have a 2TB iCloud Storage account, then you can keep a ton of projects in iCloud, instead of cluttering the limited storage of your iDevice.
The Beat Sequencer
Like everything in GarageBand, the Beat Sequencer seems simplistic at first look, only to reveal itself as deep, but simple to use. It’s a grid-based drum-pattern creator. You just tap a square to men the drum sound at that point. Each row has a different percussion instrument, and there are a ton of packs you can load in there. There are also several preset patterns, and a random button which can make things a little crazy (perfect for finding a starting point).
But the fine-tuning is where this really shines. You can easily change the velocity of a drum hit by sliding up and down over that hit’s square. You can also slice a beat into smaller beats, to allow for multiple quick hits even in a slow-tempo song. Another great feature is Chance, which lets you set the probability that a beat will be hit. this lends some nice human-like variation into an otherwise uniform pattern.
Try long-pressing on the squares in the various modes to fine-tune the settings. And don’t forget that each row can be set to a different length, so that the whole sequence will morph over time. It really is a first-class beat-making machine.
GarageBand on iOS could be all you need
GarageBand on iPad is a fantastic app, and in v2.3 it has really grown up, mostly thanks to the new Files integration which makes it a lot easier to keep track of your projects, and to import sounds from other apps. Like all of Apple’s consumer-level apps, it can be frustrating at first, because so much of the UI is hidden in order to keep things simple-looking. Even when you get used to the app, this simplification of the UI means that you often have to make too many taps to get simple things done.
But after the initial break-in period, you’ll find that GarageBand is insanely powerful, and very intuitive. And unlike those apps which put everything in front of you at once, GarageBand kind of opens itself up as you need it. Do you want to add effects plugins to your tracks? That’s all there. Do you want to automate the volume level of a track to fade instruments in and out? That’s there too. These features are easy enough to find when you need them, but hidden well enough that they don’t overwhelm the user.
GarageBand is not only a great DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), then, but also a lesson in how to design an insanely complex app to work on a small touch screen. It’s best on a 13-inch iPad Pro, but it also works great on an iPhone.