Thursday, August 11, 2011

IPad App Review: Garageband

What is it?

GarageBand for the iPad and iPad 2 is an iOS version of its popular music creation software as previously released for the Mac.  This multi-instrumental, do-everything piece of kit is a seemingly perfect fit for Apples touch-screen babies.  Music creation apps from the App Store tend to be targetted at niche areas.  For example, there are masses of drum machines, analog keyboard emulators, beat box emulators, loop-handling software and all the rest.  The problem is they are all disparate, follow no unifying theme and no one app seems to 'do-it-all'.  GarageBand attempts to bring together a suite of tools that covers all of these bases.  Is this the killer music creation app I've been desiring all my life?

The Short Version

It has guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums and vocals that can all be played and/or recorded.  You can stick to the presets or make your own.  It's tremendously, incredibly good.

The Long Version, i.e What can it do?

It's an all-in-one musical creation studio without the ego's and tantrums of other band members.  There are guitars, bass guitars, keyboards, drums and vocal elements to play with and these can all be combined into a song.  There are 'Smart' instruments that take out the need for a lot of musical knowledge.  It has a multitude of different instruments, song arrangement editors, sound editors and more.

Guitar and Bass

With a nicely-drawn representation of a guitar fret-board, notes can be strummed, singularly or all at once.  Like all the other instruments, flicking a switch to Chord mode re-arranges the strings to represent popular chord arrangements.  All 6 strings (or 4 for the bass) can be strummed with one finger tap or plucking the strings like a real guitar (except without 'proper', 'real' strings obviously).  It's extremely responsive and as a guitar-player myself, very lifelike.  The strings can even be bent like a normal guitar.  There are four guitars to choose from; Acoustic, clean electric, rock and classic electric and there are four bass guitars; Liverpool (think, The Beatles), muted, picked and double-bass.


The keyboard can be played as a traditional piano or by using the Smart Keys function, entering chords and melodies based around a pad-like arrangement.  Pressing a pad for a particular key (as in musical key), will produce a nice little melody.  All the other 'Smart' instruments can then follow the same key to produce a tune.  Of course, the problem with all these pre-set melodies is that your composition will sound pretty similar to anyone else who's used the same melody.  There are only 4 different presets too but these do change according to which of the different keyboards are being played.

There is a wide variety of keyboards to play and a neat 'Arpeggiator' option allowing some very funky electro back-beat melodies to be created on the fly.


The drums are good fun to play with and there are several kits to choose from, even a couple of old-fashioned pad-driven drum machines.  The Smart Drums utility lives up to its title and displays a grid where elements of a drum kit can be dragged to play different parts of a loop.  When playing live, a loop can be built up by playing say, the bass drum first, then adding in a snare, then a hi hat and so on.  You don't have to be a drumming savant to create some decent, complex rhythms.  On the downside, a lack of a step-time sequencer means those slightly out of time beats can't be corrected to produce a tighter sound.

Voice Recording

The iPad has a microphone?  I didn't know that.  Oh look, here it is.  _"Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3"_.  Yup, that works, look at the little VU meter going haywire.  You want me to sing?  Give over soft lad, there's more chance of me giving up bacon butties.  Hang on, there's a button here to make my voice sound like a chipmunk.  Ooh, ooh, let me try, let me try, "Sans sans blue, a rat-at-at-at-ah".  Thankyouverymuch.

One problem I did find was the ability to isolate a voice when recording.  I admit, trying to record a vocal while Playhouse Disney was on the telly, kids screaming and the wife telling me to stop playing and do some work was probably not a good idea.  Saying that, to record a vocal while the music is playing means to output the sound through the headphones as otherwise it will get picked up in the recording, leading to some weird, altered reality state where the world turns in on itself.  A bit like typing 'Google' into Google.

Guitar Recording

I can't comment on this feature as I'm still trying to work out the sheer physicalities of plugging my guitar into the iPad.  It's a bit like a Yorkshire Terrier being humped by a Rhino.  They're both horny but it just isn't going to happen.  Maybe there's an add-on I need to buy to allow me to do this, similar to the iRig?  Sheesh, at £2.99, you'd expect a lot more.  Which is a shame as there is an absolute 'stack' (ho ho - one for the guitar geeks) of different amps and foot-stomps to play with.  Buy me the correct equipment and I'll be more than happy to update the review.

The Arrangement Tool

Once a loop of an instrument has been recorded, a tap of the appropriate button brings up the arrangement screen where the different parts of the songs are brought together.  There are eight tracks to play with meaning eight instruments can be played at once.  Rather neatly, one track is not restricted to one instrument and by dragging other loop 'blocks' onto the tracks, many more instruments and sounds can be utilized.  All the usual editing features are present and correct: copying, deleting, etc.  You can even split loops in half.

Very neatly and making excellent use of the iPads screen estate, there is a track volume panel that slides out from the left.  It took me ages to find but as is standard in software of this nature, each track can have its own volume level.

Also from here, loops can be imported onto one of the tracks.  Apple have seen fit to include a few hundred very well produced loops.  Expect more in the extra 'Jam-packs' that will undoubtedly be released in the following months.


Change the key, BPM, metronome, track volumes, that kind of thing.  They're settings, what do you expect? 


A key element of any music creation package is the ability to export.  Here, songs can be exported to MP3 and the song files can be used in GarageBand for the Mac.  I am reliably informed this is the case but as I don't have a Mac to test, I can't say one way or the other.  Again, buy me one and I'll gladly update the review with my findings.  While you're at it, my wife's car needs a new head gasket so can I have one of those as well?


Testing on the first generation iPad, GarageBand zipped along very nicely.  The instruments are responsive and playing along in real time was a real joy.  It's quite slow to move from an instrument to the song arrangement window and I guess on the iPad 2 this would be much faster.  Saving songs was quite slow, taking about 5 seconds for even a very short one.  Overall performance was good though.

Bad Bits

  • No step-time sequencer meaning songs can't be polished to a fine degree.
  • Fiddly arrangement window.
  • Can't bring up the arrangement window until a loop has been recorded.
  • My guitar fits where?  Ooh, my eyes are watering.
  • Pre-set melodies sound like everyone else with GarageBand.


So, is it the 'killer' music app I have been looking for?  I would say, yes it is, just.  Every single part has been thought about in great detail and through the magic of computing, Apple have re-imagined how traditional instruments are played in a way that couldn't be possible with their real-life counterparts.  That's not to say the guitar, piano and drums are going to become obsolete in the near future because they're not but rather, it's a *different* way of playing them.  It's an important point to make and something Apple also realise with the recording features.  I just need to work out how to fit a Rhino into a Yorkshire Terrier and I'll be away.

The biggest downside for me is the lack of a step-time sequencer.  I can hold my own on a guitar but I'm rubbish at playing the piano.  Some method of being able to edit the individual notes would be a massive boon.  Apple missed a trick here.  The rest of the bad bits are incredibly minor but I included them for the sake of fairness.  I'm good like that.

At the time of writing (March 2011), the price was £2.99.  That's two *pounds* and ninety nine pence.  That's so cheap, it's untrue.  I have paid more than that for apps just representing one small part of what GarageBand offers and yet, there is so much more.  It's perfect for musical 'doodling' yet is powerful enough to create whole songs.  All without the hassle of having to put up with some smelly band mates who'd you only have to fire later anyway.

Price: £2.99
369mb download
Rated 4+

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