Garageband on the iPad Makes Amateur Musicians into Artists

Can you be a composer without being a musician? Thanks to the latest generation of music authoring software, the answer is yes.

Take me, for example. I played the trombone in high school, and I can still read music (bass clef anyway), but I would be very hard pressed to strum a guitar chord, keep the beat on a drum set, or sing on key through a whole song. Compared to friends like Greg Huang, who’s a bassist for the Boston band Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives, or Graham Ramsay, who’s been writing fine instrumental and choral works since he was a teenager, I would never presume to call myself a musician. But none of that has stopped me from using the new iPad version of Garageband, Apple’s $4.99 music authoring program, to assemble a few bars of material.

I want to talk today about Garageband and why I think it’s so important, but first I invite you to give my pieces a quick listen. It’s a stretch it to call them “songs”—let’s go with “ditties.” The first one was conceived as a lighthearted soundtrack for a dogs-at-the-beach video.

The second, somewhat darker ditty doesn’t have a video to go with it—just click the play button below to listen. If you’re a fan of the Fox TV sci-fi series Fringe, it may help you to know that I put together this piece after watching the season finale, and that I was thinking about Peter and Olivia—the star-crossed lovers pulled apart by an interdimensional war.

Peter’s Song – Wade Roush

I want to underscore again that I have no pretensions whatsoever to being a real songwriter. I hesitated about sharing these pieces at all, given their obvious amateurishness. But I wanted to give you a sense of what a rank beginner can do in a very short amount of time with Garageband. I put about two hours into each of these compositions.

For a taste of what a serious musician can do in the same amount of time, listen to this next piece, written and performed by Robby Grossman. In addition to being a singer/songwriter/guitarist, Robby is a software engineer at Cambridge, MA-based social media tools marketplace Oneforty. He gave me permission to republish the piece here. He calls it “Garage Band Jam.”

Garage Band Jam – Robby Grossman

In a March blog post, Robby explained that he wrote this piece for the same reason I wrote mine—to give Garageband a try. You’ll notice that he’s using a lot more instruments, including several real ones. (There are two electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, and two vocal tracks, all recorded using the iPad’s internal microphone, as well as a virtual bass and a virtual drumkit.) By contrast, all of the instruments on my songs were virtual.

It would have been hard for a non-professional to do any of this, let alone in a couple of hours, before Garageband came to the iPad. The amazing thing about the program is that it’s both a multipurpose music synthesizer with a huge range of keyboard, guitar, and percussion options, and a full recording studio and mixing board. This was also true of the Mac version of Garageband, which has long been part of Apple’s iLife package of home media software; the difference is that the iPad version is touch-driven. You don’t have to plug in a keyboard accessory to lay down a virtual keyboard track—you just play right on the screen (with a virtual metronome in the background, if you want).

Synthesized instruments are nothing new, of course—touch-sensitive drum machines have been around for years, and there are hundreds of digital-music apps available for iOS devices. But with Garageband, as Robby writes, “Apple has proven that the whole of the iPad is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s worth quoting from his post at length:

It isn’t that the Garageband keyboard has better sensitivity and sound than Pianist (though it does), or that the virtual guitar is easier to use than Air Guitar (though it is), or that the beat sequencers are easier to use than Korg’s iElectribe (though they are), or that the drums sound better than those of JamPad (though they do), or that the recording interface is smoother than FourTrack’s (though it is). It’s that all of these things are now integrated perfectly into part of a larger whole. It is an all-in-one-piece music creation suite, and it is the most capable one on the market.

Now, if you were listening to my songs carefully, you noticed that they were extremely modular. It’s a cheap musical trick: for the piano track in “Peter’s Song” I recorded only about 20 bars of music altogether, but copied and pasted it across 72 bars of music. Also, for both pieces, I added tracks in layers so that the middle of each piece has the most noise and activity, then I removed the tracks one by one to return to the simple opening. Another cheap trick, but one that’s extremely easy in Garageband, with its drag-and-drop interface. Here’s what the final track layout looked like for “Peter’s Song”:

Just as with iMovie, the other new media creation tool for the iPad that I wrote about in April, I’ve learned enough about how to use Garageband to be dangerous, but not enough to create professional-grade productions. My impression is that there’s a lot of depth to the software—enough to create some pretty elaborate songs, once you know what you’re doing. But I wasn’t absolutely sure about this, so I asked Robby Grossman what he thinks about Garageband as a tool for serious musicians. His answer was really interesting. He says you probably won’t be hearing a lot of Garageband-made songs on the radio, but that even professionals could use it as a kind of sketchpad:

I think it serves two kinds of users very well. First is the noodling/amateur musicians who want to create something palatable very quickly. It has protections in place to stop you from going out of key and to stop you from making mistakes in rhythm or timing.

To a serious composer this will feel limiting. Sometimes you want to go out of key to create dissonance. Or sometimes you want to switch between 5/4 and 4/4 to achieve a rhythmic effect. It would be hard (not impossible) to write Arcade Fire’s Modern Man on Garageband for iPad, for instance, because it dissuades you from switching time signatures in the way that that song does.

But it has a place in the serious musician’s toolkit as well. You can record rough demos in record time, and you can easily create accompanying virtual instruments to complement them. If the auto-correct features are too limiting, you can disregard them. The finished product will certainly be distinguishable from a studio production, but until you’re putting out an album, that’s probably fine. Even the most thorough artist has his sketchbook of rough ideas.

If you’re interested in checking out more Garageband-made music, I recommend the videos shared by YouTube users DxDutch, Qvasir, yuriwongmusic, and tipiweb. I’m really impressed by all the experimentation that’s going on with the software, whether people are using Garageband to record their own original songs or just creating imitations of Katy Perry songs or the Angry Birds theme.

Is all this progress in the world of music authoring is a good thing for “art”? The answer to that question probably depends on your feelings about highbrow versus lowbrow culture. Me, I’m the kind of person who appreciates a great performance by the San Francisco Symphony, but also gets some guilty pleasure from surfing YouTube. Yes, much of the material that fills today’s blogs and vlogs is pure dreck (and I’d put my own Garageband ditties in that category). But the upside is that you no longer need training, experience, or professional equipment to act on your creative urges. It’s only a matter of time before some teenager who started out on Garageband becomes the next Cole Porter or Herbie Hancock. I say anything goes.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Garageband on the iPad Makes Amateur Musicians into Artists”

  1. Wade, needed a Fringe fix after that perplexing season finale — will Peter be back? — and enjoyed your piece.

    The dog ditty was also good; we occasionally take our pug Sophie to the beach and I think you had a good beat and rhythm to that experience. Kudos to you and Garageband.