GarageBand has long been the gateway to multitrack
music production for beginners, the iOS version even more so thanks to
the element of touch. However, I’d been hearing so much praise for it,
mainly from colleagues who could hardly be called beginners, that I
began to wonder how seriously one could take it as a professional
musical sketchpad. Based on my testing on three iOS devices—an original
iPad, a third-gen Retina iPad, and an iPhone 4—the short answer is: Very. Enough to win our coveted Key Buy award, in fact.
For the most part, GarageBand’s instrument sounds aren’t
just “good for a mobile device,” they’re good, period. Some are crazy
good, like the B-3 organs. There’s full drawbar control, the percussion
behaves properly, the C3 chorus (the only choice) is authentic, the
distortion is warm and not buzzy, and the Leslie simulation is killer
(see Figure 1). I’m a notorious stickler for B-3 and Leslie sound, and
I’d have no problem with this as my sole clonewheel on a gig.
Rhodes and Wurly are just as well rendered, delivering
gentle to barking timbres with aplomb. They have a lush chorus and
panning tremolo, but no phaser on either—which you do get on the Clav,
along with a funky auto-wah. Synths cover a spectrum of analog, FM, and
wavetable textures, and are so well curated that whatever musical style
you’re going for, you’ll find truly inspiring sounds. With an external
keyboard, some of the synths even make use of aftertouch. The only
sounds that underwhelmed me were the acoustic pianos, though they’re
perfectly serviceable for a demo.
On many sounds, the iOS device’s accelerometer is used to
impart velocity sensing. You’ll want an external controller for serious
playing, but I was surprised at how well velocity worked on the
One sound category is conspicuously absent: brass. I
couldn’t find a trumpet or trombone anywhere, let alone a tuba or French
horn. Even the included Apple Loops (drag-and-drop audio files) had a
number of cool sax and flute offerings, but were bereft of any brass
riffs that you’d want for funk or R&B. On the plus side, the rhythm
guitar loops were funky, expertly played standouts in a very Nile
In addition to “regular” instruments, you get what Apple
calls Smart Instruments, which cover guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and
orchestral strings. While they seem designed for avoiding wrong notes, I
found them to be a wellspring of jump-starters for song ideas. All but
the drums have note and chord modes. Note mode lets you play
pre-determined scales and bend notes realistically on fretted
instruments; chord mode allows one-finger play of up to eight chords
onscreen. You set chords using four “odometer” dials: root, type (major,
minor, diminished, augmented, sus2, sus4, and no-third), extensions
(sixth to 13th, including major seventh and ninths with and without the
dominant seventh), and even alternate bass notes for “slash” chords.
There are gaps—I could dial in Amin maj7 over B but
couldn’t get a flat fifth outside of the diminished option, for
instance—but the possibilities would still qualify as thorough in a
hardware arranger keyboard, let alone a five-dollar app.
Each chord gets a vertical strip. On Smart Keyboards and
Strings, touching up and down the strip plays different chord inversions
(see Figure 2). The Smart Guitar strums when you slide your finger; the
Smart Bass knows enough to walk the notes. Smart Strings (first and
second violin, viola, cello, and contrabass—each of which you can tap on
and off) offer three articulations: Tap a strip to hear pizzicato,
swipe briskly for marcato, or “bow” with your finger to begin a
crescendo that gets louder the faster you go. It may not be a
four-figure strings library, but there’s real arranging power here.
Each Smart Instrument also lets you choose from four
auto-play phrases, which latch until you touch the active chord strip a
second time. Changing chords mid-phrase requires practice to get the
timing right, but once you do, the inner voice movement turns on a dime.
Two or three touches on the strip triggers further variations.
Auto-play results get recorded to a track in your song.
“Smart” behavior triggers from the screen only; a
connected MIDI keyboard will play straight notes. This let me change
chords with my left hand on my iPad while playing a line on my
controller with my right. The Smart Strings even put a solo violin on my
controller while the section auto-played a cinematic-sounding passage
In the Smart Drums, you drag icons (kick, snare, hat,
etc.) onto a grid to make beats. Higher on the vertical axis is louder;
farther right horizontally makes that instrument play a more complex
rhythm. You get acoustic and electronic kits, including a more than
decent TR-808 homage that gets the signature cowbell right. I got the
best results from Smart Drums when I wanted to be pleasantly surprised.
If I knew what I was going for (say, a four-on-the-floor kick with
snares on beats 2 and 4 and a sixteenth-note hat throughout), the
non-Smart drum options got the job done more handily.
The big deal here is a piano-roll editor for instrument (i.e.,
non-audio) tracks. Double-tap a region in a track, and you get a pop-up
of editing options. Touch “Edit,” and the piano-roll opens. Touch a
note in the piano-roll, and you can tweak its velocity or drag it to
change its pitch and/or duration. With recorded Smart Strings, you can
change both the instrument (violin, cello, etc.) and articulation per note—even
inside ensemble passages you recorded using auto-play. Let that sink
in: A five-dollar app lets you get almost as surgical about string
arranging as a first violinist who’s never seen without a bow tie (see
By default, songs are displayed and worked with an
eight-bar section at a time. Clicking the plus sign on the song view
ruler lets you add more sections (if you work in terms, of verse,
chorus, bridge, etc.), set each section’s length, or see the whole song
beginning to end.
Apple Loops that you drag into a track will auto-transpose
to the song’s global key. Many of the loops are played so as to sound
good over basic chord movement like I-IV-V, but won’t fit if you throw the song a Donald Fagen-league curve. If you import GarageBand songs into Logic, Apple Loops will
follow changes you specify in Logic’s chord track, but currently
there’s no analogous function in the iOS version. Having chord or key
changes at the section level would be one way to go here.
GarageBand for iOS doesn’t capture every controller move a
pro-level DAW would. In synths, the pitch and mod wheel are recorded,
but other knob twists aren’t. With organs, Leslie slow/fast switches are
but drawbar changes aren’t. A lane in the piano-roll lets you edit
sustain pedal and Leslie speed messages, though.
Working with Audio
For vocals or anything else you’d point a mic at,
GarageBand offers an audio recorder with a cool analog-style VU meter.
After making a recording pass, you can add an effect, though this
happens on the Audio Recorder “instrument” screen, not plug-in-style in
the song view. Effects comprise three reverbs plus vocal tricks such as
telephone, robot, bullhorn, chipmunk, and monster voices (see Figure 4).
A separate “instrument” for plugging in a guitar or bass
boasts excellent amp and stompbox models. You can create stompbox
chains, mix and match them with amps, and save the whole setup as a
Separate from everything discussed so far is the Sampler.
You can record a sound, reverse it, loop it, trim the start and end
points, and impart an attack-decay-release envelope. You can save your
work in a patch browser dedicated to the sampler, but you can’t create
multisamples mapped to note or velocity ranges on the keyboard. This is
meant for one-shot sounds like James Brown going “Hah!”
This feature tempo-syncs up to four iOS devices over WiFi
(if you’re near an open router) or Bluetooth (if you’re not) to form a
“band” and record the results. The person who created the session is the
bandleader, and can opt to control tempo and transport. When you’re
done, the bandleader’s device imports and saves all the tracks.
I divided Smart Drums, organ, Smart Guitar, Smart Strings,
and a recorded vocal between my original and third-gen iPads and iPhone
4, and to my surprise heard no latency or audio glitches. Since each
device does its own audio and MIDI heavy lifting, and since the
bandleader’s track aggregation happens after you hit stop, the only
thing that uses wireless bandwidth when you’re jamming is the sync that
keeps everyone marching to the same drummer. Clever!
I always loved the way Monty Python worked on two levels: Any
six-year-old will laugh at grown men dressed like frumpy housewives and
speaking in falsetto, but what they’re saying makes grad students feel
hip for getting the joke. GarageBand on iOS is like that: There’s a
depth that screams to be used if you know why you need it, but gets out
of your way if you don’t. That’s why it’s in this month’s table of
contents as a DAW, not merely an “app.” Though it works the same on all
iOS devices, the large screen of an iPad—especially a Retina model—makes
for the best experience.
Sure, there are significant omissions compared to a “real”
DAW. More time signatures, mix automation, provision for tempo and
chord changes within a song, and more than eight tracks (though you can
bounce tracks) are biggies. But Apple has a line to walk here between
adding features and keeping the workflow friendly, and in my opinion,
they’re making good choices. Considering all GarageBand does do,
iOS integrates the elements of sight and touch so well that you really
can create polished productions on an airline tray table—and I’ve seen a
lot of things fall short on similar claims. GarageBand for iOS would be
a steal at 50 dollars, let alone the comically low five bucks Apple
asks. KEY BUY WINNER
PROS Strikingly good sounds. Healthy library of Apple Loops is
expertly played throughout. Smart Instruments are surprisingly useful,
even for trained musicians. Piano-roll editor offers a lot of per-note
CONS Brass instruments and loops are oddly absent. Apple Loops
can’t follow chord changes within a song. Eight track limit—though you
No other mobile app offers this complete and integrated a
set of virtual instruments and recording tools for multitrack