Apple GarageBand for iOS

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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.

Playing Sounds

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.

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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 touchscreen.

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 Rodgers style.

Smart Instruments

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.

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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 behind me.

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 Figure 3).

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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).

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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 preset.

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!”

Jam Session

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 Pythonworked 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.


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 tweaking.

CONS Brass instruments and loops are oddly absent. Apple Loops can’t follow chord changes within a song. Eight track limit—though you can bounce.

Bottom Line

No other mobile app offers this complete and integrated a set of virtual instruments and recording tools for multitrack composition.