How to master...GarageBand

It might be free, but GarageBand is also a super-powerful – here's how to wield it

Bought a new Apple device in the last couple of years? Then you already have GarageBand, one of the most powerful music-making tools currently in existence.

Exciting, isn't it? But while recent updates have made it far easier for a complete novice to start bashing out tunes, creating something truly great and genuinely unique means diving deeper into the software's capabilities.

So before you start randomly chucking around blips and blops like digital confetti, allow us to guide you along the path of GarageBand enlightenment by highlighting its best features and showing you how to get the best from them.

And if you've dabbled before, you may be surprised by some of the excellent new tricks available.



Beginner: 1) Embrace loops

On OS X and iOS, GarageBand has a loop browser, enabling you to create songs by dragging and dropping pre-made loops to tracks on the timeline. To open the loop browser, click/tap the loop icon in the toolbar. You can search for specific instruments or genres. Simply drag a loop to an empty area underneath any existing tracks to get started.

Note that many people dismiss loops, but they are useful for building confidence in songwriting, and they can help speed along working on new ideas. Using the occasional loop can also add texture to otherwise fully custom compositions. 

2) Use smart instruments

Ignore music snobs who balk at the idea of automated accompaniment. Smart Instruments in GarageBand for iOS are an excellent way to learn how to construct chord progressions, and also a speedy means of fashioning a custom backing track to jam along with.

You can choose from smart bass, drums, strings, guitars, and keyboards. Smart drums have you arrange individual drums on a grid, defining whether each should be loud/quiet and simple/complex. The other instruments let you tap out notes within specific chords, or use autoplay to quickly record bass riffs and keyboard arpeggios.

3) Learn to play

In the 'New Project' dialog on OS X, click 'Learn to Play' for playalong intro videos for guitar and piano. Lesson Store has a bunch of free full courses, which take you from the basics of handling an instrument through to playing chords and melodies.

Once you've mastered all that, you can venture into the selection of tutorials from famous artists, who'll teach you how to play their greatest hits — albeit for four quid a pop. (Sting needs a new gold car!)

4) Be a loop DJ

Live Loops are the newest part of GarageBand, giving you a grid of loops you trigger with a tap. To start, you select a genre, and then it's simply a case of triggering canned loops by prodding them, while simultaneously pretending you're a combination of Fatboy Slim, Skrillex and Carl Cox.

This system feels toy-like initially, but it's far more than a throwaway plaything. Live Loops are handy for experimenting with song arrangement, and you can record into empty cells, or even add new tracks for custom loops. You can then record a live performance, making Live Loops a useful means of quickly creating a sketch for a new song, which could later be worked on in the studio.

5) Can it

Even if you’ve a swanky new iPad Pro, its speakers won’t be suitable for making and mixing music. (Typically, small speakers de-emphasise bass, and make it hard to place instruments in the stereo mix.) So get some cans on your ears — we like the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0s, or the AKG K451s for something more affordable.

On the desktop, we also suggest using headphones when working on music. But do sometimes take a break and listen to your composition through a set of decent speakers (ideally not the ones welded to your computer). When doing final mixes, also ensure your output sounds good enough through the kind of headphones most people use daily (as in, the rubbish ones that come with their smartphones).

6) Understand iCloud

GarageBand for iOS and OS X are similar but not identical. Songs saved to iCloud are primarily designed to be accessible only on the same platform. This means if you save a track on your iPad, it's designed to be played and edited on other iOS devices, and Mac compositions are designed to be sent to other Macs.

There is an exception, in that you can import iOS songs into OS X (File > iCloud), but this is one-way traffic — songs won’t go from Mac to iOS, because the Mac app has features and capabilities that simply aren't yet possible on an iPad or iPhone.

Intermediate level: Keyboards

7) Perfect timing

Improve the timing of live-played virtual instruments by using quantising to align notes to a grid.

In OS X, this option is found in Piano Roll > Notes within the Editor (E); on iOS, Quantisation is in the Mixer menu (sliders icon). Also, temporarily slow tempo while recording tricky bits.

8) Playing patterns

Arpeggiators are excellent tools for musicians, playing chord patterns by sounding each note in sequence.

Access GarageBand’s arpeggiator through the ‘five dots arrow’ button, and then experiment with note and octave settings. The arpeggiator is especially good for quickly creating bass and rhythm tracks for electronic music.

9) Virtual keyboards

If you lack a USB piano keyboard, there are virtual equivalents. On the Mac, Window > Show Musical Typing (Cmd+K) enables you to use your Mac’s keyboard for playing notes.

The iOS on-screen keyboard responds to velocity as well, although you can disable that setting in the Keyboard menu.

10) Save your synths

Built-in presets soon become overly familiar, but GarageBand enables you to adjust synth settings to create something unique.

Once you’ve finished tweaking your new synth, save your set-up to use again in future (in OS X use 'Save…' in the Library pane; in iOS, use 'Save' in the instrument selector).

Intermediate level: Guitars

11) Tune up

Unless you hate your ears (and everyone else’s), get your guitar in tune before recording.

On OS X, the tuner button is found in the main toolbar; on iOS, it only appears when viewing an Amp track. Use the levels indicator to get your strings sounding perfect.

12) Knob twiddler

Amp presets in GarageBand aren’t fixed effects. Instead, they are digital recreations of real-world amps.

This means you can fiddle with dials to get the perfect sound for your current recording, adjusting gain, EQ, reverb, distortion, presence, and other settings.

13) Pedal to the metal

Tap the pedal button to see the effects set-up for your guitar track. Individual pedals can be fine-tuned and reordered.

You can also add new pedals. On OS X, just drag them; on iOS, tap an empty slot then add a pedal. You can add up to four on iOS, and more on OS X.

14) Levels test

When you have a real guitar plugged into your Mac or iOS device, carefully test levels before any serious recording.

Play parts of the full range of your song, watch the indicators and, where relevant, adjust the input level accordingly. Avoid whisper-quiet input and unwanted distortion.

Expert level: Songwriting

15) Copy and paste

Whether recording guitars or tapping out keyboard lines, use GarageBand’s 'Tracks' view to copy and paste from your best performances or cover up errors.

Don’t imagine pros avoid this — plenty of songs that sound ‘live’ in fact use individual notes taken from dozens of performances.

16) Note editor

If you record a MIDI instrument (such as a synth, drum machine, or Smart Instrument), individual notes can be adjusted by moving or resizing them on the piano roll.

On iOS, enter Tracks view, tap an audio region and select Edit from the menu.

17) Song arranger

Use GarageBand’s 'arrange tools' to create song sections (verse, chorus, and so on) that can be copy/pasted/reordered in their entirety.

On OSX, Track > Show Arrangement Track makes the feature visible. On iOS, 'Song Sections' are more limited (no section naming), and accessed via the + menu in Tracks view.

18) Go solo

If you have lots of tracks, you might find your song becomes muddied. Use GarageBand’s track header tools to adjust the volume and panning of individual tracks, to boost clarity.

You can also mute and solo tracks, respectively, to temporarily disable some or work on a few specific sounds.

Expert level: Mix master

19) Special effects

On iOS, use the 'Mixer' menu to tweak echo, reverb, treble, bass and compressor effects for a selected track.

On OS X, you get more options — open Smart Controls (B), click the info button, and open Plug-ins. You can load and adjust up to four plug-ins for the instrument.

20) Audio units

On OS X, you can expand GarageBand by way of AU (Audio Unit) plug-ins.

If a compatible one has been installed on your Mac, click the Instrument slot in Plug-ins, and select it from the menu. Its settings can be adjusted in its pop-up window.

21) Inter-App audio

On iOS, GarageBand doesn’t have the means to load new instruments directly into the app, but you can use Apple’s Inter-App Audio to record third-party synths/audio apps into GarageBand by way of an Inter-App Audio track. Note that the end result will be a waveform, not MIDI data.

22) Try Audiobus

An alternative to Inter-App Audio, which also happens to be more widely supported, flexible and usable, is Audiobus (£4).

Use the app to define input, effects and output chains (GarageBand as output if recording to it), fire up your other music app, and use Audiobus’s overlay menu to trigger recordings.

Download the Audiobus app here

Level up with...

Apogee JAM (£90)

The JAM is a plug-and-play system to connect electric guitars or bass to a Mac or iOS device.

The original’s studio-quality, although ensure you get a Lightning cable in the box. For an extra 70 quid, the JAM 96k further ramps up the quality, in terms of sound, build and recording resolution.

Buy the Apogee Jam

Spark Digital (£150)

This dinky microphone ably deals with vocals and acoustic instrument recordings, and has connectors for iOS (Lightning) and USB.

If the price tag’s too rich, consider Blue’s Yeti mics (from £99) instead, although you may need a powered USB hub (£20 or so) to get one working with an iPad.

Buy the Spark Digital

CME Xkey (£75)

Although you can tap on your Mac’s keyboard or iPad’s screen to trigger sounds, a MIDI keyboard’s better.

The Xkey is small, light, responsive and portable, even if the short key travel initially feels a little strange. For iOS, you’ll also need Apple’s (inaccurately named) Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (£25).

Buy the CME Xkey