How to master...GarageBand

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

If you’re armed with a reasonably recent Apple Mac or iOS device, you can download GarageBand for free. Which is great, because GarageBand is one of the most powerful music-making tools in existence.

Despite being free, GarageBand isn’t a stripped-back throwaway tool for shoving loops together (although it does have that capability); instead, it strives to cater for all levels of musician, whether you’re a total novice determined to bash out some tunes, or a pro who fancies diving deeper into the software’s capabilities.

Before you start randomly chucking around blips and bloops 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.

These tips use GarageBand 10.2 for macOS, which requires macOS 10.11 (El Capitan) or later, and GarageBand 2.3 for iOS 11. However, many of them also work on earlier versions of the software.


Beginner: Embrace loops

On macOS 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. Drag a loop to an empty area underneath any existing tracks to get started.

Many musicians 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 add texture to otherwise fully custom compositions, and be handy to jam along with. 

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 a speedy means of fashioning a custom backing track to jam with. You can choose from smart bass, drums, strings, guitars, piano (keyboards). World instruments can also be played as Smart Instruments.

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.

Learn to play

In the ‘New Project’ dialog on macOS, 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!)

Be a loop DJ

The Live Loops feature gives you a grid of loops to trigger with taps. To start, you select a genre, and then trigger 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 add new tracks for custom loops. You can record an entire live performance, too, making Live Loops a means of quickly creating a sketch for a new song that could later be worked on in the studio.

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).

Understand iCloud

GarageBand for iOS and macOS 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 macOS (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 aren’t available on an iPad or iPhone.

Get new sounds

On Mac, the quickest way to get a slew of new sounds is buying MainStage 3 (RM129.90), which bundles hundreds of instruments and loops. 

On iOS, tap + to start a new song, and then select Sound Library. Tap any item to read more about it, listen to a preview, or download.

Note that additional sounds may not work across Mac and iOS devices. Bear that in mind if you, for example, compose on an iPad but arrange, mix and master on a Mac.