It's no secret that GarageBand is entry-level music software. For the non-musician getting started, a peek at the controls and settings in high-end audio software like Pro Tools or Logic Pro can fry synapses faster than a late 1960s road trip on the Rolling Stones' tour bus. But at the same time, GarageBand can perform feats that aren't immediately obvious.
I've spent a lot of time learning just what GarageBand can do over the last few months while writing my latest ebook, "Take Control of Recording with GarageBand." Whereas my first ebook, "Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand," helped people combine and edit loops in GarageBand, this latest volume focuses on using GarageBand to create musical compositions with vocals, drums, guitars, MIDI keyboards, and even the kitchen sink. Below are a few of my favorite tips and tricks from the book; I hope you find them useful, and if you're left wanting more, the $10 ebook has 106 pages of real-world recording studio techniques and practical advice.
Record Two Tracks at Once -- A lot of people take issue with the fact that GarageBand allows you to record only one track at a time. This is a drag for several reasons. Not only are you unable to record your whole band at once and keep each element on its own track, but you also can't even record a guitar and vocals at the same time. Or can you? GarageBand does enable you to record a stereo track, which is just two mono tracks panned hard left and right. The trick is that you need to export this stereo track and separate the two elements in another program. This task isn't so much difficult as it is time consuming.
Use the following method to record any two elements at once - bass and guitar, bongos and vocals, two accordions, or any other combination of sounds:
Check if you have a copy of Felt Tip's Sound Studio on your Mac. Many recent models ship with it preinstalled. If not, download either Audacity or Sound Studio and install it.
Create a new stereo track in GarageBand.
Plug one mic or guitar into Channel 1 of your preamp, and the other into Channel 2.
Record your track normally.
Export just this one track to iTunes by choosing Export to iTunes from the File menu. If other tracks in your song are active, mute them before you export.
Open the exported track in Audacity or Sound Studio. In Audacity, choose Split Stereo Track from the drop down menu to the left of the waveform. Then choose Export Multiple from the Edit menu to create two mono files. If you're using Sound Studio, choose Export Dual Mono from the File menu.
Drag the resulting mono files from the Finder into GarageBand, which automatically creates new tracks for them. Now, do with them what you will!
Beware of Bleed -- Anytime you record two or more tracks with microphones, there's a danger that one track could bleed into the other. This happens when a microphone, say the vocal mic, picks up the acoustic guitar as well, and vice versa. This limits your flexibility come mix time: if you decide to scrap the vocal altogether but keep the guitar track, the old vocal bleed is still on the guitar mic recording.
You can prevent bleed in a couple of ways:
Isolation involves placing the microphones in different rooms, or at least far enough apart that bleed is minimized. This obviously won't work if you're recording one person playing an acoustic guitar and singing.
You can place baffles (pieces of sound-absorbing material) between the two mics to reduce leakage. This approach is also problematic for a singer/guitarist.
Obviously, plugging the guitar directly into the preamp will eliminate one microphone, and with it any leakage problems. You can also make sure you're using a more directional mic, and point the mics away from each other somewhat.
Double-Track Vocals and Guitars -- Double-tracking is an old technique for thickening vocals and other types of tracks. The idea is that you record two takes of the same part and lay them on top of each other. The resulting product has a thicker sound and a unique quality. Double-tracking can also hide minor tuning flaws in vocal tracks. The two versions blend together and mask the out-of-tune bits.
The trick to double-tracking is that the two versions have to be as identical as possible, at least if you want the effect to be invisible. There's certainly nothing wrong with playing the second part differently and panning the two parts away from each other. This will add thickness as well as a not-so-subtle stereo effect. Feel free to try adding reverb or other effects to the second track for variety.
Make Your Own Loops -- The wonderful thing about GarageBand's loops is that you can play them in any tempo and key that you want. But if you've tried to do this with Real Instrument tracks you recorded yourself, it doesn't work - you end up with a strange-sounding mix of tempos and keys. But it is possible to turn your recordings into loops that you can use just like Apple's own loops. To do this, you need a copy of the Soundtrack Loop Utility, part of the Apple Loops Software Developer Kit. Follow these steps to make loops out of your recordings.
In GarageBand, solo the track you want to make into a loop. Use a cycle region to isolate only a specific chunk of the song, and then export it to iTunes by choosing Export to iTunes from the File menu. Make a note of how many beats your loop is.
Open the resulting file in the Soundtrack Loop Utility.
Change the Number of Beats to the number you noted in Step 1. Make sure File Type is set to Loop and save the file.
Drag the loop into GarageBand. It's now a normal GarageBand loop. You can change the tempo and key and the loop changes with the song.
Turn Your Guitar into a Bass -- So you have an electric guitar, but you don't have a bass. You could play bass lines on a MIDI keyboard, but maybe you lack one of those as well, or you want a more natural-sounding bass part. What can you do? Here's a little trick to turn your guitar into a bass (virtually - don't worry, no power tools are required and your vintage axe won't be damaged):
Record your guitar playing the bass line an octave higher than you want it to sound when you're finished.
Solo this track and export it by choosing Export to iTunes from the File menu.
Follow the steps in Make Your Own Loops, above, to turn this guitar track into a loop.
Drag the guitar loop back into GarageBand.
Open the Track Editor and move the Transpose slider down to -12. This transposes the guitar loop down one octave. Your guitar should sound a lot like a bass.
To make it even more realistic, double click the track header to open the Track Info window. Play with the following effects settings until you like what you get:
Turn on the Compressor and move the slider to about 30.
Activate the Equalizer. Boost the bass a little and cut the midrange.
Add some Amp Simulation. Try American Clean with a touch of gain. Turn the bass up, the midrange down, and set treble and presence to taste.
Take Control of GarageBand -- When GarageBand came out, I got so excited about making music on my iBook that I went out and spent close to $1,000 on music equipment and additional software. Although I've been a musician in many capacities over the years, I rely on GarageBand at home to record songs and sound textures that pop into my head. If you own iLife '04 and haven't yet launched GarageBand, give it a try, even if you think you're not musical. (Tonya Engst wrote about her experiences with GarageBand when my first ebook - "Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand" - was released: see "How GarageBand Made Me Feel Young and Hip" in TidBITS-735).
[Jeff Tolbert is a musician, painter, and graphic designer living in Seattle. He plays bass and guitar and is becoming passable at keyboards. He has played in numerous bands over the years, including What Fell?, the Goat-Footed Senators, the diary of Anne Frank String Quartet, 80 Bones, and the Fireproof Beauties.]