If you love to make music on your Mac with GarageBand you might be wondering if Apple’s GarageBand for the iPad might be an option for you. Could you record an entire song using nothing but the tablet and that app? We decided to try to make some music using GarageBand on the iPad. This is what happened.

1. Lay the foundation

After launching GarageBand on your iPad, tap My Songs in the upper-left corner and then the plus-sign (+) button at the bottom, and select New Song. GarageBand will prompt you to pick your first instrument.

We started with the song’s chord progression, using the Smart Guitar instrument: That way, we could quickly lay down a temporary track to form the overall song’s structure; it is possible to replace or delete it later.

In the iPad app, you can adjust volume levels and panning settings for each instrument; too bad you’re limited to eight tracks

By default, each new song is set at the tempo of 110 beats per minute (bpm). Our song needed more pep, so we tapped the settings icon (a spanner) in the upper right corner. We could set a new tempo by selecting the number of beats per minute. Instead, we tapped the beat we wanted on the iPad’s screen and let GarageBand calculate it (200 bpm). All new songs default to C major; we picked E major. Switching back to the guitar, we chose Acoustic since we were going for a folksy feel.

It’s finally time to make some music. We chose one of the four Autoplay rhythms, but added a twist: you can alter those rhythms by tapping with two or three fingers on a chord, instead of just one. When we finished recording, we quantised the freshly recorded part (via the Mixer button) to quarter-note triplets. It sounded like an Irish jig – perfect for this song.

2. Add instruments

Bass comes next. Choosing the Smart Bass instrument, we found it was already set to the right key. We selected one of the Autoplay rhythms and followed along with the chord progression we had just constructed. As with Smart Guitar, we altered the bass lines by tapping the screen with multiple fingers.

But even then, we couldn’t get a bass line we liked. So we dug out a small USB keyboard. Using Apple’s iPad Camera Connection Kit, we plugged the keyboard into the iPad and used it to control GarageBand instruments. With the keyboard, we finally got a bass part we liked.

We followed the same procedure to add some Roots Rock guitar lead and a Grand Piano part (using the regular Keyboard instrument).

3. Hit the drums

At first, we decide to use the virtual Drums instrument. It offers three traditional kits and three drum machines. The latter would be too mechanical so we focused on the kits. The interface for each one shows a bass drum, snare, toms, hi-hat, crash cymbal, and ride cymbal; you play each one by tapping it with your fingertips.

Unfortunately, our tap-drummed beat lacked polish. One big reason is the volume. The instrument is touch-sensitive; tap hard and the drum plays louder. But it’s inconsistent. Our snare was too quiet at times; at others, the crash cymbal was way too loud. So we deleted that initial Drums track (by tapping the instrument icon on the left side of the timeline, and tapping again and selecting Delete) and opted for Smart Drums instead.

While it offers the same kits and machines as the Drums instrument, the Smart Drums interface is more drag-and-drop: To create a beat, you drag the drum you want onto an 8 x 8 grid; the x-axis is Complexity, the y-axis is Volume. GarageBand creates the appropriate rhythm pattern for the intersection you choose.

Smart Drums are easy to tweak as you record; you can move the drum sounds in real time to update the rhythm. That makes it a cinch to, say, add a cymbal part during the chorus and remove it during the verse. After five minutes of tinkering, our song had a great beat.

3. Take a sample

The Drums instrument lets you play three different kits; the app combines percussion tracks, so you can play one drum at a time

Because this is a song about barnyard animals (don’t ask), we want it to have a chorus of moos. To accomplish that, we used GarageBand’s Sampler. With it, you can record sounds that you can then play, in appropriate pitches, on a keyboard.

We opened the Sampler and tapped the big red Start button. GarageBand begins recording, and we let rip with our best moo into the iPad’s built-in mic. Once we were happy with the sample, we played and recorded the moo chorus just as we would any other keyboard track (again, using the USB keyboard).

The Sampler’s one drawback is that you’re limited to one sample per track. If we wanted to add some pig noises to the same track, GarageBand would replace our moos with oinks. Because a GarageBand song can have only eight tracks on the iPad, we didn’t have room for a full farm.

4. Sing a song

You’ll want something better than the iPad’s built-in mic when you sing. Again we turned to Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, this time to plug in a Blue Microphones Snowball USB mic. We used a pop filter (to protect from plosives), and recorded in a quiet room. We also made sure we used headphones that didn’t bleed sound: we didn’t want the microphone picking up the backing tracks.

Headphones plugged in, we picked the Audio Recorder option. We tapped the cable icon in the upper left and turned on Monitor (so we could hear the vocals during recording). We also turned up the Noise Gate when the mic started picking up room noise. During recording, we monitored the levels with the VU meter; our goal was to keep out of the red. We added the lead vocal and, on another track, harmonies.

5. Mix it down

With Autoplay on, you can get different rhythms by tapping the chords with one, two, or three fingers.

Mixing in GarageBand on the iPad means adjusting levels (how loud each track is) and track panning (where tracks are in the stereo space).

That first one is easy. By default, GarageBand’s timeline displays icons for your instruments on the left. By swiping to the right on one of them, you can see (and adjust) levels for that instrument; you can also toggle the Mute and Solo options. Panning is trickier. You need to tap each track, then the Levels icon, and finally adjust a vague panning slider.

Because the Acoustic Guitar is the main instrument, we wanted to put it in stereo. To do that, we selected the whole track (by tapping once on the guitar icon), then tapped on one of the selected sections within the track again, and chose Copy. Last, we tapped on the guitar icon once more to select Duplicate.

But wait! There’s no Duplicate option – only Delete, because we’d hit the eight-track limit in the iPad version of GarageBand. Sadly, we had to delete the harmony vocals to make room for the second acoustic guitar. We then tapped inside the main guitar track and choose Paste to duplicate it. We panned the first version 75 per cent left, and the second 75 per cent right. Then we zoomed in as far as GarageBand allows (by reverse-pinching) and nudged the second acoustic track a bit; that created the stereo effect we wanted.

6. Finish on the Mac

The desktop mixing tools are much better than the iPad’s

We gave the song a listen – but were still not satisfied. The song needed more mixing, more harmony, and more EQ on the vocal tracks. And we knew the software to do it: GarageBand on the Mac.

We tapped on My Songs at the upper left of GarageBand on the iPad and on the Send To icon below the file; then we tapped to send the song to iTunes. We connected the iPad to the Mac and dragged the song from iTunes to the desktop. We then double-clicked it to launch GarageBand ’11.

GarageBand imported it flawlessly, maintaining the volume levels and panning, and applying effects consistently. With the iPad’s eight-track limit a mere memory, we could rerecord those lost harmonies, and could plug the USB keyboard into the Mac and add more moos. We tweaked the EQ on the vocals, sequenced some panning and volume levels, and polished things up. The only downside to processing the piece on the Mac is that we couldn’t import it back into GarageBand on the iPad.

7. Play it

Were we able to record a song entirely on the iPad? Not quite. But the song probably wouldn’t exist at all if we hadn’t been able to make it on the tablet. And we think it would have been worse if we’d done it on the Mac. Getting started is the toughest part of music-making, and Smart Instruments makes it a lot easier.

More than that, the iPad makes recording more truly hands-on than anything else we’ve tried.