The problem with synthesizers, Brian Eno once remarked, is that keyboard players waste hours scrambling through the electrons for a new sound, when it’s clear that what they’re actually looking for is a new idea. Sit them down at a grand piano and they focus instead on the notes they’re supposed to be playing. But then digital technology’s like that. It makes tasks many times easier to achieve, but it also becomes many times easier to get distracted from the job in hand.
We all fall for it. The Great Lie that if we only added this or that alluring new upgrade to our working lives, we’d be so productive there would be loads more free time to spend chilling out with our loved ones. As if.
Over the years, messrs Steinberg, MOTU, Digidesign and others have periodically persuaded me to part with hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds in pursuit of that lie.
I’ve wasted not only money but whole working weeks that could have been usefully spent with pen, paper and a cassette recorder – trying to synchronize MIDI, or cajole some temperamental bit of kit into letting me even begin my working day.
I’ve stared in bewilderment at screens cluttered with enough windows, buttons and icons to fly a jumbo jet. I’ve fiddled for hours with Over-Easy compression, Parametric EQ, and infinitesimal degrees of quantization instead of getting on with the song I was supposed to be writing. And every few months I’ve ended up ditching the whole digital disaster and going back to good old analogue tape. Secondhand copy of Cubase, anyone? And then, out of the blue, came GarageBand.
It’s 30 years since I started making music for a living – and nearly 20 since I bought my first Mac. I’ve lived through Elvis, the Beatles, Flower Power, Glam, Punk, Rap, House, Hip Hop and Britpop. In that time the technology of music has changed beyond all recognition.
But trust me. There’s never been anything quite like GarageBand. GarageBand is to Pro Tools et al what the model T Ford was to the early Bentley. Technically inferior, perhaps – but mass produced, easy to use, cheap to maintain, and a tenth of the price. The technology had existed in the hands of a privileged elite for years, but it took Henry Ford to make it attractive and accessible for the Great Unwashed. And no doubt the motoring experts of the day turned up their noses at the Model T, just as many Pro Audio snobs sniff at GarageBand today.
It isn’t a ‘proper’ music application, they sneer: it’s for amateurs to ‘mess about’ with. But with innovation and creativity, ‘messing about’ is the whole point: inspiration springs not from professionalism but spontaneity and playfulness. As for not being a ‘proper’ application, GarageBand may have its quirks and shortcomings, but a penniless Prodigy or the next Missy Elliott could easily work around them. Thanks to Apple’s acquisition of Emagic there’s enough thoroughbred horsepower under the hood to coax 100 per cent professional results from this astonishing little package. The music industry is so desperate for anything genuinely fresh and original that any bona fide teen genius could bang out a couple of demos in GarageBand, give them away free on the Web and wait for the world to beat a path to their door.
So if you’re considering a venture of your own into music-making on a Mac, take a tip from your Uncle Tom: don’t begin by lashing out two and a half thousand quid on one of those alluring G5 towers and what the experts call an “entry-level” recording system. In my experience, that kind of outlay (and learning curve) places such a weight of expectation on your early attempts that you can easily end up stilted, self-conscious, and discouraged.
Instead, get up and running as cheaply as possible using GarageBand, Sound Studio and iTunes and simply see how you get on. Cheaply? Yep – at best it may not cost you a penny. At worst it might cost £750 – for which you’d get a gorgeous new eMac with half a gigabyte of RAM, a big bright screen, large hard disk, beefy G4 chip, state of the art SuperDrive, built-in mic and speakers, plus all three applications thrown in free. That’s a bargain any way you slice it.
The combination of GarageBand, Sound Studio and iTunes will let you mess about, try stuff out, make mistakes, bang down quick and dirty vocals, sing nonsense, wander through vast acres of loops till something turns you on, rip off your favourite Nirvana riff… Above all it allows you to be quick and prolific. Just remember to finish everything you start – and not to be be afraid of making truly awful music.
Perfectionism is the enemy of achievement. Veteran songsmith Tom Paxton always claimed only two songs he wrote in every ten were any good, but that he had to finish the first eight before he could reach the last two. So just get going and have some fun.
Don’t worry overmuch about sound quality, originality or what anyone else will think of the results. Throw together a few rough tunes, burn them to CD in iTunes and bask in a glow of satisfaction. The artist’s job is to finish the work, not to judge it.
Unless you own a Power Mac (see side panel below), don’t even bother buying a microphone or mixer until you’re sure that computer-based recording definitely suits your way of working. Most Macs have a perfectly serviceable little mic built in, which is fine for rustling up a low-cost demo or two. To use this, open up the Sound pane in System Preferences, and under Inputs select Internal Microphone.
Play or sing at normal volume reasonably close to the computer, and set the level control so that the meter bounces healthily to the right but never hits the very top bar.
The GarageBand interface
Much has been said and written about GarageBand’s inspirational use of MIDI and audio loops, and the excellent 11-page GarageBand at a Glance PDF offers a good basic grounding that will have you making music in no time. The real excitement comes with making and using loops of your own – more on how to do this later. For me, though, GarageBand’s great triumph is not so much the loops as the interface; the
way its underlying complexity is hidden from the casual user. Like its sibling, iMovie, it’s inviting and intuitive to use, while concealing some nifty machinery behind the scenes.
At first glance each track appears to have only the most basic controls: volume, pan, solo and mute. You press Record to record, and press it again when you want to stop.
But after a few hours or days of using it, you start to hanker for a little reverb and try double-clicking on the track title. Hey presto – a slew of well-crafted FX presets appears.
Male Vocal Basic, for example applies features compression, EQ, echo and reverb settings tailored by experts to enhance a man’s singing voice. Guitars, keyboards, drums, brass and so on are all catered for.
Human nature being what it is, you soon start wishing you could tweak those presets to suit your own tastes – and then notice a little triangle marked Details. Click it: a whole new pane drops down where, sure enough, you can play with those EQ, reverb, gate and echo settings to your heart’s content
– then save fresh presets of your own.
Eventually, of course, even an old Luddite like me starts to find these basic controls primitive. You begin to itch for the professional compression and musical EQ to be found in normal recording studios. And then you spot the two little pop-up menus nonchalantly marked ‘None’ to put you off the scent.
And Open Sesame! An Aladdin’s Cave appears with Apple’s secret weapon – the magnificent Audio Unit (AU) Effects suite: 31-band graphics, Multitap delays, Filters, Limiters, sophisticated reverbs and more besides. Two separate AU effects are available on every channel.
The real jewel in the AU crown is a stunning four-way multiband compressor – a baby brother of the expensive costly units beloved of radio stations and mastering engineers. Applied sparingly, multiband compression can sweeten up individual tracks or even whole mixes and make them sound like, well – a thousand dollars at least – if not a million.
The GarageBand at a Glance PDF is accompanied by a three-part tutorial that guides you through the simple audio and MIDI editing facilities. These provide just enough functionality for songwriting
purposes without descending into geekery.
For more-detailed information and advice, however, consult the Web. A good starting point is The Garage Door (www.thegaragedoor.com) – run by Victor Hookstra – which includes links to further resources, free loops and pretty much everything you’ll ever need.
Apple’s own GarageBand discussion forum (http://discussions.info.apple.com/webx/GarageBand) also offers a vast anarchic stew of hints, tips, help and snide comments from fellow users.
Finally check www.missingmanual.com for news of David Pogue’s forthcoming GarageBand: The Missing Manual, which promises to be an accessible and definitive technical guide when released.
Working around the quirks
As you get the hang of GarageBand, and your recordings become more ambitious, you’ll gradually run into its quirks and limitations. This is where Sound Studio and iTunes come into their own. You may wonder why anyone would need a simple stereo editor like Sound Studio when GarageBand itself can edit multiple tracks and apply a wide range of Apple AU Effects to your recordings. Audio editing in GarageBand is non-destructive: the original sound files remain untouched (and untouchable) on your hard disk, while edits and effects are applied on the fly by the CPU. Sound Studio edits and treats the audio files themselves – the awkward thing is getting hold of them.
Quirk number one: the only way to get audio files out of GarageBand is via the Export To iTunes command, which is why iTunes needs to be installed and running.
The reason you need to export and treat individual tracks is Quirk Number Two. The number of tracks GarageBand can use varies wildly from machine to machine. Processor speed, backside cache and RAM come into it of course, but so do the number of effects in use, size, speed and fragmentation of your hard disk, current phase of the moon and whether there’s an R in the month. One way to free-up more capacity is by judiciously exporting and re-importing any tracks that use a lot of treatments and edits.
Suppose you’ve recorded a great vocal rather badly, and need a processor-guzzling slew of compression, gating and EQ to make it sound good. Solo the track and export it to iTunes, then use 1-R within iTunes to locate the AIFF file itself. Drag this into Sound Studio. Here you can use the Normalize command to optimize the track level, and the Resample command to turn it back into mono (“Export
To iTunes” always generates a stereo file). Save the file and drag it right back into GarageBand
– where it now sounds great without any effects. Delete the original and that’s it.
Quirk number three: the default settings for a new song is 120bpm tempo with 4/4 signature in the key of C major – very limiting as a starting point. Solution: sing your song idea into GarageBand “cold” without backing or a metronome click. Then drag in a couple of roughly suitable loops from your library
and adjust the tempo and key of your master track to get an approximate match. Now start again from scratch using these new settings.
Finally, quirk number four has no solution. GarageBand can record only one stereo pair of tracks at a time. If this is an insurmountable problem – say for recording a band – you’ll need after all to look at a more expensive package that can record multiple sources at once. You’ll also need a dedicated Audio/MIDI interface. For an expert overview of the available choices, see Mike Collins’s
article in the June 2004 issue of Macworld.
A basic shopping list
eMac As indicated above, even if you have to buy both a computer and software from scratch, the eMac currently represents a completely unbeatable package for £749 (SuperDrive model with 512MB RAM).
GarageBand If you bought an eMac, iMac, PowerBook or iBook in the last six months, you already have GarageBand, Sound Studio, iTunes and a built-in mic on your computer, which is all you need to get basic stuff up and running. If you have a recent version of any of these models, you can easily buy, run and enjoy GarageBand for less than forty quid (Apple’s iLife ’04 costs £39).
Sound Studio Again, bundled free with every new iBook, iMac or eMac – or shareware download £27 ($50) from www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/audio/soundstudio.html
Soundtrack Loop Utility Use Sound Studio to chop any sound file into short portions and export them as AIFF files. The free Soundtrack Loop Utility converts these into Apple Loops format and allows you to define key, tempo and attributes with just a few simple clicks. ftp://ftp.apple.com/developer/Development_Kits/Apple_Loops_SDK_1.1.dmg.bin
Quicktime 6.5 Pro Sooner or later you’ll need its peerless import and export facilities, not only for audio but video too. Don’t argue, just get it. Cost: £25.
Don’t bother buying a special audio or MIDI interface unless you absolutely need one – it’s just one more bit of fiddly kit to go wrong. To input MIDI information, use a dedicated USB music keyboard such as the M-Audio Keystation 49e (£69 from the Apple Store) plugged straight into the computer. Less is more.
For more-serious audio recording once you’re ready to move beyond the limitations of your Mac’s built-in mic, get a small mixer such as the excellent Behringer Eurorack UB802 (£46 from Digital Village) to route mics, guitars, drum machines, keyboards – perhaps even a cassette deck – to the computer’s audio-in socket. Never use professional grade audio cables for this purpose. They’re bulky and cumbersome with heavy-duty plugs. The smallest tug can easily snap the socket clean off a laptop’s motherboard. Instead, use a cheap lightweight lead with moulded plugs (2x phono to 1x 3.5mm stereo minijack) to permanently connect the tape output of your mixer to the computer. The less plugging and re-plugging you do on the computer itself, the better.
For monitoring, use either your computer’s own speakers for now, connect the audio out to your existing home Hi-Fi with another lightweight moulded cable, or use headphones. Decent headphones are the cheapest, easiest and most discreet way to monitor recordings at high quality – and you’ll need a pair to mute your Mac’s speakers any time you’re recording with a microphone. But the good news is that any comfortable pair that sound good to you will be fine. Koss and Beyer are much acclaimed by experts, but the make honestly doesn’t matter much. The main thing is for you to feel comfortable wearing them and like the sound they make.
Shure SM58 microphone (£70) – rugged, versatile, utterly reliable. Other mics may offer higher fidelity for particular instruments, but the SM58 is forgiving enough to record anything you throw at it – from vocals to bass drums; it’s a great all-rounder. If you regularly need to record sound in stereo, consider buying an iSight instead – the mic is great and you get the camera thrown in for free (cost: £119).
As you get more proficient, consider getting a third-party optical mouse with a scrollwheel. In GarageBand, scroll-shift moves you left or right along the editing timeline – a vital and ergonomic timesaver.
Finally: the single most useful tool you will ever own as a songwriter. Fumble for it next time you wake with a killer hook running round your head. Take it on long journeys and to rehearsals or soundchecks, ready for the moment inspiration strikes. Sing, chant, mumble, strum and dictate ideas into it as they occur. Play back your GarageBand mixes on it. Ladies and gentlemen – I give you the humble plastic mono handheld cassette recorder.
The sound quality will never be great, but it’ll unfailingly capture every noise you point it at, from whispered lyrics to deafening drums. Don’t even dream of fiddling with DAT, Digital or minidisc for this purpose. The second you start fiddling with mics and setting levels, you begin thinking about sonic quality to the exclusion of music. Forget fidelity – capture the moment. Then turn it into an Apple Loop and use it in GarageBand in your next masterpiece. (Sony TCM-150 Cost: £25).
Power Mac owners: the bad news
By a cruel irony, the Mac of choice for high-end audio professionals is also the least suited to low-end fun and experimentation. Where the humble eMac boasts beefy onboard speakers, built-in mic and a free copy of Sound Studio, the G5 Power Mac has none of the above.
Mic, amp, speakers, mixer and Sound Studio will cost you another £200-£300 before you even get started. At that price, you might as well splash out on a nice new eMac – with the added benefit of
an 8x DVD-R drive thrown in for nothing.