Apple iMovie '11 full review

GarageBand 11

For the uninitiated, GarageBand is music-making software for Mac. Correction: it is an iconic music-making tool for Mac users, one that has been used to create songs you have heard and like. It a offers near-professional studio level toolset for musicians of all levels. If you want to make music on your laptop, GarageBand is where it's at. And GarageBand is even more prevalent in the podcast world. As a ubiquitous and easy-to-use audio-recording and -editing package is has every you need to make a slick podcast.

There's also an iOS version of GarageBand, but this is our GarageBand 11 review, looking at the OS X software available free with new Macs, or via the Mac App store. See all Apple software reviews.

GarageBand review: What is GarageBand?

There are four main ways in which you can use GarageBand. At its simplest it allows you to plug in your instrument and play, using a sophisticated set of sounds to play and record via your Mac. Whack in a USB keyboard and you can virtually play more than 100 software instruments.

But GarageBand is perhaps more famous for its creative chops. Using a series of beats and loops you can - with GarageBand - create great-sounding songs (as well as rubbish-sounding ones). More than 1,000 loops are included. Plug in a mic and you can sing. You can also capture live instruments such as guitars.

And that brings us to the third strength of GarageBand: recording. GarageBand puts at your fingertips near-professional tools for audio capture and editing. Plug in your instruments and you can create tracks and then overlay them. And if you purchase an I/O audio device you can play up to eight instruments at the same time. Combine those physical instruments with the more than 100 software instruments and 1,000 loops and beats and you have the means to capture your band's opus in all its glory. Or otherwise. GarageBand is just the engineer, you are writer and performer. And if you are making a podcast that comprises speech and music GarageBand offers everything you need.

There are also social lements to GarageBand, but it's principally a music-playing, -recording and -composing tool, a well as a place to learn.

The fourth major strength of GarageBand is in its music tuition. For beginners and hobbyist players GarageBand can offer a well designed and easy to use virtual environment to learn to play an instrument or record music, combined with an expert virtual tutor. See also: how to mix and master music in GarageBand.

GarageBand 11

GarageBand review: What's good about GarageBand?

First up - if you have a Mac, the chances are you have GarageBand. It's part of the iLife suite of media software, which comes with every Mac. If you are running an older Mac you may need to upgrade to get this version of iLife, but if your hardware can stand it that is still only £45 for the whole suite, or just £10.49 for GarageBand via the Mac App store. Free or £8.99 is cheap for such a big tool.

Like most Apple software GarageBand is good because it is easy to use and has a neat and tidy interface. GarageBand 11 in particular is great because of the sheer number of amps and effects you can add to its Guitar tracks. It also incorporates two features found in Logic and Logic Express - Flex Time and Groove Matching - to help you adjust the timing and rhythm of the music you record. These are features that will help even novice users make great-sounding music (see also: how to create your first song in GarageBand).

Open up the Project screen for GarageBand and you'll see listings for New Project, Learn to Play, Lesson Store, Magic GarageBand, iPhone Ringtone, and Recent Projects. Select New Project and you see Piano, Electric Guitar, Voice, Loops, Keyboard Collection, Acoustic Instrument, Songwriting, Podcast, and Movie entries in the main part of the screen.

In the Learn to Play project you'll Guitar Lessons, Piano Lessons, and Artists Lessons tabs. These are simple and interactive ways to learn, and they really work. There's a "How Did I Play?" feature: you listen to the virtual instructor, Tim, playing a piece of your choosing. Then you have a go, playing along to a metronome. Notes briefly turn green when you play them correctly, incorrect notes appear in red. A measure adopts a pink hue when there's a serious mistake and yellow when you've made a lesser mistake. When you finish the piece you see a percentage score in the lower left corner. It's learning made fun: the gamification of music tuition - how much do I wish I had then when I was young and wrestling with piano lessons!

We really like How Did I Play?, and part of that success is down to the customisability of the lessons environment, and - and this is weird to say - the fact that Tim is such a good and engaging teacher. Yes, he's a virtual computer sprite and it feels a little geeky even saying this, but the ideal of the virtual teacher is well drawn and works well.

There's also a new Chord Trainer feature found in the Guitar Lessons area of Learn to Play. Here you can run through common major and minor open chords and major and minor barre chords at your own pace. Play a chord correctly and the displayed chord diagram briefly turns green and a check mark appears in its lower right corner.

Another good thing about GarageBand 11 is its working environments. The Tracks list is clean and uncluttered. To make a track ready for recording you simply select it. Controls are neatly arranged and easy to find. You'll need to learn, of course, but it shouldn't take you long. Or  how about the number of sounds? Take guitar amps: GarageBand 11 has 12 amps and 15 stomp boxes. These include the Stadium Stack Amp, Brownface Combo Amp, British Blues Combo Amp, Large Tweed Amp, Octane Stack Amp, Studio Combo Amp, and Sunshine Stack Amp. New stomp boxes include Hi Drive (distortion), Rawk (overdrive), Heavenly Chorus (chorus), Wah (wah wah), and Candy Fuzz (fuzz). There's a lot of variety here but it is not difficult to find and use. See also: how to use samples in GarageBand.

GarageBand 11

GarageBand review: What's not so good about GarageBand?

There are limitations to the music-making abilities of GarageBand, as you might expect from what is in essence free software. One particular irritant is that you are allowed only to use a single time signature. If you want to change from 3/4 to 12/8 mid tune you need to look elsewhere. You can play what you like, of course, but GarageBand won't reflect the change in either the score or the drum loop. Bohemian Rhapsody couldn't have been created in GarageBand (perhaps I should move this paragraph to the 'what's good' section).

And while the music tuition is great, you have to download lessons via GarageBand'd Lesson Store. The complete collection of free lessons is over 25GB, so you will chew through some data to download them all. Also tuition doesn't always work well: in our tests the Chord Trainer occasionally failed to recognize correctly played chords on both electric and acoustic guitars. It's not a deal breaker, but it is a minor irritant.

We're not a huge fan of the Glossary section. Entries are very basic, with very simple explanations. If you're a novice this will be a good thing, but if you have any musical experience at all you'll find that the Glossary is superflous.

Finally, if you are used to being able to change amps and pedals using foot switches as you thrash out guitar chords, GarageBand will frustrate you. In order to change settings you have to use your Mac. Not very practical mid solo. You can choose setups and switch effects to be on and off via Apogee’s GiO USB controller, but it's expensive. We'd love for Apple to make GarageBand workable with any I/O device. See also: how to sequence songs in GarageBand.

GarageBand: and the verdict?

GarageBand 11 is a great software tool for getting started with learning to play an instrument, and composing music. And it is a pretty good podcast editor, too. More advanced players and music makers will soon come up against limitations, but that's fair enough for what is in essence a free tool (or  a tenner at most). Give it a spin - what have you got to lose?

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