GarageBand (macOS) full review

Which is the better Mac music-production software: GarageBand, or Logic Pro X?

If you've ever wanted to dabble in the fascinating world of audio production then the Mac has you covered. Each new Mac arrives complete with the GarageBand music package installed, which offers an incredible amount of power and usability for the beginner, plus a respectable level of options for the more experienced producer.

Apple, of course, also offers the professional-level Logic Pro X music production app for £199.99, which strikes us as pretty competitive when you consider that the current version of Cubase retails for nearly £500 and Pro Tools 11 is a little north of that. But with GarageBand being such a good product, why would you really need to upgrade?

Like most things in life this very much comes down to what you want to achieve with the tools at hand. So in this feature we'll explore the comparative advantages of each product, with the aim of helping you decide the best Mac music production platform on which to unleash your creativity.

Note that this comparison is based on the 10.3 version of Logic Pro X. To read about the impressive new features added since then, see our Logic Pro X 10.4 review.

See also: Best Mac music software: alternatives to GarageBand | Logic Pro X on Mac App Store

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand: What's in the box?

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand

Logic Pro and GarageBand's main screens

One of the first considerations has to be what you actually get with each app? In recent releases Apple has started transferring Logic features over to GarageBand, but there's still plenty of differences between the two. GarageBand is essentially a simplified version of its bigger brother that allows you to record live instruments and vocals onto your computer. To do this you'll need some form of external interface to get the signal into GarageBand (and Logic for that matter). These range from USB microphones and MIDI keyboards, to guitar modules such as the iRig Pro (£120).

Alternatively you can use the keyboard on your Mac as a MIDI controller, or download the free Logic Remote app to turn your iPad into a control surface for playing the virtual instruments that come with both packages. On GarageBand you have access to fifty different keyboards, drums, and guitar models, with the option of paying £2.99 to upgrade this to a more impressive two hundred. This purchase also expands the loop library and amount of virtual drummers - making it a very worthwhile choice.

The aforementioned loops are great for building backing tracks in demos, or just enhancing the musical depth of your compositions. They are also royalty-free, meaning you can use them in your songs without worrying about an Apple copyright lawyer knocking on your door if you suddenly have a global hit on your hands. Before the in-app purchase GB comes replete with five hundred loops - covering a range of musical styles, sound effects, and jingles - which leaps up to around two thousand once you've invested.

In contrast Logic has a whopping twenty thousand available, with most of these coming via an optional free 35GB download. This is a substantial difference, in more than just sheer volume. Many of the loops belong to specific sets, say 70s Electric Piano, and fit together seamlessly to create varied patterns. With Logic these sets are complete, but the GarageBand selection omits large chunks, making it harder to assemble more complex tracks. As an example 70s Electric piano has twenty nine different variations in Logic, whereas there are only two on GarageBand. That's not to say that you can't create great tracks with them, just that if this is a major part of your plans you might want to consider the expansion of pallette that Logic affords.

Read next: Best free GarageBand for Mac plugins

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand

The Sculpture Tool in Logic Pro

As you might expect Logic comes with a suite of seriously impressive sound creation tools, such as the Space Designer, Ultrabeat Drum synthesiser, and EXS24 Sampler, which don't appear on GarageBand. These are very powerful additions that allow you to craft tones with precision.

Perhaps the most unusual is Sculpture, which Apple claims can re-create the sound of "vibrating materials like wood, glass, nylon or metal", with which it "generates uncommon and creative variations of strings, bells, chimes and other instruments". Also included is a musical score feature which can automatically turn your creations into full notation for those scary people who can actually read music. You know, keyboard players.

One feature both programs now share is Drummer. This is an automated 'live' drummer who plays along to your music, inserting fills and rolls where it sees fit. It's actually a very cool way to add rhythm to your songs without the need for hours of programming, and it works surprisingly well. Certainly if you're planning on putting together versions of your songs to play to your bandmates, or friends, then this will become an essential feature pretty quickly. Logic does have the additional ability to build custom kits, thanks to its Drum Kit Designer, but the range of styles available already will be enough for most people.

Read next: GarageBand for iPad & iPhone review

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand

The Advanced tools in Logic Pro

Guitarists are well catered for, with both apps offering twenty five guitar and Bass amps, plus thirty five different effect pedals. These all sound great and are easy to adjust thanks to the graphical representations of dials and switches that adorn the real thing. One feature that GarageBand has exclusively is 'Learn to Play', which, as the name suggests, is an interactive tutor for guitar and piano that can help you take your first steps with an instrument. There are also tutorials available where stars such as Sting and Norah Jones teach you how to play a few of their songs.

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand: Interface

The first thing you notice when opening both apps is that they look practically identical. This is a deliberate choice from Apple, positioning GarageBand as a kind of training ground for would-be musicians who can then upgrade to Logic without having to learn an entirely new way of working. The similarities are not just confined to the cosmetics. GarageBand and Logic share a common code base, meaning that any projects you create in the former can then be taken with you into the latter without any problems. Again, this allows the user to dabble and experiment with the free software in the knowledge that they won't have to begin again if they upgrade. It's a clever touch, and one we think will tempt more than a few people to move up to the pro-level app.

The main work area features a timeline where recordings are displayed on their relevant tracks, plus a few different panes that house the available instruments, effects, editing functions, and loop library. These can be opened and closed by the various icons at the top of the screen. Logic starts with a few more of these, including the Inspector, which opens a dedicated Channel Strip for the selected track. From here you can add effects, EQ units, and decide how to route the signal - something that isn't possible on GarageBand. Logic also has the option of a full mixer panel that displays all of the Channel strips in the project - very useful for more advanced compositions - all of which can be controlled by a range of external MIDI mixing boards.

Both programs are designed to be single window operations, eschewing the confusion that can result from various panels being buried beneath others. If you want something open just click on it, otherwise it can disappear. For those with multiple screen displays Logic does have the option to creates Spaces style windows so you can have set features open on different ones - say a full screen matrix editor.

Graphically the layout is clean, smart, and easy to work with. Tracks are colour coded and feature icons of their instrument type so you can quickly discern between them. Each instrument also has Smart Controls, which again look like the knobs, dials, and sliders you might find on the real things. With these you can quickly adjust tones to get things closer to your preferred style, and if you link it to your iPad then they actually turn and slide, making it even easier to control. The whole feel of the design is to take away the complexity that music software often has, and instead give you the simplicity you need to just get on with making music.

Logic Pro X version 10.3 adds support for the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro 2016. This means you can navigate your project more easily using the miniature timeline displayed in the Touch Bar.

Alternatively, the Touch Bar can display a (customisable) piano keyboard or drum pads, allowing you to play your own instrumental parts, and you can access volume and Smart Controls for selected tracks.

For more of this sort of thing, see How to use MacBook Pro Touch Bar.

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand: Advanced features

Now, before you think that all these similarities must mean that Logic has been reduced to an amateur product, there are a few tricks up Apple's voluminous sleeves. Namely, that the complexity is all there, you just need to turn it on. In the preferences menu there is an option for Show Advanced Tools, clicking this changes things in a big way. Here you'll find options for several layers of depth in different areas of the program such as MIDI control, Control surfaces, and Advanced editing. It's in these realms that the two apps clearly part company.

GarageBand has simple and usable edit controls - just slide the track volume up or down, Pan the signal left or right, and manually automate fade ins and outs on the timeline. It also has the ability to correct timing issues with Flex Time, a clever feature for errant players that lets you stretch the recording so that off-beat notes come into line with correctly played ones. There's even a pitch correcting function, albeit one that's somewhat rudimentary.

Logic on the other hand has a plethora of editing capabilities that reveal the thoroughbred nature of the product. Track Stacks allows you to group together related tracks - say backing vocals or elements of an orchestra - and apply effects, EQ, and sub-mix parameters to them all simultaneously. You can even play that MIDI orchestra using this technique, or create new instrumental combinations to give your song a unique feel. Then, when you're finished, you click on the icon and the whole Stack collapses down into one track, thus keeping your timeline manageable.

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand

Logic Pro X 10.3 adds a new feature called Track Alternatives, which allows you to switch between multiple sets of edits applied to a track.

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand: Flex Time in GarageBand

Flex Pitch gives you a huge amount of control over vocal takes and live instruments, which can be practically redesigned after the fact, ensuring you don't lose that perfect take. The Flex Time feature found on GarageBand is also here, but with a lot more options to tailor the groove. You can also have multiple time signatures in a single song, a useful function that is missing on GarageBand. The list goes on and on - more detailed timeline controls, expanded parameter controls for effects, simple multi-take editing, plus many more powerful tweaks.

Logic Pro X vs GarageBand: Buying advice

While GarageBand and Logic share many of the same functions and design cues, they are quite different platforms in the end. This, of course, is not really a surprise as one is a free consumer platform, while the other can be found in professional studios all over the world. Interestingly, these commonalities actually make it harder to categorise their users.

GarageBand may be basic in comparison to its bigger brother, but it's far from basic in and of itself. The friendly interface, ability to use external Audio Unit plug-ins, and the well stocked virtual instrument library mean that you can achieve impressive results without the learning curve that pro-level apps require. If you're a singer songwriter, or small band for that matter, and want to record a demo or capture new songs while they're still in your head - GarageBand is an excellent go to solution that can be up and running in minutes, while still offering plenty of power.

Audio drama productions are also a good option thanks to the sound effects and vocal mangling that you can achieve, but podcasters who like to enhance their creations will need to stay back on the previous version after Apple stripped support in this update. You don't even need to be in a band to enjoy GarageBand, as just playing around with the loops and assembling your own pieces can be a lot of fun.

That being said, all of these features are also available - in almost exactly the same layout - in Logic. Apple has made a smart move in hiding the advanced features from the outset (unless you're upgrading from a previous version of Logic, then they're turned on automatically), as it makes the software just as much fun as GarageBand, but with the option to slowly increase its power and flexibility.

There's no need to flip the switch and have the whole complex system overwhelm you, instead you can just add features when you want them. Finding editing too limiting? Click the right button and the world just got deeper. Need to mix for surround sound? Click another. This gives you time to work through each element at your own pace, and develop an understanding of how audio production really works. That's not to say that it's straightforward, though.

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