GarageBand for iOS full review

We’ve been big fans of GarageBand for years, but have always thought it a shame that the iOS app lacked something its Mac-based sibling had from the start: the ability to edit your work. With this new release, that sour note has been corrected. Additionally, the latest version adds a new Smart Strings instrument, track merging, and a whole range of other new features. See also: GarageBand 11 review.

Play it again

Editing a note in GarageBand 1.2 is easy. Simply double-tap on the note in a software instrument track (one that uses the app’s internal sounds) and a series of options appears. New to this series is the Edit command. Tap it and you’ll see a ‘piano roll’ view (rectangles on a grid that represent notes) of the track’s pitches. To move a pitch, just drag it. As you do, GarageBand will play the pitch associated with its current position. To change a note’s duration, tap to select it, and then drag on its right side to lengthen or shorten it. To change its velocity, tap the note and then Velocity in the series of buttons that appears. Simply adjust the slider that appears until you are happy. You don’t have to work on a note-by-note basis, though. Drag diagonally over a group of notes to move or change the duration or the velocity of them all at once by adjusting any one of the notes. 

It’s within this Edit view that you add and delete notes. To remove a note, tap and hold on the red pencil icon in the top-left corner of the screen and then tap on the offending note. It will disappear. To add a note, just tap somewhere that doesn’t currently have a note. 

GarageBand’s creators made an interesting design decision regarding the Edit view. If, for example, you’re working on a keyboard track, you’ll see a keyboard along the left side of the screen that indicates the pitches to the right. Additionally, you can preview notes by tapping on the representation of the instrument on the screen’s left side.

Stringing you along

With this version, GarageBand adds Smart Strings. As with many other smart instruments, this lets you play chords and individual notes, as well as play pre-recorded patterns that fit a particular style and time signature. But this smart instrument has a bit more going on because of the variety of instruments that make up the bowed string family, as well as the many ways you can play them.

When you first call up the Smart String instrument, you’ll see a fingerboard that represents the diatonic chords of the key you’ve chosen (see the screen above). Above are five instruments that make up the string section, which you can turn off by tapping on them. 

In this view you can produce sound from the fingerboard in three different ways. First, if you tap on the fingerboard, you’ll hear a pizzicato chord – the sound of plucked strings. Secondly, swiping up or down quickly will create an ‘arco’ sound – one where the players sharply bow their instruments once. If, however, you tap and drag on a chord, the group plays legato – a chord or note plays until you stop ‘bowing’. 

If you ‘bow’ slowly, the sound is quiet. Bow more quickly and the volume increases. And if you bow one chord and then start slowly bowing on another, the common notes of the first chord will smoothly crossfade to the new chord. The voicing of the chord depends on where you tap on the fingerboard and there are four voice positions for each chord.

As with most other smart instruments, Smart Strings has an Autoplay mode with four different pattern settings. Choose one of the settings with the Autoplay dial, and tap a chord. A pattern will play. The character of the pattern depends on the style you select: Cinematic, Modern, Pop, or Romantic. Each pattern has three variations that you choose by tapping with one, two or three fingers. 

You can also play notes on a selected instrument by tapping on the Notes button. When you do, a fingerboard appears.
To play a note just tap on the strings. Tap and hold, and the string will continue to play until you lift your finger. Shift your finger to the right or left and the pitch goes sharp or flat.

When you bow back and forth on one of these instruments, you don’t hear one long steady pitch. There’s some variation. At the top of the fingerboard is a pizzicato/bow button. When you tap and hold on it and then tap on a string, it plays pizzicato. Tap and hold on the button and then swipe up and down on a string and you bow it (see left).

Pull it together

The iOS version of GarageBand has always been limited to eight tracks, and this version is no different. However, GarageBand 1.2 allows you to combine tracks and squeeze more in that way, with the new Tracks Merge feature (see the screen at the top of the opposite page). Simply tap an instrument icon in the tracks window, and then tap the Merge button that appears. The instruments list shifts slightly to the right, and tickboxes appear next to each track. Tick the box next to each instrument you want to merge, then tap Merge in the top-right corner of the screen. The original unmerged song will be saved and a new song created that contains the selected tracks merged into one track, plus any individual tracks that you chose not to add. If you’re unhappy with the result, you can undo it immediately or return to the original version of the song, which you find on the My Songs screen.

Getting your share

A number of sharing options are new to this version of GarageBand. First, in the My Songs screen, tap and hold on a file until its thumbnail starts shaking. When you do this, a number of icons appear in the top-left corner. The one you’re after is the Share icon. Tap it, and you’ll find the options to share your song via Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud and iMovie. When you upload your track to the first two services, the song is represented by a large frame containing the GarageBand icon. A SoundCloud upload produces a typical sound file in your account’s tracks page, while iMovie adds your song to a new project.

As for sharing your songs with other iOS devices, you can use iCloud. Tap and hold on a song until its icon starts shaking and tap it. Next, tap the iCloud icon that appears in the screen’s top-left corner and then Upload Song(s) to iCloud from the resulting menu. Each selected track displays an arrow, indicating it’s being uploaded to iCloud. When the upload is complete, the thumbnail bears a cloud icon.

Now move to another iOS device and look at the My Songs screen in its copy of GarageBand. Any tracks you’ve chosen to sync with iCloud will appear on this screen with a down-pointing arrow. Tap the song and it will download to your device, ready to play and edit. When you edit a track and then return to the My Songs screen or leave GarageBand, the edited version is synced to iCloud, as well as to any iOS devices that have a copy of it. This is a very slick feature if you work on songs on multiple devices. Note that iCloud sync works only among iOS devices. It isn’t currently supported between the iOS and Mac OS versions of GarageBand.

Jam today

New to this version of GarageBand is the Jam Session feature, which allows up to four people to play and record together on compatible iOS devices (see screen below). This works in the way you’d play a collaborative game. Each member of the band must be on the same local Wi-Fi network. (If Wi-Fi isn’t available, you can also hold a jam session over Bluetooth.) 

One member of the group needs to tap the Jam Session button that appears at the top of the GarageBand screen. They will become the leader and can control the song’s key, chords and tempo. The leader then taps Create Session. The other members of the band tap their Jam Session buttons and, in the Join Session area of the resulting window or screen, tap the name of the iOS device that the leader is using. They’re now part of the session. 

When everyone’s signed in, the leader closes the Jam Session window or screen. Each player then chooses an instrument and waits for the leader to tap the Record button. It’s now time for everyone to start playing. You can hear what others are playing through the speakers of your iOS device. When you’ve finished, the leader taps the Stop button and, by default, all the individual parts are copied to their device, where they appear as new tracks within the tracks screen. Tap Play on this device, and all recorded tracks play on the leader’s device. At the same time, each player will hear the track they recorded.

While this feature may seem daunting to non-musicians, bear in mind that every single player can use one of GarageBand’s smart instruments or the Audio Recorder. With this kind of setup, you can record a part with just a tap or two. 

If you allow the default behaviour, which is for tracks to be auto-collected by the leader’s device, then players can edit their tracks, though those edits won’t be pushed to the leader’s device. If players want to edit their part, the leader must switch off the Auto-Collect Recordings option in their Jam Session window. Players can then edit and when they’re finished, the leader taps the Collect Recordings button in the Jam Session window, at which point the tracks will be transferred.

Your band can also overdub itself. So, for example, with your four players, record drums, bass, guitar and keyboards in one session. At the completion of that session, each member creates a new track with a different instrument. Once again, the leader taps Record and the players play along with their previously recorded tracks. When the leader stops the recording, those four new tracks appear on the leader’s device.

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