Apple GarageBand for iPad by musicus
Wow, I can't believe there's not a single review of Apple's GarageBand on here yet!
I am an experienced musician but a total newbie in modern digital recording. So I started with a low-cost introduction: GarageBand for iPad.
After a week of playing with it, I am blown away. Maybe it's just that I have no frame of reference of better gear, but from a rank beginner's perspective, this is really an ideal way to start out.
First, at just $4.99 at time of writing, you can't get a much cheaper first foray into DAW's. Plus, it's an industry standard with millions of installs - meaning it reliably installs itself and works just fine. Once you click "buy", you are up and running within minutes without any further intervention or set up on your part. It's pretty much risk and stress free. The only stress I experienced was that this is by far the largest app I've ever downloaded so it took much longer to download than I'm used to and I wondered if everything was ok - but it was.
Then, once installed - it's astounding how obvious the basic functions are. It opens ready to start recording your first song, presenting you with a horizontal scrolling selection of instruments to choose from. But first you spend a little time trying out the instruments.
Now, these are touch-screen instruments. Noone's going to play anything technically impressive on them in terms of musicianship. But for laying down some basic lines, or a melody, or some backing tracks, they do just fine. In particular the "Smart" instruments really are pretty smart. I was able, in just an hour of playing with it, to figure out how to do a perfectly nice string-section backing track with the Smart Strings. You need to explore these smart instruments, though - there are functionalities that aren't at all obvious. The strings for example - took me a while to figure out that I didn't have to just pluck the strings - rubbing the fingerboard would produce a continuous sound that could be modulated in volume by pressure or rapidity. Of course, I suspect this would all be obvious if I'd read the documentation - but who does that? The one less impressive feature was the smart drums - ok, they's smarter than me tapping something out with my fingers, but not that smart. There's no mistake it sounds like a drum machine.
With a first instrument selected and something to play, hit the easy to find red record button, and play. That's it. You've just recorded your first digital track. You're naturaly drawn next to tap the Tracks icon to go to Tracks View, and there is your first track, clearly and intuitively laid out. The "+" button beckons you to lay down another track, just as intuitively.
I've read about arcane workflows in more professional DAW's. This is not the case in GarageBand. The track layout is clear and natural. You can see your tracks stacked up, synchronized, in a parallel tabular layout. It couldn't be more clear. In this view, you can do some track editing tasks like setting levels, effects, and cutting, trimming and pasting track sections. All with an interface that took me just a short while to understand.
There's also a track editing view, where you can literally re-arrange individual notes.
What there's not - or at least I haven't found it yet - are advanced mixing functions like equalization, or the ability to vary the track volume during playback/recording. But, it was $4.99, after all.
One of the first things beginners figure they'll need is a good mic and pre-amp, 'cause no DAW instrument is singing for you. For simply capturing words and a melody, the iPad's built-in mic works just fine to start out with.
This is not meant to be a detailed 'how-to' guide, so I won't go into every function. What I did want to convey with this review is to other beginner recordists: If you have an Apple platform already (iPad, Mac, etc.), then GarageBand is really an excellent, low-cost, risk-free, stress-free, fully-functional, easy to learn way to get started that will produce pretty respectable results for a beginner.
The result? In about 5 hours from saying 'go', I had a multi-track song laid down with keyboards, strings, guitar, drums and voice. And it sounds pretty darn good. Next thing you know, I'm trimming, cutting and pasting track sections, building up an entire arrangement, feeling like a real music production pro. It doesn't matter that this is not true - what's important is that you can feel like it very quickly - it's exciting, you want to do more, go further. That was easy!
Now, I will go on to say that after a week or so, I am discovering its limitations. First you're limited to eight tracks. Yes, you can merge tracks to free some up, but it's not ideal. As I said, the drums sound unmistakably like a drum machine. The synths are pretty limited. As are the organs, I find. A big one is the inability to change a track's settings - especially volume - part way through. And, let's be honest - with next to no mastering functions you're not going to be producing anything of a quality for your next CD or radio - remember, it was $4.99. But for capturing a song idea and laying it out in detail at a pretty good quality level for a perfectly respectable demo - especially in a highly portable package - this is the best thing since sliced bread.
The only remaining aspect is that I can see how the built-in sounds are going to get exhausted pretty quickly and I'm going to want to input exterior sounds. Especially natural, mic'd sounds. If you want to play anything of any complexity on a piano, for example, you're not going to do it on the little iPad keyboard. And clearly vocals of any quality are going to require a good mic/preamp combo. So I already want to get mic'd up and feed it into GarageBand. I haven't done this yet, but I see online that there are a plethora of interfaces available, and now I feel a lot more motivated to go out and get set up with a good mic and preamp knowing that I have a decent DAW to feed them into that barely scratched my gear budget.