The iPad is fast becoming a legitimate music composition tool – thanks in large part to its own version of GarageBand, Apple's seminal, entry-level music app. Earlier this year with version 1.2, GarageBand gained many professional-level features, including piano roll-style note editing, an expanded sound palate, and additional recording tools.
The latest version, 1.3, adds several new features – chief among them the ability for GarageBand to work smoothly in the background while you play other iPad music apps on top of it. And as always, GarageBand for iPad sounds great, and it remains as easy to dive into as ever. There's serious competition when it comes to music making on the iPad, but for just £2.99, you simply can't go wrong with this app.
For this review, I tested GarageBand 1.3 on a 16GB Apple iPad 3. First, a quick recap: Start up the app, and you'll be presented with the Instruments page. Swiping left and right reveals different touch instruments you can play, including drums, bass, and keyboards.
There are also several "smart" instruments that assist your playing (more on that later), plus some audio recording modes for sampling your voice or hooking up an electric guitar. Tap on an icon, and you'll see a customised interface designed to reflect the chosen instrument or recording tool as closely as possible. All touch instruments are velocity sensitive; the harder you tap the screen, the louder the note plays. You can configure the sensitivity level, or turn it off entirely to make every note the same volume.
The instruments on the main menu aren't only ones you can play, either. For example, the keyboard instrument defaults to a grand piano sound, but you can tap the icon and choose from a selection of over 70 other keyboard and synthesiser patches. The drum instrument offers three acoustic kits and three electronic kits, the latter of which you play with a pad-style interface instead of a visual representation of a drum set. When recording audio, you can record full-blown vocal or guitar tracks, or sample short bursts of audio that then automatically map across a virtual keyboard on screen. The guitar amp offers nine different amp models and 10 stompbox effects (though for these, you'll need to plug in a real electric guitar, using a device like the Apogee Jam).
GarageBand's claim to fame, aside from its excellent sound quality, is its easy live playback and recording modes. For example, the Smart Guitar defaults to a series of chords that sound good together; strum the on-screen strings, and it's impossible to make a mistake. Beginning in this version, you can now customise the chords, which lets you program your own (such as a seventh or a ninth), or add in the ones from a songbook so you can then jam in the right key. The piano mode is more freeform and like a regular piano to begin with, but you get plenty of customisation options here, including keys of three different widths, a second tier of keys, and the ability to choose your octave, scale, and whether the sustain pedal is pressed.
At any time, you can begin recording by setting the tempo and tapping the record button on top; this will create a new track, and let you stack instruments one by one in true multi-track fashion (up to eight tracks). Once you've recorded something, you'll want to take a better look at it. The Tracks page works like a desktop sequencer's Arrange window, and lets you shorten, copy, or drag parts around on each track. GarageBand's recording modes alone are enough to vault it ahead of IK Multimedia SampleTank (which is £13.99, though currently on offer at half price), which also offers expressive, nice sounding instruments, but is sorely lacking in the recording department.
Across the various smart instruments in GarageBand, you'll also find hundreds of auto-play loops and arpeggiated patterns, often with three or four choices for each sound. These also map automatically to GarageBand's new 3/4 and 6/8 time signatures in addition to 4/4 (though they obviously change a bit when that happens, since you can't fit as many notes into each pattern as with the other time signatures). You can tap with two or three fingers and bring up variations, and also record these loops and manipulate them, just like other song data.
It's almost impossible to overstate how easy all of this makes it for a beginner to just jump in and start making music. That's probably GarageBand's biggest appeal on the iPad just in general, and that trait is preserved, and arguably even enhanced, in this latest version. It makes GarageBand a great tool for teaching you how to make and record music in a variety of styles.
It won't teach you how to play an instrument, since you can set it so that you never make mistakes, and the actual finger positions are hidden on some of the instruments. But since it's an iPad, that's understandable – and GarageBand '11 (£10.49) on the Mac desktop actually does have dozens of tutorial videos available, if you want to go that route.
Jam Session and Note Editor
Jam Session lets you and up to three other players jam together over local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth using the same tempo, key signature, meter, and set of chords. It works with any iPad, any iPhone 4 or newer, and any fourth generation or newer iPod touch. Whoever sets up the session is the band leader, who can then decide to record the session at any point; from then on, all devices begin recording.
Once recording stops, all three additional recorded tracks are sent automatically to the band leader's device for further editing and mixing. I got a small two person session going with the iPad 3 and a nearby iPhone 5; the two devices synced up perfectly, and my electric organ recording on the iPhone appeared instantly on the iPad, on top of existing tracks, when I was done.
The Note Editor, introduced in version 1.2, brought GarageBand for iPad much closer to the desktop version, as well as other iPad recording apps like Blip Interactive NanoStudio (£10.49) and Image Line FL Studio Mobile HD (£13.99). It allows basic after-the-fact note editing for pitch, velocity, and duration. This means you no longer have to record an entire part after making a mistake.
Double-tap on a recorded track, then tap Edit, and a piano roll-style editor opens up that you can pinch zoom in and out of. Whenever you tap on a note, it highlights; you can then cut, copy, or delete it, modify its velocity, or drag its position and length. The note editor is also context sensitive – edit drums, and you'll see a pattern-based grid view with icons on the left representing each drum, instead of piano keys.
Recordings are automatically quantised to a 32nd-note grid, and it's non-destructive; you can turn it off and revert to the original data. But you can't adjust the grid or quantise strength in any way. You can add new notes, but you can't transpose existing ones (except individually, or on a global track basis), or otherwise perform any more advanced editing.
But it's a start, and a good one. And I liked the touch-based piano roll editing; it felt quite intuitive when compared with the more typical keyboard-and-mouse style you'd find in desktop software. Plus, a new Track Merge feature lets you bounce tracks down into a single track, which gives you more room for adding additional tracks.
Smart Strings contains some surprising power just beneath the surface. The string sounds are wonderfully expressive, with pizzicato, arco staccato, and legato articulations available depending on how you tap or strike the chord keys. You can also speed up the back-and-forth swipes to build a crescendo or diminuendo, and alternate up and down bow strokes for a more natural sound (and no "machine gun" effect). Playing individual notes is much tougher, thanks to the lack of frets on the fretboard of each instrument. I suppose that mimics real life, but try as I could, I couldn't get a solo legato line out that sounded halfway decent for the life of me.
Also, it's purely a string orchestra. There are no smart woodwinds, brass, or percussion to go with it, and no choir or harp either. On the other hand, the keyboard and bass instruments are about as varied and expressive as you could hope for, which makes it a cinch to compose dance music or 80s-style retro hits. There are some really good sounds in here, including a biting Wurlitzer, thick analogue-style pads, and an arpeggiated FM digital bass with an adjustable filter (via the mod wheel), complete with a picture of a Yamaha DX7.
New for version 1.3 is the ability to play or record with GarageBand in the background while using other apps. This means you can pipe in, say, the sound from Korg iPolySix, into a record-enabled audio track in GarageBand. It's a killer feature, because before this, you either needed to do a lot of app switching, or you needed multiple iPads hooked into each other. Live performers may still want multiple iPads on stage, but allowing for background recording and playback goes a long way.
On the other hand, GarageBand's recording and playback modes remain inflexible at times. For example, you still can't impose the on-screen piano keyboard on the drum, bass, and guitar sounds, the way you can with Blip Interactive NanoStudio. If you've ever recorded anything in desktop music software before, your hands are used to General MIDI-style drum set keys. With the kick and snare reversed in the drum view, and the hi-hat above them, it's tough to play a real-time beat without relearning your technique.
You also can't swap the smart instrument interfaces for an on-screen keyboard either. This won't necessarily matter if you're starting fresh, but it will matter if you use any other recording apps besides GarageBand, or graduate to any desktop-based recording tools, nearly all of which follow standard conventions.
You can publish songs directly to Facebook, YouTube, or SoundCloud, as well as export finished audio to iMovie for custom soundtracks. GarageBand 1.3 lets you import songs from the music library on your iOS device, giving you another way to bring in recordings you've made in another app.
You can also export newly minted recordings from GarageBand as ringtones, assuming you have an iOS 6 device. GarageBand includes a folder-based song browser for managing your recordings, plus support for iCloud, which lets you keep projects in sync across different iOS devices. That's great if you want to continue working on a song you started on your iPad back at home, but only have your iPhone with you on the go.
But the way the iPad works, you're also limited in what you can do with your projects. You can open any songs directly in the desktop versions of GarageBand or Logic Pro, including MIDI data recorded from smart instruments (if not the smart instruments themselves). But you still need to sync a specific iPad to a specific machine; for example, you can't just grab a few people in a room, record a jam session, and then move that project immediately to any nearby computer. One of those iPads must sync to a computer in that room (or somewhere else), iCloud notwithstanding.
You also can't open projects in other sequencers, or on a PC; you can only export finished stereo audio files, though you can import those into another program as a stereo audio track, and then keep adding tracks if you desire.
Finally, Apple claims to have addressed some issues "related to overall performance and stability" with version 1.3. I can say that the occasional note choppiness I heard in GarageBand 1.2 is gone, at least from my own experience. The fact that this app still works on all iPads, even the first one – minus a few features like Jam Session – is testament to Apple's coding skills, and the flexibility of iOS in general.
If you're experienced with digital audio workstation software and want a more traditional recording environment on the iPad, check out NanoStudio, with its more recognisable arrange window, MIDI editing, and virtual synthesisers. Either that, or the more electronic-focused FL Studio Mobile HD, which offers grid and pattern-based loop recording, and appropriately electronic sounding instrument presets.
But for just three quid, GarageBand 1.3 turns your iPad into a powerful and expressive scratchpad for playing and recording music – especially if you're a beginner, but even if you have plenty of experience making music, too. At this price, it's almost impossible to resist, and the app definitely snares itself a Best Buy award.