Review: GarageBand 2 Hits the Note

Almost perfect, GB 2 is on key (April 5th, 2005)

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Product Manufacturer: Apple Computer, Inc.

Price: MSRP: iLife $79 (or included with new Macs)

The Good

  • Best entry level audio recording application around, low cost, nice set of features and range of built-in sounds

The Bad

  • No MIDI out, no music printing.

When GarageBand first hit the streets, it was a bold move to give the average Mac user the ability to easily and inexpensively record and sequence music, and see what happens. This musical version of iMovie drew quite a few musicians to the Mac, and it was close to being the most effective entry level music production tool possible. At version One all it needed to be the best starter on any platform was three things: notation (allowing it to be used in music theory classes), MIDI output (to allow controlling external devices), and multitrack recording. Those three missing features made choosing Logic (or elsewhere) an easy decision. When GarageBand 2 (GB2) came out it, with the release of iLife '05 Apple included a couple of major features, multi-tracking and traditional notation. These new features bring it closer to the perfect every-man's music studio, but there are issues that still need to be addressed. GB2 now supports up to 255 tracks of audio. Anybody out there need more? Didn't think so. Now you can record eight tracks at once, which is the magic number to record a small rock ensemble live (i.e., all at once) plus giving the drummer those four mikes that he insists on using. There is still no official way to send MIDI out of the application to run external sound modules. Two out of three isn't bad and GB2 is a major upgrade that deserves all the kudos you can throw its way.

Notation

Musical notation of MIDI events is truly welcome and Apple made it easy to access and use. Many people don't need it, but this allows score based entry of music that fills out a professional level need. The designers have done one of the coolest jobs of note editing ever seen. When you select a note for changes, the matrix view (MIDI piano roll) appears behind it so that you can change the duration of a note or group just by dragging the on the length bar. Changing staff position and pitch is by selection and dragging or select and cursor keys - very easy and intuitive.

This new approach is a great way to teach players to transition from one form to another. Very nice and it would be perfect if it worked correctly on chords, but it cannot display in notation view a change made to a single member of that chord. The sound is correct but the notation is wrong. Tragically speaking, Logic is guilty of much the same approach, unless one delves into more complex note entry methods. This is something that needs more work.

Limitations

Another inadequacy is that you cannot insert key signature changes, so notation entry could get messy if the tune modulates. This limitation makes transcribing a song like "Body and Soul" a chore. The same limitation goes for time signatures. While some think that those changes are obscure, all you need to do point to the Fab Four's "Good Day Sunshine" and realize that a few classic rock songs would pose a problem for GB2 notation. Other than screen shots, GB2 does not allow printing of scores so there's no way to create a part for other players in this application. This clearly is an area where some version of Logic is the solution. Perhaps that is Apple's intention.

New Plugins

Apple added three very useful plugins to GB2 that brings in some of the power of Logic 7. First, there's the pitch correction that allows you to perform the wondrous feat of applying good intonation to a bad vocalist. Second, a beat correction tool works against recorded audio tracks, locking sloppy events into the song's tempo. Third, Vocal Transformer allows the switching of gender characteristics on vocal tracks. These tools are easy to use and work realistically if used sparingly. They can also be used (actually abused) to mangle tracks creatively when applied without restraint. One of GB2's other limitations, following key and time signatures, is that effects must remain constant for the entire track. Only volume and pan can change.

GarageBand and the Logic products use CoreAudio/MIDI which means, in the simplest terms, that they all share basic functions like sound recording, MIDI, and the ability to support Audio Units (AU's). All those AU's work the same way in all three products. Like its Logic cousins, GB2 supports ReWire. All three products share a common engine and this shows in looks as well as capabilities and the fact that they can use identical recording hardware running through identical CoreMIDI and CoreAudio. In a different direction, AppleLoops was added to both Logic products so GB2 just became the perfect scratchpad for Logic.

What GB2 has going for it is an incredible feature set for what is essentially a freeb package. It uses common technology, so it is the perfect appetizer application for audio recording. It is well designed and is intuitive, useful and stable. Even an experienced Logic user may turn to it when inspiration strikes and can later bring the results into Logic for refinement or expansion without losing original content or quality.

Conclusion

The three audio recording applications, Logic Pro 7, Logic Express and GarageBand 2 fit the Apple product matrix the same way that iMovie and Final Cut fill the video space. GB2 covers the entry level and the Logic programs serve the higher ground, and Apple successfully competes with Digidesign, MOTU and Steinberg in the application arena. The winner in all of this is the Mac musician who has a wide range of choices at one's disposal.

by Peter Mengaziol


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