Tutorial: Mastering GarageBand for the iPad

Tutorial: Mastering GarageBand for the iPad
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It costs only $5.99, but GarageBand for the iPad is not only easy-to-use but has plenty of hidden depths. Here's a primer to what's possible with this iPad app.

GarageBand for the iPad is an extraordinary piece of software. For a mere $5.99, it offers a remarkable range of accessible musical tools for novices and experts alike. Although it has its shortcomings, it can help you develop musical ideas in a way that’s never before been so easy and enjoyable.

The beauty of GarageBand is its flexibility. If you just want to “doodle”, you can use the virtual keyboard to play melodies and chords on a wide selection of instruments, ranging from pianos and organs to classic analogue keyboards – complete with envelope and filter controls for tweaking the sound, just like on a real synthesiser. You can play percussion by tapping on a virtual drumkit, or play guitar chords and riffs with the Smart Guitar. You can work with loops, sample your own sounds, and even record live vocal and guitar lines. 

Yet GarageBand also includes a full sequencer, allowing you to progress from tinkering to assembling complex piecesof music, which you can divide into up to ten sections across eight tracks. Whether you’re looking for a musical sketchpad or a handheld workstation, we’ll show you some of our favourite techniques for making the most of this powerful app.

The Basics

GarageBand has considerable depth, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with the help documents built into the app to enable you to find your way around. Ironically, these help documents are themselves slightly hard to find: tap the question mark icon at the top right of the display and you’ll see only a few sticky notes indicating what certain buttons do.

To access the full help system, click the Tools icon (the spanner next to the question mark icon) and click the Help item from the menu that opens. This will give you an overview of creating, editing and sharing songs using GarageBand for the iPad.

The online help doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a good way to get to grips with the fundamentals, such as adding and removing Tracks and arranging sections to build up a complete song. You may find it more convenient to view the help file on your computer, so you can refer to it while you’re using the app: you can find an online mirror of it by clicking here.

Apple Loops


It’s easy to miss GarageBand’s built-in library of Apple Loops, as it’s hidden behind a cryptic icon. This is a shame, since loops are a great way to get started on a new composition – or to add atmosphere to existing work. The selection isn’t as extensive as the library you get with the Mac version, but it still offers a wide palette of ready-to-use musical components. 

One common use for loops is providing a drum track, over which you can layer your other instruments. Click the Apple Loop icon at the top right of the Track view and you’ll see a window showing a list of 85 drum loops. You can scroll through it and tap to hear a preview of each one. When you find one you like, drag it out into the track area: GarageBand will automatically create a track for it, and set it to play for the length of the current song section. 

Many loops come in multiple variations, such as alternate rhythms and fills that can add variety to your song. To insert a drum fill or variation into your loop track, you first need to create a space for it. To do this, double tap on the drum clip that’s currently there; select Split from the contextual menu that appears; then drag the split marker to the point where you want to insert your new clip. Drag the marker down to make the split, then repeat the process at the point where you want to return to the original clip (typically, the start of the next bar). You can now double-tap on the middle clip you’ve just created and delete it, then drag an Apple Loop into the empty space.

Loops aren’t limited to drum beats: click the Instrument item in the Apple Loops dropdown and you can also choose from a selection of musical loops including basslines, tambourines and even a few backing vocal lines. These musical loops are automatically pitched to match the key of your song, which you can select from the Song Settings dropdown at the top right of the screen. 

You can also import additional audio files into GarageBand compositions, in AIFF, WAV, CAF and Apple Loop formats. The files must previously have been transferred to GarageBand from a PC or Mac using iTunes’ file-sharing feature. To import them, go to the Track view, tap in an empty track, then tap the “Import…” button that pops up to see a selection of available files. 

Smart Drums


If drum loops don’t inspire you, GarageBand’s Smart Drums are an easy way to create your own groove. To make a basic drum beat, drag the Kick drum, Snare drum and Hi-Hat cymbals icons from the right of the screen onto the grid, placing them near the middle of the top row. If you’re not sure what each element does, tap the “power” icon at the bottom left of the display, then drag the elements onto the grid one by one to hear how they contribute to the beat. Drag each element to the left to make it play a simpler rhythm, or to the right to make it more complex. Move it down the grid to make it play more quietly. 

Depending on which drum kit or machine you’re using, you’ll see a selection of other percussion instruments, too, which you can drag onto the grid to add interest. When you have a beat you’re happy with, hit Record to lay it down. To create extra variety in your drum track, you can move icons around while recording – or stop, move the icons about, then resume the recording. If inspiration still doesn’t strike, tap the die icon near the bottom-left corner to create a random beat, which you can then tweak to your liking; use as is, or play over the top of a loop to create a new combination of rhythms.

Smart Chords


The Smart Keyboard, Bass and Guitar instruments are a great tool for creating chord progressions. If you’re a musical novice that may sound daunting, but GarageBand keeps it simple by offering only a selection of common chords for whichever key your song is in (C major, by default), and you can experiment to your heart’s content.

The Smart Guitar instrument is a good one to experiment with by tapping the lettered tabs that sit above the virtual “strings”. Try playing C – which is the root chord of your key – then F, then C again. Then, for comparison, try playing C-G-C to hear how these chords work together. Tap the strings beneath the chord names to play individual notes from each chord. 

Once you’ve got the hang of this, try working in the minor chords at the left of the screen: Em, Am and Dm are the relative minor chords of G, C and F respectively, and you may be able to hear the relationship between them. The two chords at the right-hand side – Bb and Bdim – don’t fit so easily with the others, but they’re useful in certain contexts. Switch on Autoplay and you’ll hear your virtual guitar play a simple riff (there are four to choose from), which follows the chords you press. If you turn off Autoplay, you can drop in your own notes by strumming or tapping the virtual strings. 

The big limitation of Smart Chords is that there’s no way to play chords outside of the eight on offer. If you want to create more complex chord progressions, or to change key during the course of a song, you’ll have to play the unsupported chords “by hand”. If you’re using the Smart Guitar or Bass, you can do this by switching your Smart instrument to Notes mode, and using GarageBand’s multitouch support to play the appropriate notes to make up the desired chords. If you’re using the Smart Keyboard, switch to the regular Keyboard. Alternatively, you could hook up an external instrument.

NEXT PAGE: Connecting Instruments, Exporting to a Mac, Editing Clips in GarageBand...

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