Apple GarageBand (for Mac) Review

There’s been a seismic shift in how records are made. A couple of decades ago, it took a mountain of gear to make an album. Now, you can do it with the built-in software that comes with every Apple computer, thanks to the free GarageBand. Unlike the cartoonish version that debuted in the early aughts, the new GarageBand features a surprisingly serious presentation that roughly mirrors the high-end Logic Pro X digital audio workstation, or DAW. Although GarageBand lacks Logic’s amazing flexibility, vast array of instruments, and powerful mixing and mastering features, it’s almost as powerful when it comes to handling other tasks. The fact that GarageBand is free makes the app all the better, and a clear Editors’ Choice for entry-level recording software.

Setup and User Interface

For this review, I tested GarageBand 10.3.2 on a 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with 16GB RAM and macOS Mojave. To use this app, you must plug in a USB-compatible MIDI keyboard and either a pair of headphones or a small pair of desktop speakers. For plugging in an electric guitar or bass, or connecting microphones to record vocals and other acoustic instruments, you’ll need an audio interface of some kind, such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) or the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96.

GarageBand’s basic interface layout mimics that of Logic Pro X and other proper multitrack software. I vastly prefer this to GarageBand’s old design, which tried to imitate a four-track tabletop recorder. When you first create a project, you’re tasked with selecting a template for the kind of music you want to record, as well as an empty project you can populate from scratch. Selecting one brings up the main interface. The top-right portion of the window is where you add and mix new tracks. You click any recorded data to bring up an editor in the bottom portion of the display. Here you can switch between piano roll and score views, an audio editor, and, where appropriate, an EQ tab that displays a beautiful, clean-sounding parametric equalizer for the given track.

The left side of the display shows your selected instrument. The top bar includes icons for triggering the various windows, a transport bar for recording and playback, an LED-style readout for the current beat, bar, tempo, meter, and other information, icons for loop recording, a guitar tuner, a count off, and a metronome. It’s easy to resize the various windows and zoom levels using the on-screen sliders. To the far right, you can launch a Notes page, an audio loop browser, and a media drawer for recorded audio and movies you want to sync music to. Apple also added support for the Force Touch trackpad and Touch Bar that come built into the latest MacBook Pros.

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Recording, Smart Controls, and Remote

Recording is as simple as arming a track and clicking the Record icon. You can record at 24 bits with a mic, if you have a USB-powered one or an audio interface with a mic preamp into which you can plug a microphone. You can record and mix up to 255 tracks, and only your audio interface limits how many you can record simultaneously. You can easily record multiple takes, and comp them. With version 10.3.2, you can drag and drop on-the-fly Voice Memo recordings of your latest idea right into GarageBand.

Basic editing is simple, but if you want to really dig into GarageBand, advanced features are available, too. Flex Time lets you massage the groove of a given audio track, while Groove Matching perfectly matches the timing, tempo, and feel of the other tracks to the one you have set up. These are surprisingly transparent sounding, as long as you use them within reason.

There’s still no proper mixing board. Instead, you use the left side of the Arrangement window as a mixer, with horizontal sliders on each track. There’s a reverb effect, and you can pan tracks from left to right in the stereo field; you can also apply compression to recorded audio tracks. GarageBand includes a basic mastering track to boost your levels and get a finished sound, though it’s nothing like what you’d get in a professional-level digital audio workstation, such as Logic Pro X or Pro Tools. Still, it’s a much-appreciated inclusion in a free recording app.

GarageBand works with the excellent Logic Remote app that’s available free on iOS devices. You can use your iPad or iPhone to wirelessly play any GarageBand instrument on the Mac, adjust the Smart Controls for individual sounds, and otherwise edit and arrange your project. It also has built-in transport controls, so you can record with a guitar or vocals on one side of the room while you remotely start and stop the Mac on the other side using Logic Remote. This process used to require the use of a $1,000 hardware control surface and a professional digital audio workstation program; now it’s free on your phone or tablet.

Taking another page from Logic Pro X, GarageBand boasts Smart Controls that highlight the most effective parameters to tweak for a given sound, and present knobs, buttons, and sliders for you to adjust, depending on the instrument. You can now record performances with Smart Controls, too, letting you shape and evolve sounds in real time that then get printed to the track as automation data.

Many Instruments

There’s a solid sound library built in, and Apple has been continually adding to it over the past several years; you no longer need to pay $4.99 to get extra sounds. Out of the box, you get an array of sweet-sounding acoustic and electronic drums, electric and acoustic basses, and a small variety of synth pads, leads, and basses. There’s a nice acoustic piano, electric piano, clavinet, and tonewheel organ, new Mellotron patches, and acoustic and clean electric guitars. The orchestral instruments contain several choir samples, a harp, and a pipe organ, in addition to the usual strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. A new Chinese instrument section includes the Erhu and Pipa, and for Japan, the Guzheng, Koto, and a set of Taiko drums.

Guitar and bass players can plug in and choose from a selection of 28 instrument-specific amps and cabinets with a choice of several microphones, plus 35 separate stomp boxes and a handy tuner. You also get Drummer, a virtual session player plug-in that accompanies your tracks with one of 28 players. Drop one on a track, and you’ll get an automatic groove you can tune in real time to simplify or busy up the playing. GarageBand 10.3 adds two new players for roots and jazz-influenced brushwork. More than 3,000 Apple Loops help get you started in a variety of genres, and there’s even a library of 400 sound effects for basic post-production work. (Note: You’ll need to download most of the sounds separately by heading to GarageBand > Sound Library and selecting Download All Sounds; they’re not included in the initial App Store download.)

Across the board, the patches sound good to excellent. I particularly like the Steinway piano and the acoustic stand-up bass. GarageBand supports third-party AU plug-ins, so you could buy or download free virtual instruments and add to your sonic repertoire—and those will of course carry over if you upgrade to Logic Pro X or another professional DAW. A quick check around the internet revealed people having trouble with existing third-party plug-ins, so check each manufacturer’s website for updated compatibility with GarageBand.

Options, Options, Options

GarageBand comes with 40 free basic guitar and piano lessons you can download; to get started with these, click Learn to Play in the New Project window. Each lesson provides real-time feedback as you play to show you what you’ve done correctly or incorrectly. The Lesson Store is no longer; you now get more than 20 free downloadable artist lessons from famous artists such as Sara Bareiles, John Legend, Rush, and Sting, playing their signature hits and showing you how to do so. Apple used to charge $5 a pop for these, so this is an excellent freebie.

There are plenty of online sharing options for social networks, as well as the ability to export to MP3, SoundCloud, iTunes, or a custom ringtone file for your phone. You can also save projects to iCloud, or better yet, start a project on GarageBand on the iPad or iPhone, save it, and then open it in GarageBand on the desktop. You can now import projects from the iOS Music Memos app, as well.

Stunningly Versatile

GarageBand is incredibly powerful for a free DAW. There are lower-cost DAWs on the PC side that come in at under $100, such as Cockos Reaper and Studio One Artist, but there’s nothing free with this much power and this many included sounds. If you prefer a full mixing console, many more instruments and effects, pitch correction, proper mastering, and other pro editing features, Logic Pro X—also an Editors’ Choice for Mac users—is an excellent buy at $199. All told, you can’t beat GarageBand for getting started making music, immediately and affordably.

Apple GarageBand (for Mac)



The Bottom Line

GarageBand offers easy music recording for novices and pros alike, and it comes free with every Mac. The app is still the best way to learn piano or guitar on a computer and easily earns our Editors’ Choice nod.

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