GarageBand: Powerful Music Creation on Your iPhone

Years ago, the iPod won the digital media player wars. It wasn’t really a fair fight; the iPod had Apple and the record companies behind it, pushing for people to purchase music and providing a smooth, streamlined way to do so. The iPod’s dominance continued for years, and when Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone, he also said that it was the finest iPod that the company had ever made.

Now the iPhone is a product category unto itself, and it’s left the iPod’s legacy in the dust. While you can still listen to music with your iPhone, you can now do something that no iPod ever could: create music. While there are many apps out there that make this possible, my favorite is GarageBand, sold directly through Apple.

An Introduction

I couldn’t believe it when GarageBand was released for the iPad. I had played with the application on my Mac and enjoyed it, but the iPad’s release was the one that I really connected with. Being able to touch the instruments and interact with them directly instead of through a trackpad or keyboard was amazing. I only had one question at the time: when would it arrive on the iPhone?

Now it has, and I’m happy to say that it was worth the wait. The iPhone is the one item that I have on my person for the large majority of the day, so being able to create music (or try to, anyway) on the go feels like living in the future. What bands used to need to spend thousands (or millions) of dollars on can now be accomplished, largely, with something that fits in my front pocket.

Let’s Rock!

You want to create music — GarageBand wants to help you do that. It’s really that simple. You can play the music via the touch screen with instruments like assorted guitars, pianos or drum sets, or you can use the iPhone to record other audio (singing, live drums, acoustic guitar) through the built-in microphone or a product to extend the iPhone’s functionality.

Playing Instruments, the Fun Way

I appreciate few things more than the piano. While I can barely play, being able to interact with the keys and make music has always held my interest. The same goes for the guitar, or my brief relationship with drums. It’s fun to sit around, poke a few buttons, strum a few chords and see what you can make.

GarageBand supports this with the on-screen instruments. Everything works about as you would expect; touch a piano key and it will play the note associated with it; tap the snare drum and you’ll get a good clean sound. The application feels incredibly fast on my iPhone 4S, handling everything that I threw at it with ease.

Yes, that is a piano in my pocket. No, I'm not happy to see you.

Yes, that is a piano in my pocket. No, I'm not happy to see you.

The “holy cow” moment with GarageBand came when I realized that I could tap the instruments with varying speed and have the sound change. Apple managed to incorporate the accelerometer into the instruments, creating an experience that feels more true to playing the real thing than simply tapping away at virtual buttons.

Playing Instruments, the Smart Way

Not everyone can be graced with instinctual musical talent. I can’t carry a tune to save my life, and I’m not nearly as good at playing the guitar as I would like to be. Many people are drawn to music in much the same way that they’re drawn to writing; everyone thinks that they are capable and prepared, but only a select few are actually able to learn and perform the craft.

Instruments without a gear play as normal; instruments with a gear play themselves.

Instruments without a gear play as normal; instruments with a gear play themselves.

Thankfully, Apple didn’t want to rule anyone out with GarageBand. They knew that people would need a little bit of help (or a lot of help) and they built those tools right into the application. GarageBand features Smart Instruments that will essentially play themselves at your command. You still have some input, but the output is fairly static.

This is less than ideal for someone that wants complete control over their music, but can be a fun way to kill some time if you aren’t as experienced as you would like to be.

Aaaaaaaaaand Cut!

Playing the instrument is only half the battle. If you want to create a viable song you’re going to need some control over the sound that has been created after the fact, whether it’s by removing entire sections or moving something around for better effect. No matter what the case is, you’re going to require a bit of editing.

It’s important to recognize that you are doing this with a phone. While Apple has created something that works astonishingly well and is surprisingly capable, you aren’t going to be able to achieve the same thing with the iPhone that you would with professional-grade software and a mixing deck with hundreds or thousands of knobs.

That said, GarageBand for the iPhone is more than capable for amateur users. It all depends on the amount of time that you’re willing to put into a song and how much you are willing to play around with.

The Basics: Move it Around, Do a Split

Songs are organized by instrument, with different sections within each instrument’s row. These sections are interactive; simply tap and hold on one of the sections to grab it, slide it around to change its position in the track, and release your finger to drop it down. That simple action can mean the difference between a crummy song that doesn’t come together and a beautiful one that seems to work perfectly.

Trimming a section into multiple pieces.

Trimming a section into multiple pieces.

GarageBand has basic controls that facilitate the above process as well. If you feel like a certain part of a section needs to be moved but the proceeding part can stay where it is, simply split the section and voila! You now have two different sections to work with.

The Basics: Loops

Let’s say you want to work with something that is just outside of your realm of capabilities. Or instead, let’s say that you feel like a certain track just needs an orchestral layer to it. Apple thought this through, grabbed some world-class musicians, and recorded loops for you to drag and drop into your song at will.

Selecting loops from the Orchestra section.

Selecting loops from the Orchestra section.

Loops can be played with in the same way that regular sections can be; they are, for all intents and purposes, part of your song. There’s a large variety of loops available, from the aforementioned orchestra to guitar and drums. Poke around in there, you never know what you may find.

Let’s Expand: a Note on Hardware

Chances are that you’ll never be able to replicate what a true virtuoso or otherwise gifted player can accomplish. You may even be one of those players, but you find that you work better with the real thing instead of a digital facsimile. You’ve got some options here, whether it’s recording through the iPhone’s built-in mic (boring) or expanding with different hardware.

While there are a few choices out there, I’ve found that the one that gets you the most bang for your buck is the iRig. Designed to plug into your iPhone’s headphone jack, the iRig takes sound from your electric guitar and converts it into data that your iPhone can understand. iRig has its own application (Amplitube) available, but the hardware itself is software agnostic.

With the iRig in place you can record something from your electric guitar directly to your iPhone, edit it with GarageBand and get going.

We’re Done Here

Once you’ve finished a song, chances are you’d like to get it out, whether it’s to a friend or to your Mac for further editing. GarageBand currently allows you to share with two methods: iTunes and Mail. Both work as promised and will get your songs to where you need them to be.

All two of the sharing options.

All two of the sharing options.

I would have liked to have seen some other export options though. I’m a big fan of Soundcloud for music sharing, as they’ve built a good platform that has continued to expand as the service gets better and better. This sort of third-party integration isn’t unheard of from Apple (especially with photos) and I think that it’s something many users would appreciate.


GarageBand for the iPhone genuinely feels like the future. When you think about the fact that The Beatles had to slap down some real, cold cash to record a song in a room that was largely taken up by recording equipment and then contrast that with the ability to work with virtual instruments on a device that fits in your pocket I find it hard to believe that you’re not surprised.

We know that the iPhone is the future, and that it’s improving our day-to-day lives. GarageBand takes this a step further, and shows us how much we can accomplish with such a small device. It’s definitely worth a download, as it can be used by people of any skill set and with any amount of time to devote.

GarageBand has some real power, and it’s all available at your fingertips.

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