GarageBand X: A Free Step Backwards

Logic and MainStage just got sizable updates back in July, bringing them to version 10 and 3 respectively. Now it’s time for GarageBand, Apple’s free DAW (digital audio workstation), to get an overhaul. At the Apple event this month, the company gave its iLife suite a facelift, with the exception of iPhoto. iMovie and GarageBand now resemble their iOS counterparts, and GarageBand X (it’s version 10) has been modeled after Logic Pro X.

GarageBand X is sporting lots of new features, from Drummer to iCloud sync. We just hope it hasn’t lost anything special.

Design, Hailing from 2010

Hints of wood hardly give us confidence that the UI has changed.

Hints of wood hardly give us confidence that the UI has changed.

Apple’s professional software is taking a new turn in design. First, Final Cut Pro X released with a much darker, more pretentious user interface. It was perfect for the $300 software. Then, a few months later, Logic Pro and MainStage also got the dark treatment, MainStage’s being slightly less drastic. Soon, Aperture and iPhoto will join the rest of Apple’s amateur and professional creative software. For now, though, GarageBand and iMovie are the latest ones to get a beautiful redesign.

Strangely, Apple is still using wood on the edges of GarageBand. This will probably be removed when OS XI releases with an iOS 7-esque slant, but things are staying with the physical resemblance for now. It looks nice, too. GarageBand’s user interface is better on the eyes than the previous version. The darkness makes for a more professional look than before, but the wood immediately implies that this software is actually much less valuable than Logic Pro. That’s probably why Apple left it in there.

It’s strange that it’s 2013 and we’re still seeing this much chrome (both literally and figuratively) in GarageBand. It definitely doesn’t flow with the rest of Mavericks, and that’s disappointing. To quickly move between Calendar or Contacts and this app is fine, provided you expect a more 3D appearance of half-polished wood and shiny knobs. Alas, this aesthetic is no longer in fashion. It’s time for Apple’s iLife designers to move on. There is no “best of both worlds” here.

The New Presets and Graphic EQ are Fantastic

You’ve probably grown tired of GarageBand’s default patch library. It’s understandable: they haven’t added to it in a few years. No longer must you pay for additional samples and loops (previously known as Jam Packs). All but additional Drummers are included for free. Even these cost a mere $4.99 as a one-time in-app purchase.

Finally, truly productive graphic EQ.

Finally, truly productive graphic EQ.

From synths to electric pianos to drum machines, nearly everything has been re-imagined. You can get creative and tweak things just as before, or you can use one of the many presets available. Graphic EQ is finally modeled after Logic’s, supporting multiple bands and width adjustment. The Analyzer shows you what the instrument or vocal is doing before you equalize it so you can tame hurtful notes.

Unfortunately, GarageBand X is missing some key features from the previous version. You can no longer add plugins to a track. Worse, custom Audio Units aren’t supported. These are definitely more professional features, but to completely remove them from the app is a bad move. A lot of people used plugins to modify the reverb on individual channels. Likewise, third-party AUs were used to create a custom experience within GarageBand. You could have powerful synths like Sylenth1 right in your free DAW. Those days or over.

Smart Controls make tweaking settings easier, but are very limited.

Smart Controls make tweaking settings easier, but are very limited.

With the new Smart Controls panel, you can turn the reverb up and down, but not alter how it behaves. In the Effects pane, pianos only have a Delay, Ambiance, and Reverb knob. For new users, the Quick Help feature (the ? in the top left of the screen) doesn’t explain anything inside the Smart Controls panel.

Arpeggiator and Drummer

Finally, you don’t have to keep hitting one note manually and then quantize it later. Instead, use an arpeggiator to automate the process. Beware: adding and using an arpeggiator is not all that user-friendly. The function is hidden behind a small button on the top right corner of the Smart Controls screen. You’d expect it to have an icon not resembling MIDI notes, but for some reason Apple chose to make it confusing. Once you click the icon, a drop-down menu will appear. Using it you can adjust the note order, rate, octave range, and one of the preset patterns.

Hidden behind an unsuspecting icon is the new arpeggiator.

Hidden behind an unsuspecting icon is the new arpeggiator.

The arpeggiator as a whole is much less user-friendly than the MainStage or Logic Pro version. There’s no GUI, which is very surprising. You can’t see what a note is doing or switch on latching, nor can you make your own pattern. This is understandable, considering it is the free version of these professional tools, but it should be easier to start using. It almost seems as if Apple is trying to be mysterious, hiding the function behind a misleading icon and not even explaining what it is.

Quick Help assists you in identifying what this and that means, but it’s a shame Apple isn’t more straightforward about it. When you install GarageBand X, they give you a very brief tour of the new features, but they don’t show you how to use them. The help button does make things better, but mainly hides the underlying problem: this interface isn’t as user-friendly as it should be.

A generic sound for your tracks.

A generic sound for your tracks.

Moving on to Drummer, Apple’s headlining feature in this release. It’s designed to be a simple way of adding beats to your track. Rather than recording your own with a drum machine or prerecorded samples, Drummer adapts to your content. There are 15 drummers in GarageBand, and only one of them is free. The others must be acquired with the in-app purchase.

Overall, I found Drummer to work very well. It’s definitely nice to see a core feature of Logic Pro inside a free app. Having the ability to adjust the way your drummer plays — simple or complex, loud or soft — is the very essence of the feature. You can even adjust what percussion, cymbals, kick, and snare the drummer’s set has. You can switch them off too. All adjustments take place in realtime.

Each drummer has his own unique sound, but I didn’t find any of them nearly as talented as some amateurs I play with on the weekend. I didn’t expect them to be great, but they still left me disappointed. Drummer is a good step in the right direction, it’s just not there yet.

No Podcasts

One of the biggest complaints in App Store reviews is the lack of support for podcast creation. There is no longer a template for this type of project. Apple does offer Podcast Assistant, a separate tool for developing XML code for your podcast. That’s only part of the process, though, and GarageBand used to help you create a podcast. There will undoubtably be quite a few users who miss this feature. If you’re one of the, we suggest waiting until a third-party developer makes something even better.

No Longer Even Semi-Professional

It looks nice, but don't let that fool you.

It looks nice, but don’t let that fool you.

I started using GarageBand three years age before MainStage was separate from Logic Pro. It was my main DAW for playing live, and I made the most out of it. If I were to try doing that now, I’d immediately upgrade to Logic Pro. The lack of support for custom Audio Units and plugins is appalling. It makes the app unusable for anyone wanting to create unique music. Drummer only reaffirms this.

Seeing GarageBand become less of a DAW and more of a simple music creation tool is disheartening. It surely doesn’t promote indie artists and their unique voice. If you want to do anything truly creative (custom), it’s not possible with this new version of GarageBand. That’s the app’s purpose, so what’s left?


Summary

Apple ambitiously makes its music creation app free for all. Unfortunately, it's much less customizable than the previous version, and it's no longer possible to create genuine music.

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