Getting Started with GarageBand ’09

Many people think that creating music is an elaborate task that wouldn’t be possible for them. Whether you have never played an instrument before, or you are an experienced producer or virtuoso, creating music is no farther away than your Mac. In this article we will introduce you to GarageBand, the music application bundled with iLife. Like most Apple software, GarageBand is full of features, but it is presented in an easy interface which won’t overwhelm new users.

This article uses the latest release, GarageBand ’09. Users of older versions may see some differences in screens and options, but the main content of this guide will apply. We’ll walk you through creating a project, setting up tracks and loops, controlling playback and building a simple song!

Creating A Project

When you start GarageBand you will see the below screen. From here you can quickly get to the main features of the application.

Opening a new project

Opening a new project

While there are many options to choose from we’ll start off easy. Select "New Project" from the left pane, "Loops" on the right, and click the "Choose" button in the lower-right corner.

You will be asked to give the song a name. The default, "My Song", is fine.

A few other options are also listed on this screen, here is what they mean:

New song options

New song options

  • Tempo – this is the speed of the song. Most pop songs are around a tempo of 120 BPM, or beats-per-minute. Ballads are closer to 90 BPM. The more beats per minute, the faster the pace of the music.
  • Signature – the time signature is used to describe how many beats are in a measure, and what type of note equals one beat
  • Key – this represents the musical note and scale that the song is centered around.

Time signatures and keys are more advanced topics that people familiar with writing music will benefit from. For now we can leave all of these settings at their default values.

Click "Create" to finish creating your project. Congratulations, you are now all set to start making music.

The Loop Browser

We selected to make a Loops project, and will be using them throughout this article.

Loops are pre-made music segments that can be put together to make songs. Using Loops is the easiest way to get familiar with the GarageBand interface. Once you know how to work with Loops, using samples and real instruments is much easier.

Apple was nice enough to package a large variety of loops with GarageBand covering many different instruments and styles. If you later find the need to grow your collection, additional loops are available for purchase or download.

On the right-hand side of the screen you will see the Loop Browser. The upper section allows you to select the type of instrument or sounds you are interested in, and the loops that match your selections are shown below.

The loop browser

The loop browser

To see this in action click on "All Drums". You will see a list of all the drum loops that are available. You can trim down the list by clicking on the additional descriptions. For instance you can select to see "All Drums", and from there pick to only see ones that are "Acoustic" and "Intense".

Some of the buttons will not be usable as you make selections. For example if you pick "All Drums", the button for "Vocals" will not be selectable if there are no loops that meet both of those descriptions.

Filtering your results like this will narrow down the list of loops in the search result. This helps to find specific types of loops quickly.

You can undo any of the filters you added by clicking on the name of the filter a second time. Click on "Reset" to clear them all and start from the beginning.

Once you have some loops listed in the browser we’ll want to listen to them before adding them to the song. To preview a loop, click on the name of it. To stop the preview click on it again. Click on some of the drum loops until you find one you like.

You can mark a loop as a "Favorite" by checking the box in the "Fav" column. You can get to these at a later time by clicking on "Favorites".

Tracks and the Timeline

Once you have found a drum loop you like, click and hold the mouse button while hovering over the name of the loop, then drag and drop it into the middle part of the screen that says "Drag Apple Loops here.". This area of the screen is called the "timeline".

When you drop the loop into the timeline you’ll notice a new row, or "track", is added. A track is a term used to indicate an instrument or sound in GarageBand. For instance if you want to have drums, bass, and piano loops in a song, that would be done on three tracks, represented by three rows.

The timeline visually represents your song and allows you to see where your loops will be played. If a loop is at the far left, it will be played at the very beginning of the song. The farther to the right of the screen where the loop is, the later it will start. You can reposition the start time by clicking on the loop again and moving it with your mouse.

The numbers going across the top of the timeline represent "measures". These are based on what you chose as the time signature when creating a project. The more measures a loop takes up, the longer it will play.

For now, move your drum loop all the way to the left of the timeline so it similar to the below image:

Viewing a single loop

Viewing a single loop

Controlling Playback

To hear your song so far, click the Play button on the bottom of the screen. You’ll find it represented as a right-pointing arrow in the middle of this group of icons known as the "transport".

Transport controls

Transport controls

As the song plays you’ll see the red vertical line move across the screen. You will hear the loop being played as the line moves across it. Once the line passes over the loop the sound will stop. Click on the Play button again to stop playback.

The other buttons in the transport are as follows, from left to right:

  • Go to the start of the song – shown as the left-facing arrow proceeded by a line
  • Move back one measure – the double-left arrow
  • Move forward one measure – the double-right arrow
  • Turn on region cycling – the arrows making a circle

You can use these buttons to move around the timeline. Region cycling is useful to repeatedly play a section of the song, but we won’t be using it in this exercise.

If you ever forget what these do, just hover your mouse above them and a description will pop up after a second or two. This will happen for most items on the screen and can help if you are unsure what an icon or control will do.

Since you will be starting and stopping playback often you may want to use the spacebar for this. Pressing the spacebar once will start playback, and pressing it again will stop it.

Arranging Loops Into A Song

So far you are off to a good start, but a few seconds of a drum beat may not be the musical masterpiece you were planning on creating. However, if you have made it this far you have proven you have all the tools and skills needed to assemble loop-based music.

Extend a loop

Extend a loop

To grow our song we need to get more than one drum loop length. Hover your mouse over the upper-right corner of the loop. It will turn into a curved arrow shape.

Click and hold the mouse button and start dragging to the right. You’ll notice the loop gets extended. By doing this you are telling GarageBand to keep playing the same loop more times.

Where the loop restarts and repeats is indicated by the notched areas of the loop, as seen at the 3, 5, and 7 measure marks.

Notched loops

Notched loops

Keep pulling the drums to the right until you have more time to work with. You can always add or subtract more later. If you repeat a loop more times than you would like, to make it shorter just grab the upper-right corner again and drag to the left.

Now that you have a good amount of drum time, try adding some other instruments to your song. Do this by picking a different loop using the Loop Browser, and dragging it to the timeline to create a new track.

If you drop a loop onto an already existing track you may see the following warning:

New track warning

New track warning

Normally you will only want loops from the same instrument to be together on a track. This is because each track can only have one sound. If you put a piano loop and a guitar loop on the same track, they would both be played using the sound of the instrument from when that track was created.

Unless you intended to play a loop from one instrument on a track for a different instrument, you’ll want to click on "Create Track" if you get the above message. That will place the loop on a new track with the proper sound.

If you want to put different loops from the same instrument on one track you should. It will help save screen space and is easy to keep organized. However if the loops need to overlap, for example if you want two different piano loops playing at the same time, you should use two tracks.

Here is what I ended up with as a starter song. The drums start things off. After one measure the bass comes in. At measure three the piano starts. Rather than repeating that piano loop I use a different piano loop at measure seven. This adds some variety but keeps the piano going.

A simple arrangement

A simple arrangement

Practice, Practice, Practice

It may not seem like it, but we have covered a lot of techniques to get this far. That wasn’t too painful was it?

You now have all you need to get started with loop-based songs in GarageBand – you know how to add tracks, change when loops start and end, and make loops repeat. With these skills alone you could create near limitless combinations of music, but this is just the very beginning.

As the title of this section says, the best way to become proficient with GarageBand is plenty of practice. The more things you try, the quicker you’ll learn what works well together.

I’ll leave you here so you can begin experimenting on your own. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments. We look forward to your feedback and any suggestions for future GarageBand or music-production related articles.