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How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand, Part 1

This post is part of a series called How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand.
How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand, Part 2

GarageBand is easy to use, feature rich and affordable, making it a perfect compositional tool for aspiring songwriters. In this three part tutorial, I'd like to show you how to develop your guitar riffs and chord progressions into fully fledged song demos using GarageBand's built in tools. In this first part, we'll cover some basic orientation and get started on developing some ideas.

Here is a short track demonstrating what you will achieve with this tutorial:

1. What are we trying to achieve?

When we develop musical ideas in our heads, even just short progressions, they're often quite fully formed with lots of important rhythmic nuances and interplay between multiple instruments. Being able to develop and test these ideas is an essential compositional process and, even if you're skilled enough to be able to write out multi-part scores, knowing how to use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like GarageBand can really enrich and speed up the creative process. Not only that, you're able to communicate your musical ideas to band mates and collaborators so much more easily when they can just hear it.

The good news is that computer-based home recording needn't require a huge investment of time or money: tools like GarageBand (which is part of Apple's iLife package, around US$65) are very affordable and very easy to use while containing a surprisingly rich set of features. You won't achieve professional studio quality results, but you don't need to and, moreover, it's not the point - hopefully your recordings will sound good, but we'll save the fancy recording techniques for the studio - this is all about developing, recording and sharing your ideas. That said, if you do find that you want to progress to that level, getting to grips with the following processes is great way to get started.

So, let's take a look at how to develop a simple guitar riff idea into a basic song demo that you can share with your band mates.

2. What You Need

The idea here is using as little extra kit as possible. In fact, if you're reading this article, the only thing you might not already have is a means of plugging your guitar into your Mac. There are many ways of doing this, ranging from multi-input I/O devices to simple ¼" to ⅛" jack adaptors, but I recommend going for a simple jack adaptor for now since they're cheap and will work just fine for what we're going to do here.

3. Starting a Project

On opening GarageBand, you should see this window:

GarageBand's project chooser

Select the Electric Guitar icon and click Choose. A new window will open asking you to define a name and location for the project file. Give it a name, and click Create.

GarageBand's define project window

Tip: start out with a good habit and give your projects meaningful titles; sorting through countless projects called "idea1" or "song2" gets annoying very quickly!

Don't worry about the project tempo, key signature and so on for now; we'll deal with those details later. Click Create, and the main GarageBand project window will open.

4. Orientation

GarageBand's project window

There are 4 key areas of the project window:

  1. On the left are the track headers and track mixer - this is where you edit track properties like volume and pan, mute or solo the track, and check the track's levels.
  2. In the middle is the arrange window. Your instrument tracks and loops will appear here.
  3. At the bottom are the carriage controls and, via the LED style display, you can alter tempo, time signature and, for real instruments, access a tuner. To the left of this is the master level control and meter. At the very far left, there are buttons to create a new track ("+" symbol) and open the Track Editor (scissors symbol); at the right, buttons to open the Media Browser (film/musical note symbol); open the Track Info panel (circle "i" symbol) and open the Loop Browser (eye symbol).
  4. At the right is the Track Info panel, which contains a track's instrument properties and, on the Master Track tab, the master track properties.

For a more detailed introduction, take a look at Apple's GarageBand at a Glance document. I'm using GarageBand 09, but Apple's guide still refers to the 08 release. There are some small differences, but they're largely cosmetic and shouldn't cause you too much confusion.

5. Setting Preferences

GarageBand's preference window

To get the guitar signal into GarageBand, we need to ensure that the correct input is selected. Go to Preferences by pressing the Command+comma keys simultaneously. In the Preferences window, go to the Audio/MIDI tab and, in the Audio Input and Audio Output drop-down menus, choose Built-in Output and Built-in Input. If they weren't already selected, you will see a pop-up window asking you if you want to change the audio driver - you do, so click OK.

6. Sound Check

Before we get started with our song, let's make sure that we're actually getting sound. Plug your guitar into the computer's line input, and set your computer's volume to an appropriate level.

The Track Info panel

Double click the amplifier icon in the Track Info panel; the icon will turn around and a settings menu will appear below it. In the menu, check that the Source is Mono 1 (Built-in Input) and that Monitor is set to On. Leave that menu open for now, we're going to come back to the Recording Level in a moment.

Arming the track

Next, we need to "arm" the track (i.e. turn it on) in order to be able to hear the guitar signal. Click the circle at the far left of the track header; it should turn red indicating that the track is now armed. You should now be able to hear your guitar through the computer's speakers or your headphones. If you can't, check back through the previous steps, check your cable, and make sure your guitar's volume is turned up!

As you play, note the level meter on the track header. Adjust the Recording Level slider in the Track Info panel until the meter only occasionally hits the yellow and amber lights. If necessary, adjust the track volume slider too. When you're happy with the level, double click the amplifier icon again to display the amp's controls.

7. Dialling Tone

Amp simulator EQ panel

At this point, you might want to play around with your guitar tone a little. You'll have noticed that, under the amplifier icon in the Track Info panel, there's a set of familiar looking EQ controls. These work exactly as you'd expect, so feel free to play around and find a good basic tone. If the default amp isn't your thing, hover your cursor over the amplifier icon and an arrow appears either side. Use these to cycle through GarageBand's array of amplifier models: you'll see lot's of familiar amp types, from high gain half-stacks to tweed combos.

Amp and stompoxes in GarageBand

You'll also notice the effect pedal icons next the the amplifier. Clicking on an effect pedal opens it's settings, while double clicking brings up a menu of other pedals which can be dragged and dropped into the signal chain. Play around and see what you can come up with.

8. Noise Annoys

On the whole, GarageBand's built in amp emulator is versatile and produces some great quality sounds, but you will find that, the more distortion you use, the more unwanted hiss you'll get, especially when using single coil pickups. However, there are a few simple things you can do to minimise the noise:

  1. Don't overdo it with the distortion. Most good guitar tones use a lot less distortion than you might think, even heavy ones, and you can thicken the sound up with multiple tracks if you need to.
  2. Make sure you're using a good quality, screened instrument cable. If it's of poor quality, or is damaged, you'll pick up more noise.
  3. Turn off fluorescent lights (including energy saving bulbs), TVs, and any other electrical equipment that doesn't need to be on. They all generate electrical noise which your guitar can pick up.
  4. Try sitting or standing in a different place. Often, just turning a little in one direction or another will cut some noise.
  5. Turn on the noise gate.

I've deliberately put the noise gate last. Always try to eliminate as much unwanted noise through other means before you put the noise gate on: it's a great tool, but the cleaner the signal it has to work with, the better it will work for you.

GarageBand's noise gate

To set the noise gate, double click the amplifier icon again and, in the settings panel, check the noise gate box and experiment with the slider level until you get the best balance between noise reduction and your instrument's natural attack and decay.

9. Setting Tempo

I find that the easiest way to start a track is to jam my basic idea along to GargeBand's metronome to determine the right tempo. Turn on the metronome by going to Control on the Toolbar and selecting Metronome, then click the play button (or press the spacebar). You should now be able to hear the metronome click.

To change the time signature and tempo, click on the symbol at the far left of the LED style display and, from the pop-up menu, select Project. Clicking on the tempo and time signature in the LED display will open a slider with which to alter the setting.

Setting the tempo

10. Recording Your Ideas

When you're happy with the tempo, try recording your idea. To do that, just click the red button next to the carriage controls or, easier still, press R on your keyboard. To stop recording, simply tap the spacebar.

If you want to re-record, just hit spacebar and start again.

11. Using Loops

You might find that you struggle to keep in time using just the metronome, especially if you're not accustomed to "playing to a click"; or maybe it just feels too clinical without a beat going on? No problem. We can use one of GarageBand's drum loops to help make things feel a little more natural, and it may inspire some new ideas too.

Using the Loop Browser

Loops are accessed via the Loop Browser. Click the "eye" icon under the Track Info bar, and you'll see a menu of loops organised by instrument and musical genre. In the screen shot, you can see that I've selected All Drums, and can cycle through the list of available loops at the bottom of the window. Clicking on a loop in the list will play the loop, so you can preview them without putting them into project.

Loops with a green icon are produced with GarageBand's inbuilt synth instruments, and so are fully editable. Loops with a blue icon are actual audio samples and so are not editable; for that reason, they won't sound too good in your project if your project's tempo is much different than the loop's tempo.

To use a loop, simply drag it from the list into the Arrange Window, and a new track will automatically appear containing the loop. To extend the loop over multiple bars, just hover your mouse over the right edge of the loop you dragged into the track; the cursor will change into a circular arrow, indicating that you can click and drag the loop out across as many bars as you like.

12. Get Creative

At this point, with the original idea down, you might start coming up with more parts to go with it. My advice here is to go with the flow and don't filter your ideas too much: you can worry about whether you've inadvertently ripped off someone else's song later on, but for now just let the theme of your first idea develop. I find it helpful to simply record each part separately: for example, I might record a couple of bars of a chorus idea and then, in the same track, a verse idea, and so on until I have the essential pieces I need to start fleshing out the composition.

Trying out ideas over a beat

You may also want to start adding harmony or melody parts on top of your first track. A quick way to do that is to select your existing guitar track's Track Header and press Command+D on your keyboard, thus duplicating the original track. Having done that, pan the tracks to opposite sides of the stereo field using the pan wheel on the Track Header, and remember to "arm" the new track before you record.

13. Order From Chaos

Don't worry if things look a little messy and disordered at this point. You can copy, paste, drag and drop, trim and adjust these snippets later. Think of it like writing down phrases onto Post-It notes, and then rearranging the Post-Its to form a paragraph, and then a page. I find doing things this way helps my creativity by letting me get the ideas out of my head and onto the computer quickly, leaving me free to worry about arrangement and the finer points of the composition later.

In the next part of this tutorial, we'll look at how to take these fragments of audio and arrange them into a song structure and, from there, start to build up the backing parts using GarageBand's built in software instruments.

For now, save your work by clicking File on the toolbar, then Save (or Command+S), and we'll flesh the idea in part 2.

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