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How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand, Part 2

This post is part of a series called How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand.
How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand, Part 1
How to Compose Song Demos in GarageBand, Part 3

This is the second of a series of tutorials covering the basics of song demo production in Apple’s GarageBand. The aim of these tutorials is to show you the basics of recording your own song demos, covering the elements of the creative process as well as how to use the software.

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

In part one, we got as far as setting up a guitar to work with GarageBand, capturing some ideas and recording a rough guide track as a foundation to build on. In this part, we’ll look at fleshing out your ideas with a rhythm section, using drum and bass loops created with GarageBand’s built-in software instruments.

1. So, Where Were We Again?

At this point, you should have a GarageBand project file containing a few ideas for a song. In my example MP3 from Part 1, I had four guitar parts that roughly corresponded with a verse and chorus idea for two guitars. Remember, you don’t have to keep everything: something you don’t use here could end up working for another song, so this is a good opportunity to develop a method of cataloguing your ideas in a way that works for you.

If necessary, go back and let your creativity flow a little more before starting on Part 2; the more material we have to work with, the better the result will be. Remember that, when starting out, it’s common to find it hard to generate new parts for initial ideas. If you’re finding this hard, try analysing some of your favourite music to see how the different parts relate to each other. With a little concentration, it’s often easy to see how a simple, central motif, often as little as 3 or 4 notes, has been woven into a whole song. Great examples of this are everywhere, from Metallica’s Enter Sandman to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

2. Choices, Choices

At this point, we have two key choices: either we arrange our ideas into a coherent piece of music now, or we start composing the accompanying instrumentation and worry about arrangement later. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going to work on the assumption that we don’t yet know where the idea is going and so, for now, I’m not going to worry about trying to arrange the song.

To be clear, though, there are actually some good reasons to plan the arrangement before programming drums and other instruments; the main one being that, if you’ve established the arrangement, then you can programme your other instruments with knowledge of the dynamic requirements of the song, e.g. building tension and release, underpinning turnarounds and mood changes with appropriate drum patterns, etc. The reason I’m doing things the other way around here is because I’m assuming that you’re new to writing and arranging songs, and I think that going through as much of the creative process as you can without trying to finalise your arrangement will:

  1. Build your confidence and ability with the technology
  2. Help you to trigger the creative thoughts that will help you to complete the song, and
  3. Demonstrate how easy it is, using the flexibility of your DAW, to really focus on creativity and try out endless different arrangements of your ideas

3. Understanding Loops

To begin with, it's worth spending some time going through GarageBand’s pre-set loops to get an idea of what's in there and how they work. Click the “eye” icon at the bottom left of the window and explore the Loop Browser! You’ll find a huge range of loops for everything from drums to horns, and even a few strange noises.

The loops shown in green produce sounds using GarageBand’s built in synthesised instruments, while the blue ones are actual audio samples. Your only option for editing the latter variety is to slice them, add effects or otherwise adapt the existing file. Green loops, on the other hand, are really nothing more than a series of MIDI triggers for a synthesiser; much like pressing keys on an electric piano, you can use precisely the same sequence of notes, or triggers, to produce very different sounding results by altering what the synthesiser does. As a result, as well as being able to slice them up and add effects, you can take a green drum loop and completely change the drum kit, or even turn it into a saxophone loop if you so choose, as well as being able to completely alter the sequence of notes it is composed of. Very powerful stuff!

4. Getting to Grips With Loops

Since you’re here to learn something, I'm going to assume that you want either to create some backing tracks from scratch, or at least tweak and edit the stock loops. To get started, drag one of the green, editable MIDI drum loops from the Loop Browser into the arrange window and open up the editing panel, either by double clicking the track itself or selecting the track and clicking the scissors icon at the bottom left of the window. You can click and drag the centre toolbar up if you can’t see the whole edit window.

What you'll see is a grid with lots of black and grey blocks (“hits”) arranged in it. This is known as a “piano roll”. The horizontal axis of the grid represents the available notes (hence the piano keyboard graphic!) and, on along the horizontal, the beats and bars of the music.

By clicking your mouse on the keyboard notes on the horizontal edge of the grid, you can hear each of the notes or sample hits that are available for the instrument selected.

To get a feel for how the loop itself works, click on each hit in the loop to hear the sample that it triggers, then click play to see in real time how the drum pattern works. As you can see, it’s really a very simple and, once you’re accustomed to it, very powerful tool.

To experiment with editing the loop, click and drag the hits around the grid. If you move a hit sideways, you'll change when the sample is triggered; if you move it up or down, you'll change the sound that is triggered.

Note: You’ll find that some sounds are repeated across the keyboard. This is done to help facilitate recording loop sequences by entering the notes with a MIDI keyboard since, obviously, there would otherwise be occasions when the notes you want are too far apart on the keyboard.

5. Terminal Velocity

Obviously, a real musician won't hit a note with the same force each time, so we need a method of varying the strength of the hits in our loop. In GarageBand, a lighter block on the grid represents a stronger note, while a darker block denotes a lighter one (in older versions of GarageBand this is, confusingly, reversed!). The force with which a note is struck is called, sensibly enough, “velocity”. So, to add some realism to your loop, try varying the velocity of the notes by selecting them and moving the Note Velocity slider at the left of the grid.

There’s no need to go crazy here. Unless you’re programming a crescendo or some other dramatic dynamic shift, a few points shift in either direction is plenty to make things feel more natural. And of course, if you’re aiming for an electronic feel, you might want to leave the velocity alone altogether.

As with all things, a few hours of playing around will teach you a great deal, so don’t be afraid to get into the sandbox and fool around for a while!

6. Looping The Loop

The whole idea with a loop is that it repeats the same segment of music, which is especially useful for instrumentation in pop and rock music where short patterns are repeated to build up a song. However, beware of relying too heavily on the power of the loop (and, come to that, the copy and paste functions): especially where drums are concerned, though a basic pattern is often repeated throughout segments of a song, there will usually be subtle variations throughout.

Replicating this in your loops will help to establish a more organic feel and keep the listener interested. Try listening to some of your favourite music and see if you can spot some of examples of this kind of variation. It’s usually so subtle that you don’t notice it unless you look for it, but it’s absence can often make a track feel lifeless and uninteresting.

Go to the track you dragged from the Loop Browser and hover your mouse over the upper left hand corner of the loop; you should see a circular arrow icon. When you see it, click and drag your mouse to the right. This will repeat the loop out across the window as many times as you want it to.

If you want to have the loop break for a few bars, just drag the playhead to where you want the break to be and press the Command+T keys. You can then drag the segments apart by as many bars as you like and, if you like, insert a different part inside this break by dragging or creating a new loop there.

Tip: Getting that organic variation into your parts might sound laborious, but it needn’t be. Take a simple 2 bar figure, drag that loop out for, say, 6 bars, and then spilt the loops up (Command+T). Now go in to each segment and make some subtle variations. For example, in a drum part, try some different cymbal sounds, maybe an occasional “accidental” rim shot on the snare or a weak hit, or throw in some extra kick drum beats. Much easier!

Using this method, you can build up the different parts of your song. For example, you could have a 2 bar drum pattern repeat for 12 bars in the verse, and then repeat a different pattern for 4 bars as the chorus, before going back to the verse part. You should quickly see that, with the combined forces of loops and the cut and paste functions, it’s possible to compose backing tracks for your ideas very quickly indeed.

7. Creating Your Own Loops

Now that you know the mechanics of a loop, it’s time make your own. Create a new Software Instrument Track and, in the track arrange window, hold the Command key while clicking in the empty track. This will create an empty loop (you can click and drag this to wherever it needs to be in the track).

I’m going to make a drum track, but the same principles are used to create parts for any other instrument.

Now, with your new track selected, choose a software instrument from the Track Info panel. I’m going for the Rock Kit under Drum Kits. Now open the Track Editor and, using the slider at the bottom left of the GarageBand window, set the zoom level so that you can see what you’re doing.

Remember, you can hear the instrument samples by clicking the piano keys at the left of the loop grid. Use this to locate the sounds you like, keeping a note of their location if necessary, and then build your loop in the grid. To add a hit, hover your mouse over the grid and hold down the Command key to show a pencil icon, then click to add the hit. Don’t worry if you put it in the wrong place, you can click and drag hits anywhere in the grid. If you need to remove a hit, just click on it and hit your backspace key. You can alter the length of a note simply by clicking and dragging the right edge of the block.

8. Check Your Progress

You’ll probably want to hear how your loop is coming along. Click the Cycle Region button on the carriage control (rightmost button), and a dark yellow bar will appear over the tracks, indicating the area that will be cycled. You can drag the ends of this yellow bar so that its length corresponds to the area you want to cycle – in this case, the loop you’ve just programmed. Click play to hear your loop and, if necessary, stop and make changes. Repeat this until you get a pattern that you’re happy with, and then move on to editing the hit velocities.

The process is exactly the same for piano, bass, or any other instrument you want to add to your track. Use it to create the parts you need to build up a complete backing track for your song.

9. Copying, Chopping and Looping Audio

Remember GarageBand’s blue loops are audio samples, and that we can chop and edit them? Well, that means that you can do that to your own audio, too. When composing a track, it’s a huge timesaver to copy and paste segments of the track you’ve recorded to build up repeated sections like verses and choruses.

Likewise, it’s often handy to loop a section rather than spend time recording the full part. Identify the bit of audio you want, say, a good take of a chorus riff, and use the Command and T keys as before to chop the track at the beginning and end of the section you’d like to loop (it’s sometimes helpful to test it beforehand with the cycle region function).

As well as saving time while composing, this process can become a compositional tool to generate new ideas. Try chopping out sections of your existing parts and looping them, or arranging them in new orders; this is a great way to access that process of building up full pieces of music through multiple permutations of simple parts.

10. The Arrangement

Now you have your backing track sections, and you have some new ways to generate material for the song. Using the techniques I’ve described, try out some different arrangements of your song until you hit on the one that works best.

To do this, you might find it helpful to export different versions of your song to MP3 and listen to them at your leisure. You can do that at any time in a project by clicking Share on the Toolbar, selecting Export Song to Disk..., setting the compression and encoder settings and clicking Export.

Don’t forget, it’s easy to get so close to a piece of music that you lose the ability to make sound judgements about it, so try to take a step back occasionally so that you can return to it with a fresh outlook.

Also, you might find it helpful to make use of the Arrange Track (Shift+Command+A). This offers a method of labelling the different sections of the song so that you can keep track and see at a glance what you're looking for.

11. Rehearsal

So, by now, you should have a complete backing track arranged and ready for your live parts. But wait! Very often, when composing in this way, you can finish arranging a song and be ready to record it without ever having played the whole thing from start to finish. So, before recording, you should spend some time rehearsing to your backing track.

GarageBand doesn’t feature a count-in when not recording so, to get around this, it’s helpful to have your whole backing track start a bar or more in, giving you time to hit play and get ready with your instrument. In my example track, I've put a little drum section at the beginning to make it feel a little more natural.

To do this, select all of the tracks by clicking one of them and then pressing Command+A, then drag them all to the right by as many bars as you like. Make sure that the metronome is enabled (Command+U) and return the playhead to the beginning of the track before hitting the spacebar to start the song playing.

As you play it through, you might find that some bits don't quite work. That's fine: just select the offending track, go into the editing window, and tweak until it all sounds right.

12. Recording

When you’re happy that your backing track is right and you’ve practised playing over it a few times, you’re ready to record some live guitar parts. If there will be more than one guitar part, start out with the rhythm track and build lead and harmony parts on top of that.

Select your guitar track, return the playhead to the start of the song, and hit the R key to start recording. Repeat this as often as you need to to get a recording you’re happy with, but remember, don’t worry too much about minor flubs: remember, we’re only sketching out an idea, so don't get too concerned with the small details. For now, the most important thing is that the essence of your idea is captured.

To recap from Part 1, if you need to create additional guitar tracks, the easiest way is to duplicate an existing one. Select a guitar track, and hit Command+D. This will create a new track with exactly the same settings as the original. To get some separation between the two guitar parts, use the panning control on the track mixer to put one guitar to the left and the other to the right of the stereo field. You might also want to vary the tone a little by altering the amp settings, using a different amp model and, if possible, using a different guitar.

13. Save It Or Lose It!

By now, you should begin to hear your song taking shape. Exciting, isn’t it?! Above all else, get into the habit of saving your work often. Believe me, after all the work you’ll put into your track, the last thing you want is to lose anything.

Save your work and, in the third and final part of this tutorial, we’ll look at some basic techniques to tidy up and finalise your recording, including some basic EQ and effects, track panning and using automation for fades. And of course, we'll also look in more detail at ways of exporting the finished product and sharing it with the world.

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