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How to Give Life To GarageBand Tunes With Automation

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GarageBand is a powerful all-in-one DAW and can be used for simple podcast creation to full-blown song production. While its interface is significantly different than its older siblings (Logic Express and Logic Pro), it still packs a number of powerful features that might otherwise escape the average user.

Flickr Image by plecojan

Automation is one such feature. Automation is the process of changing parameters over time. These parameters can be volume, EQ or Pan levels of your mix, or they can be specific values that control various elements of effects and instrument plugins.

Automation is an important tool for composers, because it allows us to change various aspects of our sounds over time, giving them a more lifelife and organic feel. Let's see how automation can help us breathe life into songs made with GarageBand.

Step 1

Starting with a blank GarageBand Project, create a New Track by clicking on the Track menu, then New Track.

Creating a new track.

We'll select the Software Instrument radio button, the click 'Create'. Now we have a new Software Instrument track to begin our experiments with automation.

Step 2

By default, a Grand Piano instrument is used. That will work for our purposes, so we'll record a simple phrase into this track. I've used a simple 2-chord progression as a starting point.

Step 3

Next we'll head over to the Track Info pane on the right side of the screen. This pane displays all the information about the currently selected track. It can be toggled by going to the Track menu and selecting Show Track Info or Hide Track Info. Alternatively, a keyboard shortcut using Command+I will work.

The first thing we'll do is add a Track Reverb to our Piano Track. Do this by clicking on the Piano track, then selecting the Edit Tab of the Track Info Pane, and clicking on the first open slot, just below the 'Compressor' effect. Select the Track Reverb from the drop-down list.

Track Info pane.

Step 4

Once the Track Reverb has been added, let's make one change to the preset values.

Track Reverb Parameters

I'm going to adjust the "Reverb Time" parameter to be at 75%. This will give us a nice, long, swimmy reverb to experiment with for our automation.

Step 5

Next, we'll click the Automation arrow back over in the Track header. Notice now that a smaller 'track' will display below the Piano track. The header for this track currently says "Track Volume" - this is by default. We'll switch this by clicking on the header and selecting "Add Automation...".

An automation track.

A new menu will appear, displaying all of the possible parameters that we can automate for this track. By clicking the arrow to the left of each entry, you can expand your options. For our purposes, we'll select the "Track Reverb - Reverb Volume" and click OK.

Seleting Track Reverb Volume for automation.

Step 6

To add our automation, let's start with a very simple choice. In the arrange area of the automation track, I'm going to add two automation points: I'll set the value of the "Reverb Volume" to 0% at the start of the phrase, and 100% at the end of the phrase. By clicking and dragging on the top of the automation line. Notice that this adds a new automation 'point'. Each time you click on the line, a new point will be added.

Adding an automation point to the Track Reverb.

Here's the resulting sound:

Step 7

To Make this effect even more dramatic, I'm going to reduce the Dry volume of the piano track over time, proportionate to the increase in the Reverb's wet volume.

Click on the Automation Track Header again, and "Add Automation...". This brings up the Automation menu as before, but this time we'll select "Original Volume".

Adding a second automation parameter.

Now, we've just added a second parameter to automate for our track! By clicking on the Automation Track Header, you'll notice that we now have more parameters available for selction. NOTE: GarageBand is limited to displaying automation for only 1 parameter at a time. However, by selecting a different parameter, the first parameter's automation is still functional, just not visible.

Automating the Original Volume parameter.

Here's the sound of the piano track with both the Wet and Dry reverb levels automated:

More Automation Fun

Automating effects parameters is one way of giving life to our tracks. There are several more, and I've outlined a few other options below.

Automating EQ And Filters

I created a simple pad strings track to follow the piano track. I then added the GarageBand Automatic Filter effect, and automated the Frequency Parameter. This long, evolving sweep is a very useful technique.

Automate the Filter.

Automating Instrument Parameters

Certain GarageBand software instruments have parameters that you can automate to create unique effects. The Digital Stepper instrument is one, and here I've automated the "Harmonic Steps" parameter, which creates an interesting 'compuphonic' effect over time.

Automating the Digital Stepper


This tutorial has shown just a few simple ways to begin using automation in your GarageBand tunes. This powerful functionality, coupled with the robust sound library and recording capabilities in GarageBand, results in a truly powerful application for composers. I've included the GarageBand project, in case you're interested in seeing the project up close. Enjoy!

Download the Play Pack for this tutorial (3.3 MB)


  • Garage Band Source File
  • MP3 Files
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