Using GarageBand as a Composition Tool

GarageBand for iPad is an amazing app for anyone with a stake in music at all. If you’ve never tried any sort of composition tool, GarageBand is the way to go. With its set of ‘smart’ instruments, it’s unparalleled in terms of ease of use. It has a drum kit/pads, a piano, guitar and an option to amplify your guitar when plugged in with something like iRig.

In this tutorial, I’m going to run through all the steps you’ll need to start using GarageBand as an extra instrument for your musical piece or as a way to compose music solely by itself.

Starting Off Smart

If you have something you already want to work with, great. If you have absolutely nothing at all in mind, even better. You can indulge yourself in GarageBand’s smart auto playing chords that you can change at will. These feature on the smart guitar and piano. You don’t have to make your chord progressions super-musical, just find something that sounds nice.

Using the Smart Piano.

When you’ve practiced the timing changes, record your idea by touching the record button and listening to the metronome. In this example, I’ve recorded 2 bars of piano with the chord progression C#m-A-G-D. You can choose between a variant of each instrument by touching the instrument icon in the top right, if say you wanted an electric piano instead.

You can edit the songs tempo and key by press g the settings button (spanner) in the top right of the display.

Always in Tune

Garageband is an amazing app for melodic construction. Once the key of the song is chosen, the chords within that key appear on the guitar and you can try out and record different chord progressions. Similarly, the keyboard & guitar can be restricted to scales, making it a lot easier to create a melody over those chords.

I’ve used a simple pentatonic scale to riff over the top of the chords. You can select the scale in the middle right of the display above the instrument. It’s almost as easy as simply finding a scale that goes and hitting random notes if you need to.

After you’ve recorded your melody, you can quantise the timing by going to the arrangement-style view, touching the icon with the sliders and touch the quantisation tab.

Melody in arrangement view

Melody in arrangement view.

Afterwards, if you feel your sound isn’t right, you can add some echo (delay) and reverb to your instrument by tapping the track, touching the sliders icon and hitting master effects. From the previous screen, you can also modify the instruments’ volume, pan and the levels of the echo and reverb. You have the option to transpose and quantise the notes too.

A Modern Touch

New-age musicians such as Skrillex like to utilise vocals as an electronic instrument by digitising many different samples and using the power of MIDI to turn them into melodies. We can do a similar thing here. Instead of using an instrument to record your melody, you can head over to GarageBand’s sampler in order to so some (wait for it…) sampling! You can record anything from a hummed note to a cough into the sampler where you can trim and modify it in order to sound suitable.

The Sampling screen.

I’ve recorded a sample of me whistling and trimmed it down. GarageBand’s awesome scale lock features come in here, as you can select the scale the piano notes are locked to on the third icon from right. Next to that, you have the option to arpeggiate the notes you are playing. You can choose the rate and octave range of this arpeggio.

Arpeggiator Function

Arpeggiator function.

You can bend the pitch of your note by sliding upwards and downwards whilst holding on to a note or using the pitch wheel on the left of the display. Not only that, but you can loop and tune the sample in the same screen you trimmed it in, which is a really nice feature for a modern-sounding and pitch accurate sample. When you’re ready to play your melody after a little practice, record it as usual to the timing.

Padding the Drums

Every good melody needs an equally awesome percussion element underlying it. A good beat can make or break a song nowadays. Modern live electronic performance of drums typically uses pad technology in order to create your drum sequences.

The amazing thing about GarageBand is that you can play finger drums or pads to create beats exactly to your liking. Moreover, the drums record quantized as well, so you don’t have to be a finger-drumming prodigy in order to produce an awesome groove.

Recording Drum Pads

Recording Drum pads.

There are a nice variety of drums to choose from, but in this example, I’ve gone with the house drum machine. You can change the drum kit by touching the icon at the top of the display with the selected drum kit on. As with all tracks, you can further quantise, transpose, pan, level and reverberate/add echo to your drums.

An Acoustic Touch

Maybe to the obsessive acoustic instrumentalist, the smart instruments may not cut it in terms of realism. Using GarageBand’s guitar amplifier or microphone features, however, allows experienced musicians to input something like a guitar riff or a vocal track along with your song. You can also add multiple effects, i.e. the microphone has effects such as ‘dreamy’ and ‘monster’.

If you have an acoustic guitar, you can record it on the guitar amp via the inbuilt microphone, and it will add effects as if it’s an electric guitar. Otherwise, you can use something like iRig to connect an actual electric guitar to record into GarageBand in much better quality.

One Amplifier

One Amplifier.

Shooting Loops

Some of us aren’t cut out for the music industry, no matter how hard we try. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t throw together a great song, even if you can’t get the hang of the smart instruments (though I’m sure you will), because just like in the Mac version of GarageBand, there is a library packed full of loops you can insert and repeat all the way throughout your production.

There are a selection of drumbeats, riffs and other melodies to make your composition the best it can be. If you’re stuck with imagination, for example, you could simply use a loop and build your entire track around that.


The Loops.

Finishing Off

You can choose to export in both AAC and GarageBand formats. This means you can load it up in the full version of GarageBand for additional editing and arrangement. It’s up to you whether you use the app for a serious composing tool or just a gimmick. Happy composing!