Garage Band

I’m an iPhone junkie. And, until recently, I had little to no use for the iPad. Thankfully, I’m not required to check mail on my mobile devices. I’m at my laptop for most of the day, and on the subway I usually stick to Reeder, Instapaper , and NYTimes on my iPhone 4, since after using the retina display the iPad just feels cheaper than newsprint with its measly 132-dpi screen.

Then Apple released Garage Band.

My iPad is now a guitar, piano, synthesizer, drum kit, and track editor all in one. It’s like walking through Sam Ash with Steve Jobs’ AmEx. I can hook in a mic and whatever instruments I want. I could compose an album while sipping mojitos in a chaise lounge in Cozumel.

The smart instruments are amazing. Auto-play is cool but feels like cheating. I probably won’t use it in practice. Where they shine, however, is the choice of note layouts. Plucking out chords on the guitar and then switching to the neck for a solo is effortless. The notes respond exactly as you’d expect them to, with hammers, slides and vibrato. You can mute the strings. And of course the app measures how hard you hit the screen and adjusts the notes accordingly.

The piano is incredibly intuitive. I have chubby fingers, so I need to use the large layout, but playing with two keyboards is surprisingly easy given the size of the iPad’s screen, and having the choice of drag action (either playing multiple notes, or adjusting the octave) is a tiny detail I now can’t live without. The synths are a dream come true. Fifties Sci Fi? Yes please. Like guitar and bass, the key layout can be switched between the conventional piano layout and chords, with the addition of pared-down keyboards with only notes from a particular scale.

The drums are good, though I haven’t quite gotten the feel of which part of which drum makes which sound. Being able to quickly drum two or three fingers to do a double-kick or paradiddle is really useful when laying down fast beats. But playing a beat with more than two parts of the kit at once is still difficult, since as a drum player my limb independence depends on using my feet as well as my hands. Piano players might have an easier time with it since they have more finger independence, but Fingerbeat still feels better for putting together drum tracks.

The sampler could be very, very funny if used well. The built-in samples are generic but enough to give you an idea of what’s possible.

Two quibbles worth mentioning: first, there is undo but no redo [edit: hold undo and it will change to redo]. Also, playing anything more complicated than a simple beat or riff on the built-in instruments will be next to impossible unless you turn off Multitasking Gestures in the Settings app under the General tab. I kept trying to figure out why my iPad was switching to the app store until I realized that banging on the keyboard with four fingers was causing the OS to switch to the next open app.

Recording is reasonably fast on my first generation iPad 3G, though adjusting the playhead after adding a few tracks is maddeningly slow. Songs can be viewed as isolated sections, or all at once. The app felt a bit slower when I viewed all tracks at once, and the playhead moves over the whole duration, which makes me think the software is loading the entire RAM preview every time. I can only hope this is much, much better on the iPad 2.

The editor is hands-down the easiest UI I’ve used for arranging tracks. Drag edges to trim, drag center to move, pinch to zoom. Cut/copy/paste works exactly as expected, and everything snaps to the tempo marker. You can quantize tracks (e.g. snap to sixteenth notes), and even add swing. Transposing is easy, and each track has its own settings for echo and reverb.

The context-sensitive help is very well thought-out, shown in discreet overlays with a ripped paper treatment that sets them apart nicely from the rest of the UI. Drilling down into more detailed subjects is quick and the documentation is simple and up to par with what you’d expect from Apple.

Settings are simple but still have some nice options. You can set the metronome to a woodblock, click track, high hat or rimshot (but no cowbell), adjust the tempo manually or by tapping, and set the key.

Sharing is straightforward but limited to sending AAC and native Garage Band projects to iTunes. Apparently you can pull the midi tracks out of the desktop version [edit: Craig Grannell pointed out on Twitter that importing the files on the desktop is broken]. I’m nonplussed about this but I’m hopeful that better export options just didn’t make the cut for this version. Soundcloud and blip.fm integration would be awesome additions down the line.

I unfortunately have zero instruments at home, but if I did I would run out and buy a guitar adaptor and iPad mic tomorrow. I may need to rethink this.

Apple has built something amazing, and when Apple does that it doesn’t usually just sit on its ass waiting for the competition to catch up. I’m guessing that this is just the start.

You made it to the end! Awesome.
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