Saturday, December 04, 2004

Garage Band: making music without paying your dues

I was curious to find out what I could do with Garage Band. It had been years since I'd spent hundreds of hours fooling around with my 4-track cassette recorder that my high school band buddies (and later college friends) and I were using to lay down tracks. It has been longer than I care to admit since I'd taken music theory courses, been able to score up a basic arrangement of a pop tune, or taken lessons in voice, percussion, or keyboard.

I am a lapsed musician. (To be brutally honest, a severely lapsed artist in many forms.) I still have a good ear, but I've lost whatever chops I may have once had. While I'd fiddled around with many digital audio editing/sequencing applications over the years, I'd never really managed to do much with them besides cleaning up spoken word recordings.

If Garage Band was supposed to be so easy, though, I wondered what I could do with it in a very limited time. So I gave myself two hours to create the best song I could make. I came up with this little ditty, "Wednesday Funk Kebob." (It was a Wednesday, and I was making music-on-a-stick. Get it? I'm so clever.) I recorded no original material. Working only with canned loops, I collaged together a fairly rich multi-track piece within my time limit.

Trust me, I'm fully aware that I didn't just set the musical world on its edge. But you'll have to admit, it's fairly listenable. Go on now, check it out. It won't bite.

It's a little scary to me just HOW easy it was to pull this off. Garage Band drool-proofs so much of the business of sampling and mixing tracks. For instance, the loops provided will automatically adjust to the tempo and key signature that you've set for the piece. You really don't need to know a lick of music theory. Drag-n-drop. I just had a flashback to the heyday of Kai's Power Tools for Photoshop, when we were all treated to a couple years of excessively cheesy digital art.

While I'm really impressed with how much the tool empowers somebody like me to do, I'm struggling with the notion of how useful it is to empower somebody like me. While there's a small, intense market (a.k.a. my son's grandparents) for the images in my iPhoto and the home movies I can churn out in iMovie, I'm not so sure that there's anybody who wants to listen to my cut-and-paste compositions.

Still, it's an elegant program. It's definitely a winner for a singer/songwriter type who is looking to easily sketch out a new idea when other musicians aren't available. (From what I've heard and read, it's quite a breeze for live recording.) It's also a cheaper and easier alternative for actual garage bands to work up a simple demo. Certainly, for whatever simple (amateur) audio for multimedia I might have to create, it would be simple, cheap, and natural to edit and sequence it in Garage Band.

Interestingly, Garage Band seems poised to become a suite of products for Apple and third parties of many types. A cottage industry has cropped up around producing Garage band loop files. (Anybody can make them with a simple developers kit.) In January, Apple is expected to release a highly-integrated breakout box (a device with multiple inputs for audio sources) at a competitive price.

As usual with all the iLife apps, the point is not so much to create the best tool, it's to create the tool that the basic consumer is excited to use. I'm sure that there's quite a nice, steady revenue stream for Apple to tap for add-ons like the breakout box, the loop packages, etc. A dedicated niche market of rock star and DJ wannabes may be all it takes to make the application live on for a long time, and in the meantime, it's a very fun toy for lapsed musicians like me to fool around with.


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