The Good, the Bad and the Fugly: Garageband IOS Edition

When I started making music with computers, I got a crunchy (literally, remember the white polycarbonate?) Macbook off of Craigslist. Part of the deal was a legit license for Logic 8 and a few plugins. Starting off with what I still consider a very professional DAW right away caused me to turn my head, like a snobby ass, away from Garageband users and spit on the ground when they walked past… okay that’s ridiculous. In real life, I simply considered it a toy; a software designed for the bedroom singer songwriter who ends up with a horrid sounding demo. I didn’t even install the Garageband sound banks compatible with Logic.

Well I’m writing this post to say I was wrong. Dead wrong! Though I’m still an avid Logic user, I probably use less than half of it’s capabilities. Had I not gotten my license essentially free, Garageband IOS Garageband would have been enough for my early musical pursuits. I know this now as I have recently discovered Garageband IOS for my iPhone. Much like before, other DAW apps seemed better and kept me quite satisfied for years until I discovered the true power of Garageband IOS (though still not without some shortcomings). Let’s go through the good, the bad, and the real PITAs (aka fugly) of this powerful, charming little app.

The Good:

1. Smart Instruments – This is what first caught my attention. I’m a huge fan of the asian violin type instrument called the Erhu. It’s a beautiful sound similar to (imho) a women singing or humming that carries a wonderful ethnic feel. The smarty pants’ over at Apple really nailed it with the impressive interface and intuitive controls that allow you to really feel like you are playing an instrument. New IOS features like pressure sensitivity allow deeper, realtime control (effectively aftertouch vibrato in the Erhu’s case) and yield pretty darn convincing results. Included are a handful of other asian instruments (Pipa, Koto and Guzheng), acoustic and electric guitars and basses (the upright is stellar), piano, string sections and some seriously sophisticated drummers and drum machines. Some are more realistic than others but the ones that are really do shine.

2. Portability and iCloud Sync – The first part is a given; it’s an iPhone obviously. But combined with iCloud services, you aren’t just stuck with your tiny iphone screen. I will often spend five minutes while at the Doc office, or 15 minutes on my lunch break carving out some ideas. Later that day, I might sit on my back porch, iPad mini in tow, and instantly bring up the same file I was working on earlier. Lastly, when I’m really ready to mix, I can even open my song directly into Logic X (or Garageband on mac). As a musician with a new baby and full-time job, this is nothing short of amazing! For the first time in far too long, I was able to release a new EP while still juggling fatherhood and everything else life had to throw at me.

Icegear Redshrike
One of my personal favourites!

3. Plugins!!! – As a synthesist and sound designer, I need me some serious control over the sounds I create. Though the included Alchemy synth has a bunch of high quality presets, they lack the deep control I’m accustomed to. Thankfully many excellent third-party plugins are available and work great in Garageband. My current line up includes IceGear Redshrike (absolutely amazing, fully controllable poly synth), Moog Model 15 (full featured modular synth), and Ruismaker FM (simple but capable FM drum synth). Once installing these, I really felt most every sound I needed was at my fingertips.

4. Performance FX – when writing pretty much any electronic music, performance effects can, at the least, break up monotony or in the extreme, change the mood of the song entirely. Garageband IOS offers a decently stocked suite of effects that include Low/Highpass Filter, Reverb, Delay, Reverse, Stutter style Effects, and more. You can record yourself manipulating these and then copy/paste/move them around like every other track. No real automation options are available unfortunately .

Garageband iPad
Bigger is Better on the iPad.

The Bad:

1. Very limited Automation – This one kills me. The only automation available is for track volume. No pan, no synth parameters and no effects (you can edit the MIDI sequencer of course. Note position, length and velocity as well as some articulations for smart instruments and of course simple editing of recorded performance effects). Though my last album was made entirely on IOS, the next will probably be bounced to Logic for final mixing. If they ever open up automation for what I mentioned above, Garageband IOS will be a monster IOS DAW on par with ones like Cubasis and Auria.

2. No freeze track option – I like big projects. I like lots of synths and drum tracks to layer the crap out of my songs. Though my iPhone 8 is very powerful, I start having issues when I have 8 plugin synth tracks each with several plugin effects all running. A “freeze track” option would not only ease the burden, but allow me to come back and edit something on that track unlike the current “merge track” workaround.

3. No Master Track or Side Chain – It’s just not there! No master compressor, no master fade/level to monitor, no options to Side Chain for the thumpy dance tune. There is a workaround to have master EQ by engaging the performance FX and using that track’s EQ, so there is at least that. This issue seems like an easy fix as the FX track is kind of a Master already, it just needs all the options the other tracks offer.

4. Battery Drain – Unfortunately for me, I still need to use my phone as an actual phone. If I’m away from a charger and spend an hour jamming away in Garageband I’m usually shocked how much battery juice I’ve lost. Whether Garageband needs some efficiency updates or Apple needs to step up battery performance in general, I’m not sure. All I know is a few hours of music time means I need to charge up to make it through the day despite starting it with a full charge.

The Fugly:

Garageband crash

1. Crashes!! – I should start off by saying it’s gotten a ton better with recent updates. However, when running a lot of tracks and/or simply switching to another song, it poops out occasionally. To be fair, I’ve never lost any work but, one time, I thought I had lost an entire track I’d worked on for a week as no matter what I tried (closed app, then restart phone completely) it would not stop immediately crashing on start-up. This was before I started using iCloud too so no backups existed (yeah, I know, back up your files you fool!). Ironically, a setting for iCloud sync seemed to be the issue and once I turned it off the project loaded fine. Since then I’ve turned it back on without issue. Unfortunately, I still get a crash around once a day though which can be quite annoying.

2. Odd MIDI Restriction – This one graduated from bad to fugly for me due to how frustrating it is. Basically, say you record a complex synth melody and you think “man, it would be sweet to double this melody up with a violin layer.” Nope! For whatever reason, you cannot copy and paste MIDI data from one instrument to another. Strangely enough, you can accomplish this if you are using the same instrument or plugin on two or more tracks. To do this you can either duplicate the track or just use copy/paste. Why it won’t work across every track, no matter the instrument/plugin is a mystery to me.

In summation, Garageband IOS is not without its flaws. Hopefully Apple will keep improving or better yet, release Logic X for IOS by taking Garageband and beefing it up to the level of competitors like Cubasis or Beatmaker 3 (iPad only…still). Until then, it is more than adequate to write fundamentally solid music (check out my EP, “Swan Songs of Life and Death” for proof 😋) and absolutely worthy of a trial to see if it fits with your personal work flow.

For a quick, comprehensive tutorial, check out IAMLXGEND’s video here.


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