Review: Apple GarageBand for iPad

by on March 28, 2011

Generally we don’t review apps developed by Apple, especially since many define a category and third-parties stay away. That being said, we have been using Apple’s GarageBand for the iPad for the past few weeks and thought it would be worthwhile to evaluate if it should have a place on your home screen.

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GarageBand for the iPad was announced at the same time as the iPad 2, way back on March 2nd. Priced at $5, the application promised to be just different enough than its desktop counterpart to make it stand out, especially when taking advantage of the iPad’s multitouch display. In many regards, we see it as a great counterpart to the Mac version, gathering quick recordings in the field, dreaming up ideas, or even acting as an easier way to play a virtual instrument.

For the price, you get a lot—about 370 megabytes’ worth. 16GB iPad users should make sure they have enough space before installing. Once loaded, you’re greeted with a screen not unlike Apple’s iWork apps for the iPad for creating, opening, or transferring a project. After creating a new project, you must select what your track will be. Again, Apple provides a familiar view for selecting items—either real instruments through an interface plugged into the Dock Connector, virtual on-screen instruments, or Smart Instruments. The first work exactly as expected, and you can even run a USB microphone or MIDI keyboard through Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. These offer effects and the simulated guitar amps are quite good.

The virtual instruments are fun, but fairly familiar to those who have used the various drum keyboard apps that have been available for the iPad for awhile. Besides a nice selection of pianos, organs, synths, and even more synths, GarageBand offers a few drum kits and drum machines to help you create just the right beat…or play the drum solo from “In the Air Tonight.”

The Smart Instruments are where GarageBand for the iPad really shines. Part loop, part simplifying music theory, all addictive, the Smart Instruments include a Smart Guitar, a Smart Bass, Smart Drums, and a Smart Keyboard. These include fewer instrument choices, but enough for you to create a pretty good jam, even if you have no music skills whatsoever. The Smart Drums are as simple as picking a drum kit, and then placing items on a grid (the x-axis is complexity and the y-axis is volume). The Smart Guitar and Smart Bass feature predefined chords, but you can also bend notes. Finally, the Smart Keyboard offers only four instruments, but makes it ridiculously easy to make your own pop/rock covers. The latter three instruments also feature an Autoplay option where you can play along with some predefined music. This almost seems like loops, but just a bit more hands-on.

There’s also a Sampler instrument where you can record clips and play it at different frequencies via a keyboard. I haven’t played with it too much, but I think my new goal is to get a variety of “sick” sounds loaded in, á la Ferris Bueller.

If you’re a fan of loops, don’t fear, this edition of GarageBand has ’em, but with an iPad-style browser. They’re an abbreviated subset and mostly new and unique to the iPad, but it seems Apple was trying to keep memory usage low.

Once you get your tracks picked out or recorded, arranging them works a lot like GarageBand always has. On the iPad, you’re limited to eight tracks, but even the older first-generation iPad handles them farily well. It seems that it features some pre-processing, as the screen often displays a message that it is optimizing.

When you’re done perfecting your recording, getting it to your Mac or sharing it is easy—in theory. First, you can send it via email, which exports the finished product as an AAC/MPEG-4 file. Second, you can send it to that magical file transfer place that iTunes picks up for a direct importation to your Mac. This gives you the option of the AAC file or a GarageBand file. Currently, you cannot open the GarageBand file in GarageBand on the Mac, which means it is useless. In theory, you should be able to offload it, work on it, and create a finished product on your Mac (you cannot transfer things back to your iPad). Until Apple fixes this (which we have no doubt they will), GarageBand for the iPad is missing a hugely useful function.

Update (4/2/2011): Apple has released an update to GarageBand that will allow compatibility, and also requires a 181MB “Compatibility Update” when you open your first iPad GarageBand file.

Should you buy the app? File transfer issues aside, GarageBand for the iPad is a very well-designed and capable product for $5. While we won’t be using it to record SchwarzTech Radio anytime soon, it does offer a lot to both the musician, and the musically un-inclined.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

GarageBand for the iPad is a very full-featured app that is worth way more than $5, regardless of if you are a musician or simply want to dabble in music.

Pros: Lots of options, Smart Instruments, runs on iPad 1 & 2, beautiful interface

Cons: Does not work with the Mac version of GarageBand (yet), Loops seem a bit limited

Rating: 8/10

The Facts

Product: GarageBand
Company: Apple
Platform: iPad (1, 2, 3)
Price: $4.99 (iTunes US Link)

This post has been filed in iOS Apps, iPad, Mobile Devices, Reviews