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Review: GarageBand '11 is worth diving into

iLife '11 has a lot of goodies, but none impressed me more than GarageBand's new capabilities (although I am pretty enthralled with some of the new iMovie features). GarageBand has taken another step toward being a "prosumer" music-recording solution, while still maintaining its roots as a simple, dive-in-and-go application.

I'm a Logic Studio user, and working in GarageBand can be a little awkward if you're used to more precision and flexibility. For a musical scratchpad with the ability to output a polished, professional track, though, GarageBand is aces. The latest updates make this even more true. Read on for my take on some of the highlights of GarageBand '11.

Flex Time and Groove Matching

I've found the audio-quantizing features to be a little imperfect overall, but still amazingly useful. To use Groove Matching, you just need to click the star on the left side of the track you want to use as a base (more than likely your primary drum track). Other tracks are automatically "checked" to quantize to the starred track, but you can disable it on any individual track. Quantizing MIDI is a breeze, and matching keyboard tracks to any beat, waveform or MIDI, can literally be done on the fly as you record. Waveform audio (real instrument) is a little more finicky.

You may have noticed in the Back to the Mac presentation that when the Groove Matching feature was introduced, it was demoed on tracks that weren't terribly far off beat, and which had clear, staccato accents. This is where Groove Matching does its best work. Obviously, if your track is one long distorted riff without many peaks, the audio analysis is going to have a tougher time figuring out where to match beats. That being said, it did a pretty bang-up job on a few such tracks that I threw at it. When it fails, Flex Time steps in.

Flex Time can be a really amazing tool. You can just hover over a section of audio, and it will find the peaks and give you handles for dragging them left and right to match time. Dealing with such small sections of audio you can't go too far, but you can get to the nearest 16th note without any audible artifacts. Of course, you can create some pretty cool sounds by overdoing it, too. It's kind of like turning audio tracks into putty you can push and pull as you want, and in a far more intuitive fashion than traditional audio editing techniques.

Guitar recording

I love the new guitar recording features. Selecting and modifying amps and pedals is very similar to Amplitube or AMPkit, which we've shown you before. Just choose a preset, and then customize away. You can choose your head/cabinet, amp settings and add stompboxes to customize your sound. There are five new effects, for a total of 15 choices and a wide variety of combinations.

By the way, the iRig makes a great guitar/bass input on Macs which accept the three-segment headphone/microphone combinations. I know all of the newer MacBook Pros can do this, and I'm fairly certain most of the other lines work this way. I haven't tested the AMPkit with it, but I'm pretty sure you'd have the same results.

Lessons

GarageBand has had lessons in it for a while. GarageBand '11 adds 22 new lessons for piano and guitar, so if you've been following along, you've got plenty more to learn. I haven't tackled any in earnest yet, but a run-through of the new "How Did I Play" feature tells me I have some work to do on my piano skills (I miss weighted keys). The feature seems pretty cool, and I look forward to finding the time to learn some new things.

Overall, this release will be of great value to anyone who wants to be able to quickly create professional-sounding audio, whether for iMovie soundtracks or your next homebrew album. The new features add great power without sacrificing simplicity. If you're not impressed, you probably need to spring for Logic (or similar). Even as a scratchpad, though, GarageBand stands out as a powerful, affordable option.

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