Apple’s GarageBand software is well known for it’s ability to help budding musicians create funky grooves and ambient tracks with ease. Also, GarageBand contains several valuable tools in one package to help you be more productive while practicing to perform live, instrumental music too. It has a built in instrument tuner, a built-in metronome, it records your playing via an audio input so you can hear yourself and critique your own playing, and a tool to slow down audio for transcription purposes.
Choosing a Microphone
To get started, you need at the very least a Mac with a built-in microphone, but you will be better off getting a nice powered mic for your digital practice studio that plugs in to your 1/8” audio in jack.
This is actually an interesting topic, because I really couldn’t find a whole lot of interesting information online about microphone choices for direct input to a Mac, specifically for the purposes of recording an acoustic instrument. My original intent was to buy a small, portable recorder/mixer, and then import the music to GarageBand somehow. Then I remembered GarageBand and its ability to record direct to it, and realized buying a recorder would be unnecessary. At that point, all I wanted to do was to find a damn microphone that was decent. At the same time, I did not want to break the bank.
GarageBand features a built-in microphone tool. Use it to practice those tight spots and build velocity, or create a click track to keep your performance in tempo as you record – then drop the track for final production.
The metronome is clicking when you record yourself. It will bleed in during recording unless you are wearing headphones. Which brings me to my next point:
Headphones are an important component to the Garage Band-based practice studio. With headphones, you can isolate playback of the metronome or other tracks so that they don’t bleed over into the recording of your miked acoustic instrument.
You will want to choose decent headphones with a long cable so you don’t send your brand new MacBook sailing over the desk and onto the floor when you finally pull off that riff and do a power windmill. Unless you are going to go for some serious recording, you won’t need to spend a lot of money. But do for something a bit more robust than those earbuds that shipped with your old iPod.
GarageBand has a built-in acoustic instrument tuner. Use it to tune your instrument or to check pitch during a passage. Click the tuning fork icon to go into this mode. Very handy.
Recording yourself is an excellent way to find ways to refine your music performance, and this in my opinion is the prime feature for leveraging GarageBand as a practice studio. Music students go and submit themselves to their music instructors on a weekly basis and get an earful of how they should work on this and that, and then come back the following week playing the piece exactly the same. Have a listen to what your teacher is hearing for a change, by recording yourself and playing it back. Ow – did I make that mistake?
Or if you’re like myself, someone with a masters degree in music performance and decades of private instruction on the books, it’s probably time to get into some deep self-critiquing. Be your own teacher and listen to how you forgot to hold that sustain as long as you thought you were, or how you are rushing the beat in that one passage subconsciously every single time. Listening to yourself play through a piece and critiquing yourself as if you were your own teacher can be very revealing.
The best way to learn improvisation is to transcribe solos of the greats. Slowing down those licks would make life easier, would it not? Unfortunately, slowing down only works for direct mic recordings or digitized clips. Simply importing an MP3 file into GarageBand works, but it won’t let you slow it down. I was hoping this feature would work when exploring GarageBand as a practice tool, but no dice. Maybe next release… However, there are alternative programs available that do this nicely: Transcribe! and The Amazing Slow Downer. Both of those programs are shareware but the cost is nominal and you get a lot of features with each.
Archiving to Disk
Your GarageBand recordings will start to eat up disk space quick. If you want to keep archives, you will want to back this stuff up on alternative media, such as an external hard drive, DVDs, or CD-ROMs. While CDs might be on the low end of the storage scale, they are big enough to hold a few GarageBand archives and handy enough to organize in a bin. These will tend to be cheaper and burn faster than DVDs, although DVD burners are getting faster and the media is rapidly coming down in cost.
Making a Demo
Lastly, some of those recordings might come out sounding pretty good. With a solid inventory on hand of your work, you can pick and choose which tracks that might be good enough for a demo CD. Export these to iTunes and burn the audio CDs as needed for those audition screenings or conservatory applications. Get a CD labeler, print some jacket notes, and make it look nice while you’re at it.
Why aren’t you practicing?