App Review: GarageBand for iPad

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One of Apple’s selling points for the iPad 2 was the introduction of a five-dollar app version of their music-creation-and-editing software GarageBand. The short version: It’s not the Perfect Instrument; it’s not as powerful as the full-featured desktop version of GarageBand. It’s a toy, and it’s not worth buying an iPad solely to have access to it. But if you happen to have an iPad already, it’s one hell of an amazing toy, an excellent use of the touchscreen interface, and a terrific deal for five bucks.

The default assumption behind the iPad incarnation of GarageBand is that you’re going to want to use it to make individual songs–multi-tracked recordings, most likely involving some combination of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals, and most likely in 4/4 time with sections that are multiples of eight bars long. Fair enough: that’s a rather rock-centered idea of what music’s about, but then again the program is called GarageBand.

(More on TIME.com: Spec Spat: Apple iPad Vs. iPad 2)

The program’s equipped with a bunch of “smart” incarnations of basses, drums, guitars and keyboards; each one has a handful of variations of the basic instrument, options for tones, and so on. You can set the instruments to play particular notes or chords–it offers a limited number of preset chords, related to whatever key you’ve chosen to play in. Some of the options are fairly impressive, though: you can choose to limit your smart guitar to the notes in particular scales, for instance. (Playing in a minor pentatonic scale is a lot of fun if you want to pretend you’re in a ’70s-era Ethiopian jazz-funk group.) And the smart drums are awfully clever: you generate a beat by positioning each instrument in each of the kits it offers (including hip-hop and house electronic drums) on a grid whose axes are “volume” and “complexity.” (You can also hit a little die in the corner of the screen to randomize the beat.)

There are also a couple of more free-form instruments. You can set the smart guitars and basses to let you play them a bit more like you’d play a real one–touching strings on the screen to play notes (you can even bend notes by sliding your fingers). This is mindbendingly frustrating if you’ve ever played an actual guitar, but if you just want to add a few flourishes to your song, it works fine. The non-smart keyboards and drums are both played by touching the screen; what they lack in tactility (and dynamic variation!), they make up for–partly–in the range of tones you can get at the press of a button.

GarageBand also features a whole suite of guitar amp simulators, which require you to run an electric guitar into the iPad. Each one can be monkeyed with endlessly; each one comes with a couple of compatible “pedals” that can alter the tone some more. Again, this stuff is great for tinkering to see what kind of tone you like–it’s easy enough to lose a few hours to it–but you’re really not going to want to use it in any kind of performance situation, especially since if you’re using the iPad’s headphone jack to connect your guitar, the only immediate output you can get for that massive “Orange amp” is the iPad’s rather dinky speaker.

There’s also a sampler keyboard, with a little bank of samples to which you can add anything you like, and an audio recorder, which is set up to process voices and put various effects on them. Finally, there’s the “mixing board”: a screen in which you can layer, edit and loop the recordings you’ve made, and/or add various preset loops of other instruments. (There’s not quite the variety of loops here that there are on the desktop version of iPad, but there’s still plenty to play with.) You can mix down your songs to AAC files, or transfer your GarageBand files to a desktop–although you apparently can’t yet open the iPad version’s files in the desktop version.

(More on TIME.com: Apple’s iPad 2 Review: It’s Still the One)

This version of GarageBand is startlingly intuitive for such a complicated program. At first, I was a little irritated that there didn’t seem to be an instruction manual, and that the help screens were as terse as they are; gradually, I realized that “I wonder what happens if I press this button” was a totally fine way to explore the program. After a couple of hours of tinkering, I’d managed to record something passably songlike. That’s an impressive learning curve.

The great advantage of making music on computers is that the range of possibilities of sound, and the ease of assembling recordings, is unimaginably far beyond what was possible even a decade or two ago. The great disadvantage is that computers take music away from the body–a lot of the fun, and a lot of the expressive possibilities, of playing a conventional acoustic or electric instrument come from getting to make sounds by touching the instrument itself, and exploring your own innate sense of tone and timing. The iPad version of GarageBand is a step in the right direction, and enormously fun to play around with.

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