One of the very first purchases new Apple GarageBand users consider making is that of a MIDI keyboard. If you're new to MIDI and aren't really sure what you'll need to start using a MIDI keyboard with GarageBand, we offer an excellent tutorial on MIDI Basics for GarageBand Users. Once you've got these basics down, it's time to shop. For most beginning GarageBand users, a simple MIDI configuration is both sufficient and optimal. If you already have a MIDI keyboard, it is likely the only MIDI device you'll want to use with GarageBand, and therefore you'll only need a simple 1-in/1-out MIDI interface. We recommend the M-Audio MIDISport Uno 1x1 Interface, which is a bargain at $39.95, and includes cables. This device is shown below:
If you don't already have a MIDI keyboard, then you can skip the MIDI interface entirely and get a MIDI keyboard that plugs directly into your Mac's USB port. You may have seen the two keyboards that Apple sells through its online store and in its Apple Store locations. Those two keyboards, the M-Audio Keystation 49e, and the Edirol PCR-30, are great keyboards. Of course, the M49e, at list price of $99 seems to be all but impossible to find in stock and orders from Apple have yielded estimated ship dates as long as 4 or 6 weeks. And the Edirol is priced at $199 at the Apple Store, which doesn't include the tax charge you'll pay. We can do better. Why not pick up the awesome Edirol PCR-30, which happens to be our favorite compact MIDI keyboard (see our PCR-30 In Depth article) for only $169.95 with free shipping and no sales tax (outside of NJ) from ZZounds?
If you're looking for more than 32 keys but like the PCR-30, then you'll be happy to know about the PCR-30's big brothers, the PCR-50, a 49-key keyboard ($229.95 w/ free shipping at Zzounds), and the PCR-80, a 61-key keyboard ($329.95 w/ free shipping).
If you're a more space-conscious user and are looking for a very small MIDI keyboard controller that you can use for one-handed melodies and to control volume, pan, and other "knob/slider" parameters, then many users have expressed an appreciation of the M-Audio Oxygen 8 25-key keyboard, which is shown below and is $139.95 w/ free shipping at ZZounds.
For all of our aspiring American Idol contestants, a good-quality microphone is probably the next purchase to consider for the well prepared GarageBand user. Anyone who's shopped for a microphone can likely attest that the selection and variety is formidable. So what's a user to choose? We recommend going with the tried and true when it comes to microphones. And when you're talking about a fantastic all-around stage and studio microphone, you will be hard pressed to find one more commonly used and recommended by professionals as the Shure SM58. Known by its '58 nickname, this Shure model can be seen at the vast majority of concerts, shows, and other events where a wired microphone is employed.
And don't forget a microphone cable, which you'll need if you buy most professional-quality microphones. If you're totally new to music recording equipment, then you should note that the SM58, and virtually all other pro-level microphones have a couple of characteristics you should be aware of. First, these microphones use a special type of connector called "XLR" which is supported on most mixing boards, amplifiers, and related equipment. You don't need to deal much with the XLR format if you just get an XLR to 1/4" audio plug microphone cable, which you'll need anyway. We recommend the Shure C15HZ Microphone Cable (15 Ft) ($13.95 at ZZounds). The other thing to note is that professional-level microphones are typically low-impedence signal devices. By contrast, most devices you plug directly into the mic or sound input port on your Mac have the required high-impedence, line-level signals. As such, if you plug a good quality mic directly into your Mac, you won't hear anything. You'll need to do one of several things first. You can either: (1) buy a cheap audio-mixer (we'll recommend one below) to plug your mic into, and then plug the mixer into your Mac, (2) buy a USB of firewire audio interface for your Mac and plug your microphone into that, or (3) you can buy an impedence transformer/matcher at your local radio shack, and then plug that device into your Mac (our local radio shack has these devices for about $19.95 -- not a great deal considering the deals we'll show you below on an audio mixer that can be used for other purposes than simply getting your Mic to talk to your Mac).
For many users, a MIDI keyboard and a microphone only scratch the surface of the many possible sound-making devices they want to put in their GarageBand mix. For these folks, who may have instruments, sound modules, radios, walkmans, iPods, or anything else with an audio-out plug, we've got you covered. We'll show you several of our most highly recommended options for getting such sounds into your Mac, and thus into GarageBand.
One of the most common musical instruments to plug in to a Mac when working with GarageBand is an electric guitar. Apple sells a $19.95 plug adapter that serves as a pre-amp so you can plug your guitar directly into your Mac. This option is a quick and easy way to get your Guitar into your GarageBand mix, but you may want to plug other devices in at the same time, or you may want to record both your vocals and your guitar into GarageBand. In these cases, the $19.95 plug is not a very versatile product. As an alternative, you migh consider buying an inexpensive audio mixer which can accept input from your Guitar, a microphone, and any other sound source for which you have the appropriate adapters (most things in the music recording world revolve around the 1/4" audio plug interface, so you'll get used to buying adapters that match the 1/4" plug standard if you're around it for a while).
We like the uber-affordable and hyper-compact 5-input mixer called the Behringer UB502 Eurorack mixer. This mini-mixer allows you to plug in a microphone (with either XLR or 1/4" input) plus two other stereo channels (guitars, keyboard audio, etc.). From there, you can plug the mixer's output into your Mac (the signal will be a line-level signal that will work fine going directly into your Mac), or you can plug in headphones (we will, of course, recommend a great pair below) or a tape deck if you wish. The UB502 is shown below.
Now, the above solution is an all-analog solution and everything you plug into your mixer will be mixed into a single channel/track when it goes to your Mac. If you're looking for a higher tech solution and are ready to shell out some more money for it, then you're probably ready to consider a USB or Firewire audio adapter. Using these devices, users can plug various sound sources into the device, which will convert the signal to digital and send it to your Mac as a digital signal over USB or Firewire. This process has several advantages, most of which simply mean the signal is cleaner and will sound better. If you're looking for a "pro-amateur" setup, then this may be what you want.
When choosing a USB or Firewire audio device, one should be careful to get one that is on the Apple GarageBand Compatibility List. Of the devices on this list, we recommend, based on our users' reports, the Digidesign Mbox and the M-Audio Mobilepre USB. For the more budget conscious user who wants digital audio input, the Edirol UA1X Digitual Audio connector is a good bargain, but with limited input capabilities. Each of these devices is shown and linked below.
If you're considering purchase of a Firewire or USB audio device, we caution you to be careful that your chosen device will support the inputs you need to use with your sound sources. Because there is significant variance in the formats of audio inputs in these devices, it is likely that your choices will be narrowed by your particular requirements. Shop carefully if you buy one of these high-end devices. (We note that recommended retailer, Zzounds, features a 30-day 100% satisfaction guarantee on most of its equipment).
You can't really be recording music without a pair of those big, over-the-ear, professional-quality headphones, can you? We don't think so either. But if you've never owned a pair of these wonderful audio tools, you might be a little mystified at all the options. As with most things in the pro-audio world, the market has spoken and there a few clear front-runners when thinking about headphone monitors in the recording studio.
Sony has long made some of the best pro-quality headphones out there. Over the years, several models have come and gone. One of the former champs that can still be found at online retailers is the MDR-V600 model. The MDR-V600 can be had for the bargain price of $74.99 (free shipping). The V600's are shown below.
If you're looking for the latest MDR pro-series headphones from headphones, for $25 more, you can have the Sony MDR7506's for $99.95 and free shipping at ZZounds. This model is shown below, however we note that the MDR-V600 model above has the identical size driver but features a significantly greater frequency response range. (We would also note that other Sony model headphones besides those mentioned here should be considered with caution, as we've seen reports of shoddy sound quality outside of the V6XX series).
Other Purchase Possibilities
Althought there are a myriad of potential goodies to buy for use with GarageBand, we're unable to go into all of them here. However, one thing you probably know if you've used GarageBand on anything but the most recent G4 and G5 computers is that GarageBand is a resource hog. It demands CPU speed, memory, and disk speed. You would be wise to maximize all of the above if you're looking to fully enjoy your GarageBand experience. Although a new computer is virtually the only way to get a faster CPU, and RAM upgrades are specific to your make and model, we can suggest a solution that should help many people and can be used with any computer that will run GarageBand. In particular, we're talking about an external, high-speed Firewire hard drive. If you've gotten a "your disk is too slow" message from GarageBand, we feel your pain. However, this message, and other performance difficulties, can be alleviated by using a Firewire disk that's faster than your own internal hard drive. If you're a laptop user, this is especially true, as every factory hard drive shipped by Apple with its laptop computers is slower than a fast 7200 RPM firewire drive like the ones discussed below.
We've recently stumbled on some great deals for those looking to boost disk speed by acquiring a new external Firewire hard drive. In particular, the LaCie d2-case series provides a great value. The 120 Gigabyte, 7200 RPM model is only $155.74 w/ free shipping at Amazon.com. The same model also comes in 80 Gig ($127.44) and 200 Gig ($220.99) models, both with free shipping at Amazon. On the outside, all of these models look the same, as shown below.
And, finally, one other potential purchase for the online GarageBand user is a new webhosting account where you can store your GarageBand creations with the online world. We've searched high and low for the best deal out there, and we think it's 1and1.com's basic webhosting package, which for $4.99/mo (no setup fee) will give you 500 Megabytes of storage, 50 e-mail account, a free domain name, and much more. It's hard to beat this from a reputable webhost, and we're happy to say that as users of 1and1.com, we can recommend their service. Click here to learn more about 1and1.com (full disclosure: MacJams.com receives a referral fee if you sign up).
That's a Wrap!
Well that concludes our MacJams.com Apple GarabeBand buyer's guide. We hope that this has been a helpful look at some of the most-frequently considered purchases to complement Apple's GarageBand software. We urge all of our users to visit our Discussion Forums if you've got questions, comments, or tips on the equipment listed here or ANY equipment that you're using with Apple GarageBand.
Keep on Jammin'!