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GarageBand Recording Tips

Jeff Tolbert, GarageBand expert and author extraordinaire, has kindly written an excellent article for our readers. In addition, to celebrate Jeff's newest title, "Take Control of Recording Music With Garageband," updated for GarageBand 2.0, we'll be giving away five free copies of both of Jeff's eBook (the other being "Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand." To enter the contest, just reply to this story while logged in to your MacJams account, and we'll draw a name at random and contact winners by e-mail. Read on for Jeff's excellent tips for GarageBand users!

GarageBand is introducing music recording to people who thought their choices were either a $1000 Pro Tools setup or a Radio Shack tape recorder. Whether you’ve been playing music for years or are just picking up the basics, your tunes can greatly benefit from a few tips and tricks that audio professionals have developed over the years.
These tips all come from my most recent GarageBand ebook, Take Control of Recording Music with GarageBand. Recently updated to cover GarageBand 2.0, it’s loaded with information on recording Real and Software Instruments, using and placing microphones, editing your tracks, and the basics of using GarageBand effects.

My other ebook, Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand, covers GarageBand basics, how to use loops and basic songwriting and composition.

The Most Important Audio Tip Ever

One of the guiding principles of audio recording is to always try to get the best sound possible when you record. The reasoning is simple: if you use a lousy microphone to record your acoustic guitar, you’re going to end up with a muddy or thin sounding guitar track. No amount of equalization will fix it, because you can’t add frequencies that aren’t there.

Always strive to get the best sound possible when you record: use the best preamp you can afford, use good microphones and place them carefully, and make sure you have clean, strong audio levels throughout your signal chain.

Start with a Beat

If you’re starting a song from scratch, you probably want a beat to play along with. GarageBand offers two choices: a drum track or the built-in metronome. The one you choose depends on the song, but I generally prefer a drum track--the rhythm is usually a bit looser and more groovy. The metronome (often called a click track in professional recording situations) is rather stiff, which may affect your performance.

If you want to use a drum track, the easiest place to start is with a drum loop. Follow these steps to add a drum loop to your song:

1. Click the Loop Browser button, which is marked with a picture of an eye.
2. Click any of the buttons in the second column to choose from the available drum and percussion loops.
3. A list of available loops in that category open on the right. Preview your options by clicking the name of the loop. Click it again to stop it. When you’ve made a choice, drag the loop up to an empty area of the timeline.
4. You can make your drum region as long as you want by clicking the upper right corner of the region and dragging to the right.

If you’d rather use the metronome, toggle it on by choosing Control > Metronome (Command-U). A checkmark on the menu indicates that the metronome is active.

You can choose whether the metronome plays only when you’re recording or during both playback and recording. Go to the General preference pane to select one of the two options.

TIP: Another cool trick that makes recording easier is the Count In option. When you choose Control > Count In, GarageBand starts playing a measure ahead of the playhead location, giving you a little time to get ready before you have to start playing. If you’re starting from the beginning of the song, the metronome plays alone for a measure. If the metronome is off, GarageBand sits silently for a measure.

Lock Your Tracks to Conserve CPU Cycles

GarageBand 2.0 instroduces a new way to improve performance: locking tracks, which greatly reduces the processor drain. When you lock a track, GarageBand renders it to disk, meaning that instead of having to generate instrument sounds and effects on the fly, all the program has to do is play the rendered track. It’s much easier for your poor little overworked processor. When I see the dreaded red playhead or get system overload messages, I can make the problem go away by locking a couple of tracks.

Software Instruments (the green tracks) are particularly CPU-hungry. The computer synthesizes the sound on the fly, using software algo¬rithms for the timbre of the instrument and MIDI data for the actual notes played. In Real Instru¬ment tracks, on the other hand, all the computer has to do is play back previously recorded audio—a much easier task.

To lock a track, click the track’s lock button in the track header. The next time you press play, GarageBand makes you wait while it renders the newly-locked track(s) to disk, and then plays the song normally. Note that after you lock a track, you can still change its volume and panning, but if you want to make any other changes you must unlock it first.


Click the track's lock button to lock a track.

Record Multiple Tracks at Once

Probably the most eagerly anticipated feature of GarageBand 2.0 is the capability to record multiple tracks at once. With the proper equipment (and enough people to play all the instruments), this is a piece of cake.

With the proper interface, you can record up to eight Real Instrument tracks at once, plus one Software Instrument. But if your preamp only has two channels, you can record only two Real Instrument tracks at once—no more. And no matter what kind of fancy interface you have, you can never record more than one Software Instrument track at a time.

Follow these steps to record up to eight tracks at once:

1. Plug your instruments into your input device. Depending on your device, you can use guitars, keyboards with 1/4" outputs, mics, and anything else you can think of (your stereo, for example).
2. Create a new track for the first input.
3. Choose the appropriate channel (or pair of channels for a stereo track) from the Input pop-up menu.
4. Turn monitoring on if you want it, and adjust all the knobs and sliders as described in Set Up Your Track and Set Levels.
5. Do the same for all the other tracks, making sure that each track is on its own channel or channels.
6. Now here’s the cool part: Click the Record Enable button on each of the new tracks to arm the track for recording (see the figure below). If you can’t enable a track for recording, make sure it’s not sharing an input channel with another enabled track, and that you’re not trying to record on more than eight tracks at once.
7. Click Record, start jamming, and make beautiful music together.


Click each track’s Record Enable button to start doing some serious multitrack recording.

Learn about Mic Placement

Microphone placement is an art unto itself. Moving a microphone even a millimeter can significantly change the sound it picks up. In this section, I offer a few tips on using a microphone to record common instruments. But in all cases, no matter what I or anyone else says about where the microphone should be placed, trust your ears.

If you read somewhere that you should place a microphone 6 inches away from an amplifier, pointing at the speaker at a 45-degree angle, try it. If it sounds awful, put it somewhere else. Even if it sounds fine, try a few other spots—they may sound even better.

Mic an Electric Guitar or Bass Amp

Do you absolutely love the way your guitar sounds when it’s plugged into your amp? Have you painstakingly tried to recreate this sound in GarageBand with little success? Why not go straight to the source and mic your amplifier? Miking the amp speaker is also a great way to get variety in your guitar sounds—in a song with two guitars, you can record one guitar straight into the preamp and the second by miking the guitar through the amplifier. The two tracks will have different sonic qualities that will help to distinguish them in the mix.

Miking a guitar amp is not terribly tricky, but here are a few tips:

  • Move the microphone around: Loud, distorted guitars often sound great with the mic a few inches from the speaker cone. This tends to give a more meaty, in your face tone. A less distorted guitar might sound better with the mic a few feet back, resulting in a warmer sound.
  • Try different angles: Straight on will give you a more crunchy tone, while more of an angle will sound warmer. If your amp has an open back, try putting the mic back there as well.
  • Tilt the amp back, or place it on a chair or a table: This minimizes reflections from the floor that can muddy the sound. Or leave the amp flat on the floor if you like the density of the tone.
  • Play with the amplifier volume: Often, guitars are recorded with the amplifiers cranked up so they distort. This is a possibility. Try others. Louder isn’t always better.

For a lot more on mic placement and loads of other GarageBand recording tips, grab a copy of Take Control of Recording with GarageBand!


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