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Review: Power Tools for GarageBand

Weighing in at a mere 120+ pages, Power Tools for GarageBand (BackBeat Books, 2004) may seem like a lightweight in a growing field of GarageBand books available today. However, to draw this conclusion would be to miss out on what is a dream come true for GarageBand users wanting to push their skills to the next level of audio mastery. Power Tools is concertedly not a beginner's tutorial for those who've never used or worked with GarageBand. Rather, it is intended to pick up where playing around with GarageBand for a few weeks or months is likely to leave you -- wanting to know those tried and true tips that expert computer musicians have come to take for granted. Each of the 120 pages of Power Tools for GarageBand is packed with gold in terms of the skills that they give the reader. We'll take you inside Power Tools for GarageBand and show you what we like about this book. UPDATE: Check out author Francis Preve at the O'Reilly Mac OS X conference on October 25 and at the San Francisco Apple Store on October 30 at 3 pm (and tell him MacJams sent 'ya!).
Power Tools for GarageBand is a book that assumes familiarity with GarageBand. Most of our users are at an intermediate or advanced level of GarageBand use, and this book is suited precisely for such users. This book will be especially valuable to those users who have taken to GarageBand as one of the first computer music programs they've used. There are a host of tried and true electronic music techniques that Power Tools covers, which would probably never be obvious to a new computer musician, even with several months experience using GarageBand. This fact comes from the advantage that author Francis Preve has as a true expert in the field of electronic music. Preve has written several titles on the topic, and has an impressive array of production and engineering credits. All of these factors combine to create a fantastic set of resources that few others could provide.

Being as it is, a book for more experienced users, Power Tools jumps straight into the good stuff. After a brief introduction on the book's intended audience and purpose, Chapter 2 deals with mastering loop-based composition techniques. Included are methods for slicing, dicing, combining, and otherwise modifying loops to create great sounding effects. Many of these effects are frequently heard in pop, dance, and hip hop music, and you'll be well served to add them to your arsenal.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover audio and MIDI techniques. Many of these techniques get their shine from author Francis Preve's aforementioned experience in music engineering and production. If you are not an experienced music producer or engineer, then you'll find the tips in these sections to be less-than-obvious, but incredibly helpful. As with most of the lessons in the book, the tutorials in these sections result in musical parts that sound highly distinctive and unique, and will allow you to strectch the standard GarageBand loop sets to their maximum potential. If you've got an add-on loop set or are working with your own music inputs, you'll go even further. One example of a great tip from the book is that certain software instruments respond differently to the MIDI sends from a modulation wheel/controller. The books tells you which instruments to look for, and what the modulation does for those instruments.

Chapters 5 and 6 are centered on GarageBand's software instruments and effects. Many who have dug into the settings and preferences in Apple's built-in GarageBand software instruments and effects have noticed that there is a huge amount of capability and configurability to the program. Of course, understanding these powerful features is something that is not so obvious and which most GarageBand users are likely struggle with. Indeed -- most of the effects and their settings come from Apple's professional audio application, Logic Pro.

The Power Tools section on software instruments explains many of the nebulous concepts behind old-fashioned synthesizers that are ubiquitous in much electronic music today. In addition, settings for more traditional instruments are explored, however the emphasis is on digital and analog synths. If you ever hoped to understand things like cutoff, attack, decay, envelope, and other characteristics of the GarageBand software instruments, and how they effect the sound you get from changing each of these settings, Power Tools is just for you. Special time is spent on the following instruments: Analog Basic, Analog Mono, Analog Pad, Analog Swirl, Analog Sync, Digital Basic, Digital Mono, Digital Stepper, Electric Piano, and Tonewheel Organ. Likewise, many of the effects in GarageBand are walked through, with Power Tools describing what various sliders will change the in the effected sound, and when such changes might be beneficial.

The final production-oriented chapter of Power Tools gives you a number of great tips for creating your mix down. This is where the author's experience in this area really shows and you are sure to benefit from the ideas contained in the chapter. The final chapter covers various add-on components that work with GarageBand. As a wonderful bonus to the book, a CD-ROM containing 150 Megabytes demo, shareware, or freeware tools is included, so you can get straight to pushing GarageBand past its as-shipped limits.

Our conclusion? Buy this book now. For the experienced GarageBand user looking to take their music production to the next level, the 120 pages in this book will be three times as valuable as 400 or 500 pages in other books. The icing on the cake is that this book is extremely afordable: it's list price is $17.95, and discount outlets like Amazon.com have it for as low as 12.57. You simply will not find a better bargain if you're hoping to polish and improve your GarageBand skills.


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