GarageBand, the musical component of iLife, has long been the application of choice for many podcasters and Mac musicians. Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, it’s ignored by the vast majority of iLife users. Unless you’re a podcaster, musician (aspiring or otherwise) or have stumbled upon GarageBand because you heard it could help you create ringtones or edit audio, there’s seemingly little in it for you.

With GarageBand ’09 Apple focused the program on musicians rather than podcasters, attempting to market the program not only as a lightweight digital audio workstation (DAW) but also as a music teaching tool. It did so by incorporating into GarageBand basic guitar and keyboard lessons as well as song-centric lessons from a handful of famous artists. Unfortunately, there was little follow-up on this front. No additional basic lessons appeared and only a smattering of artist lessons were added after the initial release.

GarageBand ’11 takes further steps into the musical world by not only expanding and refining its pedagogical efforts but also adding more amps and effects to its Guitar tracks. It also incorporates two features found in Logic and Logic Express, Flex Time and Groove Matching, to help you adjust the timing and rhythm of the music you record. Other than this, little has changed in GarageBand. Podcasters will find no additional features, and while the interface has been tidied somewhat, today’s GarageBand looks little different from its predecessor.

Lessons learned

Tim, the engaging instructor from GarageBand ’09, reappears in GarageBand ’11’s lessons. In addition to the eight basic guitar and keyboard lessons that were available with GarageBand ’09, GarageBand ’11 offers four additional free collections: Rock Guitar (five lessons), Blues Guitar (seven lessons), Pop Piano (six lessons) and Classical Piano (four lessons). As with the basic lessons (excluding the first guitar and keyboard lessons, which are bundled with GarageBand), you must download these lessons via GarageBand’s Lesson Store. This can be slow going, it took my Mac an entire day to download all of the lessons over a 4Mbit DSL connection. This isn’t surprising given that the complete collection of free lessons is over 25GB.

GarageBand 11
How Did I Play analyses and rates your performance

The additional lessons are as good as the basic lessons, clearly presented in a nice interface that shows Tim in widescreen at the top of the window, a keyboard or fretboard below and a speed slider, play controls and volume controls along the bottom of the screen. Within this screen you can access the new Glossary feature, which presents common musical concepts linked to pages that offer text and sometimes video examples taken from the lessons. The Glossary entries are very basic, including such concepts as articulation, chords, hand position and posture, dynamics, music notation and scales. If you’re new to playing an instrument, these pages can be helpful. Those with more experience won’t gain much from them.

As with the previous version of GarageBand, this lessons window also provides access to the Mixer and Setup windows, where you respectively adjust the volume of the teacher’s voice, teacher’s instrument, background band, your instrument and configure your input and output devices (an audio interface or microphone for example) as well as choose a notation view. A new View menu lets you quickly select from among these views. When you explore How Did I Play (which I address shortly) you’ll be happy for the full page view. Scrolling notation is an awkward way to read music.

I’m a professional keyboard player so the keyboard lessons didn’t have much to offer me. However, I’ve recently purchased a guitar with the notion that I might actually learn to play it. The GarageBand lessons have been helpful. Their pacing is just about right and the ability to loop just the bits I want to concentrate on has helped me get the hang of chords that tie my fingers into knots. I hope Apple continues to feed us new lessons as this is a nice way to learn.

GarageBand 11

New with this version of GarageBand is the How Did I Play feature. In the past you were welcome to play along with the instructor and record your performance. The difference here is that GarageBand ’11 “listens” to what you play through a connected audio interface or microphone and provides feedback on the accuracy of your performance, not only whether you’ve played the right notes but also if you’ve played them at the right time. Correct notes and chords briefly turn green. Incorrect notes or chords are marked in red and measures that contain mistakes are likewise coloured red. Timing errors cause a measure to turn yellow. A bar at the bottom of the window gives you an overview of your performance, marking good sections in green and those with mistakes in red. A percentage indicator to the left displays an overall score, 68 percent for example. Click a History button and you see a chart that shows you how you’ve done with every attempt at the piece or lesson.