How Did I Play is a clever feature that works with both keyboard and guitar lessons, and is found in free lessons as well as the artist lessons that you can purchase separately. It should help motivate a lot of people to return to lessons with the idea of bettering their score.

Also helpful is a new Chord Trainer feature found in the Guitar Lessons area of Learn to Play. Here you can run through common major and minor open chords and major and minor barre chords at your own pace. Play a chord correctly and the displayed chord diagram briefly turns green and a check mark appears in its lower right corner. You’re then advanced to the next chord in the sequence. A clock runs in the lower left corner, keeping track of the time it takes you to get through all the chords in the series.

GarageBand 11

Regrettably, the Chord Trainer occasionally failed to recognise correctly played chords on both electric and acoustic guitars, to the point where I tried playing them with and without a pick and at varying degrees of ferocity in the hope that GarageBand would accept them. Granted, I’m a terrible guitar player and could use the extra practice, but in some of these instances I had the chord right and GarageBand was simply being stubborn.

More for electric guitar players

GarageBand ’11 adds seven modelled guitar amps and five stomp boxes to its previous collection of amps and effects. The additional amps include the Stadium Stack Amp, Brownface Combo Amp, British Blues Combo Amp, Large Tweed Amp, Octane Stack Amp, Studio Combo Amp and Sunshine Stack Amp. The new stomp boxes are Hi Drive (distortion), Rawk (overdrive), Heavenly Chorus (chorus), Wah (wah wah) and Candy Fuzz (fuzz). As before, you can edit each amp’s controls, mix and match effects and save custom setups. If you liked the amps and effects in the previous version of GarageBand, you should like these as well.

In my review of GarageBand ’09 I noted, with much regret, that amps, stomp boxes and setups couldn’t be controlled externally, if you wanted to make any changes, you had to take your hands off the guitar and manipulate your Mac. You can now choose setups and switch effects to be on and off via Apogee’s GiO USB controller. Unfortunately, much as I like the GiO, it’s the only external avenue for doing this. Starving musicians are unlikely to have the money necessary to purchase a GiO. I hope that one day Apple will allow GarageBand to be controlled by other, less expensive external devices.

Tinkering with timing

The expanded lessons and additional amps and effects are enhancements to existing features. What’s new are the Flex Time and Groove Matching features brought over from Apple’s professional music applications, Logic and Logic Express.

Flex Time lets you grab a portion of a digital audio track and drag it forward or back in time as well as lengthen or shorten the selection to change the rhythmic feel. It allows you to do this without forcing you to slice the audio or take complicated steps to compress or expand nearby audio. Just expose a real instrument’s waveform by double-clicking on the real instrument track, click on the waveform where you’d like to impose Flex Time and drag a handle to move the audio forward or back. Surrounding audio doesn’t move in time but rather compresses to make room. This means that if you have a lot of notes close together and drag Flex Time-selected material into them, they’ll shorten. You can turn Flex Time off for a track where it’s previously been imposed by clicking a Flex Time icon in the waveform’s editor header.


Imposing Flex Time on a portion of a real instrument track

Flex Time isn’t for changing the timing of phrases, you’re better off using cut and paste or quantising the note timing. Rather, it’s for subtly adjusting where specific notes fall. If, for example, a kick drum plays a little before the beat, you can shift it over to fall on the beat. It can also be used to extend material, a song’s last ringing guitar chord for example. It’s a worthwhile addition and one that’s easy to use.

Groove Matching is a feature for dealing with overall sloppy timing. For instance, you’ve recorded your band and the guitar and keyboard player just aren’t locking to the drums and bass. Simply hover your cursor over the drum part and click the small star that appears in the left margin. This tells GarageBand that the drum track is the Groove track, the one that all other selected parts should look to for their timing. Now click the checkboxes that appears in that same margin of the guitar and keyboard tracks and they fall in line with the drums.

In my tests Groove Matching does a good job with typically off-by-a-bit parts. But it can’t perform miracles. If your keyboard player hits a chord close to the second beat when it should have been played on beat one, that chord will align with the second beat.

Musical though GarageBand ’11 is, there remain places where it refuses to go. You’re still allowed to use only a single time signature. If you have a tune that has mixed time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, and 12/8 for example, you’ll either have to find a way to fake it or look to a more flexible application such as Logic Express. Likewise, while you’re perfectly free to change keys all you like when you play, GarageBand won’t reflect those key changes in its scores. And speaking of scores, although you can still view software instrument tracks in musical notation, you have limited editing options and you can’t view a score full screen.

But these are features for the more advanced musician. GarageBand can be a great musical sketchpad for any musician, but if you’re working on projects with multiple time signatures, key changes, and require full score viewing, Apple’s will point you to Logic Express.

OUR VERDICT

Were GarageBand ’11 sold separately, this largely evolutionary version might have merited a .5 release rather than a bump to a new version number. But where iLife goes, so goes GarageBand.

All the changes that have been made: expanded lessons, How Did I Play, the greater variety of guitar amps and effects and the addition of Flex Time and Groove Matching, are useful for those who take advantage of them. As both a musician and podcaster, I’ve found GarageBand to be an invaluable tool. And it remains so.

If you’re one of the many people who have never bothered with it, perhaps it’s time to dig out that old Casio keyboard or Sears guitar and give it a try.