When it comes to beginner-friendly, free digital audio workstations, GarageBand is second to none. It ships with every Mac and iPhone, it’s completely free, and it lets beginning musicians and recorders learn how to use some powerful tools.
Even with its beginner-friendliness, however, it can be quite intimidating to jump into. GarageBand has a lot of features and tools, and while they’re very powerful, it’s not always immediately clear how to use them.
So we’ll be going over the basics of GarageBand here. This guide will help you scratch the surface of the software, and help you get on your way to becoming a GarageBand expert.
Getting GarageBand on All of Your Devices
Before we get started, you’ll need to make sure you have GarageBand on your devices. It’s available for Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and if you have one of those devices, you probably already have the app. If you don’t, just head to App Store and download it.
When you fire it up for the first time, it might ask you to download additional sound files. It’s a good idea to grab these, as they’ll give you more options for creating your own music.
You’ll also notice that many of the instruments won’t be downloaded initially. If you see an instrument or loop that has a greyed-out title and has a downward-facing arrow next to it, just click the arrow to download the necessary files.
Starting a New Project and the Main Window
When you start up GarageBand, you’ll be asked to create a new project (you can also get to this point with File > New or Cmd + N).
In this tutorial, we’ll be using the Empty Project option. I encourage you to check out the other options, though, as they’re great for learning how to work with GarageBand’s tools.
After clicking Choose, you’ll get to the main GarageBand window. You’ll also be asked to add a new track. For now, just click Software Instrument and Create.
Finally, you’ll see the main GarageBand window.
On the left, you’ll see the library, which lets you choose different instruments. The top-right panel is the workspace, where you’ll see the notes you’ve recorded and the different instrument tracks in your project. The bottom-right panel is the editor, where you can make tweaks to your tracks.
And floating above them all is the musical typing keyboard, where you can play notes directly from your Mac’s keyboard (we’ll go over this in a moment).
There are many other windows and panels that you’ll see throughout your GarageBand adventure, but these are the main ones you’ll be using.
Getting Set Up
Before we start writing a new song, there are a few settings you might want to tweak. We’ll start with tempo, which is displayed in the Beats & Project window at the top of the screen. The default tempo is 120 beats per minute, but you can change this by double-clicking the tempo value and entering a new one. You can also click-and-drag the number to increase or decrease it.
You can also click the time signature and key to bring up menus that allow you to change them. To the right of these are buttons that enable the one-bar count-in and the metronome.
Making Music with Apple Loops
When you’re just getting started, using Apple’s large library of loops is a great way to get the hand of GarageBand. Loops are short stretches of music that you can use as a base for your own composition.
Let’s look at an example. After you’ve opened up your new project, press the O key, or go to View > Show Apple Loops. You’ll see a new panel on the right side of the screen:
As you can see, there are tons of options for loops. We’ll add “Afganistan [sic] Sand Rabab 5.” Click the loop and drag it into the workspace (make sure you drop it next to the first bar, so it starts at the beginning of the track):
Click on the right side of the loop and drag it to the right. Make sure to click on the top half of the right side of the loop; the cursor will show a loop icon.
We’ll use five repetitions of this two-bar loop, for a total of ten bars. I’ve changed the tempo to 100 beats per minute, in case you’re following along. You can also delete the Classic Electric Piano track if you’d like.
Click to the Go To Beginning button (directly to the left of the Play button) to get to the beginning of the track, then click Play.
You’ll hear the Rabab loop playing.
Now let’s add another loop. I’ve used the filter at the top of the Loops panel to find drum loops, and selected “Anders – 11th Hour.”
After clicking and dragging it into the workspace, we now have two loops playing — and they actually sound pretty good together.
Why not add another one? Let’s try Syncopated Disco Guitar.
Add all of these loops to the workspace, and let it rip.
Now let’s change the timing of these loops. Drag the drum loop over two bars, so it comes in after a full loop of the rabab. Then drag the guitar loop over four bars, so it comes in a bit later.
Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?
There’s a whole lot more you can do with loops — try double-clicking on the drum loop to open up the control panel, and you’ll see that there are lots of tweaks you can make to the loop.
Spend some time playing around with loops, and you’ll find that you can actually make some very cool songs. You can download new loops, too, and combine them with the default Apple loops to get really creative.
If you’re looking to download loops for GarageBand, check out MacLoops, LoopMasters, and PrimeLoops. There are plenty of places you can download free samples and loops — if you have suggestions, leave them in the comments!
Recording a Software Instrument
Let’s say you don’t want to work with a loop that’s already been created, though. You want to express your own musical creativity. GarageBand’s software instruments let you record a wide variety of instruments without actually needing to have them on hand — you could write an entire symphony without owning a single instrument.
It’s easiest to play a software instrument if you have a MIDI keyboard, like the one below. All you need to do is plug it in and start playing, and you’ll be able to hear those notes played on any of GarageBand’s many different instruments.
If you don’t have a MIDI keyboard, you can actually use the keyboard on your Mac. (Or on your iPhone — we’ll cover that in a moment.)
Let’s try creating a simple drum track using the keyboard. Open a new project and select Software Instrument.
Click on Classic Electric Piano, and change it to a drum kit by selecting one in the library on the left (I’ve chosen Heavy.)
Then press Cmd + K to open the musical typing keyboard. Start pressing some keys to learn where the various drums and cymbals are. After pressing a few keys, it looks like J and K are kick drums, and ; is a snare.
Let’s use those to build a beat. We’ll play four sixteenth notes on the kick, then a sixteenth on the snare. The next bar will have two sixteenth and four thirty-second notes on the kick, and another sixteenth on the snare. Hit the Record button, wait for the four-count count-in, and start playing that beat.
After you’ve played a few bars, stop the recording. You’ll see that your instrument has been recorded in the workspace.
(If some of the notes weren’t perfect — which will invariably happen — we’ll fix them in a moment.)
In my case, something’s still missing: cymbals. Let’s add them to the track. After trying a few different keys, I discovered that I need to go up an octave to get to the cymbal that I want. Pressing X or clicking on the keyboard at the top of the musical typing window moves the highlighted section and opens up new notes for you to play around with.
Before we add them, though, let’s practice to make sure they’re going to sound good. Click the Loop button, and then hit Play to get the loop going.
After that, make sure the musical typing keyboard is open, and start playing with different cymbal sounds. Once you feel like you have it down, stop the playback, rewind to the beginning of the track, and start recording again.
The cymbals will be added to the recording. If you add notes in this way, they’ll become part of the original recording. If you might want to edit them separately, add a new music track, and select the same instrument.
Want to see how those notes sound in a different instrument? Just click on the instrument and select a new one. Try it out with a few different sounds (I changed the Heavy drums to Funk Splash Lead, for example, and it resulted in a rather entertaining rhythm).
Try adding a few other instruments with the + button to fill out your song. If you’re using musical typing, I recommend trying the synthesizers; they work well without more robust equipment.
Recording an Instrument in GarageBand for iOS
GarageBand’s mobile cousin has a lot of really cool features, but we’ll just be focusing on one here: recording software instruments. When you open up the app, you’ll be prompted to create a new song, and then you’ll be given a range of instrument choices. You can even plug a guitar or bass right into your phone or iPad.
We won’t go over all of the cool features here (watch out for a forthcoming article on GarageBand for iOS), but it’s worth pointing out that the touch interface, especially on the iPad, can be great for making music. Especially with the drum machine and guitar/bass interfaces.
The guitar and bass also offer smart chords, which makes it easier to play on your mobile device. Here’s a quick intro to smart chords:
(GarageBand for iOS has some cool resources learning to play the guitar, too.)
Recording an instrument is similar to the desktop version of GarageBand: just press record and start playing. When you’ve recorded your instrument, save it by tapping the arrow in the top-left corner and selecting My Songs. Upload your song to iCloud by tapping Select, selecting your song, and tapping the cloud icon. From there, just tap Upload Song to iCloud.
You can then import that track in the desktop version of GarageBand by going to File > iCloud > Import GarageBand for iOS Song…
Recording a Real Instrument
If you want to record a real instrument instead of a software-based one, you can do that, too. Guitar and bass can be recorded directly by plugging them into your computer, and any other instrument can be recorded through a microphone.
Plug your instrument or mic into your computer (or your iPhone or iPad), and add a new audio track with the + button. Select either option under the Audio heading, depending on whether you’re using a mic or not. If you have a guitar or bass, using the option tailored to those instruments will give you more options, so it’s recommended.
Once you’ve chosen either option, you’ll need to select the input channel that you’re using.
There are a lot of options for effects, tuning, and otherwise making sure your instrument sounds exactly how you want it to.
If you’d like to get an idea of how this process works and a few of the things you can do with your real instrument, I recommend this video from MacForMusicians:
As with anything else in GarageBand, it’s a great idea to just start messing around and pushing buttons. You’ll definitely find new things you can do with your instrument and different sound options that’ll help you refine your song.
Using the Score Editor to Perfect Your Recording
In our previous drum track, there are a few things we should fix.
Double-click that section (or simply hit the E key) to open the editor. It’ll open in the Piano Roll view by default, but clicking Score will show you the musical notation of the beat you just played. If you have perfect timing, all of the bars will look the same. If you have less-than-perfect timing, like me, it might look more like this:
Let’s fix that.
GarageBand’s score editor makes it easy to tweak what you just played. Just click notes and drag them to a new location to reposition them. You can also drag them up and down to change the pitch.
In this measure, there’s a rest where I wasn’t trying to include one — that bass drum note is a bit too early. I’ll just click and drag that note so there’s no longer a rest.
(You can also click a note and drag it up and down to change the pitch; on a drum track, this changes the drum or cymbal hit.)
Play around with the notes until you get them where you want them. It’s not always easy; often it’s easier to re-record. But with a little patience, you can make the tweaks you want.
Eventually, I have two bars that sound just how I want them.
Let’s have that loop through the entire track. By clicking and dragging a box around the rest of the notes in the track, I can select them all and hit Delete to get rid of them.
Then I’ll scale the box in the workspace down so it includes only the notes I want by clicking and dragging on the lower half of the left and right sides.
Finally, I’ll click and drag from the upper half to get that beat to repeat throughout the track.
It still sounds a little weird to me. A couple of the bass notes don’t sound like they’re falling quite where I want them to. We’ll use the Quantize function to fix that. Quantize optimizes selected notes so they’re more uniform. After pressing Ctrl + A to select all of the notes in the editor, I’ll select 1/16th Note and press the Q button next to it.
Now everything sounds much better.
Saving and Sharing Your Songs
Once you’ve crafted your masterpiece, you’re going to want to save and share it. If you use File > Save or Save As…, you’ll save your GarageBand project so you can come back and work on it later. If you want to save the song as a sound file so you can share it, you’ll need to use Share > Export Song to Disk.
This pop-up gives you various options for file types and sound quality.
To share your song immediately, use Share > Song to iTunes… or Song to SoundCloud…
If you’ve created a ringtone, you can send it to iTunes from the Share menu as well.
Create Your Masterpiece
GarageBand is one of the most powerful apps that comes with macOS. Whether you’re a beginning hobbyist or you aspire to professional stardom, it can help you make, edit, and publish impressive pieces of music.
It can take a while to learn the ins and outs of the software, but with a little experimentation, you’ll be making music in no time. Just start adding tracks for different instruments, playing music on whatever you have available, and using GarageBand to tweak the results.
And if you’re a Windows user looking for GarageBand-like software, check out our list of alternatives.
Have you become an expert in GarageBand? Are you just starting out? Share your best tips in the comments below!