Making music with your Mac: a complete guide

How you can learn to make music using OS X

If you ever wanted proof that GarageBand is more than just a bit of fun that comes free with your Mac, you only need to look at the roster of professional musicians making use of it. Chart toppers such as Fall Out Boy, Damon Albarn, Jason Mraz and Counting Crows, to name but a few, use GarageBand in one form or another to practice, write songs and create demo tracks.

Francis Macdonald of Teenage Fanclub even wrote an entire album in GarageBand using his MacBook while on tour with the band. "I spent a lot of time in the van," says Francis, "so I bought a small USB MIDI keyboard and an external hard drive and sat with my headphones on, working through instrumental ideas."

CD garageband

Maculate Conceptions, now available on iTunes, is an instrumental album that just goes to show what can be done using only GarageBand and a little time (even in the back of a tour bus), and was showcased at the Apple Store in Glasgow in April this year. As the landscape changed throughout the tour, so did the music Francis was creating.

"I composed a lot of loop and-sample-based musical vignettes which I suppose formed the soundtrack to my travels," he says. "They have titles like 'Aarhus', 'Oslo' and 'Toulouse-Barcelona'. I compiled and sequenced 12 of them."

When pushed on his platform choice, Francis has no doubts that a Mac is the way to go for music production in terms of stability and performance. "If I had stuck with my creaky old PC laptop I'd have pulled my hair out before making it out of Glasgow and I wouldn't have a new album in the can and ready to release. It was a revelation to find the MacBook so durable and reliable. Songwriters want to get ideas down quickly and to be able to develop them without crashes or lost data. Losing data in terms of composition or even production ideas can make you want to cry; the Mac's durability puts paid to all of that."

Like Francis, Grammy nominated DJ Morgan Page is also an advocate of the Mac and GarageBand. "I use one MacBook Pro for the office, one MacBook Pro for performing and DJ'ing, and I have two Mac Pros for studio work," says Morgan. "Macs have proven to be simpler and more reliable overall, and longer lasting."

Working mainly in Apple's Logic as well as Pro Tools, Morgan also sees the benefit of Apple's other music app: "Garageband is great – a lot of my vocalists use it to draft ideas, and I recommend it to others for their satellite studios," he says. "I think any tool that provides great sounds and ease of use can only benefit the creative process. Great tools allow you to get your ideas down quickly before you forget them. I think the lessons provided and the very visual approach in Garageband are really helpful."

Artist Lessons

So this GarageBand lark is all well and good, even if you don't know a treble clef from an octave, but what about those who do have a shred of musical know-how? Well, you're not left out.

As we've mentioned, those who play instruments can plug them in and record right away and you can even turn your MIDI notes into sheet music, should you so wish. This can then be printed out and shared before your next jam session.

And what if you want to join this elite club and learn that a quaver isn't just a cheese-flavoured crisp? GarageBand has you covered too. Built-in lessons are available for free in GarageBand that teach you the basics of piano and guitar, and give you feedback as you practise. Using an on-screen keyboard that shows you which notes to play, you can quickly learn the basics of an instrument, ready to move on to more advanced lessons which you can buy from the lesson store.

When you feel you're at a decent level, you can then move to the premier stage with Artist Lessons from stars such as John Legend, John Fogarty, Norah Jones, Sting and more, all of whom show you how to play some of their most famous songs.

Obviously, for the piano-based songs you'll need a USB MIDI keyboard in order to succeed, but if you're willing to pay for the lessons we assume you'll be prepared to buy a decent keyboard too.

So now you know what's available, do you still think GarageBand isn't for you? The professionals love it, it's full of great features and if you don't play an instrument, it'll even show you how to!

If you have a Mac and iLife, you can get going right away and sample what's on offer before you think about buying accessories. If you own an iPad, why not try downloading the GarageBand app (it's only £2.99). Once you've played with it, you'll get the music-making bug.

What's more, projects you make in the GarageBand app can be launched in the Mac version too, so you're free to create wherever you are. Even if you've never dreamed of becoming a world-famous rock star, a few minutes of experimentation in GarageBand might just change your mind.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 234

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