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Apple iLife '11 review

Apple upgrades the iLife suite with some interesting new features

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GarageBand '11 isn't a radical upgrade; instead it largely builds on features introduced in GarageBand '09, along with bringing across useful tools from Logic, Apple's more advanced audio production offering. The end result is an unremarkable update, but nonetheless one that will without doubt benefit both beginners and dedicated amateurs.

First, it's worth noting that everything that made GarageBand great last time around remains in this version. You still have first-class tools for the quick-fire creation of loop-based songs and podcasts, while those who want more depth can go for MIDI and recorded audio.

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There are loads of high-quality voices, effects and mixing tools built in, and a largely intuitive interface for working with everything.

Lessons for everyone

The update is primarily concerned with three things: lessons, electric guitars and timing. On the first of those, Apple has added a bunch more free lessons (including genre-specific collections, such as Pop Piano and Blues Guitar) but, more interestingly, it has gone all 'Guitar Hero' on GarageBand with the video game-like 'How Did I Play?'

This new feature enables you to record your performance alongside the teacher's and get a running accuracy score. Progress is graphed, so you can easily see if you're improving over time, and exactly where you've been going wrong.

On the piano, this is a fantastic motivational tool and it makes the lessons more fun; on guitar, GarageBand doesn't always seem able to recognise correctly played chords, to rather comical levels in the Chord Trainer, which we aren't ashamed to admit led to us yelling "but I am playing E!" at a slightly bemused iMac.

Elsewhere, electric guitarists will be happy to see the amp and stomp box collection expanded. You get seven new amps and five new stomp boxes (bringing the totals to 12 and 15, respectively), providing many hundreds of new combinations for guitarists to rock out to.

Annoyingly, external controller options remain thin on the ground – in fact, GarageBand only officially appears to support the £300 Apogee GiO.

The time is right

On the timing front, Apple's brought across Groove Matching and Flex Time from Logic. Groove Matching enables slightly sloppy timing between tracks to be globally fixed with a single click and will undoubtedly prove invaluable to many users; Flex Time is for amending the duration of single notes and can be impressive, but we found it more fiddly to use.

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It's a pity Apple didn't bring across multiple time signatures from Logic, too, but perhaps that's asking for a bit much; however, it wouldn't kill Apple to finally enable you to open more than one GarageBand project simultaneously to make it easier to move content between your songs. Still, we're only complaining because we love GarageBand so much.

For amateur musicians, it's easily worth the price of iLife on its own; as a pure upgrade, it's a slightly tougher sell, at least if you own GarageBand '09. That said, we reckon Groove Matching alone will pay for itself in no time if you work with a lot of live-recorded audio, and 'How Did I Play?' adds a much-needed injection of fun to lessons, making you far more likely to persevere with your learning regime. And remember: if you're buying a Mac, iLife is included!

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