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GarageBand accessibility and audio demo

October 16, 2010

There is certainly a lot of interest lately about the accessible music production options that are available on the Mac. While Pro Tools is currently the only Digital Audio Workstation software that is significantly compatible with VoiceOver, there are other great options that are slowly improving their own VoiceOver support.

One of these incomplete options is GarageBand. GarageBand is a Digital Audio Workstation software package that is included with Apple’s inexpensive iLife software suite, and is bundled with almost every Mac computer that is sold. GarageBand uses a simple user interface that strips away many of the low level editing features of advanced DAW programs like Logic or Pro Tools. The intent is to give people that are recording simple projects at home a program that can accomplish most tasks that they will commonly need. GarageBand uses a simplified interface that emphasizes quick access to the essential features, without overwhelming the musician with endless options that aren’t of use in most simple home-recording projects.

While GarageBand omits some advanced features for the sake of simplification, that shouldn’t be taken to imply that its quality has also been scaled back. GarageBand is built with most of the same technology that is used for Apple’s advanced Logic DAW software. GarageBand is, then, a taster for Logic. The idea is that GarageBand is sufficient to get you started with producing high quality music, and, when your needs grow, you can upgrade to Logic. For many people with Modest needs, though, GarageBand is all that they’ll need.

Genny Owens has created a recording that demonstrates how to get started with GarageBand and VoiceOver. If you’d like a little help getting started with GarageBand, or if you’d just like to hear GB in action, then check it out.

Download Genny Owen’s audio demo.

GarageBand includes many of the audio effects processors found in Logic. Regardless of if you want something simple like a reverb, or if you would like an amp moddler, there are included effects plug ins for that. There is even a simple pitch correction plug in included that can help you sing on key, or can give you the hard-tuned robotic effect that is common in current pop music. All of the effects include lots of presets, so, if you don’t know how to configure a compressor or EQ, you can just select presets like Stronger Kick, or brighten guitars. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll still be able to call on this huge library of presets to get pretty good sound.

In my opinion, Logic includes the absolute best set of software instruments of any DAW software, and versions of many of those instruments are included with GarageBand. You get a full set of bread and butter instruments that sound and respond to your playing just like what you’d expect from a hardware-based keyboard workstation. You can browse the library of available instrument sounds, and, behind the scenes, GarageBand loads the needed sound generators and effects on to the track in order to give you a ready-to-play instrument. Generators are automatically selected based on the instrument type. For example, analog basses automatically use a virtual analog sound generator, rhodes pianos use an electric piano moddler, guitars use a sample-based generator, etc. Genre-focused add ons for GarageBand called Jam Packs are available that add new instrument presets to your instrument library.

While many areas in Logic still need work in order to be accessible, accessibility to GarageBand is quite good. You have full access to all mix editing features. Beyond basic volume and pan control, you can completely edit software instrument and effects settings, along with GarageBand’s real-time processing features for MIDI data. I’d say that GarageBand is literally 99% accessible.

However, that last 1% is a real catch. In order to edit anything that you’ve already recorded, you must first, of course, select it. However, in GarageBand, the absolute only way to select anything is by using the mouse in the timeline. This area of the interface doesn’t show up to VoiceOver at all. The result is that you can’t select anything, therefore you can’t edit anything. This isn’t a complete flop, though. You can always re-record a track until you get a part right. When working this way, you must think of GarageBand like an old multitrack Portastudio with a built-in console and synthesizer. It isn’t strictly like a tape machine, though. You can get tightly timed drums by playing them in live and using the real-time quantize capabilities to tighten them up, even though you can’t destructively apply quantizing to tracks. If, however, you’re used to sequencing songs by copy/pasting fragments to build up the song structure, and/or detailed editing of MIDI events to get a part to play correctly, you’re not going to get that in GarageBand.

The selection problem could be mostly resolved if Apple added a way to select material by time and track through a UI control or dialog. For example, a menu option could open a dialog with controls to set the start, end, and length time, as well as a table of tracks that would be used for indicating the tracks that should be selected. Even without a dedicated dialog, Apple could make it possible for VoiceOver to select material by following an approach used by other DAWs, including Pro Tools. The clock on the transport could be expanded to include textual indicate of start and stop or length time. Each track strip in the mixer could include a checkbox indicating if that track is included in the current selection. Sighted users might appreciate the ability to have a precise numerical selection alternative for detailed editing. Even if Apple is unwilling or unable to change the visual interface, it is still possible to add controls to the user interface that are only visible to VoiceOver for setting the selection.

Until then, as a blind musician, GarageBand can still serve a few useful purposes. Since GarageBand works just fine with the built-in audio hardware on the Mac, you can run it on your MacBook without having to carry around any other gear, except, perhaps, a MIDI controller. One great way to use GarageBand is as a synth module. As long as you have a Mac and a MIDI controller, you can use GarageBand’s top quality instrument sounds for practicing. You can also use GarageBand for simple multitrack audio projects where you don’t need to perform many edits. It is possible to edit larger projects in GarageBand with the use of some complex workarounds, but, if you plan to work on projects like that a lot, you’d be better off spending your money and saving your time by either getting Pro Tools, or else one of the accessible DAW software systems available on Windows.

3 Comments
  1. Whats the difference between Music Appreciation and Music theory class?

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  3. anouk permalink

    Hello,
    I was wondering if there is a chance to get an updated audio tutorial for the newest version of garageband for the mac?
    Thanks!
    Greetings, Anouk,

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