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Accessibility Improvements in GarageBand 6

October 25, 2010

The following is a post that I sent out to some accessible music and Mac e-mail lists regarding my observations of the new version of GarageBand in iLife 11. I’ve only been playing with the new GB for about a day, so these are only first impressions. I may discover additional accessibility fixes, or pitfalls to the existing fixes, as I continue to explore the program. One huge gripe that I have with Apple’s accessibility efforts in general is that they are practically undocumented. Apple could make huge improvements to a program or feature tomorrow, and no one would know about it until someone stumbled upon those fixes. Case-in-point is the new keyboard support for VoiceOver in iOS 4.2. The only reason that most of us know what key commands are available is through trial and error. It is a real shame that Apple spends time and resources working on projects that they don’t promote. Back to the subject, though.

Just a preface to say that my comments are colored by the fact that I’m a fairly high end user. My typical working environments are Sonar on Windows for sequencing, and Pro Tools on the Mac for editing. Each of these apps has profoundly complete accessibility as compared to anything offered in GarageBand or Logic, so it is easy for me to point to ways where they fall short. Nevertheless, the improvements are significant in the latest version.

The most important part of the new GB is that it is finally possible to actually select something to edit it. Previously, the largest problem with GB was, regardless of the features, we couldn’t edit anything. The situation is far from perfect in the new GB, as compares to Sonar or Pro Tools, but, at least now, it is possible to edit. More on that in a moment.

What most people will notice right away, though, is the improved UI organization. Apple has reworked the organization of GB’s user interface to better take advantage of groups. After the time that I’ve spent with Pro Tools, it is easy to imagine that Apple took a lead from the decisions that Avid made when designing its interface. It would take a lot of time to explain what is easily understood through use, but, it is enough to say that the main GB window is much more hierarchically organized than before. Areas of the window, such as the loop browser and track editor, show up as their own group. Interacting with those groups reveals a group of controls, often containing other groups of related controls. It does seem that, for some tasks, I spend a lot of time moving up and down through layers of interaction. That takes a bit of time, but, at least the layers, and controls in those layers, are well organized now. When you look at the new GB interface, you’ll find that concepts haven’t changed, but the organization, at least from VoiceOver’s perspective, has changed.

Now, on to what is newly possible.

The arrangement group now contains many controls. In particular, these controls now include layout controls that represent the regions of audio or MIDI data that have been recorded to a track. It is therefore possible to select a region (such as an existing loop on a track, or a recorded MIDI region), and copy/paste it to other locations on the time line. Since you can select individual regions, it is also possible to do things like enable looping for them,, or to delete them from the track. Selection, in my mind, is the most important advancement in the new GB. Since we can actually select something, we have the option of deleting or editing it. Previously, GB was not too much more than a glorified multitrack tape recorder with included softsynth. Now, editing is possible, and, without using the mouse.

Next, the track strip interface has been completely reworked. Track strips are accessed as a group of the arrangement group. The new strips make it possible to edit all track strip parameters, including the pan control, directly from the keyboard. Now, thankfully, a control surface is no longer required to make this change.

I’m not sure yet if it is through direct integration with VoiceOver or not, but the new GB seems to speak many things automatically. One of them that you’ll immediately notice is navigation by time. When using the left and right arrows to move the play head in the song, VoiceOver will speak the new position. Since we can select regions now, and can copy regions to the clipboard with Command+C, it is handy to navigate with either arrows or Option+arrows, listening for VO to speak the correct time, and then drop in the copied region with Command+v.

The old method of moving loops on to the time line is no longer required. Besides the new loop browser’s full redesign, which works great with VO, selected loops in the browser can now be copied with Command+C, and then pasted on to the time line with Command+V. There is no longer a need to mess with manually positioning the mouse. I made a new song tonight, entirely out of loops, without having to depend on the old methods.

Generally, GB has received lots of VO attention. Most every control now has a help message. In many cases, the help messages not only explain the purpose of the control, but provide specific values. For example, when editing a synth generator’s parameters, the help tag will now speak the real world values that are indicated through modifying a slider. Changing a volume, for example, might say 80% through VoiceOver as the position of a slider, but the help message will helpfully tell you that the real world value is -6 DB. This has happened literally all over GarageBand.

In summary, this is the largest improvement to GB the I can ever remember, as applies to accessibility. If you use GB, I suggest the upgrade, hands down! It is absolutely worth the $49!.

GB still has several limitations that prevent it from being as accessible as Sonar or Pro Tools. It is great that basic editing is now possible, but detailed editing is still not an option. Even still, Apple has really done a great job with the improvements in the new GB. I hope with sincerity that they take the same approach with Logic. Logic still has the same selection problem that had existed with GB prior to the new version 6. Hopefully, the approach used in GarageBand to expose regions will be carried over to Logic, so that it is possible for a VoiceOver user to select (and, therefore, edit), in that program, also.

I expect that many of the home-based users with few requirements in a digital audio workstation package will be very excited about the new GarageBand. I wholeheartedly suggest the upgrade, and hope that Apple continues to carry these great ideas over in to their professional packages like Logic. Bravo to everyone at Apple that worked to improve GB accessibility in iLife 11. I stand eagerly waiting, credit card in hand, to support similar efforts in Logic.

  1. This is the most informative article I’ve seen to date on Garageband. I’m just starting with it, having never used it. I admit, I’m not a very technically-minded person, so some aspects of Garageband are a bit befuddling to me. You mentioned detailed editing is not an option, and I think that might be my problem. I imported a clip from a podcast and was simply trying to delete a portion of the content, and couldn’t figure out how to select the portion I wanted to delete. I’ve worked with Amadeus Pro, Goldwave, and Sound Forge, and was really hoping to make Garageband my editor of choice, because I’m getting into the world of podcasting, and possibly producing audio dramas, and the idea of having an accessible multi-track editor is amazing to me. Amadeus Pro almost succeeds, but when you get into multitrack recording, specifically trying to place tracks at different portions of the timeline, accessibility becomes an issue. My apologies if this gets into a rant; I’ve been working with GB for most of the day and frustration is mounting. This article is the closest thing I’ve had to a victory in about five hours. I’ve heard ProTools is good, but I’ve also heard it’s expensive. So alas, that option isn’t really open to me right now. It sounds like what would probably work best for me right now is to make individual track files with Garageband, import them into Amadeus to edit them where necessary, and then porting them back into Garageband to mix the tracks, add effects, etc. Whew … Grumble-grumble-grumble.

    Have you considered writing tutorials or recording podcasts about how to use Garageband with VoiceOver and the keyboard? Some aspects are pretty self-explanatory, but it can be a bit daunting in some areas, and the online help is so mouse-centric as to be nearly useless. I know I personally would benefit from something like that, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

    Thanks for writing the article.

    • You can actually edit, to some extent, with GarageBand 6. Have a look at the newer posts on here.

  2. I was suggested this website by way of my cousin. I am no longer sure whether this post is written by means of him as nobody else recognize such detailed approximately my problem. You’re amazing! Thanks!

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