Incorporating GarageBand into the Music Curriculum

By James Frankel


If you have not already seen the latest music application from Appleıs iLife suite called GarageBand, itıs time to give it a serious look.  GarageBand is one of the most powerful, user-friendly, and affordable software titles available to music educators today, with literally hundreds of possible classroom applications.  The purpose of this article is not only sharing some of those pedagogical possibilities, but to give a brief overview of how GarageBand actually works as well.

GarageBand is one of five applications in the iLife ı04 Suite from Apple.  The other four applications include iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes, and iDVD.  Each of these applications is very powerful in its own right, and the complete software bundle costs $49.00.  GarageBand runs only in OS X (actually 10.3 ­ Panther) for Macintosh computers only ­ sorry PC users.  The software is quite processor intensive, so the more RAM you have, the better the software will work.  Apple recommends a minimum of 600mHz, with 256MB of physical RAM on a G4 processor to utilize all of the features.  You also need 4.3 Gigabytes of hard disk space to install the complete iLife suite.    Now that all of the techno-jargon is out of the way, letıs get to the features of GarageBand.


What does it do?


            For years, the only way to turn your computer into a complete digital audio workstation that allowed you to integrate MIDI sequences with digital audio recordings, you needed some pretty serious software and hardware ­ at a pretty serious cost.  Next, to take that file and get it to a usable audio format which could then be burned on to a CD was another complicated process.   GarageBand allows the user to record MIDI sequences using a keyboard, utilize pre-recorded audio loops, and even record real electric and acoustic instruments into the mix.  The amount of tracks you can record is only limited by the amount of RAM you have on your computer.  Simply stated - this ainıt your fatherıs old four-track tape recorder.


How does it work?


            When you first open GarageBand it will ask you to name your song, and choose both a time and key signature.  Once you have done that, you are presented with an empty grand piano track.  If you have a MIDI keyboard with a MIDI-to-USB cable connection, you can hook your keyboard directly to your Mac, click record and play. Of course you can use any synthesizer with a MIDI interface (like the Midiman), but now manufacturers like Korg (MicroKontrol), M-Audio (Keystation 49e), and Edirol (PCR-30) are creating inexpensive keyboard controllers (under $400) that you can use to trigger the software synthesizer sounds that come with GarageBand.  Once you have finished recording, GarageBand will play back what you have recorded using its own grand piano sound (it does not trigger external synthesizer sounds).  The quality of the piano sound is excellent.  Once the first track is recorded, you can add new tracks.  There are 50 software instruments available in GarageBand. So if youıd like to add a bass line, simply choose a bass sound, and use your MIDI keyboard to record it.  You can add as many tracks as youıd like using the software instruments. If you spend an additional $99, you can get the GarageBand Jam Pack that comes with 100 more sounds, audio effects, guitar amp settings and over 2,000 digital audio loops. 

            The next method of creating music in GarageBand is utilizing the digital audio loops (which are copyright free).  By opening the loop browser, you can select short (1-4 measures) audio loops of drumbeats, guitar, keyboard and brass riffs, bass lines, as well as some great percussion sounds.  Once have found a loop that fits your piece, you simply drag it into a new track and stretch it to fit the amount of measures you need.  You can just use the loops over each other to make so really great sounding music. 

            The next way of creating music with GarageBand is to digitally record ³real² instruments.  While the built-in microphone on Macs works well for making basic recordings of acoustic instruments, I strongly recommend adding either an M-Audio MobilePre USB Audio Interface ($149), the Edirol UA-20 Digital Audio Interface ($179) or the Digidesign Mbox ($449) which comes with ProTools LE 6.1 ­ a serious digital audio editing software package which retails for much higher.  I personally own the M-Audio MobilePre USB.  What the device allows me to do is connect any electronic instrument that uses a standard 1/4² cable or microphone that uses the standard XLR cable directly to my computer, without an amplifier.  In simplest terms, I can plug an electric guitar directly to my computer, add effects to it, and record it.  This aspect of the software gives it its namesake.  Users can record each instrument of a rock band individually, and then play it back. 

            Another exciting way of creating music with GarageBand is its capability to import other sound files directly into it (including Standard MIDI files, mP3/4s, AIFF, WAV, and Real Audio Files).  Simply drag the file into an empty track and you can incorporate it into your composition.  

            The best part of the different features for creating music in GarageBand is the ability to layer all of the different methods of entry over each other.  For example, you can choose a drum loop, play in a bass line on a MIDI keyboard, record an electric guitar, and add in an existing sound file.  Just press play and youıll hear all of the layers together.  With just a few hours of experimenting youıll be able to create some truly impressive sonic creations.

            Just when you thought GarageBand couldnıt get any better, once you have finished a song, you can export it into iTunes (another of the applications in the iLife suite).  Once exported, you can burn the song directly to a CD-R, or put it on an iPod.  This feature of GarageBand is the most impressive in my opinion, as it skips what in the past has often been a cumbersome step (exporting the file to Peak, then converting, then burning).


Classroom Applications


Singing the Blues


            On the first day I brought GarageBand in to my music classroom, I was able to find some really effective and innovative ways to incorporate it in to my teaching.  For example, I was in the middle of teaching my 6th Grade general music students the structure and style of the blues.  For the past few years, I have had my students create their own lyrics set over a 12-bar blues progression.  My students would write a few verses, compose a melody, and then perform the song for the class while I played the 12-bar blues on the piano ­ no technology involved.  Using one of the demo songs that come with GarageBand called Shufflin Blues, I used the built-in microphone (if you can afford the M-Audio MobilePre and a good microphone youıll get better quality) on my computer to record students singing their lyrics over the demo (which is really good).  I just set up a new vocal track, added some reverb, and pressed record.  The students sang their lyrics into the built-in microphone while wearing headphones (so that the microphone didnıt pick up the demo song as well).  The students really loved hearing themselves sing along with the demo.  Better yet, when all of the students were finished, I exported their finished products to iTunes where I then created a play list consisting of all of their songs.  Next, I burned a CD containing all of their efforts and offered any student who brought in their own blank CD-R to make them a copy.  Because the songs are copyright free, there is nothing wrong with doing so.  The parents loved hearing their children sing the blues, and a few called me to express their appreciation.


Record Your Students


            Having your students hear themselves perform, especially individually, is a very powerful teaching tool.  In the past, recording your students using a computer was possible, but used a great deal of memory ­ 10MB per recorded minute ­ and required some pretty costly equipment.  By using the built-in microphone on the computer and GarageBand, you can solve all of those problems.  Just open GarageBand, set up a new track for whatever ³real² instrument you are recording, position the student near the built-in microphone (or the microphone using the M-Audio MobilePre, Edirol UA-20, or Mbox) and press record.  You can the export the file to iTunes that can then convert the file to an mP3/4 (which is much smaller than an AIFF file) for storage. 

            With this capability, you can also record your concerts (make sure you get permission from the publishers first) for archival purposes.  While you can use the built-in microphone to do this, I would strongly recommend investing in one of the Audio Interface boxes previously mentioned, and a set up good stereo microphones.  Make sure that you have someone at the controls when making the recording so that you can create a new song for each of the selections on your concert.  Creating one long recording is not advisable.  With GarageBand, creating CDs of the performance is very easy as well.


Get Your Students Composing and Recording


            Because the audio loops are so good, and the interface is so conducive to fostering creativity, your students will love creating their own compositions with GarageBand.  One of the selling features of the software is that ³anyone can make music² with the software.  By simply dragging samples into new tracks, students can layer several samples over one another to create some interesting combinations.  While they use it just for he samples, once they get into the program and the process, they will want to add their own music. I suggest having a ³Battle of the GarageBands² where students record their song(s) on to the computer, burn it onto a CD along with songs from other bands, and pass it out to other students for feedback.  Theyıll really get a kick out of hearing themselves on the CD.


Get Started Now


            To get all of the bells and whistles that have been mentioned in the article, you are looking at spending about $300 (GarageBand, M-Audio MobilePre, GarageBand Jam Pack).  Considering that in the past the same capabilities would have cost over $1,500, itıs a bargain.  It is important to note that GarageBand works really well right out of the box without the bells and whistles.  To find out more about GarageBand along with a step-by-step tutorial, visit:



            I have not seen such an exciting advance in music technology in some time.  The possibilities that GarageBand have for music education are only limited by the creativity of the teacher.  I highly recommend it.