For years, I've had this recurring dream: I walk into a room to find a guitar, which I pick up and play with Eric Clapton-like prowess. I am always surprised at my newfound skill.
I can only intermittently carry a tune and have no musical talent whatsoever. But a new program makes it so easy to play, record and even compose music that it almost feels as if my dream has become reality.
What makes this program even more remarkable is that, despite its power, it runs on a nontraditional mobile platform.
It's GarageBand for iPad, and if you've got an original iPad or the new iPad 2, you'll want to grab this and install it posthaste.
If you use a Macintosh, chances are you've seen GarageBand, because it has been included on all of Apple's traditional computers since the mid-2000s. The Mac OS X version is powerful, but it's also daunting for non-musicians. Yeah, it's got some cute-and-friendly features, but for the most part it's designed for people who want to make music and know how to do it.
The iPad version, however, is a very different beast. While there are plenty of features aimed at those with musical talent, it's really a product for those of us who can barely hum on key. Even if you can't play a note, GarageBand for iPad will have you playing and even composing music soon after you first fire it up. It's an astonishing piece of software, easily the best application I've seen so far this year.
Row of instruments
After you download the software from the iTunes App Store and install it on your iPad, launch it and you'll be presented with a horizontally scrolling row of instruments. There's the traditional onscreen keyboard found in the Mac version of GarageBand and a drum kit. But what you'll want to focus on are the Smart Instruments, which do a lot of the musical heavy lifting for you. There's a Smart Keyboard, Smart Bass, Smart Drum and my favorite, the Smart Guitar.
When you tap on the icon for the Smart Guitar, you're presented with the sound hole and six strings of an acoustic guitar. Overlaid across these strings are eight strumming panels with the names of chords at the top. You can tap any string to play it, or strum across a set of strings to play the chord. You can also merely tap the name of the chord to play it. Basically, GarageBand does the job of placing your fingers on the fretboard, leaving you to worry about strumming and picking.
Musicians may initially be frustrated at how few chords you can access. But the app's developers have selected chords that sound good together, and you can get to different chords by tapping on the screen's wrench icon and changing the key. That same settings panel lets you set the tempo just by tapping the screen, setting beats per minute based on your taps.
Would you rather play a different guitar? There are three electric models — Classic Clean, Hard Rock and Roots Rock. And each one of those comes with two onscreen stompboxes that let you change the sound of the instrument.
For example, I like the Roots Rock guitar, and I tap on the Hi-Drive Treble Boost stompbox for a grungy sound. I can do a passable Neil Young imitation this way (though don't ask me to sing like him).
If you'd rather play lead than rhythm guitar, you can flip a toggle to switch from chords to notes. You can then tap strings and even drag them to bend notes. The accelerometer in the iPad can tell how hard you're pressing to vary the volume and attack.
The Smart Keyboard and Smart Bass work similarly, but the Smart Drums takes a completely different approach. You're presented with a grid, along with a set of drum kit components. Where you place a drum's snare, tom-tom, high-hat, cymbals or even cowbell on the grid determines the complexity and speed of the rhythm. You can choose from different drum kits and even electronic drums.
You can even record any sound using the Sampler, which then lets you play that sound on a keyboard.
Create a song
You can record your work on any of these instruments as tracks, then mix them together to create a song, which can then be added to your iTunes library, emailed to a friend or exported to the Mac version of GarageBand for more advanced tweaking. With the right adapter, you can even plug a real guitar into the iPad, change how it sounds by running it through virtual amps, then add that as a track.
There's a lot more to GarageBand for iPad than I've detailed here. It's a rich app with many layers of features. If you spring for it, do so when you have a couple of hours to kill. It's that compelling.