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ATPM 12.08
August 2006



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Book Review

by Sylvester Roque,

Keep it Simple With GarageBand: Easy Music Projects for Beginners


Publisher: PC-Publishing/O’Reilly

Author: Keith Gemmell

Price: $15

Trial: None

I don’t usually jump at the chance to review books that begin with phrases such as Keep it Simple With (insert name of program here). I usually prefer to learn the basics of software via the keep-poking-at-it-till-you-get-it-right method. Given that, why would I volunteer to review a book entitled Keep it Simple With GarageBand: Easy Music Projects for Beginners? Well, I have absolutely no musical talent at all. I need help.


Even though Apple’s GarageBand, which ships as part of iLife, is supposed to be music making for the non-musician, I was a little intimidated the first time I opened the program. Some of the other music programs I had looked at over the years were even more intimidating. Keith Gemmell’s Keep it Simple With GarageBand: Easy Music Projects for Beginners might be just what I needed. In fact, it seems to be aimed right at Mac users like me.

The Basic Premise

Gemmell’s book attempts to help people like me. In ten chapters spread over 89 pages, he walks readers through creating a basic music project from start to finish. By the end of the book, you will turn six pre-recorded loops supplied with GarageBand into a finished piece of music lasting about 40 seconds.

Now, the first thing that occurs to me is that with ten basic steps to a music project there is a lot of room for people like me to make mistakes. Somewhere around step nine, I get the nagging feeling something went wrong at step two. Time to start all over again. Fortunately, this book provides help for people like me. Beginning with chapter two, the finished product for each chapter is available for download so you can compare your results with the author’s finished product. The downloads are between 1 and 4 MB each.

Conceptually, this book could be divided into three different sections. The first three chapters might de described as Music Composition 101 with GarageBand. In this segment, the author introduces us to such basic musical concepts as beat and bars. He also introduces us to GarageBand’s basic features. By the end of chapter three, you will have the first four tracks in place.

Before reading this book, I had opened GarageBand for all of about 15 minutes and had no trouble following these directions. The first three chapters took me about 15 minutes each to complete. This doesn’t include time fiddling around just for fun or time spent completing the assignments at the end of each chapter. If you are completely new to the Mac platform, it might take a bit longer but not that much longer. The steps are numbered throughout each chapter, and there are numerous screenshots as well.

Extending Your Music

By the end of chapter four, basic instruments are in place in your musical masterpiece: Electric Piano, Drum Kit, Acoustic Guitar, and Acoustic Bass. At this point you are ready to begin adding a bit more “depth” to your composition. In chapters five through seven, horns, additional strings, and a voiceover track are added to the composition. Just as in previous chapters, directions are clearly numbered, and there are numerous screenshots. For those who like to use keyboard commands more than the mouse, GarageBand keyboard equivalents are introduced at the point of need.

Chapters four through eight are about beginning to fine-tune your musical composition. How do you make the horn section start at just the right time? Does the first note in the loop that forms the horn track fit the rest of the composition? As the author walks you through answering these questions, he presents a brief description of why he chose to arrange the piece the way he did. A few additional musical terms get added as needed, but the definitions are clear, concise, and for the most part, included at the point of need.

In this section of the book, I found the chapter projects tended to take 20–30 minutes per chapter. In both chapters four and five, I found myself having to complete that part of the project twice. I’m not entirely sure what went wrong the first time. Maybe I skipped a step in making the transposition from the printed page to the screen. In fact, I downloaded the finished projects for these chapters to compare with mine. In fairness to Mr. Gemmell, I don’t think the problem was his directions. This time things went much better.

Chapter seven is devoted to recording a basic voiceover track. In the course of that discussion, the author briefly discusses the Mac’s built-in audio capabilities and why you might want to purchase external hardware if you are going to be recording often or if your projects require higher-quality audio. The overview is pretty basic and won’t contain anything new for many Mac users.

I have mixed feelings about this chapter. The good news is that Mr. Gemmell provides an overview of the Mac’s audio-recording capabilities and alternative equipment without getting bogged down in technical minutiae. The bad news is I found myself wishing there were a little more detail. That’s probably just me. I haven’t done a lot of recording on the Mac, but it is something I am interested in and have been looking at for a while.

It’s in the Mix

Chapters nine and ten could easily fall into the “polishing up” category. In chapter nine, it’s time to view some MIDI data to enhance the baseline of your music. Chapter ten tackles mixing your project into its final form. I had tried reading some information about mixing tracks before and found it somewhat confusing. This book is different. The advice is very practical. In fact, it confirms something I have always suspected—some aspects of “mixing” a musical composition are purely a matter of your personal taste. At least Mr. Gemmell is aware of that and gives you some good reasons for why he mixed his version of the project the way he did.

That’s a Wrap

There is a lot of information packed into the 89 pages of this book. The directions are clear and to the point. With the exception of a few steps in chapters five and six, I had no trouble following the directions. The many screenshots are very helpful—particularly in the later chapters. Useful tips and tidbits are scattered in the margins throughout the book. I personally would prefer at least some of the screenshots to be in color since that seems to help me process the information better. If you have a bit of background in music-making on the Mac, you will probably want something a bit more advanced. But if you need a good introduction to GarageBand and aren’t musically inclined, Keep it Simple With GarageBand Easy Music Projects for Beginners is an Excellent addition to your computing library.

Reader Comments (2)

Breton Tom · August 2, 2006 - 13:44 EST #1
Don't own a new MAC yet, but it's on it's way. And I enjoyed both this article and the "HOW I SPENT THE SUMMER" article, which is where I linked from. I saw this book, on SAFARI ELECTRONIC BOOK FORUM and figured it might be a good place to start for a MAC Newbie, wanting to see what GARAGE BAND could do. Thanks for taking the time to write them.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · August 2, 2006 - 14:15 EST #2
Glad you like the article and I hope you find it helpful. Congratulations on the impending arrival of the new Mac. I'm jealous.

Keep reading ATPM each month and I am sure you will find many other interesting things. We have a great staff with varied interests.

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