Why GarageBand Matters

I won't go all mushy on you and tell you about the time I spent in the garage practising scales on an old guitar amp full of cracks and pops, because I was never the idealized American teenager who met with the rest of his rock-band-friend-wannabees after classes to make loud noises of all sorts, guzzle the odd forbidden can of beer and dream of becoming the next Queen (the group, of course).

And the reason why is simple (I could start with me not even being American, but I seem to have a disproportionately large American readership and wanted to start off with a clear mental picture they might relate to): I actually learned to play the organ - not the soft squishy wet things inside your body, but the great hulking big things you find in churches, with piping like an aircraft carrier's fuel ducts, more stops than the London subway and nearly as many pedals as keys.

(Oh, and there was no garage.)

I actually picked that over the guitar and the piano (which I now realize to have been a mistake, since the techniques are quite different and I'd have learned more), but the reasons why were quite clear to me at the time:

  • I wanted to be able to read sheet music properly, not the PlaySkool chord sequence markup I saw on my friends' music.
  • The Yamaha DX7 was making the rounds, and anyone who even knew what electronics was (which would be a nice way to describe me at age ten) wanted one. It had keys, not strings. And you could make it sound like any instrument you wanted.
  • I hated lugging anything around with me, and it seemed a nice safe bet to learn to play something that I would never be able to carry around without a forklift.
  • It would severly limit the chances of making a fool of myself in public with my hair grown.

I spent a few years playing (with declining interest as highschool progressed), and eventually I pretty much gave it up when I entered college. I bought a classic Kawai K1 synth (which was very popular for a while and had oodles of voice "patches" available), learned more about MIDI than is entirely healthy for an overstressed undergraduate, and spent a few hours every now and then fiddling with it all.

Although I worked a few short jingles into the Macromedia stuff I did as a part-time through college, it was eventually time to put the Kawai in storage as other kinds of keyboards crossed my way. The amazing amount of work that I've churned out over the past 10 years has been done listening to music rather than attempting to play it (and therefore making a fool of myself in public), so that pretty much was that.

Loop, Mix, Burn

Of course I eventually bought a cheap acoustic guitar before I was 30 to flush it all out of my system (although my hair has been kept appropriately short) but that is not the point.

No, the point is that for someone (like me) who makes it a point of checking the price of Yamaha's Clavinova range every year looking for something with a real keyboard, a decent piano sound and a MIDI interface and who is increasingly looking for more creative outlets (I've already explored graphics design, animation, 3D, am quite addicted to photography and never stopped writing) GarageBand definetly strikes a chord - if you'll pardon the pun.

Of course (taking in the broad view) its most obvious outcome is sure to be a flood of cut-and-paste muzak as hordes of quasi-teenager popstar wannabees paste a few loops into GarageBand, save them as MP3 files and mass-mail them into the inboxes of all major labels, causing untold grief to e-mail servers and ISPs. Wired (always fond of memespotting) is likely to coin a few new terms like "Garage Muzak" or "Loop Pop" as the tide rises, and it will be increasingly hard for ISPs and RIAA P2P hounds to distinguish between legal MP3s and home-baked ones.

Looping and re-mixing will be back into the Apple lingo (vindicating the old Apple "Rip, Mix, Burn" slogan), and flocks of parroting pundits will say that GarageBand will help blur copyrights even further as people use it to do audio remixes and dub over original songs (just because it is easier and cheaper than the already widespread alternatives).

Yes, idiots will make a lot of noise about GarageBand and iLife, completely neglecting its "clean" creative side. They've already started by picking on the "like Microsoft Office for the rest of your life" moniker, and they're not likely to stop any time soon.

In terms of actual business generated by GarageBand (besides the usual quest for new business models in online music distribution and its continuing slide in "classic business" profit margins) a few hidden talents will be discovered and made into poster children for the 2.0 version. Expect Apple to enable iTunes to sell your music online, or set up something like Amazon's zShops for more prolific authors (now that the old MP3.com is gone, this looks like a very likely outlet for emerging talents).

It will also help cement iTunes as a music sharing application. It might even push the Mac beyond it's nominal 5% market share (as if market share is the only thing that matters), and, of course, help sell oodles of new iPod minis.

But for me (even if it makes a hash of importing MIDI files, doesn't do all the audio editing I want and has the usual quirks of 1.0 apps), GarageBand is likely to be the best $50 I spend this year, if only for the fun of playing with those Yamaha piano samples.

The other $50, of course, will be the MIDI adapter for my Mac.

And I guess I'll have to make do with the Kawai for a while. Anyone know of any really good velocity/pressure-sensitive hard (i.e., non-plastic) MIDI keyboards?