GarageBand or SoundTrack?

GarageBand. The name alone conjures up images of untalented high schoolers banging away at instruments with their fathers grumbling about “all that noise” coming from what was once his exclusive domain. That’s not to say that many of the best and most popular bands today didn’t start out that way. However, most bands that begin in this fashion come to an inglorious end. The guys (let’s be honest, most are guys) in these bands with names that are notoriously badly spelled on purpose do this as a rule to meet young girls in hopes of a mutual understanding. The understanding is that the girls will feed their egos and hopefully remove articles of clothing. What the girls get out of this deal is a mystery to me and I freely admit that I don’t understand the way woman think and probably never will. Well, let’s not go off on THAT tangent. I think I was talking about GarageBand.

Apple’s resurgence into audio didn’t begin with GarageBand. Nor did it begin with SoundTrack. It really began the day they released the first public beta of OS/X. For those of you still using OS/7-9 (or earlier, shudder…) productively and without shame, congratulations. Better keep those machines in good shape because when they fail, it’s doubtful that Apple will still have a new machine capable of running that OS. Perhaps this is a topic for another day. Moving on now. OS/X was a rebirth for the Macintosh platform. It cleaned away years of abuse and neglect and allowed Apple to redefine what personal computing could be. The advantages of the Mac OS have never been clearer than they are today. It is of course an ongoing project that will take many years to come to fruition. While we saw glimpses of the direction Apple was going in with iMovie and iTunes, it was the professional applications that really defined the platform. Final Cut Pro in a very few years has turned heads in the entertainment industry in a way that didn’t seem likely in the darkest days before the Steve returned. Included with FCP, was a program that seemed unlikely at first and has launched a thousand lawsuits since. The name of that program was SoundTrack.

The first time I saw SoundTrack I was memorized! It was my first visit to an Apple Store and I had lots of cool eye candy to deal with. What drew my attention? A little music program bundled with FCP. I started to play with it at the store and before I knew it, two hours had passed. Drag and drop music creation with over 4000 sound loops of every shape, size, and genre. Easy to use and best of all, fun. All kinds of ways to manipulate the sounds from within each track and loop. You could throw banjos, bagpipes, and some cool jazz guitar licks together (but for the sake of western civilization, please don’t) and SoundTrack makes them all play nice no matter what the time signature or key. Keep in mind that I am not a musician. I was without a doubt the worst trumpet player that the North East High School marching band in Oakland Park, Florida has ever had (but I sure looked good in that uniform. Go Hurricanes!). I can’t play a note in any instrument offered by SoundTrack, but using them I can be brilliant! I explained this to my long-suffering wife and she was kind enough (OK. I did bega little bit) to give it to me for my birthday after Apple released it as a separate application. There were a few sites that catered to the SoundTrack crowd, but it had one problem. It was too expensive for the casual user at $299.

Apple did two things in relatively quick order. It released GarageBand bundled with iLife 4 and it reduced the price of SoundTrack to a more reasonable $199. WOW! Most of the features of SoundTrack for ? of the price. Except that’s not quite true. SoundTrack allows direct manipulation of each loop within a track based on the kinds of effects you have applied. Once an effect is applied in SoundTrack, a drop down screen for each track is available and manipulating each part of the effect is done instantly. No waiting for rendering. GarageBand kind of lets you do this, but it’s applied to the entire track instead of each loop separately. It is also not directly changeable within the track, but in a separate window. People with little screen space will find themselves constantly moving things around just to get at some of the controls. One really cool thing that SoundTrack does that GarageBand does not is to give you an exclusive track for the video you may be editing this music for. This allows emphasizing a comedic moment or highlighting an emotion that the video alone would not be able to convey. SoundTrack also gives you 4000 loops as compared to the 1000 bundled with GarageBand. To be fair, if you also purchase JamPack from Apple, they give you a lot more loops and additional instruments, but this is another $100. You’ve now spent almost as much as you would have for SoundTrack, although the extra instruments are a bonus not available with SoundTrack alone. Both also allow you to create your own loops with real instruments and a MIDI setup. I’m not qualified to comment on the ease of doing so within each program so I won’t. It can be done though. One last thing to consider between these two is the hardware requirements. First, you’ll need a DVD drive to load the loops on either program. There are ways around this, but they’re not pretty. If you don’t have at least a 500MHZ G4 (I have heard of success stories with 400-450 dualies as well), don’t bother with Soundtrack. Not only can you not run it, you can’t even install it. GarageBand on the other hand has more modest needs. I’ve installed it on as little as a 400MHZ G3 iMac. That’s not to say that GarageBand doesn’t need some horsepower as well. Using software instruments is guaranteed to make the G3 choke and gag and spit out “Not enough resources” messages before the first guitar wail. The machine I use it regularly on is a 500 MHZ G3 Pismo laptop and it does the trick if I don’t push it too hard.

Lastly, what do you do with your creations after you’ve made them? There has been an explosion of GarageBand sites to post your tunes. Some have fallen by the wayside, but others have really made an impact. The two I prefer and use on a regular basis are iCompositions and MacIdol. They seem to have a different focus and the site design reflects this. iComposition has a more professional look and the authors are trying to tie it into a whole online digital lifestyle package called the MUGnetwork. It’s still in the works and not ready for primetime just yet. MacIdol, seems to be the “Let’s have fun with this!” site and it’s easy navigation and charts listing the top downloads in each music category reflects this. My tunes are available on both with my “Artist” name (Take the word Artist when it applies to me with a very liberal grain of salt) listed as GuyDude on iCompositions and Guy Serle on MacIdol. The MacIdol site has the most up to date listings as far as my stuff goes. One thing to keep in mind, in order to download any of the songs from almost any artist, a broadband connection of some kind is almost a must.

Which one is better? Depends on your focus. If you want to do background music for your videos or desire a lot of control over the individual tracks, go with SoundTrack. Being able to adjust your soundtrack with the film playing in the background is a feature that GarageBand cannot match. The 3000-loop advantage and the drop down effect editing for each loop in every track also makes this a very versatile program.


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