I love recording and mixing albums. I’ve been lucky enough to work with countless musicians, from the indie band just getting started in their basement, to national acts who’ve gone on to sell tons of records.
If you’re a musician, podcaster, or are in any way interested in audio, GarageBand is a great scratchpad for ideas, and you can even use it for bigger projects if you get crafty. While Pro Tools and Apple’s own Logic are my tools of choice, GarageBand is a great place to start learning the ins and outs of audio recording and music production.
A lot of folks have come to me for recording and mixing advice in the past, and have also been nice enough to say they liked the way the App Factor Podcast sounds.
Whether you’re mixing music or voice, there are a few key elements that can make or break how the audio sounds. The first is having a well recorded audio source (voice, instruments, etc.), the second would be the volume levels of each track and the pan location of the track (where the track sits in your mix – i.e. the left ear, right ear, or somewhere in between).
The step after that would be applying effects to your tracks. These virtual representations of audio hardware are called Plugins. They emulate audio gear in the real world, and they are your best friend when it comes to making your audio shine. They can be accessed by tapping on the faders icon at the top left of your GarageBand screen.
Luckily, GarageBand comes loaded with a number of effects. I’m going to go over 4 of the most important ones below. With these 4 plugins, you should be able to work on any music, voice or other audio, and have it sounding great, with a little bit of practice! (These screenshots are from the iPhone version of GarageBand, but all of these tips apply to the Mac version as well.)
If I had to choose one desert island plugin, it would be EQ. The easiest way to understand EQ is to remember that old radio you had or even your car stereo. For each track, you can affect the low, middle and high frequencies. What does this mean? You can boost the bass, the treble, and somewhere in between. You can also cut those frequencies.
GarageBand is helpful in that it gives you a visual equalizer. You can tap and drag the three different colored dots (orange for bass, green for mid, and purple for treble) to cut or boost a frequency. While you can practice equalizing things like you can practice anything else, the concept is simple. Is that guitar you recorded too dull? Try cutting the bass frequencies, or giving a slight boost to the treble frequencies. There’s an art to mixing audio, but you can get started quite easily.
One fantastic thing that GarageBand includes is an Analyzer button. Tap that button and you can see a visual representation of the track’s frequencies in real time! This gives you the ability to see where a track is lacking or has too much of a certain frequency. From there, just cut and boost and practice, practice, practice! In no time, you’ll be instinctively tapping and pulling at those colored dots knowing what to do.
After the EQ, compression is the most crucial effect to have on hand. A compressor is one of the most misunderstood plugins. The reason that is, is because you should never really hear the plugin working, unless you’re trying to use the compressor as a special effect.
A compressor is like an automatic volume knob. If a track is too loud, it brings the volume down a little, and if a track is too soft, it helps boost the volume. In essence, a compressor helps keep instruments consistent in volume.
Where would this be helpful? If you have a singer who’s volume is all over the place, you could use a compressor to help keep the track’s volume sounding even.
There are 5 sliders for the compressor, but the first four are the most important at getting a consistent sound.
The first is the threshold slider. This slider lets you pick a volume at where the compressor starts working. How much ‘squeezing’ do you want the compressor to do? This slider is a good place to start experimenting.
The Ratio slider will let the compressor know how much squishing of the audio you want to do. The higher the ratio, the more it will squeeze the audio. The attack and release sliders are similar to threshold, except they tell the compressor how fast to kick in, and how fast or slow to release the compression effects.
Is your head spinning with information? Thankfully, these next two effects are a lot easier to actually ‘hear’ when you put them on a track.
Echo can be used in many ways. One of the best use cases is to put echo on a vocal or a guitar track. The great thing about echo in GarageBand, is that your choices are limited. You start with a preset, and then you have a master echo slider that tells GarageBand how much you want to hear of the echo effect.
What the echo is great at, is adding a repeat sound to any of your tracks, which helps them sound fuller. To put echo into perspective, imagine singing inside of a closet, and then singing in a canyon. The closet would make your voice sound dry, where the canyon would make your voice sound huge, echoing off all of the different walls.
Attempt adding a subtle amount of echo to your tracks, and see how it brings them to life.
My last, must have effect is reverb. Reverb is similar to echo, in that it can make your tracks sound bigger than life. Also like echo, you choose a preset and then have a master reverb slider to choose how much of that effect you want to hear on your track.
Some of the presets include locations like Club, Cathedral, Large Hall, and others. So what does reverb do? It allows your tracks (potentially recorded in a studio or even your bedroom) to be virtually placed inside of these other locations.
If you can imagine how a piano or set of violins would sound in a cathedral, versus in your house, you can imagine what reverb can do to the sound of your tracks.
Experiment with adding your instruments to various locations. A lot of times, using a reverb can help ‘glue’ tracks together, and make your overall song sound a lot more cohesive.
You can’t afford to not record
GarageBand is one of the most fun and helpful programs Apple has ever shipped. Whether you’re recording music, a podcast or something else, you’d be surprised at how much you can get done with a five dollar app.
If you have any questions about GarageBand, Logic or other audio recording programs for iOS or Mac, let me know! Just add a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter!