Christopher Breen, on 30 January 2014

It’s a tradition that a true garage band must have at least one guitar (and more if you can rustle up enough outlets, amps, and kids who can nail a bar chord three out of five tries). Given that, it would be ridiculous if Apple’s GarageBand didn’t have some fairly hefty support for guitar and bass players. And it does, particularly if you drop the $5 in-app purchase price to gain all of GarageBand’s content.

Getting connected

Before you can strum, pick, bar, shred, tap, or whammy your way to wonderfulness you must find a way to jack your guitar into your Mac. At the most basic level it can be done for about $7 with a 1/4-inch-to-1/8-inch mono audio cable. The 1/4-inch connector plugs into your guitar and the 1/8-inch connector goes into the Mac’s audio input port. If you choose such a cable, make it as light as possible. If you add an adapter to a standard guitar cable its weight may put undue strain on your Mac’s audio port.

The other option is to plug your guitar into some variety of audio interface that has a USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt connector. You’ll then use this interface to route the guitar’s output to your Mac.

Configure GarageBand’s input and output settings.

Regardless of which you choose, you need to configure GarageBand so that it can “hear” your guitar. To do that launch GarageBand and, because we’ll shortly be looking at what it can with a guitar, choose Amp Collection from the project chooser. If you don’t see the Details area at the bottom of the window click on the triangle next to Details. From the Audio Input menu choose the input your guitar is using—Built-in Line Input if the guitar is plugged directly into the Mac or the name of the audio interface you’re using—and click the Choose button.

Tracks and tuning

When the GarageBand window appears the track header will display 15 guitar tracks. These range from “clean” sounds such as Brit and Clean and Amazing Tweed to tracks with a load of effects and overdriven amps such as Modern Stack and Maelstrom.

Brit and Clean is selected by default. If you play your guitar you should see the meter within the track react. To hear what you’re playing click on the orange Input Monitoring button in the track header. The sound of your guitar, as channeled through that track and its amp and effects, will play through the output device you’ve selected. Feel free to select another track and enable its Input Monitoring button to hear its sound.

If you see nothing in the meter and your guitar’s volume knob is turned up, choose GarageBand > Preferences > Audio/MIDI and make sure that the Output Device and Input Device pop-up menus are configured correctly.

You can tune a guitar but you can’t…

Now that you’re getting sound into GarageBand, select Brit and Clean again and then click on the Tuner button (the one that looks like a tuning fork) in the control bar. The Tuner window will appear. Pluck a string and the meter will tell you how close you are to the correct pitch. Adjust the guitar’s tuners until each string reading is in the green. Finish up by fine tuning with your ears.

Choosing and tweaking sounds

If you don’t see the Library pane choose View > Show Library. Within the Library pane you should see a list that contains Clean Guitar, Crunch Guitar, Distorted Guitar, Experimental Guitar, Clean Bass, Crunch Bass, and Experimental Bass. Select one of these entries and a list of presets within the category appears. Choose one of these presets and play your guitar to hear it.

Now click on the Smart Controls button (or press the Mac’s B key) and the preset’s Smart Controls appear at the bottom of the window. Here you can adjust the preset’s amp and effects settings. For example, for the Double Brit Phaser preset you can adjust the amp’s gain and tone as well as enable the tremolo effect as well as tweak compressor, dual-phase, echo, and reverb effects. If you click on the EQ button that appears above the controls you can additionally play with the preset’s frequencies by clicking and dragging the bar that runs across the frequency display.

About amps and stompboxes

But you can go deeper. On the far-right of the Smart Controls pane are the Amp and Stompbox buttons. Let’s explore each.

Amps: GarageBand includes a collection of modeled classic amplifiers—amps made by the likes of Vox, Fender, Marshall, and Mesa Boogie. The amps are paired not only with a particular speaker cabinet (a 4×12 enclosure, for example) but also a microphone (they include two condenser, four dynamic, and one ribbon microphone).

Configure your amp, cabinet, and mic in GarageBand’s Amp window.

You can customize a preset by choosing from Model, Amp, Cabinet, and Mic pop-up menus. So, for example, you might throw a Modern British Head (Marshall amp) on top of a Stadium 4×12 cabinet, and mic it with a Dynamic 57 (Shure 57 model). And when you hover your cursor over the cabinet you’ll find that you can change the placement of the microphone—move it closer or farther away from the cabinet as well as change its lateral position. All the knobs and switches on the amp are configurable as well.

Stompboxes: If you’re not a guitar player and just reading this for pleasure you may be unfamiliar with this term. A stompbox is an effect chained to your guitar. Its name is derived from smallish metal boxes laid at the feet of guitar and bass players that are generally activated by stepping on a switch or pedal.

Stompboxes are laid out is a serial chain, meaning that as the sound of the guitar is channeled through a line of stompboxes, each stompbox inherits the sound of the cumulation of stompboxes before it. For example, you have three stompboxes. The first is a reverb effect, the second is for overdrive, and the third is a chorus effect. Chorus is added to the overdrive effect which, in turn, was added to the guitar-with-reverb sound. In short, where the effects appear in the chain affects the overall sound.

GarageBand 10 with the in-app purchase content includes 37 stompboxes (though two are Wah pedals, one is for splitting the signal, and another is for mixing). When you click on the Stompbox button you’ll see the stompbox effects associated with the chosen preset. You can add stompboxes by dragging them from the collection on the right side of the Stompbox window and you can remove them by dragging them up and out of the pedalboard (the tray where the stompboxes sit). You can also change the position of most stompboxes by dragging them to the left or right.

GarageBand features a wide variety of stompbox effects.

Like the real deal, these stompboxes are activated or deactivated by clicking the On/Off switch. Most of them have knobs and some have switches. Regrettably, if you want to make adjustments to these effects you have to do so with a mouse or trackpad, which isn’t ideal when you have a handful of guitar.

Once you’ve made your choices you have a single job left—click GarageBand’s Record button and rock on


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