Music, as any teen in a garage band will tell you, should be as simple to make as it is to listen to. That hasn't always been the case with musicmaking software though. Turning your computer into a recording studio with programs like Pro Tools and Cakewalk Plasma means splashing out hundreds of dollars and slogging through dense instruction manuals. There had to be an easier way. Now Apple has found it with GarageBand, part of its $49 suite of Mac-only iLife applications released last week. As the name suggests, GarageBand is aimed at amateurs. You don't need to read the manual to put together a pretty professional-sounding tune. You don't even need much talent.
At its simplest level, GarageBand lets you lay down loopsprerecorded short riffs by drums, bass, piano and so on. There are 1,000 loops to choose from on the basic software and 2,000 more on the $99 add-on, Jam Pack. Here's the clever bit: the loops are arranged not just by instrument but also under mood-based headings like "Relaxed," "Intense," "Cheerful" and so on. Click and drag your loops into the score, and they become interactive. You can stretch and splice them like lumps of Play-Doh. In just 10 minutes I found I could intuitively assemble a thumping dance ditty that would not disgrace most deejays' decks.
You can add your own musical stylings by plugging in a keyboard, microphone or guitar. Apple is selling a $99 keyboard that plugs directly into the computer via a USB connection, and a $149 amp for guitar, bass, microphone and keyboards with MIDI connections. There are 50 software instruments in GarageBand and an additional 100 in Jam Pack. You can make your guitar seem as if it's coming through a vintage '60s amp, or your keyboard sound like a surprisingly realistic steel guitar. Select a sound and you're ready to hit the Record button. And if you flub the recording, even with the built-in metronome? Not to worry. Hit the Fix Timing button and your so-so keyboard solo will sound a little more like Ben Folds. Just don't let your piano teacher catch you doing it.
Like any other brand-new software, GarageBand has its bugs. For one thing, you're supposed to be able to use digital music files from iTunes, theoretically making sampling a snap, but most of mine kept getting rejected. And GarageBand hogs a lot of computer memory. Still, these are quibbles compared with how easy it is to create a song with up to 64 layers of loops and tracks. Coolest of all: you can save that work of genius to your iPod. After all, your music should be as simple to listen to as it was to make.