How to Re-Create the Sound of a Pop Song in GarageBand
Recently, I re-created Charli XCX’s song “Boom Clap” using only a MIDI guitar controller (jamstik). We set out to do as much as we could with the jamstik exclusively in GarageBand and the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6 really works well for this, so it’s not really a challenge to work only in the iPhone as a “limitation.” Like we demonstrate in our “GarageBand Loop Recording” video, you can record your ideas without stopping the music if you make your instrument track selections in advance. We skipped the process of adding/selecting the instruments for “Boom Clap” for brevity (nobody wants to watch ten minutes of trying out sounds). There’s some experimentation and “knob tweaking” that can take a little time. If you’re like me, you want “that sound” to be exactly what you expect when you arm the track and record. Without going through every detail in painstaking fashion, I can give you some hints about what my usual selections land upon and why there’s some “go-to” elements.
Think About HOW Your Controller Controls Other Sounds
MIDI isn't going to make a strummed performance sound like a struck, bowed or keyed performance. I had to learn this a long time ago when I was sequencing a fretless bass sample from a keyboard controller; you have to put your head into the space of how the GarageBand instrument would be performed if it were a “real” instrument for your performance to “sound right." Strumming the drum kit is probably going to produce nothing that sounds like a drummer or a beat - unless that’s what you’re after. You may have to fingerpick piano or keyboard sounds. Sometimes I’ll switch up and play the bass sounds manipulating my right hand exactly the way I do when playing bass. You’ll want to adjust your performance to play the jamstik in a manner that reproduces the performance in the best manner for the sound you’ve selected.
Work in Layers
The first big hint/trick/tip in any production I’m doing that involves MIDI is this: Never rely on one patch or sound for a “part.” This holds true for any platform I’m working in: Logic, Live, ProTools, GarageBand, MPC, whatever. I almost always layer or stack sounds for a single part. What does this mean? If I record a bass part in GarageBand and use the Liverpool bass to record the original part in, I'll Copy and Paste the performance into another track. In the new “pasted” track, I’ll select a synth bass sound to give the Liverpool take a little more presence, stereo width and definition. The same thing goes for drums - ESPECIALLY FOR DRUMS. I may perform the kick and snare in one take, or hi-hats and clap in one take, but I’ll Copy/Paste that initial take around into other drum tracks and maybe edit out a note or two until I come up with a complete drum sound that I want. Sometimes that could be 4 different kits in GarageBand, all contributing some component to the overall sound. Kick and snare drum sounds might be 3 kits deep, hats from another kit, some sounds only happen in one drum kit (like a reverse crash cymbal) so I’ll use that track just for that sound… The big idea here is that since you’re working in MIDI you can Copy/Paste and edit that performance in a number of tracks until you get the sonic image you want.
Ambience, Reverb and Panning
Use the panning and the Master Effects in GarageBand to really differentiate ambiences. “Boom Clap” has a lot of different reverb balances and a fair amount of left/right panning. There’s a kick drum and clap that’s really “wet” (sending a lot of signal to the master reverb) and other elements that are “drier” (sending little to no signal to the master reverb.) You may find you need one sound that’s soaked in reverb and have to devote a track exclusively to that one drum sample - and that’s OK! The same goes for panning elements in your mix. Sometimes the same performance copied and pasted into another track and tweaking the two tracks a little differently from each other can produce dramatic elements in your mix. If the two tracks are panned away from each other - one Left and the other Right - you can get one part to have extra dimension without relying on volume to make something stand out.
Tweak the Knobs
At first glance, the synths in GarageBand can appear to be a little lacking in their ability to be edited or tailored to your track. The beauty of some of the GarageBand synths and keyboards is that the parameters that get “knob attention” can differ with each patch and usually are “voiced” to the parameters that are most likely to get used. Try to find a sound that gets you in the ballpark and then start adjusting parameters. If you don’t know what “Vol Attack” means don’t worry, it DOESN'T mean “DO NOT TOUCH.” Give it a tweak and experiment. Find a sound that’s close, then see if a couple of knob twists inspire you further.
If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Probably Doing It Wrong
Life is short and some trouble is never far away, so I always try to keep the groove flowing and do the things that keep me engaged and smiling. If I’m going too deep into trying to adjust a synth or hunt for a drum sound that just isn’t in GarageBand and I’m losing my patience - I’m in too deep. Like heralded musician/writer/producer Quincy Jones once said, “recording with sequencers and synths is like painting a 747 with a Q-tip.” If I obsess too deeply, I’m missing the point. My motive for using GarageBand on an iPad or iPhone is to generate and curate ideas, and to capture the spark of inspiration as it comes. I’m not going to be mixing Ariana Grande's next single on my iPhone 6 in GarageBand - so why let my inner troll ruin the beat or hook idea I’m working on right now? Overthinking a bad idea never made it better, but beating myself up over a bad idea prevents good ideas from wanting to come around. Have fun!
Christopher Heille is the Music Product Specialist with Zivix LLC - the company behind the jamstik and PUC. Chris is a champion for musicians everywhere and encourages anyone with any type of musical ability to get connected and start making music. His earliest "bandmates" were Tascam PortaStudios and Ensoniq SQ80's, supplementing the missing bass and keyboard players for his original live shows as a teenager. As a guitar player who wasn't intimidated by keyboards or MIDI, he was an early adopter to recording on DAWs and has been involved in various capacities (musician, vocalist, programmer, songwriter, engineer, producer, studio owner) on more projects than he can remember. Chris believes the future of the music business is not in New York City, Los Angeles or Nashville, but in the network of shared ideas and creativity. This belief continues to drive his efforts at Minneapolis-based Zivix, LLC. Find him on Twitter @drewchowen.