Core components of GarageBand '09 are mostly unchanged from the '08 version. The interface has been touched up slightly to bring it in line with other iLife apps like iMovie, but in terms of functionality, there is nothing substantially new.
A new splashscreen better organises what you can do with GarageBand, including a prominent iPhone Ringtone feature. Apple had quietly introduced the ability to export tracks as ringtones in an update to GarageBand '08 but kept it fairly hidden.
By far the most significant and publicised addition to GarageBand '09 is Learn to Play, a fun feature that promises to teach you how to play the guitar or piano. GarageBand currently offers just nine lessons each and they are somewhat on the basic end of the spectrum. Whether Apple will add additional lessons down the road remains a mystery, at the moment, but it does seem like the next logical step.
Back to school
Only the first lesson for each instrument is included on the iLife DVD, the remaining ones can be downloaded free of charge. At between 200MB to 300MB each, the download proposition could be daunting for those on slower connections or with transfer caps, and annoyingly you cannot pause or cancel a download once it has started.
Whether you will have success learning the guitar or piano with GarageBand's lessons depends on what experience you already have, your natural ability, and level of patience.
The guitar lessons are well structured, starting with how to hold a guitar, the desired posture, and how to pick and strum. The lessons even feature a guitar tuner that works off your Mac's built-in mic (or other input source) to gauge how in tune each string on your guitar is and tells you how to improve it.
The lessons take you through learning chords, chord progressions, and single-tone melodies and ends up with teaching you how to play some blues. The biggest problem with the guitar lessons is their inherently passive nature – you may learn chord diagrams, but you won't enjoy the benefit of an instructor telling you what you're doing wrong or how best to position your own hand as you teach your fingers where they need to be.
Because of the less technical nature of the piano, those lessons will be more straightforward for novices. They also have the benefit of allowing you to plug a USB or MIDI keyboard into your Mac to play along and see how you're actually doing.
However, the piano lessons aren't without their awkward moments: they glaze over teaching you how to read music in just a matter of minutes, so expect to be doing a lot of pausing and rewinding, especially at the beginning.
After spending hours trying both the guitar and piano lessons, we feel that Learn to Play will not so much replace traditional music instruction but just simply augment it. Those with some experience or natural ability may be able to go far with GarageBand's lessons, but it's more likely that most will probably use them only as an initial start or to supplement formal lessons.
GarageBand's Artist Lessons is the one neat feature you won't get from your local instructor. These special lessons feature a prominent musician (such as Sting or Norah Jones) who teaches you how to play one of their songs on the guitar or piano.
Fun for beginners
At the time of press, Apple only offered eight Artist Lessons. We assume that more will be added in the future, especially seeing as Apple profits from these and since three of the four guitar lessons are labelled up as Easy with no Advanced lesson offered, while three of the four piano lessons are Advanced with no Easy ones available.
GarageBand remains an excellent choice for composing music on your Mac or creating podcasts. If you are already familiar with it, this new release will feel somewhat underwhelming but if it's your first time, you're in for a treat. And, for those of us without any musical ability whatsoever, we finally have a reason to join our more musically inclined friends in a program they have so much fun with.