GarageBand Part 1: The Basics

Also in this series:

I've always used Audacity for digital recording projects, including ripping my vinyl collection for use in iTunes. A 64-bit Audacity build for Mac exists, but it doesn't work with VoiceOver. As a result, Audacity is no longer a viable option for blind Mac users.

I took this as a sign. It was finally time to learn GarageBand.

How would I learn it? Apple's GarageBand documentation was difficult to navigate, video how-to guides on the internet weren't helpful, and GarageBand information on AppleVis was scant. This GarageBand forum discussion has lots of information,, but felt a bit like diving into the deep end of the GarageBand swimming pool.

I decided to learn GarageBand by starting with a simple project. My goal was to record and save a short passage of spoken dialog. I learned a blog's worth of beginner GarageBand material and took my first steps to eventually record a podcast. I'll blog about more complex GarageBand features as my knowledge grows.

This blog covers

  • Creating a GarageBand project
  • Recording a short vocal track
  • Using the playback controls
  • Exporting to MP3 or the Music app

The information in this blog is accurate for GarageBand v10.3.4 running on MacOS Catalina 10.15.1.

Note: This blog is for users who know how to navigate controls and interact with groups using VoiceOver. GarageBand's many controls has turned me into a big fan of the Item Chooser (VO+I). I refer to controls by their exact name where appropriate, so you can easily locate them with the Item Chooser.

Note: Set VoiceOver verbosity to Medium when using GarageBand. With Low verbosity, GarageBand's many similarly named controls become impossible to differentiate.

Creating a Project

Launching GarageBand opens the Choose A Project dialog. Creating an empty project is confusing, as the dialog contains invisible text that VoiceOver reads as Create An Empty Project regardless of the current selection. Here's how I created my new project.

  1. In the Choose A Project dialog, find the table and select New Project.
  2. In the Collection, select Empty Project.
  3. Skipped over the Details. They're irrelevant for a simple spoken audio project.
  4. Find and select the Choose button to create the new project, or just hit Enter.

After the Choose A Project dialog closes, the New Track dialog opens. Here's how I created my vocal track.

  1. Find the radio button labeled Audio, Microphone and Line In and select it.
  2. The Details group controls track output. I didn't change any of these values.
  3. Find and select the Create button, or just hit Enter.

Recording

With a new project and empty audio track, you're ready to record some simple spoken audio. GarageBand is set up for music by default, which means it plays a click track while recording. That might be useful if I were Allen Ginsberg recording beat poetry, but it's not 1955 and I'm no Ginsberg. So I turned off the click track with the K keyboard shortcut.

Start recording with the R keyboard shortcut.

By default, GarageBand plays a four-click count-in prior to recording. I could disable it with Shift+K and start recording immediately after the R keypress, but I like the count-in and kept it enabled.

After the four-click count-in, I made my speech. To stop recording, I hit the Spacebar. Woo! I just recorded my first audio track in GarageBand.

If you make a mistake in your recording, use Command+Z to undo, then rerecord the track.

In GarageBand parlance, recording creates a region. Using regions is essential to unlocking GarageBand's full potential and could be the subject of its own blog. For this blog, I'm starting simple, so I have only one region on one audio track.

Playback Controls

With the recording complete, you're ready to play it back.

GarageBand starts playback from the playhead position. After recording, move the playhead to the start of the recording with the Enter key. For those of you old enough to remember cassette tapes, this is the digital equivalent of hitting the rewind button.

To hear your recording, use Spacebar to start playback. GarageBand doesn't automatically stop playing at the end of the recording, it simply continues playing nothing. Stop playback by hitting Spacebar again.

Here's a little more about the playhead. VoiceOver announces the playhead position with bars and beats. This doesn't make a lot of sense in a spoken word recording, but it's still useful to move the playhead in small increments. The Comma and Period keys move the playhead backward and forward one bar.

GarageBand has a cycle feature to play the same passage repeatedly. Toggle cycling with the C key.

The default cycle region is the first four bars. Move the cycle region with Shift+Command+Comma and Shift+Command+Period.

To enlarge the cycle region beyond the four-measure default, do the following.

  1. With playback stopped, hit the C key to enable cycle mode.
  2. In the Item Chooser (VO+I), select the first item called Right Locator Handle.
  3. Interact with the Right Locator, and move it forward a measure at a time with VO+Right Arrow.

If anyone knows a better way to specify the cycle region, please post in the comments.

Exporting to MP3 or the Music App

To export the recording in MP3 format, open the Share menu and select Export Song To Disk. In the dialog, find and select the MP3 format radio button. You can listen to my MP3 audio clip by playing the following audio file.

To export directly to the Music app, select the Song To Music option on the Share menu. Grant permission for GarageBand to access and modify your Music Library. If you keep the Playlist field blank, GarageBand will create a default playlist called GarageBand and add your recording to it. The exported audio file uses M4A format.

Accessibility Issues

Audio software has specific appeal for visually impaired users. The recording, editing, mixing, and mastering processes should be non-visual and completely accessible. Sadly, many audio recording apps suffer from a lack of accessible design, and GarageBand is no exception despite Apple's accessibility pledge.

Many of GarageBand's features require VoiceOver users to be adept at using mouse-like functionality. For example, drag and drop to add a loop, and interact with resize handles to resize the cycle region. This type of mouse-centric design demonstrates a lack of consideration for blind users.

According to Apple, technology is most powerful when it empowers everyone. I hope Apple will take steps to resolve the following issues so that all users can access GarageBand's functionality.

Accessibility issues for low vision users:

  • The main window has a dark background and most other dialogs and windows have light backgrounds. This interferes with the Invert Colors feature.
  • The main window and some dialogs fail to respect the selection of Dark and Light Mode. Other GarageBand dialogs respect this setting.

Accessibility issues for blind users:

  • Pressing an unsupported hot key produces a visual flash without audible VoiceOver feedback.
  • Selecting tracks with Up or Down Arrow changes the track highlight without audible VoiceOver feedback.
  • The Y keyboard shortcut shows or hides the Library without audible VoiceOver feedback.
  • The track type is displayed using color coding only. There's no non-visual way to obtain the track type.
  • Many control actions don't have menu equivalents. Because menu actions also include the keyboard shortcut, there's no simple way to discover the keyboard shortcut to activate the control. As an example, there is no menu equivalent to start or stop playback, and therefore no easy way to learn that the keyboard shortcut for this action is the Spacebar.
  • The Quick Help feature, which displays a popup window when mousing over a control, is not accessible.
  • The Automation feature is not accessible.

Finally, Apple's GarageBand documentation lacks Next and Previous links, making it nearly impossible for blind users to read sequentially.

Conclusion

GarageBand and Audacity are quite comparable. They're both powerful multi-track digital recording tools, they're both free, and accessibility issues make both applications a challenge to learn and use effectively. GarageBand outshines Audacity due to superior effects with real-time controls and a large library of prerecorded loops.

I'm glad I took the time to work through the accessibility issues and learn simple recording with GarageBand. As a possible future podcaster and amateur musician with only moderate needs, GarageBand enables me to easily produce polished audio. I won't be going back to Audacity. GarageBand is my new digital recording solution.

GarageBand has several features I've barely begun to explore, providing opportunity for future blogs. I'll post about Loops, Regions, and other features as my knowledge grows. You can look forward to future articles on editing, mixing and mastering, and podcasting. Let me know what you're doing with GarageBand—or what you want to be doing—in the comments below.

Reference - Keyboard Shortcuts

This is a non-exhaustive list of GarageBand's keyboard shortcuts. It covers the shortcuts I use in this blog plus many others. For a complete list, see GarageBand's keyboard shortcuts.

Shortcut Description
Spacebar Toggles playback or also stops recording.
Comma and Period Moves the playhead position back or forward one bar (as determined by the project tempo).
Enter Moves the playhead to the beginning of the recording.
K Toggles the metronome click track on/off.
Shift+K Toggles the count-in prior to recording.
C Toggles the cycle mode.
Shift+Command+Comma or Shift+Command+Period Moves the cycle region forward and backward.
Command+K Toggles the Musical Typing window.
Up and Down Arrow Selects the next higher or lower track.
Command+Option+N Creates a new track.
Command+Backspace Deletes the selected track. (The Tracks menu lists this keyboard shortcut as Command+Delete, but Command+Backspace appears to be correct.)
Command+T Splits selected region at playhead.
M Mutes the selected track.
S Solos the selected track.
R Toggles recording on the selected track.
B Toggles the Smart controls window for the selected track.
E Toggles the audio editor window for the selected track.
Y Toggles the Library window.
O Toggles the Loop browser window.

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Comments

Submitted by Daniel MacDonald on Monday, January 20, 2020

hello,

this introduction to GerageBand is great. I'll apply theese commands to Logic and see how I do.
regards,
Daniel

Submitted by Morgan Watkins on Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Paul,

This was great! Years ago, I used to do all my audio editing under Windows, but switched to MacOS in January 2013. However, a few years later, I decided to try and make my iPhone the only computer I'd use. I have had much audio editing success with Ferrite on my iPhone and it does well for my simple needs, but I have always been curious about Garage Band on the Mac and your excellent article has given me a great deal of insight into both its strength and accessibility weaknesses. I hope Apple listens, and addresses, your concerns. As an amateur violinist and mandolinist, I like to stay aware of tools that might help me. Your article was very, very useful. Thank you, sir!

Morgan

Submitted by K. Van on Saturday, February 1, 2020

Ages ago I had a very brief look at Garage Band and came to the conclusion it wasn’t for me and Reaper was the only accessible way to go. I will give Garage Band a second chance thanks to your blog.

Submitted by Dennis D on Monday, February 10, 2020

This is a good start on my audio editing journey. I was not able to get started with Garage Band. Your article has helped me out.

I would like to get more info on converting sound files from one format to the other. Also cutting out audio clips for ring tones.