We've tested Apple's new GarageBand and iMovie iPad apps, and done so in style -- creating a CNET UK music video in celebration of hitting the 5,000-fan milestone on our Facebook page, using only those two apps and the native hardware on an iPad 2.
It's an extreme test, so how did these two slinky bits of software stack up? You can watch the finished video at the bottom of this story, but read on to find out how we put it all together.
All the Ga-rage
GarageBand was the starting point -- we needed a backing track, plus vocals, that we'd later mime to for the video portion of the project.
We started out just messing about, trying to find something that sounded halfway decent. And then we stumbled upon the smart piano tool. The smart instruments are extremely impressive -- tap different chords and GarageBand will automatically doodle around with notes that belong to that chord. Several different patterns are available, and once we'd plumped for one, it was a simple matter of picking a chord sequence and recording our pattern, tapping on different chords in time to the built-in metronome.
We used smart bass to record a bassline that matched our first melody, and a drum track using the smart drums tool, which involves dragging percussion instruments on to a grid, with the four different portions of the grid creating simpler, more complex, louder and softer patterns. The instrument selection is solid, though there are only four types of guitars, which seems a little limited compared to the dozens of different synthesizers on offer. Not that we're complaining about having loads of synths.
We added a few different piano sections, then set about garnishing our riff with other instruments -- a few extra drums here, a squealy guitar note there. We found the instruments responsive and the interface extremely intuitive.
The sequencer pane, which shows you all your recordings in one place, is very easy to navigate using just finger presses and swipes, and gives you an impressive degree of control. You can splice tracks into sections, duplicate and move recordings by dragging them around, and pinch to zoom in, giving you a finer degree of control over the timing of individual segments.
We were having a whale of a time chucking in extra bits and pieces, but then we smacked into a serious snag -- GarageBand limits you to eight different tracks in a single project. We'd dedicated entire tracks to a few extra cymbals, or a single guitar note, and were yet to record the all-important vocal tracks, of which we wanted two at least.
This is GarageBand's biggest limitation -- the complexity of your tune will be minimised by only being able to have eight different sounds popping off at the same time.
On the plus side, we learned important lessons about economising. Gone were the frivolous extra instruments and tracks used only for a single note. We stripped away the bells and whistles (not literally), and reduced our several drum and smart drum tracks into a single percussion track, which we played manually -- tapping out a rhythm on the virtual drum kit. It look a fair few attempts to get the timing and pattern right, but it felt more rewarding.
Vocals gave us little trouble. We had an IK Multimedia iRig Mic in the office, which is used for recording audio on iOS devices. But we found the recordings sounded clippy and harsh, so we ditched it in favour of the iPad 2's built-in microphone, which we were very impressed with. Find a quiet room, belt out your vocal section, and you'll be happy with the clarity the audio recorder manages to capture. The only limiting factor was our total lack of singing ability.
We slapped a load of echo-y reverb on the vocal tracks (because more reverb is always best, right?) and panned our eight tracks (more or less at random) slightly to the left or right, to separate the instruments and prevent them blurring into each other, and we were done.
Exporting the track can be tricky, because you can't save a song to the iPad's music library. Instead we opted to email the song to ourselves, download it on to a computer, then stick the track in our music library by syncing our iPad with iTunes. You can also save the track to iTunes and get into it once you plug your iPad into your computer, but both methods feel like unnecessary faff.
Next we spent a few hours mucking about with plastic guitars and sunglasses, miming to our GarageBand track and generally making fools of ourselves. We used the iPad 2's camera app to film all the idiotic little scenes that would eventually make our glorious video.
The iPad 2 doesn't take great quality footage, thanks to some rather lowly front and rear cameras. In low light our videos came out very grainy, and not particularly sharp or bright. Still, it was passable.
Time to fire up iMovie. iMovie is ostensibly a much simpler app, and we found it struggled with our complicated project. Videos, photos or music from your iPad's memory banks can be imported, so of course we imported our first video, then our GarageBand track, and began the arduous task of matching our mimed footage to the backing track.
It started off fairly easy -- you can splice videos into two different clips, or trim them by dragging markers on either side of the clip, and tinker with transitions between videos. We avoided the cheesy themed transitions and opted for classy fades, with a sprinking of transition-less jump cuts.
As we added more and more videos however, we noticed the app becoming increasingly sluggish. By the time we'd reached the end of our project -- which lasts 1 minute 38 seconds and includes 32 video clips and one audio recording -- the app was very juddery, and adjusting videos became a slow, ponderous process. We imagine this sluggishness is worse if you're using a first-generation iPad, which has a slower processor than the iPad 2.
Editing and trimming very short video clips was a fiddly affair, as pinch-and-zooming on the timeline only lets you zoom in so far. As we had to match video actions to audio cues, we found we had to be very precise, and often that level of exactness meant making almost microscopically small adjustments to video clips. One jostled arm and everything was knocked out of sync.
We encountered one particularly troublesome obstacle. Half way through our video is a section where our own Rory 'Renegade' Reid bursts into spontaneous rap, and the author of this article must intervene and stop him. We knew a brief conversation would be too tricky to pre-record and mime to, so when we imported that video clip in iMovie, we kept the audio for that clip turned on. The problem was that doing so automatically turns down the backing track for that section, so the music for those few seconds was completely obscured.
The old-fashioned way
There is a way of getting a third audio source into the iMovie mix however -- by recording something using the iPad 2's microphone directly into iMovie. So we hooked up the tablet to a powerful speaker (the Beats by Dr Dre Beatbox if you're curious) and recorded the speakers playing the subdued section at a loud volume. So we were able to import a recording of that section of the backing track -- albeit with a loss in audio quality -- straight into iMovie.
When overlaying the two tracks, we weren't able to quite match that recording with the subdued backing music we started with, which is why you can hear a slightly off echo to the backing music for that section of the video.
Being able to splice imported audio tracks, and adjust the volume of individual segments of background music, would have fixed the issue.
We can see why Apple's keen not to overcomplicate the app, but it does mean there's a limit on how finely you can tinker with your videos.
While we felt we pushed iMovie to its absolute limit, we were left with the distinct impression we'd only scratched the surface of what GarageBand can do. Priced at £2.99 each, there's little reason not to download both, but of the two, we were definitely more impressed with the scope, and flexibility of GarageBand. This is an app amateurs or kids will find instantly amusing, while music buffs will find real practical use for the tools on offer -- especially if they delve into the sampler or guitar amp instruments.
A good showing all round then. We won't pretend it wasn't exhausting, but it was a fun project. Now sit back, and watch Rich 'Ride into the Danger Zone' Trenholm drumming so hard the sticks can't handle it.