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The most impressive features of GarageBand, which set it apart from the herd, are the virtual instruments. You do not need to know anything about music to make music. These are not canned loops, but actual instruments. You have more control over these instruments than the old Casio keyboards from the 80s with their auto-rhythms and pre-programmed drum beats. The virtual guitars allow you to bend notes. You can pluck or bow a stringed instrument, or conduct them as an ensemble. These virtual instruments create notes, not audio tracks, so they can be edited to your heart’s content. Even the professional musician can use these virtual instruments and edit them to get precise results. These are not canned at all. Of course, if you want to use loops and beats created by others, GarageBand has a decent selection of these, and you can import them as well.
The virtual instruments are extremely high quality. The string section is so real, you could use it to score a film. In fact, that seems to be the intention, although you can fully edit the notes to create virtually any string arrangement. You can also play any string instrument solo. Doing this, you can achieve any pitch you desire, and are not limited to the 12 tones of Western music. With GarageBand, one can even produce micro-tonal music with the virtual instruments.
The virtual instruments do not trade-off flexibility for convenience. They are so well designed, you can achieve almost any result possible. In addition to the string section, there are virtual guitars, keyboards, and drums. The quality is outstanding. The organ with Leslie-like chorus sounds better than many dedicated keyboards and “sound fonts”. Don’t expect it to sound as good as a Hammond B3. Virtualizing something as complex as a Leslie chorus is still beyond digital music technology. That’s why you will still see those rotating speakers at many rock, blues, or jazz shows.
There is also a sampler, smart drums (kind of like a drum machine but simpler), guitar amplifier and microphone. The latter two depend on sound sources, such as plugging in a guitar or vocalizing, either through an external microphone or the internal one. If you use the internal mic, you will have to use headphones, or else it will record your backing tracks. The guitar amplifier is basically an amp simulator on steroids. You plug a clean guitar directly in, and GarageBand offers all sorts of amps with distortion and other effects. You can turn the knobs on the amps, add effect pedals, and it even has a tuner. This is actually a viable tool for a serious guitarist.