Inside Garageband, the Little App Ruling the Sound of Modern Music – Rolling Stone
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Inside Garageband, the Little App Ruling the Sound of Modern Music

A secret recording studio on Apple’s Cupertino campus has made the beats of some of your favorite hits for the last 15 years

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Images used in illustration by Jeremy Kelly/REX/Shutterstock, Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock, David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock, Jose Sena Goulao/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Patrick Stump was livid. On a lurching tour bus rigged with a wobbly Jenga tower of recording equipment, the singer and Fall Out Boy frontman had been trying to lay down demos for the band’s second album — it’d been hours, fiddling with rubber cords and finicky software — and nothing was working well together. Stump can still precisely recall the panic in the moment he finally finished the rough sketch of a song only to see the whole apparatus glitch and crash on his computer. “I just lost it, screaming in the back of a bus,” Stump tells Rolling Stone, a decade and a half later. “When you’re being creative, you just want to get your idea out. When you’re composing, time is everything, because you’re thinking the second guitar has to do this and the background vocals are going to do this and you just want to get it all out as quickly as possible. I thought: I’m not going to be able to do this.”

Madly clicking around on his laptop in search of a new route, Stump happened to open one of its pre-loaded programs. While he’d heard of Garageband, a piece of free software shipped with all Mac computers, he’d thought it was more toy than tool — and no one else was giving it much attention then, in the early 2000s. “But I opened it that first time and never looked back,” says Stump, who talks about the software with a particular fondness, as if remembering his meeting with an old friend. “I just started recording, without having to learn a new program, which was always one of the scariest things about music.” While other programs he’d tried in the past were sophisticated enough, including the one on the tour bus that day, Stump says, they were glitch-prone and impossible to use without frustration.

Musicians’ applause for Apple’s Garageband — which celebrates its 15th birthday this year, humbly, still living in the media shadow of many of the tech giant’s more glittering products — is similar across genres and skill levels. Artists from Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar have used the app to demo, produce and sometimes even finalize master recordings. “It allows you to not be constrained by what you can or can’t play,” Dan Smith, frontman of British band Bastille, tells Rolling Stone. “I can quickly get something out of my head. Or I can write a song from start to finish in a couple of hours.” Other “digital audio workstation” apps that also splashed onto the scene in the 2000s tech boom, such as Pro-Tools, Ableton and Fruity Loops Studio, are often dismissed as intimidating or time-consuming, especially when compared to the bare, intuitive and friendly interface that’s become a signature of Apple design. Producer Oak Felder, who’s worked with artists like Ariana Grande, Usher and Alicia Keys, says Garageband has made collaboration much easier by allowing even the most tech-unsavvy people to explain their ideas with self-cut tracks, rather than with an abstract tangle of words.

For better or worse, Garageband lets anyone from a veteran sound engineer to a novice teenager cut a track that’s professional-sounding enough to make it directly onto the radio — which it often does. T-Pain, in 2005, made his whole first album Rappa Ternt Sanga with the Garageband app on his laptop. “The Hand That Feeds,” a Nine Inch Nails anthem, came out as a Garageband project file for fans to play around with on their own computers that same year; Radiohead offered up the same idea with “Nude” in 2008. Haim, St. Vincent, Rihanna, Duran Duran and Usher are among artists who’ve all released music using Garageband’s suite of free sounds or audio loops. For Fall Out Boy’s 2007 “Thnks fr th Mmrs,” Stump and his bandmates decided they actually liked the sound of the app’s virtual instruments more than real ones they tried in a studio. “It’s funny — we re-recorded that intro section with strings and horns, but we ended up using a lot of my Garageband stuff,” Stump says.

What’s been in it for Apple, which has not only declined to make money on the app for 15 years but spent millions meticulously refining it? (Garageband’s premium version, Logic, costs around $200, but Garageband itself has always been free.) In unveiling the app on stage at Macworld in 2004 with a guitar-brandishing John Mayer at his side, Steve Jobs gave only one raison d’être: He wanted Garageband to “democratize music-making.” Yet it was an odd claim, for a company that also sold music-listening devices to users at a complaint-drawing premium price. And as much as it encourages audio democracy, the app — which has been preinstalled on more a billion Macs, iPhones and iPads to date, with mobile and tablet versions introduced in 2011 — has also created audio homogeneity. Garageband’s fingerprints are all over the sound of modern music. Which raises a more precarious question: Just how tight is Silicon Valley’s vise on on the music industry — its makers as well as its listeners?

John Mayer/Instagram

Sprawling 175 acres and 2.8 million square feet in the suburbs of Cupertino, California, is the recognizable glass spaceship known as Apple Park, the official global headquarters of Apple Inc, housing 12,000 employees on four immense, rotund floors. Tucked away in a much more traditional, unmarked building a few minutes’ shuttle ride away — all-glass walls here turn into solid brick and thick, soundproof foam padding — is the windowless studio where a small group of sound engineers decides how musical instruments can possibly  be played with a computer.

German engineer Dr. Gerhard Lengeling joined Apple 17 years ago when Apple bought his company Emagic to build the backbone of Garageband and its sister program Logic. He leads the half-dozen members of the team, which spends its days musing the practical (What model of electric guitar should be used to make guitar sounds for Garageband?), the scrupulous (How should a guitar string sound if an iPad screen is flicked with moderate versus moderate-to-extreme force?) and the philosophical (Can the haunting, physically resonant linger of an electric minor third be reproduced in a non-physical plane? Why or why not?).

Amy X. Wang/Rolling Stone

In the first media visit Apple has ever allowed to its under-the-radar Music Apps studio, the team of engineers showed Rolling Stone how the creation process for Garageband’s two types of sounds — synthetic and “real” — can span weeks or sometimes months per instrument, with new hurdles at every turn. Synthesized sounds (i.e. the type of obviously artificial notes often heard in EDM) are made from code and tweaked by code; “real” sounds have to be recorded in a drop-dead-silent studio setting, dozens of times, then pieced together like patchwork to form single perfect notes, one by one.

Some instruments are extra excruciating. In the digital reproduction of an American upright bass, a player in the studio plucks a string, holds his breath for seven seconds to ensure there’s no extra noise on the recording whatsoever as the note shivers into the air (engineers have custom-coded an app to time the duration precisely), and repeats the endeavor at different finger positions, volumes and pressures, day in and day out. After wheeling each of the cavalcade of instruments out of the studio, the team pores over the hundreds of recordings to pick out the best. When adding a suite of East Asian instruments in a recent product update, the engineers consulted with designers across the world to pick out the specific color of wood and font of a poem that would make a Chinese guzheng appear the most authentic. Engineers also constantly browse music-making forums for complaints, suggestions and thoughts on what to tweak next.

Yet Apple has also been careful to never present Garageband as too professional a product. It offers Logic Pro X for $199.99 for dedicated music producers but talks little about that in its fanfare-filled yearly launch events, preferring to tout its free creative apps. “The dynamic between Garageband and our pro product, Logic, is organic,” says Susan Prescott, vice president of apps marketing. “It’s not ‘create a feature for pro and stream it down,’ or ‘design for consumers and then shove it up for pros.’ We want to stay relevant for everyone.” Garageband comes with some 100 hip-hop and EDM synth sounds, and its base of virtual offerings includes customizable drum kits and “smart strings” like violins and cellos that can play notes in legato, staccato, and pizzicato, with add-on options available for power users. The number of synthetic and virtual instruments that it offers today is around 40 times the number with which it launched in 2004, engineers say.

Steve Jobs’ infamous belief in the ability of design to shape people’s daily lives, which business leaders all over attribute as core to Apple’s success, can be felt in every pixel of the music production software. By originally packaging Garageband with fellow iLife products iPhoto and iMovie, Apple positioned music-making as an easy, everyday pursuit, just like taking pictures or recording home videos. “Garageband in 2004 came from an experiment in what we could do with computers,” says Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, who worked closely with Jobs until the CEO’s death in 2011. “Back when we were working on the original iMac, thinking about how the world was going to change around us, we were inspired by the idea of a new breed of software to connect all the things that were starting to appear. Maybe someday the next John Lennon would discover their talent using the computer they got as a kid for Christmas.”

Aspiring artists, naturally, take advantage of free products. (All the pre-loaded loops in Garageband are also royalty-free.) “Some people are so good at making demos in Garageband that they bring in something and I’m like, ‘We can use 80 percent of that as the final record if you want,'” says Mike Elizondo, who’s produced with artists such as Dr. Dre and Eminem and also worked as an A&R executive at Warner. “There have been times an artist will bring in a vocal they recorded in Garageband just using a laptop internal microphone and it sounds cool. Skylar Grey does this a lot. Alex Greenwald, of Phantom Planet and Phases… I  made a record with him once where at least half of it was stuff he’d done on Garageband.”

But the ease-of-access revolution — the mere dozen clicks it might take nowadays to build the basic chord progression of a pop song with radio-darling potential — is as discomforting as it is amazing, in some ways. A pile of academic research from the past decade has closely examined the ways in which developments in technology immediately dictate the texture (and in this case, sound) of culture. Touchscreens on phones rattled the norms of long-distance conversation; template websites like Squarespace raised expectations for commerce and personal presentation. In a documentary called The Click, session drummer Greg Ellis shows how the ubiquity of a digital metronome in recording programs has given songs a certain sameness: “a palette that’s shrunk down to primary colors.” Garageband is the starting point for a significant portion of music creators — and though it is packed with variation, users all load up a program and see the same features, the same instrument options and design touches. When there is a default version of anything, people gravitate toward it, and it ends up changing the nature of creativity itself.

A question, then: Does Garageband bring down standards as well as barriers? “Anybody who thinks they can write a song can do it now, and a lot of the time they’re pretty shitty songs,” Andrew Garver, a USC professor and mastering engineer, said to Pitchfork in 2015. “You feel like you’re being told what to do now,” rapper and producer Prince Harvey also said, adding that he reverted to using an older version of Garageband because newer versions were actually more rigid and less customizable.

Since then, democratization has seized every other aspect of the industry: Cheap streaming services are the dominant way people listen to music, and sign-up-and-go distribution platforms like SoundCloud are so popular they’ve spawned their own genres. A flood of good has come out of this sea-change in listening accessibility. So has a lot of mediocre music. Artists are tweaking their musical styles to have a better shot at bubbling to the top, whether that’s making outlandishly long albums (which helps boost the album’s stream count) or making music very quickly (and perpetually riding off the success of the last hit). Throw computerized composition into the mix, and you get a rush of crushingly similar new music, coming out all the time.

Writing songs these days is “about convenience and cost efficiency,” Elizondo says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone bring something in and I’m like, ‘That’s the exact same drum loop someone else used,’ but there’s definitely a lot of times you hear something and go ‘Oh, wow, that’s Garageband,'” he says.

Amy X. Wang/Rolling Stone

What Rihanna fans know as the R&B chart-topper “Umbrella,” sharp-eared Macbook users clicking around on Garageband will recognize as “Vintage Funk Kit 03.” The thumping underbelly of the song is a popular Garageband/Logic drum loop, used by both amateurs and professionals. Pared down to basics, Usher’s “Make Love In This Club” amounts to a vocal track overlaid onto several Garageband synth loops. Spotting Apple’s preset sounds in hit songs has become something of a hobby in some corners of the Internet (n.b.: it’d also likely make for a decent podcast), and whether something in a song is truly real or just Garageband-real is often a matter of debate amongst hardcore fans. Haim’s “My Song 5” is a direct reference to its origin as an auto-titled Garageband demo, which features a distinctive Garageband horn.

Future iterations of the app, which Apple has steadily updated every few months for the last 15 years, could make it even easier and faster to churn out hits. “Without getting into specifics, I think machine learning — as in, systems and software that will enable more ability to help anticipate what someone wants to do — will be of value,” Schiller says about what’s in the works. Of the danger of Garageband influencing music too much, he says “there is a cause and effect” between any type of creativity and its creation platform.

It’s an interplay in which Apple is involved from start to finish, because it doesn’t just make Garageband, a single piece of music production software. It makes Garageband, and the monopolistic iTunes on the distribution side of things, and its successor Apple Music, which has cut into the territory of Spotify and other streaming companies with its heavily advertised cool-kid brand and amassed more than 50 million users in just a few years. The tech giant’s stomping footprint in the music industry has grown large enough to make it as powerful as one of the “Big Three” record labels. Apple executives’ names can be found on lists at invite-only performances just as often as those of big-time managers and A&Rs; last month, winners of the 61st Grammy Awards accepted their trophies under immense Apple Music billboards that towered over the Staples Center. All these points of influence from just one single company raise yet-unanswerable questions about just how much the future of music will be shaped by tech at large.

“The speed of music production is unrecognizable from what it was when I started. I think it’s created a lot of pressure” — Patrick Stump

People generally accept that culture becomes more homogeneous because of popular technology, but many academics and analysts say music is especially susceptible because its very transmission has become dependent on technology — and a specific set of software applications, at that. Bookstores are still alive in the Kindle age; record stores, on the other hand, have collapsed at the feet of digital streaming. If the physical sales slides of recent years persist, there will soon be no way to purchase or listen to music without doing it via the Internet. We see the effects of this flattening distribution landscape in artists who make Internet-algorithm-favoring songs to score higher chart positions and bigger checks. In the same way, the domination of Garageband and its handful of peer tools over the production landscape gives modern music a distinctly different rhythm and sound than that of decades past. Research analyzing the valence, energy and beat regularity of pop music show it’s all incredibly similar, as well.

Garageband, in short, has helped usher in both radical expansion and compression to the idea of what is possible. “The speed of music production is unrecognizable from what it was when I started,” Fall Out Boy’s Stump says. “I think it’s created a lot of pressure. I do some film scoring, and there is even the expectation there now of being able to turn it around immediately because everyone can open up their laptop and start composing. People are used to that. They are expecting it.” The fastest he’s ever whipped up a track, he says, is something around five minutes — roughly the amount of time it would take for an audience to listen to the track itself.

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