Can we recreate the magic of Star Wars using GarageBand?

The GarageBand app on iOS, as formidable as it is, has for a good while remained little more than a means to irritate people on long car journeys. Launched alongside the iPad 2 and now updated for the new iPad, it is one of Apple’s showcase apps for new hardware.

This time round, Apple has added a "jam" function to the application. It allows you and your buddies to play multiple instruments across multiple iOS devices and mix them all together in one master track. This gave Pocket-lint an idea. What if we pooled our iPhones and iPads and attempted to put together an iOS-powered band? Better still, what if we formed our own version of the Cantina Band from Star Wars?

With musical skills closer to those of Jabba the Hut than Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo band, we set about producing our own version of the Star Wars classic track. What did we learn along the way? Read on to find out.

What’s a treble clef?

Pocket-lint’s experience with music stretches about as far the back row of a recorder choir aged 8 and a failed attempt at grade 3 on the alto saxophone. Thankfully, GarageBand is designed to be used by anyone, or so we were led to believe. Those with an idea of notes and chords will likely get more out of the app than those who don’t - as we soon found out - but, if you can press a key, you can make a song.

What became clear very quickly was that the Cantina Song is actually quite tricky and played at pretty quick tempo. The hook of the tune is tough to play on the GarageBand keyboard. Without the feel of the ivories under our hands, it made it all the tougher to get the finger memory going nicely. That was our excuse, anyway.

Of course, there's always the Smart Keyboard - a function which essentially groups chords and notes into a eight-key setup - that's supposed to streamline the tune-making process but we couldn't really get that to help in any way. In the end we settled for about an hour of practice while the opening riffle of notes gnawed its way through our midbrains

Let’s jam

Just like Bob Marley, we were desperate to get jammin’. This was easier than we thought, done simply by tapping the musical note icon at the top of the right-hand side of GarageBand. Once setup, all our devices - three iPads and one iPhone - connected themselves to each other. One remains the master, or bandleader, in charge of the tempo and the recordings, and the others are able to chime in with whatever instruments have been selected.

The result was a cacophonous battle in which each of us attempted to play a more irritating synth note than the other. Thankfully, we eventually calmed down and got started with the task in hand - recording the Cantina Band classic.

Jedi sounds

For the beat, which you may notice is extremely simple, we opted for a hip-hop style drum kit. We could have gone for the smart drums to make it easier but, given how straightforward the beat is, we decided to play it live. Sadly, even GarageBand’s built-in metronome was no match for our diabolical sense of rhythm.

It didn’t make the challenge much easier and the jam went pretty free form every time we attempted to play the hook over the top. Each mistake required a tap of the GarageBand timeline icon, which shows you every track you have recorded, to reveal the delete option so that we could start all over again. Expect that to come with the territory on any jam session you have yourself.

We did eventually get it right(ish) but then decided that we weren’t happy with our initial synth selection. There's a quite few to choose from in GarageBand and finding that authentic ragtime sound is not straightforward. Add in the sustain, decay, release and echo settings and there's suddenly a few too many options.

The result was another mad half hour of squeeky synth noises, until we got it right. Brains slightly overloaded, it was time once again to attack the track. In a stroke of luck, we nailed it first time (sort of). A few level adjustments using GarageBand’s timeline and things were sounding fairly decent. In fact, it became pretty clear that a group of people with a sense of music might actually be able to get something decent out of an iOS jam session.

Complete the beat

A bit of playtime and repeated listens to the original song and we discovered it was a bass hook that was missing. This is when GarageBand’s smart instruments came into their own. We have absolutely no idea whatsoever how you play a double bass or, quite frankly, even if the notes we were playing were correct.

None of this mattered though because, upon tapping each note, it seemed to work. It added that extra bit of pizazz to the track. So we started jamming again, recorded the whole lot and that was it, the ultimate iOS-based Star Wars cover was born. Or at least, out version if it.

What do you think of GarageBand? Let us know in the comments below ...