Around Christmas 2013 I was starting to worry about GarageBand. Since 2006 I had started my beginners on the software, which arguably ignited the entire movement of “older beginner” music composition courses. 2013’s GarageBand 10, however, made me question the direction the software was taking. I would have to rework many of my lessons to work in the new version. Since I was already using Ableton Live in my advanced course, I decided it might make more sense to have my beginners use that software instead.
The Experimental Group
Spring semester 2014 I decided to hedge my bets on this topic. My course registrations for the second-year class are very healthy, and I did not want to jeopardize that by introducing an unpopular change in the beginner level. I took one section of the beginner course, and pretended GarageBand did not exist, and we started on Ableton Live instead, doing the same exact projects as the five other sections using GarageBand. Here’s what I learned:
- Kids do not think either program is “harder” if they don’t know anything different
- Exporting files is a tiny bit easier in GarageBand
- GarageBand has a “global key” while Live does not – more on this later
- Projects from both courses sounded about the same in quality
Really there were no big negatives with the switch, other than a slight intangible fun factor that was not present in the first few weeks. Once we were off into my projects like the Radio Ad and sampling drum sounds from around the school they class felt exactly right, but there was a bit of magic missing from the first weeks. After another semester, I determined it was due to the weak loop selection in Live compared to GarageBand. Ableton loops are not for the faint of heart – many of the “Clips” are exclusive to a specific device or sample pack and do not gracefully drag anywhere as audio files do. In addition, filenames are inconsistently named, so the search feature is not that helpful for the built-in loops, and there is no fancy metadata based filter system like there is in Logic or GarageBand. There had to be a way to use those gigs and gigs of Apple Loops sitting on my hard drive already to solve this problem.
Using Apple Loops in Live
So how do we make the loop library friendly in Live? First off, I just use the GarageBand loop library. I mean – it’s already there on the computer, right? Those new loops are especially great. There are a few hurdles though:
- New GarageBand loops are in the .caf format – basically a different wrapper for aiff audio that isn’t compatible with basically everything
- Using Quicktime to convert .caf’s to .wav or .aiff results in a slight silent gap after the audio, making Live interpret the loops incorrectly (losing their ability to loop – it’s hard to say this wasn’t intentional)
- Metadata in the Apple Loops for Key (and the other stuff – dark/happy/processed, etc.) is basically inaccessible to programs other than Logic and GarageBand
Here’s my step-by-step process to get Apple Loops usable in Live.
- Using Audacity’s chains, open a folder .caf files and trim 56 milliseconds from the end, and save as .wav. I’m not sure if this is the exact amount of silence, but it resulted in a pretty usable loop.
- Take any loops containing words like “beat”, “drums”, or “topper” out of the folder – make sure they’re all tagged with an easy to remember word like “Beat” (I used Yosemite’s batch renaming feature to do this)
- Using Keyfinder or similar software, load remaining loops from the “cleaned” folder. Have the software analyze and then write the key into the filenames.
- If you’re super picky, use the Apple Loops utility to verify that the keys from Keyfinder are correct. I had to correct a bunch of them, and I also manually tagged ones with black key names to include both names (i.e. Sweet-Guitar-Loop.A#m.Gbm.wav). Keyfinder had a lot of trouble with the newer “Layers” loops especially – lots of unclear pitches and 7th chords in there).
- Importantly, group any subfolders of loops into one big “Loops” folder. Add this folder to Ableton Live’s Places in the Browser – I observed that Live’s performance drops significantly if the subfolders are added separately to the browser.
Notice the key tags at the end of the filenames. I had to do that semi-manually.
Put all your loops in one big folder for optimal performance. If you add all the subfolders to places, Live will spend a lot of time searching the disk instead of making sick beats.
Now students have the entire GarageBand loop library (including the amazing Chillwave category), usably tagged and categorized, accessible in a much more loop friendly program.
Final Step: The Akai APC Key 25
Since the beginning my music lab has had 25-key MIDI keyboards at each station. We started with the Korg K25’s and shortly after upgraded to the M-Audio Axiom 25’s we’ve had since 2008. I’ve toyed around with the idea of adding an unconventional controller to my lab for years, but not a single device fit my needs entirely. In fact, I’ve purchased several of these as single units intending to use them for the lab, but never felt confident enough to deploy them.
- The original APC40 – too large, no note input
- The Novation Launchpad – limited utility, hacky-feeling
- Launchpad Mini – great size, no control labels – still hacky feeling
- Ableton Push – gigantic, difficult to use (sorry)
With Akai’s latest crop of hybrid APC devices, I found the perfect tool for my lab. The APC Key 25 is small (we have limited desk space), includes 100% pre-programmed controls for clip launching and volume adjustment with zero setup, and includes 25 “good enough” keys. Since we don’t do piano technique as much as we just need a basic note input device, this board is the perfect complement to our Ableton-only curriculum. It even comes with Live Like Akai edition, which is not far off from Live Intro feature-wise.
Our first week this semester felt magical again. It was like the old days when GarageBand was novel and people still thought the Secret Agent Guitar loop still sounded cool. Kids were able to create key-matched tracks and scenes with relative ease in a non-linear way using cutting edge tools and great sounds. Everyone used the keyboards, and it made life easier instead of harder! It was easy, fun and ultimately successful. Just because the tools don’t come perfect out of the box doesn’t mean you can’t bend them to your will. Setting up a great music tech class is about engineering the environment on the student workstations for optimal success, and that means sweating the details when it comes to things like searching the library or choosing which controller to buy. Good luck trying this on your own!