GarageBand 09 First Impressions

Just finished installing iLife 09, and there are some bright spots.  I’d say iPhoto is the best new thing, but GB got a fresh coat of paint, and we’ll examine some observations here….

INTRO SCREEN

Totally revamped, and offers a template chooser approach, well beyond what it used to.  Not unlike Logic’s project startup screen.

LOOP BROWSER

I can see why they wanted to put it in the vertical format, which matches every other app that uses loops.  I can even see how it’s more contextually related to the info panel (which it now shares space with) than the precision editor (which it used to share space with).  But lots of people who use loops are going to be confused by this move.

FEATURES

Haven’t tried lessons yet, but that looks like a big part of the new feature set.  So far I’ve noticed a nicer compressor (threshold control – wow!), some new guitar amps, and a far more descriptive/slick interface for adding effects.  The “Effects” versus “Sends” labels really make me happy to see – novices need to learn about signal chain stuff like this.

THE LOOK

GarageBand is the most different-looking program in this year’s iLife, and could signal some upcoming changes in Mac OS X, but I’ve got to say the inverse chrome is killing me right now.  The wood is still there, but there’s something just off about the color scheme.  It’s like it inhabits a strange nether-region between the iLife and Prokit UI  (prokit prefers darker internal view, while iLife tends to favor darker borders and lighter internal).  For all of the great UI improvements, there’s something more intimidating about this look and I wonder how a beginner would react when seeing it.  I’ll have to try it out on some novices at conference.

P.S. Kudos on the glassy iPhone-style shading on the loops.  Very nice and very GarageBand.

Where ableton (and others) will SUCCEED

Let’s face it – Pro Tools is like the Windows of digital audio (making Digidesign the Microsoft?).  It’s ubiquitous at a pro level, and for good reason.  They had the best audio processing around and could convince studios in the late 90s and early 2000s to lock-in to their complete solutions.  This could be feasibly compared to a software company going after the “enterprise” market; big money buyers who can afford to take a risk on a fancy new product if it means beating someone else in the technological arms race.

Fast forward to 2009.  Consumer electronics are the driver now, not the follower.  Look at iLife (Apple’s suite of digital media apps that comes standard on Macs): the stuff you can do using these programs was reserved only for the fanciest of studios only a decade ago.  (e.g. Next time you use iMovie to non-destructively edit video think about getting the X-acto out and splicing tape by hand.)  Apple’s own GarageBand software has opened up digital audio to many novices and promises to increase that number with their new lessons feature.

Gee-whiz stuff like that is fine for beginners, but what about the new ‘sweet spot’: prosumers.  You know, the people with some cash to invest in their hobby but not a whole company’s balance sheet to play with.  These are the people who build up a home studio piece by piece over 5-10 years and *maybe* do a session every 6 months in between personal tinkering.  I would argue that this demographic is growing rapidly thanks to an abundance of computing power and software options.  Pro Tools is not their tool of choice, either, unless A) they work with a studio and need interoperable files or B) they know it’s the ‘right’ tool that the pros use so they break down and get it too.

The new crop of audio consumers that want to move beyond the basics are looking for two things: Price, and Workflow factor.  I can’t picture an average joe spending more than $300 on a piece of software, no matter how much other goodies came with it.  Any more than than and the software had better be allowing you to make that money back through paid work.

WHO IS COMPETING WITH WHO?

Let’s picture two camps: in DAW camp on the left, we have Pro Tools competing with Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer, Nuendo (winner: worst name award 2008), etc.  You have stuff like Reason and standalone softsynths/playable samplers over on the right.  Way in the distance you have stuff like Max/MSP and PD.  Ableton stands smack dab in the center of all these categories.  Want great FM or modeled or (fill in the blank) synths?  Live has ‘em.  Want great DSP with AU and VST plugin support?  Got that too.  Want to patch?  Come on over – patch all you want.  Oh yeah, video?  We’ve got Jitter too.  It’s absolutely genius how they’ve positioned themselves.  It reminds me of how obscure Mac OS X was in 2002, and all of a sudden BOOM here we are in the midst of an emerging standard.

Let’s add a significant uptick in Ableton mindshare to the list of 2009 predictions.