Feature comparison: GarageBand vs. Pro Tools Essentials

Avid announced a series of bundles that pack low to midrange M-Audio gear with a new version of Pro Tools aimed squarely at the amateur market. How does it stack up to the competition?

I feel personally like PTE is closer to something like Ableton Live Lite than GB. Of course, since it says “Pro Tools” on it some people are making way too big of a deal out of it. It will surely boost sales for Digidesign and maybe even bring more folks into the audio & recording tent like Garageband originally did (by the way that video is what I base my first MT lesson for level one on.)

My inner cynic, though, says many people who buy a PTE bundle will end up feeling gypped because they thought they were getting the “real” Pro Tools and not some stripped down lameness that can’t do half of what GarageBand, a free program, can do.

Not to mention that for all it leaves out, PTE includes what is probably the most hated feature of Pro Tools: hardware lock-in, albeit they did ditch the dongles and allowed the interface to serve this task but that’s not that much better. Have fun with that hissy Fast Track; you’re going to need it for awhile if you use this program.


The problem: DAW files are notoriously not portable, and audio scrub bars are terribly boring to watch during playback. I want to get my students’ projects up on the big screen and speakers so I can hear and see the projects as they do at their station, with very few “oh well that didn’t work today” moments.

This is totally possible in software. This nifty trick is usually handled by a pricey piece of hardware (I’m looking at you…and you…and you). That’s not how I roll though – I like to do things MacGuyver style.

First you need some twine, a match, and silly putty a regular DAW that can host plugins. If you’re reading this blog you probably have that. (hint: GarageBand will work just fine). Now, go here yesterday and get Wormhole. It’s free. Go here and get Chicken of the VNC too (I’m assuming you’re on a Mac. If you don’t…wait I just checked my site logs – about 80% chance you do.)

OK, so the end goal is going to be grabbing any student computer’s audio and video and throwing it up on the projector and the big room speakers.

Before reading how I use it, you might want to read the Wormhole manual. Download the plugin, follow the install instructions and you can continue. (Protip: you can install audio plugins on a non-privileged machine. Just do it in the ~/user/library/audio/plugins/components folder. DAW’s look in there as well as in the root library folder. *Ahem*

In GarageBand (or your DAW of choice) have a file set up that uses Wormhole as an insert, has a small blank audio clip, and loops a very short section continuously. The audio clip is there for a bug that Plasq never patched, and the loop is to make sure you don’t miss any of the student’s audio once they hit play.

On the student’s machine, have them add Wormhole to a master track. Have them type their name in the box and hit enter. That’s it on their end.

At the teacher desk, open your premade project, open the Wormhole plugin, and select the student you want to hear. Hit play on your machine. Ask the student to hit play on theirs (or just do it through VNC for them). Voila – student audio coming through the teacher’s computer and sending out to the big speakers!

Chicken of the VNC is another no-brainer. This lets you see and control each students’ desktop. Not only is it useful for fixing a problem without walking across the room, it’s worth seeing the look on their face the first time you take over their computer. Love it.

Between VNC and Wormhole, we have a solution to virtualize all the output from a student station so everyone can see everyone’s projects on sharing day (you do sharing day right?) on the big screen with the big speakers.

Now doesn’t that make you feel all 21st century?

How to chroma key using only iMovie and a green screen

-Chroma key background (muslin cloth or even green posterboard works)
-Video loop or picture (find some here)
-iMovie 09 (it came with your Mac if you bought after Jan 2009)

Before you begin read a tutorial or two about chroma key backgrounds. There are issues with the lighting and such you should be aware of before you expect perfect results. That being said, iMovie is rather forgiving when it comes to the range of chroma it’s keying out.

Enable iMovie’s advanced controls. You can find this in the Preferences.

Throw your video loop into a new project. Make sure the loop is long enough to go all the way through your greenscreen footage. (For our 5 minutes announcements, I have a 10 min. loop “just in case”)

Drag your greenscreen footage on top of the video loop. Try to line it up with the very edge of where you want it to start. A little menu will pop up – select “Green Screen”

If you want to add overlays or any other video “tracks”, you will need to export the unedited greenscreen + loop and reimport it into iMovie. Then, edit the movie and do all your other titles, overlays, etc.

Voila! iMovie 09 is very generously (and somewhat secretly given that these are not default “on” features) giving away a feature that I’m sure sold many copies of Final Cut Express.

Despite the obvious limitation of multiple tracks (that can be worked around), adding 10 minutes to post production can make the announcements look significantly better and is totally worth it.

Final Cut

So the video announcements plan goes like this in shortform for our 50-minute period:

20 minutes: film it.
20 minutes: edit it and add titles/music
10 minutes: finish it and ready for tomorrow’s day-long loop

We’ve made it about halfway through step two so far, and I’ve learned a few things that have surprised me a bit.

1)The filming part is pretty easy. Once the shots are framed correctly, getting a workable feed to edit is pretty quick. Anchor issues aside, this is way smoother than I thought it would be.

2)The editing part isn’t so bad either. We don’t have a clap board, so we instead flash a copy of Hillary Clinton’s “Living History” in front of the camera when restarting if a mistake is made to make the editors’ lives easier. Don’t ask.

3) The pictures and titles are the hard part. We have some pre-made LiveType transitions that are easy to throw in, but dropping titles in will take a little bit of technique work to get our rhythm down. It’s getting there, but I’ll be convinced when we actually finish a whole segment.

4)Having a student director is crucial to the process, especially if the goal is a self-operating broadcast. The director has to drive everyone to get the job done in the above allotted times.

5)I need a 36 hour day to figure out a good method for chroma keying, and then I’ll be happy with how the set looks. More on green screen and iMovie 09 later.

6) A student is currently serving as the manager of the studio. This is essential to me, as I can have this aide get the studio up and running while I’m teaching MT upstairs. Plus, any technical issues can be solved without me having to ignore the other groups. Absolutely essential.

While all this was going on today, the mobile team was interviewing the principal for an early run segment on school rules per his request.

While the studio team is doing the news, this team will be upstairs editing the 10+ minute interview into something under 2 minutes for mass consumption. I get a good workout running back and forth between the two teams.

What’s cool is that the teams are just now starting to gel as far as the individual jobs go. What we’re still working on is this entity running itself on a day-to-day basis. Maybe Hillary has some tips for us…

Droppin some sick nasties

Phrase of the moment for Music Tech level 2. Allow me to explain.

We start level 2 with a pretty straightforward message of “LEARN ABLETON LIVE NOW OR ELSE”. Honestly, there are usually a few students who are put off by the program; nothing is labeled, the colors are plain and drab, and it honestly looks like some kind of alien interface you’d see in Star Trek.

This all changes, however, as we learn that Ableton Live can unlock some of those “how did they do that?” questions about pop music.

First off, the drum kits in Ableton are nice. Especially the electronic ones – way out, trippy crazy sounding kits that someone like Andre 3000 or Will.I.Am would be proud to call his own.

Then we get to learning the clip slots. And record quantization. And MIDI effects like arpeggiator and chord. And beat repeat (my favorite).

Then it all starts to come together and the last vestiges of the “but I liked GarageBand better!” crowd begin to disappear and Ableton reigns supreme (at least until we get computers that can run Logic 9).

To sum it up, students are amazed at how much better their drum programming can be in Live versus how it was back in Level 1 with GarageBand. It’s like that scene in the Matrix where he learns how to fly a helicopter just by plugging something into his head. This type of “holy cow that was easy” moment is what I try to exploit in both classes this early in the year.

To commemorate this year, I’ve decided to play off of the fact that Level 2 is a more pro-focused class, with projects decidedly in the “real world” column most of the time. Every project is going to have a real producer that we study to go along with it. We’ll listen to their music, try to use their style as inspiration, and try to deconstruct the tricks of their trade.

This week the producer we’re looking at is Timbaland. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.