This is your future, not too long from now: You’re lingering a little too long in the shower one morning, and somewhere between the first and second rinse, a tune pops into your head. You keep humming as you towel off, then stroll downstairs to your computer. With a few quick keystrokes, you record yourself singing the tune. It’s off-key, and the lyrics won’t draw an audience, but the computer doesn’t care. With a few more clicks, there’s a quartet accompanying your vocal in perfect time. And then—voilà!—it’s not you warbling anymore; it’s Sting or Joni Mitchell or Pavarotti. As you burn the track onto a CD, you say to yourself, “One of these days, I really should learn how to play an instrument.”
There is something uniquely participatory about music, something that makes us want to play along. When we visit the Guggenheim Bilbao, we don’t start furiously sketching out a new wing for the museum on a napkin. Likewise, when we attend a performance of King Lear, we don’t jot down notes for a sequel on the back of the playbill. But many of us will admit, when pressed, to doing Pete Townshend air guitar windmills as teenagers, or harmonizing with the car radio on the way to work, or mock conducting Mozart in the safety of our living room.
Of course, those Pete Townshend windmills are a lot easier to execute when you don’t actually have to hit the frets in the right places. So, for as long as popular music has been a part of society, the world has been divided into players and pretenders. But a new program from Apple Computer called GarageBand points to possibilities you could only dream about: the emergence of digital tools that help people with no musical training whatsoever create astonishingly sophisticated tracks. Can’t play an instrument? Tone deaf? The software will fix all that.
If you heard any of the hilarious remixes of Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech that proliferated on the talk-radio circuit last year, you most likely heard GarageBand at work. (In a propitious bit of timing, Apple released the software a week before the Iowa caucuses.) Thanks to GarageBand’s tools, you could create your own Dean Scream remix even if you’d never picked up a guitar or a drumstick in your life. On the many sites where GarageBand users share their creations, political commentary remains a continuing obsession. One created a lush, entirely nonsatirical string accompaniment to Al Sharpton’s speech at the Democratic convention; another spliced together dozens of George Bush’s malapropisms over a country-and-western tune.
How can nonmusicians create music? GarageBand borrows a page from the playbook followed by most rap and hip-hop artists during the past two decades: The software uses samples and sound loops as the core building blocks for each song. Loops are short sequences of music that have been recorded and edited and then combined with other loops in unpredictable ways. A loop might be eight bars of a drumbeat, an acoustic guitar strumming a G minor chord, the blast of a horn section, or the sound of a presidential candidate losing it on national television.
GarageBand comes with thousands of loops that reflect an entire record store’s worth of genres—electronic beats, Motown bass lines, country shuffles—or you can record your own. Creating a song feels more like painting than jamming. You pick the loops you find interesting and draw them out on the screen. Alter the tempo of the song, and the software automatically adjusts the loop to keep it in time. Want your virtual pianist to drop into C minor for the bridge? Select the loop, drag a slider, and the chords change automatically. The loops that come with GarageBand are in the public domain, so if you happen to concoct a Billboard chart topper, you won’t owe anyone royalties.
If you’re skilled enough with a PC interface to copy files from one folder to another, you’re skilled enough to compose a song in GarageBand. And if you actually know how to play an instrument, the software becomes more powerful. Thanks to GarageBand’s built-in effects, you can trigger a virtual orchestra via an attached keyboard or transform your basement guitar strumming into a blaring Pearl Jam solo performed at Madison Square Garden. Similar tools have been available to professionals for some time, but GarageBand opens the stage door to singing-in-the-shower types.
There are limits, however. If you’re intent on being the lead singer in your virtual band and you can’t hold a tune, your otherwise professional recording will invariably sound like just another session of woeful karaoke. Yet even that flaw will soon change, thanks to the wonders of pitch-correction software. A program called Melodyne, targeted at the professional audio market but no doubt headed toward hobbyists, does for your singing what spell-check does for term papers. You croon a few verses into a microphone, and Melodyne plots the notes you sang against a standard musical scale. Then you select the option for Note Snap, and with a single click, the software corrects the pitch of each snippet of audio so that your vocals are perfectly in tune. You can even copy a refrain, drag it up or down a few notes, and create harmony without singing another line.