GarageBand 101: Using Apple loops to help songwriting

Recently I wrote about how I use Magic GarageBand to have my own jam band. This week, I’m going to share how I use Apple loops in GarageBand ($14.99) as part of my songwriting process. Any sort of creative endeavor suffers if there are too many roadblocks, challenges or technical hoops to jump through. For songwriting, I need the application to get out of the way, which GarageBand does quite nicely.

What are Apple Loops?

GarageBand ships with a pretty hefty selection of loops. A loop is basically a few seconds worth of a track that you can repeat as you want. For example, you could have drum loops that range from basic “kick, snare, kick, snare” to a multi-tom tom fill. They aren’t limited to drums either: you can find piano, bass, orchestral strings and many more.

To access the Apple loops, press the little loops button on the lower right-hand corner of the application window.


How to use loops

Using loops is pretty much a drag and drop operation. Select the loop you want to use and drag into your project window.


If you want the beat to repeat for several bars, mouse over to the upper-right hand corner of the loop until you see a circular pop-up. Grab that and drag it out as many bars as you want.

One other note: some loops work best with a specific beat count (the ones in the screenshot are for a 115 bpm count.) If you play them on a slower beat count, the loop will sound drastically different. I learned this the hard way when a lively beat I sampled sounded like the drummer took too much Valium.

Using loops for songwriting

I play the guitar and the bass equally poorly. Most of the time I use my guitar to write songs, but for some grooves I like to write on the bass. Therefore, since I don’t play the drums, I start with a drum track. Rather than use the supplied Apple drum tracks, I use the Beta Monkey drum tracks. The reason I love the Beta Monkey ones so much is they are recorded loops of real drummers in real recording studios and sound so much better than the Apple ones.

Sometimes I have lyrics in my head I’m writing music to, but most often I start with writing some riffs. To start the riff-writing process, I’ll set the key and bpm in my project info and drag out a very basic drum loop, usually a kick, snare, kick, snare level of basic. At this point I’m not too worried about fills and the like. I’ll then drag the loop out for a few minutes worth of bars, and also set the entire project to loop so I have uninterrupted boom-chicka-boom.

At this point, I’m not recording anything. I just want a consistent back beat to jam along with and see what clicks. Depending on what I think the song needs, I’ll also drag out some piano riffs, or any loop I think will spark the creative process. One of the nice things about even the supplied loops is there are so many varieties, sometimes sampling a random loop will send me down a fun creative path.

Once I’ve got a riff I’m happy with for the main verses, it’s time to start thinking bridges and choruses.

While I’m coming up with riffs, I’ll start laying the guitar foundations for the bridge and chorus. But now, I’ll start breaking down the infinite loop I’ve been working on. Rather than a straight drum loop, I’ll start looking for loops that compliment the riff a little better. If I decide to use my basic drum loop, I’ll shorten to the number of bars my verse has. Now, I’ll start adding some fills and different drum tracks for the bridge and chorus. Again, at this point I’m not hitting the record button yet (or, if I am, it’s just to remember a riff I might want to come back to, but nothing formal).

Creating a finished song

Once I’ve got the basic song structure down, it’s time to create a finished draft in GarageBand. Once I have the loops laid out in a way I’m happy with, I’ll break out my bass and lay down the bottom beat. Then, I’ll lay down the guitar tracks and the guitar solo. When I’m done with that, I’m probably not going to mix it too much. I’m not looking to publish this, mostly to have some basic tracks to use with a songwriting partner.


Final thoughts

Back in the day, I used a four-track recorder and a drum machine to write songs. Now, GarageBand and loops fuel the creative fire.  Since I don’t need the full power of an app like Logic Pro ($199) yet, GarageBand’s ease of use really makes writing and drafting songs a breeze.