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Apple’s (AAPL) GarageBand ($14.99) is a versatile, and cheap, recording program that lets you record song ideas and demo tapes on your Mac. Today I’m going to look at various USB options to plug your instrument into GarageBand. Fortunately, there are a lot of different devices out there that will let you perform this task. That said, I’m going to focus on a cross section of these input devices, not the entire spectrum. While I’m going to use guitars as a frequent reference point since that’s the instrument I play, any of these input devices should work on instruments that have a 1/4″ output.
Apogee Jam ($99): At 99 bucks, the Apogee Jam isn’t cheap, but it earns high marks for me. The great thing about the Jam is it comes with connectors for the Mac, and a 30-pin iOS cable. I’ve never had a problem with it and the audio quality is very, very good. The chief concern is with the two small, cables it’s easy to misplace them. To avoid that, I keep them both rubber-banded to the body of the Apogee. You can also buy replacement cables if you lose them.
Line 6 Pod Studio UX2 ($199): The Line 6 UX2 is a very versatile device. It will let you record two instruments at the same time (handy if you’re recording with a pal). It also has two XLR inputs if you want to mike your amps instead of directly inputting your guitar. But wait, there’s more: the UX2 also has more than 20 models of guitar and bass amps, and more than 20 models of guitar and bass cabinets. The amp models are based on Fender and Marshall amps. The UX2 is a good piece of gear to start building your budget studio around and is great if you’re recording multiple instruments at the same time.
Ubisoft Rocksmith Real Tone Cable ($29.99): While the Ubisoft Rocksmith Real Tone Cable is primarily designed for the Rocksmith game (not available for the Mac, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on your view of learning devices such as these). I’ve found it to be a pretty decent USB guitar interface given the cost, and while it has no iOS connectivity, that’s not a deal breaker, especially since this article primarily deals with OS X. In the short time I’ve had it, it feels like a decent cable and I haven’t experienced any issues with it.
USB Fender Squier Guitar ($199): Now, admittedly the USB Fender Squier guitar won’t let you plug in any instrument to GarageBand, it being a guitar and all. However. for $199, I’ve found it to be a great guitar. Since the Squier is Fender’s low-cost line, when I got mine I expected it to be extra low-budget, given the additional electronics for the on-board USB interface. Instead, I was quite happy with it and still continue to play it almost four months after I got it. The iOS interface is especially nice if you’re traveling and want to practice. It comes with the cables to connect the guitar to your Mac and iOS device.
Connecting the devices to GarageBand
Obviously step one is connecting the USB cable to your Mac. (Note: for best results plug them directly into your Mac; not into a USB hub.) After that, open GarageBand and go to Preferences and click on the Audio/Midi tab. Select your input device from the pull-down list.
After that go into your project and add a new track. Select Real Instrument from the selection screen if you are miking your amp, or using a keyboard. Select Electric Guitar if you want to use GarageBand’s built-in amps and effects.
Last, go the Track menu and select Show Monitoring for Real Instrument Tracks. This will ensure you can hear your instrument through the speakers while you play.
Using Amps and Effects
Unless you are miking your amp, you’re probably going to want to play around with GarageBand’s amps and effects. To do that, select the guitar track in the track listing on the left. On the far right, you can choose the amp you want. You can also choose from a number of preset sounds from a pull-down menu in the same area. You can also adjust the bass, treble, etc. from this screen.
How I use them
For input devices, I float between the Rocksmith cable and the Apogee Jam. For the most part, choosing one comes down to which interface I can easily find at the moment. The Jam and the iOS cables may take up permanent residence in my gig bag so I can practice outside the house regardless of what guitar I happen to have with me (I tend to favor Les Pauls over Fender guitars).
I don’t usually use the amps built-in to GarageBand. Instead I use the GarageBand plug-in for Guitar Rig and Amplitube. However, if you can’t afford either of these programs the included amps will do the trick. The presets are really helpful in quickly dialing in a sound.