How To Use GarageBand On iPhone & iPad: Tips Masterclass

iOS has a huge number of fun and useful apps, as you can see from our Best free iPhone apps guide, but one of the very best is Apple’s own GarageBand.

With this free music creation tool, you can quickly put together songs adorned with drums, bass, keyboards, guitars and exotic instruments, all without even needing to know how to play. In our GarageBand masterclass we show the basics of finding your way around one of Apple’s finest software offerings.

Live Loops

When you first open GarageBand you’ll be asked to select the kind of instrument you want to use. At the top of the screen you’ll see two options: Live Loops and Tracks.

Live Loops is a relatively new addition to GarageBand, which allows you to sequence existing recordings in real time. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually very easy.

First of all, select the genre of music you want to use (there’s Hip Hop, EDM, Rock and several others available) and you’ll be taken to a grid with a number of different coloured squares. Each square represents a loop, all of which have been selected to work together both in terms of timing and melody.

Now just tap each square to stop or start the playback, adding others whenever you please. GarageBand will begin each one on the correct beat, so you can’t really make any mistakes. Tapping the arrow at the bottom of each column will also switch on all of those squares at the same time.

Another fun feature is FX. You’ll see this button along the top of the screen and tapping it opens up a section of the page containing a couple of large boxes with buttons between them. The left box controls a filter when you move your finger around inside it. Try experimenting with it to see the kind of sounds you can produce. The right box allows you to repeat parts of a loop at different speeds, while the buttons change the frequency shapes when you slide your finger up or down them.

There’s also a turntable icon with which you can scratch, a back arrow to hold a loop in a certain position, and the square icon for slowing a loop to a stop. Basically, it’s a DJ deck that can help you make some fantastic sounds. Best of all, these techniques can be used when recording.

Recording Live Loops

Once you’ve played with the Live Loops and worked out a sequence that you like, it’s time to record them. To do this, press the record button at the top of the screen.

You’ll be counted in, then it’s time to play the loops in the order you’ve worked out. When you’re finished, tap the stop button at the top. That’s it: you’ve now recorded a track. To hear it, press the Play button.

Touch Instruments

If you want to be more hands-on in the creation of melodies then you can use Touch Instruments instead. These are virtual guitars, pianos, strings and so on which you can actually play.

To find them, choose the Tracks option when you open a new project and you’ll be presented with a scrollable selection. Tap on the one you want to use and it will open a new window with a digital representation of the instrument.

Using Keyboards

The controls for each instrument differ slightly. On keyboards you have the keys themselves, with a row of options just above. On the left you’ll see two arrows with a number in the middle. These allow you to raise or lower the pitch of the keyboard by an octave.

Next to this is a feature specific to the instrument; on a piano this is sustain, while on an electric organ it might control the rate of a rotary speaker. Slide it to the right to lock it on, and back to the left to release it.

In the centre is a button adjusting the way the keyboard responds to sliding your finger across it. The modes are Glissando (playing all notes you slide between), Scroll (moving the physical keyboard up or down the scale), and Pitch (bending notes up or down as you slide).

As well as these, there are a few other interesting features that we’ll move on to next.

Using the Scale feature

On the right side of the strip you find above the keyboard are some of the automated features. The first is marked Scale and when you press it you’ll see a list of scales and modes.

Each of these arranges notes in ways that conform to various styles of music. Minor blues for, well, sad blues (is there any other kind?) or Japanese for tunes that add the mysteries of the Orient.

Once you’ve selected a scale you’ll see that the keyboard has been simplified. Now all of the notes are ones contained in the chosen scale or mode, meaning you can’t play a wrong one.

Using the Arpeggiator feature

Another fun tool is the arpeggiator. This is the button that look like an upward arrow made of blocks. Tapping this opens a dialog box with the word Run and a switch. Turning this on offers a number of options, such as Note Order, Note Rate and Octave Range.

As an arpeggiator plays notes in a scale, these allow you to alter how fast and in what sequence you want the patterns to be. They are easy to change, so experiment to find the melodies you’re after.

With the settings decided you’ll want to tap anywhere on the screen except for the keyboard. Now whenever you tap and hold a key you’ll hear the sequence played. This can be combined with the Scales feature to keep things tuneful.

Using Guitars

As well as keyboards there are also virtual instruments for guitars. These include acoustic, electric and bass, all of which can be played either in chordal or solo modes.

The main area of the screen features the fretboard of the guitar and tapping on any area will play the note. You can even bend up or down by keeping your finger pressed and moving in the relevant direction.

In the upper-right corner there are settings for Chords or Notes, with the former giving you columns in which the correct notes for each chord are placed. You can either play then individually or tap the letter at the top of the column for a strum.

The autoplay option also gives you multiple riffs to choose from if you don’t want to get into the deep grass.

The same techniques are also used in the other stringed instruments offered in GarageBand, which include Bass, Strings, and World (traditional Chinese and Japanese).

Using Live Guitars

Play guitar and want to record yourself rather than a virtual instrument? The Amp section can channel your humble axe through a Marshall-style stack frenzy, biting clean Fender-Bassman approximation, classic Orange crunch and many other legendary tones.

All the dials on the amps are adjustable, so you can tailor the tone to your desire, and tapping the rectangle with circles inside that you’ll find in the upper-right corner will give you access to a variety of effect pedals too.

You’ll need some kind of input for the iPhone or iPad to get a good sound, so consider something like the IK Multimedia iRig Pro I/O, Focusrite iTrack Pocket or Focusrite iTrack Solo, all of which are excellent products.


Most songs benefit from percussion of some kind, and if the Live Loops aren’t what you’re after there are a few other options.

Adding Smart Drums gives you a square grid where you can drag and drop various elements of a drum kit. The four sides are marked as Loud, Quiet, Complex and Simple. This means if you want a busy, loud snare then put it somewhere close to those two sides.

The other main option is the Beat Sequencer. This has a wider grid with squares you can turn on or off for each part of the kit. To build a pattern, slowly add elements until you’re happy. You can always remove them again instantly by turning off the square.

Finally, there’s the Acoustic drums, which is a virtual representation of a kit that you can actually play in real time.


Should you want to hand over the percussion to GarageBand, then there’s the Drummer option. This analyses the tracks you already have in your project and automatically creates beats.

You can adjust parameters to make it more or less busy, plus you can opt for different styles of drummer to suit the genre of music.

It’s a very useful tool for adding a backbeat to your compositions in the shortest possible time.

Live Audio

Thanks to the microphone on your iPhone or iPad you can also record live audio without the need of physical interfaces. To see how this is done take a look at our How to create a bedtime story with GarageBand feature.

Audio Unit Extensions & Inter-App Audio

The last option available is for External audio. These comprise of Audio Unit Extensions & Inter-App Audio apps that can be purchased on the App Store and then used within existing GarageBand projects.

You play them as Touch Instruments, similar to those of the piano and guitar ones outlined above, plus the apps can also be used to alter the sound and tonality of existing instruments. For a guide on how to use External sounds visit the Use different plug-ins with Touch Instruments page on Apple’s website.

Recording a song

If you’re working on some ideas and want to get them down, you’ll need to record a song. This can seem a little daunting at first, but once you’ve tried it you’ll see how simple and fast it really is.

Check out our How to make a song in GarageBand guide for a step-by-step breakdown of what you’ll need to do.

Editing your project

When you’ve recorded the various instruments you’ll no doubt want to tidy up any loose arrangements and maybe add some effects.

GarageBand comes with a surprising number of editing tools that make this not only possible but also highly beneficial. To see what’s on offer, read our How to edit in GarageBand for iPhone and iPad to take your creation to the next level.

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