Over the last decade, GarageBand has become the Starbucks of digital recording studios: consumer-friendly, global, omnipresent. Pre-programmed into every Apple device, anyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac can open the program and record something amazing (or, perhaps more likely, something totally embarrassing). And with Apple selling nearly 300 million devices in the last year alone, it's no wonder that GarageBand has engendered praise for its egalitarian simplicity as well as some ire for its creative limitations.
While GarageBand effects have directly blended into the sound palette of even the most popular music—the beat for Rihanna's "Umbrella", for one, was created using one of the program's loops—it's played a greater role by compressing the space between an expensive studio and a DIY artist's bedroom, between professionalism and amateurism. For many musicians, the rudimentary software acts as their first home recording tool, digital effects pedal, practice space, and, in many cases, their first bandmate.
Take Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, who spent years tooling around with GarageBand in Montreal's underground scene while searching for her voice as an artist and producer. Those experiments eventually led to the 27-year-old's breakthrough album, Visions, which was recorded entirely on the digital audio workstation, or DAW. Eventually, though, she realized the software's limitations couldn't keep up with her appetite for digital complexity. "It really can't do anything, " Boucher once told Clash magazine. "There's not a lot of stuff in GarageBand that's good." Boucher has since graduated to more advanced DAWs like Ableton Live.
For others, like dream pop singer/songwriter Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls, GarageBand is about as far as they'd like to explore the digital realm. "I open programs like Ableton and sort of stare mouth agape at the screen, " says Dee Dee, who began her fuzzed-out girl group project in her Los Angeles bedroom using GarageBand and still turns to the program while demoing her ideas. Along with records by Best Coast and Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls' debut album, I Will Be, helped define indie's lo-fi sound in the late-2000s; Dee Dee created that album's backbeat by manipulating Apple drum loops to simulate an effect similar to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, essentially utilizing digital software to give modern music a vintage feel—a strategy that could make some analog purists' heads spin.
Though DDG albums are augmented by professional producers and engineers, the process of transforming Dee Dee's GarageBand demos into studio recordings is never about washing away the digital effect. "It's essentially the backbone of her work, so we just enhance a lot of what she does in GarageBand, " says longtime DDG producer and 75-year-old industry lifer Richard Gottehrer, whose 50-year career includes co-writing Brill Building pop hits and manning the boards for Blondie's first two albums. Gottehrer's open-minded approach shows that the acceptance of GarageBand as a legitimate music-making tool isn't solely based on one's age or experience.
The idea of using GarageBand in conjunction with more traditional studio methods is seconded by producer Ariel Rechtshaid, 36, who has collaborated with what he calls "GarageBand-ed out" musicians like Blood Orange's Dev Hynes and Haim, as well as more established artists including Madonna and the Killers' Brandon Flowers. While working with Haim a couple of years ago, Rechtshaid discovered one of the trio's GarageBand demos, casually dubbed "My Song 5", which included a horn native to the software. That staggering baritone wobble—which "sounds like a bass because it was set two octaves down by accident, " according to Rechtshaid—eventually became the most distinctive sonic earmark off Haim's wildly popular debut album, Days Are Gone. "GarageBand has made anyone who buys an Apple computer a producer, " gushes Rechtshaid.