Cursory Comparison: Garage Band and Acid Music

June 11th, 2004  |  Published in Uncategorized

One of the things I was hoping for when Apple announced GarageBand in the first place was a comparison between it and Acid Music, which is its nearest mass-market equivalent in PC-land. The usual hyperventilating wasn’t doing it for me.

My attempts to get an answer from the one Mac site that seemed like it might have a knowledgeable audience was met with “it’s just better,” and “nuh-uh” from each camp. So here’s my subjective, immediate rundown of the two (with a blast from the Wayback Machine to go with) having had a week to get the lay of the land with GarageBand:

First off, both apps have a spiritual ancestor in a program Electronic Arts turned out for Amigas and Commodore 64s in the late ’80s called “Instant Music.” Here’s a description of how it worked from a reasonably excited BYTE editor:

The secret is in the “musical intelligence” of the program. By moving the mouse up and down, I pick the relative pitch of the music I want to play and Instant Music generates accompanying chords. This can be limiting at times — it’s disconcerting to hold the mouse button down and get only occasional notes or chords — but the result is pleasing to the ear (usually).

[Note: He’s sort of missing the part where the chords Instant Music generates are in the correct key at all times, which was the “magic” part: you couldn’t play a “wrong” note.]

To play, you select the piece of music you want to hear. There are more than 40 different selections from 4 to 24 measures long, ranging in style from rock to classical. A given piece has four voices, though often only three (the ones the computer usually plays) are actually scored. Each voice represents an instrument: electric guitar, flute, organ, and so on. A total of 19 instruments are available, including a “DoVoice” instrument that allows “do wah” vocals for songs. You start the piece and play your part while the computer plays the others. A graphical display shows the entire piece, so you can see what each voice will be doing. You can switch voices and take over another part; you can change instruments: you can change the tempo; you can even make the program do less for you and gain greater control over chords and rhythm.

On the Commodore 64, the effect wasn’t grand (but it was pretty good for the time, and it was fun to noodle on it). On the Amiga, which had much nicer sound facilities, it was really, really good. Could Instant Music have turned the music world on its ear? Probably not at the time, because it was pretty limited. But it sounded nice, and it made it possible for people who didn’t understand any music theory beyond “higher” and “lower” to make music on their computers. I could use it to improvise with my mouse with about the same facility that I could improvise on a trombone, which I wasn’t bad at. I loved my copy, and I used it a lot in conjunction with my other bit of late ’80s lo-tech, the Fisher Price PXL 2000, to make soundtracks for my movies.

There was software sort of like it out there, but nothing with the click and go simplicity it had.

So we fast-forward a few years and along comes Sonic Foundry with its Acid Music offering. Acid promised almost the exact same thing, but it had the advantage of Pentium processors with a lot of hard drive space and much better sound cards, which allowed it to use well-constructed loops with a lot of metadata piggy-backed on them to make goof-free music even easier. It sounded better, was much less limited, and it had a pretty nice-sized initial library of loops to play with, plus a much bigger after-market of even more loops in all sorts of genres. Some of it was cheezy electronica, but there were also some really nice loops from real-live professional musicians. Beyond the soft instruments of Instant Music, Acid provided a sort of construction kit, with pre-sampled drum fills and assorted textures to pad out the loops. It could also “beat sample” an imported loop to determine its tempo, and it could slow down, speed up, and pitch shift loops. It did all of this to ensure that most loops matched regardless of clashing keys or differing tempos.

The difference between Acid and Instant Music on the musical level was that Instant Music was about putting together melodies while Acid was more about putting together rhythms. With a lot of agonizing you could probably put together a melody with it, but it wasn’t really built for that, and it couldn’t handle the free-form music-making of Instant Music.

Acid has another thing going for it, which is some low-end video tools. With Acid it’s possible to put together a soundtrack for a video file by dragging the video into its own editing track in Acid then zooming in closely enough to match up frames with the appropriate shifts in the soundtrack, fades, crescendos and whatnot. It inherits this stuff from its bigger sibling, Video Vegas, which costs about four times as much and offers a much more extensive menu of sound and video manipulation tools.

Acid went through some weird phases trying to find its niche: There was a bifurcated “Acid” and “Acid Pro” product phase with a really annoying practice of “Pro” features being left in the menus so the user could get a nagging pitch to upgrade to unlock the goodies when he clicked on the item. There was also the “Acid Style” phase, in which the core product was packaged up with genre-limited loops (instead of Acid’s much more eclectic and larger collection) and sold as “Acid Dance” or “Acid Techno.” The same nagging menu tricks applied, as well as some limitations in terms of the total number of tracks a user could lay.

Sony finally bought the software (or its manufacturer, or both) not too long ago, and I’m not sure if it’s been a good thing. The company seems intent on wringing more revenue out of it by cutting the number of available loops even further, pushing the upgrades harder, and stressing its separate DV editing “solution” (Screenblast for home users, Vegas for pros and prosumers).

All the same, Acid’s a good tool. Sven and I used it to work on the soundtrack for his first entry into the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, and it provided a decent level of control over the product even though we were pretty much using a smattering of badly infringed Copland and Glass imported as tracks and faded in and out using Acid’s mixing capabilities.

Over the past few years, since around 1998, I’ve been using Acid on and off. Sometimes I just find a good set of foundation tracks to lay a beat and noodle with the samples, other times I try specific projects with the vague idea that I’m out to make a sort of ambient wallpaper music I won’t find offensive or repetitive during a full day of work.

Acid has proven remarkably resistant to attempts to use it in an emulated environment (such as with WINE under Linux) and it’s been a bust, and any move to Linux has been tainted by the total absence of anything as good as Acid.

So I got the eMac and along came iLife and GarageBand with it. The best I can describe it is “A really pleasant hybrid between Instant Music and Acid Music, with some interface goodness from Apple that makes the whole deal really pleasant to work with.”

The part that’s like Instant Music is the soft instruments, which allow the user to play along with a backing track provided by GarageBand using sampled or synthesized instrument sounds that are easy to modify to provide a rich palette. It’s not, as near as I can tell, quite up to Instant Music’s ease to the extent you still need to pick the right notes, but it does make it easy to noodle along with a computerized backing band that plays what you want it to. It presents a little virtual keyboard if you feel like mousing the music (clumsy) or you can plug in a USB keyboard or an electric guitar and play along that way. The keyboard option intriguing enough that I think this month’s allowance is going toward one.

The part that’s like Acid is in the extensive collection of sample loops that have metadata tacked on to describe their pitch and tempo so the software can adapt them to changes in the composition’s tempo and key.

The value proposition over both is the more pleasant loop cataloging functionality. With GarageBand, it’s possible to track music by a lot of factors, including the instruments involved, the loop’s genre, how heavily sweet or dry a loop is, how distorted or clean it is, and its general “mood” (dark or cheerful). With Instant Music, there were only a few instruments so it didn’t matter. With Acid Music, the designers completely neglected this, assuming the user would provide his/her own level of organization by using folders in the filesystem. It can make for some tedious clicking around in folder after folder to find something. With GarageBand, the user just needs to select a few criteria and the list of available loops narrows automatically. Much nicer.

The thing GarageBand is missing is Acid’s facility with video tracks. QuickTime Pro can be pressed into service to marry the two, but with none of Acid’s flexible and dynamic control. Not having tried to marry GarageBand to iMovie, I can’t say how well they go together, but I’m assuming not nearly as well as Acid’s “I want the drum line to start fading in at frame 1009 and hit a peak by frame 1300.” That’s Acid’s big sibling Vegas talking.

I suspect (not having delved too far into GarageBand, and not having ever been an Acid poweruser despite how much I enjoy it) that Acid probably wins out in overall feature count and flexibility where it overlaps with GarageBand, but I find GarageBand the more pleasant of the two apps to use. Especially as I import my extensive library of Acid loops and find I can do so much more in terms of cataloging them. I’m going to keep AcidPlanet in my bookmarks because there are some good freebie samples to be had in the weekly 8Packs, but I’m pretty happy with the Switch on this one.

I’ll try to do a followup when I’ve had more time working with GarageBand and less time moving my loops over.

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