Garageband turned 15 yesterday. It was introduced at Macworld by Steve Jobs in January 2004. It’s so accessible and ubiquitous now, it’s easy to take for granted just how amazing a piece of software it really is.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the program — when I lived in England in 2004, I bought a USB MIDI controller so I could record tracks in my tiny little apartment on my new 12 inch Powerbook. I could then export them and put them on my new iPod, which seemed insanely futuristic and cool.
One afternoon a few years ago when we were bored, I showed my son Owen (now 6) how to make simple tracks on his little iPad mini, and ever since then, he’s been completely obsessed with the program. He spends, on average, at least an hour a day in Garageband. (He would spend way more if we didn’t limit his screen time, and we have to, because if we don’t he gets that weird zombie recording glaze in his eyes. [Musicians will know what I’m talking about.])
He has recorded 100s of songs. He started out, like most songwriters, covering songs by bands he likes. First, it was Kraftwerk. He came in one day after quiet time with this totally cool and insane version of “Autobahn.” Then he moved into parody. At my suggestion, he recorded Christmas versions of Kraftwerk songs. (“Christmasbahn,” “Trans Polar Express,” etc.) That was around the time he learned how to sample while looking for sleigh bells.
Eventually, I built us a little plug-and-play studio so we could record together with my good microphones and instruments.
Grandma gave the 5-year-old my old Ghostbusters shirt so I played him the theme song for the first time in the car and he came home and recorded a cover in Garageband ??? pic.twitter.com/suAFqiIAzY
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) August 3, 2018
He now records original tracks. Here is a song he recorded for his mom on Mother’s Day last year:
Recording music in Garageband is a gateway to all kinds of other activities. He loves, for example, coming up with album titles and band names and album art. (I’m convinced that this is part of the reason he can write and read so well for his age.) Here’s a hilarious screenshot I took of him spending a couple days in the studio with me, using Garageband on my old iMac:
Oh, he also likes to type out lyrics?
He saw the “Podcasts” preset and started recording his own podcasts. (I haven’t even gotten to tell him Marc Maron recorded Obama in in his garage… with Garageband.)
Garageband does a bunch of crazy stuff I didn’t even know it could do. For example, it will import MIDI files you download from the internet and show you the musical scores. One time Owen wanted to learn to play some of Bach’s cello suites on the keyboard, so I downloaded a midi file, opened it in Garageband, transposed it to the easy C key, and printed it out.
I’m constantly thinking about all the musical education possibilities with the program. Remember when Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails released their tracks as Garageband files and allowed fans to remix them? Imagine if you could download more classic tracks as Garageband projects. (It’d be amazing if the Song Exploder brand branched out into something like this.) Kids could see how recorded music is put together… with their own fingers.
I’m going on book tour this spring, and I’m worried about being away from the kids for two months. One of the things we have planned is that Owen and I will email Garageband tracks back and forth — I’ll start something on the plane and he can finish it during his iPad time (and vice versa.)
Like most parents, I angst about giving the kids too much screen time, but Garageband has taught me: Not all screen time is created equal. The right piece of software matched with a child’s natural proclivities and talents and passion can yield complete gold.