Creating music on your laptop is a lot easier than you might think. In fact, with the right software, you don’t even have to be able to play an instrument. Of course you’ll still need an ear for a tune, and a basic understanding of how different parts of a band work, but with the help of programs such as GarageBand or Mixcraft you can assemble songs in a surprisingly short space of time.

In this feature we’ll take a look at how these impressive music creation tools work, and how you can harness their power with little need for technical or musical prowess. First, we'll focus on GarageBand, which is the most popular application (but it's available only on OS X and iOS) and then look at the Windows alternative: Mixcraft.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to dabble in song writing or create an original composition to accompany a home movie, there’s never been a better time to start than now. Let’s make beautiful music together.

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How to use GarageBand

Alongside iPhoto and iMovie, GarageBand (surely that should be iGarageBand?) comes free with every new Mac as part of the iLife package. Bundled apps often tend to be very bare bones products, but Apple knows that software sells hardware and has made iLife an impressive and highly usable suite of apps, with GarageBand being arguably the pick of the bunch. If you own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch then you can also buy the mobile version (currently £2.99 on the App Store or free with new iOS devices) which is much simpler, but still offers plenty of fun for experimenting with musical ideas.

GarageBand on iPad

GarageBand belongs to a class of programs often referred to as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), which give you the ability to arrange audio files on separate tracks and build up a musical piece. You can, of course, record live audio directly into the program, all you need is an interface such as the IK Multimedia iRig or a USB Mixer, but if all you want to do if dip your toes in the water then GarageBand has a few nifty tricks up its sleeves.

When you first launch the program you’ll be presented with a pop-up box that offers you the choice of creating a new project, learning an instrument (there are lessons for Guitar and Piano), Jam along with Magic GarageBand, or create your own iPhone ringtone.

Click on New Project then, from the various options available, select Loops.  Once you’ve accepted the default time signature and key (all of which can be changed later) you can begin to put your song together.

Garageband - New project

The simplest way to build up an arrangement is through the loops that Apple provides within GarageBand. In the main working space you’ll see a vast empty, grey panel with the legend ‘Drag Apple Loops here’. It’s really that simple.

In the right-hand panel is a grid of options that you can use to find the loops that fit what you have in mind. The first column has a set of genres - say Rock/Blues, Jazz, Electronic etc. - and clicking on each button will list the available loops in that flavour. Then you can select the instrument type from the next column, be it drums, guitars, pianos or whatever you prefer. The available loops are listed in the bottom-right panel, complete with how many beats they have (how long they are).

Garageband loops

Traditionally it’s always a good idea to start with a drum beat, as this sets the tone for the song and also means you have a solid groove to build upon. Highlight a genre, then select All Drums, and listen to a few loops. When you find a beat that catches your ear simply click on it and drag it into the main panel. GarageBand will automatically create a track for it once you drop the file.

Garageband Loops

To listen to it, click on the play button at the bottom of the screen. Here you’ll also find the other controls and a display which says how long the song currently runs. One icon to take note of is the metronome, a blue triangle with a line sticking out. As you’re not doing any live recording you won’t need this, so click on it until the blue light goes out.

Now just drag different loops onto the main panel and build up a tune. Once you find a loop you like you can stretch it out to make it last longer by hovering the pointer over the top-right corner of the loop until a curved arrow appears, then drag the edge and you’ll be able to extend the loop to as long as you need.

Garageband finished project

Try out some percussion to add a bit of depth to the beat, then find a bassline you like to boost the low end. Most of the melodic instruments are automatically in the same key, so you won’t have to worry about learning your chord progressions, but they will have different patterns of notes. This means you’ll still need to pay attention to what each instrument playing, avoiding any clashing changes by swapping the offending loop for another. Often you’ll just need to drag the loop to a different section of the song.

The best part is that you can constantly experiment, add loops, move them, take them away, and your tune isn’t damaged in any way. The freedom of music is in the dabbling that leads to happy accidents, so just keep trying different things until you find what makes your ears smile. When you’re finished click on Share in the top menu, download your finished creation, and let the world hear your newfound talents.

If you want to get an idea of what's possible with GarageBand, listen to some of the songs that people have uploaded to the dedicated GarageBand group in SoundCloud.

Next page: How to use Mixcraft Pro Studio 6 on a Windows laptop or PC

How to use Mixcraft Pro Studio 6

Windows 8.1, reviewed, doesn’t come with any sort of audio editing software installed, but as usual there are plenty of third-party options available to the PC user. Audacity is a free, basic editor but lacks refinement and can be an arduous first experience of a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). See also: How to use Audacity to edit audio files for free.

Sony has its own offering in Music Studio 8, a respectably well-featured program that sells for around £20 on Amazon. Our favourite though is the Mixcraft range from Acoustica.
There are several versions of the program, starting at around £40 for Mixcraft 6 Home Studio and reaching up to around £160 for the incredibly powerful Mixcraft Pro Studio 6. Each offering will allow you to create music, with the higher end obviously including more advanced features such as video editing and instrument emulation plug-ins. For this feature we’ll be using the Pro Studio 6 version, but the same layout and techniques should apply across the Mixcraft range.

In much the same way as GarageBand does, you’ll use loops of existing music to create a song in Mixcraft. This means that you won’t have to worry about learning music theory, or even playing any notes, instead you can put together a tune from the building blocks of loops that come free with the software.

To begin the process click on File>New Project and you’ll be given the chance to ‘Build Loop & Beat Matched Music’. Select this and you’ll be into the main control screen where the majority of the work will happen. The layout is a standard design for music software. On the left are your tracks, with the main expanse of the centre pane being where you’ll drag and drop your loops. Then at the bottom you’ll find the play controls, song duration, key and tempo controls, plus the all-important tabs that include one labelled Library. In here is the impressive range of loops which you’ll use to create your song.

Mixcraft Pro 1

The loops are sorted initially to include all instruments, tempos and keys. You have the option to change this via the two drop down menus, which allow you to zero in on certain tempos or keys. The left-hand pane has a breakdown of musical styles, and clicking on one will show the relevant loops.

The main pane has the loop name (which lets you know the type of instrument and style), its tempo, key and a few other details. The two that you really need to keep an eye on are tempo and key. While building your song you’ll need to choose loops with the same tempo, unless you’re trying some out-there prog rock epic, which is cool.

Mixcraft Pro 2

The key will determine whether the loops are essentially in tune with each other, so for now stick with the same key for all your melodic tracks. Drums and percussion are rhythm instruments and therefore don’t have a key, but remember to check the tempo.

Find a beat you like (clicking on the green triangle will play a sample) then click the blue 'plus' sign to add it to your track. Initially you’ll be warned if the tempo doesn’t match the existing one you’ve set and given the option to change the project. Do this on the first prompt, but if you’re asked this later on you’ll need to choose a different loop instead.

Mixcraft Pro

Now you’ll see the waveform displayed in one of the tracks in the main pane. You can move the loop around by dragging it with the mouse, and if you want to make it longer then click on the circle with a plus icon next to the loop’s name. Try adding a few new beats to other tracks, then start using some melodic instruments such as guitar, strings or piano - making sure to select them all in the same key and tempo. If something doesn’t work musically then just click on the loop to highlight it, hit delete and select another.  

It’s a good idea to have your song in sections, otherwise it might get a little repetitive, so use the numbers at the top of the timeline (which represent bars) as a guide. We suggest starting with a  eight-bar intro, then change a few loops and have a sixteen-bar verse, sixteen-bar chorus, eight-bar bridge - where you change the feel - and then build back up to a sixteen-bar chorus to finish.

All of this can be changed and adjusted as you go, but it helps to have a rough plan so you know what you’re aiming at. As your arrangement grows you’ll probably want to shrink the size of the loops on the timeline so you can see the project clearly, to do this just position the pointer on the timeline itself and roll the scroll wheel on the mouse to zoom in and out.

Once you’ve assembled a basic arrangement there are plenty of tools within Mixcraft that will add a touch of finesse, including setting individual volume levels, editing loops, and of course even recording your own vocals or live instrument directly into the project. There’s also a MIDI controller option that allows you to use your computer keyboard to play organs, synths, and a wealth of other sounds. With a bit of dedication and a spark of imagination, there is enough power in Mixcraft to have you sitting back in disbelief at the amazing quality of what you can create, and just how quickly it can all come together.