FX & Automation, Mixing & Mastering

How To Make Garageband Instruments Sound More Professional

Written By : Andrew Siemon

When it comes to MIDI instruments and other stock VSTs, not all are created equal. Some are better than others, there’s no question about that. However, something can be done to make the instruments you have to sound a lot better.

To improve the sound of your stock instruments in Garageband as well as in other DAWs, use dynamics plug-ins and effects, such as EQ, compression, delay, reverb, and then panning.

How To Make Garageband Instruments Sound More Professional

1) Reverb to Make the Instrument Sound Bigger and Less Up-Front
2) Ambiance to Change the Style of Reverberation
3) Delay to Thicken Up the Instrument or Add Effects
4) Panning to Spread Out The Instruments to Create Room for Them in the Mix
5) Compression to Highlight the Quiet Sounds and Minimize the Loud Sounds
6) EQ to Clear Up Unwanted Noise and Emphasize Desired Sounds
7) Replace Bad Instruments with Superior Plug-ins

1) Use Reverb to Make the Instrument Sound Bigger and Less Up-Front

Reverb is one of the greatest effects out there, and there’s a reason why it’s so popular. It adds a spacious effect to the sound of the instrument, whether it’s vocals, guitar, bass, a snare, or even hi-hats.

Reverb, essentially, is the sound of soundwaves bouncing off the walls repeatedly in a room. In other words, it is the existence of the sound after the source has stopped producing it.

The waves travel back and forth from one side of the room to the other and it sounds like it’s emphasizing or filling up the room.

For instance, when you walk into a large church and clap your hands, the soundwaves travel across the room, bounce off the walls, causing an echo that we call “reverberation.”

That’s essentially what reverb is, except engineers have figured out how to emulate this process through technology.

This natural effect that’s heard in nature can also be used through a plug-in. Without wasting too much time on explaining what reverb is and how it’s used, let’s dive into how to go about using it to make your music sound a lot better.

It really is just as simple as turning up the reverb on the software instrument track until you think it starts to sound good. Depending on the instrument, I find that it sounds good with the setting around 4-5, or sometimes just 3.

Let’s say, hypothetically, you’re not satisfied with the type of reverb Garageband has. There are plenty of reverb types in Garageband, around four of them, and each one has a variety of custom presets you can try out.

There is EnVerb, PlatinumVerb, Space Designer, and Silver Verb, and if you drop one into your DAW, you’ll see each one has a variety of presets like what you can see in the image below:

Personally, my favorite is the ‘Big Room’ preset in the platinum reverb setting.

However, I would say that for the most part, I just use the regular reverb plug-in that comes apart from Garageband’s interface at the bottom of the smart controls. Not every instrument has one, but if it does, make sure you use it a little bit.

One thing that’s important to mention is to avoid washing out your sounds, which means adding too much reverb to every single instrument. Ideally, you should only be adding reverb on the tracks that need it the most.

Another benefit to using this type of plug-in is there are more parameters for individual reverb, rather than just setting it around “4,” you can adjust other parameters, such as “pre-delay,” the “reverb time,” “high-cut,” “spread,” including the “dry” and “wet” settings.

As I pointed out above, a premium reverb is also worth looking into because they too also come with more parameters.

2) Use Ambiance to Change the Style of Reverberation

Ambience is another Garageband tool I find pretty useful (I wrote all about it in my guide).

Reverb is a very specific tool that changes the way sound reverberates throughout a room, including even the size of the room, however, the ambiance is more about the type of reverberation.

For instance, a building with concrete walls with no windows will sound different than a church filled with wooden benches and large glass windows.

Thankfully, the ambiance setting is not too complicated, it’s just a matter of turning it up or down, depending on how much you want, so I typically set it at around 3-4 on the interface.

Additionally, if you tend to use too much ambiance, you’ll end up making the sound bleed into other channels.

For instance, in one of my tracks, I used ambiance on the left and right guitars, with each guitar, panned respectively in the opposite directions. Using too much ambiance will cause the sound to reverberate so much that it will begin to sound like the track is in stereo, rather than mono (more on mono versus stereo in my tutorial).

3) Using Delay to Thicken Up the Instrument or Add Effects

Delay, like reverb, is one of the most popular effects to use, and for good reason.

It can perform a lot of different functions, including as a thickening agent for the instrument, or it can be used as a pure effect, for instance, using enough so the sound echoes and creates a chill introspective vibe.

Similar to reverb, you have to be careful you don’t add too much delay on too many different tracks, because you’ll end up with what people call a “washed out” sound, which just means way too many effects, to the point where the effects have actually destroyed the dynamics of the song.

When it comes to using delay on my instrument tracks, like reverb, I prefer to use the regular delay knob that comes in the bottom right corner of Garageband’s interface in the smart controls.

Usually, what that knob does is it increases the “wet” setting of the particular type of delay you have set up in the plug-ins.

Garageband comes with 5 types of delay, including Tape Delay, Stereo Delay, Delay Designer, Echo, and Sample Delay.

Each one is different from each other in subtle but impactful ways, however, we won’t explore the differences between them in this tutorial.

I would opt for the stereo-delay and use the following settings, the Stereo Delay’s “1/4 Note Dotted,” pre-set.

In my article on 8 Tips For Garageband (That You’ve Never Heard Before), I talked about delay a little bit more, including how it’s best to match the delay setting to the actual notes to your song. You can do this with a delay calculator that I listed in the article I just mentioned.

4) Using Panning to Spread Out The Instruments to Create Room for Them in the Mix

Panning is a technique that’s kind of tangentially related to increasing the quality of your instruments because it’s not actually going to increase the sound quality of the tracks, but it will increase the quality of your mixes.

For instance, one thing that I like to do which I’ve talked about before is pan one guitar to around +20 and then another guitar to around -20, with maybe a bit of compression on the one guitar and not so much compression on the other.

Like I stated in my main article on panning, I like to put every instrument in its own place and have almost nothing sitting in the exact same part of the mix. Each instrument sounds best, in my opinion, sitting in its own part of the mix.

5) Using Compression to Highlight the Quiet Sounds and Minimize the Loud Sounds

Compression is the game-changing plug-in.

Over the years, it has easily become one of the most over-used dynamics processors, according to The Mixing Engineering Handbook from Bobby Owsinkski. Compression is used all over music now, on each individual track, the mix buss, and so on and so forth.

One of the reasons for its widespread use is because of how good it is. When it comes to using Compression, and you’re new to it, I would recommend just trying out some of the pre-sets.

For instance, if you need a guitar part to sound a little bit better, just add a compressor and check in the pre-sets for the “Acoustic Guitar” pre-set, or maybe the “Rock Guitar” pre-set.

Regarding the pre-sets, they usually need a little bit of fine-tuning to get them to sound good, for instance, adjusting the “Acoustic Guitar” preset by increasing the threshold a little bit, in addition to the ratio, and then the gain by a lot.

Like I said above, however, if you’re new to it, just try some of the pre-sets to figure out what sounds good. Additionally, read the article I just mentioned to you, because I really did my best to explain it in a way everyone can understand. It even took me a little while to figure out what compression actually was.

6) Using EQ to Clear Up Unwanted Noise and Emphasize Desired Sounds

I would argue that the Channel EQ (my full tutorial) is the next step to really increase the sound quality of some of your instruments. There is a lot to learn about it too, in my opinion.

More seasoned engineers and producers will tell you that using EQ is super easy, but I find it pretty difficult because there are a lot of options.

When using the EQ, just ask yourself what about the instrument you don’t like? Is there too much low-end? Does it sound kind of muffled and muddy? Or are there weird hissing sounds, crashes, almost like a high-pitched “tst” sound, like a drum cymbal?

The channel EQ is what you can do to clear out some of that noise. Like I mentioned in my article on using EQ on guitars, I’ve really grown to enjoy using it, because I find that using a bit of Channel EQ is the difference between having a guitar part that sounds awful and a guitar part that sounds great.

For instance, I use the Channel EQ to eliminate some of the low-end and mid-range on a guitar part.

The other day, when I mixed a nylon string guitar part, I scooped out the range between 20-100 Hz, dropped the low-mid-range around 200Hz, increased the EQ around 500Hz-3000Hz, as well as 5000Hz to 9000Hz, and it made all the difference.

In the image above, you can see what the I did to make the nylon string guitar sound a lot better.

You can check out the final song at the following link:

7) Replace Bad Instruments with Superior Plug-Ins

In worst-case scenarios, the instrument might be so bad that you have to simply replace it with a new plugin via my guide. I’ve found this to be the case with Garageband’s stock-guitars.

I’ve played guitar my entire life, so listening to Garageband’s acoustic, rock, and nylon string guitars makes me cringe, however, the nylon-string is definitely the most superior out of all of them, however, as I’ve said before in my guide on the best instruments, there are certainly some good stock sounds.

For example, if you don’t like the stock guitars like me, you can go ahead and download DSK’s Dynamic Guitars, which in my opinion, are far superior to what Garageband has to offer.

However, the DSK guitar will pale in comparison to a premium plugin batch like Blue Cat’s Axe Pack which is one of the most hailed software suites around.

Additionally, if you don’t like the Saxophone that Garageband has the same way that I don’t, you can grab the Saxophone plug-in from the same company, DSK, which is linked in my saxophone tutorial. Spitfire Lab’s Soft Piano is also better than Garageband’s stock piano, so that’s worth checking out as well.

Head over to Vst4Free to find more plug-ins. The website has a ton of different options, including guitars, bass, piano, synths, arpeggiators, and so on and so forth. It’s worth mentioning that the following plug-ins are free.

Once you find yourself in a position where you can start buying plug-ins, you have a whole new world of options available to you. In that case, I would say to also invest in yourself via PianoForAll, which is one of the best ways to learn piano for the sake of music production.

YouTube Video Tutorial

How To Make Garageband Instruments Sound More Professional
Andrew Siemon is the principal creator of ProducerSociety.com, a website dedicated to all things music, including music production, music theory, recording, and how to use the most popular DAWs. Starting out as a metal guitarist, Andrew has since moved into other areas of music production including hip-hop and fusion

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