With the right gear and an Apple computer (they all come with GarageBand already installed) you don't really need an amplifier to play guitar.
I've gotten to the point where the only thing I use for my electric guitar is my pedalboard and the amp models in GarageBand. Once you get through the process of setting it all up, it's the easiest way to explore different tones, record guitar at home and practice with a full swath of sounds at your fingertips.
GarageBand makes it really easy.
That is, if you have the right gear and know how to properly set everything up and configure your software.
I'll go through it all in this post.
We'll cover the gear you need, how to configure it and some best practices.
What you need to make it work
In this example I've included my pedalboard as part of the initial signal chain.
However, using a pedalboard is entirely optional.
If you want to go with just your guitar, you can use the effects built into GarageBand, which I've found to be incredibly good in their own right. I just like my pedalboard, so I added it into the process.
Here's a full diagram of how I set everything up to play guitar through GarageBand 10 on my Mac Mini.
Gear I used to play guitar through GarageBand
Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
PreSonus AudioBox iTwo USB Audio Interface
Mackie CR3-X Studio Monitors
Apple Mac Mini
Voodoo Lab ISO-5 Power Supply
The signal going into GarageBand starts at your guitar or, in my case, at the end of your pedal chain. The last pedal in my chain is a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler which has stereo outputs allowing me to run a signal into both channels of my USB interface (most have at least two).
Here's the rest of the board, with a Voodoo Lab power supply and R2-D2 standing guard.
As mentioned, this signal needs to go into some kind of USB interface before it can be recognized by a computer, and there are plenty to choose from.
You can also use a FireWire or Thunderbolt audio interface.
Any of them will work.
I used an iRig Pro DUO (we reviewed the Pro DUO here) which is typically used to hook up to an iPad or iPhone. It works with a USB connection all the same. I've also used a PreSonus AudioBox, which works just as well.
Since the DUO has two channels, I ran both outputs from the DL4 into each one.
The iRig DUO sends my signal to the computer and to a pair of monitors, as you would expect from any USB audio interface. There's also a headphone out or "direct monitor" where you can plug headphones in, if you don't have a pair of studio monitors on hand.
Regardless of whether or not you use a pedalboard or what kind of audio interface you use, you'll want to have your gear setup the same way.
The Software Side
Assuming you have all the hardware setup correctly (as you can see, it's fairly straightforward) the software configuration will be your next step.
When I hook up any kind of audio interface to my Mac, I like to go in and make sure the Mac OS recognizes my device. At the same time, I use the Mac sound settings to "preemptively" set my input and output devices to listen for the that device (the iRig Pro DUO in this case).
Here's how you can do the same.
Open up your System Preferences.
If you click "Sound" the following window appears. Select the "Output" tab and make sure that the name of your device is listed.
Double-click on the name to select it as the default output device. This will send the audio going through your Mac back out to the interface and into your monitors or headphones.
Now, click on the "Input" tab and again verify that your device is listed and selected.
With the input selected, this means that your computer will listen for sound coming through the device and allow you to either monitor or record that stream.
Once this is done, whatever audio or DAW software you use (in this case GarageBand) should recognize that the Mac OS is already listening for your device.
You're now ready to open up GarageBand.
The GarageBand Section
The version of GarageBand I had on my Mac Mini at the time of writing this was version 10.
If you need to update your version, make sure to download it from the app store, install the patch and reboot your Mac. Assuming you're up-to-date, starting GarageBand should take you to the following screen:
To use GarageBand as an amp modeler for your electric guitar, simply double click on "Amp Collection." The Amp Collection interface gives you access to a ton of different sounds and effects.
In order to hear the amplifier through your studio monitors or headphones, make sure to click the small sound button on the amp model you want to use, which is located right next to the headphone and mute button.
If you want to make more specific adjustments to your amp, you can click the amp interface button in the bottom right side of the screen.
Clicking on that button will open the following window where you can make adjustments to your virtual amp dials in real time.
At this point, assuming you've followed the guide correctly and there are no unforeseen problems, you should be able to hear your guitar and notice changes made to the amp controls in GarageBand impacting your tone.
Take some time to play around with the different sounds (there are a ton of options to explore). Once you're comfortable with the interface, we can look at some basic best practices.
Best Practices and Configuration Advice
Unfortunately, with a setup like this there are a lot of variables that I can't account for. However, I can point out best-practices that have worked for me in my own home studio and warn you about some potential pitfalls. Let's start with the pedalboard.
Possible issues with running stompboxes into GarageBand
While GarageBand has a lot of its own built-in effects, and is designed to function well without an external pedalboard, I've found that I much prefer to have my board involved when running into any kind of recording interface.
It's just what I'm used to.
Unfortunately, it can present a few problems.
Noise issues and discrepancies in volume are, in particular, common problems. Yet, they are often fairly easy to deal with.
The most likely problem you'll face while running a pedalboard through GarageBand is excess noise.
While this can happen for a litany of reasons, the most likely culprit is a non-isolated power supply. A non-isolated power supply is something like a daisy-chain, or interconnected wall-wart.
Something like the following:
These are often the cheaper power supplies.
Disappointingly, cheap power supplies are usually not isolated.
They are notoriously noisy and better off to be replaced by something like the Voodoo Lab Iso 5 or Pedal Power 2, both of which are isolated power supplies and will greatly reduce your odds of having noise problems that are pedal-related.
At the same time, it should be noted that the more pedals your signal is running through, the more chances there are for crossover and noise issues. Simply reducing the amount of pedals can help to alleviate feedback, fuzz or unwanted hissing.
Take Dave Navarro's pedalboard, for example:
A far better "GarageBand-friendly" example might be Julie Jay's drumhead board:
So, nothing new here - just common sense.
The less pedals you use, the less noise you'll have to deal with.
A couple other options would include:
- Use 9V batteries instead of a daisy chain (9V batteries in each pedal - though a pain - is a form of isolated power)
- Put a noise suppressor like the Boss NS-2 at the end of your pedal chain
Preamp Gain Levels
With your pedalboard going directly into the USB interface, and ultimately GarageBand, you'll need to treat GarageBand as your final power amp.
This means that the pedalboard is in a kind of preamp role, with the potential to send enough gain into GarageBand to create unwanted noise or even distortion.
This is something I have to watch with my compressor and EQ pedals, since they both have the ability to boost my signal. If you're too loud in GarageBand, you'll see the red clipping indicator in the top right corner where the master volume is located.
This means you'll need to back off the signal you're sending into GarageBand from your electric guitar and/or pedalboard.
You should also note that the amp models in GarageBand 10 provide a simulated preamp/power amp combo, meaning you'll have a gain knob on the amp and a master output.
You'll also have a master output for GarageBand overall and for the particular channel you're using.
So, let's review:
- Electric guitar level or output (volume knob)
- Any level increasing from pedals (EQ, distortion, signal booster, etc.)
- Gain level of preamp (amp model in GarageBand)
- Master volume level of power amp (amp model in GarageBand)
- Volume (gain) control for that particular channel in GarageBand
- Master volume for GarageBand overall output
This is one of the unfortunate ills of running an electric guitar through GarageBand.
Configuring the volume isn't what you would call straightforward.
Luckily, it still tends to be a smooth process, as long as your pedal levels are set carefully. Inside GarageBand, a small amount of adjusting should have your levels at a good spot where you're not clipping red.
Once you have volume and levels set, you're good to go.
If you're trying to set something like this up yourself and you have questions or need to troubleshoot something, leave it in the comments section below. I can usually respond to those more quickly than an email.
Also, the resource will be there for other readers who might have the same problem(s) as you.
We can provide quick help via the comments section below.