GarageBand in the Woodshed with Cursive

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GarageBand in the Woodshed with Cursive

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Cursive band members (l to r) keyboardist/saxophone Nate Lepine, drums Cornbread Compton, vocals/guitarist Tim Kasher, bassist Matt Magnin and guitarist Ted Stevens in their dressing room at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Calif.  (Photo by Craig Young) Click images to enbiggen


It’s six o’clock on a Friday night, and muffled sound checks of the opening bands filter through the ceiling into the basement dressing room of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. Four hours from now, indie rock quintet Cursive (, the headliner, will rock the sold-out crowd of rowdy, fist-pumping fans. But for the moment, as the band gets ready to go to work, talk drifts to the tools of their trade--not just guitars, drums, and microphones, but Macs and even iPods.


Cursive is a serious band--signed to the popular indie label Saddle Creek, also home to indie darlings Bright Eyes--and its members are serious Mac heads. Choosing Macs for ease of use and excellent music software, the band combines their DIY indie ethos with technology to help them write and record.


Veteran users of Digidesign’s Pro Tools, the band recently added new drummer Cornbread Compton, who turned them on to the capabilities of a certain app that comes with every new Mac. “We didn’t use GarageBand until Cornbread enlightened us,” says bassist Matt Magnin. Now it’s one of the band’s most functional creative tools, for writing songs as well as recording them.


Compton started using GarageBand after his former group Engine Down broke up while touring in Europe. He and another bandmate had ideas for a new album, and Compton wanted to try some more commercial composing, but he didn’t have access to Pro Tools. Recording under the name Glös using only a MacBook Pro and GarageBand, the duo released Harmonium in 2007 on CD and in the iTunes Store.


Cursive performing at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Calif., during Noise Pop 08. (Photo by: Craig Young)


Compton brought GarageBand to Cursive because it’s functional and easy to use anywhere. “We started to practice using GarageBand and used it for all of our demos,” says Compton. The group records its demos while touring and at its practice spaces in Los Angeles and Omaha. “When we have an idea, we’ll just throw GarageBand up and use an input mic to get it down,” he explains. “The presets and EQs are awesome.”


Bands love to talk gear, and it’s easy to get Compton to spill some of his GarageBand tips, urging users to “think a couple of steps ahead” to get the most from it. “Import [your music] into GarageBand, and do a mock-up of the drums.” Compton uses Reason 4 (4 out of 5 stars, May/08) to create a temporary drum track. “You also have your line-in, so if you have a small mixing board you can use multiple mics.”


Compton says he always adds Hi-Fi EQ to the master track “to make the mix sound a little more glued together.” His mixes are automated using track volume control—a musician, Compton believes, can spend all day making instruments and verses loud and choruses even louder. “Don’t go crazy with it,” he warns. Compton also likes to add the Hi-Fi EQ preset with the AU dynamics processor to the master volume.


When Compton is home and has the space to properly track his drums, he uses a few microphones: an Audio-Technica 4050 ($895, for the room sound, a Shure SM58 ($188, for the snare, and an AKG D-112 for the bass drum ($339, Then to finish things off, he can slowly add or replace the MIDI instruments he likes—pianos, strings, maybe a Rhodes.


Just like Major League ballplayers watch game video on their iPods, Cursive uses theirs as they practice the sport of songwriting. As band members write songs in their practice space, they use a MacBook Pro’s internal microphone—practically muted because they play so loud—to record into GarageBand. Then they export the songs into iTunes and immediately onto their iPods to listen to on dinner break. “It’s good to hear something you’re working on outside of the practice space,” Compton explains.



image of Cursive performing at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Calif., during Noise Pop 08.
Cursive performing at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Calif., during Noise Pop 08. (Photo by Craig Young)


The other new Cursive member, keyboard and saxophone player Nate Lepine, uses the sheet-music creation app Finale ($600, to write out charts for the band members after their writing sessions. That way, everyone can keep track of the chords when on breaks.



For his commercial work, Compton composes with GarageBand Jam Pack: Symphony Orchestra ( “It has some of the most affordable and amazing strings sounds you can buy,” he gushes. “Only $99.” His first project using GarageBand—recorded, in true rocker fashion, on the road—was for a video company that wanted a weird sound, similar to a Tim Burton orchestral track. Compton busted out the Jam Pack’s glockenspiel, pizzicato string, timpani, and cymbals, which he boasts were “awesome.” He worked by watching the video and playing each part one by one, and then used GarageBand’s Align tool to get them all in perfect time with his click track. That’s another tip: Compton records with click tracks (aka GarageBand’s metronome) to make editing easier. He can cut and paste parts of the track together on the timeline and know that each part will line up perfectly. By tracking each part one by one, they can be easily separated for use in Pro Tools, which is how Compton mixed the final track.




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