Ableton Live and GarageBand are two of the most popular digital audio workstations (DAWs). Each has a devoted fan base and active user communities. But is Ableton Live better than GarageBand?
GarageBand is better for digital audio novices, while more advanced editors and those using their DAW in live performance will find that Ableton Live has more features and capabilities. Both DAWs are powerful tools that can produce great music in the hands of competent musicians and producers.
If you’re trying to decide which DAW works for you, or if you should upgrade from your current GarageBand setup, keep reading. When you finish this article, you’ll know which software package is better for you.
Is Ableton Better Than GarageBand?
Ableton Live is better than GarageBand if you want to use your DAW in live performances. Ableton is the DAW of choice for many electronic music performers and offers some mixing and production features lacking in GarageBand.
Ableton Live is very popular at EDM festivals. DJs use Ableton’s crossfading and beat-matching capabilities during sets, and Ableton’s Session View lets musicians create clips they can replay during live performances.
It is also popular with composers and producers. Composers can organize clips to play during particular “scenes,” providing a base for improvisation or composition on a keyboard or other instrument. Producers will be able to work with an unlimited number of tracks and up to 256 mono audio sources with the Standard or Suite packages.
While there is a learning curve with any new software package, most producers and musicians claim Ableton Live is one of the more straightforward DAW packages to learn. The interface is intuitive, and you should pick it up with a bit of practice. That said, because Ableton Live offers more options than GarageBand, it will take more time to master its full capabilities.
Who is Ableton Live Better For?
Ableton Live is a better choice for serious musicians who want to take their production and music skills to the next level. It is an excellent introduction to professional-quality DAWs, and Ableton’s tiered packages allow you to expand your DAW’s capabilities along with your own.
If you are an absolute DAW beginner, you might find GarageBand a less intimidating introduction to digital audio editing. Many audio interfaces and other pieces of studio hardware come with licenses for Ableton Live Lite. This package will give you a taste of Ableton Live’s capabilities and let you decide if you want to move on to a paid Ableton Live package.
Unlike GarageBand, Ableton Live is not freeware. Because audio editing is processor-intensive, you may find yourself upgrading your computer as your needs expand. An Ableton Live package represents a serious investment in your musical career.
Benefits of Ableton Live
The benefits of Ableton Live include:
- Ableton Live is an excellent tool for live performance. It allows for a quick selection of clips during a performance and easy organizing of backing tracks beforehand.
- Ableton Live is available for both Windows and OS X. You aren’t locked into Apple’s walled garden the way you are with GarageBand.
- Ableton Live has a large, enthusiastic user community. Many professionals work with Ableton Live, and you will find many online forums with advanced Ableton users who are happy to help you with your technical problems.
Drawbacks of Ableton Live
The drawbacks of Ableton include:
- Ableton Live is expensive. You can purchase Ableton Live 11 in its Intro, Standard, or Suite packages. The most feature-rich package, the Suite, will set you back nearly $750, and even the feature-limited Intro costs around $100.
- Ableton Live cannot use native Apple Silicon plug-ins. While Ableton works on an M1 Mac via Rosetta, you will not be able to use native Apple Silicon plug-ins.
- Ableton Live requires a powerful computer. Old computers will stumble trying to keep up with Ableton Live’s CPU and RAM demands. When budgeting for an Ableton Live DAW, you may also need to allow for the cost of new hardware.
For more information, check out how good Ableton Live Lite is.
Who Is GarageBand Better For?
GarageBand is a better choice for Mac-owning musicians on a budget. While GarageBand has more limited functionality than some more expensive DAWs, you can expand its voice library by VST downloads, and its 255-track capability allows for plenty of artist creativity.
Though GarageBand is popular with beginning musicians, professional producers have also taken advantage of GarageBand’s flexibility and ease of use. For example, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” uses the GarageBand loop Vintage Funk Kit 03.
GarageBand may not have all the bells and whistles of Ableton Live, but that simplicity makes it an excellent introduction to DAWs. Like Ableton, GarageBand recognizes Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plug-ins, giving you access to a wide range of instrument voices and effects.
However, as you grow more comfortable with GarageBand and begin working more with multitrack arrangements, you will discover GarageBand’s limitations. Tasks that you could do with a few clicks in Ableton will require more effort in GarageBand. And some capabilities many pros rely on don’t exist in GarageBand.
Ableton Live will be a good step up when (or if) you find GarageBand’s capabilities are limiting your creativity. You may also be interested in Apple’s Logic Pro, a highly regarded DAW whose interface greatly resembles GarageBand but has many features that will help make an audio professional’s work-life easier.
Benefits of GarageBand
The benefits of GarageBand include:
- GarageBand is free. GarageBand comes free with every new Mac. You can also download it for free from Apple if your current computer supports Big Sur.
- GarageBand will be stable through OS X updates. Because Apple makes this program for Apple products, GarageBand developers know what’s coming next in OS X and aren’t blindsided by changes like many app developers.
- GarageBand offers free artist lessons. GarageBand’s Learn to Play lessons give you instructions on performing hits from the artists who wrote them.
- GarageBand is also available across iOS devices. When you’re on the road, you can edit tracks on your iPad or iPhone, add musical tracks via a touch keyboard, and save the changes back to your iCloud account.
Drawbacks of GarageBand
The drawbacks of GarageBand include:
- GarageBand is only available for OS X. While you will see a few websites offering “GarageBand for Windows” downloads, the only thing they’re going to put on your computer is malware.
- GarageBand does not have a mixer control screen. You can still mix tracks in track view, but if you are used to the mixer screens found on most professional DAWs, you may find the GarageBand mixing process frustrating.
- GarageBand doesn’t support track grouping. Want to apply compression to four brass tracks? In GarageBand, you have to run the effect on each individual track.
Comparison Table: Ableton Live vs. GarageBand
|Audio & Midi Tracks||16 – Unlimited||255|
|Scenes||16 – Unlimited||0|
|Mono Audio Input Channels||8 – 256||255|
|Accepts VST Plug-Ins||Yes||Yes|
|Mixer Control View||Yes||No|
|Free Artist Lessons||No||Yes|
Using GarageBand for your DAW is like taking iPhone photos. Talented photographers can get great iPhone images, and amateurs can get excellent pictures with an iPhone. But few serious photographers have made a career using nothing but an iPhone camera.
GarageBand is a solid DAW that offers capabilities producers could only dream of a decade ago. You can use GarageBand to create great music and dance mixes, and many pros do when they are on the road. But if you are serious about your music, you will need a more feature-rich DAW like Ableton Live.
Check out my article on whether you can use a Chromebook for music production?
- Apple: GarageBand for Mac
- Ableton: Session View
- Ableton: Get started with Live 11 Lite
- Ableton: Buy Live, Push, Max for Live and Ableton Merchandise
- Ableton Knowledge Base: Live Compatibility with Apple Silicon
- Medium: From GarageBand Loop to Grammy Award: A Look Back at Rihanna’s “Umbrella”
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