What better way to review the new Chinese instruments in GarageBand than to see how well they fare at playing the Game of Thrones theme song?
Just last week, we saw Apple head honcho Tim Cook busting out some Chinese beats on an iPad, in an effort to promote the company’s latest GarageBand update, which adds Chinese instruments to the company’s flagship music app.
Specifically, the update adds an er hu (a two-string bowed fiddle), a pi pa (a guitar-like instrument whose strings are plucked) and a set of Chinese drums complete with a dramatic gong in the corner.
For the Chinese trill, Apple included a slider so you can adjust how quickly it’s played.
While Cook’s demo saw him mostly playing EDM DJ, the new Chinese instruments are a chance for Apple to show its ability to use the pressure-sensitive 3D Touch screens on the newer iPhone 6S and 6S Plus to coax some expression in the notes.
Apple’s always been above the cut when it comes to clever software integration with its hardware. Early on, before its screens could tell how hard you were pressing, GarageBand was able to use the device’s accelerometer to detect how hard you were attacking the onscreen keyboard, and adjust the volume of the note accordingly.
But that could only be used to affect the initial volume of the sound. With the er hu on the 3D Touch screen, you can press harder midway during the duration of the note, which applies vibrato to it, and release slowly to lessen the vibrato’s effects.
This resulted in a far more realistic and expressive tone produced and is arguably an even more intuitive and natural way of playing an onscreen instrument, compared with cumbersome expression pedals or wheels that are sometimes attached to digital interfaces to mimic real instrument playing.
Apple hasn’t extended this feature to its other string instruments within GarageBand like the violin section which would undoubtedly benefit from it but we can expect it will in future updates.
For the pi pa, which is typically plucked in single notes, or rapidly in a trill, Apple included an expression slider at the bottom of the screen, so you can adjust how quickly the trill is played. This appears to be a new feature as well and is a good addition to the interface because of how uniquely the pi pa is played in traditional Chinese music.
To play the Game of Thrones theme, I did my best to use the three new Chinese instruments exclusively. However, for the bass line I had to resort to using the “Liverpool” bass patch on the guitar instrument because the Chinese instruments didn’t go as low as required.
The Chinese instruments are set to the pentatonic scale by default (which Classical Chinese music is set to) but since I was making them play something completely non-traditional, I had to set them to the major scale to include the extra notes needed. Overall Garageband made things go smoothly, and the way 3D Touch works with the er tu as well as the pi pas trill slider really helped with some passages.
Apple’s release of Chinese classical instruments has been heralded by many as a chance for the company to pay lip service to its second-largest market after the U.S., but its implementation of the instruments reflects at least a thoughtful representation of them.
While it’s surprising to see a pi pa and er hu placed as prominently in the menu as more mainstream Western instruments like the keyboard and guitar, it’s worthy of Apple’s efforts to represent the new Chinese additions in finer detail, rather than bury them within the sound patches of other instruments already there.
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