Your Own Personal GarageBand Orchestra

Let me begin by saying this tutorial is for people like me—amateur musicians composing for fun who aren't ready to drop thousands of dollars on an expensive keyboard or patch set.

If you’re a professional musician, you’ve probably got tools that help you do most of this already anyway. This is just a really quick-and-easy beginner’s guide to get you composing with decent orchestral patches.

First, download the fantastic and free Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra. It’s a creative commons-licensed orchestral sample library with a wide range of instruments and variations. Check out the link to see the entire range of what’s included. It’s about 500Mb of samples stored in .sfz format. The .sfz file is just a simple wrapper which defines the parameters and points to the instruments which are in .wav format, so you can edit the parameter files in a text editor or the instruments in a sound editor. Very flexible.

However, you’ll probably just want to start using them. Once you’ve downloaded the instruments, you’ll need to download CamelSound’s free Alchemy plugin. Don’t worry when nothing shows up in your Applications folder after install—this isn’t a standalone app, it’s a plugin that you’ll be using from within GarageBand.

After you’ve installed Alchemy, fire up GarageBand. Create a new project with a software track, then double-click the track to edit it. Select the edit tab. Just below “Sound Generator” there’s a dropdown. You should be able to select “Alchemy” under “Audio Unit Modules”.

Selecting Alchemy in GarageBand

You can now access the Alchemy controls by clicking on the thumbnail just to the left of the dropdown where you selected Alchemy. A new window should pop up with the controls.

Alchemy Controls

Now that you’ve got Alchemy running, feel free to play around with it. It’s a fantastic sound generation tool, especially good for the likes of dubstep, ambient or electronica. However, we’re here for orchestral. To load your orchestra samples, select “File” near the center top of the Alchemy popup. From this dialog box, you can select one of the Sonatina .sfz file you downloaded earlier. If you don’t have a keyboard hooked up, Select “Musical Typing” from the “Window” menu and start auditioning the samples.

Select the File Control

Happy composing! If you found this helpful, I’d love it if you shared a link to some of your compositions in the comments.