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Mobile Audio by Tony Ware: Audiobus, Cakewalk, Korg & Positive Grid

As a synth enthusiast and studio engineer, in the past I considered it living dangerously if I traveled without a bag dedicated just for patch cords.

Tony Ware
PAR Contributor New Production Tools for iOS

As a synth enthusiast and studio engineer, in the past I considered it living dangerously if I traveled without a bag dedicated just for patch cords. Now I need just one cable to power an iPad and I’ve got more oscillators and EQs and random modulation automation generators than I might ever need at my fingertips. Sound sculptors and audio impressionists looking to harness controlled chaos have a versatile platform with iOS, which is just hitting its stride.

From Toy To Tool With Audiobus

The evolution of the iPad from audio toy to audio tool progressed at a breakneck pace throughout 2013 thanks to the December 2012 release of Audiobus. This “meta-app” for live audio routing allows hundreds of apps to interact, and the SDK has quickly saturated the developer community.

It seems far from coincidental that Apple introduced its own iOS7 Inter-App Audio API in September 2013. It is Audiobus, however, that has become the de facto standard listed as a bullet point for any new audio app going live. Offering up an INPUT/EFFECTS/OUTPUT chain, Audiobus has helped push iOS as a launch pad for ports of desktop-proven virtual instruments and freshly engineered touch interfaces alike. [For more on touchscreen technology’s impending impact on pro audio devices, see this month’s cover story by PAR Technical Editor Lynn Fuston.—Ed.]

In early April 2014, Audiobus 2 further opened up creative outlets, introducing a Multi-Routing feature (a $4.99 in-app purchase) allowing parallel signal paths to support infinite connections (only limited by device power). It also solved a major shortcoming of real-world patch bays by introducing Audiobus configuration preset saving and a State-Saving feature allowing compatible apps to relaunch into their previous groupings/settings together. A recallable workspace sure beats taking cellphone pictures of colorful cabling and spewing even more colorful words when trying to get a session back in sequence.

Audiobus 2 is a catalyst for channeling creative impulses, and it is being supported by an increasingly inspiring array of synths, dynamics processors and virtual studios. Here’s a brief look at some of the more stimulating releases of recent months, and how they can be used together.

Cakewalk Z3TA+ Softsynth & apeSoft iVCS3 Synth

Establishing a conduit is great, but only if feeding it a hearty source. Pull up Cakewalk Z3TA+ ($19.99) and I have a six-oscillator, dual-filter monster of a softsynth conveniently packed into a wealth of pages. Sacrificing nothing from the well-known Version 2 Mac/PC VST, Z3TA+ brings its unison voice-thickened presence and reshapable waveforms. The ability to warp the oscillators (which can be synced or set to modulate in sequence) is just stage one of the fun however. Next there’s a 16-slot matrix that can target any shaping controls, a presets-enriched arpeg-giator, and an X/Y controller to augment the standard tone bender and modulation wheels (with adaptive capabilities so chords, even in exotic scales, follow in key). It is not a beginner’s synth, and it can be a processor hog, but it may be an end-game synth for sound designers looking for an architecture ranging from smooth, warm, analog-like behavior to harmonically disruptive. In addition, an update released just as this piece went to press implements significant clock sync, MIDI input/channel selection and learn, save & load enhancements, reinforcing hardware control and app integration capabilities. Rolling custom patches can ping the processor hard, however. A caveat to anyone crafting chains and/or using anything but the newest iPad is the Audiobus latency control rate could need to be set at 512 frames to avoid stuttering (and all non-audio apps should be killed in task manager).

It’s not just desktop synths being packed into the iPad; tabletop ones are too! Vintage synth fans will love the apeSoft iVCS3 ($14.99) emulation of the semi-modular EMS VCS3 “suitcase” synthesizer. This three-oscillator prog-rock “relic” of the Who’s Who’s Next and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon era resonates its own mischievous character no matter how thoroughly one thinks they know how to mould tone, which is part of its charm. The iPad version dials down none of the complexity of noisy, not always melodic 1969 synthesis, while upping the input and modulation capabilities.

As on the original, virtual “pegs” are placed throughout a patchboard matrix to connect modules and a joystick controller. The virtual embellishments include an internal keyboard, a morphing feature that lets my finger slide between saved patches, a back-panel sampler, effects and more. While some synths are like surgery, generating exacting results, this one is like a science experiment where all the ingredients are potentially combustible. Come to expect abrasive vibrato, spaced-out drones, bassy throbs and mostly the unexpected, so watch the levels carefully! The iVCS3 (which does support Audiobus 2 State-Saving) will never go out of tune from heat, but its sci-fi tones will “glow” hot.

KORG Gadget & Franke Stroke Machine

Both ZETA+ and iVsCS3 are great when looking for song components, but if I’m aiming for song completion there are a couple new virtual “studios” worth noting. Both KORG Gadget ($38.99) and Franke Stroke Machine ($19.99) can generate complex, nuanced grooves. Gadget draws on a long heritage of roughly recognizable (albeit creatively renamed) gear that has defined electronic music production, while taking some liberties. The gadget set includes 15 models (for example, the “Chicago” tube bass machine makes the classic squelches familiar to any fans of acid house and the Roland TB-303), and the “workstation” can sequence up to 20 simultaneously on the newest iPad. There are various PCM sample-based drum and synthesis machines, mono- and poly analog-styled synths, as well as gadgets intended for something specific (pads, chiptunes, etc.). It feels very EDM/dubstep focused, but the sequencing is very straightforward and I can create an instrumental bed in very little time.

In contrast, high contrast literally, Stroke Machine comes from Wolfram Franke, who has a long pedigree developing for Waldorf, but this synthesizer/sequencer doesn’t follow in the immediate footsteps of a specific source. The standard skin is a glaringly neon interface that hosts a tremendous amount of control over up to 12 percussion and 12 melodic sound parts (sample-based, including kits from Oberheim, plus two-oscillator sine/triangle/pulse/saw waves as sources). Analog waveforms, sample playback, frequency and ring modulation and noise generators are filtered then summed into a transient generator, followed by more filters and drive modules, as well as bit crushers and equalizers, at which point the sum can go into four effect buses, each with over a half-dozen effects. Targeting and automation of the modulation is easily assignable, and a step sequencer for up to 128 patterns glues the crisply propelled performance together. It seems like a lot to take in, but once I got a hang of the workflow, it’s a wealth of vibrant rhythmic productivity with a retro-futuristic bent.

Positive Grid Final Touch Mastering App

So, I’ve captured some gritty, microtuned sound engines and atmospheric patches and I want to wrest every ounce of evolving tonality from it. Positive Grid’s Final Touch ($19.99) is a mastering application I can use or abuse to process audio opened, pasted or streamed through the iPad. It’s not a wave editor, so all splices and fades need to be pre-established, but it offers a way to touch up, so to speak, the subtleties. Modules for pre- and post-linear phase EQ, multiband dynamics, stereo imaging and maximizing can be easily dragged in and out of and reordered on the chain. Files can be imported from Dropbox or iTunes, inserted as clips from apps supporting AudioCopy, or live audio/prerecorded material can be tweaked through Audiobus from internal sources as well as external interfaces (mostly via the Camera Connection Kit). Did I enjoy tracking ZETA+ through the live manipulation of EQ filter points into a convenient recorder like AudioShare? Did I use judicious overcompression to pleasingly exaggerate clipped loops triggered from Kymatica’s stochastic sample slice sequencer SECTOR ($7.99)? You bet I did those things and more, even if real-time FX isn’t Final Touch’s intended use.

The iPad’s touch-based input requires apps, no matter how powerful, to ultimately be highly intuitive, which means a process like compression is totally demystified. Presented with a window of handles, I get the joy of dragging to home my exact frequency range and gate, and all that visual feedback helps dial in just the right gain reduction, attack and release, etc. With the ability to quickly solo a band, I can make sure I’m emphasizing or reining in whatever kick or snare, etc. is begging for attention.

Throw a bit of stereo imaging on, filtered at 100 Hz or so, and I’ve got a focused lowend impact with much more expressive higher frequencies. The maximizer eeks the competitive edge out of the remaining headroom, sets the output depth and dithering, etc., and suddenly it’s not infeasible to imagine starting with a single tone and exporting a radio-ready iTunes single without ever leaving the iPad.

Teaser videos have revealed an automation system and MIDI CC external send capabilities coming to Steinberg Cubasis DAW ($49.99) by May or so, just one indication of the narrowing gap between permanent and portable set-ups. Whether standalone or studio-integrated, the iPad continues to make waves, and waveforms, for developers, musicians and engineers alike.