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Review: Instruments for Audio Production, Part 1 — Synths for Apple iOS

Supporting several hundred thousand apps, Apple’s iOS has grown into an undeniable platform for music creation. Here, we examine some of the best synthesizers for iPad-wielding audio producers. 

“But there’s one more thing …” That’s the famous, perhaps infamous, line former Apple CEO Steve Jobs would deliver at the false close of his keynote speeches. It would signify the introduction of yet another sector-defining product or service, and it acts as a perfect mantra for the Apple ecosystem. 

Apple’s iOS supports several hundred thousand apps and since the introduction of the iPad there’s always been just one or 1,000 more that look like a fun way to pass a few hours. What began as an incomparable portal for consumption, however, has grown into an undeniable platform for musical expression. The iPad 2, as well as the new iPad introduced in March 2012, has provided a tool that’s now as intuitive a choice for creating music as it is for acquiring it. And if there’s one instrument for which the iPad is the perfect vehicle, it’s synthesizers. 

Korg. Moog. Roland. Yamaha. We wouldn’t have had the 1970s, the 1980s, the club music of the ’90s or the pop music of today without these names, among others. What none of them ever quite delivered, though, was the indisputable convenience that the iPad brings to the table, the bus, plane, studio or stage. Any flavor of waveform algorithm – subtractive, additive, wavetable, FM, granular, you name it – can fit inside a convenient folio. The iPad synthesizer category is exploding, so here’s a cross-section of selected standout apps.

Korg came to the market relatively early, emulating the MS-20 semi-modular monophonic synthesizer in the iMS-20 ($32.99, iPad Only), and it still stands out as a shining example of how to be both faithful and innovative. Not only has the MS-20’s patch panel been accurately modeled for those who like to break out of fixed-signals paths, but also a 16-step sequencer (based on the SQ-10), a six-part drum machine, a seven-channel effects mixer and dual Kaoss Pads have been integrated on varying screens and smartly incorporated pop-up keyboards and panels. In addition, MIDI control capabilities, AudioCopy data sharing, SoundCloud support and WIST (Wireless Sync-Start Technology) allow resonance to be tweaked and synced across apps and devices. 

The iMS-20’s two voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs), along with its filters and envelope generators, allow for exquisite distortions. Part of the joy in this production studio is it avoids too fine a resolution, just like the original hardware, and can be used for everything from crisp patterns to squelchy leads. There may not be physical knobs, and the learning curve may be on the high side, but the thrill of modulating pink noise and layering gated pulses into wild pitch percussion never dulls. 

Moog represents another cornerstone brand in the app store’s synthesizer shop. Initially the company debuted the Filtatron ($7.99, Universal), a virtual filter great for processing other sources, but Moog really stepped it up with its polyphonic Animoog ($29.99, Universal). Taking advantage of the iPad interface, Animoog offers what Moog calls the “Anisotropic Synth Engine,” which pulls from the company’s iconic timbral vocabulary and allows you to evolve them on an oscilloscope-like X/Y grid. This isn’t an emulation of a single Moog product, so much as a confluence of waveforms you can sculpt along editable paths and push through various shapeable filters, overdrives, detuning, unison and delay mechanisms, selectable scales as well as mod/pitch wheels. You can trigger the thick, wavering retro-futuristic voices through MIDI or with the onscreen keys, which offer further modulation as you glide your finger vertically. Preset packs from sound designers and sonic architects such as Richard Devine will continue to bolster Animoog’s out-of-the-box appeal. Animoog is intended more as an instrument than a production tool, but it could also be enjoyed as an art object at a groovy cosmic happening; it captures Moog’s spacey, throaty core then launches it into orbit.

While Korg and Moog set out to build on in-house precedents, a plethora of programmers have stepped up to meld sonic heritages and set new standards for compact synthesis. Indebted to the legacy of the Roland JP-8000’s virtual analog modeling, BeepStreet’s Sunrizer ($4.99, iPad Edition) embodies a polyphonic architecture of free-run sawtooth oscillators, layered and gradually detuning atop one another to create melodic anthems from a single keystroke. This is aided by standout chord trigger and programmable arpeggiator functions, copious well-grouped presets, plus highly configurable filter routing, making Sunrizer indispensable for rich pads and plucky arrays. CoreMIDI and MIDIMobilizer allow the app’s striking lucidity to be easily integrated into live and desktop projects. The tone often falls more on the cool side of the spectrum, but the surplus of morphic knobs, sliders, wheels and LED fields assures that highly active tonality is at your fingertips.

VirSyn Addictive Synth ($5.99, iPad Only) handpicks features shared by other synths – stacked oscillators, a highly programmable arpeggiator, an X/Y control matrix, MIDI and SoundCloud integration, etc. – and then finds a way to have them thrive in a symbiotic relationship made all the more tactile by features such as tilt sensor control and a spectral noise generator. Offering wavetable synthesis, Addictive Synth allows you to draw partials and spectral curves in realtime, truly embracing the iPad’s structure. You can also toggle a screen of knobs that help define how sounds and device interact, though this falls more into advanced user territory. However, beginners need not fear, as one of the most “addictive” features of the synth is the rolling dice icon that assigns randomized presets to various parameters, allowing instantaneous experimentation and repeating entertainment. With the ability to toy physically with harmonics, resonant peaks and atmospheric noise, Addictive Synth ups the ante on interactive and excels at unfurling digital soundscapes and dynamic wormholes live, and the integrated loop recorder makes it a great tool for sample creation.

Wooji Juice Grain Science ($9.99, Universal) builds on a solid internal engine of sawtooth and sine wavetables then assigns tones to two combinable “science units,” as it refers to them, to inject granularity that reshapes and heightens voices into harmonic emulsions varying over time. But that’s not all, because Grain Science really does feel like a cuts-through-everything Ginsu knife. Your textured audio – which can be app-generated or a sample imported through iTunes, Dropbox or AudioCopy – is then directed to a configurable FX chain to enrich it with everything from bitcrushing to expansive reverb. Grain Science, with its minimalist aesthetic, sometimes feels more like a realtime processor than an instrument, as it incorporates a Connection Mapper than allows for every parameter of modulation to be tweaked manually either through external controllers or inline X/Y pads. The pads you can generate are enveloping, and equally unnerving. However, chord and arpeggiator settings, plus some aggressive presets, assure Grain Science has a place as a lead that will leap from a mix.

When it comes to standing out from the crowd, Camel Audio Alchemy Mobile (Free, Universal) takes a more is more approach in several respects. First, synthesis comes not from one engine, but from analog, sampler, additive, subtractive and granular means. The ability to have sounds evolve is the selling point of what is essentially a renowned desktop soft synth distilled into compact form. At the core of the highly approachable interface is a touch-sensitive eight-box grid that symbolizes variations (with parameters adaptable through X/Y pads or MIDI controller) across which you can morph a sound with a stroke or with a tilt. It’s a synth for cinematic composition rather than monster solos. The caveat to Camel Audio’s approach is that when it comes to certain features more reallyismore, as various functionality and tonal expansions actually only come through in-app purchase, so the initial value is mildly deceiving. The Pro Upgrade ($14.99) adds more complete production tools – such as load/save of projects, recording of morph movements, Virtual MIDI control from other iPad apps, exporting audio options and integration with the desktop version – but even as a free download Alchemy Mobile can produce choral splendor, chilling palpitations and much in the way of low-end reinforcement.

Much like Korg, Tempo Rubato saw the iPad’s potential early, and as a result NLogSynth Pro ($14.99, iPad Edition) has had the time to grow into a eminent beast, and one worthy of its staying power because its low-latency four-oscillator, four-filter, four-LFO polyphonic sound engine is versatile enough to produce grinding bass, edgy leads or warm, whirling pads. Toying with the modulation matrix offers all manner of dynamic sweep – front-forward bite, spacey strings, twittering chiptunes, gurgling molten lava springs; you want it you got it. Concentrating on stability, Tempo Rubato has also left NLogSynth Pro open to CoreMIDI control through multitasking apps such as Audanika SoundPrismPro ($15.99, Universal) and Laurent Colson’s StepPolyArp ($11.99, iPad Only). Using these programs to extend arpeggiator, sequencer and performance recording functions helps generate general chord progressions and harmonic textures, extensive step editing, velocity, modulation, pan, volume, aftertouch and pitch bend, plus internal routing of MIDI sync, depending on which companion iPad app you choose. No matter how it’s utilized, NLogSynth Pro’s tonality never sounds truncated, and its that commitment to unfettered potential energy that has resulted in Tempo Rubato’s Rolf Wöhrmann beingtapped by Waldorf to develop an upcoming concept, NWave, which will allow for shifts through 3-D wavetable content. Marrying new graphic frontiers while reinforcing the importance of balanced frequencies is where the iPad will truly further revolution.

These are by no means all the great iOS synths, just some of the greatest, and more emerge all the time. But there’s one more thing … it’s not just the software that’s innovating. In the past year hardware producers have directly addressed the market for iOS connections and controllers. The iPad is an amazing medium, but there is something to be said for having access to a familiar workflow. 

For those who aren’t ready to give up more physical input sources, most hardware controllers require a USB interface, such as IK Multimedia’s iRig MIDI ($69.99, Universal), which compactly supplies IN/OUT/THRU ports, as well as provides the iPad power through a micro USB jack (and they even toss in IK’s own SampleTank sound module workstation, some synths included, for experimentation). It’s small, it’s black, it comes with some cables, it works. (Just power your own controller and download the free iRig MIDI Recorder to manage any iRig MIDI firmware updates, monitor MIDI signals and capture and distribute MIDI sequences beyond the device.)

If you don’t already have a keyboard to which you’re married, companies are targeting the mobile market with lightweight, ultraportable products such as the Line 6 Mobile Keys 25 ($149.99, Universal). It supports both Apple’s 30-pin port (cable included) and standard USB jacks, so the same 25-key, dual mod-wheel controller can be used with iOS, OS X or Windows. It’s CoreMIDI compliant, velocity-sensitive and bus-powered, and provides that appealing blend of simplicity and functionality without sapping too much juice. Throughout auditioning synths both these pieces of plug-n-play hardware performed without hiccups when called upon, and it’s great to not have any issues when you just want to make tribal alien roller-skating jams. 

Washington DC-based live DJ and journalist Tony Ware has been an editor for Pro Audio Review and contributes to sister publication Electronic Musician

Synths for Apple iOS: Contacts

Audanika |

BeepStreet |

Camel Audio |

IK Multimedia |

Korg |

Laurent Colson |

Line 6 |

Moog |

Tempo Rubato |

VirSyn |

Wooji Juice |