Any music technology fan, whether using desktop or mobile (or both) environments, will be well aware of the huge number of virtual keyboard and synth instruments there are available. Under iOS, we are blessed not only with masses of choice but also a combination of excellent quality and very modest software pricing. Perhaps the real problem is that because the prices are so low, the temptation is to buy every synth/keyboard app going and therefore not have the time to fully exploit all the possibilities?
There is one niche within this whole ‘virtual’ instrument world that has always interested me; the software recreations of what were classic ‘real’ instruments. This kind of thing has existed on the desktop for many years and one of the leading companies involved in this – Arturia – have also bought virtual recreations of some classic hardware synths to iOS in recent years such as iMini, iSEM and iProphet.
The obvious attraction with these virtual ‘clones’ is that you get the essence of the classic sounds in a convenient software format and at a price that is generally much (very much) less than a worn-out, unreliable, second-hand hardware version (if you can find one) will cost. OK, so it might not be quite so cool, but it will stay in tune and it won’t break your back when you have to carry it to your next gig….
Arturia are not the only player in this game, however, and another developer – Insideout (in partnership with Bismark of bs-16i fame) – are now taking a shot at this market having released a ‘clone’ app a couple of weeks ago; Alina String Ensemble.
The original hardware in question is the classic Solina (ARP) String Ensemble, made by Eminent BV and distributed by ARP Instruments from around 1974 until the early 1980s. Featuring six different synthesised sounds – violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass – the hardware version has a user list that reads like a ‘who’s who?’ of pop and rock through that period and beyond. Compared to some of today’s synths, the Solina String Ensemble has a fairly modest specification and a limited palate of sounds but, from Herbie Hancock and the Rolling Stones through to Joy Division and Gorillaz; whatever your taste in music, the odds are you will have heard this instrument on tracks that you love.
Insideout have, therefore, attempted to capture the essence of this classic instrument in an iOS app. There are a few nods to modern technology (which is a god thing) but, otherwise, for better or worse, the design and capabilities stick pretty closely to the original. This is a universal app requiring iOS8 or later (and with iOS9 support), included Audiobus, IAA and MIDI support from the off, is a 110MB download and, for the launch period at least, is priced at just UK£2.29 (a saving of 50% off what will be the usual price apparently).
Pull the strings
As mentioned above, the feature set of the original hardware instrument, while hi-tech for its time, and certainly sounding very lush, looks fairly modest by today’s standards. The app reflects that fairly accurately. As a consequence, what you get is a selection of six preset sounds that, beyond the attack and sustain, and the built in modulation and reverb effects, are fixed. The only means of adjusting the timbre of the sound (aside from applying some external effects processing) is by toggling on/off the individual sounds and layering them in different combinations. This is, of course, authentic to the original hardware.
The sounds themselves are split into two groups. The contrabass and cello form the ‘bass’ component and, if switched on (that is, no muted), will produce sound only in the lower range of MIDI notes. The four other sounds – viola, violin, brass and horn – form a second group that play throughout the full MIDI note range. The Bass and Master volume controls allow you to achieve a balance between the two sound groups and to get an acceptable overall output level.
On the iPad (and all the screenshots shown here are taken from the app running on an iPad) you get a dual keyboard layout so you can play two-handed parts – bass and melody – should you so wish. The keyboards are scrollable but, if you are not a fan on virtual piano keyboards, then Alina will also work with a standard MIDI keyboard (providing you have the suitable connectivity) or a Bluetooth MIDI keyboard that supports iOS.
The top row of five horizontal sliders (some of these are on the Settings page on the iPhone) provide control over Crescendo (attack), Sustain Length (decay time after you release a key), Modulation Depth, Modulation Rate and Reverb amount. The modulation and reverb options are perhaps not as subtle as some more modern equivalent effects but are, I suspect, genuine to the nature of the original and most certainly have a distinctive (warm?) character to them.
If you flip to the Settings page, on the iPad version, you can adjust how the virtual keyboard responds ‘between the black keys’; this essentially toggles off the area of the white notes between the black keys to reduce the possibility of duff notes being triggered. You also get a global tuning dial and a MIDI Setting switch. The latter allows you to search for a Bluetooth MIDI keyboard if you have suitable hardware.
While the sound editing features are very modest compared to a modern keyboard, Alina String Ensemble does seem to recreate the functionality of the original hardware in an accurate manner. And, while my only experience of the original instrument is hearing it on some of those famous tracks by artists mentioned above, those limited range of sounds do seem to have bags of character.
Whether they sound exactly like the original is not something I could judge but the app sounds good in its own right regardless of whether it has fully captured the original in every detail. Combine two or three of the sounds, mix and match a bass part with some higher register notes and you get a very full synthesised string/orchestral-style sound. It might be retro in nature but it has a certain something that is very pleasing to the ear… and it can certainly sound ‘big’; with everything going this is a sound that fills a lot of sonic space.
Given the very streamlined control set, this is not an app that is going to take long to get the hang of; open up, select which sounds are ‘on’ and dial in the effects to taste… then play. I had no problems using the app with an external MIDI keyboard such as my CME Xkey but I don’t have a Bluetooth enabled MIDI keyboard to test out that functionality (if you have tested it, then feel free to leave a comment to say how you got on).
I initially got the app working smoothly as a standalone app and then, subsequently, within Audiobus and via IAA (with Cubasis as my iAA host) and all seemed to be working well. However, things were not 100% solid during my own testing on my iPad and, on occasions, the app launched only to go AWOL on me just after the main screen appeared. This seemed just as likely to happen standalone as via Audiobus//IAA. I also tried the app via my iPhone 5 and, while things were certainly a bit better, I did still get the occasional crash. I’m running iOS9.0.1 on both these devices.
These issues might, of course, have been specific to my own test system although they did persist after a couple of uninstall/reinstall and full iPad restarts. Given that this is a first releases, I suspect there may be a few bugs that still need to be squashed and, hopefully, that’s something that the developers can get onto promptly if it is an issue experienced my more than just me.
However, while it was working, Alina String Ensemble sounded very nice indeed….
Alina String Ensemble is, of course, something of a niche app. It’s not going to give you ‘real’ orchestral string sounds (you need iSymphonic Orchestra, for example, for that) but, in sticking closely to the spec of the original hardware device, it does give you a flavour of that classic string synth sound and mode of operation. It might not be an essential purchase for every iOS musician but I suspect the classic synth fans will be gagging to add it to their iOS music app collections.
Given the launch pricing of just UK£2.29, if access to some classic synth strings sounds are something that you crave, I’m not sure I’d let my technical issues described above put you off taking a punt. When working, the app sounds great and this really is a casual purchase price for almost anyone. Here’s hoping any initial wrinkles get addressed with a prompt update because, in all other regards, this is a very neat recreation of a hardware classic.
Alina String Ensemble