As I’ve commented many times before, if there is one category of iOS music apps that is well stocked to the point of overflowing then it’s the synth category. And, if you are anything like me (that is, a bit of an iOS music app addict), I suspect your iPad or iPhone is already well populated in this regard.
Of course, there are ‘synths’ and there are ‘synths’; not all are made equal and, a few powerhouse examples aside that do something of everything, many are actually quite specialised in their own way. This might be in terms of the style of synthesis used (or modelled in a digital sense), the range of sounds available or the fact that they are a virtual recreation of a hardware classic. It is also true that there are many ‘synths for everyone’ (lots of excellent presets and no PhD required for programming; SynthMaster Player is an very good example of this) and ‘synths for geeks’ (things that will appeal to those who like to really dig in to the programming options and create sounds from scratch).
iOS has plenty of examples that might fall into this latter group including apps such as Thor, Nave, Z3TA+ or iM1. However, while all these are highly programmable by the user, you can go one stage further in your pursuit of DIY sound creation; the modular synth – you get all the basic components (in a virtual format) and can build your own synth (or even other sort of sound source) from scratch. Yep, it does sound like it might be quite complex and requires a sense of geeky experimentation from the user, but it can also be a lot of fun. Oh, and because this is all virtual, as with the ‘build you own guitar amp’ offered by the BIAS Amps app, aside from the occasional assault on your ears when things don’t go quite to plan, electrocution, fire and explosion are not on the agenda for all this software-based electrical experimentation.
A software-based modular synth is not, of course, a new idea. There are good examples available in the desktop environment and the App Store has a small number of other examples, the best know of which are probably Audulus, zMors Modular and the Modular Synth built into Caustic. In all cases though the basic concept is the same; you are given a selection of virtual synth ‘components’ and you can link them together in various ways to ‘build’ a virtual synth.
Now, however, we have a new candidate to tempt us in AnalogKit by developer Bitcount Ltd. So, with the rather retro 1970s styling of the app’s logo (and the various graphics shown in the screenshots), is AnalogKit worth picking your virtual soldering iron and patch cables up for if you are a sucker for DIY synth construction?
The basic kit
AnalogKit was launched early in September and has an current App Store price of UK£7.99 (at present, the same as zMors Modular and a little less than Audulus). It is iPad-only, requires iOS7.0 or later (and seems to work fine on my iOS9-equipped iPad Air 1) and, at just 10MB, is a download that ought to fit on even the most synth-packed of iPad hardware. As you might expect, the app supports Audiobus, IAA, MIDI (so you can receive MIDI from external hardware or other apps) and, very interestingly, audio input as well as audio output; if you want to design a modular creation that is more effects processor than synth (so your audio sound source is a live audio input rather than an oscillator of some sort) then that is a possibility.
Of course, if a modular synth (or effects) builder app is going to be attractive to potential users, then it needs to tick a number of boxes. First, if needs to have some interesting modules (and preferable lots of them) to whet the appetite for creation. Second, it needs to be easy to link and organise these modules (this is more of a challenge on the iPad than it might be, for example, on a larger desktop screen), Third, it needs to sound good (doh!). Fourth, it needs to be visually attractive so that it is pleasing to use (who wants to spend hours looking at ugly software?). Fifth, it needs to be easy to use.
OK, so this last one is pretty much impossible with a modular synth. Unless you are already an experienced synth builder, the odds are that (like me) you will not have a clue what modules you should be chaining together to create the sound you have in your head without some sort of support. Thankfully, Bitcount have made a start with this with an excellent ‘intro’ video and there are apparently more on the way…. but this kind of support (and things like documentation) is essential with a app that is as potentially complex as AnalogKit if the developer is to attract in an audience that is broader than just the die-hard synth geeks. Fingers crossed the documentation, example preset projects and video tutorial material will keep coming.
In terms of the first of the tick boxes, AnalogKit does seem to be well placed. When you start a new project with a blank design screen in front of you, tap the large AK button at the bottom-centre of the screen and you are presented with a selection dialog containing a huge range of component options. There are organised into some logical (and very helpful) groups at two levels; ‘Basic’ and ‘Core Modules’.
The Core Modules are were you find the individual building block components available in AnalogKit and, across the four sub-groups – Controls, Display, General and Oscillators – there is an impressive collection of options, many of which are shown in the various screenshots included here. So, for example, in the oscillators section, you get a selection of different waveform-based oscillators covering saw, square, triangle and sin in various forms. In the Controls section there are options such as knobs, selectors, XY controllers, grid sequencers and virtual keyboards. In short, this selection ought to keep even the most inventive of virtual synth builders occupied for quite some time.
In the Basic section are Effects, Modular and Synths sub-groups and these are, essentially, ‘pre-made’ constructions built from the raw components Core Modules section. One rather neat feature of AnalogKit is that, once you have created some element of your virtual synth or effect, then you can ‘combine’ those individual components into a new ‘pre-built’ component (you simply draw around the components on the design screen to enclose them). You can then tap on that combined device to save it as a new component and, if required, re-use it in another project later. Tapping on any device will bring up a pop-up menu of options to edit it in various ways and this includes an ‘explode’ option to break a ‘combined’ component back down into its constituent parts.
When just getting started with the app, spending some time exploring the Basic section of Effects, Modular and Synths, is well worth doing as you can quickly get a flavour of what’s possible with the app. For example, the Effects section includes pre-built overdrive, reverb and chorus effects; useful in their own right but also useful to see how they are constructed. The same applies in the Synths category where you get a small selection of pre-built synths of different styles to explore.
Of course, that’s not your only ‘break me in gently’ starting point. Bitcount have created a on online community called Swap Meet for AnalogKit that can be accessed directly from the app. Once you have created an account (which takes just a few seconds), you can then start browsing all sorts of wonderful (and sometimes weird) creations from other users. These can be downloaded and their detailed construction examined and tweaked.
Importantly, once registered, you can also access the written documentation for AnalogKit. Manuals are not as fashionable as they used to be (YouTube tutorials are taking over) but, for an app like AnalogKit, I think a reference manual like this is pretty much essential if more novice users are going to be enticed in. Anyway, this is well done here and hats off to the developers for going the required extra mile in providing this; it’s a great place to start climbing your learning curve.
The missing link
AnalogKit also does a pretty decent job with my second tick box mentioned above; once you have selected a few components and have them placed upon your design space, connecting them up is, in principle, pretty easy. The various inputs and outputs for each component sit on the left and right side-edges respectively. Tap on the component and the labels for these will appear. If you then tap and drag away from either an input or output, a virtual cable appears and you can connect this up to a suitable point on another component.
As with any software-based modular synth design tool, once you have more than half a dozen components in place, the spaghetti can become a bit difficult to manage (Propellerhead’s Reason has a lot to answer for in some respects!) but AnalogKit is no worse in this respect than any other application and, with the ability to ‘contain’ (combine) modules as described above, you do at lest have some options for reducing the clutter.
It is also worth noting that the initially blank design screen is not actually blank; it contains a ‘mic’ input component on the left-edge and a L/R output component on the right-edge. If you want noise to get out of AnalogKit, then you do have to connect something to the L/R output; this is not done automatically for you.
Equally, the Mic input will actually take audio from any compatible audio interface you have connected to you iPad. If you do want to use the app’s potential as a processor of audio signals (and it seems to work rather nicely in the Audiobus Effects slot for this role), then you can do so but you need to make a connection here also.
Once you get your head around the various inputs/output on the components that you use most frequently, then the actual process of connecting things up is very easy. Deciding what to connect to what is, of course, somewhat more challenging (unless you have that PhD in synth construction) but at least the only real damage you can do is to your speakers (you are monitoring at a sensible low level aren’t you?).
Whether you think AnalogKit also ticks the fourth on my boxes listed above – that it is a visually pleasing place to spend countless hours of virtual construction – will be a matter of personal taste. For what’s it’s worth, I quite like the retro vibe.
So the only tick box I haven’t really mentioned is about the sound. While graphically, AnalogKit might appear a little ‘toy-like’ in some respects, don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an app for creating just toy-like electronic sound sources; it’s most certainly not. I’m not going to claim any personal skill-level in crafting some uber-synth device with the app (I am just a guitar player after all) but you don’t have to browse too far through the included presets or the user-created devices via Swap Meet to appreciate this is a very capable – and very flexible – virtual tool kit.
OK, if you just want a mega-range of synth sounds, there are easier ways for the non-programmer types to get those – Thor, Nave, Z3TA+ or SynthMaster, for example – but for those that really do like to roll everything for themself, a modular synth like AnalogKit is going to be a very attractive proposition. And I guess what you learn from exploring what others have done with the app is that there is plenty of sonic potential.
Of course, the whole point of all these design features is so that you can then use the synths or effects created with AnalogKit in your music or sound design projects. So how well does the app them perform as part of an iOS music production workflow? Fortunately, the answer is ‘very well indeed’. I did my own testing using an iOS9-equipped iPad Air 1 and, whether it was via Audiobus or IAA, I had no particular problems using the app at all.
MIDI in support is also provided and the Settings menu allows you to select external MIDI sources, offers options for MIDI over Bluetooth or via WiFi and includes a MIDI Learn feature so you can link controls in your virtual creations with actual hardware controls should you so wish.
Given the pretty much faultless behaviour of the app, perhaps the only other comment I should make is that, the more complex the devices you create, then do expect a related increase in the CPU demands AnalogKit places on your iPad. The app does have a CPU meter display that you can toggle on/off at the base of the screen and this is an interesting watch as you gradually build your mega-device.
It is probably quite difficult to compare the performance of AnalogKit with that of apps such as zMors Modular or Audulus in this respect but, when run within Cubasis via IAA, for example, AnalogKit did add a noticeable CPU load. However complex you like to build, unless you are running on some of the more recent iOS hardware, you might have to manage your CPU usage a little. That said, both of the other apps mentioned here have already been through several update iterations and will have undoubtedly have received some performance optimisations. I’m sure that will also come with AnalogKit. Whatever the CPU load, however, if you are a committed DIY synth builder, it’s worth it…. to repeat, AnalogKit can make some great noise J
In a more general sense, a comparison between these various modular synths is quite interesting. Audulus is perhaps the most well established package and also exists in a desktop format. It is more expensive and, if you are prepared to dig a little deeper into your pockets, there are also some very interesting additional modules to be added via IAPs. The interface is stylish and quite modern. zMors Modular is also perhaps a little more ‘hi-tech’ in appearance and, while I’m more than willing to stand corrected, it strikes me that it’s components are, while sharing some similar items to those found in AnalogKit, are perhaps a touch more ‘high-level’. You get some of that in AnalogKit but you also get some lower-level components such as knobs and buttons and, to me, that suggests a somewhat different ethos behind the app’s design and the ways in which the developers imagine users will work with it.
Differences in style and design aside, all three, however, are going to find a welcome home on the iPads of the keen synth/electronics geeks; these are all wonderful sandboxes for your experimentation.
While it might be the new kid on the block, I don’t think AnalogKit is out of its depth when sat beside the obvious established competition. I’m not sure any modular synth app is going to be a ‘must have’ for every iOS musician so, whether it might appeal to you or not will depend upon your willingness to get experimental. To fully capitalise on these sorts of tools you need to be as interested in the design of the instruments you use as you are in the music making side of the process. These sorts of apps are, however, a lot of fun once you have overcome the initial learning curve and there is a lot to be learned about synth and sound design if you are prepared to put the time in.
For the die-hard synth hackers, given the very modest asking price, I suspect even if you already own Audulus and zMors Modular, AnalogKit is likely to be high on your ‘most wanted’ shopping list. All three are, in broad terms, providing the same sort of creative environment… but I’m sure there are enough detailed differences in how they work and what they are capable of, to make then all interesting in their own right.
Bitcount have made a great start here, from the fun graphical design through to the multitude of components and also made a good start in terms of providing new users with support via the manual, tutorial videos and the very useful Swap Meet online space. Here’s hoping there are enough potential users that are prepared to take a punt and the app can continue to build on what is already a very promising start.