As a developer, One Red Dog Media have been involved with iOS music apps for quite some time. The original Arctic Keys, for example, was first released in September 2011 and their Molten drum machine app goes back even further to October 2010. The latest release is the Arctic ProSynth music app – priced at UK£6.99 – and, as the name suggests, represents something of a step up in terms of features and capabilities from the original Arctic Keys.
One Red Dog describe Arctic ProSynth as a modern subtractive synthesizer that, instead of intending to be a virtual recreation of any specific vintage synth, attempts to offer a more modern take, producing an aggressive and bold palette of sounds suitable for current musical styles. In addition, the app includes a Vocoder mode that, used with a suitable microphone/sound source, can add something extra over-and-above straight synth sounds.
Of course, the IOS musician is not short of options when it comes virtual synths. There are lots to choose from and, at their very best – apps like Thor or Nave for example – they are truly excellent and most certainly capable of being used for some serious music making, whether in the studio or for live performance. All of these synth apps come with their own balance between features, sonic capabilities, complexity (and, for some users, greater complexity is not always a good thing) and price. So, in a somewhat crowded marketplace, does Arctic ProSynth manage to hold its head up?
Tour of the Arctic
If there is such a things as a ‘conventional’ layout for an iOS synth app, then Arctic ProSynth doesn’t stray too far from the norm. The main screen is divided into three key areas; the upper Control Bar, the lower performance area dominated by the virtual keyboard (with plenty of options for changing the size of the keys or using a ‘scale mode’ to avoid duff notes) and, between the two, the Parameter Panel that, along its top edge, has six tabs allowing you to toggle between different sets of controls for different elements of the synth’s operation.
The thin Control Bar provides access to the supplied presets (tapping the current preset name opens a selection dialog but you can also step through presets using the left/right arrow buttons). The disk icon allows you to save a new preset while the microphone icon activates ‘live record’ (anything you then play is recorded as both audio (44.1kHz/16-bit) and MIDI and can be exported to other apps).
The Control Bar’s central level meter also incorporates an output volume control. To the right of this are four buttons that toggle the Parameter Panel between different modes. The keyboard icon gives the default synth parameters within the panel, while the FX button (surprise, surprise) opens a multi-tabbed FX panel giving access to the EQ, distortion, chorus, phaser, vocoder, delay and reverb effects.
The next button opens the Sequencer Panel – essentially a four-lane, 16-step, step sequencer – that you can use to program note data or synth parameter changes that can be controlled by the step sequencer patterns. The last of these four buttons brings up two X-Y pads, adding some very intuitive synth tweaking options during a performance. The final two buttons on the Control Bar provide access to the app’s key settings and the help options.
Synth you’ve been gone
When the Control Bar’s Synth panel button is selected, the upper half of the display is dominated by the tabbed selection of controls for the current synth patch. The six tabs give access to the oscillators, mix/keyboard, arpeggiator, LFO, filters and envelopes respectively. Each section is nicely laid out and the buttons, knobs and faders are all a nice, chunky size making operation very easy even for those with oversized fingers.
In terms of the synth engine, Arctic ProSynth is up to four-note polyphonic (no fancy jazz chords then, but I guess that’s not really what this synth is about) but as well as standard ‘poly’ mode, you can also choose between mono, legato, arp and seq modes via the strip of controls at the top of the virtual keyboard.
A sound preset is built from two oscillators but One Red Dog describe these as HyperOscillators as you can add additional layers of up to eight oscillators in unison to each of the main oscillators in order to create a denser, richer sound. In terms of oscillator waveforms, you get saw, square and triangle. There is also a sub-oscillator set to one octave below oscillator 1 and that can be blended in to add more low frequency energy and a noise generator (controlled in the Mix & Keyboard tab). The oscillators tab allows you to do all the usual detuning/stereo spreading as well as containing pulse width controls that operate with the square and triangle waveforms.
Aside from the aforementioned Noise Vol control, the Mix & Keyboard tab allows you to balance between the two main oscillators and to configure how the synth responds to aftertouch (always good to see aftertouch supported) as well as setting how the virtual keyboard behaves via settings such as portamento, glide and the slide curve. You can also configure how the pitch and mod wheels behave.
The arppegiator is a fairly basic affair but still a very usable inclusion (although do note that, while MIDI data can be sent out from Arctic ProSynth, the arpeggiator itself doesn’t transmit MIDI data). The arp has a number of standard modes (up, down, random, etc.) but no rhythmic patterns such as you might find on more complex models.
In terms of the LFO options, you get two LFOs, each able to feed three destinations. Configuring these options is very straightforward and even a novice synth programmer ought to be able to get their head around the LFO tab without too much trouble. The twin filters are equally easy to configure, with low pass, high pass, band pass and notch options available. The filters can be organised in series, parallel or split (one filter for each of the main oscillators). The final tab – Envelopes – provides fairly standard ADSR envelope controls for modulation, filter and the amplifier.
Synth engine aside, Arctic ProSynth also provides a rather nice selection of effects options that can help shape your sounds. Again, the controls are all clearly laid out and operation is very straightforward. The quality of the effects is also good.
Perhaps most interesting amongst this lot is the vocoder option. With a suitable audio input signal (I used a condenser mic connected to my iPad via an iRig PRO for my own testing), once you make the vocoder feature ‘active’, your voice (or some other sound source) can be used to modulate the sound of the synth. This is great fun to experiment with and, with a little practice, you can generate some really interesting results.
The vocoder features a 16-band filter (organised as 4 banks of 4 faders) and these enable you to shape the sound. In use, the key initial issue is getting a suitable signal level into the app but, providing your audio interface features some sort of gain control, used in combination with the vocoder’s Input Level knob, this is easy enough to tweak. Then, it’s just a question of playing notes and using you voice to add expression.
Aside from the two rather neat X-Y pads (where you just tap on the parameters shown along the top to open a drop-down menu so you can select a parameter to control) that provide some excellent live performance/sound tweaking possibilities, the step sequencer also provides further sound shaping options. You can specify what each of the four sequencer tracks is configured to control. This can be note data (one or more tracks can therefore be used to create a melody or chord part) or a synth parameter (allowing you to modulate that parameter in a cyclical fashion).
You can program data into the step sequencer either using the sliders or on ‘step’ basis from the virtual keyboard (obviously best for note data). Tapping the individual step buttons changes their behaviour either for playback or recording with a colour-coding system making sure you know exactly what mode you are in. As with the arpeggiator, however, it’s also worth noting that the step sequencer doesn’t transmit MIDI data. If you have programmed any note data into the step sequencer, once it is active, MIDI notes send to the app (either from the virtual keyboard or an external MIDI keyboard) simply trigger the sequence and control its overall pitch (allowing you to transpose your programmed not sequence).
The sound of the Arctic
Arctic ProSynth is supplied with a large collection of preset sounds and even a quick wizz through these demonstrate that this is a very capable sound source. Whether you want classic bass synths, synthetic strings, evolving pads, angry leads or some dance-friendly sequences, Arctic ProSynth has something to offer. While some of these presets are pretty full-on, it was also nice to see (hear) some that just demonstrated the synth engine itself; all too often synth presets are smothered in effects and that wasn’t always the case here.
In terms of the sounds, I particularly liked the basses, pads and leads and, in specifically, how those types of sounds had been applied in the ‘sequences’ category (using the step sequencer). There is some really good stuff here that you could easily imagine working in contemporary dance/electronica contexts.
At a more practical level, I had no problems with the app during testing; it behaved itself very well and, equally, played nicely with both external hardware and other apps via Audiobus. Arctic ProSynth appears as an Audiobus Input app and I had no issues passing either MIDI data or audio data from the app and recording it into Cubasis running within the Audiobus Output slot. In addition, Arctic ProSynth with respond to MIDI Clock messages if required and also supports Korg’s WIST protocol.
The only other comment I would make here is that, when I got complex patches going and played multiple notes, the Cubasis CPU meter did suggest that my 3rd gen. iPad was working quite hard. You could, of course, tweak the apps settings or work with larger audio buffer sizes to accommodate… . Oh, for that iPad 5 as and when it gets released :-)
All round, there are lots of positive things to say about Arctic ProSynth and very few negatives; it seems very solidly implemented, works great with other audio apps, can generate a wide range of sounds, is fairly easy to program and, in ‘well-spec’ed iOS synth’ terms, is fairly competitively priced. So should you buy it?
I’ve absolutely no problems with recommending the app as good value for money. It sounds great and is a doddle to use. However, if you already have a Thor or a Nave or one or three of the other top-notch iOS synths sat on your iPad and – and this is quite important – you are not intimidated by programming them – then I’m not sure Arctic ProSynth would fall into the ‘essential purchase’ category. Don’t get me wrong; this is a great app but it might not offer you much over and above what you already have (although I’ll happily qualify that by saying the vocoder option is very interesting and good fun to use).
Where I think Arctic ProSynth does score, however, is in the balance struck between features, sound and ease of use. Here, I think One Red Dog have done something quite interesting and very astute. If you are still finding your feet with synth programming – and it is something that requires some study – and Thor and Nave simply make your head hurt, then Arctic ProSynth might be just the thing.
It’s not a preset machine (although the presets are very good) like some ‘novice’ synths but, equally, it doesn’t require a PhD in synthology to get into programming it. In addition, the interface is very well organised/structured and the controls big and chunky enough (and so easy to use) so that it is not a chore to experiment with. In short, if you are looking for a first ‘serious’ iOS synth but are not sure you want to go off right into the deep end, then Arctic ProSynth is a very good choice.
If you are a serious iOS synth collector, then Arctic ProSynth is well worth adding to your collection but it might not bring something radically new to your party. However, for wannabe programmers looking for something that combines good sounds with a (relatively) painless learning curve, Arctic ProSynth is a great place to start.