In the wider world of music technology, Korg are undoubtedly one of the big-hitter brands. Over the last few years, they have bought that strong reputation and undoubted expertise to bear in the iOS music app market place. Earlier apps such as iKaossilator, iPolysix and iMS-20 showed great promise but more recent apps such as Gadget, Module and iM1 have pretty much knocked it out the park. In it’s own way, each is brilliant and, while these are apps at the upper end of the iOS music app spectrum, given just how ridiculous the App Store’s price model is for niche apps, all represent very good value for money.
So, any new app from Korg is bound to attract a lot of attention…. and, as I posted last week, the latest offering has just arrived; ARP ODYSSEi. If the name sounds familiar, well it probably should because the new app is a recreation/emulation of a 1970s classic; Arp’s Odyssey hardware synth. This was considered ‘cheap’ when it was released and, when Korg recreated the hardware version just a couple of years ago, it was also considered ‘inexpensive’ given what it offered…. well, if you think c. US$800 is ‘inexpensive’ that is.
Of course, software emulations are inevitably going to be cheaper than dedicated hardware and there are a number of takes on the Arp Odyssey available in a desktop plugin format (for example, GForce’s Oddity2 that was US$130 when released a couple of years ago) but now Korg – who ought to know a thing or two about what’s required given their recent hardware reproduction of the Odyssey – are bringing a software emulation to iOS. And, at a launch price of UK£14.99/US$19.99 (this will increase by 30% at the end of November), if you want the essence of the original ARP sound, but with the convenience and low price point of an iOS app, then now’s your chance.
A brief odyssey
As I suspect most of us have never owned the original (or even the re-issue) hardware Odyssey, all I can say in terms of the UI design of the app is that Korg have certainly kept pretty faithfully to the look. The hardware was quite a quirky device with lots of quite small switches and sliders. These are recreated here in software. On my large-format iPad Pro that works pretty well. As the app is universal, it will also run on a suitable iPhone (5S and newer). The screen layout gets some tweaks to accommodate the smaller iPhone display but some users (those with larger digits) might find some things a little fiddly even if only initially.
In software, the look of the interface has absolutely nothing to do with the sound of the emulated synth. Korg could, of course, have simply re-vamped the look into some slick, modern, assemblage of the same controls. Personally, in the world of ‘emulated’ classic synths, I kind of like the fact that the interface looks like the original. It makes no difference to me in that I’ve never used (and become familiar with) the hardware original…. but I do like the vibe it brings. Yep, totally ‘in your head’ and nothing to do with the sound… but I’ll take a few fiddly controls if the UI adds to the ‘classic synth in software’ experience.
The app is a 106MB download, requires iOS9.3 or later and, as mentioned, is universal. There are full details of the supported devices on the App Store but essentially we are talking about iPhone 5S, iPad Air and iPad mini 2 and upwards.
The app supports Audiobus and IAA from the off but not, at present at least, AU. There is also no Ableton Link support. External MIDI keyboards can be used (including Bluetooth LE MIDI devices) and there is a Vel switch and associated fader in the Audio Mixer section of the control panel (I’ll come back to this in a bit) that allows MIDI velocity from an external keyboard to control either the amplitude response or the filter response. Other than that, the current MIDI spec looks somewhat limited and I couldn’t, for example, see any mention of a MIDI Learn feature within this initial release.
The app ships with 100 preset patches but, if you are keen for more, there are already two IAPs available (currently UK£3.99/US$4.99 each) and these each add 50 further presets but based upon the ‘Rev.1’ and ‘Rev.2’ releases of the original hardware. In the original, these revisions bought some engine tweaks and a change in the look. These are both reflected in the presets contained within the IAPs.
The other thing to note, of course, is that if you buy the stand-alone app, then you also get to use ODYSSEi as a ‘gadget’ within Korg’s Gadget… although it is referred to as Lexington and, while you get the full sound of the stand-alone app, not all of the features translate into the Gadget gadget version. This includes the arpeggiator, which is a bit of shame as, for me (and my c**p keyboard skills), that’s actually one of the highlights…. doh!
Switch and slide
Aside from the very top ‘menu’ strip of buttons and tabs, the main screen is dominated by the abundant collection of switches and sliders that make up the ARP ODYSSEi’s control set. That top strip provides you with access to the app’s main settings (including the tempo setting), the ‘info’ button (where you can download the PDF manual), the ‘store’ (to buy those additional IAPs), the preset system and, located far-right, four tab buttons for switching between the various main pages of controls.
The first of these four buttons opens a new sub-panel at the base of the screen with a more conventional virtual keyboard. I say more conventional because the default keyboard – like the original hardware – had three buttons to operate pitch bend and vibrato. These are recreated here – located to the left just above the default keyboard – and are fun to use, but many folks will prefer the more typical pitch and mod wheel approach. Incidentally, pitch and mod wheels on external keyboards operate as you would expect.
The second tab button (with the XY pad graphic) opens a pair of X-Y pads at the base of the screen. The right of these is fixed as a pitch controller for generating notes but the left-side one is for real-time control of some synth parameters. This defaults to the filter resonance and frequency but there is an Osc option also and the ability to assign controls of your own choosing via a pop-up menu system.
The other feature of this panel is the Scale and Voices options located on the right. The Scale button brings up a comprehensive selection panel to define the scale type, key and other features that configure how the XY pitch panel works. This is well worth exploring and does make the whole concept of controlling pitch from an XY pad much more useful and creative. Pick a suitable collection of settings and you can improvise a lead line with a single finger and never hit a duff note… no matter how poor your keyboard skills are.
The final two tab buttons are where all the synth engine controls can be found. The Synth Edit page contains six sub-panels. The Voices panels allows you to define how many voices the synth engine generates, how these are detuned, the mode of operation – mono, legato, duo and poly – and the portamento settings… oh, and those interesting pitch-bend buttons :-)
The next two panels offer identical control sets for the two oscillators – VCO1 and VCO2 – and, while there is nothing too mind-bending here in terms of options, there is a very ‘analog’ feel to things as you start to adjust the controls. And just because this is an engine based upon just two oscillators, don’t think it isn’t capable of some very rich sounds; it most certainly is.
The next two panels contain the LFO/Sample & Hold controls and the mixer/filter controls respectively. Tweaking the filter is, again, a very ‘analog synth’ kind of experience. This might be software but it certainly seems to offer a very big dollop of analog-style programming to the user. The filter section includes a three-way switch that allows you to shift between three different ‘editions’ of the filter based upon the three hardware iterations of the original synth.
The final panel on the Synth edit page contains the Envelope section with both a simple AR envelope and a full ADSR envelope. Flicking back across the other panels on this screen, you will see various switches and sliders where these envelopes and the LFO can be used to modulate other parameters within the synth.
No, this is not a comprehensive tutorial on how to program the ARP ODYSSEi – I’ll leave that to better brains than mine – but, even for my guitarist-based sound creation skills, I actually found experimenting with programming both fun and reasonably intuitive. It’s not a complex synth in the sense that there are dozens of oscillator options and multiple filters and a massive modulation matrix…. but there are still plenty of options and the somewhat quirky control surface, despite the busy-looking screen, it rather pleasing to navigate. It’s also great that all these key synth engine controls are contained within a single screen (well, on the iPad at least).
The final tab-button opens the Arpeggiator and Effects page. This is not something you would have found on the original hardware and, while I’m all for vintage emulations, it is also rather welcome to see Korg take advantage of what modern software can do and bring some additional sound-shaping options into the modern take on the Odyssey.
The effects section includes distortion, phaser, chorus/flanger, EQ, delay, reverb and, finally, a master volume fader. Each module can be switched on/off independently and each has enough control options to keep things interesting but without the user getting too bogged down. And while the effects themselves were not present on the original synth, the UI styling here is kept consistent with the Synth Edit page.
At the top of this page is the Arpeggiator section. At first glace this might look a little unspectacular but, in practice, this is a bit of a gem. You can, for example, set the number of steps from anywhere between 1 and 16 and the step tempo can be set freely or tempo sync’ed at a suitable musical note division. The Mode switch allows you to move through the steps in different ways. This includes the fairly obvious forwards and backwards options but random, odd steps, even steps or every third step is also possible.
However, the real fun starts with the options for step programming. In effect, you have six lanes in two groups of three. In the first set, you can program in a sequence for semitone pitch-shift, octave pitch-shift and the note gate (note duration). The second set provide three assignable lanes and you can pick from almost any synth parameter to control via the arpeggiator here. Want to step control the filter frequency or cut-off? Easy…. and any other parameter is just as easy a target.
I must admit that I got a bit lost in playing with this while working on the review. It is a lot of fun and highly creative. Perhaps the only downside is that there isn’t a separate preset system for just the arp functions as it would be great to be able to call up some pre-configured settings here and apply them to any sound you choose. Arp setting are saved with a preset though if you create a sound/arp combination and save it to the user preset folder.
An odyssey of sound
OK, so we have covered the control set, what about the actual sounds? Well, I think I can actually keep this pretty short…. it sounds great. If you pump the ARP ODYSSEi through any sort of decent monitoring system, the sound is rich, warm and full of character; providing you take care of the audio connections used to get the sound out of your iOS device in the first place, this is absolutely a gig-able or studio-ready synth.
Given the analog heritage, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the bass and leads sounds were my favourites. Nor is it perhaps surprising that many of the preset sounds perhaps capture something from the musical era when the original hardware was at its height. However, dig around the preset collection and it’s not all retro-analog; there are a number of patches that suggest you can get more contemporary sounds out of the app if that’s what you want.
Of course, we already have a good number of ‘classic analog synth’ emulations available under iOS. In sonic terms, ARP ODYSSEi is up there with the best of them. Whether you need to buy it in addition to whatever else is already sitting in your iOS synth app arsenal is, of course, a decision only you can make…. Korg’s latest offering is, however, an impressive sounding collection of zeros and ones :-)
Play with me
As mentioned earlier, ARP ODYSSEi provides Audiobus and IAA support and I had no difficulties making either work on my iPad Pro test system. For example, in Cubasis, I was able to load ODYSSEi onto an audio track as an IAA source in the Routing panel. Then, from a second MIDI track, which had its MIDI output routed to the ODYSSEi, I could record my MIDI part for the synth while also recording the synth’s audio output….
This workflow is, of course, no different from most other iOS synths with IAA support. However, with ARP ODYSSEi we also have the connection to Gadget. Here, ARP ODYSSEi is known as Lexington and it works pretty much as with any other gadget in Gadget’s collection of gadgets…. and, yes, that does mean you have full access to the presets (although, rather oddly, not the user presets; these seem to be two separate collection for the stand-alone and ‘gadget’ versions) and can run multiple instances of Lexington within a single Gadget project.
Within gadget, the control set for Lexington is split across three sub-screen; VCO, VCF/VCA and Effect. The first two cover the Synth Edit screen in the stand-alone app while the Effect screen is fairly self-explanatory. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, you don’t get the arpeggiator function or the XY pads which is a shame…..
Ideal number = N + 1
I don’t know about you, but I’ve just about lost track of the number of iOS synth apps that I own. I certainly don’t have then all installed on my iPad but even a ‘best of’ collection is still a pretty sizeable number. And, amongst that lot, are a number of very credible software emulations of classic analog synths. All of which begs the (obvious) question…. if you have as many iOS synths as I do, do you need another one, even one as good as ARP ODYSSEi?
OK, well the simple answer to that is ‘no’…. but as I’ve discussed numerous times before on these pages, ‘need’ and ‘want’ are two very different things. And given just how little money you have to pay in order to get what is a very impressive virtual synth, well…. temptation and curiosity will, I suspect, get the better of many iOS synth app fans.
On a technical level, maybe the app isn’t ‘perfect’…. What’s here – in my testing at least – performed flawlessly, but I’m sure many users would love to see Korg expand upon the MIDI spec (perhaps a MIDI Learn feature?) and add in support for Ableton Link. The biggie would be AU support and, in the way the Gadget version is implemented in Lexington, it does suggest a more compact UI format can be accommodated…. although, if so, can we keep the arpeggiator please?
Far be it from me to generalise about the financial status of the site’s readership. However, for many folks able to afford a fairly expensive bit of consumer technology such as an iPad or an iPhone, the price of an individual app – even one at the higher end of the App Store pricing structure – is unlikely to cause too many sleepless nights. Need or want I’ll leave up to you, but for my money at least, Korg’s ARP ODYSSEi represents excellent value for money. And what’s more, bargain or not, it sounds very impressive indeed.
I think Korg have done a great job with this app emulation of the Odyssey synth. Just how faithfully it has captured the exact sound of the original hardware is, frankly, a bit of a moot point. Indeed, even if it is just ‘pretty close’, then that’s going to be more than good enough for most of us punters who simply can’t afford to shell out for a room full of classic analog hardware synths (nor could we afford the insurance or space) but can, by forgoing a beer or three next week-end, probably afford Korg’s entry price to their latest iOS music app.
No, you might not need it, but if you have a bit of a passion for synths, and a bit of a passion for iOS music making, then ARP ODYSSEi is very easy indeed to ‘want’. Temptation is a difficult thing to master but, if you are going to succumb anyway, why not do it now while the app is available at its special launch pricing? UK£14.99/US$19.99 buys you a heck of a lot of virtual synth these days….. and Korg’s ARP ODYSSEi comes highly recommended.