As any experienced iOS musician will be aware, the App Store is not short of virtual synths. Amongst some also-rans, there are some fabulous software instruments amongst to be found and, whatever combination of criteria you have to match – synthesis style, complexity/simplicity, price, etc. – there is something (and often several somethings) for everyone.
Let’s take a couple of examples just to illustrate this. If you are happy to use a synth that is basically a massive preset machine with just a small number of key tweakable parameters, then KV331 Audio’s SynthMaster Player might be a suitable starting point. In contrast, if you want something that gives you more control over your sound and where you can tweak the synth engine at a deeper level, then how about something like Thor or Nave or iM1?
Of course, for the real synth-heads, even this might not be enough and the next rung on the synth control freak ladder is a modular synth; essentially, whether in hardware or (now more likely) software, you get all the components required to build a synth (or some other sort of audio processing device) from scratch… your design, your sound…. the ultimate in DIY and, hopefully, in creating a unique sonic element for your music making.
The App Store has a number of modular synth options including the excellent AnalogKit and zMors Modular (and there is also a rather cute modular synth option built into Caustic). However, under iOS, perhaps the daddy of this category is Audulus.
Available on both the desktop and as an iOS app, Audulus has been around for quite some time and I reviewed the app in its v.2 form in December 2013. Two years later, and with a few 2.X updates under his belt, Audulus developer Taylor Holliday has now launched a new version – v.3 of Audulus. This is released as a new app rather than an update or IAP to v.2 and, as suggested by the spec sheet, it is a significant step up from v.2 with lots of new features and a considerable overhaul of the (already slick) user interface.
So, if modular synths (and modular sound component design) is something that might appeal, then should Audulus 3 be on your ‘most wanted’ list? Well, I think it probably should but, back when I reviewed v.2, I was more than happy to confess that I have a guitar player’s brain when it comes to high-powered synths; I can appreciate the awesome technology but I know that I’m some distance from being able to master all they have to offer. And, while I’ve learned quite a lot about synth technology from the iOS music making community over the last couple of years, I’m still in synth kindergarden.
So, yes, this will be a ‘review’ of Audulus 3 but I’m not going to claim I understand anything but a small proportion of what this app is capable of and I’ll qualify any recommendations by waving my registration papers for ‘synthesis 101’ class :-)
In terms of the basic concepts, Audulus 3 builds directly upon Audulus 2 and, if you have used the previous version, working practice here will seem familiar. As such, the basic building blocks are the extensive collection of Nodes. These are the most fundamental objects within the design system and they cover things such as an ADSR envelope, low pass filter, high pass filter, 4-channel mixer, Input/output, a MIDI controlled keyboard and…. well, a pretty extensive list of virtual ‘components’ sitting in an inexhaustible supply in your synth design tool shed.
On top of this, the app includes built-in Modules and one of the impressive new additions in v.3 is the extensive collection of new modules that have been added for this release. A Module can almost be considered as a self-contained Audulus project in its own right as each is constructed from Nodes, linked together using Audulus’ virtual cables. Take a few of these Modules, therefore, add in a few cables of your own, and you can be building your own design in no time. They are, in essence, a design short cut where you are supplied with a whole bunch of very useful ‘pre-built’ components ready to go.
It’s worth noting that, in one of the tutorial videos that have been developed for the app, Nodes are described as ‘atoms’ while Modules are described as ‘molecules’. That’s a pretty apt analogy and the next level up is perhaps the ‘substance’ where you take a number of Modules (themselves built from Nodes) and combine them to form more complex sound sources or audio processing tools in an Audulus design of your own.
One other change – aside from the huge number of Modules now included with the app – is that every component – Node or Module – is now included in the base price. Previously, some of the more esoteric components had required an additional IAP or two; now, one price gets you everything. I suspect most users will prefer this approach.
As before, when you start a new project, tapping on a blank area of the screen generates a pop up ‘ring’ with options to select from but, alongside some rather slick re-polishing of the user interface and the graphical design of the various components, there is now a new pop-up panel that can be displayed at the base of the screen and where many of the components can now be accessed and added to your design.
This panel includes three tabs allowing you to (a) scroll through existing Modules, (b) select from the various Nodes and (c) display a virtual keyboard so you can play your creations. This is all pretty easy to work with and, aside from the fact that there really are a lot of virtual components here to get your head around, this new panel helps make the workflow pretty smooth.
I love the rather futuristic styling of Audulus and, on an iPad Pro, that extra bit of screen real-estate does make working with complex creations that little bit easier. However, given that the options for zooming in/out and scrolling around larger designs are easy to use, even on a standard iPad, design work is still perfectly possible…. I’d perhaps hesitate to say the same on the iPhone although, once created, this is still a suitable platform for playing your Audulus creations.
Oh, and do watch the videos embedded below; the size limitations the screenshots shown here really do not do the beautiful interface os Audulus 3 justice.
And here’s one I made earlier
There are a few example projects included with the app and, as mentioned above, a number of tutorial videos have been created (and more are in development I believe). As with v.2, even for a synth numbty like me, putting together a few components to create a basic synth didn’t take too long.
However, I think I’d probably need to spend some considerable time with the app to create something like the example ‘Bare Bones Sub Synth’… so the more advanced possibilities Audulus undoubtedly offers are perhaps beyond my own current understanding of the principles of designing sound tools. This would, however, be a brilliant environment in which to experiment while developing that understanding; no expensive hardware parts, no soldering iron and no potentially lethal explosions when things so wrong. If you want a software environment to use as a basis for learning about all this stuff, Audulus would make for an interesting practical classroom.
That said, one of the things about Audulus 3 that perhaps makes it easier for those (like me) less versed in synth building to take on more ambitious projects is simply because of the huge number of pre-built Modules included. These are very well organised and there are some sensible groupings that make it easier to find what you might be interested in. From basic sequencers, bitcruschers, oscillators, distortion units, filters, mixers, pitch shifters through to…. well, it’s a long list.
If you do want to get down to the component (Node) level, that is also well organised via the new panel at the base of the screen, with different Node types organised into some sensible groups. Yes, you still have to have some sense of just what Nodes you need to hook together in order to build what you have in mind (otherwise you are just going to be randomly linking virtual bits together and seeing what happens) but, if you have a grasp of that, then Audulus is a rather beautiful sandbox in which to play.
Again, I had a lot of fun trying to get a basic synth design to make some noise (I got there in the end). As a potential user, perhaps the key thing to realise is that the bottleneck for any user trying to tap into the very considerable potential offered by Audulus is not that the app is difficult to use – the slick interface makes it exactly the opposite – but you do need to know something about the underlying principles of synths and sound device design. If you have that knowledge, Audulus makes it easy to apply that knowledge and realise your design ideas.
Who’s it for?
Like v.2, Audulus 3 is a hugely impressive app. The interface is well-thought out and, on the whole, very easy to navigate considering just how complex your synth constructions can get. It offers almost limitless possibilities in terms of constructing a unique synth based upon the range of supplied modules.
Also as with v.2, v.3 is a niche app; it is brilliant at what it does but what it does is likely to appeal to a very specific sub-set of iOS musicians. Given that you have to construct your sounds from the ground up, I suspect Audulus might be just a step (or three) too far for musicians who just want a palette of synth sounds in a programmable format.
The large selection of new Modules certainly make this version more accessible but this is still something really aimed at the dedicated synth geek. It’s deep and powerful and capable of some absolutely fabulous sounds. Not for everyone perhaps but, if you want the ultimate in ‘roll your own’ synth programming, Audulus is about as good as it gets.
Updates, upgrades and new versions
As mentioned earlier, v.3 of Audulus is being sold on the App Store as a new product. It is not an update to v.2 and nor is there an upgrade path from v.2 for existing users; 2 plus years of free updates since my original review of v.2, users new and old are being asked to buy into v.3 as a new product.
This whole ‘update vs upgrade vs new product’ debate is something I’ve discussed previously on the blog. This week, I’ve had a few Audulus 2 users contact me grumbling about the approach adopted with v.3 and, while I can see the point they are making – that there isn’t something of a discounted route into v.3 for those loyal customers currently using v.2 – I can also see the position of the development team very clearly. There has been a lot of new work put into Audulus 3 and, if you ask any iOS music app developer, I think you will find that profit margins are slim given the App Store’s pricing model even for those apps that sell in larger numbers. When you develop an app such as Audulus, which is going to appeal to a relatively small niche within an already niche audience…. well, it’s easy to see the argument for finding a return on the development investment.
We should also bear in mind that, under iOS at least, this is, in real terms, not an expensive product. The current UK£22.99 price might be towards the upper end of the App Store range but, on the desktop, this would be classed as ‘budget’. Indeed, the OSX version of Audulus is the same price and, compared to competing products on that platform, ‘bargain’ is the obvious word to use.
iOS musicians have to accept that we need developers to be able to put food on the table if they are going to continue to develop the products we want to use. If, in an individual case, you find that the price of buying an ‘upgrade IAP’ or ‘new version’ of an app that you currently use is just a step too far financially…. well, that’s obviously your decision – however difficult it might me – given your own specific financial circumstances. But, at this point, I’d politely suggest that there are not many iOS music app developers driving between multiple houses in one of several Ferraris they own; app sales for niche iOS music apps are simply not big enough to create that kind of return on investment. Without levering some financial return on new developments, such apps are, eventually, simply going to cease to be.
On the flipside, I’ve also had a number of existing v.2 users contact me to say they stumped up for v.3 in a heartbeat given the new features and that they are more than happy to invest in what they see as an innovative developer making software that they use regularly…. You pay your money (or not) and you take your choice.
The best specialist tools do, generally, come at a price; high development costs and low unit numbers mean this is an almost inevitable situation if the business building said tools is to survive and prosper in order to build them even better next time around. In that context, for the target audience, I think Audulus 3 offers amazing value for money.
As a modular synth playground/workshop for the super-keen synth fan who is intrigued by the possibility of designing and building their own sound sources, Audulus 3 is a powerful, elegant and inexpensive way to indulge in your passion. No, this is not an app that is going to appeal to the iOS music-making masses – it’s a specialist app aimed at a specialist audience – but, even my guitar-shaped brain can see this is an app that is very good at what it does.