As any experienced iOS musician will be aware, like their desktop equivalents, software synths for iOS come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and serve different needs. At their most basic, you get what are essentially preset machines that offer a broad palette of sounds but little by way of user programmability (sample-based ‘synths’ that perhaps just offer a few tweaks; perfectly useable but maybe not very flexible).
Perhaps more interesting – at least to those with a keener interest in developing and customising their own synth sounds – are those offering more control over the synth’s engine. Even here there are different levels of complexity. For example, if you are a bit of a synth newbie, you might try Arctic ProSynth; plenty of control but not too mind-bending to get your head around and it sounds great. The more adventurous and courageous might, however, go for a Thor or a Nave; huge flexibility and power, capable of creating equally huge and complex sounds but with quite a learning curve.
And then there is something like Audulus…. this is not just a highly programmable synth… it is a modular ‘synth design kit’ in software. Now I have a guitar players brain when it comes to high-powered synths; I can appreciate the awesome technology Nave or Thor offer but I know that I’m some distance from being able to master all that power and potential. So just how am I (or anyone else without a PhD in synth technology) going to cope with building their own synth from scratch as this is pretty much what Audulus offers?
Well, if like me, you still consider yourself still in the ‘synthesis 101’ class, don’t press the panic button just yet because Audulus is actually not (quite) as scary as it sounds. In addition, since the iPad version was first released in late 2012, Taylor Holliday – the person behind Subatomic Software – has created a number of really excellent tutorial videos illustrating how the app (and its Mac OSX equivalent version) can be used.
If you happen to be a guitar player and reading this, perhaps the most obvious comparison that might make sense is with Positive Grid’s BIAS where you get to build a virtual guitar amp from scratch by tweaking all the individual components to create your ideal tone. Audulus does something similar for synths although, if anything, there is somewhat greater freedom in how the various components can be linked together.
For fully paid up synth-heads, Audulus is going to have an obvious appeal but, for the rest of us mortals, is Audulus worth plucking up courage for?
When you first start Audulus – and load one of the example projects supplied with the app – aside from wondering quite what all that spaghetti might be for, the first impression is most certainly one of a rather modern, minimalist design. While the app might be harking back in concept to classic modular synths from the hardware age, in terms of the user interface, it is most definitely up to date.
Audulus essentially provides you with a stock of virtual synth components (termed ‘modules’). Once placed in the interface, these components become ‘nodes’ and have various types of inputs and outputs that you can link to other nodes using virtual patch cables.
The components include virtual analog oscillators, an ADSR envelope, noise generator, random number generator, mathematical oprators, a MIDI keyboard, a step sequencer, delay, distortion, low and high pass filters, sample and hold, a four channel mixer, pitch shifter and polyphonic to monophonic mixer amongst a range of others. If you get really hooked, then there are additional components available as in-app purchase (IAPs) and these currently include additional maths expression modules, timing, a polyphonic pack (for additional stereo and quadraphonic processing) and custom nodes.
Audulus includes a virtual MIDI keyboard for playing patches (and the keys recreate velocity sensitivity depending upon where you tap on them) but it will also work quite happily with an external keyboard if you have one connected. Audulus includes Audiobus support for either the Input or Effects slot. As well using the oscillators as a sound source, Audulus’ Input module can accept an audio signal that can then be processed within your synth creation. Placing Audulus in the Audiobus Effect slot and your ‘sound source’ in the Audiobus Input slot (perhaps a mic, guitar amp sim or another synth) provides a convenient way to establish this.
Tapping on a blank area of the screen generates a pop up ‘ring’ with options to select from, allowing you to add new modules from the various groups (synth, effects, MIDI, DSP, etc.). These include the Metering group that allow you to monitor different types of data as it moves between modules but that don’t, in themselves, modify that data; these are very useful for allowing you to track down problems with your construction and to check just exactly what signal is moving where.
Once you get beyond a couple of oscillators, envelopes and filters, the display can get a little busy. Usefully, you can easily move around your virtual synth, zooming in and out by pinching and also rearrange components on the screen without having to disconnect or reconnected; the virtual cables just stretch to accommodate.
To sum up the interface, it is stylish and attractive and, within the limitations of the size of the iPad’s screen, allows you to build, and navigate around, quite complex synth structures without getting lost. While Audulus most certainly has a learning curve, this is not down to the interface but more to the myriad of possibilities the various components offer in term of their connectivity.
While it didn’t take even a synth numbty like me too long to throw together a few oscillators, a filter or two and an ADSR envelope, Audulus is a deep app and, to get the best from it would, I suspect, require some considerable time and effort. It doesn’t, however, take much of a leap of faith to appreciate the very considerable potential here. Equally, the small number of example patches that are included with the app demonstrate the sorts of possibilities. My only criticism here is that there are not a few more supplied with the iPad version. At present, I think Subatomic are still working on a ‘patch sharing’ feature for the iPad version (it does exist in the OSX version) and I’m sure that would be very useful for new users as it could provide a catalogue of examples to dig into and understand.
That said, Taylor does a pretty good job of introducing the synth construction process via the video embedded below. This is pretty much essential viewing before you get started and it does a good job of explaining the basics. There are a number of other videos you can access via Subatomic’s website that cover other features of the app and that are also worth a look.
Adulation for Audulus?
I’m not making any claims to be an Audulus expert here; you would have to spend a lot more time with this app than I have so far to reach that status. Even so, the potential is obvious and Audulus really is a pretty 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.
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. For those users, a Nave, Thor, iSEM or Arctic ProSynth may well be plenty to get their heads around. However, if the app was perhaps supplied with a larger set of preset constructions – or those could be freely downloaded from the Subatomic’s website, that would, I’m sure, widen the appeal and make the app just a little more accessible from the off.
However, if you are a dedicated synth geek then Adulus – whether on the iPad or under OSX – is going to be just up your street. Just as BIAS cranks my particular guitar-amp-nerd handle, then Audulus ought to hit the spot for all of your ‘what’s the biggest, baddest, maddest synth I could build?’ moments. 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.
And if that sounds like you, at the time of writing (12th December 2013), you can click on the links below and grab Audulus at 50% off the usual price as an early Christmas present to yourself. Normally selling for UK£13.99, Subatomic have it at UK£6.99 in a holiday period sale; bargain :-)