Sugar Bytes have a bit of a cult following amongst desktop musicians. Their various virtual instruments and effects appeal to the more experimental electronic music producer and, whatever your own particular take on the products, the approach is always slightly left-of-centre (in a good way), always interesting, always deep (that is, there is a learning curve required) and often requires good eyesight (er… the user interfaces have a lot packed into a small space).
A good number of these desktop products have found their way over to iOS. This is a platform that attracts perhaps a higher proportion of those ‘experimental electronic musicians’ and, as a consequence, iOS music apps such as Turnado, Effectix, WOW Filterbox, Thesys ands Egoist have found a very receptive audience amongst the iOS faithful. All of the above descriptors – left-of-centre, interesting, deep, busy interfaces – apply to the iOS versions. However, what you also get is touchscreen control and App Store pricing. While the iOS versions are pretty much full implementations of the desktop products, they come with a considerably lower price tag.
Now I’m happy to admit to being a bit of a Sugar Bytes fan. I like the fact that their software offers something just a bit different and, while I do occasionally find myself squinting at the control surfaces, once you dig in to what’s on offer in any of these apps, you can get some excellent results. They might be priced at an almost casual purchase level, but these are far from casual pieces of software.
So, I’m always interested to see ‘what next?’ from the SB team and, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, that ‘what next?’ happens to be an iOS port of Cyclop. The app is a monophonic synth and, while it can do lead sounds quite happily, is really intended as a source of bass madness. At 60MB in size, providing you are on iOS7 or later and own an iPad (although a newer model is always going to be preferable), then you ought to be able to accommodate it. And, priced at UK£18.99 (compared to the desktop version that sells for US$139), you are getting quite a lot of instrument for a pretty modest price.
Oh, and as we will see later, you also get a game thrown in for free….
As can be seen from the various screenshots included here, Sugar Bytes have not strayed too far from their usual design ethos when it comes to UIs. The main screen of Cyclop is dark, industrial and packed with an abundance of features. On a full-size iPad – and with fairly nimble fingers – it’s not too much of a challenge to use (and the rewards are worth it) but do expect to occasionally catch the wrong button/control until you get familiar with things.
The app supports Audiobus, IAA and external MIDI input (the later for both notes and control options; there is a MIDI Learn feature built into the app). While the eventually result is monophonic (one note at a time), the actual sounds can be built by combining two ‘synth engine’ units, each of which offers a choice of six different engine algorithms. This is complemented by two identical filter engines each with ten different modes of operation. There is also a sub-bass sound engine that you can blend in in various ways to beef up the bottom end even further.
Cyclop also features a very flexible sound modulation system and some brilliant options for real-time sound control. In addition, there are also various effects included – distortions, DJ-style edits, a gater and delays amongst them – and these can be sequenced in a very Effectrix sort of fashion (although simplified compared to what that app does). Oh, and as well as the large Effects Knob (top-right and that allows you to switch quickly between different effects configurations), you also get the large Wobble Knob (try to say it without smiling). Yes, Cyclop does dubstep basses and offers plenty of options in that regard :-)
The app is supplied with a huge collection of presets and, within the preset browsing system, there is a tagging/rating system (so you can easily find what you are after) plus a rather novel ‘Word Cloud’ option for finding presets based upon tags.
Face of a cyclop
I don’t know how good your Greek mythology is but while a Cyclops is a mythical one-eyed giant, Sugar Bytes take on the theme is perhaps more Marvel/X-Men and superhero in style. The interface is certainly packed with more than a single eye…
The main screen is divided into five areas, four of which stay pretty much permanently on display (the exception being the top-centre section where you can toggle between different features). Along the bottom of the display is a virtual keyboard (fine in use but I did most of my own testing via my CME Xey; I had no problems hooking a couple of different MIDI keyboards for use with Cyclop).
Immediately above this is a strip of five sub-units. These comprise the two synth engine units (oscillators/sound sources; on the left) and the two filters (on the right). In between these is the routing module (that allows you to choose between various preset signal flow options through the two oscillators and two filters).
Top-left is the Wobble Knob section. I’ll come back to this later but, actually, what you get is almost two Wobble Knobs (A and B) that can each have different modulation settings and the ability to blend between them in real-time using the Amount knob.
Top-right is a section that combines a number of features. This includes the FX Knob (for switching between various multi-effects combinations), the Sound Knob (one of the real-time modulation controls) and the Master Effects controls (the four smaller knobs). The latter include the Sub-Oscillator, a frequency-band-based stereo processor, a bass boost option and a distortion unit (with nine different distortion types available).
The final section – top-centre – provides access to the preset system plus, dominating this section of the display, a multi-function screen. You can toggle through the various features this area gives access to via the six buttons that run in two strips of three down its left and right sides. These include options for configuring how the Wobble Generator responds, how they various modulation options are configured, setting up the effects sequencer and accessing the apps’ general Settings options (for configuring MIDI, internal tempo and other settings).
Sound of Cyclop
Even this whistle-stop tour of the interface gives some insight into the sheer number of options available in Cyclop. It is, frankly, all a bit mind-blowing on first encounter.
Fortunately (for both you as a potential user and me as a reviewer), Sugar Bytes have done the decent (and essential) thing and produced an excellent PDF manual for the app that explains very clearly what each of these sections of the interface is for and the options available. The document also links to a number of short YouTube videos that demonstrate some of the key features in operation.
If I was to attempt to cover every feature here…. well, the review would be the size of a small book and the app might be out of date before you finished reading it…. so, instead, I’ll focus in on just the basics and a few personal highlights. If you do then take the plunge, this is an app where RTFM applies if you want to get off to a smooth start… it will save you a lot of time and experimentation compared to trying to work it all out for yourself.
At it’s heart, Cyclop’s sound comes from a combination of two sets of components; the synthesis/filter sections and the modulation/effects sections so, to give a flavour of the app’s possibilities, I’ll say a little about each of these without, hopefully, getting too bogged down in the details.
Let’s start with the synth engines. As indicated above, there are two of these. They can be toggled on/off independently and routed through the filters in various ways using the Routing Module. For each synth unit, you actually get a choice between six different types of synthesis engine; Saw Regiment, Analog Sync, FM, Transformer, Spectromat and Phase Stressor.
The Saw regiment offers a kind of super-saw oscillator with multiple sawtooth waveforms that are slightly detuned. As with all the different engine modes, the three knobs at the top of each synth unit allow you to tweak the engine behaviour. The labels and functions of these knobs change for each engine type and, as the knobs themselves are one of the 16 modulation targets available within Cyclop, you can easy modulate your synth parameters to produce changes in the sound as you play.
Analog Sync models a paired analog oscillator set running in sync and provides some very fat bass tones, while FM (surprise!) gives you an FM-based flavour. The Transformer option provides a wavetable synth engine where you can load an audio sample and reprocess it. The app is provided with a good selection of audio files for use with this but you can also add your own through iTunes File Sharing (this worked a treat for me) or even load audio from your iTunes music library. Transformer also features formant shifting for some nice vowel-like overtones.
The Spectromat offers 32 spectral frequency bands, each of which can be turned on/off (providing that your fingers are up to it; the toggle buttons are tiny) and the amplitude curve applied to the spectrum can be shaped, allowing you to dial in different tones. Finally, the Phase Stressor gives a taste of phase distortion synthesis including the option to self-modulate the oscillator.
While you only get a limited number of parameters to controls with each of these six different engine types, the range of tones and types of sounds you can actually coax out of just one of the synth engines is staggering. When you then start to combine the two engines together – and add in Cyclop’s other sound shaping options – well, even the most jaded of synth-head is likely to have something to keep them quiet (or not so quiet) for some time.
The filter options are similarly flexible. The ten different filter types can be selected via the small buttons at the base of each unit. They include various band pass, low pass, ripple, mid-boost and comb filter options. Again, you get three main parameters to tweak via the three larger knobs at the top of each filter unit. As with the synth units, these are all available as modulation targets.
The other neat feature of the filters is their vowel mode. This can add a very vocal-like overtone to your sound and, providing your fingers can cope with the fine-control, you can customise the vowel sounds used in each filter.
Even if you never really dip into the modulation and effects options (which would, of course, never happen), the combination of the two synth units and two filters – along with the different routing options provided by the Routing Module – mean that Cyclop is a hugely versatile sound source. Yep, you have to spend some time to explore and the controls are … er… ‘compact’, but there is a lot of sonic fun to be had here.
All mod cons
And what of those modulation and effects options. Well, they are equally deep, equally versatile and equally ‘compact’ in their layout. If you are using an external MIDI keyboard with some control options, you can assign many of Cyclop’s controls to an external controller; just tap and hold on a control and a simple MIDI Learn option will open. This seems to apply to all the rotary controls within the main interface. For hands-on, real-time, control, therefore, you have plenty of options.
However, the app also provides you with five modulation sources and 14 modulation targets… so you can also configure automatic sound changes that kick in as you play. The modulation sources are provided by the Wobble Knob, an envelope, and LFO, the built-in step sequencer and the Sound Knob. The modulation targets are the sets of three knobs in each of the two synth units and filter units, the master pitch and volume settings and the two mix controls within the Routing Module (and that influence how the two synth units and filters are blended).
Configuring these various modulation options is where that top-centre section of the app’s main display comes in. If you tap the Modulation button (bottom-left of this section of the screen), the display toggles to show all the current modulation settings. Along the base, you can pick one of the five modulation sources by tapping on the mini-displays of their settings and those settings are then shown in the main part of the display.
This main section shows all 14 modulation targets arranged along the top and you can simply set the level that the currently selected modulation source will have for each of those targets. This is pretty easy to use (if, again, offering so much flexibility that it takes time to learn just how to use it effectively).
Indeed, there is so much functionality packed into this central portion of the screen, it is difficult to give a full sense of what’s on offer without this being a mega-thesis. Needless to say, you can configure the envelope and LFO options from here (and, again, there are lots of options) but it is also here that you can configure the effects, step sequencer features and the behaviour of the Wobble Knob.
Big knob, small knob
Perhaps that’s where we should go next; the Wobble Knob. This is, frankly, a bit bonkers. It offers 12 positions into which you can place different LFO waveforms (and even a dice to randomise the settings). Each of the slots provides a different oscillation speed from slow (at 7 o’clock) to fast (at 5 o’clock). So, if you have configured the Wobble Knob to modulate a parameter elsewhere within Cyclop, you can radically change how that modulation is applied by rotating the knob. Load up a few of the wobble bass type presets and you can hear this in action; for dubstep bass clichés this is a bit of a breeze.
Note that, in addition, back in the modulation config tab of the central screen element, there is an A/B toggle when you are configuring the Wobble Knobs modulation settings. In fact, this allows you to configure two different sets of modulation options for the Wobble Knob… and you can then blend between them using the Amount knob (located just below the Wobble Knob itself). Lack of flexibility is not a criticism you can level at Cyclop….
Tapping on the ‘star’ button within the central multi-function section of the display open the effects sequencer. Here you can create eight combinations of up to four effects. You simply tap on a cell to add an effect in that lane and can then drag up/down to select the effect preset. The four lanes feature pitch, loop, vinyl and ‘other’ effects types respectively. Note that along the top there is also a Gater option; tap and set up some rhythmic elements to your sounds. This works very well indeed by the way.
This is all a bit ‘mini Effectrix’ in nature as this series of effects options can then be played back in sequence – and in sync with whatever tempo setting – to generate further sound changes as you play. The sequencer is triggered from the large FX Knob section but you can also choose ‘manual’ control. In this mode, you simply rotate the knob to one of its eight positions to pick which effects combination is active at any time.
There is a further element of the four larger knobs within the Cyclop interface; they can be controlled by an internal automation system. The Wobble Knob, Amount Knob, FX Knob and Sound Knob all offer a ‘record’ button’ and a ‘play’ button. You simply record some knob movements and then activate play… the movements are then reproduced while you trigger some notes…
The automation data created for these four knobs can also be edited via the central multi-function display where you can also change the step-length and sequence length should to wish to. As all four knobs also offer MIDI Learn, you could, of course, automate them from your DAW/sequencer if that offers automation of remote apps.
Back to Earth
OK, so before my (and maybe your) head explodes with all this stuff, what about some basics ‘does it work?’ comments? I had no problems using the app via Audiobus. Given Sugar Bytes experience now with iOS, this is perhaps not surprising.
The app also worked fine as an audio source via IAA within Cubasis and, at the same time, seemed happy to receive MIDI data from a MIDI track within Cubasis. The app also worked well as a MIDI IAA app on a Cubasis’ MIDI track. In short, whatever standard workflow setup you like to use, Cyclop would seem to be able to cope.
And, technical specifications and any possible learning curve aside, Cyclop does make some great sound. Forget the fancy wobble stuff for a bit and just load up a few of the ‘simple’ (using the rather neat Word Cloud tag system) bass sounds and there is plenty here for more routine dance and electronic styles; you don’t have to be a dubstep wannabe to get something useful out of Cyclop.
While the app sounds good whatever monitoring system you might choose to use, through a set of speakers that can produce a decent amount of low frequency sound, you also soon realise that Cyclop can pack a decent bottom-end punch. Indeed, you might take the levels a bit on the easy side as you explore the presets in case to give yourself or someone two doors down) a bit of a shock (or even your speaker cones).
In short, sonically, Cyclop is flexible, packs a heck of a punch and, despite being both deep and featuring a very dense user interface, actually quite a lot of fun to use.
Oh, and don’t forget to tap the Cyclop logo located top-centre of the display. You then get a kind of space invaders game displayed in the multi-function screen area. Move your white Cyclop left/right using a single finger and ‘fire’ MIDI notes to destroy the invaders… No, I’ve no idea what inspired Sugar Bytes to include a simple computer game within a music app but, for 5 minutes at least, you can be a keyboard player to save the universe :-)
If you know the Sugar Bytes brand already then the style and execution of Cyclop will come as no surprise. This is not a ‘me too’ bass synth… it’s a very Sugar Bytes take on the idea of a bass synth. The consequence is that it is packed with features and options for the user, does require a bit of a learning curve (although the manual is very good in this regard) and has a user interface that could politely be described as ‘busy’.
However, to go along with all this you get an amazing array of sounds (providing you fully exploit all those features), some great bass (and lead) tones, a hugely creative set of modulation and effects options and some not inconsiderable dollops of fun (even without the mini-game).
I don’t think Cyclop is for everyone. If you are looking for a ‘starter’ synth for bass sounds, or a set of basic bass presets, then maybe this is not the most intuitive place to begin (try iMini maybe; that sounds great but will not make your head spin?). However, for the dedicated hardcore iOS synth fan, those who like to get experimental (and maybe a touch nerdy) about their synth sounds, or perhaps you are just addicted to dubstep bass sounds or iOS synth apps (or both), then Cyclop is going to be very tempting indeed.
At UK£18.99, Cyclop is not the cheapest iOS music app you could buy this week but, given the features, depth and sound, I think is represents brilliant value for money. As far as I can tell, the feature set matches the desktop version very closely and that sells for 4-5 times the price. You will need to dig in and do some initial work in order to fully capitalise on what Cyclop might have to offer you…. but if you are up for that, and you like your bass sounds big, bad and sometimes slightly mad, then Cyclop is well worth giving the one-eyed stare. Highly recommended.