iDS-10 review – Korg recreate their mini synth studio in an iPhone app

Download from iTunes App StoreiDS-10 logo 1Regular visitors to the Music App Blog will be aware that I’m a big fan of Korg’s various iOS music apps. As I posted last week, the latest offering is the iDS-10, an app that Korg describe as a portable synthesizer studio. The underlying concept harks back to Korg’s MS series hardware synths but, in software form, the DS-10 originated as a Nintendo DS music creation program. Korg have now upped the ante somewhat with the iDS-10 and, while it works wonderfully on an iPad, the new app is designed specifically for the iPhone to give iOS musicians a truly mobile synth/music production experience.

While the iPhone format means that the iDS-10 has been designed to be a pretty streamlined affair, if you are familiar with Korg’s iMS-20 iPad music app (itself based upon the classic MS-20 hardware synth), then the basic concept here will be instantly familiar. Indeed, in some respects, you could describe the iDS-10 as a sort of iMS-20 scaled and tweaked for the iPhone format.

Korg's iDS-10 - a mobile synth studio designed specifically for the iPhone.

Korg’s iDS-10 – a mobile synth studio designed specifically for the iPhone.

In essence, what you are getting here is two emulated analog mono synths, a voice synthesizer (although you can coax more than just robotic voices out of it) and a six-part drum synthesizer. Add to this the ability to create full projects by arranging/sequencing from a bank of up to 32 user patterns, with each pattern able to contain up to 64 steps, and you have enough sound sources and enough sequencing features to create a fully-formed music production within a single iPhone app.

In that sense, iDS-10 can be seen as an ‘all-in-one’ music production app for your iPhone where one app is all you need…. which is kind of a good job because, in this first iteration at least, there is a somewhat limited set of options for getting iDS-10 to work with other iOS music apps. There is no Audiobus or IAA connectivity and, aside from hooking the audio output of your iPhone up to another recording device, no way of actually exporting a WAV or MP3 files from your finished projects. This may well deter some potential users but, given the ‘all-in-one’ nature of the app and its primary design function, I’m not sure it is such a big deal…. That said, Korg have already indicated that these features are likely to be part of the app’s development plans.

Under the hood

Let’s start with the sound sources. The iDS-10 kicks off with two mono (one note at a time) virtual analog synths. Both feature a twin oscillator design and include filter and envelope sections, some rather nice modulation options and a choice between five different effects types. This will not be the most powerful synthesis engine/editing environment you may have ever encountered but it is certainly capable of some powerful sounds… and there are a selection of presets that you can access via the Menu button when you have the Synth editing screen displayed. As you might expect from a mono synth, things are dominated by lead and bass tones but there are some beefy sounds to be had here.

The two main synth units feature some rather neat modulation options - and some neat graphics to go with them :-)

The two main synth units feature some rather neat modulation options – and some neat graphics to go with them :-)

While this fairly modest control set means that, in the main, programming sounds is not a very complex task, the modulation section is actually quite good fun and provides some rather nice Reason-esq virtual cables to plug in and play with. The other very neat element of the synth’s design is the combination of the scale options (hit the Scale button and you can constrain the virtual keyboard to a particular key/type) and the Kaoss X-Y pad.

The main Synth is supplied with a decent set of preset sounds.

The main Synth is supplied with a decent set of preset sounds.

The latter can be used to control two user-selected synth parameters in real time but, if set to its Note/Gate mode, it can also be used to play/record note data into one of the iDS-10’s 32 pattern slots. This is a great way to get creative with melody or bass parts when building up your patterns.

You can customise the key/scale combination used by the virtual keyboard or the Kaoss pads.

You can customise the key/scale combination used by the virtual keyboard or the Kaoss pads.

Speak to me

The Voice Synth obviously features a somewhat different engine and is based on a sort of vocoder. Here, you can either type in some text or record a vocal phrase via the iPhone’s internal mic. Either way, when you then hit a key (or trigger notes via the Kaoss pad), that phrase is synthesised and played back is a suitably robotic voice.

There are various ways in which you can tweak the sound generated. For example, the Start control allows you to fine-tune the start position of playback in the phrase, while the Formant and Resonance controls can change the character of the voice is some interesting ways. As with the main synths, you also get a selection of five basic effects options.

The Voice synth is a lot of fun... but also quite flexible as a sound source.

The Voice synth is a lot of fun… but also quite flexible as a sound source.

While you can not use this Voice engine to add straight vocal parts, as a means of getting some catchy robotic vocals into your tracks, it is a whole lot of fun. Usefully, you can use a different vocal phrase for each of the project’s 32 patterns so you can build up vocal phrases that might stretch over several patterns to form a song section such as a verse or chorus. There is certainly enough flexibility to create some ear-candy robotic vocal hooks.

However, as you can record any sound into the Voice synth engine – it doesn’t have to be recognisable words – for it to then synthesize, you can actually get all sorts of weird (and sometimes wonderful) noise out of this unit; if you can sing it or play it, Voice synth will process it. It can, therefore, become a third synth unit for your composition.

The Kaoss pads can be used for sound tweaking but are also brilliant for note entry.

The Kaoss pads can be used for sound tweaking but are also brilliant for note entry.

Drummer boy

The drum synth section of iDS-10 features six different ‘mini’ drum synths each designed to create a certain type of drum sound – kick, snare, hihat1, hihat2, tom and perc – with each engine having a slightly different control set to reflect this. Each sound can also have a variable amount of a single ‘master’ effect applied to it via the Mixer screen (more on this below).

The Drum synth offers six synthesised drum sounds.

The Drum synth offers six synthesised drum sounds.

There is nothing to be too scared of here. The drum synth engines are very easy to tweak and, while the principle is similar to a dedicated synth app such as Elastic Drums, there isn’t the same level of sophistication on offer here. The sounds are good though and, as with the synth engines, there is enough variety to keep things interesting. There are a few preset drum kit sounds included within the app that can help get you started including a rather fun Chiptune set.

Follow the pattern

If you tap the Main button then you get a screen that shows you a mini-graphic version of all the patterns in your project. Four such patterns can be shown at any one time and you simply scroll left/right to display others.

The Pattern screen overview.

The Pattern screen overview.

This screen is useful on two counts. First, because you can see the step sequences for each of the three synths and the drum synth, you can get a good visual cue as to the musical phrase in each pattern. Second, if you hit the Play button within this screen then you can manually trigger the patterns in any sequence you like…. and while one pattern is playing, if you tap on another of the PTN buttons at the base of the screen, it will be cued to take over when the current pattern finishes.

Oh, and a third use…. if you tap on any of the pattern display elements within this screen then you get taken directly to the step/grid editor for that instrument/pattern combination.

On the grid

In principle, the grid/step sequencer environment for pattern creation is going to be familiar to anyone who has used this kind of system before, with notes (or drum sounds) listed down the left edge and time (steps in the grid) shown along the horizontal axis. The pattern editor only shows 16 steps at one time but, as mentioned earlier, you can change to length of individual patterns to be anywhere between 1 and 64 steps.

The grid/step editor for the main synth units.

The grid/step editor for the main synth units….

The number of steps in each pattern is edited via the Set button which opens a dialog allowing you to set the global BMP and Swing settings plus the step length for each pattern and, if you want to vary the tempo, to set a BPM ratio value for individual patterns. This is quite a neat feature if you want to add tempo variations during your project.

Entering notes or drum hits is simply a matter of tapping on the required cell of the grid. Do note, however, that for the synth devices, the note selection displayed is controlled by any Scale settings you might have made… so this is a neat way to reduce the possibility of duff notes.

... and for the drum synth unit.

… and for the drum synth unit.

As mentioned earlier, you can also use the Kaoss pad available in each of the main synth screens for note entry; just tap the REC button and the current pattern will then loop while you noodle. New notes replace old as each pass through the loop is performed.

Mini mixer

The Mixer screen allows you to balance the various sound sources in your project. The mixer is a fairly basic affair but covers the basics of level, pan, a master effects send level, mute and solo buttons plus the selection of the master effect and the option to tweak a couple of its settings.

Er… and that’s about it :-)

The iDS-10 mixer is pretty basic but gets the job done.

The iDS-10 mixer is pretty basic but gets the job done.

Going for a song

If you hit the Song button then a different grid editor appears. Here, time is again on the horizontal axis but the vertical axis shows your 32 patterns. This grid, therefore, allows you to sequence the patterns themselves to create your overall song structure. It really is a breeze to use within the overall limitation of 100 pattern slots in the arrangement. This ought to be enough for most EDM-type arrangements though.

The Song page allows you to sequence your patterns into a complete arrangement.

The Song page allows you to sequence your patterns into a complete arrangement.

Perhaps the one rather odd thing I found about the Song/Mixer system, however, was that you could not view the Mixer while Song playback was in progress… from the Mixer you can only play the ‘currently selected’ pattern. That’s a shame as being able to mute/solo or tweak other mixer settings during song playback might be a nice additional option to have. Maybe I’ve missed something here (let me know if I have)? If not, let’s hope Korg might add this to the development wishlist also….

You can, however, access the PTN PLAY screen from the Main screen and this gives you a view with 16 large Pattern selection buttons (scroll left/right to see all 32 patterns). patterns can be triggered from here ‘live’ and, as this screen includes mute/solo buttons for each sound source, you can have some performance-style fun here.

The Pattern Play screen can be used to trigger patterns on the fly.

The Pattern Play screen can be used to trigger patterns on the fly.

Me, myself, I

Used on my new(ish) iPhone 6S, navigating the iDS-10 interface proved to be a pretty pleasurable experience (and just as good – if slightly less demanding on precise finger work – when scaled up on the iPad Pro screen). If I found myself with some spare time when out and about and just had my iPhone to entertain me, I’m sure iDS-10 would be a perfectly happy means by which to get music made rather than just twiddle my thumbs. Providing you are someone who enjoys the synth-based music styles the app can obviously cater for, then this is a pretty cool – and actually pretty powerful – musical tool for your iPhone.

In playing around with the app over the last week or so, I’ve had a lot of fun…. If you started your iOS music making journey with something like Figure, iDS-10 could make a great next step on the journey before you graduate to something in the same league as, for example, Gadget.

You can use the Kaoss pad to control two user-selected synth parameters if you wish.

You can use the Kaoss pad to control two user-selected synth parameters if you wish.

Despite the fact that you only have two synth voices, the ‘voice’ synth, and a six-part drum synth, you can create some pretty big noise and, when you get back to your studio, if you happen to hook the iDS-10 up to some decent studio monitors, then the app can produce an impressive sound. The Voice synth, in particular, is a lot of fun and getting Korg’s iPhone synth app to say all sorts of choice phrases is going to bring users hours of pleasure :-)

The downside – in this initial release at least – is that moving your iDS-10 compositions on elsewhere is limited to the audio out of your iPhone or iPad. No, that’s not the end of the world, but most regular iOS musicians are now so used to the whole Audiobus/IAA workflow that it’s absence is something of a surprise.

Given that iDS-10 is based upon the original Nintendo software and given that it is pretty obvious that Korg see this as an iPhone ‘use it anywhere all-in-one’ tool, I can kind of see why they have made the design decisions that they have. While it is actually quite a powerful app, compared to Gadget, Module or iM1, this is really Korg’s ‘lite’ iOS music app and perhaps it is therefore aimed at more casual use and the more casual user?

Aside from saving your sessions/projects, what happens in iDS-10 stays in iDS-10....

Aside from saving your sessions/projects, what happens in iDS-10 stays in iDS-10….

That said, there is plenty to appeal to the more avid of iOS music app fans and it will be this group that is perhaps asking ‘why no Audiobus?’ most loudly. The indications are that Korg are receptive to those calls and, as their more high-end iOS music apps already have that technology, the coding expertise is obviously not going to be the issue. Watch this space….

Oh, and if anyone has yet discovered what the ‘Mystery’ menu option is in the screenshot above, then please leave a comment below to share the news :-)

In summary

Providing you are happy to accommodate the current design limitations of iDS-10, it really is a lot of fun. Korg have offered just enough features in terms of the synth engines and sequencing tools to keep things interesting but without the app being (a) too intimidating to the less experienced user or (b) too complex to give a simple workflow on the smaller iPhone format. In this issues, I think Korg have got it spot on in terms of the design.

Yes, I’m happy to add my own personal call for Audiobus and IAA support (heck, let’s have AU while we are at it) and it will be great if, at some point in the near future, these technologies get added to iDS-10.

In the absence of Audiobus and/or IAA, then I suspect that the some hard-core iOS musicians might feel they have the territory covered (through iMS-20 for example)…. although iDS-20 is still a very cool little app to have around and that Voice synth is a lot of fun. Even without Audiobus/IAA, however, I think the introductory pricing of just UK£7.99 (50% off the price the app will eventually be set at) still represents a pretty good deal for an easy-to-use, yet still very capable, all-in-one electronic music production app. It would suit both the (fairly) newbie iOS music maker and the more hard-core iOS musician just looking for an iPhone-friendly tool.

For what it’s worth, as a personal observation, iDS-10 now has a provisional spot within my ‘core music apps’ folder of my own iPhone 6…. Here’s hoping Korg can expand its appeal with that extra iOS connectivity sooner rather than later….  And don’t forget that, as well as the iDS-10 being on a sale price during the launch periods, all of Korg’s other iOS music apps are also currently available at a signifiant discount. Time for an early Christmas present anyone?

If you want to see the iDS-10 in action then there is a selection of videos embedded below including Tim Webb’s excellent ‘Let’s Play….’ video on the app….  Well worth a watch.

Korg iDS-10

Korg iM1

Korg Module for iPad



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    1. Great review (I’ve been waiting for your review, even though I bought this app a week or so ago).

      One thing worth mentioning is that Korg has positioned this as an iPhone app, but it looks great on an iPad as well. In fact, I think I’d feel a bit cramped using it on an iPhone size screen.

      Tim Webb’s Discchord site broke the news last weekend that Korg has said they will be adding AudioBus, so that is good news. The soundtestroom guys also have 2 good vids on this app.

      Like the Figure app it is sticky – you just keep coming back to it for a bit of a doodle. Anyone “on the fence” about buying should look at the various videos – after that you’ll want to buy it.

    2. I’m planning on getting the iMS-20 because I think it will have more features and will be great on my iPad. I don’t have an iPhone. Is there something on the iDS-10 that can’t be done on the iMS-20? Also, Is Korg coming out with a fuller-featured iPad version of the iDS-10, and if so, will they charge me for the iPad version if I already bought the iPhone version?

    3. Great review. This app is really good fun, recommended!

    4. It was based on the MS-10, I think; not the MS-20.

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