I recently reviewed Blue Mango’s rather excellent iFretless Bass app. As it’s title suggests, this app provides a virtual bass instrument for iOS. The app has a sound palette that covers more than just fretless bass sounds (there are other electric basses, an acoustic bass and a few bass synths patches also) and the sounds themselves are full and round and contain plenty of bottom end when played back through a decent set of headphones or monitor speakers.
The ‘fretless’ element of the title is apt given the very interesting performance interface. The combination of virtual strings, velocity sensitivity, the ability to add slides, hammer-ons and finger vibrato make for an expressive performance and, as the samples behind the sounds feature multiple sample layers (up to nine layers in some cases), the sounds themselves are very detailed adding further realism.
As I commented at the end of that review, Blue Mango has a couple of other apps in the ‘iFretless’ range; iFretless Guitar and iFretless Sax. The ‘guitar’ title is perhaps no surprise given the virtual string interface, however I was intrigued to see what iFretless Sax might have to offer. At the time of writing, this is the most recent addition to the series having been launched in August 2013. It is priced at UK£6.99, and as you might expect given the title, takes the general iFretless concept and applies it to that most expressive of instruments; the saxophone. So, if you want to blow some virtual brass, should iFretless Sax be your weapon of choice?
I described the interface used in the iFretless apps in some detail within the iFretless Bass review so I’ll not repeat all the details here (just give that review a quick skim if you want to know more). In the main, iFretless Sax is provided in exactly the same format, albeit in a brass-coloured environment rather than the rather soothing blue of the bass app.
Notes are therefore played via virtual guitar strings and these make a very respectable job of velocity sensitivity; the harder you tap on a string, the louder the note and, because the sample construction uses different samples for different velocity layers, you also get a different sound. The end result is a much more realistic performance.
The performance options also include the ability to simulate hammer on/off effects. This is perhaps less obviously something you might want to simulate with a virtual sax but it does mean you can quickly alternate between two notes is a way that is less easily achieved with a piano keyboard (real or virtual). You can slide from one note to another and, by wobbling your finger while playing a note, add some vibrato. These, and a few other iFretless Sax performance options, make for a very satisfying playing experience, although – as with iFretless Bass – a little practice is required to master these various options.
You also get the same slide-out panel on the right side of the interface that gives access to all the key settings within iFretless Sax. The bulk of these – including the very useful volume and velocity controls that allow you to limit both parameters within user-defined ranges – are the same as iFretless Bass and include patch selection, reverb, an audio file player (allowing you to play along to tracks within your iTunes library) and various MIDI settings (the app can both receive and transmit MIDI data). However, iFretless Sax does add a simple, but very useable, delay effect. Audiobus support is also included for those wanting to use iFretless Sax in a recording context.
There is one key difference within the patch selection options. As with iFretless Bass, you get a number of sample-based instruments to choose from. In this case there are seven; four different sax instruments (tenor, alto, baritone and soprano), two clarinets (standard and bass) and a synth lead.
However, as well as selecting one of these for your main instrument, you can also select a further two ‘secondary’ sounds from the same set of seven and these can be layered with the main patch, either in unison or an octave above. This is quite a neat feature and, even if you selected the same patch in all three slots, there does seem to be a slight difference in the samples used (I’m not sure whether this is different samples being used or a very slight detuning) that gives a thicker, slightly richer sound. Equally, if you just want the effect of three different instruments playing the same melody together, then you can get that also.
Do note though – like iFretless Bass – iFretless Sax is polyphonic; if you want to play chords on your sax (or to simulate two saxes playing at some interval from one another) then you can also do that. You can press the Solo button to make the interface monophonic (also useful when you first start using the app and are getting familiar with the playing interface) and the Gliss option changes the way notes are generated when you slide between two notes.
One further small difference between the two apps is the inclusion of a wah-wah-like footpedal icon. This introduces a small X-Y controller top-left of the display and that adds a variable plunger-style mute to the sound. Note that if you also enable the MIDI X-Y pad when you have MIDI in/out activated, the MIDI pad overrides this wah/mute control.
So, while the interface is similar to iFretless Bass with a few sax-friendly tweaks thrown in, does the sound of iFretless Sax live up to that delivered by its older sibling? The short and simple answer is yes…. there would appear to be the same detail and depth within the underlying sampling and, as a consequence, once you get your head (or fingers) around the subtleties of the performance interface, it is possible to coax some remarkably realistic performances from the app.
Each of the sax instruments has a distinctive character. For example, the bass sax is suitable deep, the tenor can go from soft and sleazy to punchy and the alto has a slightly lighter tone. As anyone who has tried to muster a realistic ‘sax’ performance out of a sampled instrument will tell you, it is actually a very difficult thing to pull off. In the main, this is because the instrument itself is so fluid and expressive; trying to recreate that with samples is quite a challenge and attempting to do it via a traditional piano-style MIDI keyboard – without some considerable practice and expert pitch wheel work – just adds a further obstacle. In that regard, the string-based interface of iFretless Sax with its ability to add slides and finger vibrato is a big plus. Again, master the playing interface and you can get some impressive sounds from the app.
In my own initial experimentation, I found engaging solo mode to be a distinct advantage. Equally, constraining the velocity range and volume range to the top-half of their possible settings made it much easier to obtain a consistent performance; fewer volume or tonal variations because of my inexperience with the interface and that might make it more obvious I was listening to samples rather than a real instrument.
While it can be difficult to replicate the intricacies of any real instrument through samples (some are easy than others but a sax is not one of them), if you just need a few seconds of sax melody within a full musical arrangement, I think iFretless Sax could pull it off and the more you practice, the easier that would become. Equally, if you just wanted to add a few sax stabs you your latest funk track, the app could achieve that.
What would be more difficult to achieve – using iFretless Sax or any sample-based sax instrument – might be a full-on sax solo, where the sax carries the whole melody of an instrumental track and is therefore quite exposed within the mix. If you expect the app to do this – which would be a pretty unrealistic expectation even if the sampled instrument costs many times the UK£6.99 that iFretless Sax costs, then you might be in for a frustrating experience.
However, that’s not to say that you can’t create some absolutely wonderful solo performances with iFretless Sax. They might not sound exactly like the real thing but, as a playable, expressive lead instrument, it is possible to get very creative. In this sense, it is almost like playing a sort of ‘sax-like’ lead synth instrument and, because of the possibilities offered by the performance interface, the results can be wonderfully fluid.
iFretless Sax is an excellent addition to Blue Mango’s iFretless line of apps. If you are after a virtual sax wrapped a very playable interface, then this is as good as it gets under iOS. Indeed, while you can always hanker after ever more detailed sampling (as you might find in a virtual instrument designed for a desktop computer environment), I suspect Blue Mango are squeezing much more expression out of these samples because of the ‘playability’ of the touchscreen interface. It’s difficult to imagine how this could be bettered by a traditional piano keyboard system.
A virtual sax is perhaps a bit of a niche product in the world of music technology (mobile or desktop) but, if you do like your iOS music productions to contain a bit of sax, iFretless Sax is currently the best way to add it. Highly recommended for all virtual brass blowers :-)