I’ve been lucky enough to review some absolutely brilliant iOS synth apps here on the music app blog over the last few years and a number of these will, undoubtedly, be firm favourites of many regular readers here as well as myself. However, last week saw two new contenders for the ‘best iOS synth ever’ shortlist; SynthMaster Player and iM1.
I reviewed SynthMaster Player last week and, at what it does – giving the user access to some awesome sounds with just enough editing options to keep things interesting – it is a phenomenal app. The collection of sounds is hugely impressive and you can add to the 800 or so available for the initial UK£3.99 ‘pro upgrade’ IAP with a huge number of further IAP options if you wish.
The second of these two apps – iM1 – is Korg’s latest iOS music app. Now, Korg set the bar pretty high for themselves (and their competitors) last year by releasing two apps – Gadget and Module – that easily made my top ten list of new apps in 2014. If Korg to eventually get around to adding audio recording into the gadget environment, as Module’s excellent sample-based sounds can be accessed from within it, it would become a very good bet as a complete production environment for the iOS musician.
So, no pressure then with the release of iM1…. :-)
As can be guessed from the name, iM1 is a virtual recreation of Korg’s classic hardware synth from the late 1980s – M1 – and that became an almost instant ‘classic’. If you have listened to any amount of music made since that time then the odds are you are already very familiar with how the M1 sounds. It has been used by almost everyone and his dog and appeared on countless hit recordings.
In the form of an iOS music app, Korg claim to have faithfully reproduced the sound and functionality of the original hardware. However, this is not a slavish reproduction and, where appropriate, Korg have been sensible enough to add some ‘extras’ into this software version. This includes more filter options, more flexible effects options and the inclusion of some novel performance options such as the virtual Kaoss pad. iM1 is, therefore, a recreation of the M1 with bells on.
What about some iM1 basics? Well, the app is currently available for UK£14.99 (this is a ‘launch’ discounted price 33% off what will be the eventual price) and, if you like what you hear, then you can also purchase two further IAPs (UK£3.99 each) that provide a huge number of further preset sounds that were originally available as expansion cards for the hardware synth. In total, with the base app and the two IAPs, you end up with over 3300 individual presets.
The app requires iOS8.0 or later and runs on an iPad. Given that this is not intended to be some stripped down synth, yes, the newer the hardware you try to run it on, the better, although Korg suggest it will run on an iPad 2 or newer. The app is a 90MB download.
The app includes Audiobus and IAA support. MIDI support is also pretty comprehensive and I had no problems using the app with an external keyboard. As with Module, however, you can also use the iM1 within Gadget. Here it appears as a new ‘gadget’ called Darwin and, while you get access to all your sounds, you don’t get quite the same level of sound editing as in the stand-alone app. You do, however, get to use multiple instances of Darwin within your Gadget projects.
That said, iM1 itself is also multi-timbral. Indeed, you can flip between three ‘modes’ – Prog, Combi and Multi – using the buttons located top-right of the main interface. Prog allows you to work with a single sound (program). However, Combi allows you to later up to eight sounds into a single ‘mega-sound’ while Multi gives you eight separate sounds that can operate on different MIDI channels. Used with a suitable DAW/sequencer, you could, therefore, use iM1 as your only sound source and still create a pretty full-on musical arrangement.
Start the engine
Korg’s M1 was originally released in 1988 and it is estimated that around 250,000 units were manufactured during a six year period. The synth was a huge success and this was mainly because of the high quality of the sound. This was built on an engine that combined both samples and synthesis (S & S), where subtractive synthesis was applied to complex digital samples (rather than simple analog waveforms).
Individual programs (sounds) in the iM1 follow a similar strategy and, like the original hardware, can use one or two of these ‘oscillators’ to built a sound. The sound is then passed onwards and processed through a filter (and here the iM1 scores over the original as it includes a resonant filter rather than just a low-pass variety), an amplifier stage, options for sound modulation, real-time sound control (again, the virtual Kaoss pads of the iM1 add an extra element here) and a whole range of effects choices including both insert and master (send) effects.
As shown by the various screenshots included here, if you want to dig into sound construction, iM1 offers you plenty of opportunities to do so, with separate screens for the Osc, VDF (filter), VDA (amplifier), Control and Insert FX (you can have two insert effects per program), if you prefer an easier life, you can also use the Easy screen. This is a great move by Korg; it provides a single screen with the key controls from all the other editing screen presented in a concise format. Giving uses the choice between scratching at the surface or digging deeper means the iM1 ought to appeal to almost any keen synth users, whether they have a PhD in synthesis or not.
All that said, within each section of the synth engine, if you do decide to dig in, then there is plenty to keep the power user happy. I’ll not pretend to have got my own head around all the options in the short time I’ve had to work with the app so far but the options are considerable. For example, take the VDF page… here you get separate filters for each oscillator, modulation generators for each filter and the ability to use both velocity and keyboard tracked control of the filter’s response.
And if this all starts to make your head spin, then you can consult the excellent built-in PDF manual. This provides a fairly concise summary of the iM1’s key controls but also refers you on to the original M1 manual (you can get this ion PDF format from Korg’s website); the fact that the M1 documentation is relevant does suggest that the app and the original hardware really do work in very similar fashions.
Listen to it purr
So what kind of sound does the engine make once you have it started? Well, set aside a couple of hours, hook up an external keyboard, and flick through a decent crop of the included presets… which is exactly what I did and I have to say it was just a complete pleasure. If I had to pick one word to describe how the iM1 sounds then it would be ‘classy’.
Yes, there are perhaps times when the ‘late 80s’ nature of the sounds come through (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing) and you perhaps have to do your own tweaking if you want to coax something uber-aggressive out of the iM1 that might rip the face off punters on the dance floor (the distortion and overdrive effects can help here!) but, as a broad collection of synth-based sounds going from piano to pad and with almost every stop in between covered, the iM1 is massively impressive.
Some of the piano and organ sounds I’m sure I can recall from specific house or techno tracks but, as the user list of the original M1 reads like a ‘who’s who’ of pop and rock for the last 20 years, it would be quite surprising if you didn’t listen to a few of the presets and have a ‘that’s the sounds from….’ moment or three. Does it sound exactly like the original? OK, so I’ve never played a hardware M1 but, frankly, I’m not sure if I care wither the iM1 nails it to perfection; it simply sound great in its own right.
Having purchased both of the IAPs, it is actually hard to know where to start with summing up the presets in any concise fashion – there are simply too many of them to do that – but there are some really useable synth bass sounds within the collection and that would provide a solid foundation for any electronic based track. Equally, the selection of organ sounds is just fabulous and spans everything from pipe organs through to dance-friendly sounds that you can bash out ‘housey’ chord sequences on.
The selection of pianos is just as good and, again, there are sounds here that will seem familiar from commercial recordings. Oh, and don’t forget the drums or the pads or the brass or the synth leads or…. well, you get the idea. This is a huge palette of sounds and, while you might easily identify other synths that you might have sitting alongside iM1 to plug the occasional sound gap or give you something more obviously intended for experimental electronica, for a one-stop, multi-timbral, synth-based sound source, iM1 (like SynthMaster Player) is a very impressive option.
And it must also be said that the preset browsing and searching options are very good. You can browse the presets via instrument type, any of the preset ‘cards’ (the original add-on cards for the hardware M1) of by mood (dark, fast, slow, fat, etc.). Given the total number of presets available if you have opted for the extra IAPs, this browsing system is both welcome and well implemented.
All play nicely
Talking of multi-timbral, the fact that iM1 can operate as an eight-part sound source makes that ‘one-stop-shop’ tag all the more do-able. I had no problems setting up multiple MIDI tracks within Cubasis and feeding these to iM1. On my iPad Air 1 test system, this all worked very smoothly.
There are a number of other ‘performance’ features that are worthy of note. For example, while using the Multi or Combi options, selecting the Perform screen gives to a whole screen full of horizontal sliders for a small selection of parameters… but available for each of the eight possible sounds. You can, therefore, easily tweak these without flipping back and forth between different programs, whether that’s just at the sound editing stage or during a performance.
Equally, the MIDI screen allows you to configure how each of the eight sounds responds to MIDI in terms of channel, MIDI notes and velocity. Whether you want to create keyboard splits or layers sounds, you have all the control required here. Given this level of control, iM1 could easily make a great choice for live performance.
Oh, and if you add in the Master FX options here… where this screen allows you to configure the two master FX choices and adjust the sends from each of the eight parts to those two effects – you will soon appreciate just how much the iM1 offers in terms of effects. Compared to the original hardware, you get far more choice and flexibility – from reverbs to exciters and from delays through to distortion – iM1 has it covered and you also get plenty of controls for each effect.
Oh, and a further thing…. don’t forget the virtual keyboard, the options to set that to particular scales, a further options for triggering chords and the rather wonderful X-Y Kaoss pads that can be used for both sound shaping and note generation (in a rather Figure-like fashion).
Korg are now pretty experienced when it comes to coding for iOS and I didn’t expect there to be any specific issues in using iM1 with Audiobus or IAA… or, indeed, within Gadget. No surprises then that, in my testing at least, all seemed to run very smoothly. I suspect the biggest issues users are likely to find is that iM1 – with it’s eight parts all playing multiple notes – is likely to give earlier iOS hardware a bit of a through workout. Combine it with a few other apps and things and your iPad might get a bit cranky. That said, I ran multiple parts into a fairly busy Cubasis project without any problems.
Used within Gadget, you still get access to all those wonderful presets. This is great… but there is a bit of a trade-off; you swap the option for multiple instances of Darwin (iM1’s ‘Gadget’ name) with a somewhat more restricted set of editing options for your sounds. This is not such a big deal as you can always do all your sound editing in the stand-alone app… If you are a regular Gadget users, then I think iM1 is, frankly, a bit of a no-brainer; it’s a great add-on to the existing gadgets and the sample-based sounds offered by Module.
So many synths?
OK, so I think you will already have got the idea that I’m impressed by Korg’s iM1. Like with Gadget and Module, Korg have delivered something that is right up there with the very best that iOS currently has to offer. There is a difference with iM1 though…. it is entering a music app category – virtual synths – that is perhaps more densely populated that that of the ‘electronic music production environment’ or ‘virtual instrument’ categories; the competition is, therefore, somewhat stiffer.
I own more iOS synths then I can possibly ever fully use but, like most iOS musicians, I have a smaller collection of ‘go to’ synths that I use on a regular basis. I’ve recently added SynthMaster Player to that list and now I’m going to add iM1 also. Something might drop off the list as a consequence… but iM1 is hugely impressive – technically and sonically – and I’m sure is going to get a lot of use in my own iOS music making.
SynthMaster and iM1 make for an interesting comparison however. Both offer large collections of preset sounds and, if you just like to load a sound and get on with music making, both can offer the user that experience. However, for the more geeky tone-editor types, iM1 wins hands down in terms of the editing options. In contrast, I think SynthMaster Player actually includes some sounds – perhaps more at the cutting edge of electronic dance music – that iM1 doesn’t (will, not in terms of the supplied presets anyway) cover quite so well. Together, however, they make for a pretty awesome combination.
If you are a confirmed iOS synth-head, then I suspect you may already have done the deed and have purchased iM1. If you have not, then temptation may just eat at you until you give in and do it anyway. If that sounds likely, then do it while the launch pricing is still available – UK£14.99 is just a bit silly given quite how good iM1 sounds and plays – and while you are at it, budget for those IAPs as well.
For the newbie iOS musician who is still building up their iOS music app collection, iM1 would make a brilliant choice for a collection of high-quality synth sounds and, because it gives you eight-part multi-timbral operation, you could easily put together projects where this was your only sound source.
Korg’s iM1 might not be the only iOS synth that you ever need but, as with Gadget and Module, it is a very impressive app. Highly recommended for almost any iOS musician who uses synth-based sounds. This is top-notch stuff from Korg and I can only imagine users lapping it up…. and don’t forget that both Module and Gadget are still on sale… This is not a good time for those with a genuine iOS music app addiction :-)
Korg Module for iPad
Check out Tim Webb’s ‘Let’s Play’ video on iM1 for an introduction to the synth engine.