I’ve done a few ‘best in category’ iOS music app roundups here on the Music App Blog at various stages and, while there are a number of obvious categories I’ve not got around to covering yet (I’ll get there eventually), I’m also conscious that several of those I have done are in need of a bit of updating. So, without further ado, it’s time to get started and first on the list (for some fairly obvious reasons of popularity) is my v.2.0 roundup of the iOS synth apps.
In the wonderful world of the App Store, if there is one category of iOS music apps that is truly well served it is synth apps. I’m sure there are a good number of reasons for the synth app cup to run over but I guess it mostly down to a combination of two factors. First, lots of synth fans are quite ‘techie’ by nature and, whether your background is in synth hardware or virtual synths made for desktop computers, if you like synths then you are going to have a few technical bones in your body. That, in turn, probably means lots of synth fans are also likely to be mobile computing fans… and app developers therefore suspect there might be a decent sized audience amongst this market for some virtual synths.
The second factor is perhaps down to the nature of the hardware. While an iPhone or an iPad is not (yet) able to compete with a desktop computer as a platform for sample-based virtual instruments (although Module, SampleTank and iSymphonic Orchestra are certainly taking us in the right direction) because of limited storage space and modest amounts of RAM to work with, in CPU terms, they can churn through some considerable numbers of calculations per second… and that’s what’s required when you are designing a virtual synth; memory and storage space are less of an issue.
There may well be other factors that have been at play in this but, whatever the cause, there is no denying that the App Store has a lot of synths to choose between. Indeed, for newbie iOS music makers, the problem is not finding some synth apps but choosing between the very many options. If you are going to start a collection of virtual synths for your iPad, which synths are the pick of the current crop?
There is not, of course, a single answer to that question that would suit every iOS musician. As with guitar tones, what you like in synth sounds will vary depending upon the type of music you want to create. Equally, budget will come into play, with synth apps spanning the usual range of App Store pricing with UK£20 being near the top of the pile and ‘free’ being at the bottom. Finally – and, to an extent, related to price, there is the issue of complexity. Do you use your synths as preset machines or do you like to dig in and program your own sounds? And if you program, do you want ‘easy and shallow’ or do you want ‘complex and deep’?
Before I dive in, given that there are quite so many options when it comes to iOS synths, two points are worth bearing in mind. First, extensive though the list that follows is, it is far from exhaustive. Feel free to add a favourite of your own via the comments if you think I’ve missed something obvious. Second, I’ve organised the apps into three main groups; heavyweights, middleweights and lightweights (plus a bonus group at the end!). This has been done pretty arbitrarily on the basis of price but, in the madness of the App Store pricing model, no one would suggest that ‘most expensive’ is the same as saying ‘best’. Yes, there may well be some relationship between price and features/sound/programmability, but there will be plenty of examples of apps that are exceptions to any general rules.
So, with those qualifiers out of the way, let’s start at the top of the price pile; the heavyweight iOS synth apps. Oh, and where possible, I’ve included a link to the full review of each app… and as some of these may now go back a year or two since the original release of a specific app, do make sure you check out any update posts also.
The heavyweight class
While, in app terms, something around the UK£13.99 price might be classed as ‘expensive’, if you had been a desktop-based musicians 5+ years ago, and someone had offered you a virtual synths as good as some of the iOS synths in this category for what amounts to a ‘casual purchase’ price then, after you had picked your jaw up off the floor, you would have snapped their hand off. Yes, there are low-priced virtual instrument options available for the desktop, but you can also spend a seriously large amount of money building a virtual instrument collection for Windows or OSX.
Under iOS, therefore, we are pretty fortunate that there are some stellar sounding synths that, even with their ‘heavyweight’ pricing, are still very affordable. And, having used quite a number of those more expensive desktop virtual synths over the last 10 years or so, whether it’s for live use or recording applications, I think pretty much any of the apps in this iOS category can kick some serious synth butt.
If I had to pick one iOS synth app that convinced me of the potential of an iPad as a serious platform for virtual instruments then Propellerhead’s Thor would be the obvious contender. Usually priced at UK£10.99, Thor is a monster of a synth for a ridiculously low price.
In short, Thor is a professional-level virtual synth that could happily grace any live performance (for those brave enough to take their iPad into a gig environment) or serious recording contexts (it has Audiobus and IAA support but I’d happily use it in any recording context, not just an iOS-based one). It comes with a heap of excellent presets (themselves derived from the desktop version of Thor that is part of Propellerhead’s highly-regarded Reason music production system) and sounds awesome.
While you can just explore the presets and make the occasional tweak to suit your needs, if you like to get stuck in to programming your own synth sounds, Thor has plenty to keep you occupied. It provides a sophisticated sound-shaping environment as is capable of a staggering array of sounds. The interface is well thought out and translates well to the iPad.
Given it’s popularity and high-profile, it is perhaps surprising that, at the time of writing, Thor hasn’t been updated in well over a year. However, on my test system at least, it still seems to be working pretty well under iOS9.2 so I guess, if it ain’t broke, then Propellerhead don’t need to fix it. If you have any interest in synth-based music styles then this app really should be in your iOS app collection.
The last year has seen some great synth releases but there were two highlights for me and one of those is Korg’s iM1. Korg’s Gadget and Module are both brilliant but they have easily matched that brilliance with what is now their flag-ship iOS synth; 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.
There are huge range of presets sound available within iM1, both included with the base app and via a couple of very inexpensive IAPs. You get Audiobus, IAA and MIDI support, all well implemented. The synth is also multi-timbral so, if you wish, you can use up to eight different sounds at the same time each assigned to a different MIDI channel. Oh, and if you also own Gadget, then you automatically get access to the iM1 sounds via Gadget once you have iM1 installed.
And while the range of presets means you can always find something close to what you are thinking in your head (and the sounds themselves are generally excellent), this is also an app with some pretty sophisticated programming options if you like to dig in and tweak your own sounds. This is both a comprehensive synth sound source (for the preset fan) and a tweaker’s delight. You can check out the full iM1 review here but the interface is as slick as the sounds and Korg’s iM1 comes highly recommended. It’s a bargain at its full UK£22.99 price but Korg are fond of the occasional app sale so, if you are lucky, you might find it even cheaper than this on occasions.
Waldorf are a bit of a legend in the world of hardware synthesis and, in Nave (UK£14.99), they have translated that expertise onto the iOS platform. As with Thor, Nave is both slick, sophisticated, deep (in terms of the programming options) and sounds fabulous.
However, in building sounds upon wavetable synthesis, Nave is most certainly distinct from something like Thor; it has a different character and provides very different sonic possibilities. The wavetable options are beautifully presented and the interface allows the user to interact with these features in an interesting and intuitive fashion.
With Audiobus support and also IAA support, Nave is also right at home as part of a wider iOS music workflow and, whether you want a sound source for live use or a mega-synth for recording duties, Nave is up to the task. And if programming is not your thing then the app also includes a huge library of wonderful presets. Alongside Thor and iM1, Nave is a ‘must-have’ for any serious iOS-owning synth lover.
As a desktop synth, Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ has gained a loyal following and its powerful sound and flexible programming options – as well as a fairly modest price even in the desktop form (UK£79 for the full version) – means that you have probably heard it on countless numbers of commercial recordings. Just as Propellerhead have done with Thor, Cakewalk have ported the desktop version of the Z3TA over to iOS and, it has to be said, it has survived the experience – both sonically and in terms of features – pretty much intact. Oh, and the UK£14.99 price makes for an interesting comparison to the desktop version.
The interface contains a lot of controls but, thankfully, Cakewalk have done a great job of organising these so it’s not difficult to find your way around. And, while this is a pretty deep engine in programming terms, there is an excellent PDF manual to help get you started and a very good supply of presets to learn from.
What’s really impressive, however, is the range of sounds that the Z3TA+ seems able to generate. Whether you want basses (‘classic’ or cutting edge), leads (mellow or aggressive), pads (subtle or not), percussive (synthetic kicks, snares, hats, etc.) or sound effects, the Z3TA+ has something (and usually several somethings) that will fit the bill. With iOS9, Audiobus and IAA support, this is also an app that will work well in a wider music workflow and, with a well implements MIDI Learn feature, it’s easy to use with any controllers on your hardware MIDI keyboard. Top notch stuff….
While iOS music apps have only been with us for a few years, I think there are still a number of candidates that still deserve to be given a ‘classic’ status. One of those is undoubtedly Moog Music’s Animoog. This iOS synth is usually available in both iPad (UK£22.99) and a streamlined iPhone version (UK£4.49) and, as a 25MB download, would find a home on even the most highly stuffed of iOS devices.
The synth engine is capable of producing some wonderfully warm and engaging analog-style tones; sound for pound, Animoog is absolutely worth its price tag. The virtual keyboard – and the various scale and performance options it offers – made this one of the first touchscreen synths that was actually both expressive and (through those scale options) easy to play. Indeed, the keyboard system made a pretty good performance surface to control other, less well endowed, iOS synths. iOS9 support was added in a recent update so the app is also bang up to date.
VirSyn have developed a number of desktop plugin and virtual instruments but have, over the last couple of years, also developed a pretty serious iOS music app catalogue. One of these synths – TERA Synth – is a brilliant port from desktop to iOS and, while it is operationally somewhat different from the desktop version to accommodate the touchscreen environment, at its heart is much of the same technology that is available in the desktop version.
What that means, in essence, is that you are getting a powerful virtual modular analog synth that features a goodly number of different sound modules, multiple LFOs and ADSR envelopes, additional multi-segment envelopes, very flexible modulation options, a range of effects, a fully programmable arpeggiator, chromatic and ‘scale’ modes for the virtual keyboard, comprehensive MIDI support (including MIDI learn), Audiobus and IAA support, a selection of nearly 1000 presets and audio recording and preset sharing support.
Again, however, the App Store pricing model applies and you can get this brilliant sounding virtual instrument with its very clean user interface for just UK£14.99. The huge range of sounds that can be coaxed from the various modules is staggering and, while there is most certainly a learning curve to be dealt with, the design does make the whole process of sound construction a pretty logical operation. This is another app that has not been updated since the release of iOS9 but, in my own testing at least, it seems happy enough working under iOS9.2 on my iPad Pro test system.
At UK£10.99, Mitosynth isn’t quite at the top of the iOS synth app price range but it is at the higher end of that range so, in terms of other synths in the same price ballpark, it is up against some of the best iOS currently has to offer in Thor, iM1, Z3TA+ and Nave. The app is, however, universal and, if you can afford the entry price, it ought to fit into a fairly compact corner of even the most full-stocked iOS device; it’s a 14MB download.
Developer Wooji Juice use the term ‘hybrid’ to describe the synthesis engine of Mitosynth. It combines a number of different synthesis methods and the interface through which these are accessed – and programming of the engine performed – is both very modern and novel. The sounds perhaps have more in common with something like Nave rather than a Thor but would certainly suit soundscape and ambient styles to perfection. The app also plays nicely with other iOS music apps with iOS9, Audiobus and IAA support included. And, if you are working on a 3D Touch equipped iOS device, then you can use that to control aftertouch.
Korg’s original hardware MS-20 was released in 1978 and, in the world of analog synthesisers, became a bit of a classic. Given its obvious popularity, Korg’s decision to recreate the MS-20 in software will be welcomed by those who were fans of the original. And while the iPad iMS-20 music app version might seem expensive in app terms at £22.99 (although it has been available in various Korg sales for the UK£14.99 mark), as a decent working example of the original hardware MS-20 can now cost over £1000 (or the equivalent €/$ price), if the app is even a half-decent recreation of the original, then it would represent something of a bargain.
Of course, if you were so inclined, you could get into some sort of geeky debate about how accurately the software recreates the features and sound of the hardware instrument. However, in its own right, the iMS-20 works of two levels. First, because it includes pattern-based drum sequencing, it is quite a cool compositional tool for electronic/dance music; it is possible to squeeze a very big sound out of the main synth and the drum module combined. Second, I think the sonic capabilities of the app have considerable potential as a genuine performance instrument in a live context. Provided you are happy to depend upon you iPad on the road (or perhaps down the pub), hooked up to a decent master keyboard, this is a very serious virtual analog synth. Connected to a keyboard amp or PA, the iMS-20 can sound absolutely brilliant.
As any regular reader of the Music App Blog will be aware, I’m a bit of a fan of what Sugar Bytes do both under iOS but also on the desktop. There software can, on occasions, divide opinion. I don’t think anyone would deny that is can sound great but, for some users at least, the graphical design is sometimes a case of rather too much stuffed into a space that’s rather too small.
OK, I get that, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to use Cyclop, Sugar Bytes port of their desktop monophonic bass synth to iOS. 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 but I’ve certainly been glad of my extra screen space since running the app on my iPad Pro. However, that challenge aside, Cyclop is just an app that keeps sucking me in. It is capable of some huge sounds – and bass is actually only just part of that palette – but the feature set is a heck of a lot of fun and the options for tweaking sounds, adding effects (there is a mini-Effectix-style FX sequencer build in) and real-time control are great.
The sound engine features a number of different modes and, along with the modulation options, this means you can coax quite a range of sounds from the app. Yes, it is quite good for bass – and can do some rather top-notch dubstep bass sounds with ease – but if you want some aggressive mono synth sounds – bass or lead – this is a great choice. Maybe not one for every iOS musician but the more experimental peeps into electronica and EDM will find plenty of ways to put Cyclop – currently priced at UK£18.99 – to good use.
Poseidon is one of VirSyn’s more recent releases and, as shown by the screenshot below, features avery Nave-esq 3D wavetable display, suggestive at least that elements of the underlying synth engine may not be a million miles away from Waldorf’s ‘classic’ iOS synth. This does come through in the sounds and, while both Poseidon and nave are brilliant in their own way, for newbie iOS synth collectors, this might be an either/or decision in the first instance.
The app is supplied with a very diverse collection of waveforms that underlie its sophisticated sound engine. Unsurprisingly therefore, Poseidon can cover quite a lot of sonic ground. There are some decent bass, drum and percussion sounds but, for me at least, Poseidon’s real strengths were more in the synth, string and ambient categories.
Indeed, the synth engine seems best exploited when the sounds get some breathing space to make use of the time domain in the source waveforms – that is, sounds that could evolve as you held a note or three – and here the comparison with Nave is perhaps at its closest. No, they are not the same, but their strengths lie in similar areas of synthetic sound and I think Poseidon would prove very popular with those looking to create synth-based pads and textures.
With Audiobus, IAA, MIDI and iOS9 support included, at UK£14.99, Poseidon is another example of iOS music apps delivering a lot of sound for as very modest outlay.
The middleweight class
While the typical UK£13.99 price in my ‘heavyweight’ group is still a pretty modest figure for a fully fledged software synth, in iOS terms, that is still the ‘top’ of the market and, sitting below these flagship apps is a whole cluster of other, very worthy, synth apps where the average price is closer to UK£6.99. There are some seriously good synths in this ‘middleweight’ category so don’t let ‘cheap’ make you also think ‘nasty’; that’s not the case at all.
So just what is missing from these cheaper alternatives? Well, perhaps, in some cases, it might be that the synth engine itself is not quite so versatile or deep (and, for some users, that might actually be a good thing). This can be a deliberate design feature though, especially in those apps that are virtual recreations of classic hardware synths of old. In other cases, however, I’d be at a loss to explain the pricing and just why you can get so much synth for so little money. But then, for the potential users, why worry about it too much? Just pick a few targets and grab yourself some genuine bargains even at their full price.
To repeat… this is far from an exhaustive list (so feel free to chip in with a comment if you want to offer up some additional suggestions) but this is a pretty decent selection based upon my own particular favourites.
Of course, not everyone who plays a synth aspires to be a synth programmer. Many musicians just want their synths to be a source of top-notch presets that, if required, they can tweak a couple of key parameters on and, otherwise, just get on with the job of creating music. If that’s you, then SynthMaster Player from KV331 has you covered.
On first release, the app sounded great and, while the base app is free, to get the best from this app you need to indulge yourself with some of the excellent IAPs that add further presets (hence the app being placed in the middleweight category in this post). However, with the huge selection of presets available from these IAPs, this could easily become your ‘go to’ synth for electronic dance music styles. It also has the expected Audiobus, IAA and MIDI support. The original version also came with an easy-to-navigate, if rather functional, user interface but, at the start of December 2015, the app received a substantial visual makeover and now feels as slick as it sounds.
There are plenty of control options provided and, despite the ‘player’ tag and the underlying concept that this is primarily a preset machine, there is enough control to tweak your sounds in some key (but very easy to use) ways. But the highlight is most certainly that collection of sounds; while the app might not offer the deep programming fix that some synth-heads require, it sounds great and for ‘users’ rather than ‘programmers’ could easily slot into the role of ‘key synth sound source’. My only other comment is that, having tried the iOS version, I’m now also hooked on the desktop version and it is brilliant in that environment also. Middleweight in terms of price but, in terms of sound, it punches well above that category; SynthMaster Player is top-notch stuff.
Sunrizer is a virtual analog synth and, in part at least, attempts to model what’s known as the ‘SuperSaw’ sound engine that first appeared in one of Roland’s classic hardware synths from the mid/late 1990s – the JP-8000. It has Audiobus (including State Saving) and IAA support so it is easy to use in a wider iOS music workflow and also has very good support for external MIDI hardware. Perhaps the only downside is that, at the time of writing, the app has not been updated for around 18 months but it does seem to work OK under iOS9.
The interface is very well designed and, while there are plenty of programming options, this is a synth that is not too intimidating if you are totally new to the whole world of synth sound creation. Those sounds are, however, top notch and there is an excellent bunch of presets included if you just want to pick one and get started….
Priced at UK£7.99, this is a synth that can cover a range of musical styles. If you want classic 1980s synth-based film score (think Terminator) then you could do that but, equally, if you want something to set fire to a modern dance floor, you can get that also. This is a flexible sound source and, providing you put in the time to learn the programming options, could easily be a ‘go to’ synth for anything requiring that ‘analog’ tone.
Sunrizer (for iPad)
SunrizerXS (for iPhone)
Arctic ProSynth (UK£7.99) is described by developer One Red Dog Media as a modern subtractive synth that, while drawing on some classic synth legacy, brings a more modern and aggressive element suitable for modern music styles. While the synth engine is highly programmable, Arctic ProSynth manages to sound great without being too intimidating to use. The interface is very well designed and all the controls are big and chunky. Even those with somewhat larger fingers should have no problem working with this app on an iPad touchscreen.
As well as a comprehensive range of synth options, one really neat feature of Arctic ProSynth is the vocoder option. Providing you have a means to connect a suitable microphone to your iPad (it works with the internal mic but the results will be nowhere near as good), you can then modulate the synth sounds with your voice. Not only is this a lot of fun but it also opens up some interesting creative options. As the app provides good MIDI, Audiobus and IAA support – and was given an iOS9 update in September 2015 – it is easy to use in a performance context or when recording. If you want a ‘real’ synth (real in the sense that it is fully programmable) with some great sounds but don’t want too steep a learning curve, Arctic ProSynth is an excellent bet.
iSEM is a virtual recreation of Oberheim’s classic SEM (Synthesizer Expansion Module) that dates from the mid-1970s and was used by folks such as Jan Hammer and John Carpenter. Indeed, its classic status prompted a comeback in 2010 when production of the hardware version was re-launched – with a few nods to the intervening years – but at a price around the UK£750 mark. Ouch!
iSEM’s synth engine – faithful to the original – is not particularly complex; if you want to programme your own sound but are perhaps daunted by what Thor, nave or Z3TA+ might require of you, this is a much more gentle introduction.
Does is sound as good as the original hardware version? Well, frankly, I don’t care two hoots whether it recreates the sound of the original SEM hardware module with 100% accuracy (although there are testimonials on Arturia’s website that suggest the desktop version, that has been available for longer than the iOS app, does a very good job of this). All I know is that, for UK£6.99, this is a heck of a lot of virtual synth for a very modest outlay. It is also notable for being the first iOS synth app to support the new Audio Units virtual instrument plugin format – AUi – under iOS9 so Arturia are clearly keeping up with the latest iOS music technology formats.
In the world of hardware synths, the Minimoog is considered something of a classic. If you can’t afford the real thing (rare, expensive and, it has to be said, somewhat temperamental as well as sounding brilliant), then Arturia’s iMini at UK£6.99 provides a virtual recreation in an iOS format. While Arturia have added a few very sensible modern twists, in terms of basic layout, programming options and, most importantly, the essence of the sound, iMini is a Minimoog in software.
In essence, you get a three-oscillator virtual analog synth engine with noise, filter and amplitude envelope controls. The beauty of the original Minimoog was not the complexity of its control set; it was the complexity and quality of the sounds it could create from such a compact (for a hardware synth of it’s time) format. While the original was monophonic, Arturia have made several nods towards the current century by making polyphonic playback available if you want it as well as adding some effects, an arpeggiator and some excellent performance options for tweaking sounds on the fly. The app also features Audiobus and IAA support so it is ready to go within your favourite recording workflow.
iMini is a fabulous virtual instrument that will not intimidate even a novice synth programmer and, whether you want to use it live or for recording, you can get the essence of that classic Minimoog sound – made famous by the likes of Jean Michel Jarre, Kraftwork or Depeche Mode et al. – at an absolutely bargain price. The hasn’t had an update since iOS9 was released but, in my own testing at least, seems very happy working under iOS9.2
Developer’s iceGear refer to Laplace as a ‘resonator synth’; the physically modelled engine is designed for the creation of various string-based instruments, blown pipes and metallic sounds. While there are other synths that can cover this sonic territory, Laplace is obviously intended to be dedicated to that task and, as such, has a distinctive, niche flavour. It comes with a fairly modest UK£4.49 price tag and has iOS9, Audiobus and IAA support as well as good MIDI support including a well-executed MIDI Learn function.
While there are a few pop-up dialogs that deal with some additional features of the app, the main elements of the synth engine are all housed – and easily accessible – within the single main screen. There are still plenty of sonic options but this does mean the synth is great for programming if you perhaps find the likes of Thor, Nave or Z3TA+ a bit intimidating.
That distinctive sound might, however, also mean that Laplace isn’t a synth you reach for for every production or every musical style. Without adding some other processing, it perhaps isn’t an obvious choice for ‘aggressive’ tones or perhaps even for pads. But those sounds that is does cater for – strings, pipes and metallic sounds – it does really well.
Arturia are highly regarded for their virtual makeovers over synth legends and iProphet gives us the legend that was Sequential (formally Sequential Curcuits) Prophet VS synth, a hardware classic from the 1980s and that, while failing to save Sequential from its financial difficulties, did help it secure a place in synthesiser history. At it’s usual price of UK£6.99, this iPad virtual synth aims to capture the essence of a hardware classic at a fraction of the original price.
Personally, I couldn’t give two hoots whether the iProphet sounds ‘exactly’ like the original (and, frankly, I’d be surprised if it did). What I do care about, however, is that it gives you access to the same style of sounds in a package that I can (a) afford and (b) accommodate. The virtual joystick feature that allows you to transition blend between the four different oscillators works really well and can also be automated.
And no matter how accurately (or not) it actually reproduces that classic sound, if you forget the comparison for a bit, it still just sounds good. As a recreation of a hardware classic, it is perhaps not quite as flexible in sonic terms as something like Thor or Z3TA+ but in terms of features, sound and easy of use, iProphet is spot on. And with iOS9, Audiobus, IAA and good MIDI support, it is also very easy to use within a wider iOS music workflow.
Klevgränd Produktion are probably best know for their range of iOS audio processing apps. These are uniformly excellent and the pocket money pricing (usually UK£4.49) defies the ‘you get what you pay for’ phrase by providing amazing value for money. However, the same development team also have Enkl in their catalogue and this is an equally brilliant take on a mono synth for the iPad.
Enkl is perhaps not in the same class as a Thor or a Z3TA+ in terms of the options it provides you with and, as a monophonic synth, nor is it as powerful or flexible as Cyclop. However, it is also very easy on the eye and easy on the brain. The programming is not an intimidating experience and that means it will suit those who either don’t want their heads expanded by their synth engine and those that want to be able to work on their sounds fast.
That doesn’t mean that it won’t appeal to the more seasoned iOS synth fan however… Enkl will do a decent job in also any context simply because it sounds good…there are some great bass and lead sounds amongst the presets and the app features a very interesting virtual keyboard options that adds some very useful performance options.
The lightweight class
By the time you have taken your pick from the synths listed above you might feel you have (a) spent all your available cash and (b) got all the synths you will ever need. And you may well be right… but there are some even cheaper options available on the App Store. I’m not going to attempt to list all of these (and, some of the App Store ‘freebies’ are perhaps worth avoiding) but I am happy to give honourable mentions to a couple of options.
I included Synthecaster in a recent MIDI Performance Apps roundup I published here on the blog and, if you are a guitar player rather than a keyboard player, Synthecaster, with its very guitar-orientated user interface, does a pretty good job as a performance tool for sending MIDI data out to other iOS synths or to your MIDI sequencer/recorder.
However, with various updates and tweaks since the original release, developer Daniel Resnick has been gradually improving the internal sound engine that the app provides. Now, while I’m sure Daniel will not claim that Synthecaster is in the same league as a Thor, Nave or Z3TA+, at a lose change price of UK£0.79, and an interface that makes the synth engine very easy to programme, don’t ignore the potential of the app as a sound source as well as a performance tool.
Indeed, it is the combination of the two elements that allow you to get the best out of the sounds Synthecaster can produce. With iOS9 support and Audiobus, IAA and MIDI all included, this is a guitar-player friendly synth that will not intimidate anyone. And, at UK£0.79 is a bargain to boot.
One Red Dog Media are responsible for the excellent Arctic ProSynth listed above but, if you want something from the same stable but with the complete absence of a learning curve, then you might give their XK-1 synth app a spin. The base app is a free download however, a modest UK£1.49 IAP will unlock a large number of extra presets (you can get these presets for free if you happen to own a CME Xkey keyboard by the way). iOS9, Audiobus and IAA support are included and the interface is clean and uncluttered.
The XK-1 also sounds great and I like the idea of the minimalist design. It really is aimed at those occasions when you just want to plug in and play without being distracted by the possibility of tweaking a modulation matrix or adjusting an LFO sync mode. Instant sound in an easy to use package…..
If you are an experienced synth-head and have a shed full of iOS synths already, then the XK-1 might not offer you anything over and above what you already have (particularly if you already own the excellent Arctic ProSynth). However, if you are just after a streamlined, easy to use iOS synth but which packs a sound well above its weight, then One Red Dog’s XK-1 is well worth checking out.
The out there on the edge class
There are plenty of weird and wonderful synth sounds to be had amongst the various apps listed above and, equally, plenty of challenges if you like to dig deep when it comes to programming synths to craft your own sounds. However, I’d like to finish this roundup with a few extra suggestions that, from my perspective (as a guitar player who happens to use lots of synths in composition work), are just a bit ‘out there’. These are perhaps not suggestions I’d offer up to an iOS newbie or to a synth newbie but, if you want something just a bit different, then any of the following are work a look.
Some folks like to pick a synth preset and get playing. Other like to get into programming synth sounds, whether by tweaking presets or starting from scratch. There is, however, another option; build your own synth engines and then do your own programming based upon your own design. Sounds a bit intimidating? Well, maybe it would be for a synth newbie but, it you know your oscillators from your filters, a modular synth – that is, a synth that allows you to assemble its various components in different ways and choose your own audio routing through those components – can be a lot of fun.
In days of old, modular synths were hardware monsters, very expensive, and features a spaghetti-like set of patch cables to join the components together. These days, of course, the same sort of functionality is done virtually. And while this might not have the street credibility (or nerdiness?) of the hardware version, it’s easier to manage, more flexible and a damn sight less expensive.
All of which is a suitable introduction to Audulus 3. The app has been around on the App Store for some time but recently moved to v.3 and this brings some excellent new features and tweaks top an already great design. Audulus 3 is a modular ‘synth design kit’ and, while my guitar-shaped brain is never going to master the bulk of what Audulus is capable of, if you hanker after building your own (virtual) synth, this is an app that could keep you occupied for a long time. Audulus essentially provides you with a stock of virtual synth components (termed ‘modules’ and ‘nodes’). Once placed in the interface, these components have various types of inputs and outputs that you can link to other components using virtual patch cables.
The components include virtual analog oscillators, an ADSR envelope, noise generator, random number generator, mathematical operators, 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 are a dedicated synth geek then Audulus 3– whether on the iPad or under OSX – is going to be just up your street. 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 even at UK£22.99, it is a lot cheaper than even a handful of patch cables required for the hardware equivalent.
If you like the sound of Audulus 3 but perhaps want a slightly (only slightly!) gentler introduction to the world of modular synths, then you might try Analog Kit. As with Audulus (and the also impressive zMors Modular), Analog Kit provides you with an extensive list of ‘components’ from which to build your own virtual synth (and, in this case, audio processing) tools. Components can be patched together in any fashion using the virtual cables and, thankfully, developers BitCount provide some useful tutorial material to get the newbie user started.
MIDI, Audiobus and IAA are supported and the app works well with iOS9. The user interface has a bit of a retro feel to it (in a nice way) but is easy enough on the eye. Once you have overcome the initial learning curve, there is a lot to be learned about synth and sound design if you are prepared to put the time in…. and Analog Kit can create some very impressive sounds. At UK£7.99, it is also a pretty modest outlay for a very powerful piece of software.
As it’s name suggests, the iVCS3 is a virtual, iPad-sized, recreation of EMS’s (Electronic Music Studios) hardware synth, the VSC3 – their Voltage Controlled Studio v.3 – which, in 1969, was probably the very first portable analog synthesiser ever released. The original hardware version most certainly deserves its ‘classic’ status and, even if you are too young to have ever seen (let alone owned) one of these devices, you will most certainly have heard music created with it. While it was a bit of a prog rock favourite, artists such as Jean Michel Jarre, Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and The Who have all made use of it.
The original VSC3 was, it has to be said, a bit of a mixed bag as an instrument. It could create some wonderfully rich analog sounds and, instead of a patch cable system used by most modular synths, the compact format of the VSC3 was, in a large part, down to the patch board matrix it featured where small pegs were used to establish connections. The tuning stability of the original was, apparently, diabolical so, while you could try to coax melodic performances from it, it was used as much for sound effects and as a sound processor for other audio sources (you could feed audio into the synth and run it through the synth’s components) as for its ability to play a tune.
All of which perhaps explains why the UK£10.99 of apeSoft’s iOS virtual recreation of the VSC3 might appeal to many a classic synth fan. Nope, it won’t have the charm and desirability of the original but then it doesn’t come with the price, insurance premiums, dodgy tuning and regular repair bills of the original either. Even if it gets half-way close to capturing the sound of the hardware then it is going to be worth the price of entry.
I love the sounds that this app can make but, hands-up, I admit that I have absolutely no idea how to program it. iVCS3 occupies a rather weird, wonderful – and frankly quite bonkers – world of sound creation. I can recommend it (at least, I think I can) but I certainly don’t understand it. Something for the true synth-head but perhaps not an obvious choice as your first iOS synth. iOS9, Audiobus, MIDI and IAA support are all included.
I have to confess that when Borderlands Granular was first released – back in the dim and distant past that was October 2012 – it totally bypassed me. However, the app has a significant update back in March and it is worth a look simply for the rather unique – and pretty ‘out there’ approach it brings to the creation of sound.
Priced at just UK£7.99, Borderlands Granular has a sound engine built upon granular synthesis so it uses underlying audio samples (some are included but you can also load your own) and then re-samples small ‘grains’ (parts) of these to form the basis of a new sound. Borderlands Granular is not – by almost any stretch of the imagination – a ‘conventional’ synthesiser though. If you want an iOS music app to play tunes on… well, frankly, this isn’t perhaps the best place to start. There is no virtual keyboard or MIDI input to trigger the app from an external keyboard.
Instead, you get ‘grain clouds’ (the bit of the engine that samples your waveforms) and waveforms to interact on the screen using touch gestures and it is this process that generates sound. This is most certainly something of a niche synth app but, if you have a more experimental streak, it may well have considerable appeal.
Currently priced at UK£18.99, TC-11 is in the upper end of the iOS synth price bracket but, if you like your synths – and in particular, your performance interfaces – to fully exploit what the touchscreen has to offer musicians, then TC-11 is most certainly worth a look. Indeed, in terms of how you trigger notes, TC-11 brings something very unconventional – but very touchscreen – to the party.
The unique feature of the app is the performance interface that uses the touchscreen to trigger notes through various on-screen gestures. There are, of course, a good number of other iOS music apps that now allow you to do do but, as TC-11 has been around on the App Store since late 2011, I think it is fair to say that it was one of the pioneers in this regard. The synth engine and the rather abstract way in which you play it makes for a great combination for those interested in ambient music styles or sound design.
The app supports Audiobus, IAA and iOS9 and has a great set of presets to get you started but the programming options are extensive and this is a real joy to get lost in.
Phew!… thanks for sticking with me. As I think the above list – which is far from exhaustive – demonstrates, the App Store has some pretty fine synth-based virtual instruments. It is probably the strongest suit within the broad field of iOS music apps. Synth fans will, I suspect, eventually hoover up the vast majority of these apps and, given the App Store pricing model, while this will still add up to a decent investment, it probably still doesn’t match the price of a single secondhand (and possibly not fully functional) ‘classic’ hardware synth.
For iOS music newbies? Well, start with a few choices from this list and see where that takes you. Which ‘few’ is another matter as it will depend upon your musical tastes and influences. At a personal level, my own workhorse tools are currently iM1, Thor and SynthMaster Player but your mileage may well vary… and I regularly dip into the rest of this list for specific sounds. Personally, I don’t think there is a bad app amongst this lot…. winners all the way.
Oh, and if I’ve missed a synth app that is one of your particular favourites, then feel free to share a suggestion or two via the comments section….