iOS synth apps roundup – brilliant virtual synths for equally brilliant prices

PrintIn the wonderful world of the App Store, there is one category of iOS music apps that is truly well served; 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 Korg with their new Korg Module app 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 designed a virtual synth; memory and storage space are less of an issue.

Synths - in one for or another - are now an integral part of modern music making....  but not all of us can afford a collection of classic hardware synths like this example from Moog.

Synths – in one for or another – are now an integral part of modern music making…. but not all of us can afford a collection of classic hardware synths like this example from Moog.

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 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 try 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 thought 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 butt.

thor logoThor

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£10.49, Thor is a monster of a synth for a ridiculously low price.

Thor provides a huge range of programming options but the real killer is the sound; brilliant!

Thor provides a huge range of programming options but the real killer is the sound; brilliant!

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. If you have any interest in synth-based music styles then this app really should be in your iOS app collection.

 Thor



Nave logoNave

Waldorf are a bit of a legend in the world of hardware synthesis and, in Nave (UK£13.99), 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.

The Waldorf Nave music app sounds great and offers lots of programming options.

The Waldorf Nave music app sounds great and offers lots of programming options.

However, in building sounds upon wavetable synthesis, Nave is most certainly distinct from 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, Nave is a ‘must-have’ for any serious iOS-owning synth lover.

Nave



z3ta logoZ3TA+

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.

Synths like Cakewalk's Z3TA+ have been ported over from the desktop very successfully.

Synths like Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ have been ported over from the desktop very successfully.

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 iOS8, 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….

Z3TA+



animoog logoAnimoog

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£10.49) and a streamlined iPhone version (UK£1.99) and, as a 25MB download, would find a home on even the most highly stuffed of iOS devices.

Animoog - a bit of a classic in iOS music app terms.

Animoog – a bit of a classic in iOS music app terms.

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. iOS8 support was added in a recent update so the app is also bang up to date.

Animoog for iPad



tera synth logoTERA Synth

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.

Tera's rather modern design is easy to use...  but there are lots of options under the hood.

Tera’s rather modern design is easy to use… but there are lots of options under the hood.

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 (Input slot) 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£13.99. 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.

Tera Synth



Mitosynth logoMitosynth

At UK£10.49, 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, 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.

MitoSynth; a very stylish take on the virtual synth and sounds great too.

MitoSynth; a very stylish take on the virtual synth and sounds great too.

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 iOS8, Audiobus and IAA support included.

Mitosynth



iMS-20 logoiMS-20

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 £20.99 (although it has been available in various Korg sales for the UK£13.99 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.

Korg's iMS-20 synth - sounds incredible regardless of the platform.

Korg’s iMS-20 synth – sounds incredible regardless of the platform.

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.

iMS-20



ipolysix logoiPolySix

Korg’s iPolysix, as its name suggests, is a software recreation of their hardware synth from the early 1980s. Unlike the excellent MS-20 (and the iMS-20 app) – which was monophonic – the original Polysix was polyphonic and, of course, the app reflects that. In fact, in the app recreation, you get to use two synth sounds plus a drum machine within a pattern-based sequencer so you can build up some quite complex and full-sounding arrangements all within the iPolysix app. There is also a useful Chord mode, where you can play up to six notes, engage the Chord mode (just tap the Chord button located on the left just above the keyboard) and then you can use a single note press to transpose that chord anywhere you like.

The main synth control panel - lots of knobs but not as scary as it looks.

The main synth control panel – lots of knobs but not as scary as it looks.

If you like the sounds of 19080’s classic analog synths then I suspect you will also like the sound of Korg’s iPolysix app. I’ve no idea how close it really gets to the original but, unless you are really retentive about these things, then perhaps expecting an iPad app to really tick your boxes is a bit unrealistic? For everyone else, however, the iPolysix will provide the essential essence of that polyphonic analog sound in a format that is both (a) more convenient than the original hardware and (b) is easily affordable.

iOS8, Audiobus and IAA are all included and the app has a good MIDI spec. And while the c. UK£20 asking price is at the top-end of the iOS synth bracket, this is a very classy sounding instrument for those with a hankering for the essence of old-school analog sound in a convenient modern format.

iPolysix



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.

arctic prosynth logoArctic ProSynth

Arctic ProSynth (UK£6.99) 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.

Arctic ProSynth is a big sounding synth at a pretty modest price.

Arctic ProSynth is a big sounding synth at a pretty modest price.

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, 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.

Arctic ProSynth



isem logoiSEM

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.

iSEM's main screen certainly captures the look of the original hardware synth.

iSEM’s main screen certainly captures the look of the original hardware synth.

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.

iSEM


microtera logomicroTERA

Like TERA, microTERA is a port of one of VirSyn’s desktop synths. Like nave, at its heart, microTERA uses waveshapping for its basic sound construction. Despite its name, microTERA is not TERAfying at all. In fact, given the relatively straightforward synthesis engine, it is easy for the synth-programming newbie to find their way around in pretty quick time.

microTERA comes to iOS.

microTERA comes to iOS.

However, don’t thing ‘easy to use’ means ‘bland sounds’. Once you get into that programming you will soon discover a huge range of tonal possibilities. Dig into the modulation options and things can get – sonically at least – suitably TERAfying. There is, like Nave, quite a distinct sound to microTERA through and, while it can do electronica and dance sounds, I’m more inclined to reach for it when I want some pads or ambient textures.

Priced at UK£6.99, the price is also suitably non-scary and, with iOS8, Audiobus and IAA support all included, the app is right up to date in terms of iOS music making.

microTERA



iMini logoiMini

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.

iMini faithfully recreates the look of the original Minimoog - but with a few extras thrown in for good measure.

iMini faithfully recreates the look of the original Minimoog – but with a few extras thrown in for good measure.

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.

iMini



sunrizer logo 2Sunrizer

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 iOS8, 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.

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….

Sunrizer's interface - all the key controls are available within this single display.

Sunrizer’s interface – all the key controls are available within this single display.

Priced at UK£6.99, 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)



Addictive Synth logoAddictive Synth

VirSyn’s Addictive Synth has a sound engine based upon dynamic wavetable synthesis and, with up to six oscillators per voice (and up to eight voices/notes playable at once, that’s a lot of oscillation!) that can be combined in a variety of configurations, some very complex and engaging sounds can be created. The options include a spectral noise generator with a clever filter and an FM oscillator option. For those that like to get stuck in to programming (as opposed to just randomly tweaking controls on the supplied presets to see what happens), Addictive Synth provides a huge range of possibilities.

Addictive Synth's main Wave window.

Addictive Synth’s main Wave window.

These possibilities are expanded further by some interesting filter options, the comprehensive modulation section with 4 LFOs and 4 envelopes plus an array of effects that include delay, modulation, EQ and reverb. In performance terms, real-time control is provided by an XY pad and, if you are happy to tilt your iPad while playing, this can also be linked to synth parameters. In addition, the rather novel virtual keyboard allows you to slide your finger across keys for pitch bend or up/down a key for modulation (hence the lack of mod or pitch wheels in the main screen).

Addictive Synth has iOS8, Audiobus and IAA support and, while it’s a separate purchase, you can also get Addictive microSynth for your iPhone (UK£2.49). In terms of sound, it really is quite striking how well a single synth engine can go from analog warmth to digital crispness and it pulls it all off with some style. In short, this is one heck of a synth and it is capable of some fabulous sounds.

Addictive Synth


Addictive microSynth



cube synth logoCube Synth

A further VirSyn iOS product is Cube Synth (UK£7.99). Cube Synth’s synth engine is built around additive synthesis (in fact, VirSyn describe Cube Synth as an example of ‘spectral morphing additive synthesis’) rather than the more commonly used subtractive processes and, as the company also offer a desktop version of Cube, it’s fairly safe to assume that this iOS release is based upon the same basic technology.

With its interesting additive synth engine, Cube Synth is no 'me too!' synth app.

With its interesting additive synth engine, Cube Synth is no ‘me too!’ synth app.

The sounds Cube Synth generates are rich and detailed and, with the various ‘morph’ options allowing you to transition between sound, it is possible to create a real sense of movement to the textures. For me, where it really excels is in pads and, in particular, somewhat abstract soundscape-like tones. For musicians into ambient composition or wanting to crossover into sound design territory, Cube Synth would be a very useful sonic tool. However, if you are mainly in to house, techno, dubstep or other full-on dance styles, while Cube Synth might provide some occasional seasoning, I think there are more obvious choices you would turn to for those types of bread and butter sounds.

The additive synth engine undoubtedly gives it a distinct ‘voice’ when compared to many of the subtractive-based synths that dominate the virtual synth world (including iOS). On these grounds alone, many iOS synth heads would probably consider adding Cube Synth to their app collection.

Cube Synth



laplace logoLaplace

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£3.99 price tag and has iOS8, Audiobus and IAA support as well as good MIDI support including a well-executed MIDI Learn function.

Laplace Resonator Synth from iceGear; distinctive sound and great user interface.

Laplace Resonator Synth from iceGear; distinctive sound and great user interface.

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.

Laplace



iProphet logoiProphet

Arturia are highly regarded for their virtual makeovers over synth legends and iPhrophet 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 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.

Arturia's iProphet iOS synth is unbelievably good given the pocket money price

Arturia’s iProphet iOS synth is unbelievably good given the pocket money price

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 iOS8, Audiobus, IAA and good MIDI support, it is also very easy to use within a wider iOS music workflow.

iProphet



zmors logozMors Synth

zMors Synth provides a virtual analog synth environment with four independent channels (that is, you have four instances of the synth engine built into a single app) so you can use up to four different sounds at any one time. Each of these synth channels has dual wave oscillators, an LFO, envelope and filter, while the oscillators have octave, tune, amp envelope, pan, mix (to balance between the two waveforms available in each of the dual wave oscillators), phase and send levels for the global reverb and delay effects.

Each channel of the synth engine has an independent sequencer track. Here you can program parts of up to four bars in length. Equally, you can choose to link all four playback channels to the first sequencer track if you just want you layer sounds to create more complex tones.

zMors main screen - plenty packed in but still fairly easy to access all the key controls.

zMors main screen – plenty packed in but still fairly easy to access all the key controls.

The interface is nicely styled – a sort of retro grey metallic look – and while perhaps not quite as eye-catching as something like Nave – despite there being quite a number of controls and buttons packed into the main screen, things never get too cramped. At UK£6.99, with iOS8, Audiobus and IAA support, the ‘four-part’ approach gives zMors a distinctive approach and the analog-style sounds are warm and engaging. Maybe not one to reach for every day but easy to use and, for novice programmers, not too intimidating.

zMors Synth



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.

nanologue logoNanologue

When it comes to all-singing, all-dancing virtual synths, Steinberg’s Nanologue is perhaps not going to win too many prizes but, if you want a decent sounding monosynth that’s (a) easy to use, (b) easy on your iPad’s resources and (c) easy on your pocket, then it ticks all the boxes.

Obviously, being a monosynth, its strongest suits are going to be lead and bass sounds but you can also carve out some nice special effects, percussive noises and electronic drones. For almost any sort of dance and/or electronica styles, Nanologue has something to offer.

Nanologue - all the key controls in one screen so it is easy to get working with.

Nanologue – all the key controls in one screen so it is easy to get working with.

And, of course, it’s free…. so you can try without risk and simply delete it if it doesn’t crank your particular handle. While the app has not been updated for some time, as it doesn’t include Audibus support anyway, it actually works fine under iOS8 or as an IAA plugin within a host such as Cubasis. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?

Nanologue



synthecaster logo v2Synthecaster

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.

Synthecaster provides an interesting take on MIDI part generation using the touchscreen interface.

Synthecaster provides an interesting take on MIDI part generation using the touchscreen interface.

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£0.69, 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.

Synthecaster's synth engine features dual oscillators.

Synthecaster’s synth engine features dual oscillators.

Indeed, it is the combination of the two elements that allow you to get the best out of the sounds Synthecaster can produce. With iOS8 support and Audiobus and IAA both included, this is a guitar-player friendly synth that will not intimidate anyone. And, at UK£0.69 is a bargain to boot.

Synthecaster



XK-1 logoXK-1

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). iOS8, 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…..

XK-1's main screen; about as simple as a synth's control set can get?

XK-1’s main screen; about as simple as a synth’s control set can get?

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.

XK-1 synth



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.

audulus logo 2Audulus

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. This app 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’). Once placed in the interface, these components become ‘nodes’ and have various types of inputs and outputs that you can link to other nodes using virtual patch cables.

DIY synth creation anyone? Audulus gives you the tools you need....

DIY synth creation anyone? Audulus gives you the tools you need….

The components include virtual analog oscillators, an ADSR envelope, noise generator, random number generator, mathematical oprators, 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 get really hooked, then there are additional components available as in-app purchase (IAPs) and these currently include additional maths expression modules, timing, a polyphonic pack (for additional stereo and quadraphonic processing) and custom nodes.

If you are a dedicated synth geek then Adulus – 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 at UK£10.49, it is a lot cheaper than even a handful of patch cables required for the hardware equivalent.

Audulus



zMors Modular logozMors Modular

If you like the sound of Audulus but perhaps want a slightly (only slightly!) gentler introduction to the world of modular synths, then you might try zMors Modular. The list of modules is extensive. You get two generators (Oscillator and Wavetable), two envelope types (ADSR and Slew), two processors (Filter and MathDSP (eek!), eight ‘tools’ (aMux, Combiner, Macro, Notes, Oscilloscope, Ranger, Split and VCA), five Seq/CV options (Chords, CV Sequencer, Slider, Step Sequencer and XY Pad and, finally, two effects (Delay and Reverb).

zMors Modular; roll your own virtual synth designs....

zMors Modular; roll your own virtual synth designs….

While using them all is not compulsory (or my guitar-orientated brain would already have imploded by now), there is lots of scope here to create all sorts of weird and wonderful combinations but it is perhaps not quite so mind-expanding (exploding?) as Audulus. Even if you are a die-hard, synth programming, obsessive though, you ought to find plenty to keep you occupied here.

However, if I had to characterise the ‘sound’ of zMors Modular overall, I think I’d use words like ‘vintage’ or ‘analog sounding’. While the app may well do cutting edge sounds (in the right programming hands), there is definitely a strong sense of classic analog hardware that comes through… which, I suspect, lots of users will think is a very good thing. At UK£6.99, it is very keenly priced and, while you get iOS8 support and support for MIDI and IAA, at present, there is no Audiobus support (although it is, I believe, planned).

zMors Modular



iVCS3 logoiVSC3

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.

The iVSC3 captures the visual look of the original hardware controls very accurately.

The iVSC3 captures the visual look of the original hardware controls very accurately.

All of which perhaps explains why the UK£10.49 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. iOS8, Audiobus, MIDI and IAA iVCS3 support are all included.

iVCS3



In summary

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 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 Thor, Z3TA+, Nave and Arctic ProSynth 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….

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    Comments

    1. Thanks, John – you just may bring me down off the Nave fence yet ;)

      Camel Audio’s Alchemy is always, without fail, my first stop synth. Gorgeous sounds with 8 variations for every preset at your fingertips, one of the best glide implementations on a touchscreen keyboard outside of Animoog as well as dedicated percussion pads per preset. I agree the Virsyn synths are all a great value, easy to use with very nice sounds, and Sunrizer may be my second goto synth. I really enjoy your app round ups and always learn something new. This is a great rundown of top iOS synths.

      Would you consider Omenie’s M3000 a synth? I always wanted a Mellotron, and the M3000 has been a great workhorse for me. Love it.

      • Ditto on Alchemy. Maybe it’s not on the list because it’s sample based? Gorgeous sounds, though. Ditto on Sunrizer as well. Too bad there’s no midi out because that programmable arp is in a class by itself.

    2. Jayson Vein says:

      Nave is great, I’m no synther, but I have a lot of fun with it.

      Bought Thor for the Bargain, and it is very slick. Each touch of the virtual Keys is so smooth.

      I want Z3TA+ to go on Sale, cuz I don’t need another synth fer sure, but this one really catches my eye. I really want it. But haven’t went for it at full price yet.

      I love Alchemy. It is prob. my favorite besides Magellan. I love that synth. Easy to use, and the presets are nice. I’d put Magellan in the Heavy Weight class.

    3. Glad you included Addictive Synth! I’m a video editor who began doing my own backing tracks for short videos a few years ago. Although I had ten years of classical piano lessons growing up, I had zero background in digital synthesis when I got my first ipad in 2012. I found most isynths to be intimidating until…addictive synth. Because of its multiple randomizer functions, particularly those on the waveforms and the arpeggiator pages, it is so easy and quick to create new beats and sounds from this synth. And so fun! I was up and running in one day creating music for sports highlight clips, where before I would have to purchase and remix tracks from music libraries.

      If you are starting out I STRONGLY recommend this be your first synth. I own about half of the synths on this list, but I still use addictive synth mostly and have created hundreds of presets I love and use in my pro work. (mind you I output the stems i create in addictive synth to logic or final cut pro where I modify them and mix them with the native video soundtrack.)

      But if you aren’t a synth head and want a powerful, easy to use tool, this is it.

    4. While I agree with all you’ve included, you’ve left off some remarkable music apps that should be noted, especially since they make tremendous use of the iPad interface:

      TC-11
      Gestrument

    5. I should add that for addictive synth the “randomizers” are little Yahtzee type dice symbols that shuffle up randomly whatever parameter you seek to affect. Meaning you literally digitally “roll the dice” for random sounds. BUT you can have careful control over the specifics that your randomize. Most of these sounds are “usable” some are awesome (this is when I create the preset). In the appegiator there are five “dice” randomizers for things like octave and key. Again, if you are new to digitial or analog synths, this is a terrific place to start. Thanks John for these lonform posts.

    6. Adam Matza says:

      Great list. Agree that Alchemy must be on this list. It is a heavyweight.

      That said, all of these synth apps would make me much more excited it not for the dysfunction Apple created with iOS 8. The latest iOS simply doesn’t work with Audiobus. In the previous iOS, things worked remarkably well. Since 8 came out, fidelity has suffered and in many cases, music making apps do not work at all with Audiobus.

      We in the iPad music making community implore Apple to fix what it has broken. It has been three months and we are no closer to a fix than we were when iOS 8 first ruined the iOS music making experience.

    7. Nice overview — there are some here that I haven’t heard of yet. My only issue is that you say the Korg iPolysix has a good MIDI implementation. I’ve actually found the implementation to be horrible compared to other synths (like Sunrizer), because the iPoly listens to MIDI on every channel so you can’t route it / filter it with other MIDI apps. It also does not have the capability to Learn MIDI to interface easily with a hardware MIDI controller like so many other iOS synths can do. It’s like Korg made the iPoly however long ago, and have really abandoned keeping it up to spec (even when compared to some newer Korg apps).

    8. I use my ipad mainy on stage with a rock band, i like to use nlog pro when it comes to synth parts, it may not be the best synth available on ios but for what i need is good and has never failed me in a gig (no crashes or bugs), also has a good midi implementation, magellan its also good for stage performance.
      Not on the stage i also like iprophet, iSEM, thor, imini, laplace, iVSC3, artic pro, nave, nanologue.
      The ones that i buy but not really use: animoog, jasuto, cube synth, uber synth, tera.

    9. Hi All…. thanks for the comments and suggestions…. Keep ’em coming as I’m sure other readers will benefit from the input particularly if they are still building their app collections…. best wishes, John

    10. Great roundup, John!
      And I agree to the posts before, especially Magellan is an amazing synth.
      Hey, if you add Alchemy to the list I’d also like to see Peter Vogel’s CMI Fairlight on it. Anybody with some love for the 80s can’t deny that …
      Last not least let me throw in two very cheap alternatives for people who do enjoy styles like Dark Wave, Industrial or EBM: The new FM4 is excellent for those 80s style EBM basses and Phawuo adds a good amount of filth. Very dark and deep! The last one is not suitable for everyone though for sure.

    11. Have to vote for Alchemy, as others have stated, it’s often a starting point for me. Nlog, although not used much anymore was my first synth, that was on an iPod touch!!! Nlog is such a solid app, and has always been at the forefront of the ever changing iOS technolog (Audiobus, IAA, ios8, etc). If I were to perform live with an iPad like @Alphonso above, I would have to incorporate Nlog for its reliability.

      Launchkey, which is free, is limited but a pretty fun synth (especially when used with a Launchkey keyboard and the Launchpad app).

      A series of synths should be mentioned, the others from developer apeSoft (see iVCS3 above). I see on the App Store that a bundle of iDensity, iPulsaret, and Stria are available for $19.99 — that is a lot of bizarre, weird, and wonderful synthesis for 20 bucks American! I have Stiria, love it, but still don’t know what to do with it — LOL.

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