iSEM review – Arturia bring Oberheim’s legendary SEM to iOS

Download from iTunes App Storeisem logoIs it possible to own too many iOS synth apps? Well, I guess if you are a guitar player or drummer or vocalist then perhaps you just want a few of the best to cover your general needs. However, if you are a bit of a synth-head, then the budget pricing of most iOS music apps (well, budget when compared to desktop virtual instruments) must be a bit of a temptation. And with software recreations of old classics (e.g. iMini), ports of desktop ‘classics’ (e.g. Thor) and things that are just damn good under iOS whether they are classic or not (e.g. Nave, Arctic ProSynth), users are really spoilt for choice.

One of the more recent temptations is provided by Arturia’s iSEM (UK£6.99). This 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 main screen certainly captures the look of the original hardware synth.

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

This kind of pricing is why software synths can seem so attractive to the majority of us and Arturia have a whole roster of products that fall into the ‘virtual recreation’ bracket (iMini is a good example) and these are generally very well thought of, capturing the essence of the original sound and appearance but, where useful, bringing the interface and/or features up-to-date. Their desktop version of the SEM – which is priced at around the US$99 mark – was well received. So how does the iOS version fair?

iSEM tour

Stylistically, the look of iSEM captures the appearance of the original hardware well although there are, of course, additional features here that were not part of the original design (like a virtual keyboard, for example!). The main screen is split into three zones. Along the top strip you get access to the preset system, buttons to toggle the middle section of the screen between different pages of controls, access to the ‘info’ (help) options and the Connect panel.

The Connect panel provides access to the app's MIDI features.

The Connect panel provides access to the app’s MIDI features.

This latter panel allows you to configure background audio, WIST, global tempo and MIDI connectivity; iSEM will send and receive MIDI and happily work with a suitably connected external hardware MIDI keyboard. The app also includes a nicely implemented MIDI learn system if you have hardware knobs you wish to assign to particular iSEM controls for real-time tweaking. Incidentally, Audiobus and IAA support are provided from the off so the app is ready to work into your wider iOS music production system.

The virtual keyboard includes a nice key/scale option so you can reduce the number of duff notes created by clumsy fingers :-)

The virtual keyboard includes a nice key/scale option so you can reduce the number of duff notes created by clumsy fingers :-)

The lower third of the screen is dominated by a virtual keyboard with both pitch and mod wheels. If you tap the Settings icon just above the keyboard (next to the Oberheim logo) you can tweak how the keyboard responds. Options to change the size of the keys and restrict keys to a specific key/scale combination mean less duff notes and are very useful. There is also a ‘hold’ option to leave notes playing once you release them and a rather neat ‘chord’ function that allows you to program a single chord and then trigger that at different pitches by just playing one note. It doesn’t, perhaps, replace something like Chordion, but it’s nice to have.

By default, the upper/central portion of the display contains the main synth controls but the buttons on the top strip allow you to toggle to the modulation matrix, voice programmer, effects and performance screens. More on all these in a minute….

Start the engine

The app includes a very good MIDI learn system.

The app includes a very good MIDI learn system.

iSEM’s synth engine – faithful to the original – is not a particularly complex affair. There are the two main oscillators that mimic the sawtooth and variable-width pulse waveforms of the original and these can be blended as required. However, Arturia have also added a sub-oscillator that operates either one or two octaves below Osc 1 so you can add some extra bottom end if required. You also get a model of the original multimode filter that was a big part of the sound of the hardware synth.

Looking the part is one thing but, obviously, these virtual components have to sound like the originals also and to achieve that, Arturia use their TAE (True Analog Emulation) technology. This is their own bespoke modelling technology and, if you are interested in the background, there is some reading to be done on Arturia’s own website. I’ve never played the original hardware synth (although, like most people, I’ll have heard it on countless recordings even if I didn’t know it) so I can’t make a direct – or particularly educated – comparison. I will say, however, that iSEM sound great; very analog, very warm and very fat. Accurate sonic simulation of the original SEM or not, the sound certainly captures the sprit of classic 1970s synths.

The Modulation Matrix page provides plenty of options for sound shaping but without being too difficult to master.

The Modulation Matrix page provides plenty of options for sound shaping but without being too difficult to master.

Other elements on the main screen include a simple(ish) arpeggiator, dry/wet controls for the overdrive, chorus and delay effects and a ‘soft clip’ switch. These are all ‘additions’ – but very sensible ones – that make iSEM more flexible and fun to use. Incidentally, all the controls are of a suitably chunky design so – on a full size iPad at least – finger dimensions are not an issue :-)

The Mod Matrix screen provides you with up to eight modulation sources that you can use to target any of 26 different targets. This is a breeze to use; you just dial up both source and target using the smaller rotary controls while the larger knobs control the modulation amount. There are enough possibilities here to get creative without it being too scary for novice synth programmers.

The Voice Programmer page provides an interesting concept. This allows you to define up to eight ‘variations’ on the current patch. You can choose up to six parameters to vary and then specify by how much each of your eight ‘voices’ vary from the current synth settings for those parameters. Then, as you play individual notes, if the Voice Programmer is switched on, each note has a different one of the ‘voice parameters’ applied to it. Depending upon the parameters you use, this might induce tonal variations or even pitch variations. Either way, it is another means of adding ‘movement’ to the sound.

iSEM's Voice Programmer page provides additional ways to add variety to your sounds.

iSEM’s Voice Programmer page provides additional ways to add variety to your sounds.

The order in which the eight voice parameter settings are applied is dictated by the Direction setting, with options including forward (note 1 gets voice parameter 1, note 2 gets voice parameter settings 2, etc. until you get to 9th note played when you go back to the voice parameter 1 settings again), backward, random and a few others. I’ve not encountered anything quite like this before but I suspect the idea is derived from Oberheim’s PSP (Polyphonic Synthesizer Programmer) which was introduced in 1976 as an add-on to the SEM. It’s quirky but interesting to experiment with and can produce some good results.

The FX page is fairly straightforward by comparison but gives you access to controls to fully configure the overdrive, chorus and delay effects. I particularly liked the overdrive effect; it produces wonderfully warm distortion and, unless really abused, saturates the sound without turning it to digital fizz.

The FX page gives you all the controls you need for the overdrive, chorus and delay effects.

The FX page gives you all the controls you need for the overdrive, chorus and delay effects.

The final set of controls are provided in the Perf (Performance) page. This is a very neat addition as it allows you to select four parameters and then provides you with four vertical sliders that you can tap and drag on to change the associated parameter setting in real time. These are big and chunky so would be much easier to tweak in a live performance context than the rotary knobs on the main synth engine page. This page also duplicates the arpeggiator controls and the wet/dry controls for the effects.

Back to the 70s?

While iSEM captures the look and architecture of the original SEM – and very sensibly adds some new features to bring it into the modern world – we all know that looks aren’t everything. If users are going to be tempted to add another virtual synth to their iOS music app collection then it better sound good.

The performance page adds some useful 'hands-on' controls for real-time performance tweaks.

The performance page adds some useful ‘hands-on’ controls for real-time performance tweaks.

Fortunately, iSEM does sound good. As I said earlier, I’ll let others with experience of the original hardware unit comment about how accurately (or not) the virtual synth replicates that of the original hardware. However, as most of us will never have played one of these mythical beasts, it’s perhaps a bit of a moot point. The iSEM sounds…  well, like the iSEM and, frankly, it’s a very good sound indeed.

The app is supplied with a fabulous set of preset sounds that ably demonstrate iSEM’s ability to take us down the ‘classic 70s synth’ route if that’s a direction we need to travel. A good number of these have been programmed by some well known names. For example, highly regarded synth sound/sample creator Ian Boddy has provided a selection as has Brendan Perry (from Dead Can Dance. Incidentally, if you want to be green with envy, check out Brendan’s studio from this Sound On Sound interview from a few years back). Whether you want leads or basses or pads or organs or synth brass or percussive sounds or fx sounds they are all there in abundance.

The app ships with a huge collection of presets.

The app ships with a huge collection of presets.

What is perhaps less obvious given that this is a 70s synth clone is just how up-to-date some of the sounds can feel. Yes, you can do cheesy synth brass or strings if you want (and very good they are too in the right musical context) but iSEM also has sounds that would work in contemporary dance tracks. Want some wobbly dub-step bass? iSEM can do that. Want some bleepy electronica arpeggios? iSEM can do that. This is not just a retro sound machine; its perfectly at home in modern electronic music.

Home or away

iSEM's IAA transport panel worked a treat with Auria.

iSEM’s IAA transport panel worked a treat with Auria.

If you are one of those brave souls happy to build your iPad into your live performance rig, then iSEM would make a fabulous live sound source. I think it went belly up on me once during my testing (which, incidentally, I thought was pretty good for a first release) and I’d therefore make the usual qualifiers here about doing some pre-flight testing within your own setup to ensure you build some rock-solid confidence. However, through a suitable set of PA speakers or a keyboard amp, the depth of the sound really comes across; this is a big sounding synth coming from a tiny piece of (high quality) consumer electronics.

The Audiobus support seems to be solidly implements.

The Audiobus support seems to be solidly implemented.

Equally, however, I’d happily use iSEM in a recording context, whether that is an iOS-based project or just using it as sound source within my own desktop-based project studio. It is undoubtedly the equal of many desktop synths I own yet is costs no more than a pint of beer in a smart city-centre bar. I had no problems using iSEM with Cubasis via Audiobus whether for audio recording or for sending MIDI data to/from iSEM. Equally, testing iSEM with Auria via inter app audio (IAA) went smoothly with iSEM providing a nice take on the IAA transport panel positioned just above iSEM’s virtual keyboard.

In summary

Arturia’s iSEM music app is brilliant. 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 not too daunting to program; yes, there are things to learn when you first start out but if you have any previous experience of synth programming then I suspect you will soon find your way around. Equally, newbies to synth programming need not feel too intimidated.

The iOS music making community is blessed with some tremendous software with – frankly – a ridiculous pricing model (let’s keep that between ourselves shall we in case Apple or the developers do something about it). Arturia’s iSEM is just another example of this. If you are an iOS synth collector then this is definitely one to add and, if you are a newbie iOS musician building your synth app collection, this is yet another contender to add to the best of the rest on the App Store. Highly recommended.

Download from iTunes App Store

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    1. I stalled on getting it, because I thought, wrongly, same old same old…It sounds absolutely fantastic. Airy where it should be, deep and round in the appropriate patches, terrific pads and stuff for arps…

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