iSymphonic Orchestra review – orchestra in an app?

Download from iTunes App StoreiSymphonic Orchestra logoDeveloper Crudebyte will be familiar to some iOS musicians as they have released a number of iOS music apps. These include MIDI Wrench, JACK Audio Connection Kit and their CMP Grand Piano. JACK was an interesting concept but, unfortunately, found itself up against the hugely popular Audiobus and some general improvements in CoreMIDI within the OS that meant it didn’t really get wide enough support to catch on. The app is still available but, even today, doesn’t support iOS7.

The CMP Grand Piano has perhaps been more successful and, like IK Multimedia’s iGrand (and iLectric for electric pianos), attempts to provide a realistic, sample-based, piano playing experience under iOS. As with sampled-based virtual piano instruments on the desktop, the approach is built around detailed sampling with multiple velocity layers and, as a consequence, the app comes in at over 600 MB.

iSymphonic Orchestra; is this the orchestra library that many iOS musicians have been waiting for?

iSymphonic Orchestra; is this the orchestra library that many iOS musicians have been waiting for?

Given the storage limitations of even a top-of-the-line iPad or iPhone, this is a significant chunk of space. Equally, given the RAM limitations of current iOS devices (and that, to some extent, this influences how many samples can be handled at any one time even with technologies such as streaming from disk), trying to compete with a desktop computer-based virtual piano (or sample-based virtual anything come to that), is quite an ask.

Still, like iGrand, CMP Grand Piano does a pretty good job and they can certainly vie for ‘best acoustic piano app’ presently available on the iTunes App Store. Hooked up to a suitable external MIDI keyboard and a decent playback system, both do a decent job of sounding like a rather good acoustic piano.

Time to transpose

Crudebyte have now transposed some of the sample-playback technology they developed for CMP Grand Piano and applied it to orchestral sounds. Released a few days ago, therefore, was iSymphonic Orchestra, an iPad-only collection of orchestral sounds, also coming in at over 600MB in size and with (for iOS apps anyway) a fairly hefty price tag of UK£37.99 – higher, for example, than either Cubasis or Auria.

While iOS is great for apps that require predominantly number crunching to create sound (which is why we have some excellent virtual synths and guitar amp sims), the storage limitations and the RAM limitations mean it is not an ideal hardware environment to create detailed, sample-based instruments. Virtual synths (for example) therefore translate pretty well from the desktop to iOS and developers can often bring the same sound production algorithms and recode them for the iOS; yes, it’s still a lot of work but you don’t have to reinvent quite so much of the software technology to make it possible.

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.

However, that doesn’t apply with sampled instruments. On the desktop, such instruments can have virtually unlimited amounts of disk space for all those different velocity layers and performance articulations that, eventually, translate into ‘real’ sounding performances from the virtual instruments. Equally, to make use of all that detailed sampling, while the samples can be streamed directly from disk, often a small portion of each sample (the initial attack) is loaded into RAM. Again, the desktop has an advantage here as RAM is generally cheap and bountiful. That’s not the case with an iPad (well, not yet anyway).

So, if you are going to bring a sampled-based instrument to iOS that is something more than just a single sample per key (which, for example, is close to what you get with the majority of SoundFont based instruments or some of the most basic sample-based instruments built into the common iOS DAW apps), you need to rethink the approach; the desktop technology doesn’t transpose across to iOS quite so easily.

As a slight aside, this is why, for example, we don’t have the equivalent of BFD3 or Superior Drummer 2 on iOS yet. Both these desktop virtual drummers are brilliant but require lots of samples and lots of audio to be streamed from disk (and through RAM) in order to sound that good. The closest we currently have to this is the excellent DrumPerfect but the reason Marinus Molengraft has been able to get that close is because he designed a very clever sample playback system to workaround the mega-sample method used on the desktop. This works for drum sounds…  but I’m not sure it would work so well with other (melodic) instruments.

DrumPerfect uses some a clever sample engine to help create realistic drums from relatively few samples.

DrumPerfect uses some a clever sample engine to help create realistic drums from relatively few samples.

And before I dig into iSymphonic Orchestra, for those who haven’t used any of the more popular orchestral libraries available on the desktop, here’s a bit of context. EastWest’s top-of-the-line Symphonic Orchestra (just picked as an example; there are others) contains 194 GB of sample data and the Platinum Complete Plus edition supplied on multiple DVDs has a list price of just under US$1000 (but hey, as of the time of writing, they have a good sale on so it is cheaper).

This is the kind of library a serious film composer might use to mock up his orchestral arrangements in his studio before the film company pays for a real orchestra to perform them. Alternatively, because the library is so good, lots of films or TV shows without a mega-budget will just use the sample-based mixes and, if the composer is good with the sample tools, 99% of the listeners will not notice the difference. It covers all sections of the orchestra – strings, brass, woodwind, percussion – and has both ensemble and solo instruments to choose from with multiple performance articulations.

In contrast, one of the more budget – and very popular – complete orchestral sample libraries for the desktop is Garritan’s Personal Orchestra 4. This requires 3.5GB of hard drive space for the samples and has a more manageable price tag of US$149. It doesn’t have the mega-details of the EastWest library but is still has over 150 different instrument patches and enough performance articulations to create a very respectable orchestral-based production. While I’m lucky enough to own a couple of more up-market orchestral libraries (although not the EastWest one unfortunately), I’ve used the GPO4 samples myself in a number of pieces of music that have eventually be used on broadcast TV; as far as I’m aware, nobody complained….

Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 running within Cubase and with a 16 part multi-timbral chamber orchestra loaded.

Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 running within Cubase and with a 16 part multi-timbral chamber orchestra loaded.

So, given the limitations of iOS hardware, it is perhaps not so surprising that, to date, we have not seen iOS music app developers really able to match what can be done with sample-based virtual instruments on the desktop environment….

…. until now? Well, that’s pretty much what the iTunes description of Crudebyte’s iSymphonic Orchestra implies when is states that ‘The supreme quality of these sounds, combined with the unique way they were recorded and assembled, gives us confidence that you haven’t heard anything comparable as of to date, even not on Mac or PC’.

That is, of course, a pretty big statement to make. However, iSymphonic Orchestra is a pretty big app (in iOS terms; 600MB+) with a pretty big price tag (in iOS terms; UK£37.99) so does the app make good on Crudebyte’s description?

Orchestral tour

Perhaps the first thing to say about iSymphonic Orchestra is that it is pretty straightforward to use. The main performance page contains a control strip across the top, patch and effects selection drop-down menus, a large graphic area that gives you a visual impression of the currently selected patch and a fairly standard virtual piano keyboard.

The latter, by default, packs in a lot of keys (orchestral sounds can span a good number of octaves) and, while you can adjust this if you wish, the app is really intended to be played via an external MIDI keyboard. This is one context when a larger-format keyboard (49+ keys) is an advantage if you want to play in realistic parts but you can, of course, get by with something smaller.

iSymphonic Orchestra's main playing interface is very straightforward.

iSymphonic Orchestra’s main playing interface is very straightforward.

Note that the app will offer a certain level of polyphony (total number of notes to be played at the same time) based upon you generation of iPad you are using. On a current iPad Air you can get up to 140 stereo voices. That might sound like overkill but, as the app is also multi-timbral and can play up to16 different parts at the same time (essentially across 16 different MIDI channels), you could more easily imagine approaching this limit. The multi-timbral nature of the app is an important feature as it means you can build your orchestral arrangements using all the app’s different patches spread across a number of MIDI channels.

The app is 16-part multi-timbral.

The app is 16-part multi-timbral.

A Settings menu allows you to adjust the MIDI configuration, audio latency and the polyphony while a Help menu can be accessed from the ‘?’ icon located top-left. And while the app is actually fairly simple to use, it really could do with both more comprehensive help documentation, perhaps some video demos and/or tutorials and most certainly some audio demos on the Crudebyte website. This is not just desirable in terms of explaining how the app operates for the users but it would also be interesting to know a little more about how the sample engine works and why the developer sees this as a step forward for iOS. I can understand that they might not wish to give away all the technical details but there is almost nothing to go on here and potential users would, I’m sure, be more likely to take the plunge if they knew a bit more about what they were buying into.

The right-edge of the main screen contains three other buttons to access further features. From top to bottom, these are the velocity curve response settings, the hmt settings (the Hermode Tuning algorithm; this is quite interesting) and a MIDI recorder section.

The Settings menu allows you to configure MIDI, latency and polyphony settings.

The Settings menu allows you to configure MIDI, latency and polyphony settings.

The last of these is an example where some documentation would be very helpful. Yes, it is easy enough to use. It simply provides you with the ability to record multiple MIDI tracks, assign each to a different MIDI channel/patch, and then get the app to play them back. However, there are no instructions provided and I suspect a novice iOS musician would find this frustrating in the absence of any help at all. You can adjust the overall tempo and also zoom in on the tempo (for example, to slow things down while you listen to a particular passage) using the two large rotary knobs towards the top of the MIDI Player/Recorder page.

There is some useful adjustment for the MIDI velocity response if you need to tweak it.

There is some useful adjustment for the MIDI velocity response if you need to tweak it.

That said, if you have another iOS MIDI sequencing app (and I’d use Cubasis for this) then I suspect you would use that route anyway as iSymphonic Orchestra’s MIDI recorder is pretty basic. You can record your own MIDI parts, or import MIDI files from elsewhere to playback via the app, but there are no editing facilities. If (like me) your keyboard playing leaves a bit to be desired and you need the help of a MIDI editor, then you will have to turn to an app outside iSymphonic Orchestra itself to get that.

The MIDI velocity curve option is useful. Different MIDI keyboards do ‘feel’ different in use and the ability to fine tune the MIDI velocity response a little can make life easier. Equally, the Hermode Tuning option is quite interesting. Players in a real orchestra often naturally adjust their tuning when playing ensemble and this can often mean that notes are not technically (in Hz terms) ‘in tune’…  but to the ear, the end result is more pleasing. This option within the app attempts to simulate that.

I tried a few experiments with it and I did find the results pleasing but I suspect you might need a better sense of absolute pitch than me to really appreciate what is happening here. Still, watching the graphic display to see how notes are being pitch shifted in real-time as you voice different chords is quite interesting….

The Tuning provides a number of different settings to choose from.

The Hermode Tuning provides a number of different settings to choose from.

Other technical aspects worth mentioning….? Well, the app works with Crudebyte’s own JACK technology for linking it with other iOS music apps but, probably of more interest to the majority of iOS musicians, is that it ships with IAA support. It does not, however, currently offer Audiobus support. Given that there is IAA (and I’d be most likely to use the app via IAA within Cubasis I suspect), this isn’t a complete deal-breaker…  but those few developers who now ignore the dominance of Audiobus will, I suspect, be narrowing their potential market rather than broadening it. Whether this makes commercial sense is, of course, a call for them to make….

Orchestral sound

In terms of sounds, that 600+ MB of sample data is spread across 10 different preset patches. These are named as follows:-

1.   Orchestra Strings Spiccato & Legato

2.   Orchestra Strings Slow 1

3.   Chamber Arco Strings

4.   Legato Orchestra Strings 1

5.   Full Sordino Strings 1

6.   Legato Orchestra

7.   Staccato Orchestra 1

8.   Staccato Orchestra 2

9.   Tremolo Orchestra

10.   Pizzicato Strings

As the titles suggest, these are dominated by string section patches; there are no solo instruments and only patches 6, 7, 8 and 9 actually have ‘orchestra’ in their title. However good some of the actual sounds are (and some of them are actually very good), this is not going to cover all your orchestral needs and there are no separate brass or woodwind patches and no percussion.

Most desktop orchestral sample libraries provide multiple performance articulations for key instruments. So, for example, you would get slow, legato, staccato, tremolo, pizzicato, etc. for the strings and, as required (and depending upon the level of detail contained in the library), similar performance articulations for other instrument groups.

iSymphonic Orchestra ships with 10 different patches.

iSymphonic Orchestra ships with 10 different patches.

On the desktop, how you access these different performance articulations can generally be approached in two ways. First, you can simply load each of the articulations you need into a separate MIDI track and combine MIDI parts on each track to create the overall performance. This can obviously get a bit complex if your performances need, let’s say. four different performance articulations for the first violins, another four for the 2nd violins, a few more for the ensemble strings, cellos, brass, two different woodwind sections and you also need a bunch of percussion. You can end up with a lot of MIDI tracks to manage.

The other options is to use what are called keyswitch patches. A keyswitch patch might be a single instrument such as a violin section but where the preset contains samples for all the different performance articulations. These different performance articulations are contained within the patch as separate sample layers and, by some clever software switching, you can move between them by triggering a keyswitch. The keyswitches themselves are usually MIDI notes outside the pitch range of the instrument itself. What this means is that, on a single MIDI track, you can have all the performance articulations available and, by using the keyswitches, simply flip between them as required by the performance.

The upside to keyswitch patches is that your MIDI tracks become easier to magane. The downside is that, as you load the patch, if the samples are loaded into RAM (or even if only the initial attack of each sample is loaded with the rest being delivered by direct streaming from disk), given just how detailed the sampling can be, this can require a good chunk of RAM.

Of course, on the desktop, RAM availability is now not so much of an issue….  but under iOS, things are still much more limited… and this is part of the reason why the technology behind mega-sample-based instruments on the desktop does not translate quite so well to iOS….

… and it is, I suspect, also why we don’t get keyswitched options here in iSymphonic Orchestra. Each instrument (with one exception) features a single performance articulation so, if you need strings that, in one passage, play legato, but in another passage play staccato, then you will need multiple MIDI tracks to achieve that.

The one exception is preset 1 – Orchestra Strings Spiccato & Legato – where, if you play short notes and then release the keys, you get the short spiccato sound but, if you then hold the keys down longer, the sound then transitions into a legato (sustained) sound. This actually works quite well….  but it doesn’t have the flexibility of a true keyswitched sample system.

You can apply an ambience effect to the sounds and there are a good selection of different hall, room, cathedral and other spaces to choose between.

You can apply an ambience effect to the sounds and there are a good selection of different hall, room, cathedral and other spaces to choose between.

What of the sounds themselves? Well, whatever the sample base that has been used, and however, the software actually manipulates those samples to create the sound (and there are no significant details on either of these issues that I’ve been able to find), the majority of these patches are – to my ears at least – head and shoulders above anything else currently available for iOS. There is a fullness and depth to the string sounds that is actually quite impressive. Do they really challenge the best of the orchestral libraries I’ve used on my desktop system? Well, perhaps not, but they are the closest that I’ve yet heard.

I particularly liked the legato and slow string patches. For sustained string-based chords in slow moving passages, these are particularly effective. The staccato patches are also very good and obviously work well for faster runs of short notes, while the tremolo strings fade the tremolo in quite nicely…  but, of course, this is fixed so you can’t vary that as you might with a more sophisticated sample library on a desktop system.

The one patch that I didn’t particularly get on with was the pizzicato strings. It’s not that they sound bad in isolation – they don’t – but I didn’t think they gelled as well as some of the other patches when used in combination. Maybe I just need to tweak some EQ or reverb settings a little to get them to feel a little more connected?

And talking of reverb, the app includes an ambience effect that has a number of fairly standard reverb types as well as a few special effects. This works well enough and the various room, hall and cathedral sounds are pretty good. That said, if you also own something like AltiSpace, I suspect you might prefer to apply that as an alternative via a suitable IAA host.

Working orchestra

In use, and as indicated earlier, iSymphonic Orchestra is pretty straightforward. The app was happy to work with a couple of different external MIDI keyboards I tried, although do note that as you can assign different patches to different MIDI channel, using a keyboard where you can easily change the MIDI channel being transmitted is quite useful.

Once I’d worked out for myself how the MIDI Player/Recorder section operated (and it is fairly basic so its not too much of a challenge) I could easily start layering parts. However, without any editing facilities, I’d personally find this a bit limiting when trying to write my own compositions.

The MIDI Player/Recorder works well enough but does not include any MIDI editing capabilities.

The MIDI Player/Recorder works well enough but does not include any MIDI editing capabilities.

Having given this a go, I then turned to Cubasis and installed iSymphonic Orchestra as an IAA app. I then set up multiple MIDI tracks – each operating on a different MIDI channel number – and was able to construct a multi-part orchestral arrangement in Cubasis without too many problems. The only issue was sorting out the various MIDI channels and, in particular, the MIDI channel used by my master keyboard as I created a new part. Other than that, things worked very well. The other issue to note here was that, when first launched as an IAA client, iSymphonic Orchestra offers you the choice of two modes of MIDI operation – IAA MIDI only or IAA MIDI and CoreMIDI; I had to use the second of these to get things to work as I wanted in Cubasis.

iSymphonic Orcheatra ran nicely within Cubasis via IAA once I had my MIDI channel numbers sorted.

iSymphonic Orcheatra ran nicely within Cubasis via IAA once I had my MIDI channel numbers sorted.

My only other comment was that I had to adjust the various patch volumes in iSymphonic Orchestra to get some of the patches to work well together. For example, I found the staccato patches to be a little quiet in use compared to things like the legato and slow strings.

Who to hire?

It has to be said that iOS is not blessed with an abundance of orchestral sounds. There are some nice individual sounds built into apps like ThumbJam and there are some decent SoundFont samples that you can find online that would work with one of the iOS SoundFont players. However, perhaps the obvious comparison to make is with SampleTank (UK£13.99) and, in particular, the Miroslav Philarmonik Mobile Edition IAP (UK£13.99) that can be added to that to expand the orchestral sound palette provided in the default app.

Running both apps side-by-side within Cubasis there were two obvious conclusions to be drawn. First, taken at the level of a single patch comparison (so, for example, comparing a slow strings patch in SampleTank with the iSymphonic Orchestra slow stings), then there is a depth and richness to the sound of iSymphonic Orchestra that the Miroslav IAP can’t quite match.

Second, however, when it comes to the breadth of sounds available, SampleTank with Miroslav wins hands down. There is a much wider range of performance articulations and, of course, you also get brass, woodwind, percussion and some choir patches to go with the multitude of different string sounds. Of course, as with iSymphonic Orchestra, there is no keyswitching and SampleTank is, at best, only four-part multi-timbral (so you would need to render parts to audio in order to build up more complex arrangements) so creating a convincing orchestral piece is still going to be a challenge whichever app you use.

SampleTank with the Miroslav IAP covers a much wider range of orchestral instruments that iSymphonic Orchestra

SampleTank with the Miroslav IAP covers a much wider range of orchestral instruments (such as the various brass section patches shown here) than iSymphonic Orchestra

If I had to catch the essence of these two different apps in some way, it would be to say that I’d use SampleTank/Miroslav if I was trying to sketch out an orchestral arrangement on my iPad (perhaps with the intention of then moving the MIDI parts to a desktop system for further work) but, if I wanted a ‘performance’ sound from some strings – and iSymphonic Orchestra had a suitable performance articulation within its modest patch set – then I’d use it for the quality and depth of the sound.

There are a number of other issues here that also warrant a sentence or two. First, good both those these apps are in their own ways, in terms of both sound and flexibility, neither come even close to what I can do with GPO4 (admittedly at US$149) on my desktop system. At present, for sounds that require detailed, multi-velocity layer, multi-articulation sampling to be realised with real conviction, I’m not convinced that iOS is quite yet in a position to compete. As a means of adding some orchestral flavour to a production then these apps are perfectly capable. As a means of creating a ‘I can’t believe it’s not a real orchestra!’ moment…  nope, we are not there yet.

Second, there is price. I’d be happy to suggest SampleTank and the Miroslav IAP represent decent value for money. No, the combination is not ‘cheap’ in iOS music app terms but it is still not a lot of money given what respectable sample-based instruments cost in the desktop environment.

The MIDI Player/Recorder does allow you to adjust the tempo of playback and to 'zoom' in on the tempo if you need to listen to something more carefully.

The MIDI Player/Recorder does allow you to adjust the tempo of playback and to ‘zoom’ in on the tempo if you need to listen to something more carefully.

With iSymphonic Orchestra, I’m less convinced. If you need the best iOS string samples that there are currently available, then this is the app for you…  but whether that justifies the UK£37.99 price tag is a different question. I suspect it will confine the app’s user-base to some dedicated orchestral fans as it certainly won’t be a causal purchase for many iOS musicians. Given just how staggeringly good value some of the very best iOS music apps available on the iTunes App Store are, I think this might be the first occasion I’ve really wondered whether an app is pricing itself at a point that will seriously limit its potential to sell. That said, whatever I, or any other user might think, this is, of course, entirely Crudebyte’s call…  it’s their business, their app…. just as it is a potential user’s choice to buy or to pass.

You can adjust the MIDI channels assigned to each part within the app itself.

You can adjust the MIDI channels assigned to each part within the app itself.

Which sort of brings me to my final point…  because, however it gets there, I really do hope this app can succeed at some level. While I’m not convinced that iSymphonic Orchestra is actually the finished article in terms or orchestral sounds for the iOS musician, in terms of the actual quality of the patches that are supplied, it is better that anything else I’ve heard. There is something within the sampling and sample-based engine that holds promise and it would be good if that technology can be built upon.

Of course, what we really need is iPads with 512GB of storage and 4GB or RAM (you know, where desktop computers were 5+ years ago). Then we might begin to see something like Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 translate directly over to iOS. The samples themselves are fine (we don’t need anyone to re-sample the orchestra from scratch – again); we just need to be able to see those samples licensed to use on iOS hardware and with a sample engine that can work with them. It’s great to see iOS developers squeezing as much as they can out of our current iPad and iPhones but, ultimately, to do an orchestra on an iPad I think we need a better iPad.

In summary

I like the sounds that iSymphonic Orchestra makes. They are, to my ears anyway, the best set of (mainly) string sounds I’ve yet heard from an iOS app. If you absolutely must have access to those sounds then, obviously, the asking price is perhaps not such an issue.

For the iOS musician for who strings and orchestral sounds are perhaps a less significant part of their overall music-making palette, then I suspect the somewhat limited scope of the sounds currently included (no brass, woodwind or percussion patches, for example) and the higher-than-casual pricing, may leave them unconvinced.

Whatever the commercial success of iSymphonic Orchestra, however, the sample-playback engine here may well represent a step forward. No, it’s still not the keyswitched, multi-articulation, multi-velocity layer, mega-library you can get for the desktop (depth of pockets permitting) but it does suggest that there is scope to squeeze a bit more performance out of the existing iOS hardware before Apple deliver us the iPad that all budding iOS Hans Zimmer wannabies really need.

iSymphonic Orchestra

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    1. Great app review, as usual, and especially helpful was establishing the current state-of-the-art with these types of sounds available in iOS apps and how you see the strengths of different apps. I can’t agree more with your assessment of iSymphonic. This app is a step in the right direction and perhaps future sound packs will be offered as IAP that could fill in some of the instrument gaps?

      I did have problems using an external MIDI keyboard (5 pin) via a Behringer iStudio interface on my iPad4. I picked up sound artifacts that I hadn’t detected before but this was my first go with Auria hosting IAA with external keyboard. I used the apps keyboard without issue for my Youtibe demo.

      Beyond that it took me some time to realize that I could use Choridon, etc as a controller app for iSO, and I even managed to use that setup inside of Garage Band, though IAA problems crept up and caused some issues. But I played some GB strings along side the Slow Strings from this app and…I heard something good enough to think there can be a use for combing strings from a variety of apps. Whatever works is the bottom line.


    2. Excellent review, thanks John. Really appreciate the explanation of technical limitations of iDevices, and why that’s hindering development of decent strings apps. All new info for me, so thank you. I was getting by with ThumbJam and the Miroslav IAP for SampleTank, both excellent apps, but am very tempted by this now. It is a weird price point but if it gives us the best strings yet… The remaining draw back is lack of Audiobus support.

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