KASPAR review – Yonac bring you 8 iOS synths in one

Download from iTunes App StoreI’ve reviewed a number of Yonac’s iOS music apps here on the Music App Blog over the years including ToneStack and Steel Guitar, both of which I really like. However, Yonac also do keyboard-based iOS music apps and, as I posted a few days ago, their latest release is KASPAR, a brand new synth app.

The headline reading ‘new iOS synth app!’ might, of course, have your eyes rolling as you are already well-saturated in terms of virtual synth ownership. However, there are some interesting elements to KASPAR’s design that will, I’m sure, catch the interest of many iOS synth heads. Perhaps the most obvious feature is that this is, in fact, 8 polyphonic synths in one.

I’ll get to the details of the synth engine in a minute but KASPAR includes IAA, Audiobus and Ableton Link support and – yay! – the app can also work as an AU plugin. There are a few features that that translate over to the AU version but these are on the technical front rather than anything sonic. The AU UI feels easy to navigate even within the restrictions of the smaller AU windows. Oh, and as a slight aside here, if Yonac have now got their heads around the AU format, it would be great to see that technology added to Tonestack and Steel Guitar….  pretty please??

KASPAR – sound morphing for iOS synth-heads :-)

KASPAR is iPad only, a 72MB download, requires iOS 10.0 or later and should run well on an iPad Air 1 or later. The app is launched at a special, limited-time, price point; catch it while you can but you can currently pick up a copy of the app for just UK£9.99/US$9.99. Whatever the status of your own iOS synth app saturation point, compared to what else is out their in the market, I have to say that I think this is a pretty good deal. So, is KASPAR yet another synth app that you are going to want to explore?

Grasp a KASPAR

So what of that synth engine? As mentioned above, what you are actually getting is 8 synths in one here. If I had to pick a phrase to describe the nature of engine that underlies each of these 8 synths, I suspect it might include words such as ‘familiar’, ‘solid’, ‘programmable’ and ‘moderately deep without being brain melting’. Words/phrases I might be less inclined to use might be ‘game changing’, ‘cutting edge’ or ‘super-powerful’. Bear in mind, these are terms I’d perhaps attach to the individual synth engine through and I think KASPAR is an app where the whole is somewhat more significant than the simple sum of the parts…. I’ll come back to that point below.

Each of the 8 synths has identical engine properties. In each case, the engine is built around a 3 oscillator design. As shown in the screenshot, This offers over 20 available waveforms ranging from standard sine, triangle, saw and pulse through to various more variable waveform types. In principle, therefore, by combining the three oscillator sources, even a single layer within KASPAR ought to offer plenty of scope for making sound.

The Edit page – accessed via the top-most tab strip that allows you to access each of KASPAR’s main screens – is where you can start to dig into all these options for each synth layer. As well as the virtual piano keyboard at the base of the screen (and which also offers a ribbon mode with key/scale options; dig into the Pref page to access these features), on the top-left edge, you can toggle between the engine displays for each of the 8 synths (as well as muting or soloing a specific layer).

This is a pretty deep synth with lots of options…. times 8 :-)

The Edit page itself has a number of tabs – Osc, Filt, Amp, LFOs, Env, Mod, Arp and Chord – that then allow you to access the sub-page of controls for the currently selected synth. Yes, there are 8 sets of all these controls that can be edited independently for each of the 8 synth layers.

As shown in the various screenshots, the synth for each layer is pretty well featured and there are lots of perfectly good iOS synth apps that are not as well specified as a single layer of KASPAR. So, as well as the 3 oscillators with the usual pitch, detuning, waveform, and volume options, the engine also features some very flexible envelope options, 14 different filter types, an arpeggiator (yep, that’s 8 independent arpeggiators; that’s potential for a lot of fun), options for programming chords, a modulation matrix and 2 LFOs per synth.

As well as standard waveforms, there are also some more exotic options….

The features within the filter, amp envelope, LFOs and modulation envelope sections are going to seem fairly familiar to anyone who has done a little synth programming. It’s all good stuff…. but there is nothing too intimidating here in terms of design or layout. The Mod tab offers you six modulation slots per synth and you get the usual options for setting a modulation target, a modulation source, and a further modulation control as well as setting the direction and level of the modulation.

Each of the 8 synth engines has its own filter section.

Some 20 synth engine parameters can be the modulation targets and you can modulate the usual LFO or envelope modulators further with themselves or via external MIDI controllers such as pitch bend, the mod wheel, MIDI velocity, key tracking (note) or aftertouch. KASPAR seems to offer a pretty full-on MIDI spec including MIDI Learn; hands on sound manipulation is, therefore, well supported.

Like the bulk of the other synth engine features, the modulation options can be independently tweaked for each of the 8 synth layers.

Perhaps worthy of a few additional words, however, are the Arp and Chord tabs and it’s great that these are available independently for each of the 8 synth engine layers. The ‘live’ mode of the arpeggiator is pretty typical stuff with the usual array of options for gate, swing, note tempo, octave, etc. However, there are a few rather nice options within the arp style pop-up menu over and above the usual up, down and rand. For example, I particularly liked the ‘pedal’ options that alternate the pedal (lowest) note in your note selection with all the others.

You get up to six parameters to target for modulation in each synth layer.

The other interesting arp option is the Prog (and Prog Fixed) mode. Prog allows you to define a fixed series of notes to be used in the arpeggio via the display that shows notes spanning C1 to C6. The whole arpeggio can then be triggered from a single note on your MIDI keyboard (or the virtual keyboard). You define the pattern based upon the notes that are to be triggered when you press a C note…. but, in Prog mode, the pattern is simply transposed by the correct number of steps for every other key on the keyboard. In Prog Fixed mode, that transposition doesn’t take place; the notes you define are the notes you get regardless of which MIDI note is actually played as a trigger. There might be some quite interesting things you could do here by using a Prog Fixed arp for a bass sound or a synth drum/percussive sound layer, while using the normal Live or Prog mode for other layers in the patch.

The Prog mode within the arpeggiator is well worth exploring…. and having 8 arpeggiators can create some interesting possibilities :-)

The Chord tab offers something close to a ‘chord pads’ concept, essentially the ability to play a full chord based upon a single note press. This is actually quite an interesting tool simply from the perspective of teaching yourself something about chord construction (if your music theory skills are a little shaky) but, for each of the standard 12 semitones of the chromatic scale, (each note on the piano keyboard), you can define a set of notes to be played to voice a chord.

This works really well and is pretty each to use. However, perhaps my only observation here would be that an option to save ‘Chord configurations’ (and arp configurations?) might be nice to see added to the feature set at some stage to save you having to recreate useful setups in every patch you create from scratch. That said, if you tap and hold any of the Synth buttons located far-left of the Edit page, you can load a ‘sub-patch’ (one layer of a whole patch) if you wish…. It would be a bit clunky but it does provide something of a workaround.

The Chord page provides easy options for one-fingered chord triggering.

More layers please

So much for the options within an individual synth layer; the engine is solid, offers plenty of programming options and some nice arp and chord features. As commented earlier, it is perhaps not the most cutting-edge of synth engine designs but you can coax a good range of sounds from it. However, it’s the options for layering multiple instances of the synth engine – and in particular options for morphing between those layers – where things get a little more intriguing within KASPAR.

The Layer screen has three tabs – Basic, KB and Exp – accessed via button on the left-hand side of the screen. The Basic tab page provides basic (doh!) mixing features for the 8 layers. Note that these options include the ability to power on/off each of the 8 layers and the (very useful) PDF manual that’s available from Yonac’s website, does suggest that turning off layers that you are not using will help keep resource demands down.

The Basic tab provides routine mixing options for the 8 layers.

Aside from volume and pan for each layer, you also get send controls so you can pass the signal from each layer through either or both of the two independent FX chains. These themselves can be configured in the FX1 and FX2 screen and you can see a bit of Yonac’s ToneStack stomp-box experience coming through here.

The Exp tab offers you various options for controlling the response of each layer.

The effects options include compression, EQ, chorus, flanger, amp simulation, phaser, reverb and delay. You can turn each on/off and, as you double-tap to select an effect, its full control set is displayed beneath the effects chain itself. These are actually all rather good with plenty of control options to play with. And it is a proper ‘chain’ because, if you tap and hold on any of the effects, you can then drag and drop it to change it’s position within the signal path.

Amongst other options in the Prefs menu, you can customise the KASPAR keyboard with specific key/scale combinations if you wish.

With two separate effects chains to experiment with, and the ability to send different amounts of each of the 8 synth layers to the two chains…. well, this certainly adds to the sound creation possibilities of the overall package.

The Layer page’s KB tab provides further options. here you can transpose individual synth layers and set their MIDI channel response but, usefully, you can also define their MIDI note ranges individually. This can be used to create keyboard splits or just to create overlapping zones where different combinations of layers kick in. The potential here is huge in terms of adding variety to the performance from a single overall patch.

The effects options are good…. including a rather nice stereo delay.

The final thing not to miss on this screen is the Drift knobs. This allows you to detune a layer (or layers) relative to the others. What to get some now, analog-style, fat sounds? A little bit of subtle detuning can always help :-)

The Exp sub-page allows you to set the pitch bend, MIDI velocity response and aftertouch response for each layer. Again, these are perhaps useful to have rather than essential….   but I’m sure some sound programmers will get a kick out of the options and setting different pitch bends for different layers could be a great way to make your ‘scary evolving soundscape’ sounds even more scary (dissonant) :-)

All change

Each of the individual sound creation elements of KASPAR – the synth engine, the modulation options, the arp, the effects – are all good. However, perhaps the start of this particular show is the Morph options. It’s here that things go just beyond static layers of (up to) 8 synth engines and into options for real-time control over how those 8 engines are blended.

What you get here is an XY touchpad (on the left) that you can use either manually (via a suitable finger) or via a pre-recorded pattern, to change the ‘blend’ of the sound between the four corners – labelled A, B, C and D) of the pad…. and a matrix (on the right) that allows you to assign each of the 8 synth engines to one of these four corner groups (A, B, C and D).

KASPAR’s highlight feature is perhaps the ‘morph’ functionality. This is both fun to use and powerful.

This system opens up al sorts of possibilities. Manual control is both straightforward and fun to use but the ‘auto’ options are a genuine blast. Not only can you define your own path (using the Write button), but you can change the speed that path is travelled, the direction and how the path is re-triggered (or not) with each note (all in the Auto section of the panel) but you can also morph the morph via the… er…. Morph panel section of controls. This allows you to add further modulation of the recorded morph path and control the speed of that modulation.

There is a lot of fun to be had here….. Indeed, this really is where KASPAR’s sonic abilities become much more than the sun of its individual parts. It’s not the individual sound of a sound engine layer that is the unique selling point; it’s the options for sound evolution/morphing between the (up to) 8 instances of that sound engine. This turns what some might see as a fairly standard synth engine into something just a bit special.

In use

I spent most of my testing time using KASPAR as a stand-alone synth and, once you had got yourself a nice collection of sounds – and the app ships with some 300 presets to get you started – I could easily image the app doing very good service in a live performance or studio context.

Yonac have done a great job of making KASPAR work within the AU format.

I’m not 100% sure that some of the presets do the app justice though. If anything, there is a tendency to favour a more 70’s prog rock vibe (think classic synths) rather than a more contemporary one (not quite so much on offer out the blocks for the dubstep or hardcore techno crowd?). I don’t thinks that’s really a limitation of the synth engine (although better qualified synth-heads than me might be better placed to judge on that front) but perhaps just the preferences of those involved in the preset design. Maybe Yonac could invite some of their user base to contribute a few of their own presets specifically to show off a few more contemporary sounds?

I tired the app via AU hosted within both Cubasis and AUM. I had no problems with this and the UI, while obviously adapted somewhat for the smaller AU sub-window, remains easy to use and navigate. It’s great to see another fairly hefty synth (well, hefty by the time you have all eight layers going) squeeze itself into the compact iOS AU format.

Yay! KASPER can also be used as an AU plugin.

Interestingly, there are some intriguing comments within the PDF manual about the resource load the app might generate when used via AU. As you might expect, multiple instances, while possible, might soon have some iOS hardware squeaking for help but I also learned an insight to two as to the current limitations iOS AU imposes upon developers. Here’s hoping Apple makes things a little easier for developers on this front during the iOS11 life-cycle.

The obvious comparison is with Living Memory Software’s Layr synth. Both build more complex sounds from individual synth engines that are, of themselves, fairly vanilla…  but by blending the sounds you can build something more complex. Yes, there are similarities to the two….  but also some key differences in the feature sets. For example, Layr is designed much more with multi-timbral capabilities in design. In contrast, the ‘morph’ options of KASPAR are its highlight feature.

KASPAR ships with over 300 presets to get you started…..

In summary

If you are still building an iOS synth collection (and new arrivals are embracing the technology all the time so lots of folks are in this position), then KASPAR would make for a very interesting option. At one level – the individual layer – programming is very approachable so a synth PhD is not required. At another level – layering and morphing the layers – you can get a lot of mileage from that fairly painless programming.

For those of us longer in the iOS music-making tooth, maybe we already have a number of synths that, at the level of a layer or three of KASPER, can make those same sorts of sounds? Indeed, if you own Yonac’s own Magellan synth – one of the most long-standing synth apps on the App Store – there are elements of KASPAR that, in sonic terms if not visual terms, will seem familiar. Even so, the combination of the independent arpeggiators and the excellent morphing feature do provide KASPER with something unique.

These elements alone might be enough to get the avid iOS synth app collector to push the button. Providing they get over the ‘oh well, here we go again….’ phase of seeing yet another new synth hit the App Store, I suspect this will prove very popular for the die-hard iOS synth heads in the audience :-)

The other obvious push is the special, limited-time, price point; you can, therefore, if you are quick, pick up a copy of the app for just UK£9.99/US$9.99. Whether you ‘need’ another synth app is a different question…. but KASPER is undoubtedly launched at a heck of a good price given what’s on offer. Anyway, it’s well worth checking out the trailer videos below and then, if the urge strikes you, hit the App Store download button to find out more :-)

KASPAR

Download from iTunes App Store

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    Comments

    1. Thank you for this post.
      Sorry to update that price is not 9.9$…
      At least not in the store Im connected to.
      I will sure appreciate your looking into.

      • Hi Mr T., yes, as I mentioned in the review which I wrote as the app was launched, the UK£9.99/US$9.99 price was for a limited time only…. The app is now priced at UK$19.99/US$19.99. It still represents good value for money though…. Those on a tighter budget might have to hang on a while I guess…. but Yonac do do the occasional sale blowout on their apps…. so keep your eyes peeled :-) Very best wishes, John

        • Thank you for this specific answer and also, of course, for an outstanding work with this site. really can’t emphasize enough the huge contribution to knowledge and creative work that was derived directly from reading your posts. Deep, knowlegable, and well writen. A real treasure!
          All the Best,
          T.

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