Korg iPolysix synth studio – music app review

Download from iTunes App Storeipolysix logoKorg have really embraced iOS as a music-making platform and music apps such as iMS-20, iKaossilator and iElectribe have been enthusiastically received by the majority of users. The latest offering is the iPolysix that, 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. As I described in my iMS-20 review a little while ago, the iMS-20 also offers a ‘two synths plus a drum machine’ environment; the iPolysix is, therefore, following a similar format in offering not just a virtual analog synth but a suite of functions that make it a production environment as well.

Six tricks

The main synth control panel - lots of knobs but not as scary as it looks. Click on any of the images to see a larger version.

The main synth control panel – lots of knobs but not as scary as it looks. Click on any of the images to see a larger version.

The architecture of the synth engine follows the original hardware Polysix although, as described below, Korg have added a few more up-to-date elements in terms of control.  The six-note polyphony comes courtesy of six VCOs. As well as being layered polyphonically, these can be switched to Unison mode where they are stacked to create a massive mono synth.

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. While the virtual keyboard is no better or worse than that in any other app, the Hold button is quite useful in this process while selecting the notes you wish to use in your chord. The end result, however, can be a massive chord played with ease (oh, and a big smile!)

iPolysix includes a nice range of effect options.

iPolysix includes a nice range of effect options.

In terms of sound shaping, as well as the VCOs, the engine features a VCF, an envelope generator (EG) section, a modulation generator (MG) section and an effects section where you can select one effect to apply to the synth sound from a choice of some 28 different types. There is also an arpeggiator. This is a lot of fun but, compared to similar functions found on some other current software synths, perhaps feels a little basic. It does, however, reproduce what was in the original hardware so it is difficult to be too critical on this front.

In use, what does all this add up to? Well, some rather excellent analog-style sounds actually. Flicking through the prests gives a very good impression of what the iPolysix is capable off – from the unfussy simplicity of ‘Classic Poly’ or ‘Saw Pizz’, through the full-on synthetic-ness (if that’s a word) of ‘Strings’ or the warm Synth Brass (that, with a few tweaks, can deliver a Vah Halen Jump tone) to the gentle calm of ‘Chill Pad’ and the instant 80s-vibe of ‘Oct Reso Bass – this app does what it sets out to and allows the iPad musician to get a pretty convincing dose of 80’s analog synth tone.

While programming the iPolysix (and the original hardware version) is something that takes a little bit of learning, compared to some digital synths, the learning curve is not too scary. Thankfully, users can access a PDF manual via the Help menu; this is helpful and clearly written so thumbs up to Korg for that. In addition, all the synths main controls are contained within a single screen so you have everything to hand while working on a patch. The only downside to this is that the synth control panel is quite busy even on a full-size iPad; if you have big fingers, tweaking the knobs can prove a bit fiddly. Maybe, in a future release, Korg to add a ‘zoom’ option for each area of the main controls for easier tweaking? I’m sure iPad mini users would appreciate that.

And, as mentioned earlier, you actually get all of this excellent synth twice. Synth 1 and Synth 2 accessed via the Synth button located top-left and you can have two completely different configurations loaded at any one time and playing simultaneously if used with the sequencer tools.

Hit for six

The Drum module provides a similar environment to Korg's iMS-20 app.

The Drum module provides a similar environment to Korg’s iMS-20 app.

Like Korg’s iMS-20 app, iPolysix also includes a drum module and, while the sounds themselves are obviously different because they are built on the iPolysix synth engine rather than the iMS-20’s engine, the basic format of the drum module is very similar. So, you get up to six drum sounds at any one time that can be trigger either from the pads at the base of the Drum Module’s step sequencer or, if you tap any of the Drum part buttons (the row of number buttons above the step sequencer), any one of them from the keyboard as you edit the synth parameters from that drum sound.

There are a decent range of preset drum sounds included and you can also select a bass sound into one of the six slots so, if required, you can add a pitched bass line without trying up one of the two main synth engines for the task.

Step on it

The synth's step sequencer is a little more complex but is well laid out and, once you spend a little time with it, easy to use.

The synth’s step sequencer is a little more complex but is well laid out and, once you spend a little time with it, easy to use.

As with the iMS-20, iPolysix features a rather splendid step sequencer environment. For the drum module, this is very similar in operation to the iMS-20 version so users familiar with that app shouldn’t find too much to master here.

Up to 32 patterns can be created within a project (or iPolysix song as the manual calls them), each with up to 64 steps, and patterns can then be placed into a sequence with up to 100 steps. Song arrangement is all done via a very easy grid-based interface opened by tapping on the song (project) title area (located centre-top of the screen) while the Pattern/Song button (to the right of the transport buttons) is in Song mode.

The Pattern pads provide a way to 'play' patterns live.

The Pattern pads provide a way to ‘play’ patterns live.

If you want to play your patterns ‘live’, you can do this via the pattern pads that are available by tapping the song title area when the Pattern/Song button is in Pattern mode. This is good fun and, again, very simple to use. The area also allows you to copy, clear and swap patterns between the 32 pattern slots.

Given the polyphonic nature of the app, the synth step sequencers are rather more complex affair. Not only to you get the horizontal steps but you also get to scroll vertically to select the pitch of the notes; tapping and sliding your finger up/down on the note display area scrolls the pitches available within the window rather like you might do in a piano-roll type editor in your MIDI sequencer. While this all looks quite busy it is, in fact, very easy to use and, if step-based sequencing is your thing, then it will all come fairly naturally.

Of course, if you prefer to play your parts in via the keyboard, that option is also available; simply select your pattern number, pick a synth (1 or 2) or the drum module), press the record button and play away. You can add new notes with multiple passes through the pattern. While this is particularly useful when building up drum parts, given the limitations of using any touch-screen virtual keyboard, it is also helpful when entering chords for either of the two main synths.

Added extras

The pair of Kaoss pads add a modern touch to the vintage vibe.

The pair of Kaoss pads add a modern touch to the vintage vibe.

Much as nostalgic users with grey (or no) hair might hanker after a perfect virtual emulation of an old hardware favourite, it would be a missed opportunity if you didn’t make the most of the iPad’s touchscreen technology in an iOS synth. Thankfully, Korg have added a little bit of touch magic in the form of a pair of XY-controller Kaoss pads that can be opened via the pop-up area tab located bottom-left of the main display.

The left-hand of the pads allows the user to assign two synth parameters for some one-fingered sound manipulation. In contrast, the right-hand pad provides a means of triggering notes, with pitch controlled by the X (horizontal) axis and the Y (vertical) axis controlling inversion if playing chords. The behaviour of the pitch pad is also influenced by the scale setting. Tapping on this allows you to select both key and scale type and this then limits the pitches produced by the pad. While you might wish for slightly larger pads, using the two pads to create a performance really is a lot of fun.

The mixer; simple but gets the job done.

The mixer; simple but gets the job done.

As iPolysix provides two synths and a six-part drum module, it also needs a mixer so that you can balance all of these sounds. This is suitably ‘old-school’ looking but has all the basic features needed and gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. There is also a single send effect built into the mixer and the Effect Mix knobs control how much of each sound source is passed to this ‘master’ effect. The obvious candidate to put in here is a reverb but there are also a rather nice Master Compressor effect than can be used here to beef things up even further.

Hello world

Hooked up to a suitably robust playback system (a nice loud PA would do :-)   ), iPolysix makes a very impressive ‘live’ sound source and I could easily imagine an iPad-wielding keyboard player preferring to risk their iPad in a live setting to lugging a vintage (and temperamental) hardware synth around in the back of a transit. Equally, for composers, given the well-featured step sequencer, two synths and the drum module, iPolysix is perfectly capable of being used in isolation to create quite sophisticated instrumental productions.

The right Kaoss pad provides a fun way to play the synth and the user can specify the key and scale to be used.

The right Kaoss pad provides a fun way to play the synth and the user can specify the key and scale to be used.

However, despite iPolysix’s built-in sequencing, if you would rather do your MIDI programming in a DAW environment, I had no problems linking iPolysix with Cubasis, recording MIDI data on a Cubasis MIDI track and then passing it for playback via iPolysix. In addition, iPolysix provides Audiobus support, offers background audio and supports both AudioCopy and Korg’s own WIST technology allowing compatible apps to playback in sync. Completed tracks can also be uploaded to SoundCloud. In short, for recording musicians, iPolysix ought to provide enough options to allow you to embed it into your iPad-based recording workflow.

Feeling sixey

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. Perhaps the only pragmatic downside is that real hardware knobs are easier to handle than the virtual ones.

And we really should emphasis the issue of price; as I type this review, iPolysix is currently available at a special offer price of £10.49, a 50% discount. However, while something close to £20 is perhaps ‘expensive’ in app terms, for a virtual emulation of a classic synth, if we were talking about a piece of software for a desktop computer system, it would shout ‘bargain’ very loudly indeed. iOS-based musicians are getting some brilliant software at what are really pocket-money prices; Korg’s iPolysix is another example of exactly that.

So, if you liked the iMS-20 app and want a slice of the same virtual analog vibe in a polyphonic format, Korg’s iPolysix is well worth the price of admission. Whether it is for live performance or as part of a composition/recording system, this is a lot of synth for not a lot of money.


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    1. iratepirate says:

      i owned a real polysix years ago. sounds pretty close to what i remember. was able to remake a simple path i remembered from way back when. arp is spot on etc. all in all, twinges of nostalgia!

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