Long-standing Music App Blog visitors might well recall that I reviewed Ostinator – a sort of app-based emulation of a hardware looper pedal (and, in concept, not unlike an app such as Quantiloop) – and released by Living Memory Software. Ostinator is a cool little app and, because of its key function, perhaps attracted most attention from iOS-using guitar players.
However, as I posted on Friday, Living Memory are now back with a new app – Layr – and, this time around, it is most definitely aimed at those with an interest in synthsr. Indeed, while I still wouldn’t class myself as a Layr expert after just a few days exploring, I’d go so far as to say that almost every iOS musician with an interest in synths will at least want to take a look at Layr; this is impressive stuff. And, however many iOS synths you already own, I think this is going to prove very tempting….
The first Layr
Living Memory describe Layr as a multi-timbral synth and the ‘Layr’ title comes from the fact that you can layer multiple instances of the synth engine to construct your sounds. This layer process is pretty flexible and, providing your iOS hardware can keep up, you can get pretty serious with the number of layers.
In fact, an entire preset in Layr has three ‘levels’ to it and the basic structure involved is perhaps the most fundamental concept to get your head around when starting with Layr….. so let’s get that under our belts before going any further….
At the top level is the Performance which contains a complete configuration for the app. This includes effects and arpeggiator settings (more on both of these later) but also includes one of more ‘instruments’. You might be tempted to think of each of these instruments as a single synth but, in fact, the flexibility of Layr means there can be more to the structure than this….
However, if you want to keep things conceptually simple, then by all means have each ‘Instrument’ respond to a different MIDI channel…. and you therefore have the essence of a multi-timbral synth-based sound source within a single app. There is a separate preset system for Instrument-level patches (which, as we will see later, is very useful).
However, an Instrument is built from a Layer or multiple Layers. A Layer is, therefore, the fundamental building block of your sounds…. you build an Instrument from one or more Layers and a Performance from one or more Instruments….. And a Layer is, in it’s own right, a complete synth engine with dual oscillators, dual filters, modulation options and envelopes. You are, therefore, building an Instrument from either a single instance (Layer) of this synth engine of multiple instances (Layers)…
And while a twin oscillator synth engine might not set everyone’s heart racing compared to some of the more powerful software synths iOS has to offer, the Layer engine is still pretty capable, comes with a rather elegant UI and a single instance can make some pretty stellar sounds even before you start stacking Layers up. That stacking up can soon get you building really complex and rich sounds and textures though and, with 128 voices (polyphony; and actually 256 on an iPad Pro), and a rather neat ‘note stealing’ algorithm that will gracefully manage things if you do run out of simultaneous notes, this really could be a single app that supplies all the synth parts for a complete electronic music production…. providing your iOS hardware can keep up.
What about some other basics? Well, the app requires iOS9.0 or later, is universal and seems to support all iO hardware from the iPhone 5S/iPad Air/iPad mini 3 and upwards. It’s a 26MB download and launched at UK£19.99/US$19.99.
Graphically, the UI design is both modern looking and slick, and there is support for both iPhone and iPad formats in the same app with some flexibility over how the UI presents itself to suit the users preferences and screen size. Audiobus and IAA support are included from the off (although no AU as yet; it will be interesting to see if that’s a plan in the development roadmap), import/export of patches is possible, a multi-channel arpeggiator is included and the MIDI control options seem to be good.
The MIDI routing within the app allows you specify different MIDI channels for each Instrument (as well as defining MIDI note ranges for each Layer within an Instrument) for your multi-timbral workflow. Multiple audio outputs are also available if you want to send separate sounds to different destinations (DAW tracks, for example).
The second Layr
When you first launch Layr you are presented with the default Performance loaded. This consists of a single Instrument and that Instrument is built from a single Layer (so about as simple as a Performance can get).
At the base of the screen you get a virtual piano keyboard. This is pretty standard stuff with options for tweaking key sizes, scrolling left/right, a ‘hold’ (sustain) button, the ability to change the MIDI channel for the keyboard (if you need to play a Layr Instrument that uses a different MIDI channel to the default channel 1) and an arpeggiator button (this opens the arpeggiator panel; more on this later). On the left, there are also some status indicators in terms of notes used and CPU load.
The other button (the keyboard icon) open up a panel for customising the virtual keyboard. This includes confining the keys to specific key/scale combinations. While this is now pretty commonplace in iOS keyboard apps, it’s good to see included and, as well as being very colourful, Layr offers enough options here to help you avoid too many duff notes.
On the right side of the main screen is a ‘master’ fader plus buttons to access the help system, a MIDI ‘panic’ button, the settings menu, the MIDI dialog (so you can specify the MIDI sources for Layr) and the buttons to load/save the Performance presets. The app is supplied with a good crop of these organised into some obvious categories and, as ever, these make for a good place to start your exploration. There are some really interesting Performance presets amongst each category and, thankfully, you can audition them right from the preset browser. I suspect Living Memory will add more presets over time as they are already encouraging early adopters to offer up their own Performance presets for consideration….
Further button in this strip offer you access to a master transpose and tempo setting plus the master effects section. The effects section features EQ, delay and reverb and these are all easy to use and very functional, if not the most comprehensive effects panel that you might find on an iOS synth.
On the left hand side of the screen you see fader strips associated with each Instrument and, if you toggle the expand/contract button for an Instrument strip (located at the top of the strip), then you will also see individual strips for each Layer within the Instrument. At the top of each Layer strip is a synth panel graphic; tap this and you then open the synth engine controls for that Layer.
The options on the Instrument and Layer channel strips have some things in common (fader, mute and transpose options for example) but also some differences. The Instrument strip includes options for setting polyphony for the Instrument as a whole, setting the MIDI input channel, selecting the audio output to be used and loading/saving Instrument presets (as opposed to Performance presets). Again, the app ships with a good selection of Instrument presets to explore.
There is also a button for opening the panel that allows you to specify the MIDI note range each Layer within the Instrument responds to. If you are building more complex, multi-Layer, Instruments, this provides some interesting additional control over how those Layers are blended together when you play some notes. The panel includes ‘fade’ options so you can define a range of notes over which a sound gradually blends into the Layer mix as you play; very neat.
An actual Layer
An instance of Layr’s synth engine is what creates the sound for each Layer. Depending upon your hardware (iPhone, iPad mini, iPad, iPad Pro), there may be two different UI options offered, with a more compact, tabbed screen suited to the iPhone and a ‘one screen contains it all’ view of the same controls for those on a larger, iPad/iPad Pro screen. I was using the latter in my own testing so all the screenshots show this single screen view.
The controls are divided into a number of sub-panels (these form the separate screen when used on the iPhone). Top-left is the dual oscillator panel. A range of waveform types are offered and the sound from the two oscillators can be blended or morphed over time. You can also add noise and there are various frequency modulation options based upon two LFOs and the first of the three envelopes.
Top-right are twin filters with various standard filters types offered, again filter modulation options via the LFOs, envelopes and MIDI velocity, key tracking of the filter parameters. While you might find more complex filter options on some synths, there is actually plenty here you keep you busy and to keep your sounds dynamic.
Bottom-left are the envelope (three ADSR envelopes including a main amplitude envelope), LFO and Random panels. This is pretty straightforward stuff in the main but the Random option is quite interesting as it adds a random (surprise!) modulation effect and, if you look closely into the Oscillator and Filter panels, you can adjust how much ‘random’ modulation gets added.
Finally, located bottom-right is the ‘mixer’ panel that allows you to define how the oscillators and filters get blended, how that mix itself can be modulated, modulation of the amplitude by the two LFOs, the overall velocity response of the Layer and the pan (and, yes, this can be modulated also).
Phew…. as I suggested earlier, perhaps at the level of an individual Layer, this is not going to be a contender for ‘most complex iOS synth engine ever’…. but then you start combining multiple Layers into Instruments and multiple Instruments into a Performance. That Layer-level synth engine – solid, capable and (thankfully) manageable in its own right – then takes on another dimension and can deliver some wonderful, rich, and harmonically complex, sounds. The sum becomes much more than the raw parts…. and the sound design potential is obvious.
Layr by Layer
So, the underlying synth engine building block is good…. but not so difficult to find your way around. You can then take that building block and stay simple or, by stacking Layers, – and building multiple Instruments – make Layr as complex as you (or your iOS hardware) can take.
Obviously, hooked up to a suitable MIDI keyboard (or via the touchscreen virtual keyboard) you can then trigger those sounds quite happily. If you are just using a single Instrument (and, therefore, a single MIDI channel), that’s easy enough to configure, whether for recording or live performance.
However, if you want to get all multi-timbral with more than one Instrument, then you either need to send Layr MIDI data on different channels from your DAW/sequencer app or, in a live performance context, have an external MIDI keyboard with an option for keyboard splits (and enough keys to make that useful. I gave this a quick try via my main Novation MIDI keyboard controller and it worked a treat. If you like the way Layr sounds, this could make for an impressive live performance option.
The app also seemed happy to handle multiple MIDI tracks coming from Cubasis (for example). However, when using the app stand-alone (that is, not via IAA and hosted within Cubasis), or as a multi-timbral IAA app, then I did find myself doing a certain amount of faffing about to ensure I had the right MIDI channels finding their way to Layr from my MIDI keyboard as I was actually recording each track. If you have a MIDI keyboard that lets you easily change the MIDI channel it is sending on, then that can be a help.
That all said, once you have got the routing sorted, Layr plays very nicely as a multi-timbral sound source, either directly from a keyboard or from your sequencer. That said, AU would be great to see, even if you were restricted to running a single Instrument (as opposed to a Performance) within each instance. I only did brief testing in Audiobus and AUM but both seemed to work fine and I’m sure there are all sorts of interesting ways you could route audio and MIDI to/from the app as required via all these various routes, especially given that Layr offers up to eight separate audio outputs.
The arp layer
If you have hung around the blog for any length of time then you will know that, as a guitar player (sorry!), I do quite like a good arpeggiator (it compensates for my poor keyboard skills)…. and Layr does seem to offer a very interesting take on the arpeggiator concept.
When you open the arpeggiator panel, along the top are typical options for up down, up/down and ‘as played’ for ordering the MIDI notes that are currently being received by the arpeggiator and also options for making the playback speed multiples of the current tempo.
The rest of the panel is split into two sections. On the left is an eight lane ‘event sequencer’ with 16 steps in each lane. Lanes can be set to send MIDI data to any MIDI channel so, while the arpeggiator only accepts incoming MIDI note data on a single channel (by default, channel 1), it can output MIDI note data to up to 8 different Layr Instruments within your Patch.
There are four types of ‘events’ that you can program into each step of each lane. Play events play the next note in the arpeggiator sequence and you can also specify the length of the note (it can be more than a single step). Repeat events repeat the last (previous) note in the sequence.
Loop events send the sequence for that lane back to the first step and, as it can be set differently on each lane, means your lanes can operate over different step length; yay! Polyrhythms J And, to make something already interesting even more interesting, you can also assign MIDI events to steps and send MIDI controller data, all of which can be specified via the sub-panel on the right-hand side of the display.
Have you got all that? No, I wasn’t sure I had either and it does take a bit of time (and experimentation) to get your head around it (this feature is a great candidate for a tutorial video from the developers!). However, starting with a few of the arp-based presets does help and also demonstrates that this is actually a hugely creative feature within Layr.
To take one example, imagine each lane is feeding a different Instrument but you have specified different note event patterns (and note lengths) within the various arp lanes. When you then hold down a chord on your MIDI keyboard, the arp then steps through these ‘events’ and will output MIDI note data to the different Instruments…. except as the events are different for each lane, so the arp pattern, while based upon the same MIDI pitches for all lanes, will trigger those notes in different ways from each lane. The results can be mesmerising as the same cores notes cycle around in different ways via the different lanes. Add in a few Loop events (so that some lanes are shorter than others) and things can get even more interesting.
I know I’ve not fully explored what’s possible with Layr’s arpeggiator but, equally, I know it really is rather good and you could lose yourself here for quite some (very enjoyable) time.
Icing on the Layr cake?
Oh, and did I mention that there is a rather sophisticated MIDI control/learn feature built into Layr? Well, alongside good support for MIDI-based bank/program change options, there is also a good MIDI Learn system. If you tap and hold on a synth parameter within a Layer editing screen, a MIDI panel pops up. This provides all sorts of options. For example, to can confine the range of values associated with a particular synth parameter to a certain range. Equally, if you have a suitable external controller, you can use a MIDI Learn process to link a software control to a hardware controller.
The system also includes a set of four colour-coded ‘linked’ parameter groups. For example, you might have two Layers in an Instrument and want to be able to adjust the filter cutoff value in both at the same time. By linking them, if you adjust the parameter in one Layer, it is automatically adjusted in the other also. This is very useful in you create Instruments built on multiple Layers…. and, as that’s a big part of what Layr is about, then this is a very useful feature.
Yet another Layr?
OK, so if you have stuck with me so far then I suspect you will have guessed that I’m impressed by Layr. There have already been a couple of contenders in 2017 for my ‘top ten new music apps of the year’ list (Troublemaker and ReSlice in case you were asking); Layr is another very obvious candidate.
The whole concept is just very clever, the UI modern and easy to navigate and, while things can get complex, the basic synth engine building block – the Layer within Layr – is not so challenging that a guitar-playing, synth programming phobic, soul like myself would feel too intimidated. And then, of course, there is that arpeggiator…. Oh, and the most important thing after all….. Layr actually sounds very good indeed.
OK, if you just like to load a few synth presets and spend most of your time strumming a guitar or writing piano-based tunes, then maybe Layr is not a ‘must have’; this is definitely an app that’s more likely to appeal to the synth-head audience. Even then, you might feel that you are already in iOS synth overload…. and that’s something lots of use will empathise with given just how easy it is to synth overload because of the App Store’s user-friendly pricing model.
But none of that stops Layr actually being (a) very good indeed, (b) a highly desirable synth app and (c) excellent value for money. We are, of course, back to ‘need’ vs ‘want’… and a discussion with your personal financial inner voice about whether UK£19.99/US$19.99 is something you are willing to part company with to get your hands on yet another example of just how good iOS music apps can be….. I’ll move to one side now and let you discuss that with yourself…. :-)
If you have an iOS synth habit, Layr is going to be very tempting. The potential is very clear…. and the app delivers in lots of different ways. I do hope Living Memory can get plenty of support for this project because this is a brilliant start. Yes, even more presets would be good to see… as would some indication about whether AU is a possibility. The developers have already got some useful introductory videos about the app available via YouTube…. and more of those (for example, on the arpeggiator) would also be welcome.
Anyway, Layr is an impressive concept, with an impressive sound and, given the features, an equally impressive price point… and it is, in my opinion (and for what it’s worth), something just a bit unique even in the wonderfully diverse universe that is iOS synths. Check out the demo videos below and then hit the download button to find out more from the App Store…. Layr is a bit of a gem :-)