microTERA review – waveshaping synth from VirSyn comes to iOS

Download from iTunes App Storemicrotera logoWay back in the dim and distant past (er… February 2003 to be precise), I reviewed VirSyn’s TERA – a desktop virtual synth plugin – for Sound On Sound magazine here in the UK. I remember being very impressed – and perhaps just slightly intimidated – by the possibilities offered by TERA. It was – and still is in its current incarnation; TERA 3 – a very flexible and powerful synth, capable of some fabulous and complex sounds. It suited dance and ambient styles well and, as it was multi-timbral, could easily be used on its own to produce a complete musical piece.

With that positive experience in mind – and being a bit of a fan of the various apps Virsyn have also developed for iOS such as Cube Synth, AudioReverb, Harmony Voice and Addictive Synth – I was quite keen to explore microTERA which was released for iOS (iPad only; UK£6.99) a couple of weeks ago.

Tiny TERA

The full version of TERA 3 for PC/Mac is something of a synthesis beast and actually includes a number of different synthesis styles. These can be seen almost as a number of different individual synth engines housed within the instrument as a whole. So, for example, you get fmTERA and specTERA that focus of FM synthesis and wavetable synthesis respectively.

The basic block diagram for the microTERA synth engine.

The basic block diagram for the microTERA synth engine.

However, there is also microTERA – essentially a waveshapping synth module within TERA 3 – and it is this element of the desktop instrument that VirSyn seem to have ported over to iOS. VirSyn have a basic block diagram on their website for the architecture of the microTERA element of TERA 3 and, given the description of the iPad version of microTERA, I suspect the engine is either very similar or even identical.

microTERA comes to iOS.

microTERA comes to iOS.

What this essentially means is that get three sine-based oscillators, each of which can be modulated by various parameters, that are then combined before being fed through the waveshapper stage. This acts as a distortion of the input signal and you can sculpt the resulting tone by adjusting the spectrum of the waveshape. The output of this stage is then fed to an amplifier and FX stage. Added into this basic structure are 4 LFOs, 4 very flexible envelopes with tempo sync and signal feedback for creating noise elements within the sound.

microTERA includes both Audiobus and IAA support.

microTERA includes both Audiobus and IAA support.

The synth can offer up to 16 note polyphony. It also includes a rather nice 32 step step-sequencer and an arpeggiator while the effects include distortion, phaser, delay, chorus and reverb. The app works quite happily with an external MIDI keyboard and has both Audiobus (Input slot) and IAA support. CoreMIDI/Virtual MIDI are also included in the spec sheet.

In terms of other features, the app includes an audio recording facility with a metronome as well as subsequent upload (to SoundCloud) or export of the audio files. Audio pasteboard is also supported.

In the face of TERA

TERA’s four main pages of controls are access via the tabs that sit top-left of the upper control strip; Shape, Env, Arp and FX. Also included along this strip is access to the preset system (and note that the Arp page includes its own preset options), tempo setting, access to the record options and the Help button. The latter adds prompts to the on-screen controls so you can learn what each control does. This is useful but, as with any piece of software (music or otherwise), it would be nice to have the backup of a written reference manual.

The Env page provides access to the envelope and LFO controls.

The Env page provides access to the envelope and LFO controls.

As with a number of VirSyn’s other app, the upper control strip also contains a dice button and you can just tap this and the app will generate a random sound for you. There are additional pairs of dice in the Arp page for generating random step sequencer data. In both instances, these are good fun to experiment with and are particularly useful if you just want to keep pressing until something catches your eye (or ears) and the muse appears.

In terms of the basic building blocks of a microTERA patch, the Shape and Env pages are where you will spend most of your time. In the Shape page, you can setup the relative pitchs/levels of the three sine wave oscillators and optionally add two modulation sources for each oscillator. There are plenty of choices in terms of modulation sources including pitch, velocity, aftertouch, mod wheel or various options with the envelopes or LFOs.

This signal is then passed to the waveshaper section and here you can simply draw on the waveform pad to ‘shape’ the frequency response. There is little by way of rules to follow here; just experiment and see what happens. You can also adjust the influence of your waveshape by tweaking the Shaper Input, Chaos Level (don’t you just love a control that is labelled ‘chaos’?) and Amplitude knobs. Equally, all of these parameters can also be modulated.

The envelope options are very flexible and include a range of interesting presets.

The envelope options are very flexible and include a range of interesting presets.

The Env page allows you to configure the four envelopes (top of the screen) and four LFOs (central band of the screen) and, of course, these are then applied in any parameter modulation that you have configured in the Shape page. This screen, amongst other things, also includes polyphony setting, portamento (glide), the MIDI pitch bend response and the ability to confirm the virtual keyboard to a specific key/scale combination. Lots of iOS synths now have this feature and it is very useful.

The LFOs have a decent range of waveform options, however, the envelopes are particularly flexible as they offer different types and the ability to create up to 64 segments in an individual envelope. This, in turn, allows you to create some really complex modulation options.

Do keep ‘arping on

The Arp page strikes a nice balance between features and easy of use. You can program tie, accent, note, octave, transposition and key. The latter refers to which key from a chord is used in a particular step; set to ‘all’ and you get all the notes in a chord.

The Arp options are excellent; a great balance between features and ease of use.

The Arp options are excellent; a great balance between features and ease of use.

There is plenty of flexibility here. You can define a step-length to suit your needs and, as well as some nice presets to get you started, those dice make it easy to come up with all sorts of interesting variations. This really is a great place to start some off-the-cuff musical ideas. I’m a big fan of step-sequencers and arpeggiators and the combination here is just right; flexible enough to offer plenty of scope but not so complex to use that your head hurts just looking at the screen.

The FX of TERA

Compared to the rest of the app, the FX page of microTERA is a pretty straightforward affair. However, the five effects offer enough control to be flexible and provide plenty of additional scope for shaping the overall sound. I particularly liked the Distortion effect. This offers hard, soft, tape and tube distortion models and, while it can do fizz if that’s what you want, it can also do some really nice warming effects.

microTERA's effects are easy to use and sound pretty good also.

microTERA’s effects are easy to use and sound pretty good also.

The Delay and Reverb effects also work well but I found myself having to take some care with the Chorus and Phaser effects as they occasionally seemed to latch on to something in the basic synth sound itself and exaggerate that as noise. Kept subtle, however, they are also very effective.

TERA time

In use, TERA was pretty much a complete pleasure. I had no problems working with microTERA in either Audiobus or via IAA (using Cubasis as my IAA host). Equally, when used as a standalone app, I was able to hook up an external MIDI keyboard and the app responded fine, allowing me to set the required MIDI channel.

Used in Audiobus or via IAA, I was also able to send MIDI data to microTERA from Cubasis. However, rather oddly, I didn’t seem to be able to send MIDI data to microTERA if both the synth and Cubasis were just running side-by-side as standalone apps, something that is possible to do with lots of synth apps. As microTERA has CoreMIDI/virtual MIDI in its spec sheet, I’m not quite sure why this might be…  although, of course, it could just be something I’ve missed or something specific to my set up. If someone else gets this working then do leave a comment to let me know.

microTERA seemed to behave very nicely as an IAA app within Cubasis.

microTERA seemed to behave very nicely as an IAA app within Cubasis.

Of course, the other element of the equation is sound; what does microTERA actually sound like. This is quite an interesting one as I really think that VirSyn’s products do have a distinctive ‘sound’ to them. Some of that is, I’m sure, down to the construction of the synth engine. In the case of microTERA, this is based on waveshapper technology and, while I’m no PhD in synth design, there were some patches here that reminded me of Nave (in a vey good way).

microTERA ships with a good collection of presets but those dice mean that is really is very easy to create your own presets and, if you keep rolling, sooner or later, something rather wonderful will just appear :-)

microTERA ships with a good collection of presets but those dice mean that is really is very easy to create your own presets and, if you keep rolling, sooner or later, something rather wonderful will just appear :-)

That said, the app is supplied with a very healthy crop of presets organised into sensible categories and, wherever you look, there are some excellent sounds to be found. My particular favourites were in the bass, pads and arpeggio categories and the pads, in particular, had lots of depth and movement.

The other really good thing about microTERA – well, in fact it’s two things – is that, while flexible, it is actually very straightforward to program and, because of those rather wonderful dice, very easy to create new and interesting patches for. It perhaps lacks the programming depth of some of the real iOS synth powerhouses – Thor, Nave, Z3TA+ – but it makes up for it in being less intimidating. If you are looking for something that is programmable but doesn’t make your head spin then, rather like the likes of Arctic ProSynth, microTERA is a decent place to start.

In summary

VirSyn’s microTERA is, despite its name, not TERAfying at all. In fact, given the relatively straightforward synthesis engine (and despite the lack of a full manual), it is easy for the synth-programming newbie to find their way around in pretty quick time. However, don’t thing ‘easy to use’ means ‘bland sounds’. Once you get into that programming you will soon discover a huge range of tonal possibilities. Dig into the modulation options and things can get – sonically at least – suitably TERAfying.

I think VirSyn have microTERA priced just right in the ‘mid-range’ for an IOS music app/synth. This is all relative of course but, however you look at it, music app prices are still mostly bonkers and this is an awful lot of synth for a very modest price. Whether you need to buy microTERA may well depend upon just how well stocked your iOS synth app collection already is (and your personal app addiction status) but, if you are still keen to acquire a synth that (a) sounds good, (b) is easy to program and (c) will not break the bank, then VirSyn microTERA is a pretty good bet.

microTERA


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