There are lots of clichéd everyday phrases out there that boil down to the sentiment that ‘nothing comes free’ or ‘you get what you pay for’. Except, of course, to all but the most unappreciative souls who would moan about the cost of being given money, when it comes to music apps on the iTunes App Store.
Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of app c**p on the Store – things that are best avoided even at the low/no price that is typical of most iOS apps – but equally, there are apps that simply defy the logic of the iOS app pricing structure. Steinberg’s Nanologue is one to add to that list.
When it comes to all-singing, all-dancing virtual synths, Nanologue is perhaps not going to win too many prizes but, if you want a decent sounding monosynth that’s (a) easy to use, (b) easy on your iPad’s resources and (c) easy on your pocket, then it ticks all the boxes. Obviously, being a monosynth, its strongest suits are going to be lead and bass sounds but you can also carve out some nice special effects, percussive noises and electronic drones. For almost any sort of dance and/or electronica styles, Nanologue has something to offer. And, of course, it’s free…. so you can try without risk and simply delete it if it doesn’t crank your particular handle.
Falling off a logue
Nanologue represents a streamlined version of Steinberg’s desktop VST synth Retrologue which is included as part of the virtual instrument bundle within Cubase, their Windows/OSX DAW. If you happen to also be a Cubasis/Cubase user, one of Nanolouge’s key features is that patches can be exported (via iTunes file sharing) for use within Retrologue. If (like me) you sometimes use Cubasis as a starting point for song ideas and then move them over to your desktop DAW for further work, this is very useful as it means you don’t have to spend too much time faffing about with different synths in order to initially get the desktop version sounding like the iPad version…. even if you do substitute sounds later on.
Nanologue’s engine is based on what Steinberg describe as a cross-modulation oscillator (you get to blend two waveforms) and includes a glide feature, a VCF (with cutoff, resonance, distortion and cutoff modulation envelope controls plus attack and decay parameters to control the VCF envelope), an LFO (with three waveform types and the ability to modulate pitch, oscillator shape and filter curoff) and a simple, but very useable, delay effect with tempo sync, feedback and mix controls. As with lots of ‘classic’ monosynths, Nanologue does not respond to MIDI velocity.
All these controls are contained within a single screen (shown in the main screenshot) and, while there is enough here to keep you interested, there is not so much that even a little bit of experimentation will soon give a pretty good grasp of how the various controls interact. Nanologue is, therefore, very programmable but not very daunting.
The virtual keyboard is easy enough to use and, usefully, can be zoomed horizontally to show as few or as many keys as your fingers are able to comfortably play. The main screen is rounded off by a suitably large pitch bend wheel to the left of the keyboard.
Nanologue seems to play very nicely with the wider iOS music app world. If you want to drive the app from an external MIDI source, opening the Setup page allows you to activate the MIDI in feature and, if required, set the internal tempo to match that of any external project (so Nanologue’s delay will be in sync). I had no difficulties sending MIDI data from Cubasis to Nanologue, nor using an external MIDI keyboard to play the synth.
Nanologue supports inter-app audio so it is easy to use within Cubasis or any other IAA host. It might be nice to see an IAA transport panel in the app or even just a button to toggle back to your IAA host. Perhaps this is something for an update at some stage? Nanologue will work as a standalone app receiving MIDI data from any suitable source
However, Steinberg have not (yet at least) included Audiobus support. In a free app, it is difficult to be too critical of this decision as, obviously, there would be a development cost involved in doing this. It is, however, an interesting choice and probably suggests that (a) Steinberg see IAA as the future of inter-app communication (although Audiobus 2 might bring something new to that debate) and (b) they want you to use Nanologue with a suitable DAW host such as…. Ta da! Cubasis! Perhaps it is not such a surprise after all then :-)
I had the occasional issue when using the app within the IAA framework but nothing that stopped me worked for more than a second or two and, in truth, I suspect this will be the pretty much the norm (unfortunately) for a little while yet with lots of IAA-compatible apps until the technology settles down, developers master what’s required and Apple poke a finger in any of the remaining holes in the IAA code.
Small price, big sound
Perhaps the best thing about Nanologue, however, is how it sounds. Despite its freebie status, this is capable of some seriously big noises. There are some classic-style bass synths to be had here and the preset list includes some good examples such as Acid House Bass, Classic Saw Bass and Classic Square Bass. However, there are also some more modern offerings; Alone In The Dark is aggressive in a dubstep sort of a way, for example, while Disto Sweeper is dark and rather nasty. There are plenty of other impressive examples and the lead sounds are equally good.
No, Nanologue doesn’t have the sonic range of Thor (for example), but neither does it have the price and it certainly doesn’t place the same strain on your iPad’s resources; adding Nanologue as an IAA instrument to a busy Cubasis project barely caused a flicker on the CPU meter on my iPad Air.
Nanologue is a neat little monosynth. It is easy to use, has some very useable sounds and, with IAA support, sits nicely within Steinberg’s Cubasis (which is how they would like you to use it I’m sure).
And, of course, it is currently free to download. What’s not to like?