It has to be said that the world of iOS is not short of a synth music app or three. Could there possibly be room for another one? Only if it’s very good – and, thankfully, Nave – the first major iOS music app release by Waldorf – most certainly is. In fact, even after just a few hours spent exploring the app, I’d be happy to suggest it is considerably more than just ‘good’…
Nave is a wavetable synth with a sound engine built upon dual (and highly editable) wavetable oscillators, a filter, amplifier and a comprehensive effects section. The modulation options are impressive with two LFOs, various envelopes and flexible modulation routing options.
Performance options include the virtual keyboard, a ‘blade’ keyboard that is highly customisable and includes a very intuitive real-time control of modulation settings, a comprehensive MIDI implementation that supports external keyboards and MIDI learn functions, three user-configurable X-Y controller pads and a rather nice arpeggiator.
In addition, the app supports WIST, various audio copy/paste protocols (including via iTunes), Audiobus and includes a basic (but beautifully presented) four-track recorder.
In short, the feature list is quite extensive and if you have an interest in software synths – and know anything of Waldorf’s pedigree in the hardware and desktop software world – then I suspect Nave might prove more than a little tempting based upon the specs alone.
Whatever Nave sounds like, it is certainly striking to look at. When the app opens, the main Wave page shows a very stylish combination of virtual knobs, sliders and buttons plus a conventional virtual piano keyboard. These all look very slick but the most eye-catching element is the colourful 3D waveform display that dominates the top-centre. As the synth engine supports two such waveforms, scroll bars located on both the left and right edges of this upper display can be used to move between the two different waveforms to enable editing of the parameters for each. I’ll come back to the waveform editing options in a minute.
The other elements of the app are spread across four further pages of controls, each accessed via the tabs located top-left of the screen. The Filter & Env page gives you access to (surprise, surprise) the filter and envelope settings. Again, this looks fabulous and, while there are plenty of controls packed in here, on the whole, they are very easy to use. There are some nice touches that make this possible. For example, you can edit the cutoff and resonance controls either via the virtual knobs or simply by tapping and dragging within the graph immediately above them. Equally, if you tap on a parameter in any of the ADSR displays, a much larger virtual fader appears under your finger making it easier to adjust the setting.
The filter itself sounds good and includes a Drive section with a range of different distortion options capable of adding anything from gentle warmth to nasty crunch. The three envelopes include looping modes and this opens up all sorts of interesting modulation options for those that like to dig into their own programming.
The Mod and Keys screen is also well stocked. Here you can configure the two LFOs, the mod wheel and pitch wheels and the first of the X-Y pads. Equally, the modulation matrix (top-right) provides 10 slots where you can link a mod source (such as an LFO, envelope, wheel, velocity or key track) to a long list of synth parameter destinations. Four of the 10 slots are visible at any one time but you can scroll to the others to adjust their settings. The other options on this screen – available from the panel centre-right – allow you to adjust the virtual keyboard, ‘blade’ keyboard and the additional X-Y controllers. The blades are well worth exploring as they include a very useable scheme for adding additional real-time modulation options as well as allowing you to constrain the available notes to a specific key/scale.
The FX & Arp screen gives you access to the various effects modules and the arpeggiator. The five effects modules cover modulation (chorus, flange, phaser), delay, reverb, EQ and a compressor. These are pretty well specified and, as elsewhere in the app, you get plenty of control but laid out in a fashion that is easy to use. As well as fairly standard up, up/down, down, etc. formats, the arpeggiator also includes a pattern option for additional rhythmic effects. This is all good fun and the whole package offers plenty of creative possibilities.
The Tape & Sys screen provides access to the key system settings for the app – MIDI, WIST, background audio, tempo and tuning, for example. You can also edit the MIDI controller map if you are using Nave with an external MIDI keyboard with some real knobs and faders. That said, the app also includes a well implemented MIDI learn feature; simply tap and hold any of the synth parameters on the other screen and you get the option to map that parameter to the next MIDI controller message received by the app.
The other element of this page is a basic – if rather wonderfully rendered – four track recording system with a mini mixer and pan settings. You can save and load recording sessions and also mix them down to a stereo file for transfer out into the wider world.
While the filter, modulation and effects options can all produce massive changes to a given synth sound, Nave’s basic sound building blocks are the wavetable oscillators. There is a long list of wavetables provides that you can experiment with but you can also import your own audio files and get the app to analyse these and create a wavetable. In this sense, the sound creation possibilities are pretty much limitless and dictated only by the user’s desire to master the programming possibilities.
There are all sorts of editing possibilities for the wavetables themselves and some of these are available via the full screen wavetable display mode. Here, the edit button (yes, it’s tiny, but included in the strip of buttons immediately beneath the wavetable graphic itself) allows you access to a range of tools for exploring the wavetable and, with the rather neat ribbon band at the base of the screen, you can audition what your tweaks are doing to the sound, either ‘dry’ (just the wavetable) or ‘wet’ (including all the other synth engine elements).
There are some novel possibilities available within the wavetable elements of the synth engine; spectrum shift, adjustable noise and cyclic modulation of the wavetable playback. In short, with both the general synth editing options and these very interesting wavetable possibilities, Nave is something of a programmers delight. That said, the app is supplied with a huge collection of excellent presets; enough to get anyone started who just wants to make good sound without delving too deeply.
Equally, there is an excellent reference manual available from the Waldorf website as a PDF. This even includes a very useful section on basic synthesis – well worth a read if you are new to the wonderful world of synth programming.
Riding The Nave
So it looks beautiful and it provides tremendous editing possibilities. So far, so good – but how does Nave sound and perform?
In terms of the sound, the simple answer is very impressive. Nave is capable of a wide range of sounds and the abundant presets do a pretty good job of demonstrating this. So, if you just want some super solid analog basses or soaring synth leads, Nave will deliver. Equally, if you want evolving pads, Nave can do those with ease – and evolve they do – if you can get your head around the myriad of programming possibilities, this is a pretty powerful engine for pad and sound design. It does nice and it does nasty, it does subtle and it does in your face. In fact, there is not much it doesn’t do….
Hooked up to a decent playback system or PA, Nave sounds pretty huge. While I’m not someone who plays keys in a live context, I can imagine it would be a ot of fun. Closer to my comfort zone, Nave would most certainly be worth integrating into my desktop-based recording setup. It’s the equal of many desktop synths I have on my system in all but price; that this much synth costs so little is quite staggering.
In terms of performance, I had no significant issues when using the app on its own running on my 3rd generation iPad. Hooked up to my Scarlett 8i6 USB audio interface, I was able to send MIDI to the app from by external keyboard without any trouble.
When used as an Audiobus input app to feed audio to Cubasis, in the main, things worked exactly as expected. The Cubasis CPU usage hovered around 25% with Nave sat doing nothing and then went up to c. 50-60% when playing five or six notes of a complex patch while also recording Nave’s output to Cubasis. I did experience the occasional glitch which suggests that I was, at times, chewing just a little too much CPU but I would be happy to live with this to get access to Nave’s sounds in my iPad recording projects (come on Apple – when do we get iPad v.5?). I had no problems routing MIDI out of Cubasis to Nave.
My only other quibble would be a minor one. When selecting patches, you can search ‘all’ of the sounds in a bank or by category (e.g. bass, lead, arp, etc.). This is useful. However, it would be equally useful to be able to select a category and then search ‘all’ of the banks. This isn’t provided as an option in this initial release. Hopefully, Waldorf can add this in a future update?
Nave sounds fabulous and has been beautifully designed and executed. Despite some excellent competition in the iOS synth market place, if you are an iOS musician with any interest in synthesis you are going to want to try Nave for yourself.
Nave is right up there with the very best of what iOS synthesis currently has to offer. At the time of writing, the app is on a special launch pricing and, at £7.99 (or the equivalent $/€ price), is an absolute steal. Highly recommended.
If you want to see Nave in action, then check out the video below.
Or check out Waldorf’s guide to creating a wavetable sound in Nave.