Music app review – NLogSynth Pro by Tempo Rubato

nlog main screenNLogSynth PRO - tempo rubatoIn the world of desktop music making, there is a bewildering choice when it comes to software synths. And just like their hardware equivalents, software synths come in a variety of (virtual) types; whether it’s recreations of classic analog or digital synths or novel approaches that have no equivalent outside the zeros and ones.

Despite being a much younger platform, music apps aimed at iOS musicians are starting to become an equally impressive set of options. As with any other app type, there are good, bad and ugly to trawl through on the iTunes App Store but, if you want to go straight to the good (or even brilliant) category, the you could do a lot worse than start with Tempo Rubato’s NLogSynth Pro for the iPad.

Three flavours

NLogSynth is a virtual analog synth and actually comes in three formats; the ‘Pro’ version for the iPad, a ‘MIDI’ version for the iPhone/iPod and the ‘Poly Synth’ version for Mac OSX. The latter integrates with the two iOS versions so, if you want to move patches to/from your desktop system, this is easily done.

For those using NLogSynth under iOS as part of a mobile music making workflow, the ability to have access to the same synth engine on your desktop is a big positive if you like to move projects created on the move to your desktop environment for a final polish. While both iOS versions are in what might be called the medium price bracket as apps (Pro is £6.99 while NLog MIDI Synth is £1.99 or the equivalent $/€ prices), the Poly Synth version – at £7.99 from the App Store – is definitely in the bargain range for a desktop synth instrument.

Going Pro

Dual keyboards and larger keys are available for those that need them.

Dual keyboards and larger keys are available for those that need them. Click on any of the images to see them at a larger size.

Like most iOS virtual instruments, NLogSynth Pro includes a virtual keyboard and this can be flipped between single and dual modes (if you fancy a little two-handed playing) and adjusted in size for those of us with fingers shaped like overstuffed sausages. When using the virtual keyboard, velocity response is controlled by where on the key you initially place your finger – louder at the bottom of the key and progressively quieter as you move upwards – and while this takes a bit of getting used to, for single note lines it soon becomes second nature, although it is more of a challenge for chords.

If you would rather use a hardware MIDI keyboard, NLogSynth Pro happily works with most MIDI interfaces/controllers that are iPad friendly. Equally, you can drive the synth from another app as it supports virtual Core MIDI and can sync with other apps via Korg’s WIST. There is also support for both audio and MIDI recording and both of these formats can then be exported via routes such as iTunes, email or AudioCopy.

The other big plus is Audiobus support (which I think is a very good thing). In fact, NLogSynth Pro can be placed in any of Audiobus’ three slots; as an input, effect or an output. Use as an input is obvious as the synth can then be, for example, recorded into a DAW app in the output slot. Use as an output is perhaps less useful as NLogSynth’s own recording facilities are, as described below, fairly streamlined. However, using the app as an effect is quite an interesting idea. In this position, you can process an input app through NLogSynth Pro’s effects section prior to passing the signal to your output app (again, perhaps a DAW).

NLog's filters offer all the standard filter-based tricks.

NLog’s filters offer all the standard filter-based tricks.

So far, so good, but what about the synth engine itself? Sound creation is based on a combination of four oscillators, each with 20 different waveforms available. These include standard sine, sawtooth, triangle and square as well as a range of more exotic forms. Pulse width modulation, frequency modulation and a noise generator are also included as well a two filters (with seven different filter types), four ADSR envelope generators and four LFOs. A neat Modulation Matrix allows you to specify four modulation sources each of which can be sent to up to three destinations so there is plenty of scope in terms of getting some dynamics and movement into your sounds.

NLog features four LFOs and a vey functional Modulation Matrix so there is plenty of scope for creative sound shaping.

NLog features four LFOs and a vey functional Modulation Matrix so there is plenty of scope for creative sound shaping.

In addition to the synth engine itself, further creative options are provided by the multi-effects section. This includes delay, various modulation options (chorus, flanger, phaser), a basic distortion, reverb and parametric EQ.

Access to all these features is provided via a fairly retro-styled interface, reflecting the classic hardware analog synths of old. Given the number of features available, it’s perhaps not surprising that quite a lot is packed into each screen layout. Some might find things a bit busy or the size of the various virtual knobs a little on the compact side but, in actual operation, it didn’t cause me any particular problems.

The switches situated along the top of the display provide access to the various pages of controls and other elements of the app. For example, the Filt button brings the twin filter controls into the topmost section of the display. The LFO, Env, Mod and Eff buttons do a similar thing for their respective control sets.

The Load button opens the preset browser.

The Load button opens the preset browser.

The Load button opens the preset browser top-right. From here you can quickly access the 200+ factory sounds or the three banks of (initially empty) user slots if you have created and saved any of your own patches. This is (surprise, surprise) achieved via the Save button.

The Tape button provides access to the audio and MIDI recording tools. These are basic but very functional. For example, if you record a MIDI performance, all the performance data including mod wheel or pitch bend are recorded also; great if you want to then export your performance to another app or perhaps to your desktop system. Audio recording allows you to save an individual audio performance either for export or later recall. You can also loop an existing audio recording and play live over the top of it. An overdub facility allows you to blend the existing recording and any new performance if required. While this is hardly a threat to a decent DAW app, it is useful enough and all works very neatly.

Main performance

You can configure the performance knobs and XY controller functions from within the Sys area.

You can configure the performance knobs and XY controller functions from within the Sys area.

The bottom two-thirds of the display – including the keyboard itself – makes up the performance section of the interface. In the central strip this includes pitch bend and mod wheels, a very neat X-Y controller pad (although I thought some of the control assignments were a bit unusual in a few of the presets), the Master section (with the main volume, pan and glide knobs) and then four additional ‘performance’ knobs. Via the Sys options page, these four knobs can be linked to particular synth controls, giving you instant access to these during a performance. Incidentally, the parameters linked to the X-Y controller can also be specified via the Sys options and all these configurations are saved on a per-patch basis.

The performance section provides access to pitch and mod wheels, a neat XY controller, four programmable control knobs and the very enjoyable Arp functions.

The performance section provides access to pitch and mod wheels, a neat XY controller, four programmable control knobs and the very enjoyable Arp functions.

However, the highlight for me is the arpeggio section. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for arps (probably because it allows the guitar player in me to sound like I can actually play a keyboard!) but this is both easy to use and offers a good set of options. In particular, I liked the ‘rhythm’ options that applies different accent patterns, the Len function that allows you to adjust the note lengths (making it easy to turn even a sustained sound into something suitable for an arpeggio pattern) and the transposition option so you can move a pattern that is playing with a single key. There is a lot of fun to be had here.

As well as the Arp functions, this central strip also allows you to toggle keyboard velocity response on/off, switch between single and dual keyboard displays, change the size of the keys and switch between Poly, Mono and Legato playing modes. Mono is a true monophonic mode (a recent update fixed an issue with note tails overlapping new notes that some users had raised). Legato is also a monophonic mode but, if a note is still being held when a new note is played, the various filters and envelopes are not retriggered – only the pitch actually changes. A Hold function is also included so, if you want to set a note or notes playing, you can then put your fingers to use elsewhere and twiddle some knobs.

Pro sounds

A quick tour of the factory presets soon demonstrates that NLogSynth Pro is capable of producing some excellent sounds and also offers the user quite a diverse palette. Given that this is a model of analog-style synthesis, as might be expected, there are lots of rich sounding textures available – full, round basses, fat leads and some excellent textured pads – rather than the digital fizz generated by some other types of synthesis engines.

NLog's effects are fairly basic but get the job done.

NLog’s effects are fairly basic but get the job done.

Compared to one of my other favorite iOS analog synth emulations – Korg’s iMS-20 – on initial perusal, some of the NLogSynth Pro presets perhaps sounds a little less full-on than those of iMS-20. However, I think that is more down to the programmer’s somewhat more restrained use of NLogSynth’s effects section. However, just like iMS-20, NLogSynth Pro really rewards when you start creating your own sounds. If anything, while the interface styling is quite old-school, for newbie synth tweakers, programming NLogSynth is perhaps a touch less daunting than Korg’s offering but, with either app, if you are new to the wonderful world of analog synth programming, then don’t let a little head-scratching put you off; there is a powerful and flexible synth engine here and it just requires a little work to be fully exploited.

In summary

NLogSynth Pro has some great sounds and anyone could have fun using it (particularly the arpeggio functions). However, like Korg’s excellent iMS-20, this is probably best suited to those who are prepared to get their programming hands dirty and get the best out of it. If anything, NLogSynth Pro is perhaps a touch easier to initially find your way around than Korg’s offering but both can produce some truly excellent analog-style emulations.

As with the iMS-20, I did experiment with NLogSynth Pro through a keyboard amp and, providing you have taken care with the quality of your audio connections between iPad and amp (a requirement for any iPad-based virtual instrument), the app sounds great. I could easily imagine this instrument being put to good use in a live context and it is probably more stable, more reliable and considerably more portable – if less visually impressive – than the classic hardware it is intended to replace. Not sure if Rick Wakeman would have looked quite so impressive surrounded by a single keyboard and four or five iPads but he would have needed fewer roadies to shift the equipment about!

In short, NLogSynth pro is a top-notch app and, at £6.99, comes highly recommended. Indeed, I liked it so much that I also stumped up for the Mac OSX version – and that’s just as good!

NLogSynth PRO

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