I did some revisions to my ‘best iOS synths apps’ roundup article not so long ago. If there is one category of iOS music app in which we have a smorgasbord of choice, this is it and, amongst them, are some absolute gems. In that context, therefore, it is now a pretty brave developer who dips a tentative toe in the market.
Yes, there are some of iOS musicians who will happily just hoover up every new synth app (and App Store pricing makes this an addiction that is fairly affordable compared to some other types of addiction), but if you are going to launch a new iOS synth, then you need to bring something just a bit different or novel in order to stand out from the crowd.
For Nikolozi Pty’s new NS1 synth, that ‘something a bit different’ is perhaps twofold; a very compact user interface and, perhaps more novel at this stage, support for the AU plugin format straight off the blocks. Some of you might know of Nikolozi’s iOS credentials, as he is also the developer behind MIDI Sketch. This isn’t an app I’m familiar with but I know some folks do like the streamlined approach it brings to MIDI sequencing. This does suggest that Nikolozi knows something of the iOS music app market though…. so does NS1 have what it takes to compete in the busiest section of the iOS music app market?
If some of the mega iOS synths leave you feeling a little intimidated – or maybe, once in a while, you just hanker after something a little more streamlined to coax a synth tone out of – then NS1’s design might well appeal. All the controls are contained within two ‘pages’ of nicely laid out knobs, pop-up menus and XY pads and you can move between them using the left/right arrows located at the sides of the control set.
At a technical level, the app is a 4MB download, requires iOS9.2 or later (so make sure you are up to date) and is, at present, iPad only. It is launched at UK£7.99 although there is also a bundle with MIDI Sketch that can save you a little on both apps if you are interested (or already own MIDI Sketch).
The app attempts to emulate an analog style synthesizer so no prizes for guessing the sorts of sounds that you can create. The sound engine is based upon fairly standard triangle, square and sawtooth waveforms but a drop-down menu allows you to pick from a small selection of different combinations of these and this, along with the Detune control, means you can generate some fairly fat sounds despite the simple approach.
The engine includes a separate noise oscillator, an ADSR envelope that controls amplitude and also modulates pitch, filter cutoff and the pulse width (PWM). Most of the controls are simple rotary knobs but there are also some buttons you can tap (the solid circles in the display) and these drop down menus of options for the specific setting (for example, the number of voices or pitch bend range). The first page of controls also allows you to set up the simple – but very effective – Glide speed and to toggle between polyphonic playback (up to eight notes at once) or mono or legato modes.
Move to the second screen of controls and you find an LFO that can provide a further driver to the modulation, a basic filter and a stereo delay effect. In each case, as well as getting some rotary controls to tweak, you also get an X-Y pad for more hands-on (er… fingers on) control. These work very smoothly and, overall, the control layout is neat and uncluttered.
The app can operate as a standalone application and – in my own testing anyway – happily received MIDI data from an external keyboard, although I don’t think there is much you can do by way of configuring the MIDI side of the app through the app itself and nor is there any sign of a MIDI learn system (although feel free to correct me if I’ve missed something here). There is, however, a preset system (located at the top of the screen) and a simple virtual piano keyboard with pitch bend, key size and velocity slider controls. Again, this is all ‘low fuss’.
However, perhaps the obvious point of interest is that the app has launched with Audio Units instrument (AUi) support. It can therefore be used as an AUi within suitable hosts which, at present, means MultitrackStudio for iPad and Garageband. As far as I can see, currently at least, there is no Audiobus or IAA support included.
I had no problems loading the app into either of the above hosts and, indeed, I was able to load multiple instances within the same project (one of the big potential benefits of the AU plugin format). Within the AU plugin windows for both hosts, the compact/streamlined control set for NS1 obviously means it translates well to the AU sub-window format and I suspect this may well have been part of the overall design ethos. That said, Arturia have managed to make a pretty good job of packing the key controls for iSEM into this compact window size so it obviously can be done with a more complex control set and still work pretty well. I had no particular issues while using the app via AU; the performance was solid and the controls responsive.
Obviously, given the description of the app’s key features above, NS1 is not a Thor or Nave or iM1 basher; this is a pretty simply analog-style synth engine with a modest – but well thought out – control set. However, it is capable of some very solid sounds. And, while it is perhaps not the most diverse sound set you will find in your iOS synth collection, the small preset bank included with the app give a decent flavour of what’s available. It’s perhaps a shame that there are not a few additional examples included – perhaps some more basses and leads? – as I’m sure new users would appreciate them and, as even a brief bit of experimentation showed, the engine is perfectly capable. These are perhaps not ‘notice me!’ sounds but, as a easy-to-use generic analog synth, NS1 does a decent job.
As mentioned earlier, NS1 is launched into what is now a very competitive iOS synth app marketplace. In terms of the synthesis engine, it is certainly easy to use (and not intimidating) so it is not really being pitched against the more powerful iOS synths. There are, however, also lots of more accessible iOS synth apps that would be the more obvious competition, so this is still a challenging place to make your mark.
Perhaps the most interesting selling point for NS1 is its AU compatibility. As shown in the screenshots, AU apps – audio effects or instruments – are still pretty thin on the ground. In that context, Nikolozi deserves some credit for taking a punt of what is, in iOS terms, still early days for the format.
Whether that will be enough to tempt the iOS synth collecting masses to take a punt will have to be seen. At UK£7.99, NS1 is up against some pretty impressive – and well-established – alternatives in the likes of Sunrizer, Arctic ProSynth, Laplace, iProphet and, of course, iSEM itself. And, while only the latter offers AU support, the others do provide both Audiobus and IAA support. For some within the iOS musician community, that is still going to be an issue that matters. It will be interesting to see if Nikolozi explores the options for these technologies within NS1 to broaden the possible user base before AU does (eventually) kick off more widely.
NS1 is a solid, easy-to-use virtual analog synth. It perhaps won’t win any prizes for ‘most powerful synth engine’ anytime soon, but it is a capable instrument with a neat visual design and a control set that it easy to learn.
AU support is still something of a novelty item and this may be enough to draw some potential users in simply to see this technology in action. However, at the same price point, there is some very still competition and, until AU really takes off under iOS, the widespread use of Audiobus and IAA may tempt some potential users elsewhere.