It’s only a few months since Bram Bos launched both Ruismaker and Ruismaker FM, his two iOS drum apps that are delivered in an AU plugin format. Both are interesting not because they feature some uber-complex and sophisticated drum programming options but perhaps because they are designed to be the opposite of that; drum synths that are easy to program, have modest demands on the iOS hardware host and very easy to get to grips with.
Given the potential that Audio Units offers, it is perhaps this element of the specification of both apps that really got the attention of iOS musicians as much as the spec of the actual drum machines themselves. That said, both do a very good job and, with a suitable AU host and sequencing environment these compact apps are a great sound of synth drum sounds.
Well, Bram is now back with a further app – Phasemaker – and, while it features the same AU plugin format, it also features a stand-alone mode… Oh, and it’s not another drum machine; this time Bram is bringing us a 6-operator, fully-programmable, FM synth. Indeed, while it is designed with the AU format in mind, like iSEM or Poison-202 (for example), on paper at least, this looks like a ‘proper’ synth engine. So, if you are keen to take your iOS music app collection down the AU route, is Phasemaker worth a look?
Going through a phase
FM synthesis is, of course, a bit of a 1980s classic perhaps most obviously popularised by hardware synths such as the Yamaha DX7 but many other synth manufacturers had their own take on it including, of course, Casio with the CZ range. Of course, for many music makers, software has now taken over and desktop-based musicians have their choice of a huge number of different ‘virtual’ FM synths.
Those software options have, over the last few years, also started to appear under iOS and we have synths such as FM4 and CZ (for example) that can help you get those classic FM sounds. And now, of course, we can add Phasemaker to that list except this app also comes with support for the latest (and, hopefully, eventually greatest) bit of inter-app connectivity in Audio Units.
The app is launched at UK£7.99/US$9.99, requires iOS9.0 or later, is a 10MB download and is iPad only. It runs as a stand-alone app (with support for an external MIDI keyboard) and, of course, AU, but there is no Audiobus or IAA support (as with Tines that I reviewed yesterday here on the Music App Blog; is this the start of a trend?). Oh, and it is also worth noting that all of the synth engine parameters can be controlled/automated via MIDI CC numbers….
Operate the operators
The 6 operator format (some FM designs feature less operators than this and, back in the day of the classic hardware FM synth world, the 6 operator format was a bit of a breakthrough in terms of the sonic complexity of the sounds that could be created). In the stand-alone version of the app, the screen is split into two halves. The upper portion allows access to the key synth controls, including these six operators via what is a multi-tabbed panel (the two sets of buttons at the top allow you to select which sub-panel is currently displayed for editing), while the lower half of the screen provides a rather nice virtual piano keyboard.
When used via AU, the lower half is simply dropped – the sensible assumption being that you will use the virtual keyboard supplied by your AU host or an external MIDI keyboard – so that the AU plugin version of the app is, from a programming/control layout perspective, identical to the stand-alone app. This is all very neatly done and, while you do have to navigate the multiple tabs of the control set while programming, each of these is very nicely laid out and the controls never feel cluttered.
The main control panel (the upper half of the display for the stand-alone version of the app) is, itself, divided into a number of areas. The top strip has three sections that stay the same throughout. There are five buttons in the Edit Mode section (on the left), the virtual LED (which gives you visual feedback as you change parameters) located in the centre and the six buttons to open the control set for each of the six operators (located on the right). Tapping most of these buttons will change the lower half of the panel to show the actual controls for that sub-set of the synth’s parameter set.
Tapping the larger patch name button in the Edit Mode button set brings up the preset list. There is an excellent selection of factory presets and you can, of course, create your own sounds and store them in the user preset folder. I had a lot of fun just trawling through the supplied sounds and, if you have suitable memories of those 80s FM bass, bell and pad-like sounds (or more recent experience with a desktop virtual synth) then there will be some suitable smiles to be had here. In short, Phasemaker sounds very FM and captures the essence of those sounds very well… However, as the presets show, it can do a decent turn as contemporary sounds also so I’m sure this is an iOS synth that will have a very broad appeal.
I’ve not had time yet to feel I’m fully in command of the programming side of Phasemaker and to go through every control option here would result in a review of considerable length. Fortunately, however, if you need that kind of detailed support to master the control set, Bram has already prepared a PDF manual that you can download from the app’s website. It is very nicely produced, includes a useful introduction to FM synthesis and then gives you a clear tour through the full control set. It’s worth a good read though…. as you will get an introduction to the carrier/modulator basis of FM synth’s oscillators and also discover that Phasemaker includes a further option; the AM operator. This amplitude modulation offers all sorts of interesting sound shaping options for sustained sound, especially when applied to multi-operator sounds.
Dial the operator
The LED display includes a flow diagram for the currently selected ‘operator algorithm’. This basically defines how many operators are used in the current patch and how the audio signal is routed through them. If you tap on this, a pop-up menu of alternative algorithms appears – in total some 42 of them – and you can switch between a simple one operator format through to a range of both simple and complex multi-operator options. These algorithms apparently include configurations that mimic all of those found in the original DX7. If you are looking to teach yourself basic Phasemaker programming, finding a preset you like and checking out which of these operator algorithms it is based upon, is a good way to get started.
The various Edit Mode tabs than allow you do some broad-brush parameter editing. So, for example, on the Quick screen, you can tweak the overall carries/modulator behaviour, set the LFO speed and adjust the chorus, delay and reverb effects. In contrast, the Program screen provides pitch envelope controls, sets legato time and adjust the balance between the six operators amongst other things.
Further LFO controls are found (surprise, surprise!) via the LFO tab and the Utility tab is where you manage patches (including saving your own). This tab also includes the rather fun Mutate! button; tap this and you can, with some useful fine-control, generate random new sounds. If you never really get into programming Phasemaker from scratch, then this is a rather easy substitute; simple start with a preset patch you like, dial in the Envs, Ratios and Character knobs with some subtle settings (so ‘random’ isn;t too random) and tap away on Mutate! until something you like turns up :-)
Tap any of the Operator buttons in the top-right area and the controls for that specific operator appear. These are the same for each operator and allow you to select from a number of oscillator waveforms, adjust the ADSR envelope (you can zoom in on this for more detailed adjustment if you need to), tweak the ‘expression’ controls (which, I think, are essentially setting how much the sound is modulated in various ways) and apply copy/paste operations if you want to move/duplicate settings from one operator to another.
As I said, this is far from a through appraisal of the programming process for Phrasemaker (I’m most certainly not qualified!) but I hope the tour does give you a clear idea of what’s on offer; in short, there are plenty of programming options and, again, RTFM the PDF documentation for the full details :-)
As I’ve already indicated, if you want a classic slice of FM synthesis, I think Phasemaker captures that sound pretty well. We do, of course, have a number of different synthesis approaches available to us – and hybrids of those different systems – and perhaps FM has a bit of a reputation as a niche sound source but, in Bram’s iteration of the method, it is capable of a suitably wide range of sounds. In addition, monitored at some suitably serious sound levels (via my studio monitors), the quality of the sound was very good indeed; this would, I suspect, be a software synth that could easily be gigged.
As well as running the stand-alone version of the app (which behaved very well), I also did some AU tests using Cubasis, AUM and Auria Pro. In all cases, Phasemaker performed flawlessly. I would imagine, therefore, that other AU hosts would also be equally problem free (although Bram does note in the App Store description that a known issue within Garageband might cause some problems in that host at present). Multiple instances were, of course, possible in all these AU hosts.
Access to the preset system worked fine via AU and, given the sensible multi-tab control layout, using the app via AU is identical to the stand-alone version. In short, this is a sophisticated, highly programmable iOS synth that gives you the whole experience in an AU plugin. Here’s hoping it is a sign of things to come for some of the other excellent iOS synth apps we currently have and love but that, at present, don’t yet offer AU; it obviously can be done.
Yes, you are perhaps going to need to be an FM synthesis fan (and not everyone is) to want to take a punt on Phasemaker but Bram deserves both a pat on the back and some user support for taking the plunge with AU for Phasemaker. The execution is very well done and it demonstrates that, when starting a new synth design is iOS AU at the front of your planning, offering a fully-programmable synth engine is a viable proposition.
I’m not sure just how many of our favourite, long-standing iOS synths, created at a time when Audiobus and IAA were the only app communication systems, might eventually get translated over to AU. I’ve a personal list of apps I’d like to see this happen for and I’m sure you can think of your own candidates for such a list…. but how many will make it when it is difficult for some developers to see how to leverage some financial return for the work involved, is another matter.
Apps like Phasemaker might, however, represent the start of a new iOS music app era; part of the first generation of apps where AU is perhaps the default ‘norm’ as a format? At present, that format is still something of a novelty – and that is perhaps why I’m paying it’s inclusion here quite the attention that I have – but don’t let that leave you thinking that’s the only reason for paying attention to Phasemaker; regardless of the software format – indeed, regardless of the the fact that it is an iOS app – this is one heck of a virtual FM synth at what is, given exactly what’s on offer, a ridiculously low price.
Phasemaker is another top-notch release from Bram Bos and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he might have in store for us next. FM might not be for everyone, but Phasemaker is well worth auditioning if you want the essence of the DX7 sound in a cheap-as-chips app.