Phenom review – is this a vocalist in an app from Wolfgang Palm?

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Phonem logo 1There are already a few interesting iOS music apps that are provide some element of voice synthesis with the likes of Voice Synth and VoxSyn perhaps being the most obvious candidates if this is technology that appeals to your musical needs. However, synth pioneer and all-round creative mind Wolfgang Palm has now introduced a further very interesting option; Phonem.

In fact, Phonem might already be familiar to some iOS musicians as it exists in a desktop format and has proved very popular. Designed originally as just a voice synthesis engine – albeit a very flexible and powerful one – in fact the software can also turn its hand in a more general synthesiser role. However, the original design was also quite CPU intensive and Wolfgang wasn’t sure that it would be easily ported over to iOS….  However, with some optimisation of the underlying algorithms, that has now been achieved….  and, if you are happy meet the UK£14.99/US$19.99 asking price, you can now run it on your iPad.

Phonem requires iOS7.0 or later, is a 30MB download and comes with Audiobus, IAA and AU (the later requires both iOS9.0 and a suitable AU host obviously) support as well as MIDI. And while the engine has been refined compared to the VST/AU desktop plugin, the options and sounds are, I believe, the same.

Phenom - Wolfgang Palm's voice synth in an iPad format.

Phenom – Wolfgang Palm’s voice synth in an iPad format.

I’ve not used the desktop version so this was my first encounter with the software. The feature set is interesting though so I was keen to hear just what the app might have to offer. The key element of the sound engine is a large set of phonemes (the sound building blocks from which spoken and sung words are formed) and a system that assists the user in stringing these together – and tweaking their sound and pitch – so that vocalised phrases (both spoken and sung) can be constructed. The phoneme database is dominated by sounds from the English language but there are also a small number of German and French ones included also….  if you want your voice synth to be multi-lingual, then Phonem is happy to tick that box :-)

Having now spent a little time with Phenom, before getting into the rest of the review, I think I ought to preface it with two comments. First, this is a pretty deep app. I’m not going to make any claims about having reached ‘expert’ status with it at this stage. However, I’ve done enough to realise that, while you can achieve some very realistic vocal sounds, constructing a ‘real’ sounding phrase does take some time. ‘Synth’ style vocals are a much more realistic proposition, even for those (like me) who are still finding their way around the app.

The presets are well worth exploring.... and demonstrate that Phenom is not just about vocal sounds.

The presets are well worth exploring…. and demonstrate that Phenom is not just about vocal sounds.

I guess I’d expected this first thing… but the second observation is something that came as a bit of a surprise (although perhaps that’s down to me rather than how Phenom has been presented in its promotional materials); Phenom is actually a rather interesting synthesizer… and by that, I mean the synth engine, based as it is on phonetic sounds, is capable of some very cool non-vocal (or vocal-tinged) sounds. While I’d expected the app to be predominately about creating vocal sounds, in fact, I spent just as much time with it creating pads or leads or special effects. The bottom line here is that, if you are interested in slightly left-field synth sounds, but perhaps not really looking for a vocal synth, don’t pass on Phenom without giving it a serious look; it’s a vocal synth engine most certainly, but not just a synth for vocals.

Lung capacity

Let’s start with some basics…. As commented above, Phenom is, at its heart, a synth engine and while that engine does have some very distinctive elements to it (more on these in a minute), it also has some fairly familiar elements. You can, therefore, think of Phenom is some standard synth terms.

For example, it starts with a sound source and, while this is perhaps one of the more unique elements, the app can also use wavetable and sample-based sound sources if the user prefers. It includes a filter section (although this is designed more to model parts of the human voice system rather than a more conventional synth filter). There are multiple envelope and LFO options and a modulation matrix so you can modulate the various synth engine parameters much as you might in any synth. And Phenom also includes delay/reverb and overdrive/distortion effects so you can enhance your basic sound in various ways.

The app comes with Audiobus, IAA and, as shown here via AUM, AU support.

The app comes with Audiobus, IAA and, as shown here via AUM, AU support.

And as this is an iOS app, you also get the usual array of iOS music technology. Audiobus is supported as is IAA. MIDI support is included so you can play and control the app from an external MIDI keyboard/controller if you wish. A virtual keyboard is also included and, as is now typical on many of the better iOS music apps, that is customisable so you can edit the layout to avoid notes that might be outside the required key/scale. There are also two touchscreen X/Y pads with user-defined parameter control for real-time sound tweaking. I did have a couple of occasions when, while editing a patch, Phenom went AWOL on me….  but, overall, it was a pretty smooth user experience.

And, particularly impressive straight off the bat…. Phenom also comes with Audio Units support. Providing you are using a suitable AU host (and I tried it within Cubasis, AUM and MultitrackStudio without any issues), then you can run Phenom as an AU instrument plugin… and, yes, run multiple instances of it in the same project.

The only downside here is that the (generally) smaller AU windows provided by most hosts mean that you don’t see the full set of Phenom’s controls on a single screen. You can still do basic editing but the sensible and pragmatic advice given in the PDF manual is simply to do your sound editing in the ‘full’ version of the app and then load the AU version in your AU host when you actually want to play the patches you have created. This approach worked fine for me.

Find your voice

So what about those unique ‘vocal’ elements that sit amongst these various elements of the overall synth engine? Well, most of these are to be found in Timeline Page that’s accessed from the waveform button located top-left of the main screen. There is, frankly, quite a lot going on here and, yes, I’m certain that I have not yet got my head around it all…. but, if we focus on the voice synthesis role of Phenom, this screen is essentially where you define just how a string of text is translated by the app into a spoken or sung voice.

You can type in your own text and get Phonem to 'sing' it for you....

You can type in your own text and, with a bit of work, get Phonem to ‘sing’ it for you….

For example, if you tap the New Txt button, you can then type in a phrase. Phenom will then convert that phrase in phonetic sounds and arrange these along the phrase timeline. You can then trigger the phrase from the virtual keyboard….

So far, so good…. but unless you simply want the most robotic of vocal ‘hooks’ to add to your project, it’s from here that the work actually begins as you then have to go through each phonetic sound adjusting its various parameters – length, excitation, harmonic structure (the rather interesting central panel), the transition between adjacent phonemes (the Blend and Step controls) and other tonal/character parameters (Cutoff, Aspir and FricTV).

The phoneme database includes a number of different male and female voices to choose between.

The phoneme database includes a number of different male and female voices to choose between.

Flip to the Track panel and you can then also create pitch variation (the upper curve; the lower one is a modulation curve that you can send to the modulation matrix to change the character of the sound through the phrase) and, while this is most obviously where your robot voice will start to sound more like singing, even when we speak there are natural variations in pitch to everyone’s voice…. Again, some work on pretty much a phoneme by phoneme basis is required…. and do note that you have to enable the Pitch TR button on the Parameters Page (where the modulation matrix is found) in order for this to take effect.

The Track panel allows you to edit the pitch curve for your phrase to turn it into 'singing'.

The Track panel allows you to edit the pitch curve for your phrase to turn it into ‘singing’.

There are other options available also. For example, if you tap the Voice setting, you can get a drop-down menu for different voices (two female, three male and an ‘effects’ option). These relate to different section of the phonetic library and can, of course, be used to change the character of the voice. You can tweak this at the level of an individual phonem or ‘globally’ using the Transf (transform) button. You can also use the Phoneme Selector panel to manually pick a phoneme if you don’t like what the app has selected for you in each case….

OK, so this brief description most certainly isn’t a comprehensive overview of the options available or the process involved in creating your vocal phrase, but I hope it does suggest that – brilliant though the technology underlying Phenom is – if you want something a little more than a robotic vocal phrase, there is some ‘crafting’ to be done with the various tools at your disposal.

Preset pleasures

However, as I suggested earlier, while vocal sounds might be the highlight offering, Phenom is actually something more than that; it can also be a source of non-vocal sounds. And while this is never going to be what you might call a conventional synth, you don’t have to spend too much time browsing through the presets to find some suitably intriguing (and, yes, downright weird) sounds that ought to be right up the street of many a more experimental iOS musician.

The modulation matrix provides all sorts of interesting options in terms of creating tonal changes within your Phenom patches.... be they vocal or non-vocal in nature.

The modulation matrix provides all sorts of interesting options in terms of creating tonal changes within your Phenom patches…. be they vocal or non-vocal in nature.

For example, pad sounds such as Fulmino or lead sounds such as Fat Sync Wave or 24dB Bass (guess? yep, a bass patch) demonstrate that Phenom can do something (almost) conventional. There are also some excellent special effects (sound design?) sounds such as Smashing or UFOs All Around Us. Dig into these (and other) presets and you begin to get a sense of what the app is capable of and also how the various elements offered by the synth engine are used to create these types of sounds.

Many of these presets are built using the phonetic elements of the app (although you also have the wavetable options that I’ve not really covered here) and use some simple (but very effective) looping (much as you might set loop points in a sample to create sustained elements) to create sustained sounds…. and these are then modulated to create a sense of movement.

Thankfully, there is a full PDF manual available for Phenom and, while this is of the ‘reference’ type rather than the ‘tutorial’ type, it is most certainly worth a read. Even if it still leaves you with some questions that need answering, at least you will know what the questions are once you have had a read J

Does Phenom talk to you?

If synth-based voices are something that you like to use in your music production, then Phonem is most certainly something to add to your ‘most wanted’ list as you build your iOS music app collection. It looks great, offers lots of control options and the sounds can go from the subtle to the bonkers with all stops in between.

The app includes effects options and a sophisticated MIDI spec for external control.

The app includes effects options and a sophisticated MIDI spec for external control.

The qualifier is that creating your own vocal phrases from scratch is not something for the feint-hearted. If you want your synthetic vocals in an instant then look at one of the vocoder-based apps. However, if you are prepared to dig in and craft out that perfect vocal hook line, then Phonem has the tools to do it.

This does, of course, mean that Phenom is perhaps going to appeal to a very specific niche audience….   but, in fact, it perhaps appeals to two different (but maybe overlapping) niche audiences as it is also something that the more experimental synth-head would find appealing. OK, it’s not something I’d put as a ‘first synth app’ candidate…. but if you like to program, and you like exploring unconventional forms of synthesis, then Phenom will also have something interesting to offer.

In summary

To answer the question I posed in the title of this post, is Phenom a vocalist in an app? well, yes…  and then no. I could certainly imagine using the app to craft a short vocal hook for an EDM or experimental electronic track. However, I think it would be a pretty brave soul who took on the challenge of attempting to create a full vocal performance for a song – with a verse/chorus structure – especially if they wanted that vocal performance to sound close to realistic. In fairness to Wolfgang, I’m pretty sure that’s not how he envisaged Phenom being used by the majority of owners….

That said, Phonem is one of those rare things in music software…  it is both fun to use (if somewhat beguiling) and (in the right musical context) very creative. Yes, it is very much a niche product but, at the UK£14.99/US$19.99 asking price, not so expensive that interested iOS musicians couldn’t feel able to take a bit of a punt. If that sounds like you, check out the video demonstrations provided below and then hit the download button to find out more via the App Store.

Phonem





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    Comments

    1. I bought this on impulse and can see how clever the app is, but at the moment it’s almost too difficult for a mere dabbler like me to use properly. I don’t mind putting in effort, it’s just that I get the feeling I’d need to close more of the huge gap between myself and the developer’s knowledge to get this app working as I’d like. Maybe I’ll get close enough, over time, but right now it seems more like work and less like fun.

    2. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ve got Phenom written all over, where it should be Phonem?
      Maybe an autocorrect problem? Could influence web searches to your site…

    3. I got this app mostly for the synth path, rather than the vocal one. According to the spec you can import patches from wave generator. I figured that this way I would indirectly have an AU wave generator. However I haven’t so far figured out how to do it. Phonem can import patches in WTC/TCS format, but I don’t see anything to the “export” part in wave generator.
      Has anyone managed to achieve a transfer from another PPG app to Phonem?
      The worst thing about wynths not supporting AU is that your DAW cannot save the state of a synth in a project (not to mention other IAA shortcomings such as app not opening, app not listed in the IAA instruments). I love the PPG sounds and accessing them as Cubasis plugins would be a great leap forward

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