So, have you got synth fatigue yet? Perhaps if you are an iOS musician of a few years standing, that’s certainly a possibility as the App Store is not short of an iOS synth app or three. OK, so amongst the many, there are some that are fairly forgettable but, equally, as I tried (and probably failed) to summarise recently in my synth app roundup, there are also a large number that are really very good indeed.
JimAudio – with developer Dmitrij (Jim) Pavlov at the helm – have now offered another contender to consider. Poison-202 is a vintage-style iOS synth, inspired by some of the classic synths from the 80s and 90s. The app arrives with universal support, IAA and MIDI included (although the latter is perhaps not as fully-featured as on some iOS synth apps). Apparently, Audiobus and AU support are in development although not included in this initial release.
The app requires iOS6.0 or later and, as a stand-alone synth app, would probably run pretty well on almost any iOS hardware capable of running that version of iOS (that is, I don’t think it is that much of a resource hog). The download is 8MB so, for most folk, space will not be a problem. Oh, and it is priced at UK£7.99/US$9.99…. pretty much in the middle of the iOS synth app range.
What’s your poison?
So what’s Poison-202 all about? Well, as indicated above, while this isn’t a virtual clone of any specific ‘classic’ synth, Jim is very much trying to pay homage to the synth sounds from the 80s and 90s and that might have been found on tracks from The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Kraftwerk and Daft Punk amongst others. Even without listening to the demo sounds in the video embedded below, if you know your synths, then you have probably already got a reasonable idea of what to expect from Poison-202.
In terms of the synth engine, we have 2 main oscillators (each with a choice from 5 waveforms including a ‘Super Saw’ form that offers seven saw oscillators together and that can be detuned), a simple ‘sub’ oscillator and a noise generator. These four sound sources can, of course, be individually toggled on/off and blended to suit. The two main oscillators can be switched between parallel and series operation.
Also included in the spec are two filters and two amplitude envelopes, pitch envelopes and options for ring and sync modulations. You also get two LFOs that can be cross-modulated if required. And while the modulation options are perhaps not as flexible as on some high-end iOS synths, the LFOs can be directed at the pitch, filter, amplifier or pulse width modulation elements of the engine to create plenty of ‘motion’ within your sounds.
A simple 3-band EQ is included alongside a choice of digital effects that include distortion, bit-crushing, flanger, delay, panning delay and reverb. A limiter can be toggled on/off across the main output. A basic arpeggiator is also included you also get virtual pitch wheel and mod wheel options alongside the virtual piano keyboard, while the latter can also be set to operate in ‘scale’ mode. This allows you to limit the available notes to a specific key/scale combination for easier playing (and fewer duff notes).
Looks like poison
In terms of the UI, access to all these features are organised across four main screens; Osc1, Osc2, LFO/FX and Patch. These are accessed via the four buttons located far-left and tapping any one of these simply switches what’s displayed in the upper half of the screen to match your selection. Throughout, the styling is colourful but, to my eyes at least, also rather slick and tasteful. On my large format iPad Pro it looks great and is very easy to use. However, having also given the app a workout on my iPhone 6S, it translates to the smaller screen pretty well; compact but still useable.
Aside from their red and blue colour coding, the two oscillator screens are identical. Each is split into a number of sub-panels with controls divided into sections for the oscillator itself, the pitch envelope, the filter (TVF=time variable filter), the amplifier (TVA=time variable amplifier) and options for cross-modulation.
There is perhaps nothing too revolutionary amongst any of this lot and the ‘two oscillator plus sub and noise’ is not something you couldn’t find on a number of other iOS synths. That said, for my guitarist’s sized brain, this is very much my sort of synth to program; enough options to make things interesting but not so many that I’ll get bogged down or lost amongst the endless possibilities.
The LFO/FX screen includes two identical LFOs but with options (in LFO2’s panel) for cross modulation between them. This screen also includes the very simple – but effective – sub and noise options. You can set the sub to operate either one or two octaves below the played note.
The effects section includes a reverb (always available) and then three banks of two effects where you are allowed to use one effect from each bank. So, for example, you can have either the chorus or the flanger (or neither) but not both. This sounds like it might be a little limiting but, in practice, its not and does help to keep the CPU load in check. If you do need further effects then simply load up Poison-202 into your favourite IAA host (Cubasis or AUM for instance) and put some of the excellent iOS effects apps you own to good use.
And, if you flip to the Patch screen, then you can check on the CPU load the app is generating (there is a CPU meter at the top) as well as tweak all sorts of other settings. This includes the parallel/series option for the audio routing through the two oscillators but also options such as solo, legato, portmento, pitch bend range, the velocity-based response of the filter and amplifier envelopes, the mod wheel behaviour, the three band EQ, the output level and engage that limiter that sits across the main output.
The bottom half of the display contains the virtual keyboard, the patch selection panel, a button to toggle the arpeggiator on/off and the Settings button. Tap this and you get a further screen with a series of global settings options. These include the app’s MIDI settings, the configuration of the arpeggiator and the keyboard layout. I couldn’t find a ‘hold’ option anywhere and, unless I’ve just missed something, that might be a nice feature to add at some stage.
In terms of the arp, its perhaps not in the same league as things like Thesys or the arps within a number of the VirSyn synths, but it is neat and tidy with very useful note length and swing options to get your arpeggiated chords grooving a little. I’m an arp fan (because my keyboard skills suck so badly) and I enjoyed what Poison-202 had to offer on this front.
The keyboard configurations are now something that is pretty common amongst iOS synths (and one of the very useful things a touchscreen offers – re-configurable keyboard layouts – even if it is only a feature that actually overcomes a shortcoming of touchscreens – that a virtual piano keyboard is difficult to play – in the first place). You can re-size the keys here as well as select a suitable key/scale combination. In terms of the scales offered, there is an excellent range.
Tapping the central patch panel opens the list of patches to select from. This was perhaps one area where I felt things could be made a little easier for the user. You are presented with a fairly large scrollable pop-up list…. but it only shows 5 patches at any one time. If what you are looking for is 150 patches away, that’s quite some scrolling. An option for a larger pop-up and with smaller patch name text, or access to specific banks, might be useful for quicker switching.
The app ships with about 150 preset patches and there are also 100 ‘user’ slots into which you can write your own creations (using the Write button). The Patch screen also includes buttons for copying and deleting patches and also renaming them.
Share your poison
As indicated earlier, at this point, Poison-202 has MIDI support and IAA support but no Audiobus or AU. The latter two are, apparently, on the way. I can imagine the app working well as an AU plugin given the (fairly) streamlined control set. Presumably, in an AU host, you wouldn’t need to see the virtual keyboard section as the host (or an external keyboard) could provide that?
I tried the IAA support using both Cubasis and AUM. Aside from the fact that the app doesn’t – as yet – include an IAA transport/switching panel, it actually worked very well in both hosts. I was able to record MIDI within Cubasis, for example, and Poison-202 played it back without a hitch.
In terms of MIDI support, I had no great difficulty getting the app to work with an external keyboard for note entry or pitch/mod wheel response. However, I’m sure that the MIDI support could be enhanced. I got things working OK within both AUM and Cubasis but, within the latter, there was a certain amount of guesswork involved. In addition, as far as I can see, beyond what’s available via the pitch and mod wheels, there is no support for MIDI-based automation of Poison-202’s parameters. That would be good to see at some stage alongside side a MIDI Learn system.
Poisoned by sound
So, we have a rather nice user interface that is not too intimidating but still provides a synth engine with enough about it to be interesting to program and we have a technical spec that, while perhaps still requiring some fleshing out, seems solid with a suitable IAA host. That’s all great…. but how does Poison-202 actually sound?
Well, I like much of what I’ve just summarised – this is a cool looking app with a very nice feature set – but I think I’ve saved the best until last; Poison-202 sounds great. OK, there is perhaps nothing here that you might not have heard before from some of your better iOS synth emulations but that in itself takes nothing away from how Poison itself sounds…. This is a very solid virtual synth that, sonically, punches well above its UK£7.99/US$9.99 asking price.
Whether you want big leads (e.g. Acid Lead), booming or aggressive basses (e.g. Insane Bass), delicate bells (e.g. Bells), cheesy organs (e.g. Organ 2), mellow electric pianos (e.g. E.Piano 2) or monster raving synths (e.g. Rave Hoover) or… well, you get the idea…. Poison-202 seems to do it with ease. And, with the output fed through some decent monitors or a keyboard amp, the sound is big; this is an app that, should you choose, you could easily crank up in a live performance context.
And, because the synth engine itself hits (for me at least) a sweet spot between the number of features and ease of use, even if one of the 150 supplied presets doesn’t quite get you where you want to be, tweaking your own is not such a big deal.
The bottom line here is that Poison-202 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to sound. Yes, iOS does have bigger and better, but as a synth workhorse with a broad palette of very useable sounds suitable for a range of electronic music styles, Poison-202 is a very capable option.
In a number of respects, Poison-202 reminds me of another iOS synth that I also like a lot; Arctic Pro Synth from One Red Dog. Like Arctic (which I think is very underrated and I seriously hope continues to get some TLC from its developer), Poison-202 delivers a big sound from a compact and inexpensive package. The UI is a perfect fit for iOS and the engine design will not make your brain burn.
If I was a newbie iOS musician, I think Poison-202 would be a pretty good candidate for ‘first serious iOS synth’. OK, there are some technical features that could be added to the spec sheet – Audiobus, AU and fuller MIDI spec for example – but, even as it stands, this is a versatile and functional synth at a pocket money price.
If your synth app collection already includes rather too many of the usual suspects, then perhaps Poison-202 will not offer you something you don’t already have covered. If so, and you are not too badly bitten by the collector bug, then perhaps you will just move on by. However, if your iOS synth addiction is fully developed, then Poison-202 is most certainly going to be of interest. Sonically, while perhaps not offering anything particularly new or unique, it still delivers the goods; what it can do, it does well.
If you are still building a collection of iOS music apps – synths included – this is most certainly one to audition. It’s a great design that offers some great sounds and is pretty easy to find your way around. As an introduction to synth programming, it would have enough options to keep you happy for a while yet not be too difficult to get started with.
And, of course, let’s not ignore the price. At just UK£7.99/US$9.99, for many folk (i.e. people who can afford an iPad or iPhone in the first place), this might well represent a casual purchase; pass on the coffee/pastry combo for a couple of days and treat yourself to a very good iOS synth instead.
Jim has already indicated that he has a clear development plan for Poison-202. I sincerely hope that he gets enough support for this initial release to help drive that development plan forward. Poison-202 is already very good – and very good value – but with just a few additions (especially that AU support) could easily become a very firm workhorse favourite for many. Poison-202 therefore comes highly recommended.