VirSyn will be well known to the majority of computer-based musicians whether you work on the desktop or a mobile platform such as iOS. The company have an extensive portfolio of iOS music apps covering a number of different synths, audio effects and a dedicated arpeggiator app.
Many of these apps are iOS-sized ports of VirSyn’s desktop virtual instruments and effects and I’ve reviewed a good number of them here on the blog over the last three years or so. I think it is fair to say that, without exception, the iOS apps are of a high standard, good at what they do and, on the whole, very easy to find your way around. I think it is also fair to say that VirSyn’s apps – and in particular their synth apps – have something of a distinctive sound. Yes, they can cover all the usual electronic music bases (er… and basses) but there is something about the synthesis algorithms that gives these instruments a ‘VirSyn’ signature.
VirSyn newest addition to this impressive catalogue arrived on the App Store over the week-end; Poseidon. And, with a tag line that suggests the app offers ‘the ocean of sound’, I’m sure lots of iOS synth fans will be very keen to get their hands on the app and dive in (doh!). The app arrives as a 165MB download requiring iOS8.0 or later and is iPad-only. It comes with full MIDI support, Audiobus 2 and IAA support and an introductory launch price tag of just UK£7.99.
And, if you look at the various screenshots – and the trailer video embedded below – it also comes with a very Nave-esq 3D wavetable display, suggestive at least that elements of the underlying synth engine may not be a million miles away from Waldorf’s ‘classic’ iOS synth. So, should iOS synth-heads be preparing themselves to undertake a Poseidon adventure? Let’s find out….
When you first start Poseidon, the Wave tab is selected (from the Wave, Syn, Arp and FX options located top-left) and the obvious focal point is the large 3D waveform graphic that dominates the upper half of the display. Like Nave, this waveform – where you can see frequency, amplitude and time – is central to the sound that the synth engine eventually creates. You can use various finger touches/gestures to zoom in/out and rotate the waveform display if you want a different view.
The app ships with a large collection of these fundamental waveforms and, as well as there being a global preset system that allows you to save all the settings for a single patch, you can also load a different waveforms into an existing patch. With the Wave tab selected, located on the left edge just above the virtual keyboard, you can see the name of the current waveform. Tap this and a selection menu appears with categories to allow you to find the starting point that you require.
There are a huge range of options here, both in terms of number but also in terms of the nature of the sound. There is something interesting in every category depending upon your musical needs but I particularly liked some of the orchestral and vocal options. No, Poseiden isn’t perhaps going to be an obvious choice if you want ‘real sounding’ strings (try iSymphonic Orchestra for that) – there is a definite ‘synth’ element to the sound – but for electronic, dance, soundbed or other styles, where you want synthesised string sounds (or other synthesised orchestral sounds), it does a very nice job indeed.
In terms of other ‘first impressions’, this will feel like a pretty familiar environment to anyone who has used VirSyn’s other iOS music apps. Along the top strip are the already mentioned ‘tabs’, the preset selection/management area (just tap here and a preset pop-up will appear), VirSyn’s excellent ‘throw the dice and randomise me a patch’ button and then various general options for the internal recording feature, the Settings menu and the on-screen help system.
Underneath the waveform display is the virtual keyboard and, for the Syn, Arp and FX tabs, the waveform selection menu is replaced by an option to confine the virtual keyboard (and, indeed, any external MIDI keyboard you have connected) to a specific key/scale combination; no duff notes allowed :-). The virtual keyboard also responds to gestures if you ‘wobble’ your finger (vibrato) or slide up/down.
I have synned
Tapping the Syn tab replaces the waveform display with a more typical set of synth engine controls. There are actually seven sections to this screen – Pitch, LFO, Time+EG1, Spectrum, Filter+EG2, Pan and Volume – and, these are also tabbed so, if you tap on one of the section, you see a detailed set of controls for that section of the engine. However, rather cleverly, each of the seven sections also has a couple of controls available on-screen at all times and, as these are perhaps the key controls for each section, you can instantly get at a good number of the engine’s most important parameters. Note also that the app includes a MIDI Learn feature (toggle this on/off via the Settings menu) so you can configure some control from an external hardware device if you prefer.
Having only spent a limited amount of time with the app so far, I wouldn’t begin to claim that I’ve fully grasped the subtleties of the synth engine and its possibilities. However, the onscreen ‘help’ function is useful for explaining what each control is supposed to do. By the time you have tabbed through all seven of the Syn screen’s options, there are actually quite a lot of parameters to play with but, if detailed programming is not your thing, then I think you will rather like those two ‘summary’ parameters shown for each section; this certainly makes Poseidon accessible to those less confident in their programming chops without making the control set in any way limited for those with a synth tweaking PhD.
As shown in the various screenshots, each section provides some interesting options. So, whether you want some subtle detuning to fatten a sound up, or something more extreme to get your listeners feeling harmonically uncomfortable, the Pitch section has you covered. Equally, in the LFO section, you can configure the behaviour of the two LFOs in various ways. Then, in a number of the other sections, you can link certain other parameters of the synth engine to be modulated by either of the LFOs (or the envelope generators or a standard set of MIDI CC options such as velocity, mod wheel or expression).
In terms of controlling how a sound exploits the different portions of the chosen waveform, the Time+EG1 section is where to explore, changing how the engine scans across the waveform to create sound. You can create all sorts of interesting changes by tweaking the controls in here. Perhaps the only downside is that you have to flip back to the Wave tab to visualize what you are doing when you first start to explore how the synth works. However, you soon get used to what’s going on.
The Spectrum section influences how the synth engine samples the waveform as it moves across it while the Filter section… well, filters the sound…. In fact, VirSyn make quite a play about the filter used in Poseidon – what they term an F-Domain Filter – and, no, I’m not exactly sure what that actually means but, with a bunch of different filter modes available, and a good range of controls to tweak, it certainly seems to offer plenty of additional sound-shaping options.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Volume section isn’t just the master volume control; you also get the ADSR controls here and the ability to modulate the
‘arping on abut it
If you have used VirSyn’s other synth apps – or Arpeggist, the dedicated arpeggiator app that can be used with any iOS synth – then the Arp screen is Poseidon will be instantly familiar. As a half-decent guitar player, I’m a keyboard player with four thumbs, so I’m fond of a good arpeggiator (it makes me feel like I can actually play a keyboard) and VirSyn do this particularly well.
The Arp screen therefore includes lanes for notes, adding ties (for notes longer than a single step), accent, octave and key. The last of these lanes relates to the keys (notes) you are holding down and provides a further way to trigger their sequencing. Do note that this setting interacts with the Note lane in some quite interesting ways… it does take a while to get your head around this but it does make for some very interesting – and very flexible – pattern creation options.
You get up to 32 steps in your arpeggio patterns but you can change this to any range up to that number simply by tapping and dragging along the upper strip. If you want some 13 step patterns (or some other odd amount) then feel free to see what it might throw up…. :-) Some arp presets are included to get you started and, here, as elsewhere in the app, you get plenty of VirSyn’s dice icons if you just feel like getting lucky. The bottom line here, however, is that this is a powerful arpeggiator environment with plenty of creative possibilities.
Repeat after me
Like the Syn tab, the FX tab is actually split into a number of further tabbed sections. In this case, it supplies you with seven different effects options; Distortion, EQ, Phaser, Flanger, Delay, Chorus and Reverb. Again, elements of these effects will be familiar from other VirSyn apps but they are presented in a novel way here and I do like the combination of two key controls and then further depth within each of the sub-tabs.
Of the effects themselves, I particularly liked the Distortion (with a range of different distortion types available to choose between) and the Delay. The latter has a simple enough control set but can actually create some very cool repeats. All the other effects are, however, very useable and, even if you started with a somewhat uninspiring sound from the rest of the synth engine, you could easily spice it up here if required.
Sink or swim?
So what does this combination of technical stuff actually sound like? Well, very good indeed actually. Given the diversity of the underlying waveforms supplied, unsurprisingly, Poseidon can cover quite a lot of sonic ground. There are some decent bass, drum and percussion sounds but, for me at least, Poseidon’s real strengths were more in the synth, string and ambient categories.
Indeed, the synth engine seems best exploited when the sounds get some breathing space to make use of the time domain in the source waveforms – that is, sounds that could evolve as you held a note or three – and here the comparison with Nave is perhaps at its closest. No, they are not the same, but their strengths lie in similar areas of synthetic sound and I think Poseidon would prove very popular with those looking to create synth-based pads and textures.
On a technical level, I did experience a few minor oddities with the first release of Poseidon. For example, on my iPad Air 1 test device with iOS9.1 installed, when I first launched the app in standalone mode, I could not get it to accept MIDI in data from my external keyboard and the Background Audio setting seemed to re-set itself after a while and when the app was re-launched. Finally, while the app seemed very happy working within Audiobus, it did go belly-up on me once while working via IAA and using Cubasis as my IAA host.
Thankfully, v.1.0.2 has now appeared on the App Store (hence this small update to the review) and the MIDI and Background Audio issues have been addressed. It’s great to see a developer being so prompt in dealing with these kinds of initial gremlins.
None of these would be deal-breaker issues for me however and, if these are general issues rather than just representing quirks of my own setup, then I’d be very confident that VirSyn will address them in a prompt and timely fashion. Any of these minor teething difficulties are more than outweighed by some brilliant sound options, an interface that encourages even the synth novice to experiment (whether by design or just for the heck of it) and yet holds enough parameters to keep the more experienced synth fan happy.
It would be hard for any long-standing iOS synth collector to argue that they ‘need’ another synth app and, if you are already a regular Nave user, then perhaps you might think that you have this approach to synthesis and sound creation already covered. However, with a very competitive launch price, Poseidon is a very tempting option and one I suspect even owners of well-stocked iPads are going to find it difficult to resist. Nave aside, the waveform-based synth engine is different enough from the majority of the virtual synth masses to enable you to create something just a little different….
VirSyn have done something pretty neat with the interface design here as well. The Syn and FX screens, in particular, make the app approachable enough for even the more novice synth programmer. They ‘hide’ some of the controls and leave you with a subset of key controls to explore… but, when you are ready, you can dip in further.
The minor technical issues mentioned above aside (the most obvious of which have already been dealt with by the v.1.0.2 update), my only other comment is that it would be awesome if you could import your own waveforms into the app. That’s not possible at present (at least, I think that’s the case) but it would make a brilliant addition that I’m sure many potential users would be very keen to explore if it was technically possible to implement in some future update.
Like Nave, I’m not sure Poseidon would be a synth that every iOS musician would pull out the bag every day for use on every track. However, if you create music built on pads or evolving sound textures (and most electronic music makers will have call for these kinds of sounds in some projects), this would be a great tool to have around.
It is still possible to get a sense of the app belonging to the VirSyn synth family (and that comparison to Nave is an obvious one), but Poseidon is also very much it’s own thing; an interesting combination of sounds and a very clever user interface. I’m sure iOS synth app addicts will be more than happy to add it to their synth app arsenal and I’d have no problems recommending Poseidon to any iOS synth fan, newbie or old-hand. And, at the launch price, it represents a heck of a good deal…. if you are fully signed up for Appaholics Anonymous and you know you are eventually going to succumb anyway, then get your trunks on quick and have a dip in VirSyn’s ocean of sound :-)