PPG Infinite review – Wolfgang Palm’s latest iOS synth takes us to infinite depths

Download from iTunes App StoreThere has been quite a bit of pre-release buzz, but synth pioneer and all-round creative mind Wolfgang Palm has now introduced his long-awaited new synth iOS app; PPG Infinite has hit the App Store a few days ago.

Wolfgang is undoubtedly a bit of a synth super-hero to many. He was the man behind wavetable synthesis back in the 1970s but, even some 40 years later, he is still bringing new ideas to the world of synthesis. Amazingly, that includes contributing to the world of iOS music making and he already has a number of innovative iOS music apps available on the App Store including the brilliant Phonem vocal synthesizer.

His synths (hardware, desktop and iOS) are generally pretty deep (perhaps not for the faint of heart?) and the latest offering – which has been trailed for a little while – has got lots of iOS synth-heads very excited. Well, now you can let go of the anticipation and dig in…. PPG Infinite is most certainly deep but, launched at UK£19.99/US$19.99, it looks like it offers a world full of synth options for what is a pretty modest price.

PPG Infinite – another deep synth from the mind of Wolfgang Palm.

Anyway, having had just a few days over which to explore the app, and having RTFM’ed the PDF documentation, I’m absolutely certain I still don’t understand even a modest fraction of what’s going on but, as well as my guitar player’s brain allows, I’ll do my best to share a few thoughts on PPG Infinite in the form a review. Wish me luck…. :-)

Infinite basics

You can check out the demo videos below for a preview (there are some amazing sounds) but PPG Infinite requires iOS8.0 or later, is a 79MB download and comes with Audiobus, IAA and AU (yay! – the latter requires both iOS9.0 and a suitable AU host obviously) support as well as MIDI.

The synth engine contains new elements apparently and it is these that take us beyond standard wavetable-based synthesis. The key element is that the engine can generate both harmonic and inharmonic sounds (and offers considerable control over both). This should, if you are able to capitalise on the potential of the engine, give you huge sonic scope to explore.

The app ships with an impressive collection of presets that, sonically, comes in all shapes and sizes.

Also included are XY pads for sound manipulation in real-time (the Morpher), options to import sound elements from Wolfgang’s WaveGenerator and WaveMapper apps and from Phonem, a noise generator (Noiser), a custom filter element known as the Molder, a sophisticated modulation matrix, a range of effects including reverb, delay and overdrive, and multiple envelopes and LFOs.

All of this is presented via a UI that follows the style of Phenom and, if you have experience of that app, then you will not be surprised to find out that PPG Infinite’s user interface is packed full of options. As mentioned above, I make no claims to understand how all these work and interact….. Thankfully, the PDF manual offers a useful reference (at least you will know what the various controls are once you have read it even if you won’t be able to claim Infinite mastery) and Wolfgang has also released a number of videos exploring various aspects of the app’s operation.

Building blocks of Infinite

While there are plenty of details to find your way around, PPG Infinite’s top-level controls are reassuringly orgainsed across four main screens – the Morphing page, the Parameters page, the Settings & Effects page and the Browser page – and you can move between these using the buttons located top-left. Examples screenshots included here show the basic features of all four of these.

The latter two are actually pretty straightforward. In the Settings & Effects page you get various sub-panels with controls for the reverb, delay and master output levels plus a number of other panels for setting the MIDI configuration, the ‘play’ mode (polyphonic, mono, legato, etc.) and options for configuring the virtual keyboard layout (although there are further keyboard options available by tapping the small downward arrow head located to the far-left of the keyboard area itself). The effects themselves are very good and I particularly like the character of the Drive; this can be used to add some really warm overdrive to sounds.

Infinite includes very good reverb and delay options amongst it’s feature set available via the Settings & Effects page.

The Browser page is also pretty much what you would expect. It allows you to browse, and manage, the factory presets or any user presets and includes some useful ways to categories the sounds or order their display. You can also export sound banks from here if you so wish. It’s perhaps not the slickest browser UI I’ve ever seen but it works well enough.

Effects aside, the bulk of Infinite’s sound design tools are contained within the Morphing and Parameters pages. The Morphing page is where you get access to the Morpher (the primary sound sources), Molder (Infinite’s take on a filter) and Noiser (various options to blend in noise to your sound).

There are all sorts of details tucked away on this screen. For example, above the three main zones mentioned above, to the Algorithm option. This shows a mini signal path diagram and, if you tap on the label to the left of this, you can pick between a number of different algorithm options.

The engine offers a number of different algorithms for the signal chain…..

Morph me

Given the XY pad in the Morpher, there are no prizes for guessing that you can actually identify a number of different base sounds and ‘morph’ between then using the pad. Taping the Edit button within this panel allows you to edit those sound sources for both the Morpher and the Noiser XY Pad. For example, in the Morpher, you get up to five sounds and, once in Edit mode, tapping on any of these will select it and you can then use the Spectrum panel to drop-down a huge list of sound options.

The two XY pads are central to the design of Infinite as well as offering real-time options for sound manipulation.

The way these base sounds are used depends upon which axis they lie on in the XY pad. Vertically the pad morphs between their gain, while horizontally, you morph between their frequency response. Programming-wise, this does take some getting your head around, but it does bring all sorts of interesting options for sonic variation. Whether via the XY pad itself, or using the extensive modulation options, it’s not difficult to appreciate that you could create some pad sounds with plenty of ‘sound evolution’ potential as you play.

It’s from about this point that things start to get a bit scary within the Morpher. Tapping any of the four buttons located vertically down the left side of the Morphing page and you open up the 3D display editing options. This shows the sine wave tracks for each of the sounds loaded in the Morpher (you can change which of the sounds is selected within the 3D display by tapping on the XY pad) and offers you a whole host of ways to then manipulate and adjust these tracks.

For example, with the Sine 1 edit option selected, if you tap lower-left of the 3D display, you can decide whether to edit a single ‘partial’ of the wave display or all of them. Then, when you start change the various rotary knob settings on the left, you can see the waveform being altered in response.

The Sine 1 editing options allow you to dig into the basic building blocks of an Infinite sound.

In the Sine 2 options, you can get even more hands-on. Here you can essentially draw your own waveform displays. This is very easy to explore…. but, no, I had no real idea what I was doing, but it is a lot of fun and I can imagine those with a real passion for sound design having an absolute blast here. Further options are provided by the Random editor (yep, it generates some random changes to the waveform when you hit the ‘Go’ button). I’m not quite sure what the Animation panel does though…. other than offer you a different way to view the 3D display?

The Sine 2 editing option allows you to draw your own waveforms. The possibilities are…. well…. infinite.

The Molder section is Infinite’s take on a filter section. This is actually easy to use and the drop-down menu offers you a huge number of ‘filter’ types. These include some fairly standard lowpass types but also all sorts of other (less obvious) options. This is a Time-Varying Filter (TVF) so it is envelope controlled and tapping the small envelope icon button will take you to the Parameters page to end the response (more on this in a minute).

The Noiser section offers something similar to the Morpher but with noise-based sound sources rather than harmonically pitched ones. There are not quite so many options here (only three noise sources can be selected within the XY panel for example) but it is still pretty full-on.

The four large rotary knobs down the right-side of the Morpher panel include a ‘mix’ knob between the sine-based elements of the sound and the noise-based elements. You could, therefore, just use the latter for more simple ‘sound FX’ noises or to blend in some noise to the synth sounds to create percussive type sounds. There are a few of these within the presets – the Perc category – that demonstrate the possibilities here. This section of controls is rounded off with both high and low pass filters and a modulation depth control.

The Noiser can add non-pitched elements to your sound and play an important role in designing percussive sounds.

Wide parameters

If the Morphing page gives you plenty of options, then that freedom to explore is extended within the Parameters screen. The upper-centre is dominated by a bunch of almost ‘standard’ synth type controls allowing you to set the overall pitch, pan, output gain and to add some further noise in the form of the Crush control.

On the right, the two XY pads from the Morphing screen are reproduced so you can use them while making other edits. On the left are two envelope editing panels. tapping the top of either of these will open pop-up selection panels so you can select which envelope it is you wish to edit. The upper panel is for editing the four LFOs while the lower panel does everything else including the four ‘extension’ (extra envelopes that you can then use for modulation) envelopes. The XY zones allow you to use your fingers for envelope editing.

The Parameters screen allows you to configure the envelope, LFO and modulation options within the app.

Bottom-centre provides the modulation matrix and, aside from being ‘compact’ (I can imagine this might involve some squinting on a smaller iPad screen), this is pretty much an open canvas grid that lets you link a target parameter (along the top) with a specific envelope (down the sides). The upper portion of the section allows you to set the degree of modulation and the positive/negative direction.

Usefully, as you tap away on this area, the rather cryptic labels for each column are expanded upon (there is a list in the PDF manual as well). Each target parameter is actually represented by two columns in the table so you can modulate each target from two different modulation sources should you wish.

The app offers four LFOs for sound modulation as well as multiple envelopes.

A further feature here is something called ‘key balance’. I’m not sure I fully appreciate what’s happening here but the feature allows you to specify two modulation envelopes and link one to a ‘low’ note and the other to a ‘high’ note. Modulation then gradually morphs between these two envelopes based upon the pitch of the note played. As with many of the app’s features, very usefully, there are some presets examples designed to demonstrate the feature in action.

Key Balance provides a further option for modulation of sound.

The bottom line here is that, from a sound modulation perspective, PPG Infinite is very well featured. Getting your sounds to vary their timbre while you play is, therefore, simply a matter of mastering the available tools; the tools themselves are more plentiful and powerful.

Infinite possibilities?

So, by this stage, and with our respective heads probably spinning, let’s put the infinite sound design elements of Infinite to one side for a minute and focus on some more practical questions. First, does it sound good? Second, does it perform well from a technical perspective. Third, who is the app most likely to appeal to?

Well, these are fairly easy to address. In terms of sounds, yes, PPG Infinite sounds great. It’s not all ‘epic’ though because there are plenty of really quite subtle and delicate sounds amongst the palette of presets. However, there are also some monster leads, a good range of almost ‘special effects’ and a very nice selection of pads.

Used as an AU plugin, you can access all the presets with ease.

It is the last of these that is perhaps particularly impressive and that show off the nature of the synth engine at its best. If you like your pads to be complex and to evolve, then Infinite will have you covered. It’s not all pretty though as there are various pad presets that most definitely get into soundscape or sound design territory. Infinite most certainly has considerable potential in that area for those that like to roll their own.

Perhaps the only category amongst the presets that I felt could have done with some additional examples was the basses. Maybe that’s something that can be addressed in a future update or by the user community?

The app performed well as an AU plugin within Cubasis.

In terms of technical performance, I had no particular difficulties in using the app. Stand-alone, it played very nicely and was responsive. It played very nicely with my external MIDI keyboard. The app also worked fine within Audiobus (the app’s blurbs says it supports Audiobus 2 but it also worked OK in Audiobus 3 during my brief testing), both via IAA and AU (although do note it is listed under ‘I’ for Infinite rather than ‘P’ for PPG.

Used via the AU route, PPG Infinite seemed quite happy within both Cubasis and AUM in my own testing. The AU UI doesn’t offer you all the editing options of the stand-alone version but does include all the performance features. Sound creation is therefore best done in the stand-alone version and then you can load your patches into the AU version for performance duties. This is perhaps a bit of a compromise but, given just how deep this sound engine is, it is not perhaps too surprising that Wolfgang has taken this route. It is, however, great to see such a complex synth being launched with AU support from the off.

Multiple AU instances are, of course, available, and on my large format iPad Pro, a couple of instances seemed to chew up about 25% of my CPU. This will vary based upon the number of notes being played and the complexity of the patch of course, but it does suggest that PPG Infinite, whilst deep, is reasonably manageable in terms of hardware resources. The App Store blurb doesn’t, however, specify the minimum spec iPad required to run the app.

If Infinite is quite enough, how about Infinite x 2?

So, finally, who might Infinite suit? Well, if your synth use generally focuses on finding the closest preset to the sound you want, playing the part, and moving on, then I guess Infinite is perhaps not the most obvious choice. In addition, I don’t really think this is a synth for the programming novice. There is perhaps just a little too much going on under the hood.

However, I think two categories of potential users with lap it up. First, if you do like your synth engines to be deep and you like the ability to build your own unique sounds, then Infinite is up there with the deepest that iOS has to offer. Second, if your musical tastes lie in the sound design/ambient soundscape (or related) genres, the Infinite is also going to have lots of appeal. For straight up basic dance sounds, there are perhaps easier ways (apps) to get instant results but, for complex sounds, or sounds that can come from left-field, PPG Infinite has a lot to offer.

The bottom line here is that perhaps PPG Infinite is not a synth for every iOS music maker…. but, for the hard-core programmers and sound designers, there is a whole weird and wonderful world of sound creation to get lost in here.

In summary

If deep and powerful synths are the thing that get your musical muse flowing, then PPG Infinite is most certainly going to be on your ‘most wanted’ list. At UK£19.99/US$19.99, it’s a serious investment (well, in iOS app terms) but I suspect that’s a good thing; the app is deep enough to warrant a bit of commitment in order to grasp how the complex sound design options can be put to best use.

Like Phenom, PPG Infinite is also a bit of a glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most intriguing synth designers. If you think you are brave enough, then Infinite will, I suspect, reward you with some fabulous sonic surprises. To get an initial taste, checkout the videos below and hit the App Store download button to find out more.

PPG Infinite

Download from iTunes App Store

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