As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Embertone – with collaboration from Blue Mangoo (a developer well know to iOS musicians through their iFretless apps) – have released a new virtual saxophone instrument for iOS. Creating realistic sounding solo instruments from samples can be quite a challenge. Sensual Sax is a sample-based virtual instrument any is launched at a fairly modest UK£3.99/US$4.99 price point.
Embertone’s background is in desktop virtual instruments and they have a line of titles available. A good number of these share a couple of characteristics; they are keenly priced and perhaps best described as ‘niche’ in terms of the instrument selections. The desktop version of Sensual Sax has been around for a few years and this port represents Embertone’s first foray into the world of iOS. Presumably, if it proves a success, we might see other titles receive the same treatment.
Recreating something as nuanced as a solo string or wind instrument – guitar, violin, trumpet or saxophone – as a sample-based virtual instrument is a challenge… and perhaps more of a challenge that doing the same thing for a keyboard-based instrument or drums/percussion. However, more detailed sampling – combining both velocity layers and multiple performance articulations – is one of the technical approaches that can help. Providing your software front-end then makes it easy to ‘perform’ by exploiting these various subtleties, then you might get close to ‘the real thing’.
On the desktop, that process is made easier (from a technical perspective at least) because storage space is pretty much unlimited; developers can dig as deep as they like in terms of the sampling used. For iOS, however, multi-GB sample libraries are more difficult to justify given the restricted storage space available.
That’s not to say we are not seeing some advances on this front though and we do have some excellent sample-based virtual instruments available in apps such as SampleTank and iSymphonic Orchestra (for example). In the main, the sampling is less detailed (although Crudebyte’s Colossus Piano is a clear example that defies that statement) and developers are also making use of other approaches in terms of sample manipulation on playback in order to ‘up’ the realism they can squeeze out of this lighter sample load.
When it comes to brass sound, we also have the excellent iFretless Brass and iFretless Sax from Blue Mangoo. Which does, of course, make it all the more interesting that Hans Andersen and Blue Mangoo have been involved with the development of Sensual Sax with Embertone…..However, Hans tells me that he is excited about the release because this is a new engine and not based upon the code from his iFretless series. It uses a more sophisticated approach and shares elements of the sampler technology found in the recent Drum Session app.
At a technical level, the app is universal, supports MIDI in/out and offers Audiobus, IAA and (yay!) AU support from the off. It is priced at UK£3.99/US$4.99 (so not too much of a stretch for the more casual purchaser) and a 166MB download. Hans tells me they have already had a few user comments re the somewhat suggestive tone of the UI (although this is directly inherited from the desktop version) and that might get toned down at some stage…..
Blow my horn
So does Sensual Sax blow up a storm? Well, not quite…. but that’s because it’s not intended to be that kind of sax. The ‘sensual’ element of the title is just about right (‘smooth’ would have done also) and if you think sophisticated, late night, moody, mellow – yep, ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael – then you will have a reasonable idea of the niche that Sensual Sax is designed to sit within. No, it won’t be for everyone, but it will be a perfect fit for some.
I’m not sure exactly what the sampling details are under the hood but it’s clear there are multiple sample layers handling the MIDI velocity response. I suspect there may also be some tonal filtering applied to the various samples based upon MIDI velocity (perhaps the sound gets a little brighter as velocity increases?). Either way, within the fairly narrow stylistic range being attempted, you can coax some rather good melodic performances from the app.
You get a choice of three performance articulations – legato, sustain and staccato – all of which do pretty much what you would expect and offer velocity response when used via an external MIDI keyboard. I couldn’t see any keyswitch options to move between the three articulations via your keyboard (you have to use the onscreen switch I think).
Keyswitching is common on desktop virtual instruments (for example, in Kontakt) and a few MIDI keys that lie outside the note range of the instrument being simulated (so usually found at the bottom or top of the MIDI note range) are set aside to trigger a switch between different articulations allowing the user to create a more realistic performance without needed to use multiple patches/tracks within their DAW/sequencer each time they wanted to move between, for example, legato and staccato playing. Anyway, if the underlying sample playback engine could support it, it would be great to see similar keyswitching here….
The app’s controls themselves are fairly simple. A button top-left allows you to configure the MIDI in/out, while the large central rotary control (yes, the ‘Sex Knob’ – cue sniggers) actually controls a number of parameters at the same time to add more ambience to the sound… and, given the flak Embertone have already received from some within the iOS community for the rather ’70s soft porn meets Carry On films’ vibe, I think simply sticking ‘Amb’ on this large rotary dial might help. Personally, it just made me smile but then I’d have got the joke anyway even without the labelling :-)
If you tap on the green LED button beneath this control, it opens up a further pop-up panel where you can tweak away at the individual settings. These offer reverb, vibrato and delay (so, if you want to get really ambient and moody, then Sensual Sax can do just that). Indeed, both the reverb and the delay effects sound pretty decent. Adding vibrato changes the depth of the vibrato added to notes as they are sustained when playing the legato/sustain articulations. This is very much a matter of taste (and different sax players would do it to a greater or lesser degree). Blended in gently it does make things more real but, if comedy pitch wobble is your thing, there is just about enough scope here to get there!
Used with an external MIDI keyboard, Sensual Sax responds to pitch bend as you might expect – all good and great for adding additional expression – and the app’s Sex knob is automatically mapped to the Mod Wheel. I’m not so sure about this element of the current arrangement. I can see how it might be useful if you want to go from a ‘dry’ sound (low values of the knob) to a ‘wet’ sound (high values of the knob) but it would also be very useful to have individual control of just the Vibrato setting. Being able to gradually add more/less vibrato as you play – but without changing the delay/reverb settings – would be a useful feature to have. Perhaps being able to switch between these two different behaviours would be a nice option to see added?
[NOTE: Hans contacted me after reading the review himself; apparently the code for MIDI CC control is already built into the app and it will be accessible to users via a menu option when the first update arrives…. good to know :-) ]
The other control in this section is the Sensuality switch. Engage this and you get all sorts of pitch ornamentation added to notes when playing the legato patch. These simulate the bending into motes that a real sax player would use when playing slower legato phrases and, once you have a feel for how the sound engine responds, this is actually very effective. It doesn’t work so well for faster passages… but for slow, moody, sax solos, the results are pretty good. Indeed, this is perhaps where Sensual Sax is at its very best; dial in some delay and reverb and let the slow notes roll…. it is a very effective and evocative sound.
The obvious – and interesting -comparison for Sensual Sax is with Blue Mangoo’s own iFretless Sax. They are, of course, somewhat different beasts and, therefore, perhaps have different merits for different sort of musical applications. With iFretless sax you get a wider choice of sampled sax instruments – Tenor, Alto, Bari and clarinet sounds – and the option to layer them. You also get the brilliant iFretless touchscreen interface for expressive triggering of notes rather than the virtual piano keyboard. iFretless Sax also includes reverb and delay options plus a bunch of other ways to alter the tonal character of the sound.
However, what you don’t get – and becomes obvious when you audition the two apps side by side – is that little bit of extra realism that the (more detailed?) sampling in Sensual Sax offers or that very expressive performance add ons – slurs and slides – that the Sensual control adds. When you play to its strengths, Sensual Sax is a clear step up in terms of realism compared to iFretless Sax but only when you stick to those specific strengths (slow, moody, solos). Outside that sort of playing style – for example, more rapid phrasing – then Sensual Sax’s advantage is much less obvious… and iFretless Sax’s tonal variety would also work in its favour.
Of course, the other upside to Sensual Sax is that it offers AU support. On my test system (iPad Pro/iOS10.2), the AU support seemed to work pretty well in my usual AU hosts of Cubasis and AUM. Multiple instances were possible and you have access to the full control set within the AU panel.
I had no issues using the app via Audiobus but did have problems via IAA. I’m not sure whether this was just a quirk of my system or not but, whenever I tried to load the app as an IAA instrument, I got booted back to the home screen. I’d be interested to know if others have also experienced this. That said, AU would most certainly be my preferred choice; for me at least, the lack of IAA support would np longer be a major concern.
At just UK£3.99/US$4.99, most iOS musicians with even a passing interest is ‘real’ sax sounds might consider Sensual Sax to sit in the casual purchase category. We can fuss about the somewhat questionable taste of certain elements of the UI but, within a pretty narrow musical niche – slow, moody, sax solos – Sensual Sax is very impressive and capable of some pretty realistic performances. Yes this is a narrow niche but, at this price, that’s not such a big deal.
However, what’s perhaps just as interesting for me is the technology that sits underneath the specifics of this instrument. As with Drum Session (which Blue Mangoo are also involved with), my understanding is that there is something a little bit different about the sample playback engine involved here that, for iOS, delivers some performance benefits without also delivering such a significant hit in terms of storage space requirements. It will be very interesting to see what Blue Mangoo might make of this technology in future app development work.
Anyway, if late night sax solos designed for ‘lurve’ tunes is a musical mood you are keen to explore, then Sensual Sax is well worth auditioning. It is easy to use and does it’s ‘thing’ (albeit a fairly narrow sort of thing) very well indeed.