Shapesynth review – strange, but rather beautiful, cheap-as-chips iOS synth

Download from iTunes App Storeshapesynth logo 1If you have been addicted to the music app category of the App Store for any length of time then you may well have your fair share of iOS synths. I’ve a folder full of them on my own iPad and, while a good number get regular use, there are still plenty I’ve fully to capitalise upon…

And, it would seem, still some interesting possibilities I’ve yet to discover. One such app is Shapesynth by Erik Sigth and, while the app has been around on the App Store for a number of years, I have to admit that it didn’t really grab my attention until the v.4 update appeared a few weeks ago. This was a pretty significant update for the app though with all sorts of new features added and a pretty significant overhaul of the interface.

Shapesynth - a cool little iOS synth that is within almost anyone's grasp.

Shapesynth – a cool little iOS synth that is within almost anyone’s grasp.

At UK£1.49/US$1.99, Shapesynth is likely to be within almost anyone’s grasp as a causal purchase. It requires iOS7.0 or later, is a 9MB download, and is universal so will run on iPad or iPhone. And, with Audiobus, IAA, Core MIDI and Ableton Link support, perhaps all that’s missing in terms of up-to-date iOS music tech spec is AU…. although the app has a graphical interface that I imagine would translate to an AU ‘sub-window’ rather well… fingers crossed on that front.

So, given the modest price, and the revamped look and specification, is Shapesynth worth finding a home for on your already synth laden iOS device?

Get in shape

In terms of the synth engine, Shapesynth offers 2 osciallators with ADSR, two LFOs for modulation with ADSR envelopes, a number of alternative ways in which the oscillators can be mixed, a basic arpegiator, a stereo delay effect and a filter. The app also includes a ‘tape’ based recording system with overdubbing, the option for using the accelerometers in your iOS hardware for controlling the synth’s parameter and a ‘mini sequencer’ feature.

So far so… well, not so different from lots of other iOS synth apps out there. However, one rather neat feature is that, for the two oscialltors, as well as being offered some standard waveform starting points, you can also draw your own on the touchscreen. Despite what is – by uber-synth standards – a fairly modest engine, you can, therefore, coax quite a range of unique (and hand-crafted) tones from the app.

Ableton Link is included within the Shapesynth spec.

Ableton Link is included within the Shapesynth spec.

The main interface is split into two halves. The bottom is dominated by a large-format piano keyboard display. This works well enough although I had no problems getting Shapesynth to respond to my external MIDI keyboard. For many, that would perhaps be the preferred choice for serious use and, if so, it might be kind of nice to be able to toggle off the display of the virtual keyboard and use the extra screen real-estate to see more of the synth engine controls onscreen at the same time. Maybe that’s something for a further update at some stage?

Engine room

The upper half of the main screen has five buttons running down its left edge and these toggle the display between the four sub-screens of controls for the main synth engine components and (for the top-most button) showing the main menu strip. The latter includes access to the preset system (the app is supplied with a small collection of these), a master volume slider, tempo setting, access to the Ableton Link toggle, MIDI settings and the app’s internal help system.

The waveform button provides access to the two oscillators and their various settings. Again, a portion of this screen includes buttons to toggle between the two oscillators and their associated LFOs. There isn’t much by way of labelling here to guide the new user but, in practice, things are actually pretty straightforward.

The LFO features provide some useful modulation options.

The LFO features provide some useful modulation options.

For each oscillator, you get gain, ADSR sliders, an octave setting (1, 2 or 3) and the option to reverse the waveform. Of course, the highlight of the show is the waveform display itself and you can touch and drag within here to draw whatever waveform shape you fancy.

You can even draw your own waveform within Shapesynth.

You can even draw your own waveform within Shapesynth.

If you switch to the LFO options then you get a choice between sine and square LFO formats but you can tweak the rate and amount and set the LFO’s ADSR envelope. You can also set the LFO to modulate one of three parameters; the amplitude envelope, pitch or duty cycle. No, I’ve no idea what the last one of these is but, as far as I’ve been able to work out, it seems to influence the filter. If you know better than me, then feel free to help me out with a comment below :-)

The Tape feature.....

The Tape feature…..  not something I’d use a lot but useful if you need it.

The Tape button opens up the internal recording facility. I’m not sure this is something I would use on a routine basis but it is quite neat graphically and, as it allows you to overdub onto an existing recording, and also to set loop points within a recording, I can see how it might be useful for making synth-based audio loops. These can, of course be saved and exported for use elsewhere.

The ‘circle’ button provides access to the arpeggiator, delay, filter and accelerometer settings and, again, each of these is viewed via a further sub-set of tabs. The arpeggiator is a pretty basic affair with up/down/random options and the ability to set the number of octaves and the tempo divider (this controls the speed of the notes generated relative to the master tempo in BPM). Despite its basic nature, it is effective and very easy to use.

The delay effect offers some further creative options.

The delay effect offers some further creative options.

The delay effect is a stereo delay and the graphics here make it fun to experiment with; you drag the two large ‘balls’ around to set the delay tempo, level and stereo placement within the stereo image. You can actually get quite creative here.

The controls for the filter take a little getting used to as these are somewhat unconventional. You get three vertical lines – one long and two short – that can be moved to set the filter amount and lower and upper frequencies. The dot icon can be either stopped, or tapped and dragged to set it in motion. The latter results in a ‘Pong’ like bouncing dot that obviously changes the filter characteristics is some fashion. To the left, you can adjust the time-base and switch between low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filter types, as well as switching the filter off. Again, without being quite sure what I was doing, while testing the app, I had a lot of fun with this; unconventional it might be but that just leads to some slightly left-of-centre sounds…..   not bad for an app costing UK£1.49/US$1.99.

You can take some control over the sound via the app's accelerometer response.

You can take some control over the sound via the app’s accelerometer response.

The accelerometer options allow you to assign synth parameters to each of the X, Y and Z axis of motion for your iOS hardware. If you are happy enough to wave your iPad or iPhone around while playing the synth, then you can get pretty creative with some motion-based sound shaping…..

Get in step

The final major tab button (the one with the numbers on it) takes you to the mini sequencer. This is really quite a strange experience :-) The various transport controls can be used to, first, record a sequence of notes (I think 99 notes is the limit) and then set them to playback. This is rather like a step sequencer while recording (the sequencer pays no attention at this stage to the timing of each note) and there is also a button for inserting a blank step (no note) into the sequence.

The synth's filter offers just enough options to keep thing interesting but without requiring a PhD to explore....

The synth’s filter offers just enough options to keep thing interesting but without requiring a PhD to explore….

On the right of the screen, you can tap and drag to adjust the ‘shape’ that is present and this then defines the rhythmic nature with which the notes are played back. This combination of features does take a little getting used to but, once you have got your head around it, it is rather a neat way of creating some short repeating sequences and, with the right sound, is great for bass lines or repeating melodies. Add in the arp and delay functions and things can get even more interesting.

All ship shape?

From a technical perspective, I had no problems using Shapesynth, whether as a standalone app or within Audiobus or, via IAA, within AUM or Cubasis. The Ableton Link support also seemed solid, locking to Patterning, for example, without any issues. The performance seemed pretty solid. The interface itself is – first impressions aside (where you might be left wondering what some of the fairly abstract looking controls do) – is actually fairly easy to find your way around.

It is most certainly worth doing so. Because of the slightly unconventional control set – and the ability to draw your own waveforms – Shapesynth is certainly not a ‘me too!’ type of synth. You can coax some rather interesting (quirky?) sounds from it therefore.

Shapesynth seems to play nicely via IAA or Audiobus.

Shapesynth seems to play nicely via IAA or Audiobus.

And that said, it is perhaps rather a shame that Erik hasn’t provided just a few more presets for new users to explore. Those that are present do a good job of demonstrating what Shapesynth is capable – and there is something just slightly kooky (in a good way) about how it sounds – but some additional sounds would not go amiss, and a few more conventional tones might also be reassuring for the new user… even if that isn’t really the prime intention of the synth’s design.

But that comment doesn’t mean I don’t like the sounds that Shapesynth can make; I most certainly do and I think lots of other iOS musicians will also….

In summary

The bottom line here is that, regardless of the pocket-money pricing, Shapesynth is actually something just a bit different amongst the iOS synth crowd. Its left-of-centre control set and sound options might not suit everyone. If, for example, you are after some lush ‘pop’ dance chords or house-style synth stabs, well…. there are more obvious choices. However, if you want something that is just a bit different – and that might cough up some rather interesting bleeps and bloops for your next experimental electronic music track, then Shapesynth is well worth a look.

But, of course, given the asking price – just UK£1.49/US$1.99 – this really is an iOS music app that anyone could afford to take a punt on without feeling too guilty even if it only appears for occasional use.

Shapeshyth is yet another App Store example that defies the ‘you get what you pay for’ cliché. As cheap as chips (fries) and twice as good for you, Shapesynth is a little bit strange but rather beautiful exactly because of that.


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