While the Music App Blog attracts all sorts of folks from different musical backgrounds, I suspect it is fair to say that iOS as a platform appeals to a somewhat disproportionate number of synth geeks. It’s not hard to understand why. The App Store offers a shed-load of excellent synth apps at prices that are, frankly, just plain silly and, at its best, iOS developers have created all sorts of interesting and unique ways in which the touchscreen makes synthesis fun.
The latest offering to join this somewhat crowded app category is Shoom from Yuri Torov. Yuri has form; he is the developer behind the excellent – and very underrated – Xynthesizr, which I’ve featured here on the Blog a number of times. Xynthesizr is a bit of a gem – part synth, part generative music app – and, if you have not tried it already, most certainly worth a look (and a snip at just UK£4.99/US$6.99).
Xynthesizr is, however, not perhaps an app you would describe as ‘mainstream’. It would most obviously appeal to the more experimental music maker. If you like electronic music and have a fondness for ambient soundscapes and evolving electronic compositions, then Xynthesizr is likely to tick your required boxes… but perhaps metal-heads and singer-songwriter types open-minded enough to give it a try might find it more of an interesting distraction rather than a ‘core’ tool.
True to form, Shoom is also just that bit left-of-centre. Yes, it’s a synth app and, in fact, you actually get three identical synth engines built into a single app, but it is not a conventional synth in the way that, for example, a Thor or an iM1 or a Synthmaster Player are. Shoom is a synth that is also aimed at the more experimental electronic musician; if your interests are in ambient music, soundscapes and even sound design, then Shoom is something you will want to explore.
Yuri tells me that Shoom translates as ‘noise’ in Russian and some other Eastern Slavic languages so maybe that also gives you a bit of a steer in terms of the direction Shoom might take you. Yes, you can use the app to create simple (conventional?) melodic synth lines…. but, given the interface (which is described more fully below), I not absolutely sure that’s really what Yuri had in mind when designing the app.
The main interface features a thin control strip at the top. At its right end, this has five tab buttons that toggle the underlying strip of controls (mostly virtual knobs) through a number of different views so that you can access each sub-set of controls – oscillators, envelopes, modulation, effects and control – for each of the three synth engines. You toggle between the three different synths using the colour circle buttons within the very top strip.
At the very bottom of the screen is a further (very thin) strip of controls. These allow you to zoom in/out on the performance area (that’s what fills the bulk of the screen) that, by default, spans a number of octaves. There are also buttons to ‘latch’ notes on for a particular synth and then to switch off either notes for the currently selected synth or for all synths.
As indicated, the bulk of the screen is the ‘performance’ area. Pitch is controlled from left (low) to right (high) and the vertical lines show the positions of note centres. The play a note, simply select which of the three synths you want to trigger notes for, and then tap on the display with either a single finger or multiple fingers…. and once you have tapped, you can also drag to change the pitch of each note independently.
Using the latch feature (tap the circle button located bottom-left to toggle latch on/off for the current synth; notes are solid when latched and just outlined when not latched), you can set up a few notes to be played by one synth, leave those sustaining, and then switch to a different synth and play some different notes (with a different sound) over the top. And, of course, again, with the third synth.
While the horizontal (x-axis) controls pitch, the vertical (y-axis) is used to modulate the sound. For each synth, this is configured in the Mod page and you can actually set up to three different parameters to be modulated by the vertical position of your notes. These can include amplitude (volume) but also a long list of other parameters including filter cutoff, oscillator pitch and various properties of the LFOs (which, themselves, can be used to modulate the sounds).
What you can’t do – at this stage at least – is either receive or send MIDI note data to/from Shoom. The app can receive MIDI CC data (so you can use external controls to tweak Shoom’s synths and there is a MIDI Learn system that makes that easy to do) and also MIDI Clock… but no MIDI note data.
I can understand that outputting MIDI note data would be a challenge as MIDI pitch bend is channel specific while Shoom’s interface allows you to adjust the pitches of all notes independently of each other. However, I’m sure some users would still like the option of MIDI in even if id did mean that you were, in essence, missing out of what is perhaps one of the app’s highlights; the rather creative performance surface.
In the engine (sh)(r)oom
The synth engine for each of Shoom’s three synths is identical. In each case, therefore, you get two oscillators, each with four different waveform types and pulse width modulation options plus a noise generator. You also get the option for cross modulation, a low pass resonant filter with overdrive and pitch tracking and ADSR envelopes for amplitude and filter cutoff.
Each synth also includes two LFOs with multiple waveform types for modulation options and those three parameters that you can assign to the vertical axis for modulation of the sound as part of the touchscreen performance. Oh, and this is all topped off with a note ‘pan randomiser’ (switch it on and it does pretty much what you would expect for some nice additional stereo movement) and very useable reverb and delay effects.
While this design most certainly offers plenty of flexibility, no, Shoom will not be the most powerful synth you are ever likely to play. However, take a trip through the presets and you will soon realise just what it is capable of. In fact, I’m not sure that the presets really do the synth engine justice….
That’s not because the preset sounds aren’t good – they are – but they are a certain sort of good. The kind of good that also comes with qualifiers such as ‘weird’, ‘abstract’, ‘sound design’ or ‘oddball’. Patch names such as ‘Neutron Mash’ or ‘Chattering Mushrooms’ or (my favourite) ‘Kevin’s Bacon’ give you the general idea… but things like ‘Simple Bass’ or ‘Sustained Strings’ – you know, the kinds of things you find in a conventional synth :-) – are notable by their absence. You can do some of these more vanilla sounds types though – just load up the ‘init’ patch and get programming – but a few of these more simple things might perhaps be a useful grounding for the less experimental Shoom user who is still trying to find their feet with the more abstract areas of sound creation.
Make some shoom
The overall design of the user interface is logical and very easy to find your way around. Programming your own sounds is easy enough although, as with any synth, there is a certain amount of trial and error involved for most of us mortals.
However, the start of the Shoom show is the performance area. Given the preset sounds supplied, and the flexibility offered in terms of sliding notes around, this is a playground for something that (just about) sits at the edges of conventional music but then pushes you out into ambient soundscapes, drones and, eventually, sound design.
Where the performance interface really scores is in the ability to play a few notes with one synth and, using a suitable sound, to set a background wash of sound going, before flipping to a second synth and layering some other sort of abstract ‘top line’ is really rather wonderful.
You can reign in some of the freedom offered though if you wish. The performance area offers a whole range of tuning and scale options and the ability to have notes you play ‘snap’ to scale pitches or to fully glide between them. Being able to zoom in to a narrower range of notes (frequencies) in the left/right axis also makes it easier to ‘hit’ notes as you play if you are interested in creating more obviously melodic results.
On a technical level, Shoom played very nicely with both Audiobus and IAA (I tested in both AUM and Cubasis; both worked well) so it is easy enough to integrate the sound of Shoom with whatever else your might have in your usual iOS music-making arsenal. Shoom through a few additional well chosen effects just cranks the weirdness factor up even further and I had a lot of fun combining Shoom with Flux:FX, for example.
The inclusion of MIDI Clock sync is useful and good to see but, given just how widely Ableton Link is now established under iOS – and just how solid it seems – this would be an obvious ‘wish list’ item for some users. Equally, as noted above, MIDI in would be useful addition for those with a more conventional bent…. even if it did defeat the highlight feature of the performance interface….
Shoom, like Xynthesizr, is a very cool app…. Yuri does, however, seem to specialise in niche products and, while these two apps are very different in terms of what they do, I suspect they will both appeal to a particular niche of iOS musician. So, if you like abstract, ambient, electronic music and the occasional dose of soundscapes and just plain weird noises, then Shoom is going to be very much for you.
I’ve embedded a couple of videos below so you can see the app in action but, if you want to hear some further sounds, then you could also check out Sean Foley’s (aka eustressor) audio demo on SoundCloud. Sean was one of the folks that created some of the Shoom presets and the audio demo gives a good idea of both the melodic and more ‘sound design’ sounds that can be created; enjoy :-)
The app is iPad only at present, requires iOS8.0 or later, is just a 15MB download and you can pick it up for just UK£7.99/US$9.99. This might not be an app that every iOS musician has a use for, but for the more experimentally minded, Shoom is a bit of a no-brainer.