SoundScaper review – Igor Vasiliev brings us sonic madness in an iOS music app

Download from iTunes App Storesoundscaper logoI’ve reviewed a number of Igor Vasiliev’s iOS music apps here on the Music App Blog in the past. Released under his iMusicAlbum moniker, Igor has, to date, mainly focused on audio processing apps. Perhaps his best know app is Audio Mastering which, on release, was the first dedicated mastering app available under iOS. It has had several significant updates since its first release and it is a brilliant piece of software at an insanely cheap price.

However, the same can be said of AltiSpace – Igor’s excellent convolution-based reverb effect – that delivers amazing results given its compact format and compact price; this app was a shoe-in for my own personal ‘top ten iOS music apps of 2014‘ list that I put together a month or so ago. Both Master FX and Master Record also deliver great results in the same straightforward, no fuss, fashion.

As I posted a couple of days ago, Igor has launched his latest iOS music app on the App Store over the week-end and, while he had posted a few teasers about the new app prior to release, it is a bit of a departure from the more conventional audio effects processing we have seen so far. Indeed, there isn’t a lot that you might describe about SoundScaper that deserves the word ‘conventional’ with perhaps the exception of the user interface design (this retains visual elements of Igor’s house style).

SoundScaper - experimental sound design in an app.

SoundScaper – experimental sound design in an app.

As suggested by the tag-line, SoundScaper is ‘an experimental sound mini lab’ – whatever that might mean – so what you get are a series of tools for creating soundscapes, drones, glitches, ambient textures and just plain weird noises.

The app is iPad-only, requires iOS7.0 or later and, at under 9MB in size, won’t take up too much space on a full-stocked iPad. And, with a current price of UK£4.49, it’s not going to break the bank either. If you have an experimental streak or just work with sound design projects, this may well be a bit of a no-brainer….

… but just what the heck is a ‘an experimental sound mini lab’ anyway? Well, let’s see if we can find out…

To the lab, Igor….

In essence, SoundScaper provides you with up to three oscillators that can be combined to create your sound. These are not like a more conventional synthersizer oscillator (they are, frankly, a bit weirder than that). They do, however, use an audio file as their original sound source (which some synths also do) rather than a more standard waveform generator.

In terms of suitable audio files, SoundScaper is supplied with a good collection of starting material but you can also import additional audio samples in a variety of audio formats. I imported a bunch of WAV files of various types via iTunes File Sharing but there are other routes available including web access and via the audio clipboard for apps that support ‘Open In’ such as AudioShare).

SoundScaper is supplied with a range of audio files to get you started but you can also import your own into the Library.

SoundScaper is supplied with a range of audio files to get you started but you can also import your own into the Library.

Once you have picked an audio file (or files), you can then process it via SoundScaper’s various virtual circuits. You get filtering options, LFOs for dynamic control of various parameters and the ability to ‘place’ the three sound course within a three dimensional space (left/right and near/far). This latter effect is configured by the large X-Y pad – termed the Spatial Mixer panel – that dominates the top-centre of the main display. This spatial position can be put under LFO control so you can automate how your three sounds move within the virtual space. The ‘Space’ and ‘Reflects’ faders at the top of the panel allow you to adjust the nature of the ambience provided in the 3-D space.

The rest of the main screen is busy but fairly simply organised. Top-centre is the Play button (which triggers the audio files to start playback), meters and a volume control, while just below this (and above the X-Y pad) you can load/save SoundScape presets.

At the very base of the screen you get four further global controls – Rec, Files, Settings and Help (? icon) – and these do pretty much what you might expect. There is an internal recording option (if required; the app also has Audiobus and IAA support so you might send the audio output elsewhere for recording if you prefer). The Files button provides one way to access any recordings you have made or to view/audition and audio files you have imported into the app’s Library.

The Settings page allows to to configure some global settings including the background audio switch.

The Settings page allows to to configure some global settings including the background audio switch.

The Settings panel allows you to adjust a few global settings and also to choose between one of the four supplied colour schemes. The Help button opens the app’s documentation. This is worth a read but do bear in mind that English is not Igor’s first language and SoundScape contains some complex concepts. It is perhaps not surprising that this document perhaps has a few ‘lost in translation’ moments… so expect a few reads and some experimentation before some of the concepts start to make themselves clear.

In threes….

The rest of the main screen is organised into three lots of threes. Down the left side we get three identical panels – one for each of the three oscillators – with controls such as Trigger Pulse, Clock Offset and Output Level. The last one is straightforward as it controls the volume of each of the three oscillators and is very useful if you just want to focus on one sound at a time (just turn the other two down to zero).

The main SoundScaper screen might look quite busy at first glance but it is actually laid out in a fairly simple fashion.

The main SoundScaper screen might look quite busy at first glance but it is actually laid out in a fairly simple fashion.

As you might expect, the Random button simply randomises the settings for that oscillator while the Control button opens up a further screen of options – the Control pane – and that I’ll come back to in a minute. However, the five Address Circuit Enable buttons are linked to (and activate) the various virtual circuit chains on the Control pane. The Clock module and Trigger settings influence how the oscillator selects small segments of the loaded sample for playback (at least, I think that’s what’s happening!) so these settings have a strong influence on quite what SoundScape creates from your original audio source (or sources). Anyway, they make a good place to start your experimentation.

Just beneath the X-Y ‘spatial’ pad are three identical LFO panels and that allow you to configure each LFO’s rate and depth. In this case, however, there are three separate LFOs and they can all be used to control each of the three oscillators. So, for example, in each panel, you have three small square buttons beneath the Distance label. Each one of these buttons engages that LFO for one of the three oscillators and influences the near/far position of the oscillator in the Spatial Mixer Panel. If you activate it, then you can see a visual representation of the oscillators movements on the panel… and you will hear it in the nature of the sound. The Oscillator Side option does exactly the same for the left/right axis (pan).

You can save your SoundScaper setups as 'scenes' within the preset system.

You can save your SoundScaper setups as ‘scenes’ within the preset system.

On the right are the three panels for the various filter and delay controls and these are each linked to one oscillator. In each case, you can tweak the settings for the filter and delay effects using the mini X-Y pads by tapping and dragging, while the buttons allow you to choose between three filter types and two delay time ranges. The twin sets of three buttons labelled LFO Freq and Res in each panel allow you to link any of the three LFOs to these parameters of the filter so you can automate the control the filter via a combination of the three LFOs.

It might get weird from here….

Tapping the Control button for any of the three oscillators open up the full Control pane and it’s here that things can start to get (a) seriously weird in terms of sound and (b) rather more experimental in terms of what any of the specific controls are actually doing (or virtually doing as this is a digital model of electronics).

Aside from the various sound controls themselves, down the right side of the Control pane is a file browser. This allows you to load a suitable audio file either from the built-in sounds or those you have added to the user library. There is also a ‘Play’ button to start/stop playback without having to return to the main screen.

The first screenshot of the Control pane shown here has been set up in a very simple fashion and pretty much bypasses all of this virtual electronic experimentation. Note that all five Address Circuit Enable buttons (located towards the top; these are the same buttons as found in each oscillator panel on the main page) are switched off (this disables the various processing/circuit emulation that is controlled by the matric of buttons below) and the Clock fader (lower-left) is set to 1.0. In this particular case, I have a short drum loop loaded and, with these settings I can, more or less, hear the loop intact.

The Control pane...  and in this case, set up so that the original sound source is heard without too much by way of processing through the virtual circuit set.

The Control pane shown for oscillator 1 (although you get identical controls for the other two oscillators)… and in this case, set up so that the original sound source is heard without too much by way of processing through the virtual circuit set.

From here on in though, it is pretty much a case of suck it and see… Just press some buttons, tweak some faders and see (hear) what happens. There are no rules and, with just the fairly minimal description within the app’s documentation, not a lot to guide you… but, frankly, that’s the fun part of the SoundScaper… this is a virtual sound lab and, without blowing anything up or electrocuting yourself, you can do from the nicest of ‘super dull’ samples into endless flavours of sonic madness with just a few touches of the screen.

Things do – with a bit of trial and error – soon start to make at least a little sense though and it is worth exploring the app initially – and the Control pane in particular – with just one oscillator active and a fairly simple audio source (a drum loop or chord sequence is good) so you can start to appreciate just what SoundScaper is doing to your audio (even if you don’t fully understand how).

Engage a few buttons in the Control pane and things can start to get.... well... 'interesting'.... but is a good way :-)

Engage a few buttons in the Control pane and things can start to get…. well… ‘interesting’…. but is a good way :-)

There is, however, a difference between just randomly manipulating the controls (which is where you will start) and being able to adjust the controls in a way that allows you to predictably mould the starting sound in the direction you want to take it. And, like the difference between a blindfold, inexperienced potter with some lumps of clay and a spinning wheel, and an expert pot maker who can craft something beautiful with their eyes closed, mastering SoundScaper’s control set is going to take a little time….

Lab results

The rewards for a little perseverance are, however, well worth the initial effort and, by the time you have all three oscillators at work, you can create almost any sort of sonic soundscape that a sound designer wannabe could possibly dream of. The combination of being able to select your own starting samples, and then being able to manipulate them is such a range of ways, is very impressive.

SoundScaper in full flow...  weird, wonderful and, for sound designers and soundscape makers, a very powerful set of tools.

SoundScaper in full flow… weird, wonderful and, for sound designers and soundscape makers, a very powerful set of tools.

Indeed, if you listen to your results on a decent pair of headphones or studio monitors, the combination of audio processing and spatial movement is fascinating. If you happen to start with something musical well… if you are *very* subtle, they you could make ‘music’ with SoundScaper… but this is much more about sound design or soundscape creation that it is about harmonic music creation. That doesn’t mean to say the app can’t be used in a musical context; it cab… but experimenters, sound designers and ambient noise makers will be the ones that will love it… SoundScaper is perhaps not going to be such an obvious choice for the average singer-songwriter type.

I had no problems using SoundScaper via Audiobus. The app appears in the Input slot and supports State Saving. Note that as the app can only work with pre-recorded audio files (and not a live audio input) it would make no sense for it to be available as an Effects slot app at present. Combined with your favourite effects apps within Audiobus you can, of course, get even further down the ‘bonkers’ sonic highway should you feel the need.

SoundScaper in Audiobus...  how mad do you want things to get? :-)

SoundScaper in Audiobus… how mad do you want things to get? :-)

SoundScaper also worked well for me as an audio source via IAA within Cubasis and has a simple, yet effective, IAA control strip that appears on the right-edge of the display. The app is also available on a MIDI track via IAA in Cubasis but, without any option that I could see for MIDI in (so, for example, you could link SoundScaper controls to a hardware MIDI control surface), this may simply be an artefact of the standard Audiobus/IAA code that’s been dropped into the app. That said, external control would be a fun option to see added at some point :-)

Otherwise, SoundScaper behaved flawlessly in my own testing… Igor seems to do solid coding in all his apps and, while we might have come to expect it from him, it is also great to see.

SoundScaper also worked smoothly via IAA within Cubasis.

SoundScaper also worked smoothly via IAA within Cubasis.

In summary

Igor has (albeit with some advance notice) thrown us something that is major left-field in SoundScaper and some considerable distance from the territory occupied by his other excellent iOS music apps. Given that the app is very much about experimental sound design, it is probably a bit of a niche product within the wider iOS music app catalogue. However, for those with an interest in that kind of experimental approach to sound creation, this is simply a ‘must buy’ app.

That said, given the price – just UK£4.49 – almost anyone could afford to take a punt on SoundScaper and, even if it is only pulled out to impress a suitably geeky potential significant other, it would be worth the investment.

As a little bit of personal perspective though, I think this may well be another one of those iOS music (or audio) apps that many desktop users would love to have available as a stand-alone application or plugin under Windows or OSX. Just as I’d love to see apps such as Sector, Stereo Designer, Flux: FX and DFX appear in a desktop format, it would be great to see SoundScaper make that transition. I have a few acquaintances that do sound design as part of their business… they would, I’m sure, love SoundScaper… but they work on PCs and Macs… maybe this is their time to embrace iOS?

I make this point because, while SoundScaper is simply a lot of fun to explore and experiment with, I think it could easily be used in a professional sound design context. If you needed to make some electronic bleeps and drones for a suitably hi-tech action/horror movie, then this is an app that could provide a toolset to do it. Like a number of the better (and more conventional) iOS music apps, the app itself is a very powerful tool and more than capable of producing results that could, in the right context, generate an exchange of money for your creativity… if, of course, you are interested in your muse being financially rewarding rather than just personally satisfying your creative urge.

For experimental musicians and sound design fans, SoundScaper is as close to a no-brainer as you can currently get. Perhaps not such an obvious choice for the more conventional musician but, as a virtual lab for weird and wonderful journeys into sound, SoundScaper is a joy and a bargain to boot.

SoundScaper – an experimental sound mini lab

Check our Igor’s own video, Doug’s thesoundtestroom video, and Tim Webb’s (from discchord) excellent ‘Let’s Play’ video, all of which show SoundScaper in action.

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    1. Another great review! Cheers John!

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