Synthecaster review – novel playing interface for synth/MIDI controller from Daniel Resnick

synthecaster logoDownload from iTunes App StoreIf you are a regular reader here at the Music App Blog you will know that one of the things that most appeals to me about iOS devices is the interesting take the touchscreen can provide on music creation providing developers are prepared to think outside the conventional virtual keyboard, drum pad and guitar string. There are now a number of excellent apps that do just that. Figure, Thumbjam and Triqtraq are all good examples while even Garageband – despite have some more conventional instruments – has some very imaginative touches in the various Smart Instruments.

Synthecaster's main playing interface - minimalist in appearance but actually very easy to use.

Synthecaster’s main playing interface – minimalist in appearance but actually very easy to use.

Other apps approach the issue from a slightly different perspective. Rather than attempting to be the most powerful instrument with a clever or intuitive interface, that interface is the primary focus of the app and they are designed to send MIDI data to other apps. Chordion and Gestrument perhaps fall into this category. And I think the subject of this review – Synthecaster by Daniel Resnick – does also.

It’s a synth

Synthecaster runs on phone iPhone and iPad and, at UK£0.69, it is not going to break anyone’s bank if you want to give it a try. Like both Chordion and Gestrument, Synthecaster does have it’s own sound engine. This is based upon dual oscillators with individual tuning and saw, square, triangle and sine waveform options.

The synth engine features dual oscillators.

The synth engine features dual oscillators.

A sweepable filter can operate in lowpass, highpass, bandpass and notch modes and there is a fairly standard ADSR amp envelope and a distortion unit that can go from gentle warmth to bitcrushing digital drive. The synth also includes an LFO that can be assigned to amplitude, cutoff of oscillator tuning, while the feature set is rounded off by flanger, chorus and delay effects.

No, this will not be the most sophisticated synth you will ever play on your iOS device but you can coax a surprisingly wide variety of sounds from it including some very credible pads, bass and lead sounds. These are illustrated well by the collection of supplied presets.

Or maybe it’s a guitar?

You can configure the tuning between rows to suit, turn on note display and, if you wish, highlight notes in a specific key/scale combination.

You can configure the tuning between rows to suit, turn on note display and, if you wish, highlight notes in a specific key/scale combination.

The synth is 7-note polyphonic on an iPad and 5-note polyphonic on an iPhone. On the iPad (all the screenshots here were taken from an iPad), you get six rows of colourful note triggers (and three on the iPhone version) and you can choose to display these triggers with or without note labels (although ‘with’ most certainly makes it easier to find your way around initially). These note ‘keys’ are colour-coded in relation to pitch (all G notes are one colour, all B notes another, etc.).

By default, the interval between each row of notes is 5 semitones, as on the lower four strings of standard guitar tuning, and that sort of makes the ‘caster’ (as in Stratocaster) element of the app’s name make sense. If you are a guitar player, this will feel instantly familiar. Well, until you get to the fifth row from the bottom, where the relationship between a guitar tuning breaks down. As described below, you can adjust these settings to create a more guitar-like set of tuning intervals.

Aside from the notes triggers, the only other items on the main screen are a horizontal slider (this adjusts the range of notes displayed, rather like looking at a particular section of a guitar fretboard, and you move to the left for a lower range of notes and to the right for higher notes) and a series of menu options that open further elements of the controls so you can tweak various settings. Most of these are fairly self-explanatory and present you with a small number of controls you can adjust. So, for example, the Osc options presents you with waveform, tuning and interval controls for the two oscillators, while the Presets options opens a list of presets or allows you to save one of your own.

The engine also includes a filter option.

The engine also includes a filter option.

In terms of how the playing interface is configured, the Keys option is worth further consideration. Here you can adjust the tuning intervals between the rows of notes and toggle note names on/off. As mentioned above, by default, the tuning interval is set to 5 semitones between all strings and you can either change this global setting (values between 1 and 12 are allowed) or, by disabling the Equal Row Tuning options, you can specify different intervals between each row. For folks with guitar shaped fingers like mine, the obvious thing to do is to set the intervals up to mirror standard guitar tuning but you can, of course, create any alternative tuning system you might wish.

The Keys options also provides access to the Scales (scroll to the right) or MIDI (scroll to the left) settings. The Scales setting allows you to pick a particular key/scale combination and the display then highlights notes that fall within that scale/key combination. Non-scale notes are still shown and available to be played; they are just not highlighted. The MIDI settings allow you to choose a destination for the MIDI data that Synthecaster generates. As described more fully below, the performance interface doesn’t just have to drive Synthecasters’s own synth engine; it can also be used to trigger other synth apps.

Play time

Of course, having configured the app how you want it, the real fun is in playing with the performance interface. While the note layout is suggestive of a guitar, unlike a guitar, with Synthecaster you can play more than one note on the same ‘string’ (row of notes) at the same time (up to the total iPad polyphonic maximum of seven notes).

Add the note display as this is a big help when getting started.

Add the note display as this is a big help when getting started.

Depending upon how you set the Glide control (in the Osc settings options), as you tap and slide along a row of notes Synthecaster will either play each note individually or gradually pitchbend (glide) between them. There are some nice effects to be had here.

In addition, if you tap a note and then slide it vertically up or down, you get a pitchbend effect on that note. And like a guitar – but unlike the response you get with most synth pitchbend wheels – if you are playing several notes, you can choose to just bend a single note in this way; the pitchbend is note-specific rather than global. The only downside of this pitchbend arrangement for me is that, at present, the pitchbend range is limited to a single semitone. From a guitarist’s perspective, it would be really nice to have the options of two semitones (heck, maybe even three) and, having quizzed Daniel about this during the course of the review, he did suggest that this might be something to consider for a future update…. fingers crossed.

[Update: v.1.3 posted on 10th December 2013 has addressed this. You can now adjust the pitchbend range between 0 and 12 semitones:-)  ]

That aside, Synthecaster’s interface is very intuitive to play. No, you don’t get any velocity response but this is perhaps not so surprising given that many iOS music apps either don’t offer velocity sensitivity or provide it based upon where you tap rather than how hard you tap. For guitar players, however, knocking out melody lines or simple two, three or four notes chords via Synthecaster is a fairly straightforward task. While you can’t simulate strumming with the interface, as a way of getting guitar skills to trigger a synth, it’s a pretty easy ride.

Control freak

As mentioned earlier, Synthecaster can also be used to send MIDI data out to other iOS synths. The key thing to note here is that Synthecaster transmits on multiple MIDI channels so, on the iPad version, up to seven MIDI channels might be used, while of the iPhone up to five MIDI channels can be output. Potentially, this could be a very flexible system, particularly if you are sending data to a multi-timbral synth that can play multiple sounds on multiple channels at the same time. In addition, it means that the single note pitchbend (with other notes being played at the same time but not being pitchbent) is still possible.

Synthecaster allows you to pick the MIDI destination (or destinations) for your performance. Note also that both note display and scale highlight have been enabled in the lower portion of the screenshot.

Synthecaster allows you to pick the MIDI destination (or destinations) for your performance. Note also that both note display and scale highlight have been enabled in the lower portion of the screenshot.

While this might be something very feasible if you were to send Synthecaster’s MIDI data to a suitable multi-timbral virtual instrument on a desktop computer, in the new, shiny world of iOS music production, we don’t (yet) have many of those (and certainly not many able to support seven instruments at the same time). It therefore makes more sense to set your iOS synth to OMNI mode so that it can receive MIDI data on any channel.

I experimented with this with a number of my favourite iOS synths – Thor, Nave, Arctic ProSynth and iSEM, for example – and, once I had my various MIDI settings configured correctly at both ends, things worked pretty well. As a ham-fisted keyboard player, Synthecaster’s guitarist-friendly performance interface is most certainly easier for me to navigate than a virtual piano keyboard.

I was also able to send MIDI data to a Cubasis MIDI track set to receive from all (OMNI) channels without any issues. What remained a little unclear to me was how Synthecaster allocated its MIDI channels to individual notes. So, for example, if I configured Cubasis with seven MIDI channels, set to receive MIDI data on MIDI channels 1 through to 7, put them all into record mode and then played some parts in Synthecaster, I couldn’t really predict which notes were going to end up on which MIDI channel.

I suspect the channel allocation is done dynamically within the app but – rather like a hex-style MIDI pickup for a guitar – it might also be nice to have the option to force each row of notes in Synthecaster to output on a specific MIDI channel. That way, you could have a little more control over which notes went to a specific MIDI target instrument.

In summary

Just as with Chordion and Gestrument, Synthecaster capitalises on the touchscreen capabilities provided by an iPad to provide musicians with an alternative interface for music creation. It could appeal to almost any musician but I suspect guitar-playing, keyboard-challenged musicians (like me) in particular would find this a useful tool.

Synthecaster is a very neat little app from an indie developer. And, at UK£0.69, it really is not a great stretch to give Synthecaster a try if you think it might help. Hook it up to your favourite iOS synth and then give it an hour or two to adjust to the interface. As a synth itself, Synthecaster does a decent enough job but, as a controller for other, more powerful synths, it is a very useful MIDI controller style tool for those who find touchscreen virtual keyboards an obstacle to their music creation.


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