I’ve reviewed a number of iOS music app released by VirSyn over the last couple of years such Cube Synth, AudioReverb, Harmony Voice and Addictive Synth. Back in March I also looked at microTERA. This is a port of one of their desktop synths and, as I commented at the time, is also available as a module within a larger desktop synth product; Tera Synth. This latter virtual instrument I first encountered when reviewing its original release for Sound On Sound magazine here in the UK way back in 2003.
The original release was impressive but Tera has come a long way since then and the current desktop version of Tera 3 is quite a different beast; slicker, more powerful and more versatile. And now it is also available as an iOS music app…. Yes, VirSyn have developed a version of Tera for iOS and, while it is operationally somewhat different from the desktop version to accommodate the touchscreen environment, at its heart is much of the same technology that is available in the desktop version.
What that means, in essence, is that you are getting a powerful virtual modular analog synth that features a goodly number of different sound modules, multiple LFOs and ADSR envelopes, additional multi-segment envelopes, very flexible modulation options, a range of effects, a fully programmable arpeggiator, chromatic and ‘scale’ modes for the virtual keyboard, comprehensive MIDI support (including MIDI learn), Audiobus (Input slot) and IAA support, a selection of nearly 1000 presets and audio recording and preset sharing support.
And, if you get in quick, you can get all of this at the 50% off introductory price of UK£6.99. If you like VirSyn’s other iOS synth apps, then I suspect you are going to like this one also and you might already be clicking the ‘download’ button. Yes, we have an absolute smorgasbord of iOS synth app choices these days… and if we had to pay desktop software prices, I suspect most of us would be far more selective about what we purchased. Fortunately, however, we have the App Store pricing model… and, even at full-price, Tera Synth is a lot of synth for not a lot of money….
The world of Tera
While Tera’s synthesis engine can do some quite complex things because of its modular nature (the options for linking the various sound generation elements are many), I think VirSyn have actually made a pretty good stab at making a highly programmable synth pretty accessible through a rather neat interface design.
If you have seen or used any of VirSyn’s other iOS synths, then elements of this interface will be very familiar. Along the top we have the strip of main controls where you can access Tera Synth’s four main pages via the tabs that sit top-left of the upper control strip; Syn, Mod, Arp and FX. Also included along this strip is access to the preset system (and note that the Arp page includes its own preset options), tempo setting, access to the record options and the Help button. The latter adds prompts to the on-screen controls so you can learn what each control does. This is useful but there is also a full PDF manual available from the VirSyn website and this is well worth a look.
As with a number of VirSyn’s other apps, the upper control strip also contains a dice button and you can just tap this and the app will generate a random sound for you. There are additional pairs of dice in the Arp page for generating random step sequencer data. In both instances, these are good fun to experiment with and are particularly useful if you just want to keep pressing until something catches your eye (or ears).
As you might expect, the bulk of the patch programming action takes place within the Syn and Mod pages and I’ll come back to those in more detail in a minute. However, the Arp and FX pages are very similar (identical?) to those within microTERA other than in colour scheme. The Arp page strikes a nice balance between features and easy of use. You can program tie, accent, note, octave, transposition and key.
There is plenty of flexibility here. You can define a step-length to suit your needs and, as well as some nice presets to get you started, those dice make it easy to come up with all sorts of interesting variations. This really is a great place to start some off-the-cuff musical ideas. I’m a big fan of step-sequencers and arpeggiators and the combination here is just right; flexible enough to offer plenty of scope but not so complex to use that your head hurts just looking at the screen.
Compared to the rest of the app, the FX page of Tera Synth is a pretty straightforward affair. However, the five effects offer enough control to be flexible and provide plenty of additional scope for shaping the overall sound. I particularly liked the Distortion effect. This offers hard, soft, tape and tube distortion models and, while it can do fizz if that’s what you want, it can also do some really nice warming effects. The Delay and Reverb effects also work well and the Chorus and Phaser effects do the job you would expect.
As indicated earlier, Tera Synth is a (virtual) modular synthesizer and you access the various modules via the Syn screen. If you like to have completely free rein over how your synth modules are chained together, then perhaps Tera doesn’t have quite the same ‘do what you like’ flexibility of an app like Audulus but the construction does still provide plenty of flexibility.
The modules are arranged in a fixed order in the upper portion of the window. There are, however, quite a lot of them (!) so – rather neatly – this upper section can be swiped left/right to access the full set of options. In total, there are nearly five full ‘swipes’ to get from one end of the control set to the other.
Now, if you are of a nervous disposition or a synth programming newbie, you might just have broken out in a cold sweat at the prospect of all these control options and I’d be lying if I said that programming Tera Synth was free of any sort of learning curve; it’s not. However, there is a rather neat logic to how these modular elements work together and how you can define where your signal flow starts, which modules it passes through and where (hopefully) it ends up to produce your sound. This is helped by the use of the graphics in the display and there are some nice touches here such as arrows to indicate the direction of the signal flow from left to right. Indeed, the whole interface is designed to look a bit like a virtual signal flow diagram….
The various controls themselves come in a number of types. We get VirSyn’s take on rotary knobs and sliders that are rather modern looking but easy enough to use. In addition, you get small rectangular ‘buttons’ (such as the FM Ratio button in the Oscillator 1 panel). Tapping these will simply toggle the option on/off and this may, in turn, enable/disable certain other controls that are linked to that button.
There are similar looking rectangular buttons that appear beneath the various virtual sliders. Both the buttons and the sliders are part of the synth’s modulation system are all have a label at the top to indicate which parameter is going to be modulated (varied). Tapping on the button will open a scrollable pop-up menu of modulation sources (of which there are lots, including pitch, velocity, aftertouch, the mod or pitch wheel and, of course, the envelopes or LFOs), while the slider itself sets the modulation amount.
Finally, there are larger rectangles in all the modules and some of these are also tap-able and offer different parameter choices. So, for example, in the rectangle for oscillator 1, if you tap in the box, you can then select the waveform to be used for that oscillator from the pop-up menu of options that appears.
Key to the overall signal flow through the synth’s modules are the various small rectangles with ‘Input’ labels. These generally (although not exclusively) appear on the left-hand side of a module and, as you might expect, allow you to define just where that specific module takes its input signal from. Again, you simply tap on the box and a pop-up list of options appears. Needless to say, there is plenty of flexibility here and, until you spend a little time to become familiar with the synth engine, more than just a little potential for tying yourself up in knots! That said, VirSyn have, I think, done a great job of presenting this visual interface and there is a sense of logic to what is going on.
Meet the modules
What of the modules themselves? As mentioned earlier, there is quite a lot of them…. Starting on the left-hand end of the display we have the Keyboard module, three Oscillator modules (similar but not identical; there are some differences in terms of FM and PM features in each), the waveguide module (the basic building block for the physical modelling synthesis within the app), the Ringmodulator, Noise Generator and Subharmonic Oscillator modules, the Mixer module (you can mix up to five different inputs from other elements of the structure here), two multi-mode Filter modules (each with a range of filter types available), the Formant Filter module (this actually contains three independent filters that can be configured in different ways) and, finally (phew!), the Amplifier module.
The list is impressive enough on its own before you begin to dig into the features offered within each of these modules but it is safe to say that VirSyn have not skimped on those features either. The bottom line here is that you have a very powerful synth engine featuring a number of different synthesis types and, as a consequence, you would expect Tera Synth to be able to create a huge range of sounds.
And, if you have never programmed a sound of your own in anger, then don’t worry…. the huge collection of presets gives a more than adequate impression of just what the synth can do. Work your way through these and you will soon (a) learn just how varied Tera Synth’s sonic palette is and (b) if you start to explore how your favourite sounds are constructed, begin to get a sense of how these various modules can be chained together.
Make the change
Things are no less impressive in the Mod section of the app. This section will not, however, take quite so long to get your head around as the features are perhaps more familiar as ‘standard’ elements of lots of synth engines. Here you get four ADSR envelopes, four LFOs and four ‘multi’ envelopes (MENV). All of these can, of course, be specified as modulation sources (that is, synth parameters can be controlled by them) within the Syn screen options.
The ADSR envelopes are fairly standard fodder but you do get a choice of trigger modes so you can initiate how the envelope is triggered in different ways. Similarly, the LFOs come with a choice of standard waveforms, the ability to modulate the LFO rate and sync to tempo or key presses in various ways.
Perhaps more unusual are the multi-envelopes. Here you can effectively create your own multi-element envelope format that can be sync’ed to tempo or left to run free. There is a lot of potential here when you consider that these highly customisable envelopes can be used to modulate all sorts of interesting parameters within the main synth engine. Suffice to say, if you end up with boring, static sounds in Tera Synth, then that’s either because what you need is a boring static sound or you are not fully exploiting the modulation options provided.
The sound of Tera
As mentioned, Tera Synth is supplied with a huge range of presets that are organised into some sensible categories. Given the range of synthesis modules available, you would expect this to be a diverse collection of sounds and, thankfully, that is exactly what Tera delivers; browsing through the presets is a real pleasure.
If you are after some classic synth sounds from days of old, then Tera can do that. There are, for example, a whole bunch of presets with ‘Juno’ in their title named, obviously, after the Roland Juno series of synths that are their inspiration. I used to own a Juno 6 synth and, foolishly, way back when, I sold it to buy some other piece of long-forgotten music technology. The various lead, pad and, in particular, bass ‘Juno’ presets were therefore very welcome (except for reminding me of my foolishness).
However, Tera Synth doesn’t just do retro. There are also an impressive set of sounds that would cut the edge of the most cutting-edge dance track. A good number of these can be found in the Arpeggios category and make excellent use of the app’s arpeggiator options. This really is a very powerful combination. Equally, there is a huge number of sounds – whether modern or classic – that just sound ‘good’, from searing leads to atmospheric pads, through to big, cone-flapping basses, Tera Synth pretty much has it all covered.
A special note about the apreggiator; I think this is really very good and the ‘dice’ buttons that allow you to randomise the various settings are brilliant fun when you just want to roll the dice and see what happens. Just occasionally you will get a bit of musical magic that can start the ball rolling.
Tera-izing other iOS music apps
VirSyn have been working with iOS for some time now so, as you might expect, they seem to have technologies such as Audiobus and IAA well under control. As a consequence, I had no particular problems using Tera as an Audiobus Input slot sound source and feeding its output into other iOS music apps or on to my DAW app.
Equally, I had no problems using TERA as an IAA app on either a Cubasis MIDI track or as an audio source on an audio track. I was able to control Tera Synth from a MIDI track without any issue aside from the fact that Cubasis listed the MIDI destination as ‘Addictive Synth’ (one of VirSyn’s other iOS synth apps). The data ended up in the right place though….
In addition, I had no issues getting Tera Synth to work with my Alesis QX25 MIDI controller keyboard. The way VirSyn have implemented their MIDI lean facility is a breeze to use; if you want hand-on control of the synth’s parameters from your hardware controller then it is easy to configure.
Tera Synth is another brilliant virtual instrument from VirSyn. The interface is well designed, the synth engine both powerful and flexible and, above all, it just sounds great. Would I recommend it for a newbie iOS synth user? Well, perhaps there are somewhat more gentle introductions to synth programming out there (Arctic ProSynth, for example) but, even if you never dip below the very surface of what Tera Synth has to offer, the huge collection of presets is bound to contain something that appeals.
For the die-hard iOS synth heads, however, I think this has a lot to offer. The huge range of sounds that can be coaxed from the various modules is staggering and, while there is most certainly a learning curve to be dealt with, the design does make the whole process of sound construction a pretty logical operation.
iOS musicians are now blessed with a huge number of high-quality virtual instruments and, if you already have an iPad stocked with some of the leading lights – Thor, Nave, Mitosynth, Z3TA+, etc. – you might be forgiven for thinking that you have everything that you need. In terms of need’ well… perhaps you are right…. In terms of ‘want’, well that’s another matter altogether….
…. and if you are happy to succumb to your iOS synth addiction, then at it’s introductory price of UK£6.99, Tera Synth will hold no fear of failure. This is yet another top-notch iOS music app that deserves some attention and will reward that attention in sonic spades…. Tera Synth comes highly recommended.