As I mentioned yesterday, Bram Bos has just delivered a new iOS music app to the App Store to tempt us with. The choice of name – Troublemaker – suggests this is going to be an app with a certain amount of attitude. I’ll come back to that issue later but, as the app is a synth that attempts to capture the essence of Roland’s famous (infamous?) TB-303 hardware ‘bass’ synth – the synth that perhaps launched the whole ‘Acid’ music genre on its own – then Troublemaker is bound to make a lot of iOS musicians with a leaning for electronic music production sit up and take some notice.
Bram is building an impressive collection of iOS music apps. I reviewed his Phasemaker iOS synth app here on the Music App Blog just after it was released. It’s a brilliant little synth inspired by the FM synth engines of the 1980s (such as the classic DX7) but with a few modern twists thrown in for good measure. I’ve also looked at both of his drum synth apps – Ruismaker and Ruismaker FM – and was suitably impressed.
Sounds aside – and they are all very capable in that department – what’s also very attractive about this set of apps is that they have embraced the AU plugin format right from the start. While Phasemaker will work ‘standalone’ and includes Audiobus and IAA support (as does Troublemaker), these apps are all designed from the ground up to work within the AU environment. Audiobus and IAA were, for many iOS musicians, essential technical breakthroughs…. but AU should be the next step on from that. As such, many iOS musicians have embraced Bram’s apps with particular enthusiasm (myself included).
Here comes trouble
Troublemaker hit the App Store yesterday. I suspect Troublemaker might bring in a pretty board audience as, while Bram is keen to stress that Troublemaker is not a TB-303 emulation, it is his take on that very distinctive sound. Of course, the TB-303 has been cloned/emulated in software many times (including a number of iOS apps; Propellerhead’s ReBirth is one example) and there are some more powerful generic synths that also offer some of those sorts of tones.
However, my initial impression of Troublemaker is that it is designed to fit somewhere between a full-on clone and a mega-synth that happens to include 303 sounds within a broader palette. It’s more than a clone in that you can coax a wider range of sounds out of it and the control set doesn’t exactly mimic the original. Equally, however, it isn’t a ‘do it all’ synth; the control set is compact, easy to use (perfect for the AU format under iOS) and the range of sounds is focused on basses and leads.
The heart of the TB-303 sound was built upon some pretty raw (and somewhat unique?) oscillator waveforms and a filter full of character…. and those are the key elements that Bram has attempted to capture in the new app. The additional waveforms included, however, bring that extra something else…. As the App Store blurb states, it can even sound like a bass guitar (there is a ‘special’ waveform for that type of sound).
In iOS terms, we get AU plugin format support from the off, although it can also run as a stand-alone app, via Audiobus or IAA. While the app is designed with the AU format in mind, like iSEM or Poison-202 (for example), this is a ‘proper’ synth engine. So, if you are keen to take your iOS music app collection down the AU route, Troublemaker is certainly worth a look. The app is currently priced at UK£7.99/US$9.99, requires iOS9.0 or later, is a 5MB download. It is also universal.
In AU mode you get the key synth controls in a compact format plus a set of preset sounds to get you started. However, when run stand-alone or via Audiobus/IAA, the top of the screen contains the controls for the synth engine, while the bottom half of the display provides you with an interesting phrase sequencer. I’ll say more about these features below. Ableton Link is also included, MIDI support is provided (including MIDI CC mapping) and you can export both MIDI and WAV files from the stand-alone version based upon the sounds/sequencer combination.
Bram has prepared an excellent PDF manual for Troublemaker that can be downloaded from the app’s website. This is well worth a read and goes through all the key controls within the synth engine itself. While, on the surface, this isn’t the most complex set of synth controls most of us will have encountered, there is plenty to keep things interesting and, as the manual explains, many of the controls interact. There is also some interesting background on why the TB-303’s design, while fairly simple/conventional on paper, actually produced something quite unique in terms of sound.
Some of this was down to the design of the two envelopes and, specifically, the rather unconventional design of the filter envelope and its interaction with the various controls. Some of it was also down to the design of the filter itself that had some unusual features. Finally, a contribution also came from the TB-303’s original waveform options – square and sawtooth – both of which also had some unusual aspects. Add all these ‘not normal’ elements together and you get the distinctive tones that the TB-303 became famous for.
Bram has tried to capture all those idiosyncrasies in code with Troublemaker. That means you get emulations of those two original waveform types although they sit alongside 8 other options that expand the sonic possibilities further. You also get a filter with typical ‘reso’ and ‘cutoff’ controls and modulation of the filter properties from the ‘envmod’ and ‘punch’ controls. The latter fine-tunes the envmod decay curve behaviour, while the ‘decay’ control sets the decay time for the filter envelope.
The ‘accent’ control is an important one. As on the original hardware, accented notes push the filter a little harder and generally give a brighter sound. As described below, you can apply accents to notes within Troublemaker’s compact sequencer and the ‘accent’ setting can be varied to intensify the effect created.
The LFO found here was not present on the original 303 but, again, it provides modulation for the filter properties and can have its rate adjusted as well as being tempo sync’ed (including via Ableton Link). It interacts with the cutoff setting so the two things interact with each other.
The upper row of controls provide two different types of distortion in the ‘fold’ and ‘fuzz’ knobs, while the delay, time and feedback controls provide a rather nice delay effect…. and that’s about it…. enough to keep you interested but without having to resort to a ‘synth programming 101’ manual if you are not yet fully signed up for synth school. Just tweak away and enjoy….
Stepping into trouble
Music software – desktop or iOS – has plenty of heavyweight MIDI sequencer and synth arpeggio options when you need to dig deep. However, I think there is also a place for a more simple and straightforward approach and, in the lower half of the stand-alone screen, I think that’s exactly what Bram has gone for in Troublemaker. It is, I think, a bit of a gem….
By default, you get offered an 8-step sequence but this can be varied between 1 and 16 steps by the user. Whatever number of steps you set, you can then add notes via the touchscreen at any steps required, add accents to selected notes and add ties or slides between notes. This is super-simple to use but also hugely creative when combined with the 303-style sounds.
On the right side of the sequencer section are a number of controls for changing your sequencer by transposing it up/down or moving the note positions +/- a step. These can be executed while the sequence is in playback and can create some nice variations. You also have the ‘variation’ button at the top of the sequencer that takes your current sequence and applies a bit of random variation…. or you can go the whole hog and hit the ‘random’ button and just see what happens.
On the left side there are load/save buttons. These operate on the sequencer section only (the synth sound settings are not saved as part of this preset system) and provide an easy way to store your created patterns. This strip of controls also includes the Ableton Link and MIDI configuration options. I had no issues getting an external MIDI keyboard to work with Troublemaker…. but don’t miss out on the sequencer because it is a lot of fun.
The other controls here are the MIDI and WAV buttons. These render out the current pattern as either a MIDI file or a WAV audio file. Both are easy to use. As mentioned earlier, in AU mode, you don’t get the sequencer so I found myself using the MID option quite a lot and exporting the MIDI file to Cubasis (for example) proved a breeze.
What this meant was I could have the stand-alone version of Troublemaker running at the same time as using the AU plugin version within Cubasis. I simply programmed a few pattern in the stand-alone version and then exported the MIDI data into Cubasis where I arranged it as required on the Cubasis MIDI track to develop a full performance. It worked really smoothly and made for a neat workflow.
Absolutely no trouble?
As a stand-alone app and via AU, I had no problems at all using TroubleMaker. Operation was very smooth and multiple AU instances worked without a hitch in both Cubasis and AUM. On first load into Audiobus I did experience a minor gremlin but, thereafter, it seemed to work absolutely fine. MIDI input worked well also as did Ableton Link.
I’ve never owned a real TB-303 (nearly bought a bargain second-hand one once; a missed opportunity) but I have used a few. OK, so Troublemaker might not have quite the street-cred of the original hardware but I do think it does a pretty good job of both capturing the essence of the sound and bringing the user experience up to date. I also think Bram has made some excellent choices in terms of the design balance between an accessible user experience and the depth of the programming options.
And whether it sounds identical to a TB-303 is, frankly, a bit of a moot point; Troublemaker just sounds great in its own right. No, not the most versatile synth you will ever use but, what it does do, it does very well.
I do like the sequencer section. In use, one rather neat element is the variable step length option. I had a lot of fun export sequences of different step lengths into Cubasis and then looping them together with different Troublemaker instances…. an listening to the loops gradually move out of step with each other…. all very cool.
There are perhaps also a couple of (very minor) quirks in the current configuration. For example, in the stand-alone version of the app there is no option to save a set of the synth engine settings as a sound preset. However, that is possible within the AU plugin version. I can understand why Bram might not think sound presets are an issue given the simplicity of the programming options but, equally, I also think some users would like the option, especially if it could be combined with the sequencer preset system and you could choose to load/save the sound settings (or not) in a sequencer preset.
My only other comment would concern external MIDI control over the synth parameters. As described very clearly in the PDF manual, all of the controls will respond to a specific MIDI CC number so you can, of course, send suitable MIDI CC data from an external controller or sequencer to tweak the sounds in real-time. This works a treat…. but, as far as I can see, you have to set up those specific MIDI CC numbers via your controller device; Troublemaker doesn’t (yet at least) have a MIDI Learn style system for easy linking between your controller and the app.
OK, I’m sure there are a few areas of potential fine-tuning for the feature set but, these aside, I think Troublemaker is absolutely fabulous. I love the design ethos and the AU support seems to work flawlessly. The sequencer option in the stand-alone app is also a bit of ‘keep it simple’ genius. Oh, and, most importantly, Troublemaker sounds great; if you are looking for synth-based trouble – in a sonic sense at least – then this will be right up your street.
Indeed, I think any half-addicted iOS musician is going to find the lure of Troublemaker quite hard to resist. At UK£7.99/US$9.99 then, hopefully, your bank manager (or pocket money provider?) won’t lose too much sleep over the investment…. but Troublemaker is absolute worth the price of entry. Top-notch stuff from a developer that just keeps getting better….