Unique review – Sugar Bytes port their desktop synth to iPad and iPhone

Download from iTunes App StoreConsidering I’m really a guitar player bought up on blues and classic rock, I have a bit of an unusual thing for Sugar Bytes. The company specialise is music software aimed very much at the more electronic musician and, even within that niche, their virtual instruments and effects are pretty much ‘out there’. Perhaps not the first choice for your latest hard rock song?

OK, so I spend quite a lot of time creating production music as well…. and that does involve me in spreading my musical wings a bit further. Oh, and I’m also a bit of a geek when it comes to music technology for its own sake….. and it’s these traits where Sugar Bytes stuff first got my attention and got under my skin.

Most of the time, it’s pretty fair to say their software is just a bit bonkers – yes, in a wonderful, creative, way – and also quite ‘dense’ (that is, the user interfaces are jam-packed and can take some time to find your way around). However, for their latest iOS release – Unique – we have something that, on the surface at least, almost looks ‘conventional’. Unique is a software synth app that looks like…. well, a software synth app.

Unique – another dose of Sugar Bytes inspired sound for iOS.

Maybe that’s not such a big surprise when you consider that the Unique concept is actually around 10 years old. It appeared as a desktop plugin product around 2007, at a time when the Sugar Bytes catalogue hadn’t yet flourished into its full-on ‘experimental’ mode. And while the UI has had a make-over since the original launch (so the iOS version looks a little more modern than the original desktop version did), it does, on first sight, look like a synthesizer rendered in software rather than some steam-punk musical wonderland.

However, underneath the hood, alongside the fairly normal twin oscillator, filter, modulation, arpeggiator and effects equipped engine components, Unique does have something… unique; its Vowel Filter option. OK, so there are other synths that now offer this kind of sound modulation option but the way it is implemented here does make it very accessible. And, as demonstrated by the impressive collection of presets, once you know your way around a little, you can coax some very interesting sounds out of it. Unique’s Vowel Filter might not be absolutely unique in the soft synth world, but it certainly provides an edge to the instrument and takes it beyond ‘just another synth’.

So Unique they made two

Let’s start with some practicalities. Unique comes in separate iPad and iPhone versions. Both require iOS10.0 or later but, that aside, it ought to run on most iOS hardware that can also run 10. The download is 35MB. The app ships with Audiobus support, IAA, MIDI (including a MIDI Learn system that supports host automation) and Ableton Link. As yet, there is no iOS AU support (that would be nice to see though; please Sugar Bytes?).

The iPad version is currently priced at UK£14.99/US$14.99 while the iPhone version can be picked up for just UK£4.99/US$4.99. As far as I can see from the specs (and, having done most of this review on my iPad Pro, I’ve only had a brief play with the iPhone version) it is exactly the same synth on both platforms.

So just how ‘unique’ is Unique’s synth engine?

Yes, this might get some complaining about the app not being universal….. but, given the pocket money price of the iPhone version, I suspect it is set that way to both entice folks in (who might then upsize to the iPad version) and to allow Sugar Bytes a bit of extra revenue from the iPhone version for those that go down the iPad route and get fully hooked…..   Alternatively, Sugar Bytes could have charged UK£19.99/US19.99 for a universal version. Given what’s on offer, that certainly wouldn’t have been an unacceptable price point….

Simple synth?

Unique’s sound engine starts with two oscillators. These each offer five types of waveform – sawtooth, triple saw, pulse, triple FM and noise – so perhaps not quite so conventional as some twin-oscillator synths. This does suggest some potential for quite a wide spectrum of sounds.

With each oscillator type, the sub-set of controls available changes somewhat. Alongside the oscillator ADSR knobs, therefore, you get Octave and Detune controls for the sawtooth but Octave, Detune and Spread for the triplesaw. The other option to note here is the Unison button (located top-left); engage this and Unique puts all it’s processing grunt into being a big fat mono synth…. Without this engaged, you can coax eight voices at a time out of each oscillator.

Twin oscillators are offered and there are some cool pan options in the Mix section.

Below the Unison button are the Spread (pitch offset) and Glide (pitch transition between consecutive notes) when used in monophonic mode. However, Unique also offers polyphonic glide, although I’m not sure I’ve really got my head around how that works as yet. There is also an option in the Settings page (tap the cog icon top-right) where you can set a first note glide.

Beside the Spread/Glide knobs are the arpeggiator controls. The arp itself is pretty basic – a limited number of up and down options plus a random setting – but, interestingly, you can switch it on independently for each oscillator using the buttons located here. This can be very effective as, when you hold a chord, one oscillator might offer you a sustained sound while the other gives you the same notes but arpeggiated. You also have options for how it is triggered (each note, first note, highest note, lowest note, clock).

The is simple to use but offers some nice features none-the-less.

The arp is, of course, locked to tempo and offers different musical intervals in terms of speed. It’s also worth noting that the arp can be selected as a trigger in the various modulation options…. I’ll come to those in more detail below.

Both oscillators offer five different modes.

In the mixer

The Mix panel – located top-centre – lets you set the relative level of the two oscillators. This section also includes pan controls but there are some interesting options here. With the two Poly buttons not engaged (this is known as Single mode), the pan knobs offer exactly as you might expect. However, engage either Poly button and that Pan control then can spread the oscillators voices across the stereo field; great for sounds that really fill some space!

There are also separate autopan options for each oscillator including independent rate controls. Things can get really interesting here from a stereo perspective…. oh, and before I forget to mention it, do bear in mind that these controls (and, in fact, almost any control in Unique) can be modulated within the Controllers section (accessed via the button in the right side of the top-most control strip). If you want to get really busy with your stereo image, Unique has some…. well…. fairly unique options to let you do it.

Simple synth Bytes back?

Where Unique starts to get just that little bit more interesting is within the filter section. There are 5 filter types (as shown in the screenshot) and you get an ADSR envelope to modulate the filter (although you can use other modulation sources also) and fairly standard looking Resonance, Drive (adds overdrive) and Mix (wet/dry) controls.

The Cutoff and Peak controls interact with the Envelope-based modulation, influencing just how much filter movement you get as notes are triggered…. Oh, and yet again, you get the choice of various triggers to restart the filter. Given what looks like quite a compact set of controls, there are actually some interesting options here.

It’s the filter section where things get particularly interesting…..

However, perhaps the most interesting is the Vowel button. Engage this and the control set changes somewhat to give you vowel type controls. If you tap, hold, and drag, on any of these you can move the selection between various vowel based sounds. The filter than modulates between these two different vowel elements (again, based upon whatever source of modulation you choose). Generally you get two vowel types to blend but, if you select the 4 step’ filter mode (the button located top-right of the Filter panel), then you actually get four vowel slots to modulate between.

The end result is really some rather cool, vocal-esq, sounds. If Unique has a USP (unique selling point) then I guess this is what Sugar Bytes would say it was….. There are some excellent presets amongst the 300 or so that are supplied with the app that demonstrate the filter’s vowel options rather well. For example, try Small Talk from the Sequenced category, or Logic Bass or Oi Bass from the Bass category, or Aeroscraper from the Lead category, or….   well, you get the idea.

The filter offers a number of different modes of operation.

OK, so adding vowel overtones to a synth sound is not unique to Unique, but it is certainly an interesting addition to any synth engine and it is implemented here in a way that makes it very accessible.

The end is nigh

The final bits of the signal chain are provided by two effects slots each with similar options of reverb, delay, phaser and lofi. Slot 1 offers a further filter effect option while slot 2 has chorus. These all work very well and, as elsewhere, all the controls can be either modulated or controlled via MIDI.

The Master section then rounds things off a Master volume control but not before you can also add a sine-based Sub Oscillator (perhaps best used for added bass but you can pitch shift it through 5 octaves at octave resolution using the Oct knob). There is also a rather wonderful tremolo effect with amount, rate and fade (fade in of the tremolo). Effectively, this provides modulation of the master volume but, on the right patch, it sounds great.

The two effects slots and Master section provide further sound shaping options.

I’ve not got into the modulation options in any depth yet (I’ll do that in a minute) but I’ll make one other comment about all the sound engine elements described so far. This is, of course, a digital synth – zeros and ones of code – and attempting, to a large part, to capture the ‘analog-ness’ of classic analog hardware. Now, there are lots of ‘analog’ software synths out there including some really very good iOS synth apps. I’m not about to declare that Unique is ‘more analog’ than what we already have…. but there is a rather nice warmth to many of the presets.

I’m sure I don’t understand the algorithms required to create a virtual analog oscillator or filter but, whatever the secrets are, Sugar Bytes have certainly got their heads around many of them. Sonically, Unique does a pretty decent impression of an analog synth and, when you consider its price….. well, it’s remarkable that we can get something with this much character for such a modest outlay. Layer that with the options provided by the vowel filtering and it should come as no surprise that Unique can give you some very attractive and engaging synth sounds to exploit.

Unique ships with a good collection of presets including some speaker shaking basses.

All change

Modulation options in synths can be one area that frustrates those of us without a PhD in synthology. Unique manages to pull off quite a neat trick here; it offers a huge range of options for parameter modulation (so you can build in all sorts of ways to change your synth sounds as you play) but manages to do it in a manner that is, on the whole, pretty easy on the user.

There are two elements to this. The first requires you to leave the main synth engine screen by tapping the large Controllers button located on the right-side of the top-most menu strip. The top half of the display then gives you the Controllers page with sub-panels for the LFO, Envelope, Sequencer and Motion sections. You can, of course, tweak the controls in all four sections but each can act as a modulation source that can be linked to sound parameters within the synth engine itself.

Unique’s modulation options are easy to use but very effective.

The first two of these – the LFO and Envelope options – are pretty standard elements in any synth modulation setup but there are some nice touches here. In particular, both offer the useful ‘range’ sliders that are very easily set (just drag the high/low controls to set the active range) and can be used to limit the range over which a parameter is modulated. So, for example, you might only want the filter Reso control to be modulated (changed) over a small range rather than its full range (which would probably be OTT in most sounds). You simply fine-tune the range here…..

The Sequencer provides an eight step sequencer over which you can draw in your own modulation pattern. You get range controls here also but also the Glide knob that allows you to smoothly move between the modulation amount specified in each sequence step if you prefer.

The Motion panel provides a further interesting option. Here you can record your own finger-drawn pattern within the XY pad. Once recorded, this will simply playback and, back in the main synth engine screen (as described in a minute), you can link synth parameters to either the X or Y axis of the Motion controller. The Trigger option here is particularly useful as it allows you to restart the motion pattern in various ways (for example, for each note or just the first note) or simply to let it loop locked to either the tempo/clock or the Arp function.

So, the first element is that, given that there are some creative options here, setting the modulation sources up is pretty easy. The second is that Unique has a very straightforward modulation/MIDI Learn system that allows you to link these sources to a target or two.

Setting up a modulation source for a control is simply a matter of tapping, holding, and then selecting from the pop-up list…..

To do that, we have to go back to the main synth engine screen (tap the Controllers button again). Then, it is simply a case of tapping and holding on any of the controls within the synth engine screen to bring up a control selection panel. You get the various modulation options just described – LFO, envelope, sequencer, motion X axis and motion Y axis – to choose from but, equally, if you are using a suitable external MIDI controller, you can also tap the Learn option and give yourself hands-on control. The final option is ‘Clear’ that, of course, clears any modulation control currently set for that control.

While the system doesn’t allow you to assign multiple modulation sources to a single synth parameter, you can assign a single modulation source to multiple parameters (so the LFO can, for example, modulate both the Reso and Drive knobs at the same time).

To repeat, this is very easy to configure and that, in turn, would encourage even the most novice of synth programmers to experiment without feeling intimidated by the options provided. However, if you do get busy in this section, you can create all sort of interesting modulation options and really breath some life into your sounds. For me at least, the vocal-type filter effects aside, the modulation system is the highlight of the design; Sugar Bytes have done something quite un-Sugar Bytes here and traded ‘really deep’ for ‘really easy to use’. It’s a design choice that works brilliantly….

Unique applications

I didn’t experience any notable issues while using Unique on by iPad Pro test system. As a stand-alone app, it worked very nicely indeed and was more than happy to work with an external MIDI keyboard, including using the MIDI Learn system to hook up a controller or two.

Unique played nicely with AUM (shown here) and Cubasis via IAA.

Monitored through my studio playback system, it’s also clear that the synthesis engine can pack some serious punch. That’s particularly true at the bottom end; be careful with that volume control when you first plug in or you might find your speaker cones pinned to the wall behind you :-)

It also worked smoothly within Audiobus.

Used in both Audiobus and via IAA (I tried both Cubasis and AUM), the results seemed just as good. The Ableton Link support locked well with other Link enabled apps. Perhaps the only other (obvious) comment to make is that we don’t have AU support in this first release. Will that come? I do hope so…. and, who knows, maybe Apple have got some more modifications for the AU spec coming with iOS11? Maybe that might include a ‘full-screen’ mode for the AU plugin window? That would certainly make it easier for developers to transition their UIs across…..   Fingers crossed.

That aside, Unique behaved very much as advertised; always good to see in a first release version.

Talk to me

So, have you counted the number of iOS synth reviews I’ve done over the last 5 years here on the Music App Blog? No, neither have I but you know it’s quite a lot…. and there are probably a good number I’ve never got around too also. All of which means your iOS hardware is probably already well stocked with synth apps and begs the (often asked) question; do I need another synth app?

When you adjust an on-screen control, Unique offers a pop-up display so you can easily see the exact setting.

Well, probably not…. but like any collector with an ‘n + 1’ addition to their favourite thing, if you already have an iOS synth habit, I’m sure Unique is going to prove very tempting. The price point is, I think, very fair given the app matches the desktop spec very well and, as far as I can see, provides the same sonic results at a fraction of the price. It might be (just) out of the App Store’s casual purchase category but in the wider context of software synth bang-for-buck, it’s a steal.

Let’s, for the moment, leave aside the issue of ‘need’ (nobody really needs a software synth), who might Unique appeal too in the ‘want’ stakes? Well, a lot of folks I guess…. and some of that comes down to the obvious comparison that we could make here. Yes, there are all sorts of apps that, in some way offer ‘synthetic vocal’ elements (including some great vocoders) but, in terms of vocal synthesis, the top of the current iOS tree is Phonem.

Unique’s includes support for Ableton Link…. so it’s easy to sync all those effects and modulation options to your overall project tempo.

Phonem is a brilliant piece of software and, in terms of vocal synthesis options, it runs rings around the competition, Unique included. It is also a very deep – and quite specialised – app. It probably requires a user that is prepared for the quite steep learning curve that such deep/power brings.

Unique, while giving you some of that ‘vocal-like’ element in your sounds, is a very different beasts. In use, it is very much a conventional virtual analog synth…. it’s just that you can blend in the vocal elements within the filter section should you so wish. It may, therefore, appeal to a different – and perhaps more general – user base. If you want a flavour of the ‘synth with vocal overtones’ sound, but are perhaps not ready (yet) to fully immerse yourself in Phonem, then maybe Unique will give you some of that in a more accessible format?

That said, it is also a very competent ‘conventional’ (can’t quite believe I’m saying that about a Sugar Bytes app) software synth; it’s well worth a place in a synth app collection on it’s own merits, whether you indulge in some vowel filtering or not.

Unique might not be absolutely ‘unique’…. but is sounds great, is a clever design, and is easy to program.

In summary

Wow, Sugar Bytes do ‘conventional’, albeit with a suitable sonic twist (that vowel filtering) and a very impressive (and accessible) modulation system. No, Unique is not unique in the sense that there is no other software synth that offers vocal-esq textures, but it is a great performer in is own right, has a great UI, sounds fabulous and does allow the user to blend those vowel elements into their synth sounds in a very easy fashion. It is, therefore, perhaps a unique combination of features overall.

Unique is perhaps not going to make it onto everyone’s ‘must have’ list but I suspect it will find its way onto plenty of ‘most wanted’ lists. This is a synth that could appeal to almost anyone and I suspect Sugar Bytes are quickly going to find it becomes one of their best selling iOS music apps in what is already a very impressive iOS app catalogue. Check out the demo videos below (including one by iOS favourite Jakob Haq) and then hit the download button to find out more via the App Store.

Unique for iPad

Download from iTunes App Store


Unique for iPhone

Download from iTunes App Store




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    Comments

    1. Hi John, very cool review and i also really like this synth. My only big gripe is that on newer devices like an iPad Pro or iPhone 7 the interface is very laggy. The keyboard, wheels and knobs act extremely sluggish and laggy. I don’t know if you tested this on an older model iPad, but just wondering if you had encountered some lag issues too during your testing. Unfortunately Sugarbytes has still not issued a fix for this although more users have expressed concerns on the Audiobus forum about it. Older devices play fine.

      There is no lag when using an external software or hardware keyboard either. It only happens within the app itself. I really dig this synth and would love to be able to edit it more smoothly than I am currently able to. The lag makes it feel very frustrating and takes away from the joy to tweak the sounds.

    2. Nice to have it confirmed here that the iPhone version appears identical. I will happily fork out fir that, and useit to see, well, how much Iuse it!

    3. Bought it and love it. All these features are great, ie; IAA, Audiobus and Ableton Link, but where is AU support..? Well, it is sadly missing, I’m afraid…
      What a shame… :(

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