Viking Synth review – Blamsoft add a first iOS AU instrument plugin to their catalogue

Download from iTunes App Storeviking synth logo 1I did some revisions to my ‘best iOS synths apps’ roundup article not so long ago and, as I commented at the time, this is a category of iOS music app where the choice is abundant and the quality can be very high. That doesn’t, however, seem to deter developers from offering us some further choices; enter, stage left, Viking Synth from Blamsoft.

Blamsoft will be familiar to some iOS musicians through their series of Audio Units (AU) iOS effects apps. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Blamsoft, the AU cupboard would currently look quite threadbare. However, the company have their roots in developing extensions for Propellerhead’s Reason and many of their iOS offerings are, in effect, ports of software they have developed for Reason. Viking Synth falls into that category but, as it represents Blamsoft’s first iOS synth (as opposed to audio effect), it will, of course, be interesting to see just what it has to offer.

Given the competitive nature of the iOS synth app market, any new synth does perhaps need some unique selling point to attract the attention of potential purchasers. For Viking Synth, perhaps that USP is that the app is an Audio Unit instrument (AUi) and, given that we now have a number of AU hosts available – Garageband, Cubasis and, most recently, AUM, have now joined MultitrackStudio for iPad in offering AU hosting – there are bound to be some iOS musicians who would consider Viking Synth simply on the grounds of being interested in seeing what AU has to offer. And, as the app has a launch period price of just UK£3.99, it’s not such a financial stretch to give the app a punt simply so you can exercise those AU hosts.

Viking Synth - Blamsoft's first AU plugin virtual instrument for iOS and seen here running within MultitrackStudio for iPad.

Viking Synth – Blamsoft’s first AU plugin virtual instrument for iOS and seen here running within MultitrackStudio for iPad.

Of course, it would also help if Viking Synth sounded pretty good in its own right and I’m sure Blamsoft would be more than happy to reassure you on that front. In fact, Viking Synth is a software emulation of something of a hardware classic; the Moog Voyager monophonic analog synth. The Voyager’s own heritage lies with the original Minimoog from the 1970s. Moog are analog synth royalty so, even if Viking Synth only catches the essence of that sound, then Blamsoft will have something very appealing on their hands. Oh, and you can still buy hardware with the Voyager tag…. but do expect to pay somewhat more than UK£3.99 for it :-)

Viking invasion

Let’s start with a few basic technical details. Viking Synth is an AU-only synth plugin. It therefore requires iOS9.0 or later and it is compatible with iPad-only at present. The download is a modest 10 MB and, as indicated above, the launch price is just UK£3.99.

Like all Blamsoft’s AU plugin apps, the user interface is pragmatic and functional rather than a thing of great beauty. Yes, I’d rather spend time with software that is easy on the eye as well as the ears but, ultimately, it is the ease of use and sound that matter rather than looks (you know… just like in the world of successful pop stars).

One of the upsides of the AU format is the ability to run multiple instances of an app at the same time - as shown here within AUM.

One of the upsides of the AU format is the ability to run multiple instances of an app at the same time – as shown here within AUM.

Rather than looking like the original Voyager, the intention with Viking Synth is to capture the sound. That means what we get here is a monosynth – one note at a time only – and therefore ideally suited to either bass or lead tones. However, you can create sustained and evolving sounds for some ‘one note drones/pads’ and, equally, you can squeeze some more percussive style sounds out of the engine if you wish to. This is, however, a synth engine that is really about bass and lead sounds.

The interface is a masterclass in simple graphics and the various controls are spread across six screens; Mod, Osc, Mix, Filt, Env and Glob. Each of these is kept compact however with just a few controls (so as not to make the AU window, the size of which is controlled by the AU host, seem too busy for each sub-set of the controls).

Man the oars

Like the original hardware Voyager, Viking Synth’s engine room starts its sounds based upon three oscillators (each with a small selection of standard waveforms) and a noise generator. Unlike the hardware original, however, you don’t get the external audio/line input.

Viking Synth's main Osc page....

Viking Synth’s main Osc page….

The Osc screen allows you to configure the three primary oscillators and each features a variable Wave control that allows you to blend between triangle, saw and square waveforms. You can also set the fundamental frequency of each of the three oscillators using the Octave sliders. For Osc 2 and 3, you also get Frequency controls that allow you to detune them relative to Osc 1. The Semi and Fine options adjust how the Frequency dial operates giving you plenty of scope for pitch differences of full semitones or just a few cents.

The buttons to the right of this screen allows you to connect the three oscillators and lock their behaviour in different ways. You don’t have to engage any of these (the oscillators then run independently of each other) but they open up all sorts of different options so are well worth experimenting with. There is a useful PDF reference manual for Viking Synth available on Blamsoft’s website that explains what each setting does in more detail.

The Mix screen....

The Mix screen….

The Mix screen is very simple. It allows you to set the levels for each of the three oscillators and, if required, to switch on the Noise source and set its relative level also.

The Filt screen contains Viking Synth’s dual filter controls. The filter can operate in one of two modes (toggled via the Mode switch). It can be a Dual Lowpass filter (low pass filters applied to the left and right channels) or as a high pass/low pass filter combination. The Resonance and Cutoff controls are pretty much what you would expect (although, again, the manual is worth a read here given they dual filter format), while the Spacing control adjusts the frequency difference between the two filters and the KB Amount controls how the filter’s cutoff frequency tracks notes played on the keyboard.

The Filter screen offers a number of different filter types.

The Filter screen offers a number of different filter types and DSP algorithms.

The Circuit setting allows the user to switch the filter between different DSP algorithms. To some extent this is about accuracy of the modelling vs CPU demands but there are also different sounds available here and the various Drive options available can add some nice overdrive to your sounds.

viking synth in aum 6

The Env options are straightforward but effective….

The Envelope screen provides ADSR controls for the two Envelopes. The Amp envelope does exactly what you would expect and controls how the volume of a note changes with time as you hit a key. The Filter envelope does the same with how the filter changes the sound through time and the additional Amount control allows you to set just how strongly the filter is applied to your sound.

viking synth in aum 5

The Glob screen provides a number of general settings for the app.

The Glob (global) screen, amongst a few other things, includes controls for setting the pitch bend response, the global fine-tuning and the Glide Rate of the pitch transition to a new note. The Drift control is quite an interesting one…. this apparently tries to simulate the inherent pitch instability of a hardware analog oscillator; if you want a bit more of that analog unpredictability, then turn this up :-)  To my ears, the differences were quite subtle, but it’s there if you want to experiment.

Of course, while oscillators and filters are what create the core elements of the sound, it’s a synth’s envelope and modulation options that get it moving and Viking Synth’s Mod screen (rather oddly at the top of the list) provides you with ways to get the modulation options working. Here you can tweak how the LFO behaves and is sync’ed (or not) to tempo.

The app offers a number of modulation options through the Mod screen.

The app offers a number of modulation options through the Mod screen.

The two modulation busses allow you to set modulation source, modulation destination (target) and modulation shaping for the mod wheel (assuming your MIDI keyboard provides a mod wheel) and the On’ bus. The latter is always ‘on’. The Shaping control for both modulation types is worth exploring though; it offers some useful options including controlling the modulation based upon either MIDI velocity or (if your keyboard supports it) aftertouch amongst a number of other choices. The aftertouch setting can make for some very cool modulation options on sustained notes and controlled by how hard you push on your MIDI keyboard.

The sound of the Vikings

Despite the somewhat modest looks and (fairly) streamlined control set, Viking Synth actually manages to pack quite a lot of options in. So how does this all translate to actual sounds? Well, if you use the plugin via either AUM or Garageband, then you get access to the app’s included presets (at present, some AU hosts don’t support the preset section of the AU protocol; I’m sure that will change with time; NOTE: it now has – Cubasis, for example, now supports this feature).

As you might expect with a mono synth, the presets are dominated by bass and lead sounds but there is actually a very good selection included and Blamsoft have done a pretty good job of showing just what the synth can do. Who could resist trying out presets called ‘Big Bottom’, ‘Dirty Bass’ or ‘Fisticuffs’?

Viking Synth is shipped with a decent crop of presets to get you started.

Viking Synth is shipped with a decent crop of presets to get you started.

In fact, there are some excellent bass sounds to be had and, whether they would actually get close to the undoubtedly classic Moog sound in a direct listening test or not, Viking Synth sounds pretty good in its own right. The lead sounds are just as strong and I certainly got a sense of analog ‘warmth’ from Viking Synth. Used in AUM, it was easy enough to add in some additional effects options such as delay or reverb or overdrive (just as you might have to do with the hardware original)…. and what is a pretty impressive sound becomes even bigger. There is no way Viking Synth sounds like a UK£3.99 product; it punches well above its weight in sonic terms.

Viking Synth worked smoothly in Cubasis as an AU host....

Viking Synth worked smoothly in Cubasis as an AU host….

The app performed pretty well for me also in all the AU hosts I tried. The only downside was the lack of access to the preset system in Cubasis and MultitrackStudio for iPad at present (at least, I couldn’t find out how to access it within these hosts but feel free to let me know if I’ve missed something here). Otherwise, I had no issues with Viking Synth and it happily accepted MIDI data from an external keyboard and other iOS apps (such as Cubasis). Multiple instances of the app was also not a problem… one of the obvious upsides of the AU plugin format.

In summary

There are, of course, other ‘Moog-a-like’ iOS synth apps out there (for example, Arturia’s iMini) and a number of the top-end iOS synth apps that can turn their hand in impressive fashion to analog-style monophonic bass and lead sounds. However, Viking Synth is an impressive little beast and, at the launch price, undoubtedly good value for money.

Whether you need it in your arsenal given what other iOS synths you already own will, of course, be a personal decision but it does exactly what Blamsoft have set out to do and it does it with a minimum of fuss. And, for some, even if they have the sounds covered in other apps already, there is the interesting AU aspect to consider. I’m more than happy to support a developer that is showing commitment to that particular cause as, as a technology, I think iOS music making needs the AU format to succeed. App addicts might also just snap it up anyway; it is, after all, in the lose change price bracket.

Viking Synth might not be the prettiest iOS synth app you ever use but hats off to Blamsoft for taking the AU format and running with it. Here’s hoping some of our other favourite iOS music app developers will follow suit (and that Apple will refine the AU specification) and help deliver on the obvious potential the AU plugin format has to offer.

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