VirSyn will be well known to the majority of computer-based musicians whether you work on the desktop or a mobile platform such as iOS. The company have an extensive portfolio of iOS music apps covering a number of different synths, audio effects and a dedicated arpeggiator app.
Many of these apps are iOS-sized ports of VirSyn’s desktop virtual instruments and effects and I’ve reviewed a good number of them here on the blog over the last three years or so. VirSyn newest addition to this impressive catalogue is VoxSyn and, in their website’s blurb, this is described as a ‘voice controlled synthesizer for iPad and iPhone’. At first glance, that might well say ‘vocoder’ to most readers and, in essence, that’s a pretty reasonable first stab at VoxSyn. However, VirSyn see VoxSyn as something just a bit more than a traditional vocoder effect and, given the rather interesting touchscreen interface (more of which below) and pitch control options, it certainly doesn’t look like a ‘me too!’ vocoder :-)
What’s in the Vox?
Let’s start with some basics. VoxSyn is a universal app and, for a limited time only, is available at an introductory price of just UK£4.99/US$6.99. It requires iOS7.0 or later and is a 32MB download. Auidiobus and IAA support are included from the off, as is support for Core and Virtual MIDI. And while most users will probably use the app via the Audiobus/IAA route, it does also include its own recording facility with options for sharing or exporting any audio recordings made.
In terms of the sounds you can make, the app uses an audio input signal as one element of the sound (via the internal iOS mic or via a more up-market audio interface). This is most typically going to be a human voice, but there is nothing to stop you feeding the app with other audio signals.
The audio input is then ‘processed’ by VoxSyn’s synth engine. OK, so many readers will already be aware that VirSyn produce some pretty good (and generally quite distinctive) software synths…. so I think it is safe to assume that some of that same synth expertise has found its way into VoxSyn. The app also includes a range of audio effects – drive, phaser, delay, chorus and reverb – that can then be added to further spice up this ‘audio processed by synth’ signal.
The app ships with a huge (several hundred) collection of processing presets and, given the fairly streamlined control set that’s actually offered for the synth engine itself (although the effects options are more plentiful), that’s clearly how VirSyn see the workflow; load up a preset, tweak it a little… and then just get playing.
What’s your pitch?
In a conventional vocoder, while your audio input provides a huge element of the sound source, pitch is generally controlled via MIDI within the vocoder’s synth engine. VoxSyn allows you to work in just that way but, if you look into the Settings menu, there are actually two Pitch Control options; Follow Voice Pitch and Follow MIDI Pitch. With the latter only engaged, you get this more conventional vocoder-style approach so, as you sing into the app, you only hear an audio output from the app when a MIDI note (or notes) are also being played (both audio input and MIDI note are required to create the sound)…. and pitch is controlled by the MIDI note/s.
I’ll get to the Follow Voice Pitch mode in a minute but let’s not beat about the bush here; Follow MIDI Pitch mode in VoxSyn is an absolute blast. MIDI input can come from the hexagonal note triggers on the Play screen or, if you prefer, from an external MIDI keyboard. I gave both a try and both work very well. Yes, if you are not used to the whole vocoder concept, playing MIDI notes and singing/speaking a musical phrase at the same time so that they ‘work’ together does take a little getting used to…. but once you do, there is an almost endless array of electronica-style vocal effects to be created here.
Indeed, I’d go a little further than that…. not only is VoxSyn a lot of fun in this mode, it is also hugely creative. OK, the vocal parts you create are always going to sound synthetic but, with a bit of practice, you can easily to ‘robot doll’ lead vocals, full-on chordal vocal/synth harmony parts and, through vocalisation (that is, just making rhythmic sounds with your voice rather than speaking or singing), some awesome vocal-meets-synth rhythmic chord or lead parts. Whether you are looking for some cheesy robot voices or backing vocals for your latest pop/dance track, or for something more experimental in terms of sound source for a cutting-edge EDM track, then VoxSyn could well fit the bill.
Then, of course, you can switch on the Follow Voice Pitch mode. As the name suggests, in this mode, VoxSyn uses the pitch of the audio input to control the pitch of the ‘voice+synth’ output. You therefore don’t need to also play MIDI notes (either via the touchscreen or an external keyboard); as soon as you supply an audio input, VoxSyn detects the pitch, does is synthesis magic, and supplies an output.
Of course, the downside with this mode is that it depends upon your ability to provide half-decent pitch information in the first place. If your audio source is an acoustic instrument (a guitar for example) then that’s not such a big deal but, if it’s a sung vocal, then the pitch control is down to the singer. There is a bit of help here – the Edit page includes options for Autotune and scale selection – but, even so, you do need to exert some pitch control yourself.
That said, this mode is hugely flexible and offers a very interesting alternative to the more conventional vocoder approach found in the Follow MIDI Pitch mode. I can easily imagine those with a more experimental streak using this mode to vocalise all sorts of weird and wonderful (and often quite scary) soundscape-type sounds…. maybe the kinds of sounds you might get from a standard synth engine if you knew how to program them…. but here, you simply ‘make’ the sound with your voice, ‘sing’ it, and then let VoxSyn synthesise it in some fashion via one of its presets.
Incidentally, you can have both pitch modes switched on at the same time…. and while this can be a bit confusing at times (both audio input and MIDI control pitch), don’t let that stop you experimenting :-)
The key onscreen controls for VoxSyn are housed across three screens; Play, Edit and FX. These are accessed via the buttons along the top-strip menu bar that also provides access to the in-app recording features, presets, Settings, Help and the ‘randomise’ function (no prizes for guessing what this last one does).
The Play screen provides you with a touchscreen performance surface with an array of hexagonal note triggers. These can be tapped (and held) to play MIDI notes in Follow MIDI Pitch mode but they also light up in Follow Voice Pitch mode to show you what the incoming audio pitch is.
By default, note labels are shown on each hexagon. However, my selecting a specific scale on the Edit page, only notes lying in the chosen key/scale combination are labelled. This makes it easier to stay ‘in key’ when triggering notes from the touchscreen.
The Edit screen gives you access to a number of settings that influence the synth engine. The Level controls are self-explanatory while the Pitch section allows you to set the global pitch offset (coarse and fine) plus the Glide amount. As mentioned earlier, you also get some automatic tuning options to help tighten up the pitch of the resulting output. OK, so this is not a match for a desktop auto-tuning plugin, but it can help.
The other key thing with this screen is the mid-upper strip of 22 vertical ‘bars’. The vocoder operates over 22 frequency-based bands and you can swipe across this area to raise/lower the volume of each frequency band in your final audio output. This is, in effect, a sort of ‘vocoder EQ’ as it can be used to change the tonal character of the output in quite dramatic ways.
And, before we move on, don’t miss the male/female slider that runs across the base of the screen. As you might expect, this changes to character of the resulting output. OK, so I’ve heard better ‘throat modelling’ in dedicated desktop vocal processing apps but, if you happen to be a 6’ 6” male and want to sound like a 5’ 2” female (or the other way around), then this is where to start.
The FX page will look pretty familiar to any VirSyn synth users. I’ll not say too much here other than as you tap on any of the five provided effects types, the bottom half of the screen then displays some additional controls for that effect. There is actually a lot of control offered here and you can, of course, add all sorts of ear candy through this combination of effects. The effects quality is uniformly good with the Drive and Delay effects being my personal favourites.
Press the preset
While you can dig into the effects, the Edit screen perhaps only lets you tickle the surface of the vocoding engine. The presets included with VoxSyn are therefore an important part of the package. Fortunately, they are both plentiful in supply and provide a wide range of treatment styles. A good number are good to go without any real warm-up or practice. For example, the default DoubleSync patch is dead easy to use – just sing and play – but others, such as Acoustic Guitar, perhaps require a little more work to understand the best combination of audio input and MIDI notes required to make them ‘playable’.
The choice is very impressive though and, across the six preset categories (there are also two banks for user patches to be stored within), there must be at least 800 presets to explore. You can, or course, change presets on the fly while the app is in use…. Go on, grab a strong drink and get started on Preset 001…. :-)
Add the vox
I tried VoxSyn within Audiobus, AUM and Cubasis without any problems at all. In the first two, I fed the app with ‘live’ vocals and MIDI input just while experimenting with the app. And, while the fun quotient was suitably high, thankfully, the gremlin component seemed suitably low… I had no problems at all while testing. Used in this way, VoxSyn can be viewed as a sort of vocal-driven synth and, with just a bit of practice, it is possible to create all sorts of interesting sounds whether those involve spoken or sung words or just vocal sounds that the synth engine can manipulate. This second approach has considerable potential and just requires a bit of imagination in terms of the way you ‘vocalise’ into the app in order to get a huge range of possible outputs.
While I can easily imagine using VoxSyn in this ‘live’ fashion, whether for live performance or recording, if you want a bit more control, the app can also be used as an insert effect within a DAW and that’s how I tried it within Cubasis. This also worked really well. So, with VoxSyn placed as an insert effect on my vocal track, I was able to set up a MIDI track within the same project and use that to send MIDI data to VoxSyn to control pitch…. and, of course, you can edit the MIDI data until you get your pitch changes exactly as required. If you are patient enough, you can create some really interesting results. OK, these are never going to be ‘natural’ vocals, but they would work great in electronic or experimental musical styles.
I have not yet had time to do a lot of testing with non-vocal audio sound sources but, having had a quick bash with an electric guitar, there is also some potential to be explored via this route. Again, perhaps not something for your next conventional singer/songwriter ballad but certainly for an electronic composition or three.
I think this last comment simply reiterates who VoxSyn might most obviously appeal to. Whether you are into weird soundscapes, odd noises, cutting-edge EDM or sugary pop/dance tunes, VoxSyn could do a turn. The most obvious role is as a ‘vocal-meets-synth’ device for creating electronic/artificial sounding vocal parts and, even if you can’t sing particularly well, providing you are happy to use synthesised vocals, VoxSyn offers a huge range of vocal options. Others will, of course, use the app for much more that artificial vocal parts….
The other thing to say is that the app really is pretty easy to use. The interface is pure VirSyn but the control set is kept fairly simple and, unlike some vocoders I’ve used in the past, setting up VoxSyn is a breeze. Potential users of a ‘novice’ status should not think this is out of their technical comfort zone therefore.
And, of course, at the launch price of just UK£4.99/US$6.99, it is unlikely to leave you with too big a hole in your pocket even if you acquire it for just occasional use. iOS has a number of vocoder-ish apps already available but, as an example of ‘best in class’, I think VoxSyn has just claimed the crown…. Well worth the price of entry and an app I’d also be happy to use from my iPad as a sound source into my desktop system. VoxSyn is a lot of fun for a very modest price….