Z3TA+ review – Cakewalk bring their classic virtual synth to iOS

Download from iTunes App Storez3ta logoReally? Do we need another synth app? If there is one category of iOS music app that you could argue was already over stocked, it would be synth apps; there are dozens of software synths on the iTunes App Store.

Of course, these apps are not all made equal. There are a select collection of exceptional products and, while some of these are ‘expensive’ in app terms, compared to equivalent desktop virtual synths, they are being sold at knock down prices. Whether used live or for recording, the very best iOS synth apps are truly excellent and can be a match for their desktop relations.

Equally, there are some very solid workhorses; synths that get a job done, perhaps don’t place such a burden on your iDevice’s resources, and maybe don’t even cost as much as your average high street cappuccino. There are also the weird and wonderful; perhaps somewhat unconventional (thankfully, some indie iOS developers can occasionally think some distance outside the box) and filling a very specific niche, but interesting none-the-less.

And, of course, there are the rest but, hopefully, given all the excellent choices in the first three categories, there really isn’t any great need to go there too often…..

So, given the huge choice we already have, and the fact that that choice includes some exceptional products, we don’t need any more synth apps do we?

Cakewalk's Z3TA+ synth for iOS....  Do you need it?

Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ synth for iOS…. Do you need it?

Well, no, perhaps we don’t ‘need’ another synth app and, if you are a dedicated music app junkie (and, please, don’t add denial to your list of weaknesses), then you probably have an iPad full of synth apps, many of which might be gathering virtual dust. But ‘want’ another synth app….? Ah, ‘want’ is another matter….   Of course, we ‘want’ another synth app….   in fact we ‘want’ another synth app so badly, that most of us should be attending Appaholics Anonymous….

…. and believe me….  if this sounds like you, or you are new to iOS music making and are still building your synth app collection, you really are going to ‘want’ Cakewalk’s Z3TA+. This is not weird and wonderful, nor is it a workhorse. No, the Z3TA+ is up there in the top-set alongside the Thors and Naves of the iOS synth world. In short, Z3TA+ is an absolute gem of a virtual synth and, even at UK£13.99, it is going to sell by the bucketload….

….  and if you know you have an app weakness, then perhaps it’s best just to stop reading now…..

History time

…  too late….   While Cakewalk are perhaps best known for SONAR – their PC-only desktop DAW – they do offer a number of other music products. These include the PC/Mac version of Z3TA+ 2, the latest desktop incarnation of their Z3TA+ virtual synth. In one form or another, this instrument has been around for over 10 years and, while it is perhaps difficult to talk about a virtual instrument obtaining ‘classic’ status, the Z3TA is certainly a candidate for that label.

As a desktop synth, the Z3TA+ has gained a loyal following and its powerful sound and flexible programming options – as well as a fairly modest price even in the desktop form (UK£79 for the full version) – means that you have probably heard it on countless numbers of commercial recordings.

Just as Propellerhead have done with Thor, Cakewalk have now ported the desktop version of the Z3TA over to iOS. This isn’t their only iOS app though; they also have the rather interesting ScratchPad HD app that, if you like to build compositions from loops, is well worth a look.

R2D2 says hallo

So, aside from a name that sounds more like a character from Star Wars than a serious software synth, what are Z3TA+’s key features? Cakewalk describe the synthesis engine within Z3TA+ as ‘waveshaping’; you get a large number of basic waveforms to serve as a starting point for the oscillators but you can do all sorts of interesting things to further ‘shape’ those waveforms to create a wider variety of basic tones.

The Z3TA+ is supplied with over 500 presets.... be prepared to see time disappear as you work your way through :-)

The Z3TA+ is supplied with over 500 presets…. be prepared to see time disappear as you work your way through :-)

What’s more, you can do this 6 times over as the engine offers six independent oscillators that can be mixed, matched and interlinked and then routed through two filters either in parallel or a dual mode. If fact, there is also a ‘multi mode’ for each oscillator where each single oscillator is stacked into four stereo oscillators that can be detuned. The potential for creating massive sounds is… er….  massive. As, of course, is the potential for chewing up massive amounts of your iPad’s processing resources but I’ll come back to that later.

The engine also includes six LFOs, the first four of which are applied across all voices (notes) while 5 and 6 apply on a per-voice (note) basis although, as each LFO can operate as two independent LFOs (which can be combined and interact in various ways), you could argue that you have 12 (!) LFOs to play with.

In addition, you get 8 envelope generators. Two of these are linked to pitch and amplitude while the others can be used for other purposes. These other purposes are defined within the comprehensive modulation matrix where you can define up to 16 modulation sources and have detailed control as to how and where those sources are applied. Needless to say, you will be not be short of choices on this front.

If all this isn’t enough by way of creativity, add in a well-specified arpeggiator, a number of highly customizable effects options and an assignable X-Y pad and the Z3TA+ is obviously quite a tidy package.

Oh, and in iOS terms, don’t forget to include Audiobus and IAA support straight out the box plus an included preset collection that runs to over 500 examples and takes a few hours to work your way through (although it is a lot of fun doing so).

Quick tour

As shown in the first screenshot above, the main user interface of Z3TA+ is split across three screens and these are accessed via the Synth, Mod/Arp and Effects tabs located top-left of the screen within the ‘top panel’ of the app. Other controls offered here include access to the preset system, a fader to set the output level, a limiter that you can toggle on/off and that is applied across the synth’s main output and the ‘options’ menu where you can access a number of generic settings including an global effects bypass, tempo setting and the audio buffer size.

The Z3TA keyboard has a number of configuration options.

The Z3TA keyboard has a number of configuration options.

At the base of the screen you get the usual virtual keyboard. This can be scrolled so you can play in higher/lower octave positions and, by default, you also get virtual pitch and mod wheels displayed. This left-hand end of the display can be toggled between four states; ‘off’ (which allows you to see more keys), an X-Y pad (you can associated parameters to this via the Mod/Arp screen), the pitch/mod wheel and (via the keyboard icon) some settings for how these performance controls respond (including the Drift setting that allows you to simulate the tuning instabilities found in early analog synths; a nice touch if you are into that sort of thing).

You can choose to have the virtual keyboard run the full width of the screen if you prefer.

You can choose to have the virtual keyboard run the full width of the screen if you prefer.

At the top-right of the keyboard section, the Scale button allows you to pick any key/scale combination (and there are lots of different scales offered) that will limit the virtual keyboard to only notes from that scale. This kind of feature is now included on lots of iOS synths and can be useful in reducing duff notes generated by touchscreen note entry. This strip also includes a Hold option so any notes played will be held on after you release them and until you tap the same note again.

Tune my engine

I’ve no intention of providing a comprehensive account of all the programming possibilities provided of the Z3TA+, even if you had the patience to wade through it all. However, if I perhaps highlight just a few of the elements that help make this such a powerful and flexible synth engine, then I’m sure you will get at least an impression of what is on offer.

The Synth page provides access to the oscillators, filters, envelopes and LFOs.

The Synth page provides access to the oscillators, filters, envelopes and LFOs.

And if you do then decide to cough up and download the app, then Cakewalk include a well-written and detailed PDF reference manual that will fill in most of the blanks. This includes a helpful signal flow diagram so you can get a clear impression of how sound flows through the various elements of the synthesis engine. This same diagram is shown if you tap the app name that appears top-left of the screen when the app is running.

In terms of the oscillators, filters, envelopes and LFOs, everything is pretty much contained within the Synth tab. Selecting this tab fills the top two-thirds of the window with four sub-panels for these features. In the case of the oscillator, envelope and LFO sections, these themselves are ‘tabbed’ (for example, 1-6 to access the individual controls for the six oscillators). This is an obvious and sensible design choice but it does mean you have to ensure you are about to tweak controls for the correct oscillator/EG/LFO before you start to adjust settings.

There is plenty to keep even the most ardent of patch programmer busy here but, as an example, let’s just look at the oscillator options in more detail. The first thing to say is that there are a huge number of preset waveform options available. These cover the usual saw, square and triangle types (with multiple individual waveforms within each broad group) but also other categories.

Z3TA+ has a whole range of waveform presets organised into several categories.

Z3TA+ has a whole range of waveform presets organised into several categories.

Once you have picked a waveform, you can then set the pitch (transpose and octave settings), its mode (again, there are various options that allow it to be used in standard/multi mode, key-sync’ed or free and fixed frequency (pitch doesn’t follow the keyboard) and assign it to a ‘group’. This last setting is actually more of a ‘mode’ and includes options for applying ring, sync, phase or frequency modulation.

You also get knobs for setting the fine tune and output level for the oscillator, while the third knob in this group changes depending upon settings elsewhere. For example, if the oscillator is set to run in ‘Normal, Sync’ mode, this third knob controls phase.

You can tap and drag within the waveform window to ‘tweak’ the waveform by hand if you wish. Equally, you can use the six rotary knobs that are positioned just below the waveform display to make more specific changes. In fact, you get more than six settings to play with here; the three tabs labelled A, B and C contain different sets of parameters you can adjust. Finally, you can set the balance of the oscillators output between the two filters.

Given that you have six of these very flexible and highly configurable oscillators to play with, it doesn’t take a synth genius to work out that the possible combinations are extensive. The envelope and LFO sections are equally fully features and the filter section also provides plenty of options so, if your head doesn’t explode first and you want a subject for your doctoral thesis on virtual synth programming, then Z3TA+ is a pretty good candidate.

All mod cons

Under the Mod/Arp tab, we get (surprise, surprise) settings for the modulation matrix (upper half of the screen) and the built-in arpeggiator (lower half of the screen). The modulation matrix offers 16 rows (split left/right across the screen into two rows of 8) and you can set the modulation source, the range of variation, a curve (applied to the modulation), a control (another parameter that effects the modulation such as velocity, aftertouch or the mod wheel) and a destination (the synth parameter that is the target of the modulation process).

The Mod/Arp screen has some powerful options...  but does require some nimble fingers.

The Mod/Arp screen has some powerful options… but does require some nimble fingers.

It has to be said that, while very fully featured, there is actually a heck of a lot of options – and drop down menus – squeezed into quite a small amount of space here. My fingers (not porkers by any means) sometimes found this a bit of a challenge. I did, however, find it considerably easier using my Griffin stylus, mainly because my fingers were then not obstructing my view of the control I was trying to touch.

Incidentally, under the Control column, as well as being able to specify the pitch bend and mod wheel, you can also specify any MIDI CC number. You can, therefore, configure any additional hardware controllers you might have on an external MIDI keyboard to allow some further hands-on control during a performance. Indeed, I was able to do this relatively painlessly with my Alesis QX25 that I use with my iPad – although not as painlessly as a ‘MIDI learn’ feature makes this in many virtual instruments.

However, don’t let this put you off too much. If you dig in here then there is a staggering array of possibilities. This is comprehensive and very well featured. Again, a programmer’s delight.

There are a huge number of preset patterns for the arpeggiator.

There are a huge number of preset patterns for the arpeggiator.

The arpeggiator is perhaps less brain-melting in nature but still very flexible. Yes, it features the usual array of up/down/random algorithms that you can choose between but, in addition, there are also a large selection of MIDI-based patterns. These offer some very interesting options in terms of both the rhythmic nature of the resulting arpeggio as well as the specific notes generated and are just plain fun to explore. Stick a suitable lead synth patch on here and prepare to lose yourself for an hour or two :-) In addition, there are also some ‘gated’ arpeggiator patches (the effect is rather like a rhythmic noise gate).

As with most sophisticated arpeggiators, you can sync the pattern to tempo and to different tempo resolutions. In addition, there is a very effective humanize control for adding some nice personality to the end result. As with elsewhere in Z3TA+, the arpeggiator is powerful and flexible and perhaps the only (very) minor quirk, is that the switch to toggle it on/off is over in the Options menu rather than here on the Mod/Arp screen; an odd choice.

Chain gang

If, after all these oscillator, envelope, LFO and modulation options, you feel the need for something a little less taxing, then flip over to the Effects tab. That’s not to say that this doesn’t offer you plenty of additional ways to spice up your sounds – it most certainly does – but it is perhaps a little more straightforward to get your head around.

The Z3TA+ is well stocked with additional effects and you can adjust the order in which these are applied.

The Z3TA+ is well stocked with additional effects and you can adjust the order in which these are applied.

On this screen, you get six sub-panels, one each for the distortion, modulation (in this case, modulation as in the sense of chorus, phaser, flanger, etc.), EQ, compression, delay and reverb. And, while position of these modules remains fixed within the window, using the final (7th) sub-panel on this tab (located mid-right of the screen), you can tap and drag to reorder the effects signal chain. This is great and, again, gives just that extra element of control that you don’t get in all virtual synths.

The effects themselves are also far from shabby; these are no virtual stomp boxes with a couple of knobs to twist. Instead, you get plenty of options for shaping each effect. For example, the EQ provides a 7-band graphic format but the Mode option allows you to choose the center frequencies that these bands operate at. Equally, the Simulator options features around 30 amp, cabinet and other devices (for example, a radio) where the EQ response curve of the device is applied to your synth sound.

This is all very good stuff and, overall, I was more than impressed with the quality of the effects on offer. Even the reverb, which can often be a bit light-weight in some apps simply to keep processing demands down, sounded pretty smooth and offers plenty of options. Oh, and don’t forget the ‘master’ limiter that can be toggled on/off up in the top panel…..

Test drive

So, if you have stuck with me so far, you know that Z3TA+ is fully featured as a programming environment with a multitude of oscillator, envelope, LFO, filter, modulation, arpeggiator and effects options. You are not short of a knob or two to twiddle with or some settings to play with.

All of which is great; but how does it sound? Well, as I implied at the very start of this review, personally, I think it sounds absolutely fabulous. I spent a very happy couple of hours browsing slowly through the huge preset collection and, yes, there were sounds I didn’t perhaps like, but there were masses more that I did.

If your keyboard playing sucks as much as mine, then the Scale options are well worth exploiting.

If your keyboard playing sucks as much as mine, then the Scale options are well worth exploiting.

What’s really impressive, however, is the range of sounds that the Z3TA+ seems able to generate. Whether you want basses (‘classic’ or cutting edge), leads (mellow or aggressive), pads (subtle or not), percussive (synthetic kicks, snares, hats, etc.) or sound effects, the Z3TA+ has something (and usually several somethings) that will fit the bill. Perhaps the only selection that left me slightly underwhelmed was the ‘keyboards’; Z3TA+ can certainly do electric pianos and organs (and there are a few excellent presets to demonstrate this) but given just how many presets are included overall, a few additional examples in this category wouldn’t have gone amiss.

However, if you are into classic synth sounds or you want some cutting edge stuff for your latest dance track or even some subtle pads for your mellow ambience soundscapes, Z3TA+ will have plenty to offer. Sound for pound (or $), this is an absolute no-brainer.

Placed into the Audiobus Input slot, Z3TA+ behaved itself very nicely with Cubasis. I was easily able to record audio from the synth onto a Cubasis track and, equally, to send MIDI data to the app from Cubasis, although this did require some experimentation with selecting the correct MIDI output routing within Cubasis (selecting the Z3TA didn’t seem to work but ‘virtual MIDI’ did). Operation within Cubasis through IAA also seemed to work pretty smoothly, although things were most certainly better on this front if I ensured I launched Cubasis prior to starting Z3TA+. Otherwise, all was good.

Z3TA seemed to work very smoothly within Audibus.

Z3TA seemed to work very smoothly within Audibus.

While working within Cubasis, I did keep an eye on the CPU meter when using Z3TA+ on my iPadAir test system. Even with a fairly busy mix running (over a dozen tracks of mixed audio/MIDI) and then playing a complex pad sound on Z3TA+, things never got so out of hand that I had any obvious glitching. That’s not to say that more complex patches don’t come with a sizeable CPU load; press lots of notes and I could watch the Cubasis CPU meter bounce quite easily into its upper reaches but, for simpler sounds (perhaps those using just a couple of oscillators), the meter barely raised a flicker. It’s a shame that Cakewalk haven’t included a ‘CPU load’ meter in Z3TA+ itself as I’m sure users would find this useful. Equally, a little bit of guidance in the iTunes description for Z3TA+ about likely performance on different generations of iPad would, I’m sure, be reassuring for potential purchasers.

All that said, on my iPad Air, I didn’t run out of steam and the app behaved itself very well. And to repeat what I’ve already stated – it sounds great.

What’s not to like?

So Z3TA+ is a programmer’s delight and it sounds fabulous….  and it will sound fabulous even if you don’t program; just load a preset and enjoy yourself. However, when you do decide you need to tweak, then do expect there to be a learning curve. This is perhaps not the synth to take your first tentative steps in a ‘synth programming 101’ course with.

What else might I say by way of warning? Well, not too much really….  Yes, that Mod/Arp window feels just a bit cramped and maybe separating this tab into two might actually provide a better experience on the iPad screen.

The Options menu provides access to some key settings....  but, as yet, nothing on the MIDI front.

The Options menu provides access to some key settings…. but, as yet, nothing on the MIDI front.

In addition, the app is almost devoid of any MIDI settings (at least, not ones that I could find). This didn’t stop me from connecting by external MIDI keyboard up – it just worked – so in that sense it was just one less thing to think about but, given the vagaries of iOS MIDI, the ability to configure your MIDI input routing and channel number really ought to be possible. Definitely one for a future update.

Equally, given that the synth engine has such a range of powerful options, a somewhat more friendly means of linking any hardware controls on your external MIDI keyboard/controller to particular Z3TA+ parameters would be welcome. I’m sure there are a number of different ways this might be approached but a ‘MIDI learn’ features would be a very useful addition.

These niggles are, however, pretty minor in nature compared to the many positives. As a first release (well, a first release in an iOS format anyway), Cakewalk have done a fabulous job with the Z3TA+. It is very well featured and – in my testing at least – remarkably trouble free in operation; all very impressive.

In summary

For my money, the Z3TA+ is up there with the very best that the iOS synth world currently has to offer. Better than Thor or Nave, my two other favourites when it comes top-end synths for iOS? I’m not sure I’ve spent enough time with it yet to form a clear opinion but, both sonically and in terms of programmability, it is most certainly in the same class. This is one heck of a virtual instrument; the fact that it is running on an iPad is almost immaterial.

The IAA support also seemed very solid.

The IAA support also seemed very solid.

Which brings us back to where I started; ‘need’ vs’ ‘want’ :-)  If you own Thor (Nave is perhaps a somewhat different beast) already, then maybe you don’t really ‘need’ Z3TA+. The two apps most certainly have their differences (Z3TA is better equipped in terms of effects, for example) but they have enough in common in terms of the sounds they provide that you could live with just one rather than both.

But then there is ‘want’….  and if you are serious enough about your iOS synths that you already own the likes of Thor or Nave, then I suspect you will find the idea of not owing something as good as Z3TA+ rather irritating. App addict or not, this is a synth that any self-respecting iOS synth head is going to want to experiment with.

If you do hit the download button, will Z3TA+ eventually gather virtual dust in that corner of your app collection that rarely gets disturbed? I can’t answer that question for you but, at a personal level, I’m already pretty sure the answer will be no. I don’t need Z3TA+ but I know I’m going to want to use it again and again. Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ is pure temptation for every iOS music app addict, particularly those with a fetish for synths. Resistance may be futile…..   :-)

Z3TA+


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    Comments

    1. Great read and a great review, lots of info!

      I’m in the “want” category, not “need”. Will it collect dust? I don’t know yet. It depends a bit on how the next few iterations or IAA, AB and iOS itself turns out. I just have a hard time putting things together unless it’s all streamlined like a desktop DAW. What I mostly end up doing is playing things live, improvising, goofing around, but never really record a complete track. Things like Caustic and Gadget have changed that a bit though,

      This is no doubt a synth that’s a few notches above any of the ones available inside those two apps though (a bit unfair comparison there perhaps). But speaking of…The mighty Sunrizer is another synth that belongs with the top dogs in the “synth-workstation” category. Sunrizer, Nave, Z3TA+, Thor are synths capable of producing very similar sounds, but also got their own very distinct sonic capabilities obviously. I dunno if I could choose only one if I had to…Maybe Sunrizer, although I rarely use it for some weird reason?

      • Hi Chris, like you I’m a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’ in terms of any iOS synth now I guess. I have more than enough virtual synths on my iPad to work with in almost any context. Enough so that it is blindingly obvious that this is no longer the ‘weak link’ in my iOS music making process…. I think you make a good point re the need to a more streamlined and/or efficient workflow. Let’s hope AB2 brings us a step or two closer to that…. All that said, Z3TA+ sounds great :-) Best wishes, John

    2. Chris Catalano says:

      I got sucked in at last, last night, the addiction became too much. I was physically shaking…I hit the shiny red buy button, and…

      It is in league with all of the above mentioned. It’s quite amazing, and also fun.

      Agree with you there, Chris, about Sunrizer. That is a lean, mean, clean machine…

      • Hi Chris….. sorry if I didn’t help with the addiction :-( Z3TA+ is one heck of an app… but I really should go back to Sunrizer and dig into it a bit more….. best wishes, John

    3. Great review, as always. I have and love Thor but it currently doesn’t do IAA, which I prefer over Audiobus. With Z3TA having IAA straight out of the box, that could be enough for me to take the plunge with yet another synth app.

      But where are the orchestral sounds apps on iOS? Please, please can someone give us some great solo strings…

      • Hi Martin… agreed re the orchestral sounds. The Miroslav IAP for SampleTank is pretty good but, other than that, there is not a lot of options. Someone did suggest to me, however, that they thought an iFretless ‘strings’ app might be offered at some stage…. I ought to quiz Hans about that one :-) best wishes, John

    4. Gabriel says:

      Hi, if you want to add new presets that you own on your computer (free or commercial) to Z3TA+, you can do that:

      with iFunBox, click User Applications (not the shared ones) > Z3TA+ > Library > Application Suport > z3ta > Programs. Add a New Folder named “User Content” (if not there yet) and open it. Copy from your computer the presets folder you want into User Content folder.

      IMPORTANT: the folders to copy CAN’T have subfolders inside or you won’t see their presets in Z3TA+. So, before copy them, you need to have their presets at the very first level inside the folders to copy.

      You can get some free presets for Z3ta+ and other VSTi at http://www.zeitaugen.de/freeware.htm

      Cheers

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