Zed Synth review – JazzMan Ltd manage to find something unique to bring to an increasingly crowded iOS synth market place

Download from iTunes App Storezed synth logoI’ve lost count of the number of synth-based iOS music apps I’ve reviewed over the last couple of years. Indeed, I did a round-up article not so long ago of my own personal favourites in this music app category and, while this contains some absolutely fabulous virtual instruments at a range of prices and with a staggering array of different features and sounds, the App Store seems to be constantly offering new possibilities.

Given just how crowded and competitive this particular niche of the music app market has now become, and given just how many iOS synths your average iOS musician already owns, if a developer is going to put a new app into the Store, then it really does need to offer something unique, novel or interesting to get itself noticed. Richard Meyer (the person behind JazzMann Ltd) is obviously hoping his new iOS synth app – Zed Synth – has just that….

… and he might have a point. Zed Synth’s sound engine offers a combination of wave-shaping oscillators, physical modelling and, rather interestingly (there you go!) an audio input option; you can process external audio (supplied via Audiobus) through elements of the synth’s engine and synthesize them in various ways. Audio input into a synth is not unique to Zed Synth but nor is it that common amongst the current crop of iOS synth apps.

Zed Synth - something different for iOS synth collectors in an ever more competitive market?

Zed Synth – something different for iOS synth collectors in an ever more competitive market?

So, with its particular combination of features, does Zed Synth have what it takes to get itself noticed (and purchased) by iOS musicians looking for their latest synth fix?

A to Z of features

In terms of basic details, Zed Synth is priced at UK£7.99 (so sitting somewhere in the middle of the current iOS music app price range) and is a compact 5MB download. It requires iOS8.1 or later and is a universal app so will run on iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

Whatever the nature of the synth engine, in terms of the graphical interface, Zed Synth adopts a somewhat different approach to most iOS synth apps. Instead of the usual tabbed screens that contain the various sub-sets of the controls, in Zed Synth, the entire control set exists in a single left/right scrollable display that dominates the top two-thirds of the screen.

The Synth Overview panel allows you to navigate the synth engine and to see its overall structure.

The Synth Overview panel allows you to navigate the synth engine and to see its overall structure.

This does differ between iPhone and iPad to accommodate the different screen sizes but, by default on the iPad (and all the screenshots shown here are taken from an iPad), on start-up, what you see is the Patch List (on the left) and the Perform panel. However, if you swipe to the left, you gradually move across a number of other sections for the engine… and, by the time you have swiped four or five times (and reached the Reverb panel (the last/right-most panel), you will have seen a lot of virtual knobs and will have begun to realise that this is a synth with lots of programming options.

I’ll come back to some of these various panels in more detail below but the Synth Overview panel is worth mentioning here for two reasons. First, it provides a quick means of navigating through the left/right scrolling as tapping on any of the elements within this panel will take you to that section (set of controls) of the synth engine. Equally, you can return to this Synth Overview panel by tapping on the panel title of any of the other panels. In effect, these are ‘tabbed’ panels/screen but just also accessible via left/right scrolling.

The app is supplied with a good crop of presets organised into various categories...  and it does do some nice pad sounds.

The app is supplied with a good crop of presets organised into various categories… and it does do some nice pad sounds.

Second, the Synth Overview does just that; it allows you to see the basic structure of the synth engine, the modules it contains and how they are linked together. As shown in the screenshot, the basic architecture involves a hybrid approach with twin wave-shaping oscillators, a physical modelling component (that simulates a resonator that can be excited by a modelled mallet or the synth section and can simulate the effect of being blown, bowed or hit) and what JazzMan describe as a ‘string resonance effect’ whereby audio supplied via Audiobus also be processed via the synth engine.

These different sound sources can be blended using the internal mixer options, passed through the synths filter section (featuring two 2-pole filters that can be configured in various ways), via the ‘spring box’ (it simulates an array of strings that are set to resonate sympathetically triggered by the input signal; CPU intensive as there is a lot of processing going on but sounds interesting in use) and finally through a series of effects options.

There is also a fairly full-on set of modulation options. These can be accessed and configured via the slide-out panel – the Editor (modulation editor) panel – on the left-edge of the display (if the panel is hidden, tap on the arrow head icon that is shown to reveal it). This offers both real-time control options (via the mod wheel or aftertouch for example) and amplifier, filter and modulation envelopes; take your pick but, if you like to get your programming hands dirty, there is plenty of opportunity here.

The modulation options can be configured via a pop-out panel on the left-edge of the screen...  but there is plenty of scope here for manipulation your sounds.

The modulation options can be configured via a pop-out panel on the left-edge of the screen… but there is plenty of scope here for manipulation your sounds.

Spring Box aside, there is another way you can chew through some additional CPU cycles if you wish; Unison Mode. There is a narrow panel where you can configure this just to the right of the Synth Overview panel and, essentially, this allows you to duplicate and detune the synths output. Clearly, this means you can fatten up the sound considerably but there is a processor overhead for doing so. Thankfully, back in the Synth Overview panel you do get a useful CPU usage indicator.

Finally, as regular readers here will know, I’m fond or arpeggiators in synths. Zed Synth – as elsewhere – brings its own unique take on that front with the Granulator panel. This is not your regular arpeggiator, and it includes a number of additional options for randomising the notes generated to create a more ‘human’ result, but it is certainly capable of making even the most simple of held chords into something much more rhythmically and harmonically interesting.

Zed Synth's Granulometer panel - an arpeggiator of a sorts :-)

Zed Synth’s Granulometer panel – an arpeggiator of a sorts :-)

Zed is for deep

The Patch List is organised into categories and there is a very healthy collection of presets supplied for each category. As a means of getting a quick introduction to the sounds Zed Synth has to offer, there is a good hour or two of entertainment here to get you started. And, at the base of the screen you get the usual virtual keyboard with scroll and ‘hold’ options plus a virtual mod wheel. This works well enough but, of course, an external MIDI keyboard will be preferable particularly if it has a few MIDI controllers built into it as Zed Synth has a simple-to-use MIDI Learn feature that can be found in the modulation Editor panel mentioned above.

It doesn’t take too long, however, to realise that (a) Zed Synth can sound very good indeed and that (b) given the depth and complexity of some of the sounds, there must be some pretty weighty programming possible given the synth’s design. The latter is made even more obvious just my looking at a few of the sub-panels of controls.

All of the synth sections provide plenty of knobs to tweak, even in the envelope section where the convexity controls are interesting to explore.

All of the synth sections provide plenty of knobs to tweak, even in the envelope section where the convexity controls are interesting to explore.

Without wanting to go OTT here and look at all of these in detail, even something as simple as the Amplifier/Pressure envelope and Modulation Envelope panels – often just ADSR envelopes here include some intriguing additional options such as the Convexity knobs. When you get to the two oscillator settings, they also include options such as Symmetry, Negative and (again) Convexity controls…. and so on… within each of Zed Synth’s panels you find lots of controls to explore. I’m not going to lay any claim to understanding exactly how all of these things interact (my guitarist’s brain would flip a fuse if I tried), but Zed Synth is a pretty deep exercise in sound programming if you want to take it on.

In terms of the sounds themselves Zed Synth can cover a lot of ground. There are some decent bass synth patches that can go from classic analog styles through to modern dance mayhem, although if I had to pick one of the preset categories that it would have been nice to see (hear) a few extra sounds within, then this might be it. The keys category contains some nice electric piano and organ style tones amongst a few others.

However, things get a bit more interesting when you get to the physical, synth, pad and pulsing categories. There are some subtle and delicate sounds but, equally, Zed Synth can get into the outright aggressive. In addition, evolving sounds are well represented in the pads section. However, perhaps some of my absolute favourites were in the pulsing category. There were a few things in here – Twinklings and There’s Music Everywhere, for example – where you can just play a couple of notes and a whole beating, pulsing sound bed can appear. I’m not sure how these sorts of patches are programmed (you would need to deconstruct them by studying the various panels although the Granulator is involved somewhere along the line) but they do sound very effective.

Zed Synth's effects section can take a complex sound and make it even more complex :-)

Zed Synth’s effects section can take a complex sound and make it even more complex :-)

The various effects options are pretty much what you might expect – EQ, Phaser, Chrous, Delay, Stereo Expander and Reverb – but, as elsewhere, you get plenty of controls to play with. I particularly liked the Stereo Expander; perhaps not in the same class as a dedicated app like Stereo Designer, but effective nonetheless. The graphical displays in the Stereo Expander and Reverb sections mirror those in the Performance panel and shown the waveform and stereo image of the synth’s output.

A(udio) to Zed

As mentioned earlier, one of the more interesting elements of this complex sound engine is the ability to process an incoming audio signal. This can be achieved by placing Zed Synth in, for example, the Audiobus Effect slot and putting another iOS music app (for example, a drum app) into the Input slot. The output from the drum app is then passed to Zed Synth – to the Resonator and Effects sections – for possible processing.

To experiment with this on initial use, loading up one of the Audio presets is a good place to start as these should have all the necessary options engaged to allow you to get something out the other end of the synth engine. However, in the Perform panel, you do need to ensure that the Ext Audio Gain control is set correctly (this controls the level of the external audio fed into the synth engine). The control just above this – Ext Audio Mix – allows you to also pass an unprocessed version of the external audio signal through to Zed Synth’s output; useful if you want to blend processed and unprocessed sounds together.

Zed Synth allows you to run external audio through parts of its engine when used via Audiobus.

Zed Synth allows you to run external audio through parts of its engine when used via Audiobus.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun sending the output of DM1 and a few guitar loops through Zed Synth while exploring the various presets within the Audio category. There are all sorts of interesting options available here including sort of tuned drum sounds that retain the rhythmic feel of the original audio input but that you can play melodic or chord patterns with.

What I’m less convinced about, however, is that I could actually set up a patch of this type myself and tweak the settings to control it in any sensible fashion. While the online guide on the JazzMan website has plenty of useful information within it, in terms of a ‘Zed Synth programming guide 101’, it is in need of beefing up. This would, however, be a very useful marketing tool as it would undoubtedly make the app more appealing to those without extensive synth programming experience (that is, the more novice programmers like me).

The audio option works very well for processing drum sounds...  as here for DM1.

The audio option works very well for processing drum sounds… as here for DM1.

On me Zed, mate…

Other than this is a complex beast, I didn’t really experience any particular operational difficulties in using Zed Synth. It behaved well within Audiobus, was happy to accept MIDI data from an external MIDI keyboard and, used via IAA within Cubasis, although only on an audio track, and I couldn’t find any IAA ‘back to host’ button shown anywhere. I could, however, send MIDI data to the app via a MIDI track.

Perhaps my only other comment is an aesthetic one. While beauty is most certainly in the eye of the beholder, I’m not sure I found Zed Synth the most visually attractive interface that I’ve ever used under iOS. It’s not that it is particularly garish to look at (although the colour use for the various modulation settings – while necessary – is a bit much for my eyes), and nor that it has sacrificed looks over functionality.

Zed Synth worked fine as an IAA app on a Cubasis audio track and happily received MIDI data from a Cubasis MIDI track.

Zed Synth worked fine as an IAA app on a Cubasis audio track and happily received MIDI data from a Cubasis MIDI track.

However, I’m not absolutely sure I found the design of the left/right scrolling or label tapping the smoothest of means to navigate around Zed’s extensive control set. If I’m honest, I think I would have preferred a simple set of tab buttons in a thin strip to be displayed at all times along the top-edge of the screen (conventional, I know, but I guess that’s the point). I wouldn’t mind the scrolling option also… but tab buttons would be so much more instant and would make it easier to move between panels without having to go back to the Synth Overview panel or scroll left/right three or four panels to find what you need. This is perhaps a small detail but, with a synth engine with quite this many controls, the navigation system will get a lot of use.

The Unison panel allows you to make a huge sound even more huge :-)

The Unison panel allows you to make a huge sound even more huge :-)

In summary

Despite my comments about the efficiency of roaming the control set, Zed Synth is an interesting and impressive app. In a review of this length, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with Zed Synth and I’d certainly not say I fully understood just how the various elements of the synth engine operate or interact with any real confidence. However, sonically, it can do the business and, if you are the kind of synth player who likes to get their hands of some less-than-conventional processing options, this is bound to be an app to spark the interest.

I’m not sure I’d describe Zed Synth as a possible ‘go to’ or ‘do it all’ sound source – and I’d probably not recommend it for a synth novice given the complexity on offer – but it is certainly capable of some great sounds and the underlying synth engine would have a lot to offer those who really dig in.

And, at the current price of UK£7.99, I suspect serious iOS synth collectors (addicts) will simply add it to their collections in a blink. Not one for beginners maybe but an interesting prospect for the most experienced iOS synth-heads looking for something new and novel to explore.

Zed Synth

Download from iTunes App Store

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    Comments

    1. The MIDI clip in the sceeenshot, dig you play IT or was IT generated somehow?? i like how IT looks, flowing nicely.

      • Hi Ted…. I honestly can’t remember as it was a while ago when I wrote the review. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if is was generated by an arpeggiator if it looks like a ‘proper’ keyboard part as my own keyboard playing is pretty basic :-) Thanks for the kinds words…. best wishes, John

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