zMors Modular review – Sven Braun allows you to build your own (virtual) synth

Download from iTunes App StorezMors Modular logoAs I posted a week or so ago, if you are an iOS musician who also happens to be a bit of a synth-head, then I suspect you might be quite excited to get your hands on the latest release from Sven Braun; zMors Modular.

Sven is the developer behind the rather cool zMors Synth (UK£6.99) that I’ve reviewed in the past here on the Music App Blog. This is a somewhat quirky and retro in its styling and functionality but that is, I suspect, totally deliberate. The interface is easy to use and even newbie synth programmers ought to find their way around reasonably quickly. If you like classic analog synths and the music associated with them, then zMors is most certainly worth exploring.

zMors Modular; roll your own virtual synth designs....

zMors Modular; roll your own virtual synth designs….

The new release  – zMors Modular – is obviously going to appeal to the synth-playing audience. However, as suggested by the name, this is a modular synth and, as such, is perhaps aimed more at those who like to dig in and design their own sounds rather than those simply looking to tweak a few presets to taste. So, if you have your virtual soldering iron and patch cables to hand, let’s see what zMors Modular (UK£6.99) can offer the DIY synth builder.

Sum of the parts

A software based modular synth is not a new idea. There are good examples available in the desktop environment and the App Store has a small number of other examples, the best know of which are probably Audulus and the Modular Synth built into Caustic. In all cases though the basic concept is the same; you are given a selection of virtual synth ‘components’ and you can link them together in various ways to ‘build’ a virtual synth.

Perhaps the most simple synth design you could imagine in zMors Modular? Still, better than staring at that blank screen :-)

Perhaps the most simple synth design you could imagine in zMors Modular? Still, better than staring at that blank screen :-)

In zMors Modular, you do that building upon the main screen and, if you start a new design, what you essentially begin with is the equivalent of a blank piece of paper…. For someone with less experience in synth programming this might be just a touch on the intimidating side (true of all modular synths and not just zMors Modular though) and, while the basics of building a simple design with zMors Modular is actually not that scary, once you step beyond the basics, then things can easily get quite complex. I guess what I’m saying here is that modular synths are perhaps not a sensible choice if you just want to knock out a few quick chords out on a dance-friendly synth patch.

That’s not to say, however, that zMors Modular doesn’t come with a very impressive collection of presets; it does… and if you are keen to learn how the various components can be combined and connected to create useful sounds, then you need to spend some time browsing these. I’ll come back to these presets a little later.

zMors Modular comes with an impressive set of presets that are very helpful as a way of learning how to construct your own designs.

zMors Modular comes with an impressive set of presets that are very helpful as a way of learning how to construct your own designs.

What about the components themselves? Once you have created a blank patch (via the preset menu accessed top-left), tapping the ‘+’ icon located top-right displays a menu of all the available components. You can see this in two views. An expanded view gives you a short piece of information text about the component but, once you know your way around these then you can toggle to a more compact list via the ‘lightbulb’ icon top-right of the menu.

Tapping on any component in the list will add it to the main ‘design’ area that fills the majority of the screen and you are then ready to start linking components together to create some sound. So, for example, for a simple synth, we might simply need a MIDI Keyboard module (although you can also take MIDI in from an external keyboard), and an Oscillator. Once you add the first component, an Output module automatically appears. With suitable audio hardware connected to your iPad, you can access up to eight physical audio outputs.

The app includes a large number of components to build your virtual synth designs with.

The app includes a large number of components to build your virtual synth designs with.

Of course, you can quickly get more complex than this and the list of modules is extensive. You get two generators (Oscillator and Wavetable), two envelope types (ADSR and Slew), two processors (Filter and MathDSP (eek!), eight ‘tools’ (aMux, Combiner, Macro, Notes, Oscilloscope, Ranger, Split and VCA), five Seq/CV options (Chords, CV Sequencer, Slider, Step Sequencer and XY Pad and, finally, two effects (Delay and Reverb).

While using them all is not compulsory (or my guitar-orientated brain would already have imploded by now), there is plenty of scope here to create all sorts of weird and wonderful combinations. Even if you are a die-hard, synth programming, obsessive, you ought to find plenty to keep you occupied here.

Here’s one I made earlier

While I’m happy to ‘fess up to a somewhat limited expertise in synth construction (virtual or otherwise), you don’t have to spend long in amongst the presets to get ample demonstration of what these various components can create. The presets are, usefully, divided into a number of categories and, ‘user’ aside, these are Electro, Synths and Xperimental.

There are some great presets that show off the step/pattern sequencer component.

There are some great presets that show off the step/pattern sequencer component.

Ignoring all the virtual components and patch cables, some of the sounds themselves are very impressive. Whether you want a simple synth-based snare or a full-on, in your face, wobble bass, there is a patch for that. And, once you have found a sound that interests you, then you can simply dig in and see what makes it tick (or beep or sizzle).

However, if I had to characterise the ‘sound’ of zMors Modular overall, I think I’d use words like ‘vintage’ or ‘analog sounding’. While the app may well do cutting edge sounds (in the right programming hands), there is definitely a strong sense of classic analog hardware that comes through… which, I suspect, lots of users will think is a very good thing.

The patches that really caught my attention though were those that made use of the Step Sequencer component. I do like a bit of step/pattern-based sequencing and seeing this included is kind of cool. Whether a guitar-shaped eejit like me will ever actually learn how to use it correctly is another matter though… :-)

Get connected

As with any iOS music app, to keep users coming back, it has to ‘work’ on a number of levels. As already mentioned, sonically, zMors Modular gets the thumbs up and, in terms of the basic building blocks provided, there is enough to keep almost anyone busy if roll-your-own synth design is your thing.

zMors Modular worked very smoothly for me via IAA within Cubase both as an audio source and, as shown here, via a MIDI track.

zMors Modular worked very smoothly for me via IAA within Cubase both as an audio source and, as shown here, via a MIDI track.

The app also has to work nicely as part of an overall music production workflow. In this context, zMors Modular is quite interesting. It worked very nicely for me as an IAA plugin (MIDI or audio) via Cubasis. However, if you prefer the Audiobus route, presently at least, zMors Modular isn’t for you. Sven’s zMors Synth is Audiobus compatible though so, presumably, Audiobus support will come to zMors Modular at some stage.

Perhaps the other key element is that the app needs to be both fun and comfortable to use (somewhat different from being ‘easy’ to use; I’m not sure any modular synth is going to qualify as ‘easy’). zMors Modular is fun; the graphics are easy on the eye and, providing your design doesn’t get too busy (and covered in virtual cable spaghetti), it looks great.

If there is a danger of things getting difficult it’s in certain elements of the control adjustment and cable placing. With the latter, when you drag a cable from one place to another, you have to cover up the destination with the end of your finger to ‘drop’ it. While the cable changes colour when it is suitably position over an acceptable connection, I did have a few frustrating ‘doh!’ moments when connections I thought I had made turned out not to be. This is, I suspect, something that would get easier with practice.

The 'zoom in' feature of the red coloured rotary controls is excellent and makes detailed adjustments much easier.

The ‘zoom in’ feature of the red coloured rotary controls is excellent and makes detailed adjustments much easier.

The rotary controls on the various modules are also quite ‘compact’. Like lots of virtual rotary controls, you tap and drag away so adjusting these is not made more difficult by not having see-through fingers. For the controls shown in red, double tapping them brings them right into focus and you then get a huge version of the control with all its various options laid out. This is excellent… Maybe a similar double tap could also be added for the more routine yellow colour controls so at least those with stubby fingers have the choice of seeing a larger version to adjust?

The more complex your design gets, the busier the screen becomes....

The more complex your design gets, the busier the screen becomes….

My only other comment is that, eventually, the complexity of your design might be controlled to some extent by just how much you can fit on the screen and still see what’s going on. While you can move and arrange components within the main display to keep things organised, you don’t get the option to spread your design over an area bigger than the single main screen.

Mostly modular

Having mentioned both Caustic’s Modular Synth and Audulus earlier, it would be a bit remiss of me to not draw some comparison between the different pieces of software. Given that Modular Synth is actually just one element of Caustic – and that Caustic itself sells for just UK£6.99 (the same price as zMors Modular), it is perhaps unfair to expect the two to offer the same level of features.

Equally, Audulus has been around the App Store for quite some time and has a UK£10.49 price tag. This is a mature app with a desktop version and, in terms of the number of components and the depth that can be achieved, probably deserves it’s ‘top of the class’ tag.

However, zMors Modular is a very worth competitor. I think it is perfectly priced – and perfectly positioned – between these two other apps. If you want to ‘do modular’, want more than Caustic can offer you in this regard (or to move up from what Caustic can offer you), then it’s a great next step. Equally, if you don’t want to jump right in at the deep end, or don’t want to stump up the extra cost compared to Audulus, then it is an excellent choice.

The bottom line here is that all three of these modular synth options are excellent in their own way. They offer different levels of complexity at different price points. zMors Modular is, in its first release, perfectly comfortable in this company and it will be very interesting to see just where Sven Braun takes the app over the coming months.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done with this app here. If you are interested in creating your own synths then well…  hit the download button… this is an app that will give you a lot of fun and a lot of options. Modular DIY synth building for the masses? Well, maybe not the masses (they will, I suspect, stick with something less challenging than a modular synth)… but this is a brilliant little app and I’m sure iOS synth heads will lap it up and love it.

zMors Modular



If you want to see zMors Modular in action then check out zMors own introduction to zMors Modular…

… or Tim Webb’s excellent video tutorial from over at the discchord site…

… or Doug’s video review from thesoundtestroom :-)

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    Comments

    1. ZMors Module causing too much CPU computing on ipad air. Both Audulus and Zmors lacks a lot of example educations for general public, that is why they both lack sales. I own both of them, but found them not to be so welcoming to intrig moree interest. If ZMors module can take load full of ZMors Synth examples, In that case, I think Zmors Module can be a good selling point
      Kai

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