zMors music app review – 4 channel analog modelling synth from Sven Braun

Download from iTunes App Storezmors logoMuch as I love the best of the iOS music apps produced by the bigger music technology companies like IK Multimedia, Steinberg, WaveMachine Labs, Propellerhead or Waldorf, one of the brilliant things about iOS is that it has provided an environment within which smaller developers – and often just individual programmers – can carve a niche.

Sven Braun strikes me as a good example of that and his recently released iOS analog synth app – zMors – looks both intriguing and just slightly quirky. And while we are already spoilt for choice in terms of iOS synth apps, its always interesting when something comes along that offers a slightly different take on a genre. So, is zMors (UK£6.99) worth adding to your iPad’s virtual instrument collection?

Tell me zMors

zMors main screen - plenty packed in but still fairly easy to access all the key controls.

zMors main screen – plenty packed in but still fairly easy to access all the key controls.

zMors provides a virtual analog synth environment with four independent channels (that is, you have four instances of the synth engine built into a single app) so you can use up to four different sounds at any one time. Each of these synth channels has dual wave oscillators, an LFO, envelope and filter, while the oscialltors have octave, tune, amp envelope, pan, mix (to balance between the two waveforms available in each of the dual wave oscillators), phase and send levels for the global reverb and delay effects.

Each channel of the synth engine has an independent sequencer track. Here you can program parts of up to four bars in length. Equally, you can choose to link all four playback channels to the first sequencer track if you just want you layer sounds to create more complex tones.

The virtual keyboard has some interesting features. While it can be used in a conventional way to play notes or chords in the synth engine, these notes are sent to all four synth channels (at least, I couldn’t find a way of just allocating it to one channel only). However, once you have a sequence playing back, the keyboard essentially works to transpose that sequence and even offers the ability to switch between major and minor chords depending upon where you tap on a key. This is quite neat and it allows you create a more extended musical performance even from a single bar sequence.

zMors allows you to set individual MIDI channels for each of the four synth channels is required.

zMors allows you to set individual MIDI channels for each of the four synth channels is required.

In terms of other features, the audio engine employs 32-bit processing, Audiobus support is included (zMors can be used in the Audiobus Input slot) and each of the four channels can receive MIDI data from a separate MIDI channel (so you could use the app as a four-channel multi-timbral sound source from something like Cubasis). The app also supports MIDI Clock and can have its internal playback started/stopped from another app.

Quick tour

The interface is nicely styled – a sort of retro grey metallic look – and while perhaps not quite as eye-catching as something like Nave, despite there being quite a number of controls and buttons packed into the main screen, things never get too cramped.

Along the base is the virtual keyboard and the mod wheel plus buttons to trigger the pattern playback. The upper-right is dominated by the four synth channels and these include level faders, solo and mute buttons, access to the pattern programming options and, in the bottom half of each channel, controls used for dealing with sound editing.

The waveform editing via the touchscreen is very neatly done.

The waveform editing via the touchscreen is very neatly done.

The upper-left of the main screen provides access to the presets, various system settings and the Parameter Matrix – a bank of 20 buttons – that allow you to select a specific synth parameter for editing. So, for example, if you press the Pan button, the large rotary knobs in in synth channel display can then be used to adjust the pan for each channel. Tap the Filter button in the Parameter Matrix and the same four rotary knobs then can adjust the filter settings, etc.

zMors is provided with a large number of presets and more will be added by users to the 'cloud'

zMors is provided with a large number of presets and more will be added by users to the ‘cloud’

Sound editing is made fairly easy via this Parameter Matrix but the other key element is the Oscillator window that can be opened for each channel by tapping on the appropriate waveform display at the base of each channel strip. This is quite fun because, as well as a number of preset starting waveforms, you can just use your finger to tap on any of the waveform nodes and drag to change the waveform by hand. For each channel, you can do this for both oscillators A and B) or the LFO. You can also set how the LFO syncs to tempo and add some digital crunch using the Bitcrusher knob. Given that notes played on the keyboard are sent to all four synth channels, it can at times, be useful to solo a specific channel while editing.

You can assign one control from each channel to the Mod Wheel for some real-time sound tweaking.

You can assign one control from each channel to the Mod Wheel for some real-time sound tweaking.

For each of the four channels, you can also assign one parameter to the Mod Wheel using the Assign Mod button. When you press one of the Assign Mod button, whichever parameter is currently selected within the Parameter matrix gets linked to the Mod Wheel and you can also adjust the range of parameter variation controlled by the full throw of the wheel.

The app includes limiter, delay and reverb effects and these can be configured via the System menu. Be careful with the PreGain setting on the Limiter – for some patches, it can add some serious level to the output :-)  The delay and reverb effects offer simply but effective controls and sound very respectable. That said, if you really want to go overboard with effects, then adding some 3rd party effects via Audiobus provides plenty of further possibilities.

There are, of course, a number of other programming options I’ve not covered here but, as a sound programming environment, while zMors is perhaps not the in the same league as a Thor or a Nave, it is fairly easy to get your head around and newbie synth programmers will not find it quite as intimidating as some of the more complex synth apps out there. That said, it is still possible to coax quite a diverse palette of sounds from the app, particularly when you layer channels together. If you are after some classic analog-style synth sounds for electronic music production, then zMors ought to suit.

Pattern of work

The sequencer provides a fairly standard grid-based approach to pattern creation.

The sequencer provides a fairly standard grid-based approach to pattern creation.

The sequencer allows patterns of up to four bars in length to be programed and you can set the length globally via the System options. You can either program patterns for each of the four channels or, if you wish, link all four channels so that they follow the patterns in the first channel (effectively layering your four sounds) using the button with the ‘chain-link’ icon that is present in each channel (this is a global switch; you can’t just link selected channels).

Tapping on one of the pattern buttons opens the sequencer display. Here you get presented with a fairly conventional grid-based pattern editor offering 16 steps per bar. Placing notes is simply a question of tapping on the grid and, if you tap and then drag, a small dialog appears allowing you to adjust the note length.

As far as I could see, there is no control over note velocity provided so you can not add performance dynamics to your patterns and, equally, zMors didn’t respond to different note velocity data sent from Cubasis either. This is, of course, very much ‘retro analog synth’ behaviour – and analog synth diehards may well prefer this – I suspect that there will also be others who would at least like the option (perhaps as a global switch?) of velocity support. It’s far from a critical issue given what zMors is intending to emulate but maybe it is a feature that might be added at some point in the future development of the app?

Note lengths can be adjusted via a op-up menu by simply swiping on a note.

Note lengths can be adjusted via a op-up menu by simply swiping on a note.

Once you have created a set of patterns and sound combinations that you like, the preset button allows you to save that, either locally or to the cloud (you can register to become a sound designer via the System menu if you wish). This all works very well for a complete preset patch but, rather oddly, the app doesn’t seem to allow you to copy/paste individual sequence patterns between the different channels or bars (at least, not that I could find). This would be a nice addition and would speed up some elements of the pattern programming process.

In use

zmors in audiobus

The Audiobus support in zMors seems to be well implemented.

Used on its own, zMors is actually a lot of fun and, while it definitely has a bit of a retro-vibe to the sound (some German synth heritage coming through there perhaps?), for electronic dance music styles this works very well. The presets range from the cool to the cheesy and through to the downright scary and aggressive. This may not be the most versatile of synths and, if you are looking for accurate representations of real instruments (piano, guitar, etc.), then you would be better off with a sample-based virtual instrument, but for classic analog synths in an easy-to-use package, zMors is a very interesting option.

The effects are fairly basic but easy to edit and sound very respectable.

The effects are fairly basic but easy to edit and sound very respectable.

The Audiobus support seemed well implemented. I had no problems passing zMors audio output from the Audiobus Input slot into a Cubasis project with Cubasis in the Output slot. I was also able to record the zMors output while passing MIDI data from Cubasis to zMors. I had a lot of fun passing zMors output through Turnado (sat in the Audiobus Effects slot) to add some additional effects options to the sound and, equally, I had no problems passing MIDI data from my hardware MID keyboard to zMors. Therefore, if you want to use the app in your overall recording workflow, it is easy enough to do so.

In summary

Sven Braun has created a really interesting app in zMors. It’s somewhat quirky and retro in its styling and functionality but that is, I suspect, totally deliberate. The interface is easy to use and, while something a little more comprehensive in terms of a user manual would be nice, in truth, even newbie synth programmers ought to find their way around reasonably quickly.

There are a few additional things if would be nice to see – velocity sensitivity (don’t shoot me!) and a copy/paste option for patterns, for example – but, even so, this is a cool little synth app from an independent developer and I sincerely hope Sven gets the support required to keep the product development going.

Unlike a Nave or a Thor which would probably appeal to quite a large audience, given the spec and sounds, I suspect zMors is perhaps more a niche product. However, if you like classic analog synths and the music associated with them, then zMors is most certainly worth exploring.

zMors Synth


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