TC-11 – a touch-controlled synth for ipad that really delivers…

since acquiring a tablet device some time ago, I’ve tried a lot of ipad synths, and I am not ashamed to say I have a very large collection of them, that is still growing steadily – and probably always will! 🙂

they tend to fall into three broad classes:

  • category one – those that work to emulate normal synthesizers, and therefore, their main method of producing notes and chords is a “virtual” keyboard;
  • category two – those that use an alternate method to produce notes and chords – in a serious number of radical configurations, some more successful than others;
  • category three – other less easily defined interfaces – oddball devices / devices that use truly unusual methods of triggering notes and chords;

so – in our first category (by far the most populated, from what I can tell) you have keyboard-based synths ranging from animoog to xenon, including classic emulations of moogs and korgs (such as the iMS-20 or the iPolysix), other standalones  such as addictive synthalchemy, mini-synth pro or magellan, and second and third generation devices such as the amazing thor and the equally capable nave.

the second category is a mixed bag, with some good entrants, such as the strangely satisfying sound prism pro; then you have your cantors, your mugicians, and the like…they don’t have keys, but they have a single, straightforward way of producing notes and chords.  but that is also their drawback – they only have one screen pattern, regardless how innovative.

and then finally, the somewhat unclassifiable, such as the good dr. om, noisemusick, the 76 synth, or the moog filtatron – any number of oddballs “fit”, more or less, into this third category.

in category one, some stunning advances have been made, and in the case of a keyboard-based synth like the mighty thor – well, this synth is almost a textbook case for how to build a perfect synth in ios – it’s just a dream to play, it sounds great, it looks great, and the developers deserve a huge pat on the back for what they’ve done with thor – it’s really incredible.  if I want the best in a keyboard-based ios synth, I almost always turn to thor or nave, nave or thor, or let’s not forget the redoubtable iMini.

while I might go for one of those first, depending on the requirement, for another session, on another night – I might go for animoog (which has become quite the synth now that you can get the richard devine and other nice sound libraries for it, the metallic library is also fabulous) – so that’s a synth that has improved with the addition of new libraries, although of course, you do have to pay for them – or I might choose one of the korgs, or addictive synth, or cassini, or xenon or sunrizer.  or let us not forget the mighty n log pro – a fantastic first generation synth.

I’ve been less impressed with the progress of category two and three synths, that is, until I decided to take advantage of a rare price reduction on the TC-11 synth a few days ago – and suddenly, all these attempts to use the massive screen of the ipad in a unique and unusual, yet totally functional and musical way – well, it all starts to make sense now!  the designers / developers of TC-11 has done what the sound prisms and mugicians and the cantors could not quite do – they’ve created a synth with no keyboard, that is actually playable; that challenges the very need for a standard keyboard, and I found today, in making some test recordings, that it is entirely possible to play music with the TC-11 – despite the lack of a keyboard.

so the claim on the itunes store that the TC-11 synth is “the only fully programmable multi-touch synthesizer for the iPad” – would actually seem to be true! – I’ve certainly never encountered any other ios synth with the level of “under the hood” control that the TC-11 gives you.

the key is that there is no one solution, there isn’t one static screen (as there is with sound prism pro, mugician, cantor, and so on) instead, there is a different screen for each preset!  and each patch is totally configurable, from the oscillators to the filters to sequencers to the effects to determining how the movement of your fingers affects auto-panning, total behind-the-scenes control.

I actually bought this synth thinking “OK, I am a guitarist, and I have a lot to learn about synthesis still, despite playing and working with them for more than a few decades; I will buy this, and I will sit down at some far future point, many months from now, and try to teach myself how to program it…”  I expected it to be beyond me – and am pleasantly surprised to find that really, it’s not.

within seconds, I was playing, within minutes, music was emerging, even before I really understood what is going on with this remarkable synthesis engine, which is utterly and so beautifully configurable, you have access to everything under the hood, and I do mean everything – and this synth has just about everything you could ever, ever want – you are in control!

like any good ios synth, of course, it comes stocked with a healthy dose of presets; and from examining the way those are designed, I can begin to make my own connections and alterations and create fantastic patches of my own.  I actually didn’t expect presets, I thought I would have to build all of my own, but the developer has spent some serious time and effort to give us some absolutely great sounding presets right out of the box – which also work as building blocks for sounds of our own that we will design later…did I mention that the synth comes with a fantastic set of presets?

when you play through some of the presets, you will see that not one, but several different screen configurations are used, based on various different geometrical shapes – commonly, a circular interface; fret like interfaces; and various alternate versions of several basic screens, none of them featuring a key of any size or shape! nary a white key or black note in sight – and that, in the case of the TC-11, is a good thing.

despite the lack of a keyboard, there is a somehow-obvious logic (that I can’t describe in words) and when you play each patch, well, sometimes, it just hits you how you should use your fingers, you might make a fist to create a really pure chord, or stretch two notes far apart to increase that amazing thick flanger – but the design of even these presets is incredibly complex, and you can get amazing and very musical results by variously:

  • making a swirling circle with one or two or three fingers
  • putting all five or all ten fingers down in a semicircle
  • making a fist in the centre of the screen, and spinning it slowly around
  • trailing a single finger from one corner of the screen to another corner
  • tapping out individual notes just as if you had a keyboard, but – you don’t
  • moving the entire ipad in various directions to effect the sound as you hold fingers on the screen
  • playing the screen like a typewriter
  • any combination of the above
  • using your imagination – just try it…and hear what it does to the sound !!!

…in other words, almost any gesture that you can imagine, made with finger, fingers, the fingers of two hands, the backs or sides of your hands…will produce a distinct result within the parameters of that patch, and some of the effects are extreme and wonderful – especially in the world of auto-panning, a lot of work has gone into the panner, not to mention some beautiful delays and flangers, too.

I imagine that you could put your forehead down on the screen, and something beautiful would come out of the TC-11. 🙂

so now – what I suddenly have here, is a superlative touch control interface synth that I can already play.  with some rehearsal, and some knowledge of how to get the best out of some of the best presets, and I should be able to play it live, anywhere, without issues.  so when I want to move from playing thor, and the world of the black and white, the tradition, playing those 88s in which ever mode I find them on whichever category one synth I am playing…

…to the world of total freedom, where one patch is all about circles and chords, another, about fretless dub bass with sonic qualities you will not believe, the next, an abstract plane of rectangles that fades into the top of the screen in an endless, fading curve, which defines your “playing field” for the next patch – it’s fantastic, a fantastical world of sound that is one of the most exciting I’ve heard, touched and seen, in a long time – the TC-11 is the real deal.

playing it is very, very liberating, the only experience I can compare it to, was when I first got my korg kaossilator, and I realised that after forty some years of making music with either frets, or keys – that I could make GOOD MUSIC without the benefit of keys or frets – well, it’s a similar feeling – and a wonderful, freeing one I can tell you.

I can make that comparison easily, because when I started out with the koass pad, I had no idea what would happen, and to my everlasting astonishment, with one day of practice – I could make music – without those pesky keys or frets or strings!

same thing with the TC-11 – within minutes, I could make music, even though the interface was completely alien to me, after a few minutes, I could begin to pull tunes out of it – which surprised the heck out of me, because with other category two and three synths, like sound prism – OK, you can get some nice chords and melodies out of sound prism – but you don’t get what you get with the TC-11 – beautiful, rich, synth music – with a really, truly unique playing surface, which is really, really fun to play – with a beautiful synthesis engine powering it, giving you the power to configure each patch to suit the way you want to move your fingers, to create the sounds you want to hear when you use that patch – total control, including the playing surface.

and, with the total configurability of the TC-11, even the most demanding, experienced synthesist should find the kind of control they crave for their patches – total control,  and playing without keys, finally got truly do-able.

so if you enjoy the challenge of playing the synthesizer without a keyboard, using a variety of approaches for note and chord generation, and you want a totally configurable synth with a powerful engine that you can tweak to your heart’s delight – then the TC-11 is the category two synth for you!  give it a try – I am finding it to be very, very addictive – it’s just a LOT of fun to play, and trying out different gestures to see what sound will result is a real hoot, and sometimes a new gesture will bring out an amazing sound out of a patch you thought you knew everything about – it’s full of surprises.

I took a bit of a risk in purchasing this, thinking it was far beyond me, but that risk has been rewarded a thousandfold, and what I have with the TC-11 is a fantastic tool for both live performance and recording – and a tool I know I will make a lot of use of in the years to come.  the TC-11 is a winner with me – a real winner.

you may want to give it a try – I am so, so glad that I decided to give it a go – because boy does it ever go! 🙂

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in search of…a few good sounds

today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.

in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects.  I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:

fender stratocaster guitar

wah-wah pedal

arbiter fuzz face

uni-vibe  (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)

marshall amplifier

4 speaker cabinets

that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.

hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo

while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers,  phase shiftersreverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow

today’s guitarists – have too many options.  too many effects.  too many choices…

I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.

for  a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.

then came the era of the rack mount.  stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).

fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound.  and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?

the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering.  let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects.  that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.

the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took –  but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…

and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller?  all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…

I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology;  and with it, you can do so, so much…

but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest.  in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!

eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those  good sounds, and ignore the rest.

well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system.  I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful.  this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach.  a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…

so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb.  the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches.  via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.

the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound.  but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.

so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…

for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound.  they are of equal importance.

but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform.  that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂

over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.

so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.

since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂

I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.

so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂