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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a short session with the “shredder synth”…

I recently mixed a really interesting session from june 16, 2012, where I did my first ever testing of and recording with an app I had just recently acquired, which is called “shredder synth” – a bit of a misleading name, because it neither shreds (well, it probably can, if you work at it) nor is it a synth – at least, not a normal synth – but nonetheless, it’s a truly remarkable app, and I wanted to share my experience with it with you…

first of all, I cannot for the life of me imagine how the developers of this app even got it to work, because, somehow, from a normal analogue guitar input, they have made a fairly flawless translation to a full on guitar synthesizer – an amazing acheivement for a tablet-based device!

so all you need is an input for guitar (any will work, I happen to use the “apogee jam”, which has worked flawlessly with every app I’ve ever tried it with – and that is several now) and that is all: ”shredder synth”does the rest – it detects the input, and somehow translates audio into MIDI to drive the synth.  god, and the developers, know – I do not 🙂  and I don’t actually care, all I care about is how it sounds – and that is wonderful.

the sounds – are beautiful.  that’s why I say the name of the app is misleading, OK, sure, you can get some heavy/metallic sounds with it, but it’s mostly capable of very, very beautiful sounds, very subtle, or very strange sounds.  the only negative comment I might make is that there are not very many “presets” – but, that’s not really a negative – I just happen to like apps that give me many presets, because that gives me that many more “starting  points” to modify from…but either way, presets or no, this is an excellent application with enormous creative potential.

I find the interface to be really easy to use and understand, it’s very, very simple to edit a voice, and on my very first day with it, I took a standard voice, modified it to my liking, gave it a name, and saved it for future use – a beautiful, beautiful sound, which I then, two days later, recorded two really lovely improvs with. one of those improvs, entitled “a string of islands“, can be found on soundcloud – I am so pleased with this simple but effective piece of guitar – but guitar played through a tablet guitar synth – remarkable!

some of the stock voices are really, really beautiful – one in particular caught my ear, “appalachian” – which is a very pure sine wave sound, with a serious hint of slow attack that gives it a quasi-reverse sound – so it’s sort of halfway between a forwards and backwards guitar sound, but a very, very pure tone indeed, and really works beautifully in any improv or piece that I’ve used it in – a definite “go-to” tone.

I really, really hope that this app does well, because I already like it in it’s current state, but I could imagine, with more features, more presets, and more functions, that over time, it might become one of the most amazing and capable guitar apps anywhere.  I hope the developers will really put some thought into improving this app, and making it truly world class – it’s well on it’s way already

I only have a handful of guitar apps (compared to a ridiculously large number of keyboard based apps I own) and”shredder synth”is utterly unique among them – three of the main guitar apps I use,  are guitar amp/cabinet emulation / effects multi-purpose apps (“stompbox”, “ampkit +”, and “jam up pro xt”), basically, different versions of the more familiar “guitar rig” that appeared some time back: devices to run your guitar through.  and I’ve been astonished at how good some of them sound, right out of the box – replacing thousands of dollars worth of gear with a 20.00 dollar application – that’s astonishing.

I have a couple of other guitar rig type of apps that I don’t really use, like “amplitube” and so on, because the main three I have are so, so capable – really powerful guitar processing devices, particularly peavey’s “ampkit +”, which I absolutely love.  I have high hopes for the newly acquired “jam up pro xt” but it’s a bit underpowered right now – ampkit plus is miles beyond it in terms of devices available and presets available – miles ahead – so I hope “jam up” will catch up 🙂

but, so far, ”shredder synth”is the only guitar synthesizer in the bunch, and it’s a beauty.  what I realised during this session was, that along with all the processing I can do to a guitar signal, using ”shredder synth”means that now…I can drive those processors with two unique guitar synths – the roland gr-55, and, “shredder synth“.

and actually, of course, since the roland is capable of two simultaneous synth voices (and, one modelled guitar voice) that actually means I can have three guitar synths (and one modelled guitar, too!) running simultaneously. 

so I can imagine producing some very, very complex waveforms, with one stereo pair of guitar running from the roland gr-55, and another stereo pair running through ”shredder synth” – and then of course, taking those strange “triple guitar synth” constructions, and then running them through the many processing options…my guitar continues to mutate further and further away from sounding like a guitar – which to me, is usually a good thing!

some of the pieces I recorded in this session from june 16th, 2012, demonstrate this beautifully, and even when there are just two synths running – say, poly sitar from the roland, and digi-lead from the shredder –  it’s uncanny to hear a melody played by two completely different synth voices – especially since in some cases, the differences in adsr, particularly, differences in the attack, mean that the melodies seem to interweave, since one synth voice might “start” it’s phrase many milliseconds before or after the other – a great effect, because even though there is only one note playing, one melody, the aural illusion is of multiple melodies – because the voicings are so very different in their sonic characteristics.

I was astonished to realise that suddenly, I now have an extra guitar synth added to my main guitar sounds – so going from the already very lush combination of two synths and one modelled guitar, to now three synths and one modelled guitar – which while it may not sound like much on paper, in terms of my guitar sound – it’s huge.

given my now-very-flexible routings situation, it will also be possible to route one synth through one set of processors, and the other, through another, and, sending separate stereo pairs to the recorder, as well – allowing me to record the output of the roland on one pair, via one set of processing devices, and the output of the shredder on another, via another set of processors – giving me maximum mixdown flexibility, plus the ability to level match precisely between the two after recording.

one of the test pieces utilised a second app, so as well as”shredder synth”and the roland, I was running a tabla/tanpura drone as a backing track, using my favourite “itabla” application, and that piece, even though just a rough run through, really gave me the flavour of just how good this “two guitar synths” set up is going to be going forward when combined with other applications like “itabla”.

other “shredder synth” presets that merit special mention are “hidden talons” which is almost impossible to describe in words, running a “glass cello” on the roland into the “hidden talons” patch on the shredder, created a complex and beautiful stereo output, with oddly-moving-from-major-to-minor organ chords – plus, strange bubbling sounds, a beautiful drone-like sine wave output – and the constant, gorgeous glass cello driving the whole thing – a really lovely sound (if a bit out of control at times!).

I also am quite partial to the preset “keep your ears” – a sort of oddly-arpeggiated sine wave synth – again, when coupled with a more constant roland voice – the glass cello again – it works really well because the two voices are so very, very different – great sonic contrast.

glitchiness? – well, I’d say, all in all, that the “shredder synth” is about the same as the roland. let’s face it – all guitar synths suffer from this – if you do not hit that note precisely, perfectly, carefully – you get little glitchy sounds sometimes, depending on which voice, and which fingering, and how much care you take in the accuracy of your fingering.  this can be controlled via the application of very precise technique.  sloppy, random playing generally results in a rapid increase in “glitchiness”.

this applies equally to the roland gr-55 and to “shredder synth” – it’s part of the slightly glitchy technology of input tracking – whether that be the roland’s special GK pickup, or. the way the shredder synth’s developers have captured the guitar’s input to use to drive the synth – sometimes, I love those glitchy, weird extra “sounds”, their randomness and sudden appearance can add character and excitement to a piece.  other times, they can and do sometimes annoy me, because sometimes, I really want the pure sound of the patch.  but the “shredder synth” is truly no better and no worse then the gr-55 – it tends toward glitchiness on some voices more than others – as does the roland.

this is something that can probably be improved over time by the developers, but, to be honest – a big part of it is the player’s style – when you start out playing guitar synth, you quickly learn that it’s not “just like playing guitar” – in fact, you actually have to spend time and make a deliberate effort to develop a specific picking style for each synth voice, that works with that particular sound – and every voice has it’s idiosyncrasies, that you have to allow for – and great care must be taken to perform each note so that the device doesn’t glitch.  but – with practice – you learn , and it sounds better and better as you learn more precise fingering which translates directly into better tracking and fewer glitches – usually 🙂  it’s not an exact science, but to me, it’s miraculous that guitar synthesizers, of any description, exist at all…they are an astonishing thing.

hearing this session now, there are maybe only a few viable takes from the session, because the whole idea of playing with two guitar synths at once was new to me, and I just didn’t do that well – I was still adjusting to the double-synth concept – but when I hear the tracks, including imperfections and my own learning curve – I can hear great potential here.  particularly the track I recorded using itabla pro, could easily lead to a whole new kind of guitar-synth-based “synthraga orchestra” piece – using not a keyboard synth, but perhaps the roland gr-55 driving “shredder synth” atop itabla – the potential that these test recordings reveals is really encouraging – and I love the sounds that this unique and interesting application makes.

but the jewel in the crown from this session, are the last two tracks, which were both recorded using the first custom guitar synth voice that I created – so I had tailored an already-beautiful sound to my own ear – it sounded just like I wanted it to – and I was good and warmed up, so, I sat down and did two very, very satisfying and quite beautiful pieces using this custom sound.

that is possibly the most attractive feature of the “shredder synth” though, the ability to create your own synth voices, either from scratch, or by modifying existing presets – and there you have an almost unlimited palette to work from – and I am looking forward to getting creative in this area, creating a number of patches of my own to use in ambient and active pieces of music…particularly ambient, and the custom sound I created is in that category – which is why the last two ambient pieces in the session are so, so successful.

shredder synth” is another real winner in my book, and one of my very favourite guitar apps to date – highly recommended if you want something a bit “different” – and, if you have no guitar synthesizer at all in your set-up – well, if you have an ipad, you can now have a guitar synth for an extremely reasonable price.  it’s not perfect, it’s not as capable as  the roland gr-55, but for the money, it does do an awful lot, and it does give you a lot of really interesting and unusual and also, frankly strange! new sounds for your guitar – you can’t really go wrong!! 🙂