the ios universe of applications…is heaven for synthesists and musicians alike. as a guitarist, I appreciate guitar applications, but my passion is collecting synthesizers…also, real synthesizers were always big ticket items, and I couldn’t afford the nice ones.
pre-ios, I had a limited number of hardware and software synths, and the soft synths mostly had to be run inside my DAW, or in some cases, as a standalone application on the PC, but still, I had no access to an almost limitless array of synthesizers – and now, with ios and the amazing developers who populate it, I have more choice than I can deal with!!
or, how it all started…
imagine if you will, then, a guitarist who has been working on music for many, many years, and during that time, dabbled in synthesizers – in the early days, I had an arp odyssey (a mark I, no less!), surely one of the most difficult to tune synths of all time; I had a wonderful serge modular system, and to my everlasting horror, I foolishly sold them off many years ago…
then, by chance almost, I picked up a couple of classic yamaha hardware synths: a dx7s, and a dx11s, and the dx7 saw service in the live set up of the band bindlestiff, where I played synth on stage as well as ambient loop ebow guitar – and my partner played a korg, so that was a great contrast of two fantastic synths – and if you listen to some of the pieces we did with that combination, yamaha and korg, such as “the wall of ninths” or “pacific gravity” you can hear what two classic synths can do in live performance.
so – during the first thirty five or forty years of my career, I owned at most, five hardware synths, and now, I am down to three – and that was it. then came pro tools and sonar and soft synths in general, and I have a reasonable selection of those, which made recording much easier – in particular, having a decent grand piano, “true pianos”, was very useful, and I’ve used “true pianos” for a lot of projects, from my own songs to covers of peter hammill and van der graaf generator. I picked up the wonderful “m-tron pro” mellotron software, which inspired one of my best solo albums, “sky full of stars”, and I also have “BFD2” a dedicated drum program, which allowed me to have professional sounding drum tracks when making the rock / prog / ambient album “gone native” – and if you take your time with it, you can make really great drum tracks with, such as this one, “wettonizer”, from the “gone native” record.
LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING
having owned such a limited range of hardware synths, I never really got the chance to expand my knowledge of synthesis by owning and playing a variety of synths, and I certainly never would have been able to afford most of the desirable synths (I remember playing a korg M1 when they came out, and just practically drooling with desire – but I simply could not afford it) – so I never bought a modern synth. I do love my yamaha dx7s, as eno has noted, it has a few really great sounds, it does certain things very, very well, and there’s nothing quite like it.
but overall, besides a modest collection of standalone and DAW-based soft synths, I really felt like I didn’t have much chance to understand, for example, the differences between additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis, I never really felt like I totally understood the magical relationships between oscillators, filters, modulators, and amplifiers, because I didn’t have examples of the many, many various hardware devices with their wildly differing approaches to synthesis. arpeggiators and sequencers were largely mysterious to me, but after working with the fairlight app (now called peter vogel cmi) for a year or so, I really “got” how sequencers work – which then meant I could use them with better clarity in many, many other synths that feature them.
then came ios. the apple platform, and, when you look at what is available for music – well, that’s what made me decide which tablet to get, when I saw what I could get on ios, at the time, compared to the relatively modest selection of apps on android – it seemed a no-brainer. I realise that over time, android is catching up, but I still don’t know if they will ever match the range, scope and incredible diversity of synths and near-synths that the apple store boasts – it’s astonishing what is available, and it’s astonishing that you can buy a massive collection of the world’s best synthesizers for a fraction of what the hardware versions cost – a tiny, tiny fraction.
FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT
so I went for the ipad/ios combination (despite not being a huge fan of apple in general!) and it was the wisest choice I ever made. within minutes, I was beginning to collect that massive set of synths that I could never in a million years have afforded in the hardware world – I started out by buying something that would have normally cost me about 20 grand, the great 80s sampler, the fairlight – and I spent about a year and a half, learning how to build sequences the slow way – and it was a fabulous learning experience, and I came to understand how the fairlight works, and how to arrange the instruments into sets, and create music in a way I never had done before (step by step) – quite inspiring, and very educational – and as I said, I could then transfer my new sequencing skills, to many, many other devices that support sequencing and sequences.
MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS
another early purchase was moog’s “animoog”, and even now, when I have more app synths than I know what to do with, I am constantly returning to this synth, with it’s ever-expanding library of great sounds. the korg “iMS-20” soon followed, and that was probably the synth that I truly started to learn from, because it’s so visceral, and so visual, with it’s bright yellow cables in the patch bay, and it’s utterly faithful graphics… the first generation synthesizers that were first available on ios were already excellent, emulating hardware synths that would have cost me thousands, now mine just for a few quid on ios. unbelievable – because I never would have owned any of those in my real life, because the hardware versions are so incredibly expensive – well beyond my means. for example – the fairlight cost about ten thousand dollars more than my annual salary the year it came out. now – it’s mine for a pittance…
AND ARTURIA TOO…
other early device purchases were my beloved “addictive synth”, the very, very capable “n log pro” – a great sounding little device; “mini synth pro”, and another real favourite, the arturia “imini” – a mini-moog style synth on an ipad !!
between arturia’s “imini” and moog’s “animoog”, I was set to go for that style of synth. also, synths like the great bismarck “bs-161”, the very capable “sunrizer”, “cassini”, the amazing “alchemy” synth; the list goes on and on and on….
TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH
then you get unique and amazing synthesizers like the touch control “tc-11” synthesizer, which takes real advantage of the ipad’s large screen, and delivers a synthesizer-playing experience that is unmatchable – you place your hand or hands on the screen, and by moving your fingers and hands in various ways, you “play” the synth – there’s no keyboard, but this shows you that you don’t necessarily need a keyboard to make beautiful synthesizer music (something I’d learned once before, when I got my first korg kaossilator – amazing hardware device!) – and you can produce truly beautiful music using a non-traditional interface like this – “tc-11” is simply, one of the highest quality, most remarkable devices that’s ever appeared on iosios – I absolutely love it. one of my very favourites, I do like synths that don’t have keyboards, but out of all of them, this is the most fun, and most creative, to work with and use to produce startlingly different synth music, often of great beauty – the remarkable “tc-11”.
SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:
very quickly, I became a true collector of synth applications, and guitar applications, too – but it’s those synths that I keep going back to – and now, the second generation of application-based synthesizers are here, and they are beyond fantastic, with features and sounds that are incredibly complex, mature and amazing: the mighty “thor”; the incredible “nave”, “magellan”, the korg “ipolysix”, arturia’s amazing “isem” – the list just goes on and on and on.
the “dxi”, “epic synth” (1980s style synth), “launchkey” plus “launchpad”, “modular” (similar to my lost serge system, but reliant on in-app purchases to make it truly useful), “performance synth”, “sample tank” (the free version only so far), “spacelab”, “synth”, “synthophone”, “xenon”, “xmod”, and “zmors synth”….the list goes on still…
then there were the generatives…mostly ambient in nature, and therefore, extremely well suited to the type of music that I generally make, so I happily adopted and became an adherent of “scape”, “mixtikl”, “drone fx”, circuli and so on…I worked with and continue to work with generative synthesis, which is a fascinating branch of synthesis, with it’s own quirks and interesting ways of working. mixtikl in particular holds my interest very well, sure, anyone can make sounds on it, but if you get into it deeply, you really have an enormous amount of control of how it generates the finished product…which is endlessly changing, never the same, constantly mutating according to the rules and conditions that you control…
“scape” is just purely beautiful, the sounds, courtesy of brian eno and peter chilvers, are simply top-notch, and using art works to create your generative pieces is a stroke of genius – and it’s very simple, just…drag geometric and other shapes onto a canvas, and see and hear your generative piece grow. more recently, I’ve picked up “drone fx”, which to my mind, is very nearly in the same class as “scape” and “mixtikl” given that you can set it up to create generative pieces, and the results are excellent – it’s a very ambient flavour, which suits me just fine, so I am very happy to add “drone fx” to my arsenal of generative music applications!
then there is “noatikl” (obviously, a spin-off or product related to the great “mixtikl”) – I don’t have much experience with this tool, I would call it a “sound design”-based generative music app, where you create loop-like pieces by connecting different sound generating nodes together – it’s quite odd, but it makes lovely music, and I hope to learn more about it and gain some skill in using it in the future.
THE LAND OF AMBIENT
this category includes most of the generatives, so please see “GENERATIVE DEVICES” above, for details on “scape”, “mixtikl”, “noatikl”, “drone fx”, and “circuli”. there are other really, truly important synths in this category, in particular, the brian eno-designed “bloom”, which was the predecessor to “scape” – “bloom” is a generative player, you select wonderfully named style and “bloom” then creates them on a grand piano for you – it’s really lovely, I can sit and listen to it for hours.
then there is another from the “mixtikl” family, the lovely ambient music player “tiklbox” – this one is really simple, it has a die in the middle, and you roll the die, and it then randomly selects or creates a piece of music based on the number you roll. It’s mostly very pleasant, I like the music it makes, but there is very little user interaction possible, you just turn it on, roll the die, and…listen. but – that’s cool, too.
then you have the slightly strange synths, two more in the semi-ambient category being “circuli”, which is literally, circles that grow and collide, and those collisions produce music, and the somewhat similar “musyc” that makes it’s music with bouncing objects – again, virtual objects collide to produce notes, chords or percussion sounds. “orphinio” presents varying sets of intersecting circles, each set to a different tuning or modality. both of these “shape-based” synths have truly great potential, but you have to be patient to get the kind of sounds you want out of them.
then there are the “grid” devices – visual sequencers with massive grids that scroll past, and you merely “click on” some of the buttons as they pass, and note events begin. one of the best of these is an old favourite of mine, “beatwave”, which I have used as a background for guitar improvs, because you can very quickly “build” a good quality backing track (it’s very similar to looping, really) and then just let it run, and solo over the top of it for live performance purposes. a similar and also very enjoyable device, “nodebeat HD”, works in a very similar way, and in fact, there are a good number of these “grid” types of synths out there, most of which sound very good.
MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS
then…again…you have the static grid types, such as the classic “mugician” and “cantor”, which use a static grid that you play by putting your finger on the notes you want to play, and “cantor” in particular, has a great “auto octave” function which means that if you want to go up very high, you just swipe a big diagonal line upward – and the device leaps up through four or five octaves – and a reverse diagonal, takes you back down to the lower notes. “cantor” is more note based, although it does have microtonal attributes, you mostly use real notes, whereas “mugician” is totally and utterly microtonal, you can “hit” notes, but it’s more about being able to play in a microtonal fashion – something that takes practice to get good at.
early on, I used “mugician” to play microtonal indian-style melodies over the remarkable “itabla pro” (one of my very, very favourite music apps of all time – I could write an entire blog about “itabla pro”; how good it is; and how much I LOVE it!) and that was great fun – it works really well as a lead instrument in that kind of musical situation.
slightly different in design to the “mugicians” and “cantors” (which while sounding very different, do have very similar interfaces visually at least) is the most excellent “sound prism pro” which features it’s own unique grid design, that is similar but different from the other two apps mentioned. “sound prism pro” has it’s own unique musical vocabulary, and is a bit more melodic / harmonic, whereas “mugician” and “cantor” are essentially solo instruments – melody only.
then there is the “vocal section”, which on my pad, share a special page with my audio utilities – in this category, we have some great tools for creating vocal harmonies and effects: “harmony voice”, “improvox”, “vio” and “voice synth” – each boasting it’s own slightly different way of achieving vocal harmonies – some very innovative and good sounding tools in this category, a lot of fun to sing into, too.
RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID
just outside of the land of synthesizers, there are also a broad spectrum of recording studio applications, such as “auria” (professional audio multitrack studio), “cubasis” – professional AUDIO + MIDI studio, “nanostudio” one of the oldest and most respected MIDI studios, and a personal favourite (and it does qualify, because it has a synth in it – a GREAT synth, called “eden synth”, which I absolutely love), “isequence”, “isynpoly” and “synergy studio”, midi studios all; and the unique yamaha “synth and drum pad” which is a bit different from the rest and is a lot of fun to experiment with – some unique sounds there, too.
the most recent entrant to this category is korg’s groundbreaking “gadget” – an incredible studio with fifteen unique korg synthesizers, bass synths and drum synths (yes, fifteen) that you can combine in endless variations to produce some amazing music. I’m currently working on my first three pieces with gadget – and of course, I feel another eternal album coming on…
on the same page as the studios, I also have a couple of standalone arpeggiators, “arpeggiognome pro” and “arpeggio”, which are very useful for driving your other synths, and unusual apps like “lemur”, which I purchased at half price for future development projects.
DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY
I also have a few of what I term “idiot synths” (no offense to anyone) because you need know absolutely nothing to run them, they are really just sample players with controls to modify many samples running in parallel. the “groove maker” series are really quite good, I love the “groove maker rock” version especially. I also have “session band rock” which is similar, I’ve made a couple of nice “metal” backing tracks with “session band” – the “rock” version, of course!
PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS
then there is the more traditional section of keyboards, which features a variety of grand pianos, regular pianos, upright pianos, electric pianos (“iGrandPiano”, “iElectric Piano”, “EPS”, mellotrons, and a couple of really, really great emulations of organs – “galileo”, “organ+”, and “pocket organ c3b3” – I love all three of these! I am really pleased in particular to have the organs available, and the work that’s gone into them, right down to the quality of that leslie speaker emulation – I love the “slow to fast” sound and vice versa, and all of these do a good job of that. the sounds are simply beautiful, and, they are a lot smaller, lighter, and cheaper than real organs 🙂
DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO
this section of my ipad has really expanded of late, and there are a lot of great apps available for very little cost. starting with the basses; we have a large variety of very innovative and interesting-sounding devices, from oddities like “amen break” to more practical devices such as “bass drop hd” and”bassline”. the drums section, by comparison, is massive – old faithful “korg ielectribe”, “dm-1”, “drumatron”, “easybeats”, the unique “impaktor” (which makes a drum kit out of any ordinary surface), propellerhead’s quintessential “rebirth” which of course, handles bass and drums, and is enormous fun just to play…”synth drum”, “virtual drums”, and a million other drum kits and machines too numerous to mention…
my absolute, all time favourite drum app, however, is not any ordinary drum machine or drum kit, rather, it’s the extraordinary “itabla pro” – one of the most excellent applications I own. full on tabla samples, with several playing styles for each template; and an extremely large range of templates in all time signatures, it’s as much an education as it is a drummer. also featuring tanpura and other supporting instruments, it has two completely tunable tanpuras, the tablas and the two tanpuras are all tuneable within an inch of their life, and it makes outstanding music for interacting with other ipad instruments. I’ve been working for some time using synthesizers with “itabla pro” as accompaniment, and it works equally well with microtonal synths such as “mugician”, as well as ordinary “western” synths such as animoog – on my ipad right now, I am working on a new piece that features two animoog solo melodies over a tanpura and tabla backing – and it’s sounding very, very good so far.
notably, while not a percussion instrument, there is also an excellent free app, called “samvada” that does tanpura only, it’s beautifully made, sounds great, and is excellent for use either in conjunction with “itabla pro”; or, for situations where you want a tanpura drone but you don’t need tablas. sometimes, I just gang up the tanpuras on “itabla pro” with “samvada”, for the ultimate in rich, deep drones – fantastic.
ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS
other oddities include “tabletop” which is a sort of…table top, where you can arrange midi synths and drum modules to make music with, with a lot of in-app purchases if you want the really nice tools. it is possible to make decent music with the free supplied tools, but it is limited unless you are willing to spend a lot on IAPs.
there are so many in this “category” that I cannot possibly list them all: “76 synthesizer”, “moog filtatron”, “catalyst”, “cascadr”, “dr. om”, “noisemusick”, “figure”, “lasertron ultimate”, “samplr”, the list just goes on and on and on…
and as time passes, more and more synthesizers will arrive on ios, each more powerful than the last, it just seems like a never-ending process, there are so many excellent developers out there, as well as such a hunger from musicians (myself included, I am not ashamed to admit) for these synths – especially the vintage ones, the ones that emulate the classic keyboards that we all lusted after, but most of us simply could never afford. ios, and the availability of cheap synth apps – gives us what we could never, ever have in the real world.
armed with this vast array of synthesizing power, I feel like there is no sound that I can’t make, and no requirement I can’t meet – if I need a sound for a project I am building on my ipad – I will, absolutely will, already have a synth – or two – that can make that sound.
I am utterly in my element here, I hope the synths never stop arriving, and as long as developers keep creating them, I will absolutely, absolutely – keep playing them. rock on.
I will leave guitar applications for another day – suffice to say, they are equally diverse and fascinating, and several of them are putting serious challenges to existing stomp box and other guitar processing hardware items. I love my guitar apps, and it’s a whole new world of guitar playing – instead of my traditional set up; instead, I have a guitar to ipad to sound card set up – and I can get a whole world of excellent tone just using ios ipad guitar applications…
in the meantime, synthesists unite, and developers, please do not stop working on new and better and more innovative synthesizer apps. something needs to feed this addiction, and that’s truly what it has become – but in the best possible way, and I get so much enjoyment, hours and hours and hours of enjoyment, from just playing the various synths, to making various recordings using them – it’s created an entirely new application-based world of music that I did not realise I had in myself – and it’s an absolute joy to play these innovative instruments, and to try out new combinations of devices either by using them in a multi-track environment such as “auria”, or, for simpler set ups, the very practical “audiobus” (another game-changing device) and now, we have the new inter-app audio as well, so options for tying synths together via MIDI, or for triggering other devices from within one device, just grow and grow – it is truly amazing. I feel truly blessed to live in such times, technology at work for good, for the sake of sound, and the sound quality of most of these apps far exceeds expectations.
for that, and for the massive number of free, inexpensive or even expensive synthesizer applications, I am truly grateful, and truly happy, that these exist for me to collect 🙂