The iPad isn’t just an expensive tablet for replying to emails while watching the TV – it can be a serious production tool in the right hands.
On top of the expected range of pick-up-and-play apps for iOS that allow you to sketch musical ideas down on the move or make whole tracks in just a few minutes, Apple’s App Store is full of more professional tools.
Although there are a select few available for iPhone, it’s the iPad that offers the best selection. This list looks at 10 of the best softsynths available for the iPad; reasonably priced yet professional apps that can be incorporated into a full studio setup. Most synth apps are also now compatible with the Audiobus app, which allows easy audio streaming between apps inside the iPad itself.
If you’ve ever wanted to experiment with modular synthesis but can’t afford it, or play a vintage analog synth on a bus, then read on.
Arturia’s virtual recreations of classic analog hardware are the stuff of legend for many producers, and rightly so. Its iPad offerings might not be as numerous, but the iMini and iSEM both offer recreations of the Minimoog and and Oberheim SEM that are as good as their desktop counterparts. The iProphet is the latest mobile synth from the French company, and it’s probably its most interesting. It’s based on Sequential Circuits’ Prophet VS from 1986, the company’s first – and last – digital synth; it pioneered vector synthesis, a method that created animation by cross-fading between four sound sources.
By the time Sequential Circuits released the Prophet VS the company was already in financial trouble and only a handful were manufactured before it went bust. It’s a shame, because the iProphet shows just how much character this oft-forgotten synth had, capable of bold leads with digital snarl or serene pads with glossy waterfall ambience. For this reason the iProphet feels like something unique among a crowded market of vintage recreations; a one-of-a-kind piece of vintage digital technology in a sea of analog recreations.
BeepStreet’s Sunrizer has been around for a while, but it’s a solid synth whose reputation makes it an easy candidate for this list. Its ‘supersaw’ emulation also means it looks and sounds just like Roland’s JP-8000 synthesizer, so if you want to make beefy trance riffs like Paul Van Dyk (or indeed Lorenzo Senni), or even the kind of dubstep sounds favoured by Skrillex and friends, this is the app for you.
If you can’t stomach stadium dance music, then the Sunrizer is still a great synth with an unmistakably ‘90s sound, and effects including distortion, chorus, EQ and stereo delay. Its has a kind of dated nostalgic charm you only really get with virtual analog, though it’s not an all-in-one solution. There’s no step sequencer, only an arpeggiator, so you’ll need to do more complex arrangement outside the app, but the fact it does one thing very well will appeal to those who don’t want to get distracted by unnecessary extra features.
Korg’s legendary MS-20 synthesizer might have made a comeback in the physical realm with the MS-20 mini, but the iMS-20 offered an almost-as-authentic reproduction several years before. If you’re willing to look past the fact the the iMS-20’s sound engine lacks the authentic analog sound, it’s actually a more versatile tool than a standalone MS-20. As well as a virtual recreation of the synth itself, it features a 16-step analog sequencer based on Korg’s SQ-10, a six-part drum machine and seven-channel mixer with in-built effects. There’s also two virtual Kaoss Pads built-in – one for playing notes and one for manipulating the sound itself.
The fact that Korg have padded out the iMS-20 with these bonus features doesn’t mean it’s neglected the synth itself. As well as having a sound engine capable of approximating the original instrument, and being a more diminutive version, it looks and feels like an MS-20. Patch cables can be rerouted and waveforms shaped with virtual knobs that look just like their physical counterpart, making this app highly recommended for anyone who just wants to experiment with synthesis on a interface that doesn’t like like the controls to a starship. Korg has always understood the importance of keeping the past alive while embracing future technology, and the iMS-20 might be the best example of that.
If you’re the kind of person who gets confused by signal chains and patch cables, then the Mitosynth’s “synthesis without the spaghetti” approach could be the answer. Everything about Mitosynth is designed to be a simple as possible, from the minimalistic, uncluttered interface to the way patch design is laid out – in a vertical fashion with each component in the chain represented by a bubble, moving through envelope, modulation, effects and reverb. It’s not too daunting for beginners, and those who want to get inside the engine and really pick apart the sound will find plenty to get lost in.
This is primarily thanks to the Mitosynth’s “Wavechamber,” which developer WoojiJuice describes quite evocatively as “a big vat where you pour in audio and mix it up.” You can put up to 32 samples into the Wavechamber, and the wavetable synth engine will create some wild and wonderful sounds. These samples can come from the on-board additive synthesizer, sounds imported from other apps or even sounds recorded from the app itself. Add to this some particularly deep LFO controls, and you have a synth that has all the depth of a modular without the baffling layout.
The oscilloscope-inspired interface that welcomes you as you open Moog’s Animoog is clearly designed to evoke a nostalgic response. However, it’s easily one of the most advanced polyphonic synths available for iOS. Built around what Moog calls an Anisotropic Synth Engine, the Animoog isn’t a slavish recreation of an existing Moog synth. Instead, it’s a powerful instrument in its own right, one that’s almost like having the power of a gigantic modular system in your iPad.
The sounds the Animoog creates however, are unmistakably Moog in origin. They’re analog waveforms sampled from Moog oscillators both vintage and modern and have been run through a plethora of outboard gear, including Moog’s own Moogerfooger effect boxes and a variety of modular synth panels. It might sound a bit like simple sample playback, but the deep timbre shaping options, visualised with a vivid X/Y graph, go way beyond anything else in its field. It’s probably no coincidence the Animoog looks like something you might expect to find buried at the back of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – if you want to make the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear in the deepest recesses of space and time, this is the perfect tool.
Photophore isn’t like other synths on this list. It’s billed as a “flock synthesis” instrument, which creates evolving sounds by simulating animal behaviour. This means you aren’t confronted by waveforms or knobs controlling amplitude or oscillation when you open the app. Instead, Photophore presents each oscillator as part of a larger swarm which moves on screen as you play, and you’re able to control speed, turbulence, attraction, alignment and how much each agent repels each other.
The Photophore’s interface means it’s easy to assume that it might be aimed at casual users, but a simple interface doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of complexity under the surface. Photophore is capable of packing a huge 100 oscillators into each patch, and the result is a deep and versatile sound engine, capable of creating anything from thick leads to complex pad sounds. The visual interface will draw people in initially, but the wildly diverse sounds you can tease from Photophore will undoubtedly keep you coming back for more.
Propellerhead Thor Polysonic Synthesizer
If you’re a Reason user you’ll be familiar with Propellerhead’s Thor. A virtual semi-modular synth, Thor allows you to combine different synth technologies in one patch, meaning you could, in theory, add an analog oscillator to an FM oscillator and a wavetable oscillator to create a mutant combination of analog and digital timbres. On top of all this, there are four different filters – a Moog-style lowpass ladder filter, a classic multimode filter, a filter that mimics the human voice and a comb filter for sharpness – providing us with a powerful synth capable of making sounds you’d struggle to get from existing hardware.
Propellerhead’s iPad version is pretty much exactly the same as the one included with Reason, with the added bonus of being liberated from the desktop program itself. People who like to make music on the go will appreciate the step sequencer and collapsible keyboard that can be set to a scale and key, and if you are a Reason user, then you can create patches on the iPad and export them to Reason too. You can also have serious fun with Thor’s modulation matrix, which lets you modulate anything (within reason). In short, there’s nothing about Thor’s iOS version that feels in any way reduced – it’s still as colossal as its older sibling.
There’s something about Waldorf’s now-classic 1993 Wave synthesizer that sounds completely otherworldly. It’s down to the German company’s use of wavetable synthesis, a technique that generates sounds from samples of digital signals; unlike the thick, buttery sound of analog, Waldorf’s wavetable offerings have a kind of of brittle, glassy timbre that sound like they’re being beamed in via satellite. Waldorf’s first mobile synth, the Nave, continues with that legacy, allowing the creation of the kind of unique digital sounds with a number of features that make this iPad version a serious instrument in its own right.
Controlled by two wavetable oscillators, the Nave also features a speech synthesizer and what Waldorf calls the Überwave module to fatten the sound with up to eight oscillators. If you’re a fan of Waldorf’s physical hardware, you can bring in the wavetables from its Microwave, Wave and Blofeld synths, or even make your own wavetables by importing and analysing your own audio files. Once you’ve selected a wavetable, a 3D visualisation can be manipulated with the touchscreen, making tweaking patches a little more intuitive than just turning knobs. If you want to make music that sounds like Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven, this is a decent starting point.
Modular synthesis is impossible to ignore right now, whether it’s Moog reissuing its gigantic System 55 or bedroom producers constructing their own Eurorack systems one module at a time. No matter which way you choose to get involved in the addictive pursuit of modular synthesis though, you’re going to have to accept it’s something of a financial black hole. The zMors Modular app is a solution for those who want to go a bit deeper with their synthesis without having to spend thousands.
The interface is a little like a less complex version of the visual programming language Max/MSP, allowing you to connect virtual oscilloscopes and VCAs to filters, step sequencers and delay effects. If you’re a novice then the blank screen presented to you when you make a new template might be off-putting, but digging around the ample presets should help to give you an idea of which component does what; once you do know what to do, you could lose hours moving patch cables around in the pursuit of the perfect sound. It’s not just for those without gear either – if you have the right USB interface, you can feed CV signals from vintage gear into the app itself, making it a worthy addition to an existing modular system.
The PPG WaveMapper is developed by Wolfgang Palm, the man who both designed modular systems for Tangerine Dream and invented wavetable synthesis. The WaveMapper is a continuation of his work in wavetable synthesis, and like Waldorf’s Nave elsewhere in this list, is capable of using different samples and sources to create mutant hybrid sounds. Givent the WaveMapper is a wavetable synth straight from the inventor himself the WaveMapper is automatically worth a look, but it’s the synthesizer’s unique interface that helps it to stand out.
There are a lot of iPad synths designed to make things as easy as possible for novices, but the WaveMapper’s mapping window might make it the easiest to grasp. Here a grid of 32 programs are presented, onto which you can drag and drop different modules to acheive different effects. The presentation and execution is a little like managing your inventory in an RPG game to achieve different effects – place a guitar sound source onto a drum envelope for example, and you can create all manner of unusual rhythmic sounds. It might sound like Palm has dumbed things down, but the PPG WaveMapper is anything but simplistic – it’s easily one of the deepest synths available on iPad.