Have you fully embraced the iPad (or iPhone) as a key instrument in your music production set up, or are you merely using it as a mobile composing companion on the road, or are iOS synths something that is still out of your radar? In either case it is clear that all the way back to the launch of the iPad 2 there has been a massive explosion of iOS apps targeting music creation. The ability to have a touch UI has also dramatically changed how we may interact with an instrument and new ways of creating sounds has emerged utilizing the full spectrum of touch interfaces.
However, although iOS allows for many new creative user experiences many of the top recent releases are iOS soft versions of vintage gear. This is, of course, not in itself a bad thing – for a rather small amount of money you will get access to many of the most legendary machines out there, but in all honesty the ones that create something completely new and innovative deserves a little more attention. This is why some of the synth apps featured in our top 10 ranking are quite old from an iOS perspective, but at the time of their release they were really pushing the envelope and really made use of the unique capabilities provided.
Before we start there is one more app that deserves some extra attention and that is Audiomux. Audiomux supports as a plug-in, so a synth or effect app on your iPad is the same as one on your computer. Audiomux lets you ditch the audio interface and integrate your iOS gadget via a single cable. It works with output – so you can record, or make samples, or add effects on your computer. It works with input – round-trip, even, so you can add iOS effects to projects you’re working on via your computer. And it works with multiple apps and even multiple devices, making iOS tools part of your studio rather than just the thing you use to distract yourself while waiting at a bus terminal. So in essence Audiomux is one of many interesting tools that allow you to have your favorite iOS apps be part of your DAW eco-system of VSTs/plug-ins.
Furthermore, protocols like Ableton LINK now make it possible to synchronize apps and devices wirelessly. With interfaces like the iConnectAudio and iConnectMIDI series you can route MIDI and Audio streams in and out of your iOS devices to your computer and/or controller. In a home studio you can route the sound into your DAW or drive the iOS device with a DAW-based sequencer or standard MIDI controller. Example include MIRA, an app based extension for Max/MSP that allows wireless control of a Max patch or Max for Live Device, and Lemur that offer customizable and unusual MIDI generating interfaces to control standard computer-based applications. Expert Sleepers FH-1, allows you to drive a Eurorack rig using the MIDI outputs from your iOS device.
In the must have round up we have only included synth apps, meaning that we are not listing drum machines, DAWs, Pianos, or any other music production apps – we simply stick to synthesizers. It is also worth mentioning that the listed synths are not in a prioritized order, mainly due to the fact that ranking them individually may not necessarily be meaningful as they sometimes have slightly different use cases. For example a wavetable app is quite different from a monosynth, and judging modular synths versus a bass synth is not necessarily meaningful either. Simply put treat this as a list of powerful synths that will, all counted, set you back between $50-70 each at the high end of the spectrum, but with the average falling around $10 to $15. But in comparison to owning the real machines, thinking primarily on the clones of vintage synths, is a bargain.
Animoog is the obvious starting point and one of the most powerful iOS synths out there. Animoog, powered by the Anisotropic Synth Engine (ASE), is Moog Music’s first professional polyphonic synthesizer designed exclusively for the iPad. ASE allows you to move dynamically through an X/Y space of unique timbres to create a constantly evolving and expressive soundscape. Animoog captures the vast sonic vocabulary of Moog synthesizers and applies it to the modern touch surface paradigm, enabling you to quickly sculpt incredibly fluid and dynamic sounds that live, breathe, and evolve as you play them. Animoog’s diverse library of timbres is derived from analog waveforms captured from classic Moog oscillators, both vintage and modern, and run through a boutique’s worth of high-end outboard and analog signal processors. These include modular synth panels, Moogerfooger pedals and more. (Link)
Waldorf’s wavetable synth is a true powerhouse and the perfect companion for everything pads, ambient and experimental – and that is just the starting point of this innovative app. The Nave sound engine includes two novel Wavetable oscillators, leaving every previous attempt in wavetable synthesis far behind. The spectrum of a sound can be transposed independently of its pitch. The waves are being rendered periodically to noisy. Especially sounds with an accent on formants can be reproduced easily, which made us integrate a speech synthesizer for the easy creation of wavetables. (Link)
Arturia is a trusted producer of vintage clones and the iSEM is no exception. iSEM is a faithful recreation of the legendary 1974 Oberheim SEM synthesizer expansion module. Known for its characteristic multimode filter and rich oscillators, the SEM is revered by many for its sonic power and flexibility. Based on the TAE® technology found in our award-winning SEM V software, iSEM recreates this unique synthesizer and offers a great level of sound quality compared to the original. The 8-Voice Programmer allows you to mimic the polyphonic sounds of the classic 4- and 8-voice versions as well. (Link)
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. (Link)
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. (Link)
6. KORG iMS-20
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. Furthermore, 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. (Link)
Arturia’s emulation of Sequential Circuits’ 80s classic, the Prophet VS. The first synthesiser to employ vector synthesis, the VS featured a joystick for mixing between its four wavetable oscillators – a core architectural element that’s fully replicated on iProphet, along with an ‘Envelope Mixer’ for automating its movement. The 95 waveforms available to each oscillator constitute a great range of base textures from which to construct the sorts of edgy, elaborate pads, leads and bass sounds that made the original so sought-after, while the multimode filter brings a touch of analogue refinement to an otherwise decidedly digital vocabulary. (Link)
WaveMapper 2 is a wavetable synth that bears a number of similarities to its sibling, WaveGenerator, including the core architecture of three oscillators, three noise generators, four LFOs, a 24dB/octave low-pass filter, the Arptor step sequencer, a dual-output amplifier, selective preset element loading, and 13 envelopes for control of pitch, waveform, filter, noise, gain, panning and ring modulation. However, while WaveGenerator’s focus is on the creation and editing of waves within its 256- wave wavetable, WaveMapper’s remit is more fun, its two main features being the Sound Map and Wave Map. The Sound Map is a 32-field grid that holds up to 31 user-selectable presets and a ‘Base’ preset (serving as the default, recalling the original Icon positions for the preset). The fields interact with eight Icons, representing the instrument parameter modules: Oscillator Sound 1, 2 and 3, LFO, Filter, Noise, Gain and Oscillator Parameters. (Link)
A virtual synthesizer, inspired by classic hardware synthesizers from the 80’s and 90’s. All the main sound creation elements you can imagine are here: oscillators, cutoff filters, ADSR-envelopes, ring/sync/cross modulation, LFO’s, SuperSaw oscillator and more. Unlike many other software synthesizers at the market, which can reproduce only limited family of sounds, Poison-202 is capable of reproducing almost any classic synthesizer timbre thanks to its carefully designed parameter structure. Very precise SuperSaw oscillator emulation with Detune and Mix controls. SuperSaw consist of 7 saw oscillators, detuned, mixed and filtered in a very special way. First found in the legendary Roland JP-8000 synthesizer, it allows to create pure and rich sounds like hoovers and analog strings. (Link)
10. KORG iMONO/POLY
And Yes, the newly released Korg Mono/Poly definitely ends up on our top 10 list of must have iOS synths. The Mono/Poly, originally released in 1981, was able to function as both a monophonic and polyphonic synth thanks to its four oscillators and unusual design. The iMono/Poly app is a faithful reproduction of the vintage analog synth for both iPhone and iPad with the same four-oscillator architecture. However, it also adds new features such as two multi-effects units and eight virtual patches. The iMono/Poly faithfully reproduces the thick sounds the Mono/Poly was known for by using KORG’s proprietary CMT (Component Modeling Technology), which models the electronic components and circuits of the original hardware. (Link)