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PolyChord

PolyChord presents a array of chords that are mapped by selected scales, and offers some limited synthesis to boot. The synthesis is very limited though, and can be prone to distortion. I find the best use of PolyChord is as a MIDI controller for both external and internal CoreMIDI apps. This makes playing chords on the iPad, when a MIDI keyboard is impractical or undesirable, a simple one-touch action. It does some clever stuff with an approximated touch-velocity sensitivity, with an adjustable curve. The developer has demonstrated a commitment to continuing to patch and improve on the app. In my own informal experiment SoundPrism was preferred by users unfamiliar with music theory. Of the two, PolyChord is my own preference.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Shoulda Woulda Coulda.

Reactable

Fuck everything about this. A lot of companies, like Korg, offer amazing App experiences without worrying about it compromising their hardware sales. Reactable is less generous, offering only very limited functionality with a couple of sequencers, oscillators, filters and some sample looping. This seems like a lazy attempt at making it a universal app; crippling every device to run on the slowest. Reactable is the only app I have ever asked for a refund on because it kept crashing my iPad 2; I was not alone in this complaint on iTunes. It took them 6 months to finally patch their import tool that was causing it. In terms of Reactables actual use it is quite innovative in allowing for elements to interact spatially, but with the limited number of elements the dynamics are very finite.

ReBirth

The original ReBirth on PC was my first music app, so I have a lot of nostalgia for this one. When I loaded it up and saw the classic demo song, Alloy Cowboy, I was so very happy. This has a lot going for it, including many of the features I wish technoBox2 had, but it isn't quite as easy to use. The knobs are small and there is no way to resize the screen.

As of update 1.3, CoreMIDI and Background Audio have been added to ReBirth, along with a fun Duo mode for playing with a friend on the same iPad.

Beginners are better off with technoBox2 and experts are better off with bleep!BOX or rolling their own techno bundle with something like Bassline for a synth and Molten or MoDrum on drums; all of which will play together with CoreMIDI!

Rhythm Studio

This is an amazing little package! You get great hardware emulation of a 303 and 808, with a keyboard sampler, in an intuitive lay out. The synths sound good and the effects are controlled via sends on a mixer. Users who do not like classic hardware sequencers should avoid this one though. See the full review here. While it doesn't offer quite as user-friendly an experience as technoBox2, it does offer a lot more great features!

Development has continued on this app for over a year now, including lots of new instruments for free!

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Pulse Code, Inc.

Sample Lab

Sample Lab is one of the better Sampler apps on iOS. The interface can take some getting used to, but after a short learning-curve it feels very graceful. The technical details behind this sampler are equally elegant, with some of the best pitch shifting available on any platform. Complete AudioCopy/Paste support makes this a great app for sampling and resampling. I encountered a lot of problems with their Virtual MIDI implementation though, including collisions with other apps and in several cases Sample Lab seemed to cause other apps to crash. This is disappointing since it has a lot of MIDI options, but none of the typical OMAC routing to limit connections; it is always open to anything you might have going on from other apps. The sequencer is good and well designed, with lots of control over individual steps, but a lack of note ties can limit your grooves.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from fotoh LLC.

SampleWiz

The UI in SampleWiz may seem a little goofy and cluttered, but it allows for a great level of control and provides a number of different possible uses. You can play it as a straight-up sampler or you can take it to new levels of crazy resampling, and everything in between. I was initially put off by the clutter, but I respect it for all that it allows you to do, and that is quite a lot! Fortunately its complexity is easy to get into with a handy "Help Mode" to describe any of the many controls. Some of the key features are the ability to play with the waveform or play it along a keyboard in different scales. I wish the keyboard was similar to MorphWiz, which allows for assignable morphs along the vertical axis of keys.

Sketch Sound 3D

The Sketch 3D apps function like the iKaossliator app with the important addition of being able to import your own samples! Once imported you can go nuts with a number of interesting ways to play with them and blend them together. There are a lot of creative sound design options available, including morphing between samples, which can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately the whole experience is marred by a terrible interface and a lot of graphics bugs. As of version 1.2.1 the interface has been updated, but is still pretty ugly. There is also a crash bug if you launch the online help page. The difference between "Sketch Synth" and "Sketch Sound" is the MIDI and OSC support available in the "Sketch Synth" app.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Shape of Sound.

Sketch Synth 3D

The Sketch 3D apps function like the iKaossliator app with the important addition of being able to import your own samples! Once imported you can go nuts with a number of interesting ways to play with them and blend them together. There are a lot of creative sound design options available, including morphing between samples, which can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately the whole experience is marred by a terrible interface and a lot of graphics bugs. As of version 1.2.1 the interface has been updated, but is still pretty ugly. There is also a crash bug if you launch the online help page. The difference between "Sketch Synth" and "Sketch Sound" is the MIDI and OSC support available in the "Sketch Synth" app.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Shape of Sound.

SoundPrism Pro

This is a gorgeous app that represents keys, chords and scales in a unique layout. It comes with 4 Sounds, and they'll sell you additional sample packs, but the real treat here is that it can be used to control anything with MIDI. Including CoreMIDI apps that support background audio, such as Sunrizer or NLog Synth Pro! This is a fun and inventive way of playing that is inviting to new users unfamiliar with music theory, but also useful if you do. For more experienced users you may also want to look at PolyChord. There is an optional pseudo-velocity for your screen presses, with adjustable curve. I found myself wishing there were some controls for MIDI CC, or at least a mod wheel, to interact more deeply with the MIDI slave. You have the ability to use your device's accelerometer for assignable MIDI CC, but this is a little impractical on even the light-weight iPad 2. A free version of SoundPrism is available here with pretty much all of the features, but none of the MIDI. The documentation and tutorial videos Audanika has put out in support of their app is commendable!

StepPolyArp

StepPolyArp has a couple of different uses. It can be a simple MIDI step-sequencer for a single app or piece of hardware that lacks an internal sequencer, or it could also be used as a seriously deep arpeggiation programmer. In both cases it offers a slick UI with lots of controls and options. I'm really impressed with how easy it is to quickly modify some of the fundamental components; transposition amount on the left of the grid can be changed to anything! There are even 6 channels for automation. It is unfortunately limited to a single MIDI channel, so as a sequencer is not as useful as the similarly priced Genome, which offers 16. This is still easy to recommend, being both full featured and easy to use. Even apps with their own arpeggiators can benefit from StepPolyArp's multiple patterns and modulation assignments.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Laurent Colson.

Sunrizer

This virtual analog distinguishes itself from other subtractive synths with the use of Morph Groups. By assigning two states within a single patch, you can ride your Mod Wheel to get a lot of wild sounds between the states. Synths are often described as "expressive", but this takes it to new heights. Sunrizer is great for pads and other evolving sounds. Read a full review here with a demo song done entirely in one instance of Sunrizer.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from BeepStreet.

SynthStation

Akai has responded to previous criticisms with a 3.0 update that has made navigation on the iPad much nicer. There is a massive synthesis engine at work here, with 3 oscillators for each of the 3 synths! The sounds it producers are quite good. Lots of lush textures are achievable with the modulation envelope, LFO and an assignable X/Y controller.

Although the update has substantially improved the experience for iPad users, it still feels a bit dated. The trade-offs for having everything accessible on a single page are tiny control knobs and a cluttered interface. This approach is definitely preferable to the previous incarnation of nested menus though. The sequencer is decent. Patch management remains archaic with only 64 factory presets, which you must over-write to save your own.

Tabletop

Rather than harp on Tabletop's IAP prices, any more than I already have, I will focus on the functionality of the app. It has a gorgeous UI with an intuitive use as it emulates not only instrument hardware, but also how the hardware is played. Unfortunately it is a little too authentic in this regard, as sequencing on hardware is pain in the ass. There is the Tenori-ish instrument with a step-sequencer that is easy enough to work with, but the MPC-a-like and keyboard sampler offer no way to sequence other than with presses. This is okay for automation, but working with notes in this way is fairly anachronistic on a modern device.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Retronyms.

TC-11

Innovation is brought to both the iOS and synthesis in general with this multi-touch modular. Rather than reinvent the wheel, TC-11 reinvents the axle the wheel spins on. Traditional synthesis methods are used here with imaginative new ways to shape the sound. The interface is futuristic/sci-fi, but also logical and consistent, making good use of the iPad screen real estate and the way we touch and move with it. The complexity available in here will be daunting to inexperienced synthesists, but anyone willing to test their mettle will find a worthy and worthwhile challenge in its seemingly infinite modulation and control options. See a full review here.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Bit Shape.

technoBox2

There are a lot of apps that compete in the 303/808/909 emulation space. technoBox2 takes the top spot for the best sounds combined with a full techno ensemble. 2 303s and 2 Drum Machines, perfect for any basic acid/techno/house track. It lacks the ability to pan anything, and drum machines have a global LPF. Effects are also, sadly, global. A lack in MIDI Clock Sync limits its use with other apps and external sequencers. There is also no AudioPaste support to get samples in, but you can use iTunes import to add your own drum samples. See technoBox2 in action in the first 5 Lessons of Everyone Can Play Music. If you need MIDI consider bleep!BOX or BassLine together with Molten or MoDrum as alternatives.

It has been over a year since this was updated last; it is increasingly unlikely we will ever see the promised MIDI Clock Sync. This app has not kept pace with the competition.

ThumbJam

Part instrument and part looper/recorder, Thumbjam is well regarded in the community as one of the first and best iPhone music apps. Development has continued to keep pace with new technologies, as well as adding Universal iOS support.

As an instrument there are many samples available for playing with the on screen note bars. As the name implies, you can jam out fully with just your thumbs and a small learning curve. Importing your own samples is made easy with AudioCopy/Paste. There is even support for creating multi-sampled instruments, using a specific sample for different octave ranges.

The looper allows you to lay down quick melodies, or even import a backing track from another app. A lot of thought has gone into this app, but this is most evident in the looper where each recording is a separate instance. If you mess up, you can just keep hitting the "Delete Last" button to only remove the latest loop, instead of starting over from scratch.

On iPhones this is practically an Essential app, you really can jam with just your thumbs, but on larger iPad screens the experience is a little awkward to play.

Tic Tac Beatz Electro

Tic Tac is a sample-based step-sequenced studio, designed with a whole lot of functionality on one screen. 4 Drum Parts, 1 Bass Synth, 1 Lead Synth, 1 Chord/Pad Synth, and additional sound effects are all instantly accessible from this single screen layout. Fitting all of those step-sequencers onto a single page makes the app feel a little cramped. This is also experienced with the limited mixing options, which create a cramped feeling in the "beatz" this app produces.

Volume controls on the individual tracks are available, but not for the individual drum parts. This will often lead to hats that are just way too loud for the mix. The samples provided are decent, though not extensive. Most of the tracks can be modulated with an LFO pitch mod for variety, but there are no filters, nor traditional envelopes.

You are severely limited to just 6 patterns, which need to be saved in an awkward way with buttons on the bottom of the screen which "Save to Disc". The over-all design feels somewhat schizophrenic; everything fits on the iPad screen, but there is an X in the top right to close the app as if it were made for Windows. A lack of any kind of audio recording is also worth noting.

TNR-i

This is a faithful recreation of Yamaha's Tenori-On instrument, which is an array of step-sequencers layered ontop of one another. You can build songs out of patterns of patterns. Unfortunately all of it's complexity is also in layer upon layer. They tried to make it user-friendly on the iPad, but it is still a cumbersome journey to get to where you want to go. If you take the time to really learn it, you can have fun with it. I found that to be an uninviting proposition after just a few hours, despite coming up with some lively-bouncy-ethereal music I was enjoying.

Voice Synth

Voice Synth is more than an elaborate vocoder, it is an elaborate toy for anyone who likes to play with sound. There are a lot of unusual sound design options here, which are not typical of any other "synth". For people who want to try something different, this makes for a new and interesting way to play around. It is a lot of fun and supports all sorts of audio input; even my goofy Rockband mic! Read the full review here.

Disclosure: I received my copy for review from Qneo.

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