Pro Audio Files

10 Must-Have iOS Synth Apps for Music Production

➥ Synthesis 101 from Phil Mantione is available now

If you’ve got an iPhone or iPad, the iOS market is ripe with possibilities for music production and it’s growing every day.

Products that include effects processing, virtual instruments, sequencers, educational apps, recording, mixing and mastering apps, and weird interfaces that can’t really be categorized are being offered by major manufacturers alongside hundreds of independent developers.

Protocols like Ableton LINK now make it possible to synchronize apps and devices wirelessly with ease. 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.

I first got introduced to the world a few years ago by my good friend J.A. Deane (Dino), a sampling pioneer who began live sampling back in the 80’s using tape. I both thank and curse him for leading me down yet another technological rabbit hole. The iOS approach to performance and production offers several benefits that set it apart from using standard plugins in a DAW or traditional MIDI equipment.

Apps Are Cheap

Very cheap! Unbelievably cheap! So cheap, that most people would not believe these things really sound that good. But hearing is believing.

Prices range from free (with in-app purchases that usually include additional presets or samples) to maybe $69 at the extreme high end, with the average falling around $10 to $15. This allows you to experiment with a lot of stuff, limited only by the storage capacity of your device. A warning though, as I found out from personal experience, 50 cheap things add up to a couple expensive things. It’s really easy to hit that GET button.

Functionality

When you buy an app you also get the functionality of the multi-touch screen, accelerometer and gyroscope, along with typical MIDI input and output controls. It’s like buying a virtual instrument and a controller all-in-one.

The additional control offered by tablets and smart phones creates a completely new way of making music that should not be underestimated or simplified. It’s powerful and intuitive, but like any other instrument, it can take some time to develop a genuine facility.

Connectivity and Compactness

The live setup doesn’t get any smaller. In theory, you could perform on just an iPhone. But more typically, you could have an iPad (or two), small interface, mixer, and perhaps a couple of mini MIDI controllers such as those offered by Korg or Akai. Send out a stereo line to the PA and you’re done.

In a home studio situation, you could route the sound into your DAW or drive the iOS device with a DAW-based sequencer or standard MIDI controller. I also use MIRA, an app based extension for Max/MSP that allows wireless control of a Max patch or Max for Live Device.

There are also apps like Lemur that offer customizable and unusual MIDI generating interfaces to control standard computer-based applications. With the right modules, such as the Expert Sleepers FH-1, you can easily drive a Eurorack rig using the MIDI outputs from your iOS device.

Over the next few months I’ll be releasing a series of articles on The Pro Audio Files listing some of the best apps on the market. I’ve intentionally limited my attention to iOS vs the Android platform, based purely on my personal familiarity and admitted bias. But several apps are multi-platform and I invite readers using Android to contribute to the discussion with their own recommendations.

Top 10 Synth Apps

Here are my top 10 must-have synth apps currently available for iOS:

  1. Model 15 — billed as a Moog Modular synthesizer and synthesis educational tool, this app offers incredibly rich sounds that will surprise even the most vociferous iPad skeptics. Includes a keyboard, Animoog style sliders and a built-in arpeggiator. It also offers tutorials that teach basic signal flows for a modular synthesizer. ($30 — App Store link)
  2. Animoog was one of my first purchases and is as much fun to watch as it is to play. It has an oscilloscope-style display that animates nicely and is a functioning XY pad. There is a substantial library of presets available and a 4-track recording option. ($30 — App Store link)
  3. Arturia’s vintage synth emulation collection includes great sounding instruments that are worth the money, if you can’t have the real thing … iSEM (Oberheim —$10, App Store link)
  4. iProphet (Dave Smith — $10, App Store link)
  5. iMini (Moog — $10, App Store link)
  6. Lorentz (made by iceGear) is a straight-ahead polyphonic synth with no frills and no fancy interface. But it’s intuitive and sounds great. All the controls are accessible on the main screen with the exception of the arpeggiator. (Free — App Store link)
  7. Laplace Resonator (also by iceGear) is a component modeling style synth. In terms of price, functionality, simplicity of design, and sound, you can’t go wrong with either of these apps. ($6 — App Store link)
  8. Nave is a wavetable synthesizer by Waldorf that launches with a touchable 3D wavetable display that will keep you occupied for several minutes before you even make a sound. But when you do, you’ll find tons of functionality hidden beneath four other display tabs: Filter and Env, Mod & Keys, FX & Arp, and Tape & Sys which is a tape style display for recording and loading samples. ($20 — App Store link)
  9. TF7 Synth is an FM synth that features an extensive MIDI CC mapping section, an easily configured XY performance pad and an intuitive interface that gets you making rich textures right off the bat. The price is free but you’ll probably want the in-app purchases. Fully loaded costs you about $16 (App Store link).
  10. Alchemy Synth is an iPad version of the awesome virtual instrument plugin of the same name. It’s a hidden surprise accessible through the GarageBand app when initiating a keyboard instrument track. If you’ve used Alchemy in Logic Pro, you’ll appreciate the familiar performance pad with added sparkling animations. While it lacks the same controllability as the plugin version, it is nonetheless a great sounding device (Free with GarageBand)

Also have a look at the sample-based players below for hours of fun and enjoyment!

ThumbJam and DrumJam (Pete Lockett & Sonosaurus LLC — App Store link) are player-friendly samplers that include a decent set of instrument sounds and unique playing interfaces that are just plain fun. Both include a fully accessible user manual including MIDI implementation data. Presets in the Thumb Jam app describe the additional control settings such as V. Tilt, Finger Pressure, X Axis, etc. ($9 and $8 respectively — App Store link)

Seaboard 5D is Roli’s entry into the iPad world and the interface is really fun to play. It’s a simple design but very expressive with several juicy presets. It lacks the flexibility and configuration possibilities of other apps mentioned here, but the Roli style keyboard is very addictive. (Free — App Store link)

Note: Most “free” apps will have in-app purchases once you’re hooked. Hey, everyone’s got to make a buck.

Next time, I’ll talk about some of the most unusual and bizarre sound producing apps out there, for all you experimentalists lurking in the shadows. Stay tuned!

Learn How to Get Great Sounding Synths

If you’re new to synthesis or just want to deepen your knowledge and fill in some gaps, check out my new course called Synthesis 101, available exclusively on The Pro Audio Files.

To celebrate the launch, get 25% off this week by entering the code SYNTH25.

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Philip Mantione

Philip Mantione

Philip Mantione is a composer, synthesist, guitarist, educator and sound artist active in the LA experimental music scene. His music has been presented in festivals, museums and galleries worldwide. His current project is TriAngular Bent, an electroacoustic trio featuring Don Preston (founding member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) and circuit bending virtuoso, Jeff Boynton. Details at philipmantione.com


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  • When we talk about best iOS synth apps, WaveMachine Labs Auria Pro is another one that’s based on a couple of sections of workspace by mix & edits views. It adds some powerful features in Pro version such as MIDI tracks and extensive sequencing capabilities.

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