Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Android Synthesisers

A few months ago I took a look at mobile music apps on iOS and Android and lamented that high latency on Android’s operating system (at least at the time of writing) was to blame for the lack of decent music apps on the app store. However, the Heat Synthesiser did pave the way forward in this regard and highlighted that with a bit of programming know-how, it is possible to play a decent Android software synthesizer.

It’s now Summer 2013 and the Google Play store has been steadily building up a number of music apps for download, both free and paid-for. In this post, I’m going to cover a few of the free options that are available and will highlight some of the best (and worst) the platform currently has to offer.

Heat Synthesiser Pro (beta)

Currently the gold standard in terms of synthesizer apps, Heat is a fully functional virtual analogue synthesizer with plenty of parameters and options to use, including lots of wave shapes, tuning, a step sequencer, delay, reverb and much more. Stable wave export has just been added so you can share your ditties alongside the global patch database. Aside from sharing your patches with the world, this feature also ensures that you can jump straight in to the fun without having to understand what makes it tick straight away. The full, paid-for version also has VST integration as well, so Heat is well on the way to rivaling expensive offerings from music developers for the iPhone. Well worth checking out and playing with.

Like a blip that barely registers, this app cannot even be called a musical toy. Blip is an eight beat step sequencer that allows you to play multiple notes at once in a very simple way, with adjustable tempo and a few waveforms and FM synth parameters to tweak. Sadly, all of them are quite tinny or bell like and while initially fun, the limitations of the app are all too apparent after a few seconds’ play. Put simply, this is a poor man's Tenori-On. Avoid.

Allegedly modeled after the Nord Lead synthesizer from Clavia, CAS is an excellent analogue synth with plenty of presets and tweakable parameters to keep you busy. Of all the synths I have tested, this one is the closest to something I would use in VST form in a desktop DAW and the familiar layout means that it’s easy to create something from scratch – think Synth1. Even better: this app can be played via MIDI as well, though I have not yet had a chance to test this out. Another excellent free synth offering.

From the same maker of the CAS, Oxxide’s take on an FM synth is as comprehensive as the analogue outing and provides a straightforward approach to the world of frequency modulation. Again, tons of parameters to play with, full operator modes, good presets and play over MIDI makes this a great free FM synth.

Again, another fairly simple XY music pad with built in reverb,delay and key change options (iambic, dorian etc) and reminds me a lot of goofing around with my Korg Kaossilator. It’s also got four different visual modes to play with, which are nice to play around with. Yes, it’s a musical toy but feels and sounds a lot more refined than Blip Synth despite the obvious limitations of no record/loop function and limited synthesis options.

An excellent FM synth engine that features not one but two keyboards to play and is completely polyphonic, so you can do chords on one hand and then add basslines or leads alongside. Both keyboards can be programmed and played independently (in case the 1024 stock patches aren’t enough), so this gives you plenty of freedom when jamming away. There are some nice features, such as keyboard size scaling (if you are only playing a few notes for example) and the app can read classic Yamaha DX7 SYSEX patches so you can play all those classic 80s sounds without having to program them yourself. The only real downside I have found is that when playing multiple keys it’s easy to click the wrong place on the app by mistake and change a parameter, but this is easily remedied by further play. Well worth a look for solid FM sounds.

A simple, no-frills bassline synthesizer, whose simple interface is based on the TB-303. The standard 303 controls are supplemented with built-in delay and it’s easy enough to program, but other than that, this is a Spartan synthesizer. Why? No tempo control, no record function, one waveform only operation and lackluster filter. It’s also designed for phones rather than tablets and doesn’t scale well (read: it doesn’t scale at all) on the Nexus 7.