It started with a phone call...
I clearly remember being on a tour bus back in the very early days of the iOS mobile phone era. Our drummer was the only one without a mobile (cue the drummer jokes). Our bass player (yes, the bass player) was showing him the dawning new age of iOS mobile apps and waxing lyrical about an imagined future where we'd all be making albums on the road on iPhones. Drummer Boy looked nonplussed as he gazed at the shiny screen - 'why ever would I use one of them?' he said.
That same drummer is now a renowned producer who, a few years later (on another tour bus), waxed lyrical about the brave new world of iPad music making. I was nonplussed as I gazed at the shiny screen - 'why ever would I use one of them?' I said.
'I'm talkin' 'bout a revolution...'
My first iPad would run out of huff and puff pretty quickly, so I never seriously considered making music on it. I downloaded early iOS synths and tinkered, but never really used it in any of my productions until I was recommended the wonderful Bebot Robotic Synth. I loved (and love) it so much, I still use it today - and it features in this list as a result (I know this is a 'best of 2021', but newer isn't always better!).
Then iPads got better. And better. They became very powerful very quickly, and with the introduction of audiobus technology I was sold; - now I could get audio out and midi in. Gamechanger. I've used Bebot (and others, obviously) on many productions since.
There's something refreshing about iPad synths. They're not (so far) as powerful or versatile as their desktop counterparts, so they're not about to replace them (anymore than virtual instruments are about to replace the real thing). They do, however, encourage you to make and think about music in a different way, and often make use of the touchscreen for an alternative way of manipulating and developing sounds. The best virtual music apps on an iPad have very much become their own instruments.
The following list isn't the best. It's simply my list of favourites, in no particular order.
Pricing – £17.99
Moog say -
Animoog, powered by the new 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.
No, I don't know what 'Anistropic' is either, but I love this synth. Whatever ASE is, it's great fun and very creative fiddling with that X/Y 'modern touch surface paradigm', whether you're an experienced synth programmer (not me) or diving in for the first time. Very very useable, and gorgeous sounding. Of course it is. It's a Moog.
Moog have three other offerings on the App store - Model D, Filatron and the mighty Model 15. Not free, but not expensive for what you get.
AudioKit Synth One
Pricing - free
Synth One is the most popular free/open source synth available on the App Store for very good reason. It's a hybrid analogue/FM polyphonic offering with a wide range of excellent presets right out of the (virtual) box. Over 300 of them, designed by the likes of Tycho, M83, Kanye West, Rihanna, Neon Trees among many other luminaries.
It's packed with great features - five oscillators (including two DCOs - FM, Sub, and Noise), two LFOs with a good range of routing possibilities, a 4 pole lp filter, high and bandpass filters, polyphonic sequencers, an arpeggiator (of course) and a good range of high quality effects.
Easy to get started with and use, most importantly Synth One also sounds really good. Way too good to be free.
Korg Gadget 2
Pricing – £34.99
They say the best things in life are free. They are frequently wrong.
Korg Gadget may not be £1.99, but you get an awful lot for your not very much money. Not one instrument, but over 40 different 'gadgets' that can be combined and used in ingenious ways. Oh, and a DAW as well. There are the inevitable in-App purchases for yet more gadgets, but to be honest, there's plenty to be getting on with right here.
The interface is really well designed and intuitive, so you'll be up and running in no time. Everything seems to just be where you'd expect it - how many apps can you say that about?
Great sounds, great fun and endless possibilities. Highly recommended.
KV331 Synthmaster One
Pricing – £17.99
Synthmaster One is the iPad version of the multi award winning version for desktop. It's not quite as powerful as the desktop version, but still boasts 16 voice polyphony and over 650 presets. Not too shabby for 18 quid.
This synth is a powerful semi-modular wavetable beast - 3 LFOs, 2 filters, 2 subs, 4 ADSR envelopes, a 16 step sequencer and a comprehensive range of onboard effects. Excellent value for money.
Pricing – £8.99
And now for something completely different. Many virtual synths spend their time persuading us how very analogue they are - sometimes down to virtual coffee stains written into the GUI. Not so with iProphet.
iProphet goes out of its way to sound digital, as it's an emulation of the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS (vector synthesis), a digital synthesizer morphing between 4 wavetable oscillators with a joystick.
iProphet can load any one of 127 waveforms into its 4 oscillators, then morph between them just like the original. Hours of digital fun.
Arturia are very highly regarded for very good reason - anyone familiar with their excellent V collection for desktop. Costs less than two pints of Old Scruttocks.
Pricing – £17.99
Waldorf say -
The Nave sound engine includes two novel wavetable oscillators with sonic possibilities way beyond the scope of conventional wavetable synthesis. While the spectrum of a sound can be transposed independently of its pitch, the waves can be rendered from perfectly periodic to very noisy and anywhere in between. Especially sounds with an accent on formants can be produced easily, which made us integrate a speech synthesizer for the easy creation of wavetables, enabling Nave to talk and sing.
Well I'm not sure about 'talk and sing', but Nave is a beautiful sounding synth, and different again to everything else on this list. It's so good that Waldorf ported this to a desktop version (rather than the other way around!).
Nave is a wavetable synth, and features the waves from Waldorf's Blofeld, Wave and Microwave products. You can really take advantage of the iPad's touchscreen when editing the waves via 3D rendering. This is what iPads were made for.
Nave comes with over 500 presets from renowned sound designers, including 95 presets from the legendary Richard Devine. He obviouly loves this app, and for very good reason.
You even get a 4 track recorder thrown in.
Bebot - Robot Synth
Pricing – £1.79
As promised, Bebot featuring my little singing friend.
They say -
Bebot is a musical instrument that anyone can play. Instead of a keyboard, it has an easy-to-use touch control system. And it's all built into a friendly animated robot, who performs your music while you play.
Although it looks simple on the outside, inside is a powerful synth engine which lets you create and edit your own sounds and apply effects. The controls are easy to use, making it fun to tinker and experiment with sound. If you just want to get playing, there's also a wide selection of preset sounds.
The touch control system lets you lock in a scale so that you'll never play a wrong note, which makes it easy to play, even on your iPhone. It's polyphonic, which means you can use multiple fingers at once to play chords and harmonies. Plus, you can perform sweeping slides and expressive gestures that would be practically impossible on a regular keyboard.
It's a relief to have a straightforward description, and there's not much to add to it except it's still fabulous and absorbing even after all these years.
A lovely app, worth every penny....and it is pennies.
Out of your box?
I apologise for all of the instruments I've left out here, but I tried to include seven very different offerings - varying approaches in operation and synthesis. All of the synths included above work well broken out of the iPad - ie, if you usually work on a desktop or laptop, they're midi compliant and you can use your audio confidently with full audiobus support. If you want to use your iPad instruments with your desktop or laptop, make sure that whatever you buy is compliant.