For a long time, I’ve been a fan of the iPad and iOS for electronic music performance. I love the 2D interface of the iPad touch screen, and I like that the iPad is a separate instrument (as opposed to VI plug-ins running on your DAW) that can be passed around the control room. I recently bought a newer, faster iPad and was browsing for new synth apps I hadn’t tried yet when I remembered reading about a recent update to IK Multimedia’s Syntronik. While the basic version of Syntronik is free and has four synth models, in-app purchases can expand this to 23 different synths, with the top of the line version, Syntronik Deluxe, costing $99. This is a lot of money for an iOS app, but with 23 different instruments, that’s only $4.30 per instrument – so its' actually a pretty great deal. Emulations include venerable instruments from Moog, ARP, Oberheim, Roland, Korg, Sequential Circuits, and some slightly more obscure synths like the PPG Wave, Electronic Music Studios VCS3, and the Alesis Andromeda A6. One of Syntronik's primary designers is Erik Norlander, who also worked on IK's new UNO Synth and the original Andromeda when he was at Alesis. All this gives Syntronik some serious pedigree.
At first glance, Syntronik seems almost too good to be true – 23 amazing synths for under $5 each! What’s the catch? Well there’s no catch, but IK has taken a different approach with Syntronik than most virtual instruments, so how you use virtual synths will determine how suitable this is for you.
Syntronik uses a unique approach to software synthesis in that instead of modeling oscillators, they have actually sampled real oscillators from the vintage instruments they are emulating. To clarify, the oscilators are not models but samples, and the rest of each emulation (Filters, envelope generators, LFO’s, etc) are digitally modeled. In the filter department, IK has modeled 4 classic options: the Moog transistor ladder, (found in the Minimoog and Modular Moog), Roland's IR3109 chip (found in their Jupiter-8 and Juno-60), the Curtis CEM3320 chip (found in the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and Oberheim OB-Xa), and the Oberheim SEM state-variable filter.
So, what does all this mean in practical terms? If you’re a purist, you’ll love the fact that the multi-sampled oscillators are essentially “the real thing” as opposed to just emulations. And if you’re using one of Syntronik’s synth emulations that employs one of the four filters listed above, then you’re probably going to get very, very close to the sound of the original synth being emulated. Another very cool feature of Syntronik is that you can get four different synth sounds simultaneously on different MIDI channels (or on a layered keyboard set up) – this means for live use, Syntronik is amazingly powerful. Additionally, if you’ve ever wondered what a Prophet-5 would sound like with a Moog Modular filter, now you can have that instrument. For sheer versatility with a vast selection of synth sounds, Syntronik just can’t be beat.
But if you’re looking for all the features, details, and quirks of the original instruments being emulated, then Syntronik might not be the answer for you. Its sampled oscillators preclude emulating the original design of many of the original instruments. Most synthesizers have at least two, and sometimes three or more oscillators. Inherently in Syntronik’s design there is only 1 sampled oscillator, and this is reflected in Syntronik’s emulations – with the second oscillator being simulated via an On/Off switch and detune control in most of the emulations. So, on the emulation of the Juno series of Synths for example, Syntronik comes very close to the original. But for a more complex, quirky synth like the Electronic Music Studios VCS3, the Syntronik model is missing quite a lot of what made the VCS3 so unique. Or with the Syntronik’s Yamaha CS-80 for instance, you don't have both the high and low-pass filters that the original had. But in other instances, Syntronik surpasses the original gear in a lot of ways. For example, anyone who’s ever played a real PolyMoog (I spent a fair amount of time with one in the early ‘80s) will never forget the amazing sound of the instrument, but will also likely remember how frustratingly limited the sonic palate of that instrument was. The Syntronik PolyMoog captures (at a fraction of the price for a working original instrument) a lot of the vibe of the original but has vastly improved and expanded the sonic palate. So if you’re looking for a way to quickly audition a lot of different synths in the studio, or want an iPad instrument for live gigs, Syntronik is a no brainer. But if you’re looking for an exact emulation of a VCS3, Moog Modular, MiniMoog, or Oberheim SEM, you may want to opt for dedicated apps of those instruments – like apeSoft’s iVCS3 or the Arturia or Moog versions of the hardware Moog synths. However, a lot of the instruments emulated in Syntronik are not available as iOS versions anywhere else.
My favorites are the Yamaha CS-80, PPG Wave, Oberheim OB-X, PolyMoog, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, and the Yamaha SY-99. In my usage of Syntronik, I felt like all the emulations sounded exceptional, regardless of how closely they did or did not model every last detail of the synth they were emulating. Another benefit of the Syntronik approach is that despite the different (and very cool) graphics for each synth, they all operate nearly identically – once learning the basic Syntronik architecture (which is pretty simple), you will be able to program all the different synths in Syntronik. I should also mention that after connecting a hardware keyboard controller to your iPad (like the CME Xkey 37 [Tape Op #115] I own), you can really play some of these synths like a real keyboard instrument – it’s fun to dig into a big five or six finger chord with a meaty pad. When playing these bigger chords, Syntronik never seemed to glitch or run out of voices, which is definitely a benefit of lower CPU intensive sampled oscillators. Those that want to get into deep sound design may find this app too simple, but others wanting to quickly play a vast array of synth sounds will appreciate the streamlined Syntronik interface and its topology. For every drawback that I can point out in Syntronik's topology, I can also find a benefit directly related to the same feature.
Syntronik will be an app I reach for when I’m in the studio and want to audition a handful of different synth sounds quickly – it sounds great, is easy to use, and fun to play. I should also note that Syntronik is compatible with IK's SampleTank app and is available as a full-blown desktop version that will work as a plug-in with all major DAWs.