Arturia iMini, £3.99/$4.99
Whilst some synthesis purists will inevitably still sneer at the notion of iOS instruments, they've become a serious business.
The current crop of synths on the App Store are infinitely more capable than the first-generation, toy-like iOS music tools we saw when the first iPhones were released. Moreover, many of the virtual instruments included in this round-up pack features that outstrip what we would have expected from VST plugins just a few years ago, and some can even give their desktop contemporaries a run for their money.
Read on to find a selection of, what are in our view, the most powerful, useable and best value synthesisers currently available for the platform. First up, an emulation of the most famous synth of them all...
As the name and UI suggests, Arturia’s first step into the world of iOS is an emulation of one of the best-known hardware synths of all time, the Minimoog.
It is, as you would expect from a name like Arturia, an excellent emulation. The sounds are far thicker and more authentic sounding than you’d expect from an iPad synth and the interface looks great too.
The app works as a standalone synth or can be opened within Retronyms Tabletop workspace to be used as part of a bigger iOS setup. It’s now Audiobus compatible too, making iMini a versatile and classic feeling synth at a great price.
Full review: Arturia iMini
Waldorf Nave, £14.99/$19.99
Waldorf’s first iOS app, Nave, blends wavetable and analogue-style synthesis to create one of the most powerful iPad instruments we’ve seen so far.
It manages to push the boundaries of what wavetable synths are capable of whilst remaining accessible and easy to navigate, thanks to its excellently designed interface.
Full review: Waldorf Nave
Propellerhead Thor for iPad, £10.99/$14.99
Thor for iPad is a direct iOS port of Reason’s flagship synth, delivering on the promise we saw in Propellerhead’s first iOS synth Figure.
Just as with its desktop counterpart, Thor for iPad looks great, sounds fantastic and is deceptively powerful. Its semi-modular design is easy to navigate and hugely fun to manipulate even for relative newcomers to the world of synthesis.
Thor’s best feature, however, lies in the fact that patches can be shared with its counterpart within Reason, which makes Thor for iPad a fantastic tool for designing and tweaking synth sounds on the go.
Full review: Propellerhead Thor for iPad
Moog Animoog, £22.99/$29.99
Despite causing minor controversy upon its release - with some analogue purists arguing that an iOS app was an affront to the legacy of such an iconic synth brand - Moog’s first foray into the world of iPad synthesis has proved to be a resounding success.
Animoog is a wavetable synthesiser, albeit one stuffed with samples from Moog’s classic and contemporary synths. There are up to eight timbres splayed across an 8x16 X/Y grid, and sounds can be moved dynamically through those timbres each time a note is played.
Full review: Moog Animoog
Propellerhead Figure, Free
When it was unveiled at Musikmesse 2012, we instantly fell in love with Figure’s excellent Reason-powered sound and exceptionally well-designed interface.
At the time, there were a few crucial missing features that let the app down though, such as the ability to save or export work. Fortunately, subsequent updates have rectified most of these niggles and - while it’s still not as advanced as a lot of the other synths in our list - Figure now feels like a much more serious music making tool.
With its Reason-powered synth engine and intuitive design, there's no reason not to give Figure a try, particularly as it's now free
Full review: Propellerhead Figure review (review is of a previous version)
Korg iMS-20, £22.99/$29.99
With the iMS-20, Korg hit on to the winning formula of bringing a classic analogue synth to the iOS platform - complete with a faithfully retro interface - and combining it with a recreation of the SQ-10 16-step sequencer, a six-part drum machine, mixer and built-in effects.
Of course, as with any software emulation, design and features mean nothing unless the sound hits the spot; fortunately the iMS-20 scores top marks with its faithful rich analogue-style tones.
Full review: Korg iMS-20
Yonac Magellan, £10.99/$14.99
With dual independent, three-oscillator synth engines, a host of filter and modulation options and a feature list as long as your arm, Magellan is easily one of the most feature packed synths you’ll find on the iOS platform.
It’s the app’s striking retro interface - which makes excellent use of the tactile playability of your iPad’s touchscreen - that really sets Magellan apart from the crowd though.
Full review: Yonac Magellan
iceGear Cassini, from £2.99/$3.99
Cassini sounds just as fantastic as iceGear’s first iOS instrument, Argon, but beats its predecessor by adding polyphony and a brilliantly designed interface.
It’s packed with features, making it a massively flexible instrument. Best of all it’s hugely intuitive and fun to use, so there’s little not to like.
Full review: iceGear Cassini
VirSyn Addictive Synth, £7.99/$9.99
Addictive synth has proved popular with iPad users for its intuitive layout and simple-to-use interface.
Fortunately, that simple front end masks a deceptively deep feature set and a fantastic sounding six-oscillator synth engine. It excels at digital tones, spectral pads and other atmospheric noises, but is equally useful for hard-hitting basses or in-your-face leads. A bargain considering the price!
Full review: VirSyn Addictive Synth
Korg iPolysix, £22.99/$29.99
With the iPolysix Korg repeated the trick that made us fall for the iMS-20. Again, the developer gave us a faithful recreation of one of the company’s legacy synths and bundled it with a step sequencer, drum machine, mixer and effects.
Just as with its predecessor, the sound of the iPolysix is spot on, giving iPad users the sound of the classic polyphonic analogue synth.
Full review: Korg iPolysix
Wolfgang Palm PPG WaveGenerator, £14.99/$19.99
With the PPG WaveGenerator, acclaimed synth designer Wolfgang Palm created one of the deepest and most pro-level instruments to be released for iOS so far.
Inspired by the original ‘80s PPG Wave synths, WaveGenerator is a Wavetable synth that allows users to create and control total unique sounds. An essential for any iPad owner who likes to get a bit experimental.
Full review: Wolfgang Palm PPG WaveGenerator
BeepStreet Sunrizer, £7.99/$9.99
Virtual analogue synths are now all over the App Store, but this is one of the best.
Sunrizer (iPad) and SunrizerXS (iPhone/iPod touch) sport two oscillators, with one of the available waveforms being an emulation of the SuperSaw that made its debut on the Roland JP-8000 synth. You’ve also got filters, various modulation options, effects and an arpeggiator.
Specs aside, the most important thing is the sound… and it’s great.
Wolfgang Palm PPG WaveMapper, £14.99/$19.99
Wolfgang Palm’s second iOS synth is just as impressive as his first. Again, PPG WaveMapper is one of the most complex and impressive sounding instruments on the App Store.
In essence, WaveMapper is a wavetable synthesiser based around an intuitive Sound Map design. Its best trick, however, is the impressive job it does of making a complex concept and seemingly endless feature set seem simple and fun to use. Another essential purchase for iOS synth fans.
Arturia iSEM, £3.99/$4.99
Following in the footsteps of iMini, Arturia's iSEM is a port of the French developer's desktop Oberheim emulation SEM V.
As with iMini, iSEM is based around Arturia's TAE technology, which also powers the company's plugin emulations. As a result, the app does an impressive job of replicating the feel and sound of the original two-oscillator monosynth, albeit with a few additional modern such as an LFO, sub oscillator and apreggiator.
The app can share sounds with its desktop counterpart too, which makes it a great patch design tool for owners SEM V.
Full review: Arturia iSEM
VirSyn Cube Synth, £8.99/$11.99
Cube for iPad is a slightly stripped back version of VirSyn's desktop additive synth of the same name.
Cube's architecture is built around four simultaneous voices, with 512 partials per voice. The Spectral Morphing engine enables controlled morphing between the four voices, with the path of travel drawn into the central XY display, and in-depth adjustment of the 64-stage Volume, X-axis and Y-axis envelopes done in a very detailed trio of editors.
The synth also packs a well-designed, powerful arpeggiator/step sequencer along with seven effects. It's a hugely powerful synth, and although it can get pretty confusing when you dig into its deeper settings, the 400 preset sounds provide a handy jumping off point for new users.
Full review: VirSyn Cube Synth
Cakewalk Z3TA+, £14.99/$19.99
The desktop version of Cakewalk's wavetable synth Z3TA+ has been around for over a decade now, and has remained popular throughout that time thanks to it powerful oscillator section.
The iOS version of the synth is effectively a port of Z3TA+ 2, which was released back in 2011, albeit with an interface that's been redesigned to suit the iPad's touchscreen interface. The app features Synth, Modulation Matrix/Arpeggiator and Effects pages and comes with more than 500 presets. There's support for Inter App Audio, AudioBus and MIDI control.
In all, Z3TA+ is easily up there with the most powerful and fully featured synths we've seen for iPad. Between its six interconnected oscillators, flexible modulation matrix and impressive modular effects, it's capable of producing a massive range of thick, gritty sounds and is deep enough to keep iOS musicians occupied for days on end.
Full Review: Cakewalk Z3TA+
VirSyn microTera, £7.99/$9.99
microTera is a waveshaping synth capable of producing a wide range of unique sounds. It's effectively a partial port of VirSyn's longstanding desktop synth Tera, offering the waveshaping and some of the sequencing capabilities of that synth adapted for the iPad interface.
Alongside its central user programmable waveshaper, microTera features three sine oscillators, four LFOs, four envelopes and a range of effects. There's also a fun randomise function, which allows users to create patches by simply rolling the virtual dice.
VirSyn Tera Synth, £14.99/$19.99
VirSyn's latest mobile marvel is a semimodular synth for iPad (ie, one in which a fixed array of modules are freely connected to each other) with specs just as high as those of many 'full size' desktop plugins (in case you're wondering, it's a "subset" of VirSyn's Tera 3 PC/Mac synth).
Tera Synth's 25 modules include three virtual analogue oscillators (complete with PM and FM), a physical modelling oscillator, two analogue modelling filters, a formant filter, four ADSR envelopes, four LFOs and four multistage envelopes.
A few niggles aside, Tera Synth is admirably easy to use, super flexible, sonically superlative and highly recommended.
Full review: VirSyn Tera Synth
Arturia iProphet, £3.99/$4.99
Arturia's third iPad synth is an emulation of Sequential Circuits' 80s classic, the Prophet VS.
The first synthesiser to employ vector synthesis, the VS featured a joystick for mixing between its four wavetable oscillators - a core architectural element that's fully replicated on iProphet, along with an 'Envelope Mixer' for automating its movement.
It's great fun, it does an amazing impression of the real thing (you even get all the factory presets), and we just can't get enough of it.
Full review: Arturia iProphet
Virsyn Poseidon, £14.99/$19.99
We must confess to having totally forgotten about VirSyn's weird and wonderful "spectral modelling synth", Poseidon, which scored a solid review a few years back.
With the recent release of the iPad version, some eight years later, however, we're glad to have it brought back into our line of sight, as it's one of VirSyn's more esoteric instrumental offerings.
Poseidon Synth's primary areas of proficiency are pads, ambiences, textures and otherworldly effects of all kinds, from pure and melodious to jagged and inharmonic; but it's also pretty good at basses, leads and other more 'mono' tones.
Full review: Virsyn Poseidon
Korg iM1, £22.99/$29.99
Launched in 1988, Korg's M1 workstation is widely regarded as one of the greatest digital synthesisers ever made, so its enormously successful transition to the iPad is a momentous moment in mobile music production history.
In building iM1, Korg has circuit-modelled the original hardware (the manual for which is included, rather splendidly) and incorporated all of its original PCM data. It can be used as a regular monotimbral instrument or a mutitimbral sound module with up to eight timbres layered on one MIDI channel or triggered independently.
You get about 450 presets included in six 'ROM cards', with almost 3000 more up for grabs in another 27 cards via two essential £3.99 IAPs. Pony up for these and you have a superb library of retro basses, pianos, leads, pads, drums, electric and acoustic instruments, etc, in an intuitive interface that enables deep editing.
Full review: Korg iM1
Sugar Bytes Cyclop, £18.99/$24.99
Cyclop iPad Edition is a near-1:1 transposition of the desktop version of this fine monosynth.
It packs in the full (and enormous) preset list (plus preset exchange between platforms), the many crazy oscillator and filter types, the brilliant Wobble section and modulation sequencer, the endlessly entertaining sequenced effects section, and that nifty mid/side stereo enhancement between 250Hz and 4kHz that really makes the synth's presence felt in the mix.
Although ostensibly a 'bass' synth, Cyclop is capable of far more than just huge low-end tones, making a fine addition to any dance producer's arsenal.
Full review: Sugar Bytes Cyclop
KV331 Audio SynthMaster Player, Free (with in-app purchases)
The creator of the versatile SynthMaster 2.5 desktop synth has embarked upon its first foray into the world of iOS apps, bringing the preset-based SynthMaster Player plugin to iPad.
The app itself is free, providing 100 presets, plus another 100 on registration. Users can then upgrade to the Pro version, adding 800 more presets, and the ability to save modified presets and purchase more banks. Pro users who also own the SynthMaster PC/Mac plugin can download their preset banks for use on the iPad.
Veteran synthesists may balk at the lack of customisation, but this app is all about instant access to superb-quality synth sounds that will delight performers and producers alike.