If you have a secret love affair with shoulder padded t-shirts (that you wear around the house when no one's looking), and you instinctively roll up your sleeves when you put on your favourite blazer jacket (and don't get why people look at you funny), then here's an app for you.
Back in June Akai Professional released SynthStation for the iPhone / iPod touch, and we got excited. Very excited. Why? Because we love synths, especially when they are the old school type (cue Terminator soundtrack). And it just so happens to be that Akai has got a rather large name for itself when it comes to synths, especially the old school type. So we decided to take a closer look. You know, any opportunity to lay down some ominous beats over a sea of warm pulsating analog synth.
SynthStation is an all-in-one mobile music creation setup. It comprises of three virtual analog synths sonically tailored for melodies, chords and bass lines respectively. To go with your texture, there's a comprehensive and customizable drum kit, too. Add some awesome sounding synth effects, a sequencer, on the fly input and tweaking, a mixer to pull it all together and you've got yourself a package that Thom Yorke may even appreciate for his next solo project.
First off, it seems that you really do need a relatively new iPhone / iPod touch or the iPad to let this app do you justice. I was able to get the app up and running on my iPhone 3G, and only suffered one crash, but as soon as I tried to go beyond the realms of just playing a loop the app became sonically sluggish and slow to respond to input. This is not what you want for a music creation app. However, I was amazed that the app didn't crash more, but that's by the by. Despite my iPhone 3G, I was able to have a really good look at this app. This is what I found.
For me, SynthStation can be broken down into four parts. The drum kit, the synths and effects, the grid editor and the song / sequence editor.
Song / Sequence Editor
The Song / Sequence Editor (or SSE for this post) is what everything else locks into. In a nut shell, it comprises of up to 32 song presets with each of those songs containing up to 32 sequences. SynthStation comes with 16 factory songs for you to get started with. The SSE is accessed either through the main menu or through the transport tab (which is available at the top right of any open screen). The transport tab allows you to start / stop a song and move a particular sequence backwards or forwards when not in the SSE main screen.
The SSE is also the place to export your song creations (via WiFi) to your own desktop audio applications. That is, if you think they're good enough!
Although minimalist, the SSE seems to get the job done. You can open and close songs and launch various sequences, but that's about it. It holds everything together, but it's not very exciting.
The drum kit comprises of seven kits, each with nine samples that can be triggered MPC style. From fusion / funk kits to studio / filth kits there are some immediately recognizable, classic sounding, electric drum samples here. Fun for both the wrong and right reasons, you decide which!
Each drum sample can be edited uniquely with a pitch shifter, volume level and left / right panning. This makes for some very creative drum sounds, especially considering that there are 63 drum samples all together. However, as far as I can tell, you can only program one drum kit per song, although you can change kits and customize them on the fly.
Synths and effects
As mentioned earlier, there are three synths in SynthStation. The three synths are respectively aimed at melody, chorus and bass allowing you to play / cover a wide space of the sonic spectrum. On top of that, from the performance screen, you can input additional drums or synths over your sequenced material.
Synths are edited in the synth edit screen which is accessed from the main menu, but you can also tweak your sound from the performance screen. This saves you having to tap back and forth between screens all the time.
There are twelve different customizable effects to choose from (varying from oscillators and filter envelopers to filter cutoff and resonance). To choose which of the three synths you want to edit you need to select either synth 1, 2 or 3 from the transport tab (at the top right of each screen). This requires a couple of taps and feels slightly clunky, especially amidst everything else that's going on. I wondered if a swipe across synths that are colour coordinated might make things a little easier.
The wide selection of effects and customization possibilities really does give you the opportunity to make some of your own rather unique sounds. There are so many different parameters to change you can get a bit lost, but it's a great way to discover new sounds. I particularly had a lot of fun (and produced some very nice results) with the lo-fi oscillator.
There's also an XY two axes control (and joystick) for even simpler hands-on editing of effects, the parameters of which are set in the synth edit screen. This is a nice little extra that allows for a few further creative twists.
In addition to those effects there's a direct FX screen with phaser / chorus / flanger and delay. I spent some time with the delay and, using the various sliders, I got some beautiful stereo delay sounds that I could hold onto and edit after the SSE had finished running its course. This was very satisfying.
For me, the effects are where the app really stands out. With so many choices, and ways to customize them, you can't help but get engrossed by the tones coming out.
Grid Editor (synth / drum sequencer)
The synth and drum sequencer is accessed via the grid editor from the main menu. Again, this is very basic editing, but unfortunately a bit of a let down.
Straight off the bat I wanted to scroll the sequence editor, but I couldn't. I had to move from one sequence to the next using the back / forward buttons on the transport tab. Unfortunately, with the drums, the only way to place a trigger is by individual tapping. Instinctively, you want to hold a finger down and drag it all around the sequencer for some random input, but you can't. Even to lay a straight line of hats you have to tap each one in individually. Ironically, when sequencing the synths you can drag your finger to trigger a note, but only on that particular note (which does make a little more sense).
Another frustration with the grid editor is that whilst you can preview a drum sample when laying down a sequence of drums, you can't preview a synth sample when laying down a sequence of keys. The only way to hear the synth sequence is by pushing play. I found this quite annoying when trying to program my own little ditty. I couldn't hear what I was doing until I pushed play.
Finally, everything is mixed together in the mixer. Also a straight forward component, but really useful when playing back you song for setting levels etc.
So does the SynthStation stand above the competition? Ultimately, you need to decide. For me, despite its quirks and niggles (there could and should be some serious improvements down the line), SynthStation takes a step in the right direction. It aims to provides a complete music composition environment. You can create, edit and mix all in one package, and although limited in sequencing and editing, with the quality effects and sounds provided, you can get some lovely results.
Sure, there are similar apps out there, but if a comprehensive package of electro synth and drums sounds for your iPhone is what you're looking for, then you're onto a winner. In short, SynthStation is a great app to muse, explore and get inspired, with quality sounds to boot.