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App Works

Making Music On The Move
By Nick Rothwell & Robin Bigwood

Propellerhead Thor

Synth App For iPad

Prophet, Prodigy, Jupiter, Andromeda, Trinity... You just can't beat the grandiose overtones of a good synth name. Propellerhead clearly think the same way, and named their first iOS synth after the hammer-wielding, mountain-crushing, iron-gloved god of Norse mythology. If that isn't a statement of intent, I don't know what is. Thor is new to the iPad, but in fact it isn't a brand-new design, having first appeared as one of the bundled devices in Reason in 2007. It requires iOS 5.1 or later and an iPad 2 or later is recommended.Thor's modular interface will feel familiar to Reason users...Thor's modular interface will feel familiar to Reason users...

Thor's architecture is interesting; it's a standard subtractive design, but semi-modular. Up to three oscillators (with sync and AM options) feed a mixer, two parallel filters and a waveshaper, before hitting a final 'global' filter, delay and chorus. Loads of user-configurable routing options let you choose which filters are applied to which oscillators, and how the shaper comes into play (if at all). But this is not the half of it, because each oscillator 'slot' can be filled with one of six different types: two different analogues, wavetable, FM, Casio CZ-inspired 'Phase Mod' and a good noise generator. Meanwhile, there are four distinct designs for the filters: a Moog low-pass ladder design with variable slope, a versatile multi-mode 'State Variable', a Comb, and a fine-sounding Formant with variable gender, ideal for vocal-style treatments. Consequently, Thor has a chameleon-like quality, able to take on many radically different sonic characters. Animating it all are four envelope generators: two conventional ADSR types, a loopable and sync'able ADR with an initial Delay stage, and an all-singing DAHDSR. Add to that two 18-waveform LFOs, a step sequencer capable of generating multiple simultaneous modulation streams, and a big modulation matrix, and you start to see the potential on offer.

Anyone who's used Thor in Reason will know that it's a big old thing, and on the iPad Propellerhead have spread the interface over three screens, with a couple of collapsible sections for the Knobs screen. It all feels very clear and organised, and the on-screen keyboard implementation is particularly flexible. Velocity is determined by tap position and aftertouch by subsequent vertical drags, Animoog-style. The pitch compass is variable between one and eight octaves, and incorporates modulation and pitch-bend areas. The Assist/Collapse functions let you design keyboards based around specific key and scale types. This goes further than Animoog's Scale feature too, in providing quick access to 12 musically related 'tonalities'. Finally, Strum and Hit pads let you 'stop' notes on the keyboard but trigger them with a swipe or tap elsewhere.

As for the sound, there's way more flexibility than Thor's warlike epithet would suggest. In a market where every single new synth promises searing leads and phat (groan) basses, it turns out that Thor can do those and an awful lot else besides. It seems especially given to harmonically complex timbres, but it's not difficult to tease out more standard fare too, some of it reminiscent of analogue and digital hardware. Choirs and voices are especially impressive, thanks to the formant filters, and many fine presets (of which over 1000 are provided) demonstrate the potential for sophisticated evolving and sequencer-animated timbres too.

All in all, Thor is a stunning bargain at £10.19$14.99. At this point in time, it's probably iOS's most versatile synth, and its Audiobus compatibility makes the lack of reverb (and some other effects) much less of an issue. I really appreciate the fact that it's fully-featured from the get-go, too, with no in-app purchases required. Robin Bigwood

Cycling '74 Mira

Max Controller App For iPad

Mira is the first incursion into the iPad app world from Cycling '74, the makers of the popular Max graphical software toolkit for audio and media applications on Mac and PC. Max is widely used for performance and installation work, so there's an obvious opportunity for an iPad-capable, touch-sensitive interface for controlling Max patches.

Making a Mira patch, and the finished product.Mira certainly isn't the first app capable of controlling Max: on my iPad, I have TouchOSC, Mrmr, Konkreet Performer and Lemur, all of which are capable of turning multitouch gestures into OSC (Open Sound Control) and (in most cases) MIDI. However, these apps require a degree of configuration — OSC message names, MIDI controller and channel numbers — and if you want to design your own interface, it can be a fiddly and time-consuming process. Max users are already assembling interfaces in Max itself, so why do it a second time on the iPad?

This is where Mira comes in. There's no separate interface design involved, and very little configuration. Mira takes a rectangular area of a Max patch and mirrors it on the iPad: buttons, dials and sliders in the patch appear on the iPad, and changes to the controls are reflected in Max and in Mira simultaneously. You can only edit the patch in Max itself, but changes appear on the iPad immediately.

Mira isn't providing a virtual screen (and mouse) into the patch: all the Mira controls are running natively on the iPad, and multi-touch is supported. You can touch-and-drag several dials or sliders at once, while the multislider accepts multi-touch directly, and the piano keyboard object is truly polyphonic. Mira is fast and responsive, although the resolution for number boxes is a little too fine to set values accurately. Most objects look pretty much identical in Max and Mira, but some (such as sliders) have been redesigned for the iPad. Object attributes in Max (colour, transparency, font and so on) are reflected pretty faithfully, and positioning and alignment seem accurate, except for some of the wackier font styles and sizes. At present, only a subset of Max's graphical objects are supported (they're labelled with a special icon in Max); it's likely that more will be added over time, but I suspect that exotic ones like Jitter and JavaScript frames might not make the cut. Unfortunately, bpatchers are not yet supported, so nested sets of controls won't be displayed, making complex interface designs difficult.

Setup is simple: you have to download some additional files for Max itself (OS X only at this stage; Windows versions are apparently forthcoming), but the Mira app provides a usage tutorial. I had a few crashes when trying to use my LinkSys router (already fixed as I write this), and some routers might be configured to block the connection, but an ad-hoc network on my MacBook Pro worked fine. Mira discovers the Max 'server' automatically and several iPads can apparently connect to the same patch at once.

The starting point in Max is an object called mira.frame, which outlines the area of a patch to be presented in Mira. Multiple frames are permitted, and each one forms a separate tab in Mira. Accompanying mira frame is a new, dedicated object called mira.multitouch which provides a rectangular pad for multitouch gestures, including tap, swipe, pinch and rotate, with on-screen feedback and a wealth of output data. A third object (mira.motion) provides data feeds from the iPad accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. Multitouch and motion should provide more than enough gestural information for the most sophisticated Max instruments and effects.

I tried using Mira via Ableton's Max for Live. On the whole, it worked fine, but I often ended up with duplicate tabs and panels in Mira. This is probably because Max for Live runs inside Live, while its editor is a separate copy of Max, so Mira would see two separate servers. This is a minor (and hopefully fixable) irritation, and if you aren't editing you shouldn't be affected by it.

While it's not as flashy as Konkreet Performer and doesn't have the physics modelling and finish of Lemur, Mira is a wonderfully neat idea and well realised. For iPad-owning Max users, it really is a must-buy. Nick Rothwell

POJ Studios iTrigger

MIDI Controller App For iPad

POJ Studios' iTrigger is a grid-oriented MIDI controller app for the iPad. 'Oh, not another one', I hear you say, and indeed when you fire it up you're presented with a familiar button grid alongside a small collection of special-purpose controls. The visual design of iTrigger could charitably be described as utilitarian: the colour palette appears to be straight out of the ZX Spectrum, while the only concession to physical familiarity is some rather crude drop-shadows on the buttons. If we'd had grid controllers in the days of MS-DOS, they would have looked like this.

The iTrigger interface is perhaps reminiscent of a bygone age of computing. The documentation for iTrigger consists of a 15-page setup guide, but this concentrates on setting up wireless MIDI and connecting the program to Ableton Live as a clip launcher and mixer. iTrigger imitates a Novation Launchpad, so the setup for Live is really just a case of declaring that the network MIDI device is, in fact, a Launchpad. In landscape mode, the on-screen grid is eight buttons high by nine buttons wide, emulating the Launchpad's eight-by-eight grid plus a column of scene launch buttons. The smaller dedicated buttons switch to note-playing mode or the equivalent of the Launchpad's mixer page. The colours of iTrigger's buttons change to approximate the hues and brightness of the Launchpad's tri-colour LEDs. If you've used a Launchpad, using iTrigger requires no great conceptual leap, but it is missing a mode for the zoomed-out Session Overview that navigates Live's Session eight slots at a time. (This could obviously be added in a software update.)

Overall, I'm struggling to find a convincing use case for iTrigger. If you want a dedicated iPad-based controller for Live, touchAble is better integrated and more comprehensive, or there's LiveControl 2 for the Lemur platform (and an equivalent for TouchOSC). For general MIDI control, Lemur and TouchOSC again come to mind, although you'd have to design a template or use one of the many available for download. If you really want the authentic Launchpad experience, you are far better off saving your pennies for a real Launchpad. Nick Rothwell

Published September 2013