Synthesizer Options for Your iPad or iPhone

By Ryan C. Williams, Mike Levine

Compared to many of the instruments you see emulated in the App Store for your iPad or iPhone, synthesizers are relatively modern and easy to replicate. After all, digital synthesizer technology entered the consumer and technology all the way back in the late ’70s, and improvements in modern technology only helped these synthesizers become more available and accessible. Their transition to the iOS platform was both inevitable and a relatively short jump.

The iOS makes several different kinds of synthesis available to you, and most of these probably won’t make much difference to you unless you’re really into electronic music. But a little knowledge about the types of synthesis available may give you a better idea of the sounds you’re buying:

  • Additive synthesis: The synthesizer starts with a relatively basic sound and then adds sounds and filters to make the sound more rich and unique. Kawai produced the more popular additive synthesizers.

  • Subtractive synthesis: The synthesizer starts with a rich and complex sound and then subtracts frequencies to make the sound more unique. If you’re looking for that classic analog synth sound (coming from your purely digital device), this is the process to look for.

  • Granular synthesis: The synthesizer starts with several smaller samples (called grains) and then adds processing to those sounds to achieve the final sonic products. You’ll find most granular synthesizers as part of software packages like Native Instruments Reaktor or Propellerheads Reasons.

  • FM synthesis: The synthesizer takes a basic signal and uses oscillators to modify that signal. (FM stands for “frequency modulation.”) This type of synthesizer became extremely popular in the ’80s when Yamaha introduced the legendary DX7.

  • Wavetable synthesis: The synthesizer uses a series of digital audio samples to play back the initial sound smoothly transition to another sound for the release after you take the pressure of the key or other triggering action. The PPG synthesizer became one of the more famous examples of wavetable synthesis.

  • Physical modeling: The synthesizer stores a ton of complex formulas that describe how the sound should react and plays that sound back (depending on how the controls are set).

Again, these types of synthesis might not mean much to you now, but what if you knew that additive and subtractive synthesis probably powered the synth sounds from the ’60s and ’70s? Or that you probably heard a ton of FM synthesizers in ’80s music? Or that physical modeling became more prevalent in the last few years as computers grew more powerful and gained the ability to reproduce these sounds?

This should give you a clearer idea of the nature of these sounds, along with the app descriptions you see in the App Store. You’ll also recognize some familiar synth names in the App Store (like Korg, Moog, and Yamaha) and other companies that seek to approximate the sound of these classic instruments (without necessarily using the proper trademark).

Knowing a little about what actually makes these synthesizers function can help you craft your own sounds, but you don’t necessarily need that knowledge to play tunes. The app developers nearly always include a ton of presets designed to get you up and running in a short amount of time anyway.