Synthesizers and sequencers were ‘in the past’ (and that is not even that long ago) very expensive devices. Nowadays, your smartphone has no trouble at all with something that used to require an instrument costing thousands of euros. We have listed the best synthesizer apps for you.
A virtual instrument mimics a synthesizer (which in turn mimics all kinds of instruments …) in software. Actually not very strange, because the average synthesizer is after all not much more than a computer with software on it. At least, in the more recent versions.
We start with the Animoog app for iOS / iPadOS (10.99 euros). Animoog (iOS and iPadOS) is a completely software recreated synthesizer from the legendary brand Moog. This is an analog copy, with which the most exotic sounds can be produced. Ideal for modern dance music, while it is also very suitable for house, trance and rave. And a whole series of other types of music, it just depends on how creative you are. You can play the whole thing via the virtual on-screen keyboard, whereby the position of your fingers on a key also influences the sound. The built-in 4-track recorder is practical. Animoog also supports midi keyboards, which means you can also use the app during a performance.
Very special is also the SOUND Canvas app from Roland, another big name in digital musical instruments. This app is a synthesizer module, as often used in studios. Via MIDI, such a device is still connected to a keyboard, or you connect it to a computer to work with a midi composer there.
You can also use SOUND Canvas as a midi player. And there are more than enough of them on the internet. A number of impressive sample midis are included. It is not surprising that this thing sounds like a clock, because it is an expensive hardware sequencer completely reconstructed in software. To open a demo file, tap the File open button, followed by a tap on one of the included midis. Then tap the play button and let your ears fall off your head in surprise: MIDI never sounded this good! The app is not cheap with a price tag of 21.99 euros. But keep in mind that the hardware version is a classic that costs many times over.
Rockrelay Synth FM
Although there for Android unfortunately significantly less virtual instruments of big names are available, you can use the app Rockrelay Synth FM (free with ads or for € 9.99 ad-free) still enjoy a classic car recreated in software. This app is an emulation of the legendary Yamaha DX7 FM synthesizer. It was released in 1983 and was the very first FM synth to not use analog circuitry to produce waveforms and resulting sounds. DSPs were used instead.
A DSP is a Digital Signal Processor, a processor specially designed to process analog signals in digitized form as efficiently and quickly as possible. Nowadays you will find DSPs in many devices, such as smartphones or noise canceling headphones. In the latter case, the DSP is used to filter out environmental noise.
Back to the DX7. Although this Yamaha can be completely customized via numerous settings, that was a bridge too far for many artists. Fortunately, the DX7 has an arsenal of presets. They probably (at least in part) sound familiar to you. Musicians from the illustrious eighties made full use of the DX7, making this synthesizer one that helped determine the sound of that decade. By the way: one of the few who really got into the technical possibilities of the DX 7 was Brian Eno. You can hear what he achieved with that knowledge on his ambient album Apollo: atmospheres and soundtracks.
Peter Vogel CMI
Another unique tool from yesteryear is the Bird CMI. This is a fully software-based Fairlight CMI, designed by Peter Vogel at the time. That device once cost – yes – $ 50,000. In the Netherlands, as far as is known, four copies were sold over the counter.
It was a complex instrument controlled by a computer; operation was via a light pen and – of course – a keyboard. Despite its price and complexity, it was a great success with world-renowned artists. The synth, released in 1979, can be heard on many tracks from the eighties of the last century; experts immediately pick out the characteristic sound of the device. In fact, it is one of the leading instruments of the eighties. And now you just install it on the iPad or iPhone.
The operation is still completely in the style of that time via text-based screens and editors. To quickly get an impression of the musical capacities, tap on the P1 screen Help / Demo. Then tap Demo in the opened menu. You will find two sample tracks, each with a green button. Tap this and the track will open in the editor where you click Play ticks. This app will cost you 10.99 euros in the standard version; upgrading to Pro, including the ability to play midi files, is also a possibility. Do not pay attention to the somewhat sour reviews of some buyers: this is a true-to-life emulation of the original and so the operation – for compatibility reasons – is spartan according to contemporary standards.
Meanwhile, the Russians were not idle. In fact, in the former Soviet Union and neighboring satellite states, there were many experiments with ultramodern electronic music. Special instruments were used for this, such as the ANS. Designed between 1938 and 1958, this instrument was way ahead of its time. Music shapes were drawn on a glass plate in the form of a spectogram (sonogram). That plate was then scanned live by a battery of photosensitive cells and processed further. You can listen to how that sounds on this album. And indeed: it is not entirely surprising that ANS was used for, for example, the soundtrack of the Russian SF movie Solaris.
Regardless, the ANS is now in app form for both Android as well as iOS. Virtual ANS costs 5.99 euros and you can (among other things) produce wonderful space and trance sounds with it, which also makes it interesting for YouTubers and home filmmakers. Fortunately, in the app you draw the sound on a virtual glass plate, so it is less fragile. Tap the floppy disk, then tap New for a new sound. Start simple, draw a line from top left to bottom right. Press the play (forward) button at the bottom right of the screen. You will now hear a decreasing pitch. Complex sounds can be created by drawing multiple lines. Live it up. Or use one of the many presets (floppy disk, Load, Projects, and one of the sample files). Sounds extremely futuristic, right?
Synthesizer TB 303
Android users can indulge in a failed tool that has gained some sort of cult status these days. One that is used in all kinds of modern music, whether or not in virtual form. We are talking about the Roland TB-303 here. This was a synthesizer and sequencer intended to mimic a bass. The only problem was that that bass sounded like a kind of Donald Duck with a throat infection. And so it was not taken seriously by musicians who were looking for a truly bass-sounding electronic alternative.
The instrument released in 1982 was therefore quickly withdrawn from the market. But that did not prevent some musicians from experimenting with the comic sound that the TB 303 produced. And every now and then it popped up in a song, like Rip It Up by Orange Juice. If you use the Synthesizer TB 303 Bassline app from Rockrelay start and play with it a bit, the characteristic sound on the said track is immediately recognizable. And now you can hear the 303 regularly in hits, house, trance, dance and so on.
Mellotronics Streetlytron ’63
Finally, an undoubtedly legendary electronic instrument from the past: the Mellotron. The instrument had its heyday in the sixties and seventies of the last century. Digital techniques were in their infancy, synthesizers based on digital samplers did not exist yet. The Mellotron used a unique way to still play all kinds of instruments: tape loops. Inside were tapes taped together, showing the recording of an instrument. A tape player played the recordings, depending on the keystroke at a higher or lower playback speed. You can hear how that sounds in the song Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues. Many other artists also made use of it with love. Where the sound of the Fairlight CMI determined the sound of the eighties, the Mellotron did for the seventies and even sixties. And even today the classic is still used for modern productions. But it remains a mechanical monster that requires a lot of love in maintenance. The app for your iPhone or iPad is a lot more user-friendly and sounds like a clock. When introduced, the instrument itself cost £ 1,000. Converted to today’s currency, the original Mellotron would cost a good 18,000 euros. The app version of the Mellotron is called Mellotronics Streetlytron ’63. It costs 7.99 euros in the basic version and 16.99 euros in the Pro variant. By the way, the app takes up 1.7 GB thanks to the huge mountain of tape loops – the original digitized copies!