Something I always appreciated about classical music training was learning to appreciate the particulars of each instrument, whether or not you played them yourself. A French Horn, for instance, is not an instrument without challenges: everything from tuning to balancing dynamic range to how you look when you add and remove muting can be demanding. And in technology – whether acoustic instrumental or digital – every design is about tradeoffs. You very often can’t get one thing without giving up something else. So I stand by the questions I asked about iPad synths in general last week, particularly as I had Moog’s own, brilliant analog synths and effects as a point of comparison. My aim was not to dismiss the iPad or Animoog – I was quite serious in my praise for Animoog and I think I’ve been reasonably committed to ongoing, often enthusiastic iPad coverage since its launch. Instead, I wanted to begin a conversation about how these tools are used as instruments that includes real critical discussion.
And that’s what I think we got. Readers responded en masse, and amidst some heated discussion (some of it having more to do with whether I’d lost my mind than the particular merits of Animoog), I thought there were some compelling points. I heard from developers, too, on and off the record, and I suspect this will continue to lead to experimentation in mobile software. I also really enjoyed Marc Doty’s impassioned response, which I thought raised some equally worthwhile questions about soft synths on computers. Incidentally, I also heard from a lot of people who went out and bought Animoog because they saw the story on CDM.
In the meantime, hordes of synth lovers have descended on Moog’s Animoog, making it very likely the most successful virtual iPad synth launch yet, at least in the traditional synthesizer mold.
Learning Animoog: The best of these videos is at top, a video tutorial as many readers had requested. Tip of the hat to Synthtopia here for following up on this issue. The video tutorial makes it really clear how to navigate Animoog’s deep and powerful synth interface. See also the official Moog tour at second from top for a speedier walkthrough.
Working out how to play it: Other videos investigate performance. One common theme with Animoog, and iOS apps in general, is whether you’ll focus primarily on the touch interface or external control hardware. Animoog applies a unique control solution to the touch UI, and one that many readers seem to feel is very effective. This gives you two principal advantages of the iPad as a tablet: you get the novel multi-touch controller, which allows gestures that something like a MIDI keyboard wouldn’t, and you retain the device’s superior mobility.
Mark Jenkins’ extensive video review really does the best job, I think, of examining the Animoog on its own terms, as a standalone iPad synth, using the multi-touch interface. I couldn’t possibly have topped the depth of this video review; kudos to Mark.
On the other hand, that won’t stop people from experimenting with adding an external interface. As our friend and MeeBlip co-creator James Grahame put it, the tactile experience of the iPad is the same as running your finger along a bathroom mirror. Instruments have frets and keys for a reason; tactile feedback allows you to play them without looking directly at them. So, I think it’s an advantage that iOS’ MIDI input hardware support at least gives you a choice. You still get a software instrument that runs on an instant-on tablet rather than buried in menus on a computer. And as readers point out, it’s affordable, though I’d say the cost of Animoog isn’t exactly “$1″ — you do have to buy that iPad and its dongles and keep it running, just as a computer requires care and feeding. Even if you only ever ran Animoog on your iPad, though, you’d be at the cost of a lot of low-end synths that are far less interesting in the hardware domain.
Geert Bevin has been talking to CDM behind the scenes – more on the Eigenharp soon — and I think has some real insights into comparing the iPad’s input and an external input. Like me, he has some good things to say about Animoog’s solution; he just suggests that you can have even more fun with an additional controller. A MIDI keyboard might well be disappointing, so enter the more-exotic Eigenharp. He also uses the Alesis iODock for better I/O capabilities; at least one reader via Twitter complained that the Animoog wasn’t “professional” because of the iPad’s poor built-in minijack. So, what you get in this rig is definitely not a “pure” iPad experience – you’re adding some weight and additional devices. But it might be one that you really enjoy, and that still gets you away from your MacBook for a bit.
This video gives a brief overview of the Animoog’s features and also shows how expressive it is when played with an Eigenharp Pico over MIDI using poly-pressure.
The Eigenharp and Animoog seems like a match made in heaven since the Eigenharp is able to send three independent detailed per-note performance data streams and the Animoog is able to react to this on a per-note level. Also, the visualization of the sound on the Animoog is marvelous, it gives a great representation of what your sound is doing.
The iPad is hooked up to my MacBook Pro using USB MIDI from the Alesis iODock, the Eigenharp Pico is also hooked up to the laptop and sends MIDI from the EigenD application to the ‘dock’ MIDI port. This uses a small MIDI-only Eigenharp Pico setup that loads very quickly and provides 16 MIDI playing keys with poly-pressure and three independent data streams for each key (pressure, left/right, up/down), as well as two 3D controller keys that are somewhat similar to little joysticks and are sending each three independent streams of MIDI CC data also.
The sound: A video compares audio fidelity of Animoog to the “real” thing — analog hardware. A number of commenters also noted that Animoog most likely uses sampled wavetables as its oscillator sources rather than modeling, but that approach can indeed yield good sounds. I’m not terribly surprised by the success of the Animoog in standing up to these other instruments; years of experience in soft synths suggests that you can get good results from virtual instruments. In fact, I remain more interested in what people actually do musically, and what about an instrument makes them happy more than splitting hairs about audio fidelity. If this video helps liberate you to go play with Animoog, have at it!
Synthesis, Still the Frontier: One closing thought: part of what interests me about synthesizers is that, even with a huge volume of music made with them and some generally-understood conventions, there are really no shared rules about how to play them. In acoustic instruments, there is at least a rough notion of certain folk traditions, or classical traditions, or “extended techniques” as something that stands apart from common practice. I think we’re still learning what the heck synths are.
Every aspect of the design of a synthesizer can therefore be fair game for consideration, including the spaghetti tangles of modular patch cords or the keyboard + mod wheel + pitch bend Minimoog-style arrangement. What synths are, how they might sound, and how we might play them and turn them into music remain open-ended. So, I hope that any criticism is not grounds for hand-wringing, as someone put it, but an added motivation to go and experiment and play. I know it is for me. Synth on.
Next up: we’re long overdue giving a look at the various iPad synths and how you might use them. Since Animoog isn’t the “first professional” synth, it’s time to line it up with some of its rivals. Unlike with a computer soft synth, though, you probably aren’t terribly concerned with outlay of cash; it may be a more “what are all of the synths you’d buy” question than comparing x, y, and z. If you have nominees you’d like to see explored, or ways in which you’d like to see us cover iOS (or anything else, for that matter), let us know. And remember, tell us what you really think — okay, I probably don’t have to say that. (ducks)