personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

FIRST LOOK REVIEW: Syntheogen 0.10.0 for Android

Posted by r on December 16, 2013

Developers of mobile apps for musicians have enough of a challenge set before them without having to consider the evolving nature of mobile-device input. Ten years ago, it was a world of hardware buttons and resistive touchscreens with fine-point styli. Now, of course, the mobile world is all capacitive screens, with no real usable buttons to count on… and if the end user DOES have a stylus, it’ll be fat, sloppy and imprecise at the tip, just like their fingers.

With each new fad in mobile-device input, devs targeting mobile devices have had to change up their approach. Apps like SunVox, originally built around the tighter input precision possible with a resistive stylus, may have scads of power but simply aren’t anywhere near as efficient or fun to use on a small screen in our modern capacitive / fat-fingered world. And while the mobile port of Nanoloop has fared quite well with careful work from its developer, most other well-known Gameboy music apps like LSDj quickly go from “total pleasure” to “total PITA” when the easy-to-locate hard buttons of the originally-intended hardware are forcibly traded in for fussy onscreen softkeys in an emulator.

As for the many music apps built from scratch for iOS and Android, developers are still figuring out the best approach to the interface. Most such apps, especially those built around the usual sequencer-DAW paradigm, are still trying to clone venerable desktop music apps too closely in their design. Speed of creativity and input often suffer noticeably as a result, even in the best-designed mobile music apps.

Maybe we musicians can’t have it all, and are bound to get totally screwed in one way or another as the world continues moving toward simpler / dumber / more portable devices. But I’ve still got to applaud any developer who’s still trying to reinvent this particular wheel in an effort to create a faster shirt-pocket-sized vehicle for musical creation on the go.

I see a great deal of this sort of attempted reinvention in Android semi-newcomer Syntheogen, which is stupidly cheap to purchase as of this writing. While the developer is still working, and big changes / important new features are surely to come down the road, I thought I’d make a case that smart musicians with Android devices should get in on the Syntheogen ground floor right now… or at least sit down for a couple serious days with the demo.

Syntheogen is, as its name would suggest, a synth- and sample-based app at the core. The current sound generation engine is deceptively simple, with plenty of power to get some real music-making done as it stands (even though hardcore synth nerds spoiled by today’s over-engineered, super-whizbang VSTis may needlessly whine a little at first). Basic subtractive 2-osc, FM, single-sample, and wavetable / “hybrid” sampling are currently available. A reasonable selection of LFO- / envelope-patching possibilities and a rather healthy assortment of DSP effects add greatly to the capabilities of Syntheogen’s sonic engine.

Just about any useful Android music app is going to be built around some kind of sequencer, since realtime-playable latency is still essentially an impossibility on Android (I send Google a personally-generated, lovingly-selected fecal emission via FedEx on the first of each month to remind them of the importance of legitimately addressing this issue in Android, but I don’t know what else I can do). Syntheogen is no exception, but its sequencer is designed a bit differently from most other such apps.

More so than most other mobile apps, and particularly most other viable music apps on Android at this time, Syntheogen has been smartly, cleanly designed to make the absolute most of a phone-sized, mostly-thumb-managed screen at any given time. This is obvious from the first few minutes of tinkering in its very clean-looking interface. The buttons are few and perfectly thumb-sized. The app’s mechanics are all about keeping as few buttons on screen at any time as possible. The screen is given over as much as possible to information that matters about the music you’re making.

One very important aspect of Syntheogen’s efficiency— and one that is surprisingly rare among mobile music apps– is the implementation of infinitely-variable pinch-zooming in multiple axes on the note-entry piano roll, the method of note entry in Syntheogen. Trying to enter notes in a piano-roll matrix on a small touchscreen is normally frustrating at best; with this seemingly obvious addition (and a few clever tweaks to its implementation), Syntheogen eases this kind of pain significantly.

Whether you need to get a handful of two-octave-wide chords in fast or enter a delicate and tightly-bounded chromatic melody, whether you are hoping to slap down a no-brainer four-on-the-floor-ish kick drum across eight measures or add a disorienting quarter-note-long blast of 64th notes in the middle of a measure, you’re usually never more than a moment’s pinch or two away from the exact view you need to get the job done on that dumb little screen you’ve stuck yourself with.

Another factor contributing to mobile usability is the nested, hierarchy-based structure of Syntheogen songs, which should be at least a little familiar to tracker users and/or lovers of loop-based apps like Acid or Ableton.

In Syntheogen parlance, “songs” are made from “loops,” which in turn are built up from simultaneously-playing “tracks” (which might better be described as “clips” or “patterns”). Quick access to / movement between these three different levels of musical “structure,” along with their sub-parameters like associated synth and effects patches, is made possible by a thin toolbar on the right-hand side of the screen (starting in v. 0.10.0).

Tracks / clips used in a loop can be easily, selectively muted when that loop is brought into a song, and the loop can be “reconfigured” thusly each time it is re-added to the song’s loop playlist. I could easily make, say, a minimal house track with a single all-encompassing loop, controlling the addition and removal of tracks entirely from the Syntheogen song editor with each iteration of the loop. Naturally, there are many more musical applications for this very useful feature.

A Syntheogen loop structure must be the same length or longer than its shortest track (i.e. clip). If you bring in a track that is shorter in length than the loop it’s destined for, Syntheogen will simply autoloop the track-clip until the end of the loop. This can add up to quasi-aleatoric fun quickly– try a 16-beat loop comprised of 4-, 7- and 9-beat tracks, for instance.

Each song, track and loop is stored as a separate file in Syntheogen, and the user provides the name for each element on creation. Track materials can be reused in multiple patterns and/or songs; by design, tracks and loops can also be easily “cloned” into new copies so as to create new materials based on already-entered stuff.

One of the most intriguing and potentially time-saving features of Syntheogen is perhaps not so obvious on the first few uses. This involves its ability to do not just transposition, but “modally-aware” transposition of tracks / clips. This may require a little explanation; here I go.

When you start a new track, Syntheogen will ask for the tonic note and modality of the clip— say, C major. If you go with that default option, the only notes visible in the piano roll for that track will be the ones for C major; this also greatly speeds entry and aids usability on mobile devices, as it maximizes the useful pitch-range of the screen and prevents many types of “fat-finger wrong notes.” (Don’t worry, would-be 12-tone serialists; the chromatic mode is also available at the very top of the mode-list, along with some other non-diatonic possibilities like whole-tone scales.)

Now let’s say you want to move your C-major idea over the diatonic pitch class B, but remain in C major. If you apply a simple chromatic-transposition operation, as would be the only option available in many such apps, a C-D-E-F-G figure would become B-C#-D#-E-F#. (This option is available in Syntheogen too, by cloning a C major pattern / track into another new track, with a stated move to B major upfront.)

But if you want that entered figure to stay diatonic in C major with a minimum of trouble or required editing, just tell Syntheogen to change your already-entered C major, C-D-E-F-G pattern to B Locrian. Doing so will produce the “C-major-correct” B-C-D-E-F. Want to move the same five-note pattern to start on F and still stay diatonic in C? You guessed it: transpose it (or “clone” directly into a new, separate clip) over F Lydian, and out comes F-G-A-B-C.

In other words, Syntheogen’s “smarter-than-usual” transposition options give music-theory-literate users the power to creatively recycle materials very quickly without ever having to dig into the piano roll editor to fix resulting “wrong” notes. And on the other hand, there are also many potential creatively-empowering / idea-generating “wrong-note” uses for this interesting aspect of Syntheogen’s design. (See what happens when you move a chromatically-entered passage in Syntheogen into a diatonic mode, or vice versa.)

There are lots of other neat features of Syntheogen’s design that maximize the efficient usage of both limited materials and limited screen real estate. Some of them, like the remarkably user-configurable quantization grids / “guides” and the numerically-controlled ability to use only the first x beats of a longer loop when bringing it into a song, hold significant added bonuses for adventurous or academically-oriented composers who want to play with truly crazy rhythms and metric structures once they have the lay of the land in this app. Very few desktop sequencers I’ve used make it so easy to enter, say, a string of 32nd-note septuplets starting exactly a sixteenth-note-quintuplet off the downbeat. (It thusly goes w/o saying that dubstep triplet-to-eighth wobble-toggle is not a problem.)

The current versions of Syntheogen run quite efficiently and reliably / predictably. Rendering to .wav is possible at the song or loop level for easy export of Syntheogen materials to your DAW, etc.

There are still some important missing features, such as the ability to export Syntheogen songs or other elements in data form directly in-app (although Syntheogen stores everything from individual patches to songs as faux-XML files in a single location, so a filesystem-savvy user can still get this kind of thing done pretty easily). The developer, Jeremy of Anthemion, is actively working on quite a few such features / refinements, and seems unusually responsive to end-user feedback besides.

With its carefully-thought-out design for your dumb thumbs, Syntheogen is probably the first half-serious Android music app I’ve tried that is actually fun to use for music-making on a phone-sized screen (maybe more so than on a tablet, actually, although it’s plenty of fun there too). The mobile-optimized workflow means a bit of a learning curve, if not a huge or intimidating one; thankfully, documentation / help is good in-app, with much more detail available online. For anyone interested in making music portably on Android devices, it’s definitely worth trying out Syntheogen and spending a good couple of earnest hours to learn how it works.

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