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synth-Q review – A wild new synth from Never Be Normal

It's easy these days in the iOS landscape for a new synth app to get lost in the crowd. There are just so many synths available, many of them producing similar sounds, that it takes something special to set it apart. The latest app from the aptly-named Never Be Normal, called synth-Q, definitely stands out from the crowd.

synth-Q is the second app from Never Be Normal, who also created the underrated gem 76 Synthesizer. It is labeled as a "queuing synthesizer", but acts like a modular synth. Thankfully, not too much like a modular synth, though. This one I can actually figure out how to use. Part of the genius of the interface is how easy it is to program.

Much like the excellent FM4 synth, the interface of synth-Q is all laid out on one screen (with a bit of side-to-side scrolling on the modules). The top half of the screen houses those modules, as well as a few other bits and baubles. The lower half is dominated by a unique resizable  keyboard. The default layout for the keyboard is a stacked three-octave keyboard, but this can be resized to go all the way to four octaves. There is an option to go full-screen with just the keyboard as well. This keyboard layout immediately had me playing different patterns and shapes, breaking free of the conventional keyboard trappings.


So many keys!

The app ships with a pretty considerable number of presets. Not Thor-level presets, but enough in each category to get a good idea of the range of the app sounds. Divided between basses, leads, pads, percussive, fx, and risers, there's a little something for everyone. I really liked some of the basses in particular, especially the "Doom Horn". That one is an absolute bowel rattler. Just dark, gritty and mean.

Creating your own sounds is a lot of fun here as well. As I've stated before, I'm not an expert in this realm, but synth-Q makes it real easy to experiment. Check out all the modules available (lazily lifted right from the App Store description):

—three oscillators — sine, triangle, saw, square, pulse and resonant noise waves
—three adsrs — amp, filter and modulation envelopes
—filter with lowpass, hipass, bandpass, band-reject and peak filter modes
—frequency modulation oscillator
—ring modulation oscillator
—eight modulation bays with virtual cables enable interactions between modules
—three tempo-syncable LFOs with sine, triangle, saw, reverse saw, square, random curve and random step waves
—two XY matrix pads
—XY keys module turns the keyboard's movable keys into modulation sources
—two FX slots with chorus, flanger, phaser, reverb, tremolo, distortion, delay and bitcrush
—analog simulation with soft clipping and random pitch wavering
—midi module with pitch bender, modwheel and velocity
—master volume control

The interface is set up to allow you to "mix and match" these modules very easily. To add a module, just tap on the corresponding icon, and that module drops right into place. To add some modulation, just tap and hold on the source icon, and you'll instantly see which modules you can use. Drag your finger to that module, and a stretchy chord will follow and connect to that module. Same goes for the destination. It works great for those who may not know what connects where, and encourages experimentation.

There are some things that I think synth-Q does really, really well. I mentioned the keyboard before. There are a few apps, namely Animoog and Nave, that I think are better played with the virtual keyboard, rather than plugging in an external keyboard. I would put synth-Q into that category. Being able to add modulation to both the X and Y axis of the keys lets you modulate parameters by wiggling the key left or right, and the range of this wiggling can be adjusted. You can also drag up on the key for more parameter tweaks. It really lets you get expressive with the sounds. With the previously mentioned octave range as well, I found myself experimenting more with different chord inversions across octaves, which got fun quick.


Here you can see the keys being used to modulate the oscillator and LFO beat

Another (unique?) feature is with regards to the X/Y pad. You can set an "anchor" position within the X/Y pad, and then set the speed in which the sound will return to that spot once moved away from the anchor. In this way, you can create some slow, evolving sounds by moving the dot away from the anchor, setting the return speed to the slowest setting, and listen as it slowly morphs across the X/Y pad.


Anchors away!

Below are some demos of some of the presets, created by the developer of synth-Q. These give a good indication of the range of the app, but barely scratch the surface.

The more I use iOS synth apps, the more comfortable I am getting away from presets, and experimenting on my own sounds. The tutorial of synth-Q isn't so much a walkthrough, but it presents you with different module combinations. By going from one oscillator to three oscillators, you can play around with the different waveforms to discover how these interact. The tutorial shows you different filter combos, FM and ring modulation, the X/Y pads and key triggers, and so on. Much like Laplace synth, I found myself creating my own sounds through trial-and-error, but having a blast doing it.

Technical details time: The app is both Audiobus and Inter-App Audio (IAA) compatible. Virtual and Core MIDI are also supported. The app does support iOS 7 and higher, and comes in at a tiny 39.9 MB. For you mystical new age-y types, the app's tuning can be set to 432Hz or 444Hz within the settings menu.

While the app may look like a rainbow puked on your iPad, do not be fooled into thinking that this app is not serious. There is a lot going on here, and can be very powerful. The lead sounds can really cut through a mix, and the bass has some range. There are even some wild effects presets that could be sprinkled into some tracks for some "out of this world" goodness. The bottom line is that this app is really fun to play, wildly expressive, and impressively deep. I would highly recommend giving synth-Q a look.

If you're thinking about buying synth-Q, please consider clicking through our App Store link below. Thanks!

[app 950094378]

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