As in the world of desktop music software, iOS now has its fair share of virtual analog synth music apps. You might, therefore, find your eyes glazing over at the launch of another bider for your bucks. However, when it comes to iMini by Arturia, I think it’s probably best to pay full attention. The company have an excellent track record in desktop music software and, with the release of the iMini app, they are trying to bring a recreation of one of the most iconic synths of all time – the 1971 Minimoog – to the iPad. Given that MINI V – a desktop recreation of the same classic synth – was greeted with universal praise, they obviously have the software sound engine design required down to a pretty fine art with their TAE (True Analog Emulation) modelling technology. So just how well does that modelling technology translate into the iOS context?
Unless you are either getting on a bit or a super-rich collector or classic synths, then I suspect, like me, your closest encounter with the original Minimoog has been through the music created by Jean Michel Jarre, ELP, Kraftwork, Depeche Mode or other such synth-wielding pioneers. The iMini app attempts to recreate both the feature set and the sound of the original synth but, of course, Arturia have very sensibly also chosen to add a few extra features that bring the performance options into the modern day.
In essence, you get a three-oscillator virtual analog synth engine with noise, filter and amplitude envelope controls. The beauty of the original Minimoog was not the complexity of its control set; it was the complexity and quality of the sounds it could create from such a compact (for a hardware synth of it’s time) format. While the original was monophonic, Auturia have made several nods towards the current century by making polyphonic playback available if you want it as well as adding some effects, an arpeggiator and some excellent performance options for tweaking sounds on the fly. iMini’s basic feature set, therefore, looks promising….
In your face
The main screen recreates the look of the Minimoog (plus a hint at some of the extras). In the Oscillator Bank section, you get access to the key sound sources; three oscillators with their waveform, range (pitch) and frequency sync/detuning controls. The three oscillators can be independently toggled on/off. The Mixer panel allows you to blend the oscillator outputs as required, while the third oscillator also allows you to introduce either white or pink noise (good for creating percussion/drum sounds).
The Contr section provides a master tuning control, a Glide control (to control the pitch sliding speed when playing in monophonic mode – although you do need to engage Glide as described below) and the Mod Mix control. This blends Osc 3 with the noise module. The Modifier section contains the main filter and envelope controls. Compared to many modern ‘analog’ synth recreations, this might seem like a somewhat limited set of sound shaping controls. However, don’t be fooled; there are plenty of creative possibilities here and, for those less geeky about synth programming, the constrained control set will be a positive rather than a negative; it is very easy to get your head around the basics but there is plenty of depth once you get into it.
The Output panel hints at the ‘extras’ that Arturia have added to the Minimoog feature set. Aside from an overall Volume control, there is the Poly switch so you can toggle between polyphonic or monophonic modes and knobs to set the overall levels of the chorus and delay effects.
Tapping the red FX button at the top of the main display provides access to additional controls for the two effects. There is nothing to revolutionary here in terms of what’s offered but the effects are easy to adjust and, in use, sound very good. The chorus does an excellent job of fattening up even the most basic of patches while the stereo delay is great, particularly when used on lead sounds.
There is further fun to be had via the performance button. Here you get access to a rather nice arpeggiator and two X-Y performance control pads. The latter each have a tiny ‘settings’ button; tapping this opens up an excellent dialog screen that allows you to configure which two parameters are linked to the pad. This is very neatly implemented. As the arpeggiator features a hold function, you can easily set that going and then use the two X-Y pads to manipulate the sound in real time. This is both a lot of fun and very creative. The arpeggiator itself follows the design ethos used elsewhere; a relatively simple control set but enough options to keep you interested.
Just above the virtual keyboard and next to the iMini name badge is another small ‘setting’ button. Tapping this flips the panel above the keyboard to show a further set of controls. From here you can set the bend range or engage glide, decay and legato modes. You can also switch on/off the ability to slide the virtual keyboard as you play (so you have access to lower or higher notes) or to zoom to show fewer/more keys. You can also use the +/- octave buttons to shift the position on the virtual keyboard.
The ‘modern’ touch here, however, is the scale/key options. Like a few other iOS apps (Thumbjam, Tachyon or Beatmaker 2 for example), iMini doesn’t restrict you to just a chromatic scale. If you pick a particular scale format, the standard piano keys disappear to be replaced by keys representing just the notes within the chosen scale. This kind of feature is great for novice players but is useful for anyone playing via the touchscreen as it reduces the likelihood of generating a lot of duff notes.
Sounding off – part 2
So, iMini faithfully recreates the features set of the original Minimoog and then adds some very nice modern elements on top. But what does it actually sound like? Well, the simple answer here is very good indeed. Browsing through the 500+ supplied presets via the top panel dialog takes a long time – not because the software is difficult to navigate (the exact opposite is true) – but because you are constantly finding things you just want to play. Arturia have presets created by some ‘name’ players (including Geoff Downes of Buggles, Yes and Asia fame) and there are some real gems. I was particularly impressed by the bass sounds, both in terms of their range and simply how solid (fat?) they sound. Equally, there are some great arpeggiator patches and some fabulous leads. I’m not sure quite how close it gets to the real thing but iMini really does capture that ‘analog’ synth vibe.
Hooked up to a suitable keyboard amp, things are just as convincing. The sound is full and smooth. I think only the most picky keyboard players would find too much to complain about in sonic terms and I suspect most of their audience wouldn’t give two hoots whether this was the genuine Minimoog article or Arturia’s iPad clone. iMini just sounds great.
The wider world
The app seemed quite happy to work with an external hardware controller keyboard; I had no significant problems with either a cabled connection or via WiFi and the MIDI Learn facility works a treat. Either in the studio or in a live context, iMini could be made to fit in quite happily. Indeed, it is so intuitive to use, I can think of a number of desktop virtual analog synths that I own that I suspect will now gather virtual dust. I’d happily use this as a sound source in my own desktop recording work.
In terms of an iOS working environment, the app supports Korg’s WIST technology so you could get it to sync with other WIST compatible apps. Equally, there is Audiocopy support provided. The other key element is Tabletop support. Tabletop (developed by Retronyms) has been around for a while and allows compatible apps to be linked together into an integrated working system. However, it is only recently that some higher-profile, 3rd party, stand-alone apps are including ‘Tabeltop-ready’ in their feature set (Akai’s iMPC app is perhaps the other obvious example). While it operates in a very different sort of way to Audiobus, Tabletop is an alternative means of linking music apps together. It remains to be seen whether other mainstream developers will buy into the approach but it is interesting technology (hopefully, I’ll get a review of Tabletop posted at some stage soon).
While all this connectivity is to be welcome, and Tabletop integration is an interesting inclusion, I suspect lots of iOS musicians (myself included) will be thinking ‘What about Audiobus support?’ When I originally posted this review, iMini didn’t include Audiobus support. The absence of Audibus wasn’t a deal breaker; iMini is a brilliant virtual instrument and, at what is a pretty modest introductory price (£6.99 or the equivalent $/€ price), is more than good enough to deserve a place in any iOS musician’s app collection. However, thankfully, Arturia have now added Audiobus support as part of the v. 1.1 release (posted on the App Store on 16th April 2013). While I’ve only had a very limited amount of time to test this, I had no problems using iMini in the Audiobus input slot and sending it’s output to DAW apps such as Cubasis or Auria. It looks like this
update has also bought some improvements to how iMini handles MIDI data – also very welcome.
Arturia have done a brilliant job with iMini in reproducing the Minimoog feature set, expanding it in very sensible ways to give it a modern edge (but without making it too complex to use) and capturing the essence of the classic analog synth’s sonics. And all in a low cost app running on an iPad.
This is a fabulous virtual instrument that, unlike some synth apps, will not intimidate even a novice synth programmer. It is already an app crying out to be played live or integrated into a desktop recording environment. And now Arturia have added Audiobus support this is a very impressive app that can easily become an integral part of the iOS-based recording workflow for iPad-owning musicians.