Everyone needs a 303

I am the lowest denominator of frustrated musicians, one who can barely play a note. To give you an idea of exactly how terrible I sound when in charge of a musical instrument my party piece is the descending dervish riff of Interstellar Overdrive, played on one string. Though I’m not tone deaf, possess a sense of rhythm and can shape a few chords it’s highly unlikely that 10,000 hours of practice will make me John McLaughlin.

Demonstrably a klutz of fat fingers on six strings or a piano, I’ve always enjoyed playing around with synthisisers, sequencers and drum machines, though leading a peripatetic lifestyle I’ve never been able to justify the discretionary expense of buying studio equipment.

Thanks to the iPad I can now hold thousands of pounds worth of bleep in my hand and, for little more than the price of a sandwich, lose myself in a fully equipped recording studio anytime, anywhere, and by pressing buttons, tweaking knobs and sliding faders, create a glorious electronic noise.

Apropos of nothing other than my enthusiasm, and your possible interest, here are a few of the iOS synth emulator apps I have been playing with.


Favourite waste of time has been ReBirth from Propellerhead. This app is something of a dream come true for a lad who lived through London’s second Summer of Love. Consisting of emulators for the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines and two Roland TB-303 Bass Line synths it carries more than enough ‘gear’ to imitate the majority of today’s top 40 dance downloads if one was so inclined to try (and for the record, I’m not). Indeed the entirety of LMFAO’s ouvere could be replicated with this app alone.

ReBirth for the iPad is a port of Propellerhead’s renowned (and sadly, discontinued) desktop app. You can check out the history of that hugely influential  software version at the ReBirth Museum.

I recommend heading over to the iTunes store to try the iOS app for yourself.

Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight was the first commercially available sampler, memorably used to trailblazing effect on Peter Gabriel’s fourth album and Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook. The unique selling point of the Fairlight was the device’s ability to play and manipulate any sound you cared to upload into it. However banal such a feature might seem today, this was the absolute cutting edge in 1979. Case in point: CMI is a three letter abbreviation for Computer Musical Instrument.

For retro-heads looking to recreate Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love the Fairlight CMI iOS app is the only piece of kit required.

Though time has not lessened the required learning curve in any meaningful way, should you have the patience, effort expended on the app is richly rewarded. And it’s a damn sight more affordable than the £20,000 price tag of the original hand built hardware.

Korg iMS20

If you prefer synths of the older analogue school (with patch cables) there is the Korg iMS20 app. Provided you’re willing to suspend your disbelief as you run those virtual jumpers, the Korg iMS20 app does a great job emulating the switched-on sounds of the late seventies. Again, if you’re unfamiliar with the original hardware there’s a lot to take in before you can get going, but perseverance will pay off in spades.

Thanks to the attention of such artists as Ladytron, Stereolab and Autechre the MS 20 is experiencing something of a resurgence. In fact, I’d go as far to say that there’s probably no better iOS product for the discerning hipster – if indeed that hipster would be caught dead using an iPad.

I’ve never been that enamoured by touchscreen games, neither Angry Birds, Infinity Blade nor Osmosis have held my attention, I just don’t get hooked in by the gameplay and swipe off with a guilty feeling of time absolutely wasted.

Tweaking my lovingly home-crafted electronica on the iPad is, by comparison, an absolute joy and affirmation that the tablet can be a creative tool as much as a consumptive toy.

Images: Vintage Synth Wikipedia CreateDigitalMusic

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