Some say that the iOS music app ecosystem is already reaching peak saturation, with numerous top-notch soft synths from established developers and several truly useful sequencer/DAWs. But when apps like 2Beat’s new Oscilab cross my desk, I have to disagree with the naysayers. There are still oceans of uncharted waters ahead.
While Oscilab may look like a toy at first glance, its unique approach to sequencing is both immersive and useful, especially for artists eager to approach composition in new ways. Granted, it’s only got six tracks (four synths and two drum machines), but the end results often have a “How’d they do that?” component that sets it apart.
From a synthesis standpoint, Oscilab is quite simple. Each of its synth instruments can be configured in one of five ways: single-oscillator, dual-oscillator, FM, ring mod, and sample playback (of a small collection of factory samples). For processing, there are resonant filters, amps with panning, a bit-crusher, and global reverb and delay sends. The two drum machine tracks offer 15 different kits, with the obligatory TR-808 and 909 present, along with a Linn, three acoustic kits, and a smattering of more obviously electronic material.
Oscilab’s approach to sequencing is one of the most innovative and engaging methods I’ve seen. There’s no note-entry system—at all. Instead, each track is a sophisticated yet intuitive arpeggiator. First, you select a basic rhythmic pattern from Oscilab’s array of one-bar templates (or just use the randomize function, which works quite well), then select your notes from a one-octave keyboard. Once those are set up, you manipulate the arpeggiator using standard automation envelope tools. You can create specific melodies by adding more breakpoints, but that’s missing the point. By constraining your note options, then using the arpeggiation envelopes, you create melodic motifs that are often outside your musical habits. You can also turn off the octave template, which is great for creating swooping Theremin-like patterns.
Each arpeggiator track also includes three LFO-style modifiers that affect the arpeggios in conjunction with your automation. For example, you can set the first LFO to a sawtooth, which creates a rising arpeggiation. Then you can set the second LFO to a square wave, which will make that arpeggio jump between octave ranges (or smaller intervals, depending on the depth setting). The filters, volume and panning tools follow this same format, so each sequence—of up to eight measures—includes embedded patterns for each. The multiple LFOs are especially useful here, as they let you create complex polyrhythmic sequences that are innately musical because they’re all rhythmically tied together. Once you’ve got a cool sequence going, you can copy the results using 2Beat’s “scene” tools, echoing Ableton’s session approach to performance and composition.
If you want to capture these performances, there’s an audio record function. I’d prefer the ability to edit a performance’s parameters after the fact, but that may come in a future update.
Currently, Oscilab includes a iOS and social media integration such SoundCloud and Dropbox uploading, as well as AudioCopy and AudioShare. Audiobus will be included in a planned update. MIDI would be cool as an output option, since Oscilab’s arpeggiators are so much fun, but it wasn’t present in the version reviewed. Even with these omissions, Oscilab is truly innovative. While it’s currently positioned as a groove-oriented tool, it’s also absolutely stunning for ambient and experimental composition as well.
PROS: Unique approach to complex arpeggiations. Embedded LFOs and automation in every element. Interactive performance options via “scenes.”
CONS: No MIDI output or WIST. Lack of standard note-entry functions may be a put-off for traditionalists.
Bottom Line: Innovative performance synthesis and sequencing.