ApeSoft iVCS reviewed: the EMS Putney synth on your iPad

The EMS VCS3 (or “Putney” as it’s often referred to by vintage connoisseurs) was one of the first mass produced synthesizers of the 1960s and early ’70s. Its exotic yet flexible set of features made it a deep resource for experimentation and it quickly became a favorite for legendary rock artists like The Who, Pink Floyd, and Brian Eno. Italian developer Alessandro Petrolati (aka ApeSoft) has exhaustively recreated every detail that could be virtualized and the result is inspirational.
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The EMS VCS3 (or “Putney” as it’s often referred to by vintage connoisseurs) was one of the first mass produced synthesizers of the 1960s and early ’70s. Its exotic yet flexible set of features made it a deep resource for experimentation and it quickly became a favorite for legendary rock artists like The Who, Pink Floyd, and Brian Eno. It was also the source of countless Doctor Who effects, as it was one of the crucial synths in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.

As an iOS app, it would have been all too easy for a developer to get the VCS3 “mostly right” and still elicit positive reviews, but Italian developer Alessandro Petrolati (aka ApeSoft) has exhaustively recreated every detail that could be virtualized and the result is inspirational.

iVCS3 Architecture. Since the original Putney was designed at a time when synthesizers were in their infancy and audio processing was the province of electrical engineers, the iVCS3’s architecture bears only a passing similarity to the now-standard subtractive design pioneered by the Minimoog and Prophet-5.

Each of the unit’s three oscillators focuses on specific, blendable waveforms and pitch ranges, with oscillator 1 producing sine and saw while oscillator 2 produces square and triangle. Oscillator 3 will work as either an LFO or lower frequency audio oscillator, with square and triangle options as well. There’s also a noise generator with a knob for adjusting color and two audio channels that can process sound via the iPad’s various input options (including Audiobus and Inter-App) or imported samples.

Processing options are equally arcane, with a semi-traditional resonant lowpass filter, ring mod, “spring” reverb, and two additional output “filters” for the audio channels, but with a quirkier vibe. There’s also an envelope shaper unlike anything else in synth history. Sure, there are attack and decay knobs, but there are also knobs labeled “trapezoid” and “signal” – making the integrated user guide a must for both novices and pros.

The nerve center of the original Putney was its innovative pin matrix (as shown at left) for routing both audio and control voltages. Sources are arranged vertically on the left of the grid, while destinations are arranged horizontally. Connecting components was achieved by inserting a pin at the intersecting point in this grid, delivering modular functionality in relatively intuitive manner. [The game “Battleship” is an overused but apt visual and tactile comparison. -Ed.] This system is duplicated perfectly on the iVCS3 and if you already grasp the basics of modular synthesis, it’s a powerful resource for serious experimentation. Adding to the fun are a Synthi-inspired 16-step sequencer and joystick control for whipping up vintage sequencer riffs that immediately evoke quintessential VCS3 tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “On the Run.” The iVCS3 also includes a thorough MIDI implementation with options for 14-bit NRPN (Non-Regisered Parameter Number) assignments via CoreMIDI. Calling this design “comprehensive” would be a gross understatement. In fact, it’s hard to find any significant omissions in this app.

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With such a unique and complex set of features, programming the iVCS3 is definitely not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, the software comes with a well-rounded – and very nicely organized – collection of presets. In addition to banks by various sound designers, there are several groups organized by design approach. These starting points include sequence-based patches, along with playable keyboard presets and others that make use of the iVCS3’s sampling and audio processing options. Considering how deep this synth is, I found them to be welcome additions, even for seasoned synthesists.

Conclusions. I’ll be candid here. While I’ve encountered the Putney on several occasions over the years, I’ve usually spent an hour or so with it – marveling at its sound, to be sure – then throwing my hands up and saying, “Wow, this is arcane stuff!” and moving on to something a little more familiar and inviting, like a Moog modular or ARP 2600. If any vintage synth ever felt like it fell out of a Tardis, it’s the VCS3 – and for me, that’s a huge reason why this app is so awesome. In some ways, even pros will find themselves lost and in a state of what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind”, as this app really invites pure experimentation without preconceptions. As for the sound? It’s darn convincing for an iOS app. Richly textured and oozing warmth, the iVCS3 delivers far more than an authentic interface and is an absolute must for iPad-toting vintage fanatics.

PROS

Note-perfect recreation of the legendary EMS VCS3 “Putney” synthesizer. Integrated Synthi sequencer and joystick controls. Audio channels can receive audio via Audiobus, Inter-app, or the iPad’s microphone/input options. Comprehensive CoreMIDI implementation.

CONS

Even seasoned synthesists will be lost at first.

Bottom Line: An astonishingly convincing replica of the original EMS Putney.

$14.99 | densitygs.com