As iPad CPU speeds increase, it becomes possible to deliver truly breathtaking soft synths that are swiftly becoming incredibly powerful. Long gone are the days of simple analog emulations and clever samplers. In June 2014, we covered Waldorf’s shockingly powerful Nave wavetable synth. This month, we’re taking a closer look at Cakewalk’s new iOS port of their popular Z3ta+ plug-in.
For those of you who haven’t yet checked out the original Z3ta+, here’s a summary of its extensive feature set. At the heart of the sound engine is a group of six waveshaping oscillators, each capable of generating a wide array of single-cycle waves ranging from replicas of vintage analog waveforms to additive and PPG-like options. Now, six oscillators is a lot to play with as a starting point, but Z3ta+ ratchets everything up a notch with tons of options for transforming these waves via warping, twisting, overdrive and a slew of other unique tools that mangle the results in highly musical ways.
UPDATE: As of August 15, 2014, Cakewalk has updated Z3ta+ for iPad with these new features.
Things get even more interesting (and complicated) when you delve into Z3ta+’s grouping options. Each oscillator can interact with the following oscillator in a variety of modes including FM, phase modulation, hard sync, ring mod and a few others. These are set up in a signal-processing loop, so that when you get to the end, oscillator 6 can then modulate oscillator 1. If this sounds a little like Dave Smith’s Prophet 12, that’s because it is. It’s also reminiscent of Rob Papen’s Blue soft synth. Regardless of these comparisons, the bottom line is that this approach is absurdly powerful—and if you’re a sound design nerd, you’ll be in heaven.
Each oscillator can feed a pair of filters in either serial or parallel mode and the filter options are rather extensive as well, with the usual collection of lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch modes along with formant, comb, and a wonderful six-pole (36dB-per-octave) mode that’s quite musical. Additional filter amenities include resonance boost and limiting options (to help tame the results of those resonant peaks, which is handy).
Matrix modulation amenities abound, with six envelopes, six LFOs (with wonderfully complex waveform options), and an arpeggiator that includes over 200 patterns, many of which are extremely melodic and useful.
Finally, there’s the now de rigueur assortment of effects that rounds out pretty much every modern iOS synth. Distortion, compression, EQ, delay, reverb, chorus, flanger, and phaser are all present, with a nifty touch-based routing section that allows you to rearrange the series of effects, greatly increasing their flexibility. As for iOS connectivity, Audiobus, CoreMIDI, and inter-app audio routing make Z3ta+ a team player for power users with complex iPad configurations.
In porting the Z3ta+ architecture to the iPad, Cakewalk has added some really nice touchscreen optimizations. For example, you can massage oscillator waveshaping with your finger and select envelope curves by tapping on the appropriate segment. That said, with so many deep synthesis tools, the user interface ends up feeling a bit cramped, especially if you’ve got big fingers. Here’s hoping Cakewalk offers an update with the option to double-tap on a synth module to expand it on-screen for easier editing, because Z3ta+ is a real powerhouse.
PROS: Comprehensive waveshaping tools. Huge waveform palette. Six each of oscillators, envelopes, and LFOs. Dual filters. Comprehensive effects and processing.
CONS: All these features on one page makes the interface feel a tad cramped. Requires iPad 2 or newer.
Bottom Line: Next-level waveshaping synthesis for iPad users.