While Wolfgang Palm’s PPG Phonem synth has been available in VST and AU formats for a while, its recent introduction to the iOS ecosystem is noteworthy, as the features are essentially identical, but the price is only twenty bucks. As a result, Phonem’s extraordinary suite of voice synthesis and wavetable tools is now within range of anyone with a newer iPad, so it’s worth taking a closer look at what this remarkable app offers.
For starters, Phonem’s collection of presets is phenomenal and demonstrates its range admirably. There’s a suitable emphasis on spoken and sung vocals, including a stunning soulful melisma called “hohuahou” that uncannily sounds sampled. There’s also a great selection of choirs and more traditional synth pads that demonstrate Phonem’s potential as a straight-up synth.
For those who like to roll up their sleeves and get busy with sound design, it’s crucial to understand Phonem’s overall architecture, because it’s unlike any other synth you’ve used.
At the top level is a sequence of phonemes—different vowel and consonant sounds that the human voice produces for language or singing. You can construct phrases using the raw phonemes and dipthongs as syllables (including English and German options) or use the text-to-speech field to enter a phrase and let Phonem do its best to pronounce it properly. This works fairly well in practice, though there’s always that “computer accent,” which can be finessed using Phonem’s other features.
From there, you can adjust the length and formant characteristics of each element in the timeline individually. This really helps with inflection and intelligibility, though it also requires a fair amount of patience, as the process can be a bit tedious. Adding to the complexity is the fact that each phoneme includes its own discrete resonator filter, which is essentially a specialized 12-band EQ for shaping the formant characteristics of each phoneme. This is an extraordinary level of detail for any synth and some users are going to absolutely love it. As a sound designer, I was in heaven.
With all of these specialized filter options, there’s obviously a tone-generator in here, right? Well, it is a Wolfgang Palm product, so the oscillator is naturally an incredibly complex wavetable with up to 64 discretely editable waves. In conjunction with the filters, this provides a breathtaking level of nuance. You can also import WTS and TCS files from Palm’s WaveGenerator and WaveMapper apps for oscillator information, if you have those available.
Finally, once your phrase is constructed, you can switch to track editing mode and create a fluid pitch sequence that will be applied to it. This is the secret sauce for creating the previously mentioned melisma preset, but in use, you’ll quickly discover that pitch inflection is literally “tone of voice.” Want to make your phrase into a question? Have the pitch go up at the end. Want it to sound sad? Give it a downward curve. Or you can stick to the basics and just use the track tools to make a musical, singing sequence.
There is a slew of other customizations available for plosives and consonants, LFOs and envelopes for further sculpting, and reverb and delay effects to round out the package.
In thirty-five years of working with synthesizers, I’ve never encountered a product quite like Phonem. While it is tailored for voice-oriented sound design, the suite of tools is so detailed and specialized that it offers a treasure trove of previously untapped possibilities. This is a synthesis connoisseur’s app!
But whether you are looking for new sonic territory to conquer or simply want some cool synthetic vocals, Phonem is worthy of a place on your iPad.
PROS Massive range of phoneme articulations. Integrated phrase sequencer with detailed pitch options.
CONS So many options, designing your own sounds has a significant learning curve.
The deepest voice synthesizer available.