Arturia iSem for iPadReview by: Jason D. Buchwald
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We didn’t think so. And neither does Arturia. Having long made a name for themselves with their great virtual recreations of classic synths, Arturia has been going smaller, releasing compact controllers and a line of products for the iPad. We loved the iMini (reviewed here), and we think Arturia has another winner in the iSEM.
The iSEM is based on the classic 1974 SEM analog synthesizer by Tom Oberheim, but rather than adding another piece of retro hardware to your collection, iSEM runs on your iPad 2 or higher. It’s based on Arturia’s own SEM V for Mac/PC computers, so if you like one, you will surely like the other. Easy to use, great sounds, and interchangeable sounds between your desktop and your iPad: this is a great sounding and fun-to-use app!
The iSEM comes with over 500 presets including leads, animated pads, and pulsating arpeggios. The iSEM is compatible with the Audiobus environment, as well as Apple’s new iOS 7 Inter-App audio system, allowing you to integrate the iSEM into an iPad “studio.” Core MIDI is supported, so you may use any MIDI controller, including Arturia’s own keyboards, using the Apple camera connection kit. For those with no MIDI keyboards, there is a small graphical keyboard on the bottom of the screen.
The top of the screen has several buttons that bring up the varying screens you use to select and edit sounds. The Main button, well, brings up the Main screen, which brings up the re-created controls of the original front panel of the SEM. Here, you will find controls for things you’d expect such as VCOs, LFO, VCF, ENV, Sub-oscillator, and arpeggiator. Towards the right on the main screen there are also controls for three effects: chorus, overdrive, and delay. There’s also a knob to control output level.
The next screen you can access is the Mod Matrix screen. On this screen you can control the flow of your audio signal. You can send up to eight source signals (i.e., Mod wheel, aftertouch, velocity) to twenty-five destinations (i.e., VCO, VCF, ENV) with bipolar control of each signal. You can even assign up to eight different parameters to the Mod Wheel for interesting effects.
Next is the Voice Programmer screen. Though the SEM was a monophonic synth, several were grouped together in the past to form polysynths: the 2-, 4-, and 8-Voice. The iSEM also varies in polyphony—anywhere from two to twenty-four voices, with the maximum value determined by the app based on the detected hardware. Ours defaulted to eight voices, and you can also toggle it to mono.
The programmer screen allows you the tailor each voice independently. You can select VCOs, VCF, ENV, and even the order the voices are played (up, down, random). With some tweaking, you can come up with some funky sounds!
The next screen, FX, of course, handles the effects. Here you have further controls over the overdrive, chorus, and delay as seen on the main screen. Pretty straightforward, and useful.
Following next is the Performance page. This screen gives you instant, real-time access to the arpeggiator and four assignable sliders. You can assign these, for example, to a VCO, the sub-oscillator, VCF, and even the effects. Using the touch screen sliders is almost theremin-like. For live performances, this is a cool feature.
Finally, to the left of all those page buttons, are the load and save buttons. Pressing the load button will bring up your sound presets organized by type and author. There are even template choices to help get you started with your own sound design.
The larger iPad screen (versus an iPhone) is put to good use in iSEM. While one can certainly control things with the keyboard on the touch screen, a more satisfying experience is obviously a real controller with knobs and switches to play with. As we have noted in other reviews, why Arturia uses underscores in all of their sound titles (even desktop versions) is a mystery, but it’s certainly easy enough to navigate around. All in all, it’s a well-designed layout.
We did have one major, and one minor, issue with the iSEM. The major issue is that changing sounds, in many but not all cases, was very slow to respond. We tested the iSEM on an iPad 2, which admittedly is the minimum requirement, but after playing a sound, we often had to wait several extra seconds after the sound stopped resonating before the iPad would be responsive again. We found that if other apps were open in the background, closing them all would help this problem somewhat, but we could never fully eliminate the problem. While not the end of the world in the studio, in a live setting this could prove problematic.
The minor gripe we had was about the arpeggiator rate knob. We wished that when you clicked on it to adjust the speed, the BPM’s time value displayed somewhere. As it stands, you have to go to the connect screen and find the global tempo and adjust from there. Not a deal breaker, but it would be more convenient to have the actual bpm visible when you are turning the arpeggiator speed knob!
Many patches were easy starting points for writing a new tune, and we especially liked some of the arpeggios that could lay the foundation for some moody dance tracks. And, since everything is tweakable—including polyphony, there’s a lot you can do that wasn’t actually possible with the original.
Arturia iSem sells for $9.99 through the App Store. At this price, iSEM costs significantly less than getting your hands on the original thing, a reissue, or even Arturia’s own Mac/PC version of the SEM. Once you drop it in the mix, few, if any, would really know what you played. Just make sure you have the latest generation iPad for best results.
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