Cakewalk Z3TA+ for iOS
By Phil O'Keefe |
Powerful Waveshaping synth app for iPad
By Phil O'Keefe
I've noticed that some people online seem to look down at iOS musical applications as being somewhat toy-like; fun little noisemakers that aren't really worthy of being considered serious music-making tools, and to be fair, some of them certainly are… but there are also some notable exceptions, so when I was offered a chance to check out Cakewalk's Z3TA+ synth app, I was eager to look into it to see where it fit in the iPad app spectrum - would it be a fun toy, or something a bit more?
I started the review with the initial 1.0 release version, which was updated to version 1.1 in the middle of my testing, and which added several powerful new features such as MIDI learn, channel select, and MIDI clock sync. I tested Z3TA+ on a first-generation iPad mini, as well as on a more powerful second generation iPad mini with Retina display, both running iOS 7, which is required for Z3TA+.
What You Need To Know
- Z3TA+ features the classic Z3TA+ 2 synth engine (which was ported over from the desktop version), and is organized in three main pages - Synth, Mod/Arp, and Effects. There are over 500 presets included to get you started, which are organized into categories, including pads, bass, keyboards, hard and soft leads, sequences, percussion, textures, sound FX and more. Of course, you can also save your own patches as presets too.
- Z3TA+ features six waveshaping oscillators, with dozens of waveforms. A Shaper tool can be used to adjust the waveform shape of each oscillator independently, and the six oscillators can be mixed together in any ratio the user wishes, allowing for some very complex waveform stacks.
- Stock waveforms include multiple variations of the expected sine, saw, square, and triangle waveforms, but there are also several additive waveforms, as well as a handful of instruments including organs (3), piano, fret and voice. Additional complex waveforms with names like Disto, Baz It, and Noise open the options up even further.
- Two resonant filters can be set up for parallel or dual operation. You can link the two filters together so that changes to one also affect the settings on the other filter. Each filter offers a independent selection of types, including Lowpass, Highpass, Bandpass and Band-reject filters.
- There are eight Envelope Generators. One bipolar EG is usually assigned to Oscillator Pitch, but it can be assigned elsewhere using the Modulation Matrix. A second EG is assigned to the Amplifier. The six remaining general purpose envelope generators are unipolar. With the exception of the Amp EG, all are 5-stage, with delay, attack, decay (with time and level controls), sustain (again, with separate time and level controls), and release controls. Additionally, different curves for each stage can also be selected.
- There's also six LFOs. These feature dozens of waveforms, including the expected sine, triangle, pulse and square waveforms, but also more unusual options such as stepped waveforms with several different options for number of steps, as well as several other more complex waveforms.
- The Mod / Arp page is where you'll find the Modulation Matrix, as well as the Arpeggiator. The modulation matrix on this synth rivals just about anything out there - you can literally assign just about any modulation source (such as the LFOs, envelope generators, keyboard, X-Y pad, and oscillators) to just about any synth or effects parameter. You can also adjust things such as the modulation range, curve and and matrix control. With the large number of oscillators and LFOs available, you can do a lot with this section of the synth.
- I am also very impressed with the power of the included arpeggiator. In addition to the usual up, down, up-down, and random modes, it also includes hundreds of pre-programmed patterns - basically short sequences - that can be used to process whatever notes you play.
- The Effects page brings up a surprising number of different effects, with dedicated sections for Distort, Mod, EQ, Compress, Delay and Reverb. A routing section allows you to drag and drop to reconfigure the effects order, so it's possible to do things like run reverb pre or post distortion, or put the compression before or after the EQ.
- The performance section of the synth is visible on all three main pages (Synth, Mod/Arp and Effects) and includes a keyboard that can be locked, or scrolled or banked to different octave ranges. Additionally, there's a very nice Scale function that allows you to select from a wide variety of different scales (not just major / minor, but things like Arabian, Bebop Dominant, Blues, Pentatonic, Byzantine, Chromatic Minor Pentatonic… you get the idea - there's a huge selection), and then only displays those notes on an all-white key keyboard layout, making it much easier to play on the scaled-down and smaller than normal sized virtual keys of an iPad. All keys are supported too, so even if you want to work in C# Hungarian Minor, Cakewalk's got you covered.
- Pitch and Modulation Bender Wheels are also included in the performance section, and you can opt for an X-Y pad style controller instead if you prefer. You can also adjust parameters such as bend type and separate intervals for bend up/down, Glide type and time, Key, polyphony, transpose and fine tuning from the performance section. Tap tempo is also supported.
- Z3TA + works and plays well with others. Not only can it be controlled from an external MIDI keyboard or controller (you'll need Apple's "iPad camera connection kit" for the USB MIDI input), it supports MIDI Clock sync, and has a powerful and easy to use MIDI Learn mode, and supports MIDI Omni mode, or can be assigned any MIDI channel from 1-16. It also supports Inter-App Audio, AudioBus, and Background Audio.
- There's quite a bit of information on the screens, and several small arrows scattered throughout the app for pull-down menus. The app is well organized, especially considering the amount of adjustable parameters it offers, and you come to grips with the interface very quickly, but it can be a bit cramped feeling at times. While I was able to hit the buttons I was intending to hit the vast majority of the time, their small size can somewhat slow you down since you have to take care to insure you're hitting the right tiny button for whatever you wish to adjust. To be fair, I was working on iPad Minis, and Z3TA+ was not too difficult to work with - I suspect it would be easier on a full-sized iPad.
- Polyphony is fairly limited. I could get 4 notes maximum with the first-generation iPad mini, and 8 notes with the more powerful second generation Retina display model. The second generation iPad mini is similar to the iPad Air in terms of processing power, so I suspect the latest full-sized iPad will perform about the same in that regard. While somewhat limited in terms of maximum simultaneous notes, this is still a very powerful synth and in many ways it's more like a mega monosynth in terms of its sound; the polyphonic capabilities are really a nice bonus that I wasn't expecting, so I'm not complaining too much.
If you have not spent very much time with them, it's easy to look upon some of the apps for tablets as games or gimmicks, and while that may be true for some of them, spending even a short half an hour with Z3TA+ will quickly dissuade you of that misconception. This is truly a powerful synthesizer, and one that twenty years ago would have cost you over a thousand dollars. The fact that you can get it for under twenty bucks is a marvel. It's definitely one of the best iPad apps I've used from a musical standpoint, and an incredibly cool sounding and powerful synth, regardless of platform. I highly recommend trying it out. It's a lot of fun, but it's definitely no toy!
Cakewalk Z3TA+ is available from the Apple app Store. ($19.99 MSRP)
Cakewalk's Z3TA+ for iOS product web page
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.