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It sure is something to realize how much power is in your iPad, especially if you’re a musician pining for classic analog synthesizers — heavy, expensive, temperamental instruments that are increasingly hard to find, and even harder to maintain. Arturia, creator of the Minimoog simulation app, iMini, has done it again, delivering an exquisite simulation of the venerable Oberheim SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module), that company’s very first synth.
In many ways, iSEM is an improvement upon the hardware it models, starting with the fact that it’s polyphonic – the original could only play a single note at a time. The very first thing that will really hit you is how absolutely amazing this app sounds. Played through some decent speakers, it’s really hard not to believe it’s a genuine hardware synth; the bass shakes the walls and the tonality is nothing short of luscious, even in the already crowded iOS synth field.
There are five primary screens in the app, which deliver very clear and responsive controls for programming this beast. The best place to start is by playing with the 500 built-in patches to find something interesting, and then further tweaking the settings to make the sound your own. One of our favorite screens is the “PERF” (Performance) page, which lets you quickly map any four of the synth’s controls to nice, thick control bars for on-the-fly performance tweaking, along with the primary arpeggiator and effects controls.
iSEM also has a feature that we don’t recall seeing in any other iOS synth app – hold down multiple keys to form a chord, and then hit the “Chord” switch, which remembers what you’re played and instantly maps it to a single key on the keyboard. Press a C note and the recorded chord is played back, transposed using the currently played note as the root of the new chord. It’s an amazingly useful musical tool that we’d love to see in other iOS synth and recording apps. Full support for Audiobus, MIDI, and inter-app audio (with iOS 7) means that we don’t mind that there’s no record function in iSEM – this app plays very well with others, and will quickly become a go-to sound source for serious iOS musical geeks.
The bottom line. An Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer for $10? We live in the future. Arturia iSEM is an amazing recreation that iOS musicians will want immediately.
iPad 2 or newer running iOS 5.0 or later
Amazingly rich and full sound. Deep programmability. Plays well with other audio apps. Actually improves upon the classic synth it replicates.
No recording function within.