I think it’s safe to say that my collection of iPad synthesizers is becoming ridiculous. It can’t be helped though, as more and more inspiring instruments are released for everyone’s favourite tablet.
Most recently, the venerable German audio gurus, Waldorf, have distilled their famous wavetable synthesis technology into a modern, elegant, and incredibly powerful iPad app called Nave. Hugely anticipated in the audio community, we’re excited to dig into Nave’s capabilities and see what we find!
More than 20 years ago, Waldorf was founded on the strength of a hardware synthesizer called Microwave, which brought together developers from PPG — the pioneering company that introduced wavetable synthesis to the world — to help create an accessible and compact synth with huge sonic versatility.
Wavetable synthesis was a clever deviation from the norm of how most synthesizers at the time produced their sounds. Instead of relying on analogue or digital oscillators to generate a basic signal that was then shaped using the synth’s various tools, wavetable synthesis relies on a series of digital recordings of waveforms — going far beyond the basic sine, triangle and so on — as the foundation of the sound.
I Am Nave And I Do Synth
So says the robotic voice that greets you when you play your first key after launching Waldorf’s iPad beast. To call Nave feature-rich is an understatement. The speech synthesizer that makes this “talking” possible is just one of many incredibly cool tools that Nave puts at your fingertips. Let’s have a look at some of the most notable.
Along the top of Nave’s interface is a thin bar that gives you access to the factory patches, a Save button, a button for initializing the synth to basic settings so you can start sound designing, and a Compare button for reminding yourself what a patch sounded like before you started modifying it.
To the left of this bar is a series of tabs that dictates what part of the interface you’re seeing. Nave has 5 distinct areas: the Wave area, the Filter & Envelope section, a Modulation Matrix, the Arpeggiator/Effects section, and the Recording/Settings panel. Let’s begin with the Wave area since this is where you’ll spend most of your time!
At the heart of any synth is its means of generating sound. Offering the best of both worlds, Nave provides you with two advanced wavetable oscillators (each with 86 different waveshapes to choose from!) as well as a standard digital oscillator.
Capable of producing the familiar triangle, square (with pulsewidth modulation), sawtooth, and white/pink noise shapes, Nave’s onboard “standard” oscillator is a welcome addition.
This digital oscillator also benefits from a layering capability that Waldorf calls “Überwave”, which gives you the power to stack up to 8 instances of the oscillator for huge and rich chorused sounds with adjustable tuning spread.
A sine sub-oscillator would have been appreciated, but one can make do without.
The wavetable oscillators are where the fun lies though. For each module, you’re given control over the wavetable choice, its tuning, the start position, whether or not Nave should cycle through the wave or use a particular section of it, and even what speed and in which direction that movement should be!
These controls live on the left side of the main view, and immediately to the right is a 3D landscape that represents the waveform itself. The red line on it indicates the playback start position, and you have a gigantic array of tools at your disposal to play with that waveform — but more on that in a moment!
To the right of the display is the Spectrum module. This is a fairly technical area of the synth, but it allows you to shift the harmonic spectrum of the wavetable and then adjust how noisy and how bright the resulting sound is using the Noisy and Brilliance knobs.
The Wave View
The central panel showing the wave can be maximized using the fullscreen button located in the small functions bar underneath the image. That bar is also where you’ll find the ability to adjust the peak height in the view, switch between wave and spectrum view, and adjust the diversity of colours used to represent the wavetable.
Once you’ve made it to fullscreen view, you’ll notice an additional few buttons: Tools, Edit, and Load. The first gives you access to the incredibly powerful wave creation abilities that Nave presents you with. First of all, you can instruct Nave to analyze any WAV file and generate a waveform based on it, which is great for capturing the character of a particular sound. Naturally, you can also export your created waves to share with other users or archive on your computer.
The most fun you’ll have in the toolbox is definitely with the speech synthesizer. By typing words into the Talk field, you can get Nave to automatically synthesize a wave corresponding to the speech. Playing the synth will then get Nave to “speak” the entered phrase to you. Needless to say, since this is just another wave shape, you can further manipulate the speech using any of the onboard processing abilities. Say farewell to hours of your time.
As if all that power weren’t enough, Nave also gives you editing tools to literally sculpt the wavetable landscape as you see fit. By tapping the Edit button once you’re looking at the fullscreen view of the wave, you’ll get access to options for expanding, contracting, rotating, shifting, and even randomizing the waveform with precise position-based controls.
This can come in handy not only for generating bizarre wave shapes by hand, but also for smoothing out any oddities in a waveform that’s been extrapolated from an audio file, for example, or one that Nave has created using its speech synthesis.
Mix & Match
Once you’ve set up your basic sound sources — and remember there are two of those crazy wavetable oscillators per voice — you can adjust their levels in the Mix section using the touch sliders to adjust the volume of each wavetable oscillator, the digital oscillator, and even the amount of ring modulation using one of two separate ring modulators.
A basic portamento (or glide) function is also included and can be enabled and adjusted from here.
Filters & Envelopes
All that power and we’ve only seen the first of Nave’s five work areas! The next houses its filter and envelopes.
The filter is a multimode affair offering LP, HP, and BP modes with 12dB or 24dB slopes, keytracking, and envelope/velocity modulation. Old-school synth enthusiasts will appreciate the typical big cutoff frequency knob. Resonance can also be dialed in, of course, and while the filter isn’t distinctly juicy, the resonance will self-oscillate if you push it hard enough. A handy display shows you a visual representation of your filter at work.
Beside the filter section is a Drive module. This basic saturation section offers a few different distortion models and you can select its placement in the chain (before/after the filter section, or before/after the EQ). The tube mode is particularly good for warming up the chilly sounds of wavetable synthesis, but you can also look to the crunch model if you want to really decimate the sound.
Below the filter section you’ll find Nave’s three envelopes; one for the filter, one for modulation routing, and the standard amp envelope. Each can be toggled between AD and the full ADSR; can be looped; switched between linear, analogue, and exponential phase; and they all feature a comfortably snappy attack.
Your synth sound is only as good as the liveliness you can impart to it. This is why synthesists love being able to modulate parameters, and it is also why Nave appeals so much to professional electronic composers.
Ten separate modulation slots exist in Nave’s matrix, and a solid variety of modulation sources are available (no aftertouch, sadly, but it’s not a huge fault). Modulation sources include 2 assignable and syncable LFOs (each with six shapes including sample & hold), an XY pad, a random trigger, a pitch bender, as well as basics like key velocity and the mod wheel.
Nearly every knob on Nave’s interface can be modulated, making for a vast range of creative routing possibilities. In fact, so much can be modulated that even those ten slots can start to feel insufficient on complicated patches.
Making good use of the iPad’s unique tactile interface, Nave offers three different control systems: the standard keyboard, a velocity tab view similar to Animoog’s, and a pair of additional X/Y pads that can be used for patches where the arpeggiator is triggering notes and you need to manipulate parameters in realtime.
The keyboards can both be set to different sizes, and the tab keys can also be restricted to particular scales/modes in a given key — very handy for setting up playable areas that make it impossible to hit a “wrong” note.
Additionally, you can set the keys to either scroll freely through octaves or allow for glissando playing, and if you want you can restrict the patch to monophonic playing, note holding, or even chord holding. All these settings are saved along with your patch, so you can always ensure that your sound is set up to be played with the best possible control scheme.
This section also houses a “Unisono” area that allows you to duplicate voices on a global level up to four times. This can be stacked with the digital oscillator’s “Überwave” feature for some tremendously fat sounds.
Effects & Arpeggiator
In addition to the Drive section we’ve already seen, Nave offers a modulation effect (you can choose between Chorus, Flanger, and Phase), a delay, a reverb, a compressor, and a parametric EQ with three bands.
While all of the effects sound very good, special mention must be made of the delay, which features a useful array of controls and works wonders on many different sounds.
To the right of the effects you’ll find the arpeggiator. Powerful and easy to use, Nave’s arp module gives you settings for note order, play patterns, sync, gating, looping, swing, octave ranges, and even accent patterns.
Nave’s final area is the Tape & Sys page, where you’ll find a 4-track recorder and the synth’s global settings for tuning, MIDI, and more.
If you’re satisfied with the sounds you’ve been making and want to create a little jam right on your iPad, Nave allows you to record 4 separate tracks of material together in a surprisingly good clip-based editing area. Each track has separate volume and pan controls, and the result can be saved and exported.
Of course, you can also activate Wist to jam with friends, and use background audio or Audiobus to further process your work in other apps.
Brawn & Beauty
As we’ve toured Nave’s remarkably broad array of capabilities, it should be pointed out that Waldorf has done a very good job of keeping the synth accessible despite all this power.
The interface is not only refined and sophisticated, but it remains clean, well-structured, and intuitively organized. From the opening animation to the expanding touch sliders and responsive knobs, everything in Nave’s interface oozes polish and attention to detail. This is an instrument that was crafted for touch, and it shows.
Nave is entering a very crowded market full of interesting and unique virtual instruments. But Waldorf is undaunted by the competition — with good reason — because Nave is simply one of the very best iOS synthesizers ever created. Certainly in the top three in terms of power, functionality, and inspiration. It’s as simple as that.
While I encountered a few ommissions in my exploration of Nave’s depths, they are insignificant when viewed against the staggering scope of this instrument. Years ago, we would have paid twice the cost of an iPad just to own a synth like this. Now, it’s available on everyone’s favourite tablet for a fraction of the cost of its predecessors.
For synthesists, music enthusiasts, and creative audio folks, Waldorf’s Nave synth is a dream come true.
Nave is a synthesist's dream: with two wavetable generators, a digital oscillator, and all the modulation and manipulation tools you could ever wish for, Waldorf sets the standard for what a creative instrument on the iPad should be. Without a doubt among the top synths available for your iPad.10