Arturia iMini Review
I've had the pleasure of beta testing Arturia's new iOS app, iMini for the last couple of weeks and it's been an absolute blast. It sounds fantastic and I'm quite pleased with Arturia and Retronyms' effort here. I think this is an important product for several reasons. I'll get to those later, but first let me get started with some initial first impressions.
Graphics / UI
Upon launching iMini, you're greeted with a pleasant rendering of an aged-looking Minimoog and a big gold "iMini" logo as the app loads up its preset banks. This takes just a second on an iPad 2 and immediately you find yourself staring down upon those iconic black and silver Moog knobs. If you've used Arturia's software instruments before, you'll recognize their signature attention to graphic detail. From flourishes like scratches on the metal logo plates to stains and chips in the wood, you really feel like you're using a classic synthesizer that has literally stood the test of time. This is true skeuomorphic design at it's finest. They even nail the look of years of fingers touching the faceplate and staining the area around the base of the most frequently used knobs.
I appreciate the amount of thought that went into realizing this interface for touch-based use. For example, the spacing of iMini's knobs and switches is suitable for fingers of all shapes and sizes. Nothing seems "forced to fit" on screen thanks to three View Modes that are easily accessible from the top panel. You get one Mode for the Main controls, a Perform area and another strictly for your FX. The view modes essentially break up the traditional layout of the Minimoog, while adding some new features, and yet, you still recognize that you are using a Moog synthesizer all the while.
If you're not familiar with the original Minimoog, it was a monophonic, mono-timbral, analog subtractive synthesizer with 3 oscillators, the classic Moog 24db/oct 4-pole low pass filter, frequency modulation and 44 keys. It made it's debut in 1970 and was designed around the idea that rock and pop musicians needed something a little more sturdy, a little less huge and a whole lot more affordable than the giant modular synthesizer systems of the time. Production of this model stopped in 1981 until Mr. Robert Moog re-designed and released it as the Minimoog Voyager in 2002.
When Arturia took to the task of recreating it digitally, they added a number of new features, including a modulation section, up to 32 voices of polyphony, an arpeggiator, and a robust FX section (among many other modern conveniences such as NRPN MIDI controls and DAW automation) to further manipulate the sound. Even with all these additions to the original, the "Moog sound" of the Mini V earned it the respectable title of the only Minimoog emulator on the market to be officially endorsed by Bob Moog himself.
It only makes sense that this, the holy grail of synthesizers, be the first of Arturia's arsenal to make the port to iOS. Of course, there are some performance differences between, say, a top of the line MacBook Pro and an iPad, so some smart limitations had to be put in place when re-writing the app for the iPad. However, iMini does take advantage of the touch interface in ways that could not be exploited in a traditional PC adaptation. These trade-offs result in something new and in many ways, more exciting than just an iOS synth app or PC-based emulator plugin.
In version 1.0 of iMini you get all of the core features of the desktop version: 3 Oscillators; a 24db/oct filter; polyphonic mode; a full featured arpeggiator, virtual analog chorus and delay, and full user MIDI mapping of panel controls, to name a few. These features alone make for a very expressive instrument, but it's the addition of the iPad's extreme portability and touch interface that really brings an exciting new dimension to the software.
In Perform View mode you get access to 2 XY pads that can be freely assigned to any of the iMini's parameters. The interface for selecting these parameters is pretty neat. You get a 1/4 sized, zoomed-out version of the iMini and a pair of arrows for each axis. Selecting each axis' parameter is done by stepping through a list of parameters while a little color coded circle simultaneously highlights the knob location of the parameter you've selected. This could be better executed I think, maybe by allowing the user to simply tap on the knob location of the parameter instead of cycling through. It is a touch screen interface after all. No matter, the process is still super quick and once set up, the dual XY pads can be used in really powerful ways.
Owners of both the iMini and Mini V software apps can transfer sounds from one platform to the other (via iTunes) which I think is a really big part of the appeal of an app like this. Waiting for a bus or train? On your lunch break? Why not bang out a few new patches if you have the time? With iMini on your iPad or iPad mini you can sketch out your patch ideas wherever you are. Me? I like to do this on my couch. There's no need for cables, controllers, dongles or patch cords here. Sitting in comfort, writing a few presets and then being able to walk into the studio to import these sounds into your Mini V software (on the Mac or PC) is just great. When you import your iMini presets in to Arturia's Mini V software you can tweak them further using the formant-based Vocal Filter and the modulation matrix or immediately start incorporating your 'couch and train patches' into projects made in your favorite DAW.
If you're looking to incorporate your iMini into your live set up, you're covered here as well. iMini not only supports WIST sync with other iOS devices, but thanks to Retronyms, iMini is ‘Tabletop Ready’. Tabletop is a free all-in-one production environment for iOS that allows you to use multiple audio apps (such as AKAI's iMPC) in conjunction with built-in effects, recreations of classic electronic music creation staples and various mixers, triggers and other signal-routing utilities (Think a slimmed down Propellerheads Reason lying on a table). A few other goodies that benefit iMini (thanks to Tabletop) the ability to render audio files for export to WAV or upload via Soundcloud. You also get the use of ‘Audiocopy’ to paste your audio into another compatible iPad application.
Even if you're not familiar with the sound a MiniMoog makes, a quick browse through the plentiful amount of presets will have you saying "Oh, that's what that was. That's a Minimoog." It's easy to dial in some recognizable lead or bass sounds that you may have heard used in the last 40 years of popular music, but this thing makes can make some pretty warped, not-so-recognizable sounds as well. Between the panel layouts and the accuracy at which the controls recreate the sound of the original, I found it was very easy to use and thought it felt very polished.
I ran my beta build directly into a Roland KC-550 and recreated the iconic 80's Maxell advertisement by turning the levels up to 11. If you had your eyes closed, you certainly wouldn't believe sound this huge could come out of an iPad. Since iMini is based on Arturia's Mini V software synth, the app uses their TAE technology to model the vintage analog circuits of the MiniMoog. This is the key to their wealth of shockingly accurate software emulations so many other classics boards.
The iMini works just fine on its own, but there's no reason not to hook it right up to your favorite controller. Since iMini utilizes Apple CoreMIDI, you can use your computer control it via WiFi or use Apple's iPad Camera Connection Kit to plug in your USB controller keyboard or pad-thingy of choice.
Overall, iMini felt great on the iPad 2 I used for testing. Performance here should be on par with that of the iPad mini and current generation iPads. Though not officially recommended, a few people have claimed to make it work on the original iPad with a few slight workarounds. Your mileage may vary.
iMini is a faithful recreation of the MiniMoog, designed to work on its own or as an extension of Arturia's Mini V software instrument. With this, just their first iOS release, Arturia really show that they 'get it' when it comes to the new world of possibilities opening up in this 'post-PC' era. I'm looking forward to seeing how this app evolves with the ever-changing iOS landscape.
iMini is just $9.99 and this price will jump to $21.99 shortly, so take advantage while you can. Either way, a portion of the proceeds of each iMini sale will be donated to The Bob Moog Foundation to support their educational initiative, Dr Bob’s SoundSchool, which teaches children the science of sound through the magic of music. Outstanding.