The British-made EMS VCS3 synthesizer had an exotic, yet flexible set of features that made it a deep resource for experimentation, and it quickly became a favorite for legendary rock artists such as The Who, Pink Floyd, and Brian Eno. It was also the source of countless Dr. Who effects, as it was one of the crucial synths in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.
As iVCS3 is an iOS app, it would have been easy for a developer to get the VCS3 “mostly right” and still elicit rave reviews, but Italian developer Alessandro Petrolati (aka apeSoft) has re-created every detail that could be virtualized; the result is inspiring.
The synth’s three oscillators focus on specific, blendable waveforms and pitch ranges, with oscillator 1 producing sine and saw waves while oscillator 2 produces square and triangle. Oscillator 3 works as an LFO with square and triangle options as well. There’s also a noise generator with adjustable color and two audio channels that can process sound via the iPad’s various input options (including Audiobus and Interapp) or imported samples.
Processing options include a semi-traditional resonant lowpass filter, ring mod, “spring” reverb, and two additional output “filters” for the audio channels, but with a quirkier vibe. There’s also an envelope shaper unlike anything else in synth history. Sure, there are attack and decay knobs, but there are also knobs labeled “trapezoid” and “signal,” making the integrated user guide a must for novices and pros.
The nerve center of the original VCS3 was its innovative pin matrix for routing both audio and control voltages. Sources are arranged vertically on the left of the grid, while destinations are arranged horizontally. Connecting components was achieved by inserting a pin at the intersecting point in this grid, delivering modular functionality in a relatively intuitive manner. This system is duplicated on the iVCS3, and if you already grasp the basics of modular synthesis, it’s a powerful resource for serious experimentation. Adding to the fun are a 16-step sequencer and joystick control for whipping up vintage sequencer riffs that immediately evoke quintessential VCS3 tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “On the Run.” The iVCS3 also includes a thorough MIDI implementation with options for 14-bit NRPN (Non-Regisered Parameter Number) assignments via CoreMIDI. Calling this design “comprehensive” would be a gross understatement. In fact, it’s hard to find any significant omissions in this app.
With such a unique and complex set of features, programming the iVCS3 is not for the faint of heart. At times, even pros will feel lost and in a state of what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind”: This app invites pure experimentation without preconceptions.
Fortunately, the software comes with a well-rounded and nicely organized collection of presets. In addition to banks by various sound designers, it includes several groups organized by design approach. These starting points include sequence-based patches, along with playable keyboard presets and others that make use of the iVCS3’s sampling and audio processing options. Considering how deep this synth is, I found them to be welcome additions, even for seasoned synthesists.
As for the sound? It’s darn convincing for an iOS app. Richly textured and oozing warmth, the iVCS3 delivers far more than an authentic interface and is a must for iPad-toting vintage fanatics.
Note-perfect re-creation of the EMS VCS3 synthesizer. Integrated sequencer and joystick. Receives audio via Audiobus, Inter-app, or the iPad’s microphone/ input options. Comprehensive CoreMIDI implementation.
Even seasoned synthesists will be lost at first.