Ops is a modular synth app for iOS, which instead of using virtual wires to connect modules, features an easy snap-together approach.
In the synth world, a virtual patch cable on a touchscreen is perhaps the most hilarious example of a skeuomorph. Skeumorphism is nice though because of certain specific peculiarities of the human condition.
Old habits die hard, and come on, familiarity doesn’t really breed contempt. Familiarity in the context of patch cables plugged into a physical hardware synth breeds nothing but the glowing buzzing warmth of vintage mystique.
Jonathan MacKenzie here has created something that goes beyond the skeuomorphic design impulse that has given us every other modular synth app.
The alternative to the (actually pretty fun) spaghetti tangle of patch cables is the dreaded “menu dive,” which some iOS modulars use.
What we have here in Ops represents something quite different made possible by touchscreen technology and developers both knowledgeable and bold enough to take advantage of it.
Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom
It turns out whether we are talking about Zmors modular, Audulus, Moog Model 15 (see also our Moog Model 15 review), Ops, or any of the others, the potential to build anything and connect anything to everything creates a sense of option overload – as Kierkegaard put it, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” That is a wonderful thing of course. But with its clean look, Ops allows us to stay organized, build quickly, and snap blocks – modules – together.
“Connecting blocks” is popular right now with Roli Blocks and Korg’s Little Bits. Ops is sonic Legos, that childhood zen state of limitless potential, but simple enough to keep us down there on the rug with all the bright colors.
Let’s Talk Sound
Besides the UI however, this app sounds great! Below I will show two examples of what makes this software stand out sonically, and why you may thoroughly enjoy this app as I have. Before you watch these I recommend watching the Ops intro video above, just so you know what you are looking at.
Module Feature – The Modal Filter
One of the Ops modules is a modal filter which, combined with trigger clicks provides an exciting percussive venture. You will stop thinking of a trigger as merely functional once it is pitched and thrown into some mysterious resonant body. It is this wild transient which creates in a moment something sonorous and reverberant.
Here is the description of the modal filter module from the manual: “modal filter – A resonant filter which simulates a mechanical mass-spring-damper system. Good for generating pitched resonant modes of instruments, especially percussion, when fed a trigger signal. The pitch input covers a 12-octave range, with a value of 0 corresponding to middle C.
The Q input is the ‘quality factory’ of the filter and corresponds to the degree or decay time. Increasing Q increases resonance and lengthens decay.” Here I am reminded of the Corpus effect in Ableton Live (Applied Acoustic Systems physical modeling) and other physical modeling apps like SpringSound for example.
Unique Sonic Characteristics – The Use of Feedback
Jonathan MacKenzie has implemented a very keen understanding of feedback in this app. And I’m probably missing some, but besides Amazing Noises’ Moebius Lab and MacKenzie’s own Strange Attractor, I can’t really think of too many apps that effectively use feedback.
Here is an example of feedback in Ops, using the Send and Receive modules. To help keep the feedback from getting out of control, you have the DC Block module, which “filters out the DC component of a signal. Useful within feedback loops to prevent an ever-increasing signal.”
Description – Building in Ops
The color-coded module categories are from left to right: controls, patterns, links, timing, sources, envelopes, filters, effects, maths, and misc.
These are organized in colored blocks just like . . . sonic Legos. Swipe left along the bottom to scroll through this collection of 53 different modules. Tap and pull onto the edit space to build.
To get new blocks to snap together and create structures, you must replace one input with another. Just as easily, drag them back onto the menu to delete.
To hear the mixed output of everything you have on screen, tap over to the play screen. Nice touches are a “fit” function to make your structures fill up your screen and also an oscilloscope at the bottom right on the play page. On the projects screen you can save, load, rename, and export your projects.
Conclusion – To Op or not to Op
With its simple selection of modules and fast workflow, Ops may especially be for you if you are new to modular synthesis. There are a few things lacking though for even a beginner. An in-app tutorial seems necessary, as well as an undo button. One problem is you do not get a visual representation of the tempo of the clocks and the LFOs. A BPM number or even a blinking light would be welcome. If you didn’t know what an LFO was, it would be hard to intuitively learn it from this app. Similarly, it would be nice to have a visual of the envelopes.
If you are already steeped in modular synthesis and programming everything from the ground up, this app may be overly simple for you. However, even for the more advanced modular connoisseur, this could you give you some sound options you probably don’t have yet. And it looks like it will be getting some fairly ambitious updates.
Over at the Audiobus forum, MacKenzie has mentioned a few new possible sound sources coming in future updates, wavetable and sample modules, as well as interfacing with AudioShare. Keep in mind it is iOS 10 only.
Overall, Ops represents a UI breakthrough and there is a unique sonic signature at work here with the physically modeled modal filter and the controllable use of feedback, among other modules I did not discuss. With this new workflow and palette of sounds, you may find yourself quite inspired by this software.
Written by Jonathan Kotulski
He’s interested is making music that might be described as improvised interactions with machines set in motion. You can find him on Bandcamp, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.