A synthesizer review on a guitar website? At first it might seem strange to have a review of a synth app on a guitar gear website, but there’s a good reason why you might be interested in it.
Playing around with a synthesizer and figuring out how they workis an excellent way to learn about filters, oscillators, phase and pitch shifting. Move a couple of sliders and you instantly hear a dramatically different tone from what you started with. In this review I’ll take a thorough look at the EHX Mini-Synthesizer app and how you could use it as a guitarist.
This review is written with guitarists in mind so some features won’t be discussed unless they’re relevant for guitarists.
EHX Mini-Synthesizer App Features
If you’re unfamiliar with synths, some of these features may sound a bit meaningless. I’ll explain the important features later on.
- Faithful virtualization of the 1980s analog subtractive synthesizer
- Monophonic or polyphonic modes
- 88-key range and touch ribbon
- MIDI I/O along with virtual MIDI
- Delay & Reverb with full control
- Android* & iOS compatible (separate apps for tablet or phone)
- Full manual accessible from the main app screen
*Android version only available for Nexus, Samsung, LG, Motorola & HTC phones with Android Lollipop or Marshmellow (or higher) OS.
Ease of use
One of the reasons why some guitarists avoid learning about synths is they often look so complicated. Countless knobs, buttons and settings with strange words describing LFOs, oscillators and other terms we never see as guitarists. I was glad to see this app wouldn’t be as complicated as other synth apps.
Even if you haven’t touched a synthesizer before, getting started with the Mini-Synth app is as simple as loading it up and playing with the onscreen keyboard. You can then switch between included presets to access a very wide range of sounds. In other words, you can start jamming without having to turn a slider or change any settings – that’s a good start.
This app isn’t as deep as other synthesizer apps, but for a guitarist just starting with synths, it goes deep enough. Here are some features I found helpful or useful while learning how to use the app:
If you aren’t familiar with the notes on a keyboard, you can easily set up your own custom scale to take the guesswork out of your playing. Hit the settings icon on top left, tap ‘Keyboard’, switch to ‘Modern’ layout and you can select which notes you want to include/exclude from the main keyboard. So for example if you want to jam in the key of G (G A B C D E F#), you simply tap all of the notes outside of that key and you now have a custom keyboard in the key of G with all the notes labelled as shown below:
You can see above that instead of the standard keyboard layout, all of the keys outside of the key of G have been removed. Now everything we touch will be in key. The F# keys are shown as white because of the inverted color scheme of the app compared to a typical keyboard where F# is a black key.
This means you don’t need to know anything about keyboards to be able to come up with melodies, ideas and sounds for a song. So if you’ve ever wanted to come up with a Jordan Rudess Dream Theater-style keyboard solo with some wild sounds and slides, this is an easy way to stay in key.
As a guitarist, this is a great way to experiment with exotic scales you’re not familiar with on guitar. Ever wondered what a whole tone scale sounds like but haven’t tried it on guitar? Set the keyboard up with these notes to try out the C whole tone scale: C D E F# G# A# C.
What about a very Japanese sounding Hirajoshi pentatonic scale? Set the keyboard up for these notes: C Db F Gb Bb C.
You’re probably familiar with the Harmonic Minor scale, but why not give the Hungarian Scale a go: C D Eb F# G Ab B C.
The point I want to leave with you is that as a guitarist we tend to stick to certain types of scales (eg: Pentatonic) because that’s what were used to on guitar. It’s not very easy to switch to exotic scales you’ve never tried before. With this app, you can instantly try out exotic scales and get a feel for what they sound like. It’s an excellent learning tool and a great way to come up with new ideas.
Reverb and Delay
The right half of the control section of the app gives you separate delay and reverb modules. Both plate and reverse reverb is available. These are just like reverb and delay on guitar and can add quite a lot to your tone. You can toggle the order of the two and turn each on and off individually. As a guitarist you’ll probably feel very comfortable dialing in the right level of delay and reverb for any sound you’re after. So if you’re not sure where to start with the synth, start here.
Polyphonic and monophonic
The original synth was monophonic meaning you could only play one note at a time. While that’s great for lead lines, it really limits what you can play. The app allows you to easily toggle between polyphonic or monophonic so you can choose the best mode for any part you want to play. For example if you want to lay down a lush pad to jam over, polyphonic mode is best. It’s a nice addition that the original synth lacked.
The original Mini Synth is iconic among synth players for it’s unusual qualities. Here is what the actual hardware version this app is based on looks like:
As you can see, the app looks almost identical to this oddly designed and colored synth. If you’re getting 80s vibes looking at the above photo, you probably have a good idea what type of sounds to expect from it.
You’re not going to get typical modern synth sounds you hear on recordings today, this app is designed to give you the quirky vintage tones the original synth produced.
Here is a fantastic video by EHX demonstrating some of the tones the app produces:
You immediately get a feel for the quirky and sometimes cheesy 80s tones the synth produces. Scrolling through the presets shows a good range of sounds and is an excellent example of how powerful synths are. As a guitarist you may not have thought about synths much, but when you go through the presets and realize all these different sounds are the result of a handful of sliders and settings, it quickly becomes clear how versatile synths can be. The difference one slider’s position can make on your tone can be staggering.
Whenever I would play with a preset I didn’t enjoy at first, I would experiment with changing some of the slider positions until I arrived at a tone I enjoyed jamming with. At first it took some trial and error as I’m not too familiar with synths, but after 10 minutes I had developed a good sense of what to expect from each slider and toggle.
Synth on guitar
If you watched the video to the end, 4:24 onward probably grabbed your attention. If you didn’t watch it, check it out. What you are seeing and hearing is this synth played on guitar via a audio to MIDI conversion app. When I saw this, I just had to give it a go. I’ve always liked the idea of playing synths and other MIDI instruments using guitar, but never wanted to fork out the cash to get a MIDI pickup installed. While my iPad 2 could barely keep up with the conversion app, when it worked – it was amazing. Playing this synth on guitar instantly made it far more usable as a guitarist. I could experiment with ideas and licks on guitar and try out different synth sounds.
Unfortunately as far as I know, this is only possible on iOS devices at the moment. Audio to MIDI apps on Android seem to have a lot of negative reviews so it looks like the hardware limitations are still holding us back. But eventually I’m sure we’ll see the same type of app available for Android.
I explain later how to set this up if you’re interested in playing this synth using your guitar. Alternatively you can connect a MIDI controller to your device to control this app, but as a guitarist you’re much more likely to enjoy plugging your guitar in as the controller.
The hardware synth this app is based on was well known for having an unreliable keyboard. As you can imagine, you don’t have issues like that to worry about with an app. The main concern with apps is compatibility across different devices.
Tablet or Phone
You will notice if you look on the App Store or Play Store that there are two separate apps for Android and iOS. One app for tablet and one for phone. This is an unusual choice as we’re used to seeing one app work on either tablets or phones. Both apps have the same features and the only real difference is the layout on screen. With the tablet version you get the full view of the synth at once so you’re able to easily play and adjust controls whenever you want. On the phone versions you’re given a condensed view so have access to less keys at once onscreen and less of the controls.
The app worked perfect on my ancient iPad 2 and even worked with the MIDI Guitar 2 app (only barely). If you’re on any iOS device newer than the iPad 2, you should expect perfect performance. I didn’t experience any problems on the iPad 2 which I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to say for other similar apps.
It’s great to see more and more music apps for Android as previously a lot of apps were iOS exclusive. There are quite a few reasons why so many apps aren’t available for Android. Unfortunately the app wouldn’t work on my budget-level Samsung Galaxy J3 so I wasn’t able to give it a thorough test. If you’re on the Samsung Galaxy S series I’m sure you wouldn’t experience any trouble – it’s only because the cheaper J series cuts some corners and isn’t as compatible as other phones.
Overall impression of the EHX Mini-Synthesizer App
I have no doubt that if this app was produced by other well known companies, they wouldn’t hesitate throwing a $20+ price tag on it. There are plenty of simple music apps that charge ridiculous prices and I was really glad to see EHX didn’t follow that path.
The iPhone version costs $2.99 and the iPad version at $4.99 – and there’s no in-app purchases to unlock features that should have been in the app to begin with (like other companies tend to do). While this synth may not compete against other synth apps, it’s not meant to. This is a very nice and simple virtualization of the original EHX Mini Synth and it does a great job.
I really enjoyed experimenting with the different controls and tweaking the tone. Plugging in a guitar and hearing the synth match perfectly to my guitar playing was incredible.
It’s great to see EHX experiment with creating apps like this one and I really hope they go on to make some guitar based apps. If the Mini Synth is anything to go by, I’m looking forward to what app they create next.
EHX Mini-Synthesizer App Pros
- Incredibly low price
- Easy to use synth
- Able to use guitar with app via a MIDI guitar app (iOS only)
EHX Mini-Synthesizer App Cons
- Separate versions for phone or tablet
- Not available for all Android devices
- Sounds may not be useful for all guitarists
Who is the EHX Mini-Synthesizer App for?
If you’re interested in learning about synths, listen to music that use synths or you just want to experiment with some quirky sounds, this is a very low cost way to do it. It’s a very simple app to use and has a good set of features.
Who isn’t the EHX Mini-Synthesizer App for?
If you watched the video earlier and didn’t like the tones produced, that’s a sign that this app isn’t for you. It’s still a great way to learn about synths, but if you’re looking for something with different types of sounds to use on your own music, there are other more suitable options.
How to get the most out of the EHX Mini-Synthesizer App
If you’re new to synths, here are a few tips on how you can get the most out of it:
Start, Stop & Sweep Rate sliders
At first all the sliders can feel overwhelming so start by focusing completely on the Start, Stop & Sweep Rate sliders in the filter section. Play with the keyboard and experiment by moving those three sliders up and down to figure out how they affect the sound. Eventually you’ll learn how they work and how they shape the sound. This knowledge will be useful whenever you want to use other filter-based effects as you’ll have a better understanding how filters work.
You can achieve a lot of different sounds on the app just by experimenting with these three sliders.
Set up a custom scale
Unless you’re comfortable with playing on a keyboard, set up a custom scale as explained earlier. Choose a key you’re familiar with and jam with it. When you don’t need to think about what notes you need to avoid, you can pay more attention to getting interesting sounds out of the synth.
Connect your guitar
If you’re on the iOS version, download the app MIDI Guitar 2. This app converts audio input into MIDI which can then be routed to the synth app. In other words – you’ll be able to get synth sounds by playing your guitar similar to a MIDI guitar.
To do this you will need an audio interface for the iOS device such as the iRig HD 2. Plug the iRig to your guitar and your iOS device, then load up the MIDI Guitar 2 app. Set monophonic or polyphonic mode depending on how you want to play. Tap on the ‘MIDI Output Route’ option and select ‘Mini Synthesizer’ (you need to have the synth app open for this to display). Switch to the synth app. Now when you play guitar you’ll hear the synth tone instead of your guitar tone.
You might need to adjust your technique for the app to accurately predict the notes you’re playing, but with some practice you’ll end up with some impressive sounds. Try rolling the tone knob on your guitar down and use your neck pickup to help the MIDI app analyze your playing better.
As a Dream Theater fan, I enjoy hearing the gliding sounds Jordan Rudess creates on some of his apps and the Haken Continuum. So I really enjoyed the ribbon the app uses. The ribbon is a strip above the keyboard where you can slide your finger back and forth to glide between all notes. Think of it as playing with a slide on guitar rather than pressing on the frets.
I recommend jamming with the ribbon over a backing track to help develop your sense of pitch. Unlike pressing on a key which will give you a perfectly in-tune note, the ribbon’s pitch depends completely on your finger position. So learning to use vibrato and smooth slides to land on the right pitch is a great ear exercise.
Have a listen to the opening to Octavarium by Dream Theater for a good example of what you can play on the ribbon. Try to set the synth up to get as close as you can with the tone from the song and see how you go trying to copy what you hear.
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