Granular synthesis is an oft misunderstood tool, but part of Borderland’s charm is not only being a beautiful looking iPad synth but also an education into how granular actually works…
A very brief and hacky description of granular synthesis is that sound is generated via the extraction of smaller snippets of audio from a larger sample, which are then layered, looped, and otherwise manipulated to create anything from soft, dreamlike re-imaginings of the original sample to completely different tones that are constituted of tiny snippets looped and repitched from the original.
In addition to some nice included samples Borderlands allows you to use your own sounds, which are made available to the app by creating an iTunes playlist called ‘Borderlands’. These sounds show up as waveforms, and through dragging, twisting, and scretching can be placed anywhere on the iPad’s canvas ready for the fun to begin.
Double tapping anywhere on the canvas creates a grain cloud, a visual representation of the granular synthesis principle whereby ‘grains’ of audio are extracted from a sound source – place a grain cloud over a sample waveform and it will use that sample to generate sound. The grain cloud itself can be set to pick audio from any area of the canvas, from tiny to the entire screen, with one to 32 grains available in each cloud, pitch can be adjusted 100% each way, and grain length can be anywhere from 10-1500ms with adjustable overlap.
There’s not really a practical limit to how many grain clouds you can have on screen at once, and each cloud can be set to forward, backward, or randomised direction and a variety of amp envelopes. All summed up, Borderlands can create some really interesting, wacky, and with the right samples (pads and richly harmonic melodic sounds work very well, percussive sounds can get a bit unmanageable) even beautiful soundscapes. The engine itself lends itself to organic sounds, as the ‘reach’ of each grain cloud can be set to so big, but everything works in real time so moving the grain clouds or the samples on the canvas has an immediate effect on the sound. Better still there’s a ‘gravity’ mode that allows you to hold the iPad flat and tilt it around to move the grain clouds as if they were marbles on a tray… this is very cool indeed!
Exporting and Management
When it comes to sharing and exporting, your options are admittedly a bit limited. You can of course direct record your iPad’s audio, but whilst recording is available internally the only simle way to get at it is to share it via built in SoundCloud functionality. We’ve seen apps that have email of samples and other clever ways to get sound out of the app, and combined with the fact that there’s no Audio Copy/Paste in Borderlands this is definitely a weak area. In addition, there’s no way to save a patch – when you find a sound you like it’s up to you to record it or lose it. For such an experimental synth this isn’t a major problem but it is a disappointment – a disappointment that extends to the fact there’s no sample management in the app – either your Borderlands iTunes playlist, or if you don’t have one the included samples, will be loaded in full with no way to choose how many or which will appear on the canvas.
The Bottom Line
At its low price, Borderlands is an easy synth to recommend to iPad users; a beautiful interface that teaches as much as it encourages hands on playing and a great sounding engine put it on my list of go to apps without a doubt. It’s not without its foibles, especially within its management section, but overall it’s definitely recommended.