Sylo Synth

As used by Gorillaz & The Flaming Lips

Sylo Synthesiser allows you to play music (or create sound effects) using sounds you can design yourself. Sylo Synth includes a collection of pre-designed sounds which you can use as they are, tweak them to your heart’s desire, or you can make new sounds from scratch.

Download on the App Store

Thanks for checking out Sylo Synthesiser. Here’s a quick tour, to get you started. Most of this information is also available inside the app itself, but you may find it helpful to leave this open on another screen while you try things out on your iPad.

How to use Sylo Synth

Playing music in Sylo Synth is simple — just tap the piano keys at the bottom of the screen; the “mini keyboard” showing all 88 keys allows you to set where on the full piano keyboard you wish to play.

This guide will show you how to:

  • Change the sounds Sylo Synth makes when you play
  • Save your changes
  • Record your performances
  • Troubleshoot common problems

Using the Presets

Sylo Synth comes with a bunch of “preset instruments”. An instrument consists of two things: a recorded (sampled) sound, which is used as the basis of the instrument; and a bunch of settings that control how the sound is changed before it reaches the speakers/headphones.

Sylo Synth has a toolbar across the top of the screen, and the controls at the left-hand edge of the toolbar allow you to pick an instrument, save a new instrument, or delete one you no longer need.

Instrument Controls

Simply tap the button that reads “Default Sound”, and the list of instruments will appear. When you first run Sylo Synth, this will only contain the built-in instruments. When you save new instruments, they’ll be added to the list. Pick an instrument from the list, and the appropriate sound will be loaded, and the dials will change to reflect the instrument’s settings.

Changing the Original Sound

The top-left panel shows the current sound waveform. You can zoom and pan to see a close-up of the sound using the usual pinch/swipe gestures. To the right are two important buttons: the microphone, and the wave commands.

Waveform view, microphone button, and wave commands button

To record a new sound into Sylo Synth, hold down the microphone button. A timer will appear, showing how much audio you have recorded — you can sample up to 30 seconds. Simply let go when you’re done.

Remember, this is not for recording your performances, it’s for capturing bits of audio to use as the basis of a new instrument. You might try tapping a glass with a spoon, or drumming your fingers on your desk, or humming or whistling, just to get started.

Note: when you capture a new sound, the other settings are left unchanged. You may find it useful to switch to the Default Sound preset before capturing a new sound, and then changing the settings to get the result you’re after.

Wave Commands

The Wave Commands that are available depend on what sound you currently have selected, and whether you’re signed into Dropbox.

You can only load one of the original sounds built in to the app, sounds you’ve saved earlier, or sounds transferred into Sylo Synth using iTunes. You can also load sounds from Dropbox (if you’re signed in), and you can AudioPaste a sound that was AudioCopied from another app on your iPad.

If you’ve recorded (sampled) a new sound into Sylo Synth, you’ll also be able to save it.

If you’ve saved your sound (or loaded one you saved earlier, or transferred using iTunes or Dropbox), you have several other options. You can:

  • Open the sound in another application on your iPad
  • Copy the sound using AudioCopy
  • Delete a sound you no longer need

Changing the Envelope

Envelope shaper, ADSR dials & preamp control

The second big display panel is the envelope shaper. This allows you to set up the attack time, decay time, sustain level and release time (ADSR) of a note played on the keyboard. If you’re not familiar with ADSR envelopes, they work like this:

  • When you press one of the piano-style keys, the attack time sets how long it takes for the instrument to go from silence, to maximum loudness.
  • As soon as the max loudness is reached, it starts to fade again. This lasts for however long the decay time is set to. It doesn’t have to fall all the way to silence, however: it fades to…
  • …the sustain level. This is the loudness at which the note will continue, for as long as you hold down the piano key.
  • When you release the key, then the instrument will fade all the way to silence, using the release time.

Of course, all these changes are like turning the volume control on a hi-fi up and down: they affect the overall volume, but if the recording itself contains quieter or louder sections, they will still be quieter or louder, no matter what the ADSR envelope says.

You can change these settings using the dials below the Envelope Shaper.

You can also edit the envelope simply by placing your finger on the relevant section and dragging: slide your finger up or down the sustain section to raise or lower the sustain level; slide left or right in any of the other sections to lengthen or shorten them.

Of course, if you’ve shortened one of the sections to be very narrow (or even nothing at all, making the loudness change instantly), it can be tricky to grab hold of them. In this case, you can drag the sustain section left or right instead — grab the side nearest the section you want to change. Or use the dials.

Preamp (Gain)

The preamp control dial sets the loudness of the sound, before it’s passed through any of the special effects.

Tip: We recommend you turn this down quite low if you’re going to be playing loud recordings or complex chords. Otherwise, you can max out the loudness and you’ll get “clipping”, which degrades your sound quality, with nasty distortion or crackling sounds. (Unless that’s what you’re after, of course!)

The Preamp dial has a small red light in the centre of it. This will light up if the preamp is set too loud and the sound has clipped as a result.

As well as setting the preamp gain manually, you can also enable Automatic Gain Control in the Settings panel. This will turn the gain down automatically if clipping would occur. It’s easy to use and usually does a good job, but you can switch it off if you need fine control.

Granular Synthesis

Grain controls. Note the “Sync Speed” icon on the speed control

To the right of the envelope shaper are the grain controls. These affect the way the granular synthesis takes your recording and turns it into sound. Granular synthesis is the process of breaking a recording down into many thousands of tiny fragments (grains), then reassembling them to make a new sound.

(Note that grain control won’t have much effect on the sine, square, triangle and sawtooth waves that come built in, because they are so mathematically precise and regular. A sine wave is pretty much the same however you reassemble it! Grain controls come into their own with richly-textured sound, creating new sounds while preserving the essence of that texture.)

The default settings play your original sound largely unchanged, much like a traditional sampler: higher-pitched notes will be played back faster, and lower-pitched notes slower, with that classic “gramophone winding down” effect.

Grain Speed

The Speed slider changes the speed your recording is played back, without affecting the pitch. It can work in one of two ways:

  • Normally, it sets the speed of a 440hz “A” note: notes higher-pitched than this will be faster, notes lower-pitched than this, slower
  • However, double-tap the dial with your finger, and it will light up with the Sync Speed icon. With Sync Speed on, it sets the exact speed, and it will always maintain that speed no matter the pitch. Double-tap again to turn this back off.

Turn on “Sync Speed”, and no matter what the pitch, your sound will always be played back at the same speed. To test this out, try recording yourself saying “1… 2… 3… 4…”. Hold down a low and high note at once, and you’ll hear them get out of sync with Sync Speed off. Turn it on and play the notes again, and you should hear a perfect chorus.

Tip: The dial runs from “-2x” speed on the far left, to “0x” in the middle (the sound gets frozen in one spot), to “2x” speed on the right. The dial has some “notches” (spots where it clicks into place) for 1x and -1x speed.

Grain Size

The Size slider affects how large each grain is. Larger grains typically preserve more of the essential quality of the original sound, but can lead to unwanted stuttering or pulsing effects when speeding up or slowing down a recording. At the other extreme, very short grains can sound quite artificial or robotic, or even knock the pitch slightly off-key. Each sound recording tends to have its own “sweet spot”. Of course, you may find these side-effects useful, especially if you’re creating SFX rather than music!

The final grain control is the button that starts off set to Linear. This controls how the grains are reassembled:

  • Linear mode puts them together pretty much the same way they were recorded (but with time-stretching applied, if necessary).
  • Static freezes the sound dead in its tracks. Tends to produce mechanical- sounding results.
  • Bounce is like Linear, except when it reaches the end, it starts running backwards, until the start of the sound, whereupon it plays forwards again, and so on, forever.
  • Chaos throws grains together in completely random order. The speed control has no effect here, because it’s too chaotic to actually have a speed in any meaningful sense. But Chaos is great for a lot of sounds produced as the result of random processes, like burning wood, a trickling stream of water, wind-rustled leaves, and so on.
  • Drunken is again similar to Linear, but with a very loose “swing” applied to it — surging faster and slower in unpredictable staggers.
  • Scrambly is sort of a more-controllable Chaos. Instead of putting the grains together randomly, it keeps grains that were originally close together, near each other, but does shuffle them somewhat. The grain speed slider affects how much shuffling is applied. Near the centre mark, it will be almost Linear, and at the extremes, rather Chaotic.

Effects and Filtering

While the left-hand side of Sylo Synth is all about the original sound and how its turned into grains, the right-hand side is all about the effects and filters the sound is passed through on its journey to your speakers.

If you’re familiar with synths, sound editing or signal processing you’ll probably be right at home with these controls. If not, the best thing to do is probably just to capture a simple sound, then play with the dials, listening to the effect they have. Remember, since the iPad is multitouch, you can fiddle with the dials even while holding down a note or chord.

Recording Performances

Record Performance button

As well as recording audio to use for making instruments, you can also record your performances — the final output from the synthesiser as a result of the notes you play. This is the same as if you connected the headphone output from your iPad to a recorder, except that it’s a perfect digital reproduction.

Simply tap the Record button, towards the right end of the toolbar. It will change to say “Waiting”: As soon as you begin to play notes, your performance will be recorded.

Tap the Record button again to stop recording (or cancel recording, if it’s waiting for you to begin playing). Recording will also stop if you leave Sylo Synth unattended for more than 30 seconds — this is so that you don’t completely fill up your iPad by accident if you get called away during a recording.

When you stop recording a performance, a panel will appear that allows you to share your recording with other apps on your iPad. You can upload your performance to Dropbox (if you’re signed in), AudioCopy it so that you can AudioPaste into another app, or use the iPad’s “Open In…” feature to send the recording directly to another app.

Other Commands

Other Commands menu button

At the far right of the toolbar is a button with a cog or gear on it: Tap this to bring up a menu of commands:

  • Sign into/out from Dropbox
  • Change the Settings
  • Get help (you’re reading it now)
  • See other apps from Wooji Juice

In the Settings, you can turn Automatic Gain Control on or off, and change the piano keyboard — showing or hiding the note/octave labels on the keys, and switching between wide or regular keys.


For troubleshooting tips, see our Sylo Synth support page.