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Caustic 3 - A Music App for your Phone or Tablet

Updated on December 9, 2014
Caustic 3 is a suite of musical modules - on your phone?
Caustic 3 is a suite of musical modules - on your phone? | Source

Writing and recording music has become a simpler task in the last 20 years with the advent of personal computers and software designed to allow one to record and edit creations with a few clicks and keystrokes. The last 5 to 10 have made it so easy that you can create and even sell full-fledged albums from the comfort of your bedroom.

It is no longer required to enter a studio with expensive equipment and complex mixing boards in order to get your creation produced, and then get a major recording label to listen to, like and then promote your music. But having a solid computer system with software in the hundreds of dollars was usually required for anything to be considered better than "amateur" in nature.

The computing power of mobile devices has surpassed what we would have imagined a few years ago, and now these pocket computers we call "phones" can be used to make music as well.

I was a prolific songwriter at one time, but my aging computer had hampered my ability to do so. I lost the disks for the software I'd purchased around 2000 or so, and my 8 year old Dell system was barely able to play YouTube videos, let alone run a full software suite to create music.

Then I discovered Caustic 3.1 for my Android phone, and in the last few months, I have written more music than I had in the last dozen years!

Now, I won't go so far as to say that it is ready to replace a complete audio system on your computer (think Sonar, Ableton, etc.), but it is getting there. With enough tools to write complex creations on your cell phone or tablet (there are versions for Android and iPhone, as well as free, unsupported versions for Mac and Windows), it is powerful enough to make a fully polished song, but can also be a good prototyping tool for when you are unable to get to your higher quality equipment.

A Digital Audio Workstation in your Pocket

With 11 different machine types to choose from, Caustic 3 by Single Cell Software is a complete package for creating music on-the-go. You can have up to 14 machines in total, each with a main delay and reverb, high/mid/bass pots, individual channel pan and volume, two extra slots per channel for other effects (of which there are 12 available, currently), and two slots in the Master mixer for extra effects as well. One of the few things that it does not currently have is the ability to record audio tracks, though it can be done, albeit with some extra effort required (*note that I am simply guessing at the possibility based on the fact that there is a vocoder which you could, presumably, use to record audio with a fully dry mix).

Creating a song in Caustic can be achieved in several different ways depending upon the equipment that you have available. If you have a midi capable keyboard that will connect to your device, you can use it to record tracks or patterns, or use the built in piano roll editor to manually edit your creations. There is even an onscreen keyboard available for most machines that can be used, though you are limited to a single octave plus 4 additional semi-tones (that's 17 semi-tones in total for those who lost count) from C to E. You are able to adjust the octave in which you operate, but if you need to reach a note in the next range up or down, quick hands will be required, and small fingers if you want to create chords and progressions.

When I first picked up Caustic 3 I was both overwhelmed and highly impressed! I had expected a simple VCF or VCA tone generator with a couple of basic LFOs, some resonance and whatnot to make some cheesy noise, and maybe a basic General Midi sampling of sounds, with a very 80s "beep-boop" type drum machine. Instead, the demo song starts up and says (yeah, you read that right - SAYS) "Welcome to Caustic". Holy craptastic crap, Batman, did this music software just talk to me?

Not only are there fully fleshed out tone generators that will create basic waveforms (sine, saw, square waves, etc), and synths that will playback .wav files (beatbox, PCMSynth), but there is a vocoder, an FM synth, and even a modular synth that you can use to create your own sound completely from scratch! Add to that a pattern based sequencer (that also allows for control automation), piano-roll editing with 64 patterns available per instrument (in 1, 2, 4, or 8 bar increments), 2 7-track mixers, 2 full effects bays per channel... The list goes on and on!

The Modules

As mentioned, there are 11 different modules that are currently available to use in your musical creation, so let's take a look at them now. I'm no an expert on the art of synthesis, so I may get the specifics wrong, but I am hoping that the experts (the members of the active and very helpful Single Cell Software Community) will correct any blatant gaffes I may post here:

A Dual-Oscillator workhorse
A Dual-Oscillator workhorse | Source


The Subsynth is a dual-oscillator synthesizer that starts your foray into the world of Caustic 3. Two oscillators with the choices of sine, triangle, sawtooth (plus HQ), square and noise, as well as a custom waveform option are the basics of this module. A basic filter with Cutoff and resonance allows you to choose from LowPass, HighPass, BandPass and their inverted counterparts, and two LFO's with separate rate and depth selections give you additional sound sculpting tools. An ADSR (Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release) envelope completes this module.

While this may not sound all that impressive, it is actually quite remarkable how many different sounds come stock with the app, and there are many more that can be downloaded either from the marketplace (some free, some paid for), or from the Single Cell website.

PCMSynth - a sampler extraordinaire!
PCMSynth - a sampler extraordinaire! | Source


To call the PCMSynth a sampler is not giving it enough credit. While it does, at its core, play sampled content, it is also capable of playing SoundFonts (though, technically, I guess that is just an organized sampled instrument). While you could drop a single sample into the machine and assign level, tuning, etc., you are presented with the option of adding multiple different samples across the range of the instrument, so that you could have an incredibly vast number of specific sounds to use. You can even assign root not, start note and end notes for specific samples, so if you have an instrument that has multiple samples to round out the sound, you could build a very detailed instrument.

This module comes with its own filter section (as with the SubSynth), and a single LFO with sine, triangle, sawtooth and square options, as well as a pitch changer (octave, semis and cents can be adjusted). An ADSR envelope allows you to further shape your sound, and you can choose from 1 to 8 note polyphony for the module. As with all modules, if the sound is monophonic, you can choose a special "glide" option for your notes in the piano roll.

Again, the range of sounds available with the purchased app is impressive, but I have spent several pots of coffee on sounds from EIP Studios and Big Beard Audio (to name but two), as well as downloading several of the free presets from the site, and even a few SoundFonts and other samples to increase the already incredible power of this machine. Again, as a standalone app, this module would be a steal. But we still have 9 modules to go!

Basic Bass But Brilliant
Basic Bass But Brilliant | Source


Probably the most under-rated and under-utilized of the modules, the bassline provides a basic monophonic synth with standard sawtooth and square waveforms selections, and a simple envelope section. Your LFO has the options of PWM (Pulse Width Modulation), VCF (Voltage Controlled Frequency) or VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplitude), and a distortion section to change the sound up a bit.

Checking the presets on Caustic 3's website reveals very little available from the community for this machine, but depending on the sound you are looking for, it can add a little retro flavour to your masterpiece. From growling basslines to rounded, glassy sounds, you can still get a lot of bang for your buck.

*boop* *ba-CHA* OK, my text beatboxing skills need some work...
*boop* *ba-CHA* OK, my text beatboxing skills need some work... | Source


You need a backbeat to drive along the rhythm section of your song, so grab your 8-spot beatbox and get creatin'! With the ability to load your own individual wav files into each of the 8 pads, you can create some wildly unusual beats, or drop in some kick, snare, an open and closed hi-hit, some toms and a crash, and you have some basic drum goodness! And each sample has it's own tuning, punch (accent, of sorts), decay, pan and volume pots, so you can really add your own flare to any drumkit you put in here.

The module itself has an extra feature that I found by accident, one time; since your phone or tablet isn't pressure sensitive, the beatbox gives you a pressure strip to use if you want to create your rhythms with a little extra expression. The top of the strip puts out a lower velocity signal, and the bottom of the strip pumps up the velocity. There is also a trigger group selection, so if you want your closed hi-hat to stop the sound of the open hi-hat, you can assign up to 4 muting groups per beatbox.

Dreamy, ethereal sounds, good for new age type music, perhaps?
Dreamy, ethereal sounds, good for new age type music, perhaps? | Source


The PadSynth is a little different in that it does not use standard synthesis waveforms to create sound. Rather it uses a "special variant of additive synthesis" as developed by Paul Nasca. (this description comes from the documentation on Single Cell Software's website). Two tables of harmonics are used to create unique sounds that are dreamlike and ethereal. Bells and haunting pads can be created and the two harmonic tables added to make a distinct and beautiful sound. Add a little LFO flavour to each of the tables, and you can create some very haunting tones.

The Modules

8Bit Synth
Defies Description
Create an equation and listen to the sound of genius!
Mono single oscillator lead synth
Mono, sawtooth or square waves, resonant filter, LFO and Distortion
8 instrument sample drum computer
8 samples, individual tone and pan controls, velocity ribbon, and trigger groups
Virtual Analog Subtractive Synth
2 oscillators, 2 LFOs, ADSR envelope, filter,
Wav file and sample player
Multiple samples, Filter, LFO and ASDR envelope. Can shape the sound with start points, loop points, tuning, and assignment of notes
Unique Additive Synth module
A Blend of two harmonic tables. Hard to describe, but lovely to hear
Modular Synth
Multiple components, endless possibilities
Classic Leslie style organ
drawbars, rotary speaker simulator, distortion,
It's a vocoder
Up to 6 modulator sources can be assigned
FM (Frequency Modulation) Synth
3 operators with 5 different patterns, alternate curves for envelope parameters, sounds like an old Yamaha DX-line synth (80s)
String Modeling Synth
Simulates plucked or hammered strings, two strings combined, no release, only note on (trigger) value is available

A quick rundown of the various modules and some of the cool features associated with each

The back reminds me of the patch view of Propellerhead's Reason software.
The back reminds me of the patch view of Propellerhead's Reason software. | Source


Arguably one of the more amazing additions to Caustic 3 is the Modular synth. With several different generators to choose from, DADSR (the extra D adds a Delay to the trigger of the ADSR envelope)/AR/Decay envelopes, several filters (including a cool "formant" filter that simulates vowel sounds), mixers, effects and some "miscellaneous" tools to shape your sound, the things this module can do are quite extensive. There is even a machine input generator that will let you control or pull in the sound from another module to add to the mix.

After adding your modules, click the "Flip" button and you can patch them together with cables to route the sound from one module to the next. It reminds me of the patching view from Propellerhead's Reason, but works very well, even on a small screen.

There is so much to this one that trying to figure it out on your own will likely lead to frustration - trust me, I was very disenchanted with it before I followed the tutorial on its use. I highly recommend watching the video below for hints on how to properly make use this powerful part of the Caustic toolbox.

Modular Tutorial

Hammond/Leslie style organ
Hammond/Leslie style organ | Source


The organ is a classic Hammond-Leslie style electric organ. Think "Born to Be Wild" or classic Jon Lord Deep Purple sounds. There are 9 drawbars that control varying harmonics to create the classic Hammond sounds, as well as a percussive setting (add some punch to the start of the note), the Leslie settings (for that warbling, rotating speaker sound), and amplifier settings.

While the mechanics of it look fairly simple and straightforward, according to a Hammond Organ product description I read, the 9 drawbars and their 8 settings can produce over 253 million combinations! Now that's a lotta sound! If you are looking for Retro Rock sounds, or a soulful church organ, you should be able to find the right settings to match your mood.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Vocoder!
Domo Arigato, Mr. Vocoder! | Source


The Vocoder is a pretty unique little device in that it can take any modulated sound (a voice, for example) and add some harmonic tweaks to make it sound electronic or robotic. The voices of Cylons from the Battlestar Galactica of the 80s, or "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto" from the song Mr. Roboto by Styx are just a couple of quick examples of what a vocoder can make your voice sound like.

You can record your voice, alter the sound with the character controls on the device, and adjust a few other settings to get just the right sound. Sawtooth and Square waveforms are available, and adding a bit of "Sub" will increase the depth of the sound. If you want, you could even adjust the dry setting to have no vocoding (is that even a word?) applied to the sound, leaving just your melodic vocals to dazzle the world!

FM Synthesis a la Yamaha's DX line of synths from last century
FM Synthesis a la Yamaha's DX line of synths from last century | Source

FM Synth

The FM Synth uses Frequency Modulation to create sound. When I first started getting interested in synthesizers back in the early 80s, the Yamaha DX-7 was the beast that everyone wanted to own! This little module costs a fraction of a percentage of what the DX-7 would have cost, but with all the FM-y goodness!

There are 3 operators that can be run in 5 different algorithms. Each operator can be individually set and then patched to the successive operator to create some unique sounds. The LFO can be set to affect one or multiple amplitudes or frequencies of the individual operators.

I had two TX-7s (the rack module version of the DX-7), and a DX-100 back in the day, and the sounds from this module take me back. It's a retro sound, to be sure, but it can still generate some fun tones.

KS Synth simulates plucked and hammered strings
KS Synth simulates plucked and hammered strings | Source

KS Synth

The KS Synth is an unusual beast; a virtual analog synth that uses the Karplus-Strong algorithm. Simulating plucked or hammered strings, this instrument has a unique place in the toolbox of Caustic 3. There are no envelopes to play with, as the sound is generated at the point that a note is triggered, and then fades out based on the damping signal (think of a guitar string vibrating: if you don't touch it, it continues to make sound; apply light pressure and the sound is "damped", or the vibration slowed quickly).

You would think this would only be good for things like guitars or pianos, but there are quite a number of cool sounds that the KS Synth is capable of making. The stock sounds include a wood block, old piano, koto, dulcimer, and xylophone.

Ummmm.  8Bits.  Synthesis.  And Math.  I don't understand it.
Ummmm. 8Bits. Synthesis. And Math. I don't understand it. | Source

8Bit Synth

I don't really understand this one or how it works. I read the description in the documentation and it sounds very technical and cool, but it is math and bits and... and other stuff! I'll let the developer's description handle it for you: "The 8BitSynth doesn't rely on typical synthesis methods to generate sound. Rather it relies on a virtual 8bit processor evaluating an expression and outputting the result of the expression as audio. Any valid combination of numbers and mathmatical operators can be used to craft the expression, and one variable is permitted: time (t)."

So. If you get all that, then you will enjoy the 8-bit synth! Great for old video game soundtracks, I suppose, it is not one I can see myself using, but I have heard it used by others from the Caustic Community for chiptunes and other styles of music.

The Downsides

While the sound modules form the backbone of the software, the inclusion of effects with sidechaining, multichannel mixing, a powerful piano-roll sequencer, and myriad other bits'n'pieces all stand out to make an incredibly well-rounded product. Is it perfect? Well, no. Nothing is.

As powerful as it is, there are some things that it will not do. I won't say cannot, because I didn't know my phone could do this much! There is no pitch bend for the synths, which isn't a huge deal, but is definitely a notable omission. Whether it is a technical issue or otherwise, I don't know, but it has been a notable miss.

Portamento is available on monophonic instruments (called "Glide" in the piano roll), but getting it to work is often confusing and a work of trial and error to get just the right timing.
Ever create JUST the right effect for a sound, and want to recreate it for another song? Well, you can't save the effects settings as a preset to reuse. A minor point, to be sure, but one that I was surprised to discover.

One of the most asked for features is the ability to change time signature. While 4/4 will get you there for most things, having the ability to use 3/4 or something else would be a nice change. I have written a song in 3/4 (with a 4/4 break in the mix) but had to manually put all notes into the sequencer's main piano roll as opposed to using patterns, and make sure that I was putting the timing in right, since there were no markers to properly show me where to end the pattern. It was inconvenient, but not a showstopper.

Effects automation is a bit clunky. Depending on where and how you do it, you are presented with different interfaces, which is a tad confusing. First, you need to record the control you want to automate (press the record button, press play, then move the control to activate it for automation). If you do this for the volume setting on a pattern, you are presented with bars that you set for the entirety of the pattern, which you can conveniently draw with your finger. But if you want a slow and steady crescendo or decrescendo, you'd better be pretty steady with the drawing.

By contrast, if you create a volume automation for the song (in the sequencer view), then you need to set points for the different volume levels, determining start and end points that will adjust steadily between the two points. The problem here (at least on my small screen Nexus 4) is that getting a precise location at the tip of your finger is difficult at best, and there is no method for small incremental adjustments. Just keep using your finger until you get it right, or close enough that you just don't feel like trying anymore.

The Verdict

Caustic 3 is a powerful little pocket studio. More modules than you can shake a stick at, automation, effects, and a powerful sequencer add up to a sensational value. Even the minor quirks or omissions aren't enough to prevent you from using this to create fully playable and beautiful sounding music.

The Caustic Community (or "Caustic Warriors", as one community member has dubbed them) is active and helpful. One of the first songs I posted had some obvious hiccups, and a kind member took my project file, tweaked it and gave it back, requesting nothing other than the chance to work on something different from the norm! The developer of the software, Rej, is an active member of the community as well, and offers helpful hints and advice, and takes the requests of the community to try to make this an even better value for the money. I don't know how that is possible, but I am thankful for his efforts.

There's a demo available, so check it out first, and if you like it, I encourage you to get the unlock key and take full advantage of this great little app by Single Cell Software.


Get the app for Android: Play Store

Get the app for iPhone: iTunes App Store

Visit the Single Cell Software website.


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