Artiphon Orba review: Much more than a musical fidget toy

If you want to swap out sounds or save something you’ve been working on there’s a companion app for iOS, Android, Windows and macOS. Right now the song mode is under construction, and the company is ironing out some kinks with connectivity on the Android and iOS versions, but the basic functionality is there. You can choose from 10 drum kits, 10 basses, 12 chord sounds and nine lead instruments. They’re organized into themed packs, but you can mix and match as you wish.

The sounds themselves err towards the more subdued side, which I think speaks to its primary purpose as a casual device. You’re not gonna find moody trap synths or abrasive industrial drums here. Instead, the packs are focused on things like lo-fi hip hop, ambient and bedroom pop. The quality of the sounds can be uneven, but there’s a handful I keep going back to like the “Ambeeant” drums and the Ohm lead tone.

While Orba doesn’t really have any moving parts, there’s something satisfying about how the sounds react to your movements. For instance, that Ohm lead tone responds differently to a quick light strike than it does if you press down and keep your finger there. Holding your finger down deadens the sound, as if it were a physical instrument that you were preventing from ringing out. But if you strike and pull your hand away, the glass-like tone continues to hang in the air for some time.

It’s these sorts of touches that keep the Orba compelling as a standalone instrument. The chipset inside consumes very little power, so the synth engine built for it is quite lightweight. It’s impressive what Artiphon has managed to do with the resources at their disposal, but the sounds you get aren’t always the most complex or rich. Instead it’s all about how it responds to gentle finger movements by adding vibrato or opening up the filter when you tilt it on its side. That being said, you can definitely coax some pretty epic bass and pads out of it by running it through a few guitar pedals.

Again, though, this is about casual music creation not deep sound design and maximalist pop productions. You’re basically limited to crafting eight-bar loops, with four tracks, within a particular scale, which you can change in the app. Even your choice of scale is fairly restricted. You can pick any root note you wish, but you can only pick between major or minor from there. The lead instrument is even limited to the pentatonic scale in most cases. (The lone exception being the Orba Diatonic lead.) This basically ensures that almost anything you play will sound passable. Perhaps not exciting, but at least not actively bad.

The current selection of soundpacks is a bit thin and there’s currently no plan to open up the synth engine for custom sound design. Instead, the company is focused on ironing out kinks and building tools for users to share their jams. But, that’s not to say you should dismiss the Orba out of hand just because you take music creation seriously.

Orba has an entirely different side to it once you connect it to your DAW or a softsynth. For starters, it is one of, if not the most affordable MPE controller on the market. That opens up a whole world of expressive playing through apps like Arturia’s Pigments (my current favorite softsynth), Bitwig and GarageBand. The company has even built custom sessions for several popular DAWs so that you can quickly explore its features.

Here, the ability to play with subtle vibrato, control the filter on a bass synth by tilting Orba or even conducting a virtual orchestra by waving it through the air can lead you to playing music in ways you might not have considered. If you’re an Ableton user, Artiphon even built a Max for Live app that allows you to easily assign the various motions — tilt, move, shake, bump, radiate, vibrato, spin and press — to different parameters in a synth. Let’s use Pigments for an example of how insane you could make this: You could have two different filters on a sound: one controlled by the tilt of the device, the other by the rotation And as you radiate your finger out toward the edge, it could increase the amount of detune, while shaking it adds vibrato and moving it through the air triggers pitch bends.