Arturia MicroBrute reviewed
By Francis Preve
Wed, 15 Jan 2014
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When Arturia first introduced the MiniBrute (reviewed Nov. ’12), it shook up the analog market. Previously, modern analog keyboards started at close to $1,000 and went up from there. The MiniBrute’s $500 price made real analog synthesis approachable for the curious-but-not-committed, and its sound and features made everyone notice that a heretofore-virtual synth company could do analog right. So when Arturia revealed their latest analog synth—a scaled down version of the MiniBrute with a few new features thrown in—at a street price of around $300, we let out a gasp. The aptly named MicroBrute may be half the size of the Mini, but its sound is just as big. 
 
 

PROS: Fully analog signal path. Semi-modular design. Step sequencer. Extensive waveform options. Multi-mode resonant filter. Converts USB/MIDI to CV/gate. External input for audio processing.

CONS: No MIDI out. No noise generator. Tiny keys could pose a problem for big fingers. No preset storage.

Bottom Line: A semi-modular analog monosynth that’s truly for everyone.

$349 list | $299 street | arturia.com


Oscillators

The MicroBrute’s oscillator section is nearly identical to the MiniBrute’s, with a few minor tweaks that make it better in some ways, less so in others. While the design is a single-oscillator affair, the Micro and Mini both crib their overall execution from the classic Roland SH-101. That is, whereas most synths feature switchable oscillator waves, the Micro’s individual waveforms can be blended to create much more complex results than simple saw/square/triangle options. What’s more, the three waveform volume knobs add a bit of overdrive to their sound when pushed above halfway, giving the Micro’s sonic character a lot more meat.

The sawtooth wave includes the MiniBrute’s “Ultrasaw” feature, which layers a pair of additional sawtooth waves on top of the original wave. While the Mini included its own LFO for modulating the phasing/chorusing of the additional waves, the Micro relies on its modular patch bay for this option. Even so, turning the Ultrasaw knob fully clockwise introduces a bit of very slow phase drift, giving it a subtle animation that sounds like multiple oscillators free-running but closely tuned.

The square wave includes a pulse knob for de rigueur PWM effects via the patch bay, but there’s also a tiny detail in its design that you’ll miss if you don’t listen closely. It’s out of phase with the sawtooth. In simple terms, what this means is that when you blend the saw and square waves in a precise manner, you can subtract all of the odd-numbered harmonics from the result, leaving a saw-like sound that’s a bit thinner since the fundamental (and its odd relatives) is removed. This is a lovely detail.

The triangle wave includes the Mini’s “Metalizer” parameter, which adds, aggressive harmonics to the triangle as you raise its value. This is accomplished by Arturia’s proprietary foldback distortion circuit, and its sound is somewhat reminiscent of FM synthesis with a 1:1 carrier/modulator ratio. What’s especially cool about the Micro’s implementation is that the envelope can sweep the Metalizer without you touching the patch bay.

Finally, the Micro introduces a new type of sub-oscillator that’s quite different from the MiniBrute’s or any other sub-oscillator I’ve ever encountered. In addition to a volume knob, there’s an overtone parameter that reshapes the sub’s waveform. Fully counter-clockwise, it’s a standard square wave one octave lower than the other oscillator waves. But as you turn the overtone knob, it does a phase trick that morphs the square harmonics until only the third harmonic (which is a fifth above standard oscillator pitch) is heard. This enables the Micro to do “that Deadmau5 fifth thing” without the need for a second oscillator. Very cool indeed.


Filter

The Micro’s filter is the same Steiner-Parker circuit from the Mini. Based on the exotic Synthacon from the mid-’70s, this filter has an extremely unique sound that’s more in the ballpark of a Korg MS-20 than a Moog or Mopho. It’s aggressive, quirky, and very much in your face, whether you’re whipping up a crunchy lead or snarling bass.

Like the MiniBrute, this filter is multimode, with lowpass, bandpass, and highpass options (but minus the notch mode). It’s fully resonant and can push into self-oscillation with the knob cranked all the way. Naturally, the Micro also features a “Brute Factor” parameter, which feeds the output of the synth back into the filter. Low levels add presence and additional warmth; high amounts conjure truly chaotic audio mayhem.


Modular Features

While the MiniBrute included dual envelopes and LFOs, the Micro only includes one of each. The envelope is a standard ADSR, hardwired into the Mini’s “fast” mode, which gives it a bit more snap than most. While it’s wired into the VCA for the usual amp processes, there’s also a switch that puts the VCA into gate mode, so that you can apply the envelope to other destinations without affecting the volume dynamics of your sound.

The LFO is also scaled down from the Mini in that it only has three waveforms: downward saw, triangle, and square. I really liked the MiniBrute’s sample-and-hold waveforms, especially when routed to the filter, but in light of the Micro’s price point, their absence is a minor quibble.

Even with its scaled back LFO and envelope, the Micro’s modulation options still shine, thanks to its modular patch bay that allows voltages to be routed to a wide array of parameters like pitch, cutoff, Ultrasaw, pulse width, the Metalizer, and the sub-oscillator harmonics. Thus, with one of two included 1/8" patch cords, you can apply the LFO and/or envelope to modulate those parameters. What’s more, this patch bay is compliant with the Eurorack standard. I plugged my Doepfer into these jacks and was able to use its audio-rate LFOs and even faster envelopes for some remarkable sonic tricks. Having legit modular tools in a synth at this price is nothing short of amazing. 


Step Sequencer

Part of the Roland SH-101’s mystique stems from its onboard step sequencer, so Arturia’s inclusion of an almost identical one is more than a trip down memory lane. It’s a powerful addition that lends itself to alternate composition methods.

There are eight memory slots for sequences, each of which can contain up to 64 steps. Sequences are programmed by simply hitting Record, then playing keys, with each keystroke advancing you one step. You can add rests and ties via the tap-tempo pad, transpose the sequence via the keyboard, and that’s it. New users may say, “So what? I’ll use my DAW for sequencing,” but that completely misses the point. Using a step sequencer in this manner invites uneven bar lengths and Giorgio Moroder-style sixteenth-note patterns like no other approach. Plus, having it integrated into the synth makes it ideal for gigging bands that want to add a little retro sequencing to their live repertoire.


Editor Software
 
 The MicroBrute Connexion editor software gives you additional control over MIDI, note priority, and the sequencer. You can even import and export sequences. 
 

Conclusions

I loved the MiniBrute so much that I bought one, and it has since become a mainstay in my studio. The sound is anything but “pretty” compared to other contemporary analog synths, but that aggressive character is what makes it essential to my sounds. With the MicroBrute as well, the “Brute factor” is no casual hype—this synth is meaty and macho like nothing else.

Since the MicroBrute relies on the same circuits as the Mini, includes an industry standard CV patch bay, external input, and step sequencer—for about $300 street—it’s an absolute must-have and wins our Key Buy award. If you already own a MiniBrute, you can patch in the Micro for dual oscillator action. If you don’t already own a ’Brute, it’s clear that you will. At this price, practically everyone will.


 
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