Arturia MiniBrute

January 18, 2013
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By FRANCIS PREVE
 

Arturia’s software emulations of classic analog synths such as the Minimoog, Prophet-5, and Yamaha CS-80 have been mainstays in digital studios for the better part of a decade. So when they announced an analog monosynth called the MiniBrute, more than a few eyebrows raised. Sure, they’d done hardware with their Origin line, which packs a wallop when it comes to virtual analog. But real analog? For five hundred bucks, no less?

 

imgPROS: Fully analog signal path. Unique and flexible oscillator waveform options. Steiner-Parker multimode filter with self-oscillation. Brilliant implementation of modulation resources. Converts USB/MIDI to CV/gate outs. Can process external audio.
 
CONS Pitch and mod wheels are tiny. No preset memory. Output is monaurual.
 
Bottom Line: 

For features and sound, the MiniBrute is the new bang-for-buck leader among desktop analog monosynths.

 
$549 list | $499 street | arturia.com
 

Arturia’s software emulations of classic analog synths such as the Minimoog, Prophet-5, and Yamaha CS-80 have been mainstays in digital studios for the better part of a decade. So when they announced an analog monosynth called the MiniBrute, more than a few eyebrows raised. Sure, they’d done hardware with their Origin line, which packs a wallop when it comes to virtual analog. But real analog? For five hundred bucks, no less?

 

Overview (click for larger image)

imgEven as a newcomer to the increasingly crowded market of desktop analog synths, the MiniBrute specs beautifully: a single oscillator capable of three simultaneous waveforms that go beyond the classic saw/square/triangle fare, a multimode filter based on the ultra-exotic Steiner-Parker circuit, dual ADSR envelopes, a pair of LFOs, a noise source, and an external input for processing other analog signals through its signal path. Brutish indeed.

The MiniBrute’s construction inspires confidence. Its plastic and metal chassis seems quite roadworthy and its two-octave keyboard (whch senses velocity and aftertouch) feels wonderful—a tad lighter than both my Dave Smith Prophet ’08 and Roland SH-101, but a bit springier than my beloved Yamaha SK-50D. Frankly, I think it’s my favorite keyboard action in the studio now. Next to the parameter functions are transpose switches and the pitch and modulation wheels. I must say, these wheels are tiny, so if you’re a hardcore soloist of the Wakeman variety, you might feel a little challenged here.

Speaking of the front panel, it’s covered in knobs and sliders, with no menus or shift keys in sight. One knob or slider per function—the way nature intended. Bravo.

 

Connectivity

There are three ways to control the MiniBrute from your DAW or vintage gear: USB, MIDI, and control voltage/gate inputs that adhere to the one-volt-per-octave standard. Yep, this baby will convert USB/MIDI data to CV/gate so that you can drive other analog synths, like a Tom Oberheim SEM or Doepfer Dark Energy. In addition, there are CV inputs for filter and amp, so if you’re in a modular mood, you’re covered. You can even switch the gate trigger to audio and route percussion into the MiniBrute for replacing drums. Arturia really did think of everything here.

 

Oscillators

At first glance, the MiniBrute’s overall configuration is reminiscent of the Roland SH-101. That is, there are faders for blending the various waveforms, sub-oscillator, and noise generator. In other words, even though it’s one oscillator, it’s fatter than you might think, because you can have more than one waveform at a time. I’ve always thought this is the ideal method for implementing a single oscillator.

Mixable waveforms are just the beginning. Each of the waves is implemented in a unique manner. The sawtooth section includes modulation rate and amount knobs for Arturia’s “Ultrasaw” mode—a stack of sawtooth waves all slightly detuned relative to one another—cribbed from countless soft synths and first appearing as the “super saw” on the Roland JP-8000 in 1997. Since the MiniBrute is fully analog, this version of the Ultrasaw really feels like it’s derived via some sort of integrated chorus/ensemble effect. Ultimately, all that matters is that it sounds great and the LFO rate easily stretches into the audio range for grungy sideband effects.

The MiniBrute’s square wave is pretty darned aggressive, and when recorded and examined visually in an audio editor, is slightly erratic in shape. What’s more, at the extreme low registers of its range, it has a slightly sawtooth-like slope, which gives it more presence and oomph in those frequencies. I have to give Arturia some major kudos here, as this is serious attention to detail circuit-wise.

The triangle wave is another area of innovation in the MiniBrute. In addition to the expected muted odd-harmonic spectrum of the waveform, there’s a “Metalizer” knob that transforms the waveform into a bright, buzzy mass of frequencies in an extraordinarily musical manner. Arturia confirmed word on the street that this is a custom distortion circuit that operates by warping and folding the waveform; the sonic results are evocative of hard sync, especially when the amount is swept positively or negatively via its dedicated envelope knob.

Even the sub-oscillator goes the extra mile, with a switch for either one or two octaves below the main tone and a waveform selector that toggles between square and sine waves. While the square will generate classic SH-101 timbres, the sine is pure subsonic bombast and another reason that the MiniBrute wins in the cojones department.

 

Filter

The Steiner-Parker filter—from the ultra-rare Synthacon of the 1970s—is an absolute gem. Multimode and fully resonant, it’s capable of a massive array of processing effects. In lowpass mode, it’s surprisingly beefy for a 12dB-per-octave (two-pole) filter. Highpass mode delivers the standard tweezed-out fizz, but goes a step further when the resonance is boosted into the upper ranges. It’s definitely the most aggressive highpass filter I’ve ever heard on an analog synth. Bandpass mode combines the nastiness of the highpass mode with a Daft Punk-ish aura reminiscent of the lead from their ’90s classic “Da Funk.” Even the usually boring notch mode works well here, especially for phasey effects.

What’s especially interesting about the MiniBrute’s filter is that it can also self-oscillate when in lowpass or bandpass mode. Why? Because most two-pole filters can’t do that trick. I’m not sure what’s going on under the hood here, but self-oscillating filters rock, so I’m just gonna smile and play.

There’s also a “Brute Factor” knob that does the classic Minimoog trick of routing a bit of the output signal back into the filter. At low settings, it adds dirt and grunge to the signal. At maximum settings, the feedback loop can quickly turn wonderfully nasty, with its character dependent on the selected filter mode.

The cherry on this sundae is that the MiniBrute also includes a mixable external audio input, so you can process anything that strikes your fancy through the filter and amp modules. Considering how unique this filter sounds, this is a very big deal, and for some studios will be a major selling point.

 

Modulation

The MiniBrute’s dual ADSR envelopes use sliders instead of the knobs found on the oscillators and filters. I love this design touch because it makes realtime adjustments to decay and/or release much more enjoyable in a performance situation. One envelope is dedicated to the amplifier, while the other can be used for the filter cutoff, aforementioned Metalizer amount, and/or pulse width, but not pitch—sigh. What’s more, both envelopes can be switched between fast and slow modes. Slow has more of a classic envelope feel, whereas fast is super-snappy and percussive. Both are useful, but fast is a godsend for punchy, plucky riffs, basses, and arpeggios.

There are two LFOs on the MiniBrute, one that can modulate pitch, cutoff, amp and/or pulse width and metalizer amounts, and another that’s strictly for pitch effects like vibrato and trill. The more complex LFO includes multiple waveforms that run the gamut from sine to smoothed-out sample-and-hold, and all of the essentials in between. Each destination amount can be set separately—either positive or negative—although the pulse width and Metalizer amounts are shared. The rate can either free-run controlled by its own knob, or be locked to the arpeggiator speed, which is another lovely touch.

The vibrato LFO is strictly for pitch, with its amount set via the mod wheel in real time. In an interesting twist, the waveform selector can be switched to either a bipolar sine wave or one of two unipolar square waves for positive and negative trills. This is really well thought out because bipolar square waves on pitch are decidedly unmusical—you lose the root pitch. Again, Arturia’s attention to detail is extraordinary.

Regarding the mod wheel and aftertouch, each has its own switch for selecting the modulation source. The wheel can control the main LFO, the vibrato LFO, or (hallelujah!) the cutoff frequency. Aftertouch can control either vibrato amount or cutoff. The bend range on the pitch wheel goes from one semitone to a full octave with each extreme at either end of the range. Perfect.

Finally, the integrated arpeggiator includes the usual four modes (up, down, up/down, and random), up to four octaves of range, and added niceties like note value and swing amount. While most people will rely on their laptop and a USB cable for this type of flashiness, it’s nice to know it’s there if you need it.

 imgConclusions

Within minutes of unpacking the MiniBrite, I moved a very famous analog workhorse in my studio to the corner of the room and plugged the ’Brute into my rig, knowing instinctively that I was going to be living with it for a long, long time. Despite its lack of a second oscillator for interval tunings, this synth is capable of a staggering range of textures with copious amounts of bass thanks to the sub-oscillator. Sure, you can leave the exotic options turned off and almost instantly get those vintage ’80s synth-pop sounds, but if you push the MiniBrute a little harder, this beast growls, grunts, and breathes fire—making it perfect for hard electro and dubstep sounds that you can’t find anywhere else.

Arturia’s attention to detail on the MiniBrute is breathtaking. Every feature on this synth is implemented perfectly—and in over a decade of reviewing gear, I have never said that before. It sounds amazing. It can convert USB to control voltages. It can process audio through its engine. It’s brilliantly laid out. And it’s only five bills, if you don’t mind being on a waiting list. Whether you think of it as the perfect introduction to analog synthesis or a must-have addition to your studio, the MiniBrute is the most bang for your buck on the analog market today. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Key Buy.
 

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