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)
Even 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.