Friday, 27 June 2014

More Bass in Less Space - the MicroBrute is here!

A while ago I made a big deal out of the MicroBrute that Arturia announced last year. Shoehorning some of the more popular features of the MiniBrute with some other features in a smaller box, there seemed to be enough in this new offering to warrant buying one to compliment my original MiniBrute. Having had store credit with Wunjo burning a hole in my pocket for some time, I finally opted to pony up the difference and get one - the only problem being that I have only had a few days to play with it before going on holiday, so this is kind of a rambling review of my new toy and some comparisons I have found with the MiniBrute.

Keyboard / wheels

You know, I didn't know how much I enjoyed Aftertouch until I lost it and it can be annoying that the Micro lost this in slimming down the size of the unit. The keys themselves are also a lot smaller, more akin to some of Arturia's other controller keyboards - as a guy with small fingers I find the Micro as easy if not easier to play as a result. The pitch bend is perfectly usable, though you do have to learn its specific setting as there is s lack of specific control of how much bending it causes. I haven't yet plugged the MicroBrute to my compute to contact the Arturia Mothership, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a setting in software to control pitch bend amount.*

*Edit: it does and it's ace. Plenty of extra stuff under the hood for the LFO trigger and step sequencer.

Which brings me on to the next little thing. By default the mod wheel affects note pitch on the lfo, which I find a bit strange. More useful is the option to assign it to LFO intensity or filter cutoff frequency, but to set it to affect just note vibrato like on the MiniBrute (and many other synths) you have to start fiddling with the patch matrix to set the LFO up and go from there. While it means I can't jump in straight away and get my George Duke noodling instantly, I am overlooking the benefits of the semi modular nature of the synth.

Little patch bay goodness

Orange must be in this year, judging by the colour of the two little patch cables. These are more than enough to route the main parts of the unit to make s sound you like and in general gets you introduced to the benefits of modular patching. I can definitely see these semi modular synths like this and the MS-20 mini as a gateway synth (read:drug) into full blown modular synths, especially with all the CV out stuff in the back for control. Something I have also looked at is using headphone splitter plugs to send CV out sources from the LFO and Envelope to more than one CV in, further increasing the possibility of wacky and unexpected sounds. In particular I have also seen people using iPhones with the Brute LFO app to extend the modulation sources on the unit. It's just really really fun and I haven't even had a chance to control both brutes together via CV or MIDI.


Interestingly, one thing I think the unit copes with really well is the lack of specific filter and amplifier envelopes. With just one envelope that controls the filter by default, you can use the switch to gate the amp or have it follow the filter envelope as well as the patch bay to do the same job - or control something entirely different! even I thought I wouldn't miss the second envelope and the way Arturia have added loads of options and alternatives to cope with this makes the MicroBrute more of a unique proposition and helps to distinguish it from its bigger brother.

Making Waves

it's not all for the better though. Whilst the main Saw, Square and Triangle wave forms have been retained from the MiniBrute, I do miss the noise generator for doing wind swishes and adding a bit of low end crackle to a sound, but this is a minor quibble as the waves are far more usable in bread and butter sounds. It's a similar story with the sub oscillator, which has been cut down to just a square wave at a fixed octave below the main oscillator. The tradeoff here is the ability to tune the sub oscillator to generate fifths, so you can get your Keith Emerson on with surprising ease. I did like the sine wave for softer sub sounds on the MiniBrute, as it is a kind of cheeky fifth wave form that you can use on its own if you want.

One little sore point I have found is with the saw wave's pseudo-detuning feature. On the MicroBrute the effect is much less pronounced when you turn the saw effect knob and need the addition of the LFO CV out patched to the mysterious Saw In to beef it up. After asking on MuffWiggler, it seems that the effect has been split into phase shifting and intensity, so the two do need to be used together to make the same effect. Of course my concern is that this takes up the valuable single LFO to do something that the MiniBrute can do without any additional help, but of course this doesn't stop you using the saw in different ways.

Brutal bits

Of course, the main draw of something like the MicroBrute is that you get all the nice bits from the original like the Steiner-Parker filter, brute factor overdrive, triangle and saw folding and so on in a smaller package. What things they have removed here and there while reducing the size do make some difference in terms of how the synth operates versus its bigger brother. But in doing so they seem to have added enough new features and little workarounds that still allows similar functionality whilst giving it a character all of its own. The fact that you get most of the same great sound and connectivity plus overtones, semi modular patching and 32 note sequencer in a unit over 120 quid cheaper is amazing and for that price it's a steal!