As music production becomes more accessible than ever, dedicated software companies have flourished by pumping out synth plugins that are getting increasingly better at emulating hardware, and for only a quarter of the price. The French engineers at Arturia know this story all too well, as they've had a great run of cloning classics like Roland's Jupiter 8, Sequential Circuits' Prophet 5, and Yamaha's CS-80. Recently, Arturia has linked itself with an odd turn of events in the synth world. A growing trend where software companies have seemingly ran in the opposite direction by developing their own hardware.
The MiniBrute was their analog debut, and its compact size and hardware meets software implementation set the standard of what a modern day analog synthesizer should be in the 21st century. The MicroBrute is its rowdy little cousin, and while many would guess that it's just a stripped down version of Arturia's original flagship synth, the MicroBrute has a few outstanding perks that makes it fitter than its older cousin and other mono's alike. When you consider the size, the price, the features, only then can you realize how truly remarkable this synth is for Arturia, and this review will breakdown why.
CUT TO THE CHASE
The good: An innovative oscillator and mixer section with wave-shaping and overtone capabilities for square, saw, and triangle waveforms. The multimode filter has great character, and the additional "Brute Factor" can turn this little mono into a beast. With stern knobs and smooth envelope sliders, the MicroBrute's build quality is surprisingly good considering its price tag. The added Mod Matrix leads to many happy accidents, and conveniently racks up with other gear.
The bad: There's really nothing to knock here except for small missing features. A sine wave for the LFO section and a MIDI out would be useful to have in possible revisions in the future.
The dealbreaker: Monstrous sound in a micro package. The MicroBrute packs more features and possibilities than mono synths twice its size. With an analog envelope, LFO, and sequencer that can be routed in and out via the Mod Matrix, the MicroBrute is the perfect first synth for beginners looking to learn, and a must-have for anyone dipping their feet into their first Eurorack system. For just $299, there's little doubt that the MicroBrute can be a bargain for anyone.
BEHIND THE SCENES
To break this little beast down, we'll have to start at the source. The oscillator section on the MicroBrute undoubtedly makes it standout among other monophonic synthesizers. To quickly recap, a monophonic or "mono" synth, is a synthesizer that carries only one oscillator. This makes it very simple to program for beginners, but that simplicity does come with some limitations. First, you can't play a chord or two notes on a mono synth because it only has 1 voice. You also can't detune oscillators against each other to create those colossal synth leads stomping around in your favourite electro records.
The amazing thing about the MicroBrute is that it's one of the only mono synths out there that has you somewhat covered on that front. Not only does the oscillator section sport your three basic sawtooth, square, and triangle waveforms that can be mixed together to create bizarre wave shapes, but it also has an "Overtone" section where you can add either a sub frequency or a fifth into whatever mix of waves you select. So how does the mono MicroBrute manage to create detuned sounds with just one oscillator? Let's just call it witchcraft. and we'll leave it at that.
If you think I'm done covering the oscillator section, I'm just getting started. Each waveform can also be sculpted with its own wave augmenter, which is synth lingo for being able to crunch and mangle your sounds. The sawtooth has the "Ultrasaw", the square has your standard "Pulse Width", and the triangle has my favourite, the "Metalizer". All three of these features will let you introduce new harmonics to make your sound unique, and they're incredibly practical. You can ram the knobs all the way to the right for that electro banger-esque distortion, or just modestly drive things here and there to bring out the character of an already deep bassline. And on top of all of that, you can mix these waveforms into each other to create a sound that is entirely yours. It's as simple as turning a bunch of knobs in the MicroBrute's oscillator section, which is easy to use and definitely the staple of this machine.
Next is the filter section, which is often overlooked by so many newcomers wanting to get their hands on an analog synth. Think of the filter as the clothes you wear on your body, no matter how much your anti-consumerist side tries to deny it, it presents your personality. In the MicroBrute, the 12db filter has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character to it, the steep cutoff slope can sound clean and clinical, but when you ramp up the resonance it starts to sound more manic and gritty. The closest filters I can peg it to would be the one's found in the early Roland Juno series and the SH-101, but that'd still be off the mark because Arturia's filters tend to dry things out when you run the resonance to its extremes.
Next to the resonance knob we have another feature exclusive to Arturia's series of analog synths, the "Brute Factor". My guess is that this is some sort of saturator or overdrive to clip the input signal before it reaches the filter, regardless; it adds an even grittier character to the filter, especially at a higher resonance, which can be useful for anyone thirsting for distortion or even just looking to add a little oomph into whatever they're patching. Either way, the filter can take no prisoners and still make it on time for dinner with the fam. Not to mention the added high pass and band pass modes makes this section very versatile.
If you've been looking at some of the pictures of the MicroBrute, the synth's Mod Matrix has probably already caught your eye. For those that haven't messed around with modular synths or semi-modulars like the Korg MS-20, the "Mod Matrix" is a place where you can route control sources to modulate specific parts of the synth. On the MicroBrute, these two control sources are the LFO and the envelope — but it doesn't just stop there, you can take any control source with CV, whether it be from a vintage synth or your Eurorack modular, and use it to modulate different parameters on the MicroBrute.
Without a doubt, this feature expands the possibilities of what appears to be a measly mono synth, as most of its parameters can be routed in and out of the synth to create sounds that are literally outside the box. Use the included patch cables to make a wobbling dubstep bass by plugging the LFO out into the filter, or take the envelope and route it into the pitch of the oscillator section to get the laser sounds in your favourite Major Lazer records. For a one oscillator synth that you can fit in your backpack, the range of sounds on the MicroBrute is impressive, and you can thank the Mod Matrix for that.
I'll be honest, there's no single feature that sold me on the MicroBrute, it was rather a combination of so many useful features woven together in such a tight package, at a price point that can make a synth enthusiast's jaw drop. Not only do you get a filter that's edgy yet clinical, a semi-modular patch bay begging for happy mistakes, and an oscillator section full of creative wave sculpting capabilities, but you also have a sequencer that can store up to 8 sequences. By arming the record on the sequencer, you can tap in up to 64 notes on the keyboard, and just let the steps run as you doodle with the knobs.
The sequencer section is really the coup de gras of the MicroBrute, and Arturia lets you route the pitch and gate out of your sequences into other gear you may have, making this mono an undeniable bang for your buck. Couple all of that with quick USB-MIDI implementation, a seamless software editor that lets you automate parameters from your DAW, an input that lets you run sounds through the filter section, and you have an affordable mono synth that can blend in with your workflow, while giving you the lush sonic range many seek out in analog equipment. Given all these features packed into a synth that's no bigger than the length of a ruler, Arturia's MicroBrute is anything but micro in sound and possibilities.