Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thoughts on the Arturia Minibrute

So, I've been fortunate enough to have a borrowed Arturia Minibrute in my studio for the past week.  I had hoped to do a full-fledged review, but as my band's US tour starts in a few days, I've been pretty busy and didn't get to put some of the features, such as USB integration, through their paces.  So I'm going to offer a less-structured than usual look at the synth here and address what I did get to try.

Build Quality
I've seen a couple reviews that characterized the build quality of the Minibrute as "cheap".  I'm at a bit of a loss to understand why, as I actually found it to be remarkably solid (It's quite a bit heavier than I expected it to be).  There are some synths that just feel sturdy when you handle them, and I'd put the Minibrute in that category.  All the knobs and sliders move easily and smoothly, the pitch and mod wheels travel naturally, and the keyboard feels sturdy and playable.  I should note that the unit I was testing had just been out on the road with the band Covenant for several weeks, which can be a punishing test for gear.  It seems to have held together very well, and had I not taken it from the band directly, I never would've known it had been out on the road.

The architecture of the Minibrute is not dissimilar to Roland's famous SH-101 with some interesting additions.  The Minibrute features a single oscillator, but with multiple waveforms available at the same time.  This way you can mix differing amounts of saw, square, triangle, and noise to alter the basic timbre.  The square wave is capable of PWM, opening the door to some thicker sounds, and the saw wave features an "Ultrasaw" mode, which is a sort of unison type effect.  The triangle wave features a Metallizer mode that opens the door to harsh, metallic, FM-type sounds.  Additionally, there is a suboscillator with selectable waveforms and a choice of sounding -1 or -2 octaves below the main oscillator.  Portamento/glide settings are also available.

The oscillators are fed through a multi-mode filter in lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch varieties.  Standard cutoff and resonance controls are found here, along with controls for envelope modulation amount and keyboard tracking amount.  There is also a switch to select a "slow" or "fast" envelope speed, allowing you to try out different filter slopes.

For modulation sources there is a single LFO with multiple waveform flavors, a dedicated filter modulation envelope, and a dedicated amplitude envelope.  There's also a "Brutalizer" knob to introduce an overdrive effect to your sound.

Rounding things out is classic-style, syncable arpeggiator.

If there is one facet of the Minibrute that lets it down, I'd say it was the oscillators.  I'm not sure I can figure out why, but the raw tone of the Minibrute sounds rather weak and thin to me.  Play a single sawtooth on a real Minimoog and even in that raw state it has undeniable balls and substance.  That's not really the case here.  The other thing I noticed was a bit of a lack of low-end power.  You can get some warm sounds out of it, but this won't be something you'll likely seek out for bass sounds.  Even with the sub-oscillator engaged I had trouble getting floor-rumbling frequencies one usually associates with real analog synths.

The Ultrasaw function can help add some thickness, but its range of usefulness is relatively small to my ears.  After a certain point, it just makes the sound muddy and indistinct.  At lower settings, however, it can give the illusion of a second, detuned oscillator. The Metallizer can produce some very cool sounds if you're into harsh, nasty, metallic sounds.  It can be modulated via envelope or LFO as well to further expand the sonic possibilities.

The filter section, conversely, is the area where the Minibrute really shines.  In fact, it was the filter section of this synth that caught my interest the first time I read about it.  The Minibrute's synth is the same type of filter as found on the rare Steiner-Parker Synthacon.  If you've never heard one of these beasts, you've missed out on one of the most interesting-sounding synth filters since the Korg MS-20.  In fact, like the MS-20, this filter can absolutely scream in a way few others can.  Of course, you can also get more standard classic filter sounds and even acidic sounds at more subtle settings.  The selection of multiple types of filter is a huge advantage, and each type sounds fantastic in its own way.  The selectable filter envelope slope is a great addition, too.  Even at the "slow" setting you can get some very punchy, percussive sounds, just with an overall "rounder" feel to them than the very spikey "fast" mode.

Modulation Options
The modulation options are simple, but about what you would expect from a mono synth.  The only thing I wasn't really crazy about was using the LFO to modulate PWM.  Again, I found the really useable range of modulation here was relatively small.  As you modulate at higher frequencies, it comes across more as vibrato, whereas on other synths you'd just get a fatter, more detuned sound.

The Brutalizer
I've got to say, I didn't care for the Brutalizer at all.  It can indeed add dirt and balls to your sound, but something about it just sounded really unmusical and displeasing (not in a good way).  Your mileage may vary.

The Sound
What you think about the Minibrute is going to be largely based on what your expectations are.  It definitely has a distinct sound, but it doesn't do everything equally well.  As I mentioned before, basses are possible, but not very remarkable due to a lack of low frequency balls.  The envelopes are very fast, but for some reason, I wasn't able to get drum and percussion sounds of the quality I could produce on my SH-101.  It may be the unusual quality of the filter, but overall drums, are not its strong suit.

What the Minibrute does well is classic leads, unusual metallic timbres, and unique synth-type sounds.  And, as I said before, it is great for screamy, shrieking bits of aggressiveness.  In fact, this, combined with the overall mid/high bias of the oscillators might make it especially appealing to people working in electro-house.

At first, the Minibrute doesn't seem especially flexible, but it's one of those synths where small differences in settings can often yield significantly different sounds.  Be realistic, though... this is a one-oscillator mono synth.  It's architecture is inherently limited, so of course you're not going to get the range of sounds you'd get out of something like a Pro One.

I can't really compare the sound of the Minibrute to any classic synth.  While it might be tempting to expect it to sound like an SH-101, it really doesn't - perhaps because a large part of the 101's sound was from the Roland filter.  That's obviously a good thing if you're looking for a more unique sound, but bad if you're looking to replace an existing piece of analog gear.

Would I Buy It?
There's no doubt that, at its price of under $500, the Minibrute is tempting - after all, this is a fully-analog synth.  The less impressive oscillators have me on the fence, though.  I love the filter, and it can indeed add some interest to the oscillators, but I can't help feeling like just the addition of better oscillators would take this synth to a whole different level.  Of course, this synth does have a filter input, so you could use it to process your other synths, but it seems a bit extravagant to buy one just for that.  Put it this way... when I first heard about the Minibrute my brain instantly said "Buy!", but after spending some time with it, I'm a little less excited.  At this point, I am a bit more inclined to see if these start turning up on the used market.  Not that the price is unreasonable at all, but a second-hand unit would be a lot easier to justify, as there's not a specific hole this synth would fill in my studio.

I hope this was at least somewhat enlightening.  I'm not going to assign it a number score, as I really only put the synthesis functions to the test and not the other features such as USB, CV outputs, etc.


Anonymous said...

Did you try turning the osc faders down a bit?? Overdriving a filter with full-on levels usually leads to a lack of bass and resonance.

jason said...

Where are you people buying these from? I've been trying to get my hands on a Mini Brute for months now. No one has them in stock and I'm being told from many dealers that it's going to be a couple MORE months until they have any. Ugh.

Tom said...

@Anonymous - Even with the filter wide open and faders down a bit the bass output isn't very impressive. @Jason - As the intro of the review explains, this was a loaner from Arturia, I don't own it.

Computer Controlled said...

I lucked into mine at the Guitar Center on Westlake, downtown. Though i gotta say, i think the VCF is what is keeping the VCO balls in check. I've been running my modular VCO through the input for dual Osc action, and even this Osc ends up lacking when run through the MB. But when used just with the modular, it's huge!

Reeno said...

I got one of these about a week ago and It is blowing me away.
the comments regarding lack of bass power are completely false, or the reviewer simply does not know how to program.
The oscillator sounds pretty darn good to me...not "thin" as described.
Overall...this is a keeper. A homerun for Arturia!

Unknown said...

Mine is one month old. first i was really happy wit it then …..then 02 keys are broken already , just by playing normally, and the master pot is noisy , and the release fader is O or 100 with nothing in between..
Don't buy it ! Bad built quality . Arturia , who is checking your standards ?

Phaedrum said...

In my opinion, the reviewer is absolutely right on target! In fact, it was only after reading this article (after using my Minibrute for over a year and realizing none of my patches made the final cut onto my tracks) that my problem with the synth was illuminated: the oscillators are indeed clearly weak and gutless. They really do lack low end (perhaps the recent commentator had his bass EQ inadvertently turned up a few hundred dB). If anyone has any doubts about this, try comparing the oscillators to those of a Moog Sub 37 (which I just purchased to replace the Minibrute)--the difference is immediately apparent and overwhelming. True, the Moog costs almost twice as much, but for me the extra cash layout meant the difference between an unused synth with no balls to a powerhouse that thunders.

Logarhythm said...

WRT the Moog Sub37; I own both the 'brute and the '37, and have compared them to each other and loaner synths.
The Sub37 actually has a bass boost in its oscillator core design (based on the Moog Minotaur's osc) so it's kind of its own animal. If you compare a spectrograph to reference oscillators (say, a computer rendered sawtooth or something from an analog modular) you'll see and hear significantly more bass energy from the '37.
I like the Minibrute's interface a lot in theory, and you can coax some nice bright sounds and broken-sounding nastiness. The waveform variety is also handy (sub/lfo sine-ish waves!.) That said, there are a couple of issues that make it difficult for sound design. One is that some important ranges go off into less-than-pleasing extremes (the filter and envelopes come to mind,) which has the effect of reducing the generally useful range of the controls to a limited area. The envelope sliders are pretty bad; the ADR stages appear to be incorrectly installed log sliders, making the bottom 1/4 of the slider range encompass most of the useful settings (fast mode) and scaling linearly instead of more gradually. This is extremely fiddly, and it leaves much of the slider range to longer values that don't require nearly the precision. The slow envelope mode is fine for very long stuff, but the scaling is also tricky.
I've A/B'd the 'brute against the new Korg/Arp Odyssey reissue and the plain saw oscillators do sound pretty much spot-on the same. The 'brute's square doesn't seem to go quite down to 50% duty cycle for me but this is probably a calibration issue. When using the sub square solo'd it does sound like the odyssey's. Pulse width on the 'brute doesn't choke off nearly as much, but this is probably unfair to point out vs. the Odyssey.