Tuesday, September 25, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.