Arturia MatrixBrute Review – A Very Powerful Beast

It feels like an age ago now that Arturia announced its intentions for the MatrixBrute, with some of us being tantalised by the odd glimpse of one at music fairs. Now the wait is over, as production gets underway – and although they are in very short supply, we are lucky enough to get hold of one to put through its paces.

Details
Manufacturer Arturia
Price £1,659
Contact Source Distribution
0208 962 5080
Web www.arturia.com

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Synth-head shopping list

This synth feels like a substantial piece of work. The pots are pretty solid, and the keyboard feels nice to play, with the exceptionally large 256-button matrix, which you can hardly miss, forming a large part of the front of the panel. It’s bedecked with lights, and glows with an almost iridescent quality, changing according to its mode of operation.

There’s a great feeling that Arturia asked every synth-head they could find what they would want in a mono synth, and the first nod goes to the MiniMoog, as the MatrixBrute front control panel raises to various angles, just like the MiniMoog or Voyager. What’s possibly less hip is the support bracket, which is cream in colour, and emblazoned with the Arturia legend.
Minimoogs were always more understated than this, and there’s also a plastic support strap, which prevents the support bracket from going too far. I’m not sure why this is deemed necessary, but it’s there.
“You can hardly miss the 256-button matrix – it’s a large part of the front of the panel”

So coming back to our synth-head wishlist, we can start to outline the MatrixBrute’s extraordinary feature set. There are three analogue oscillators; two flavours of filter; three full ADSR envelopes and two dedicated LFOs, all of which are routable for the purposes of modulation. Although this synth is very much analogue in design, all the potentiometers fall into the realm of digital control. This is nothing new in synth design, and doesn’t detract – in fact, it helpfully allows for the saving of patches since the information relating to the position of the pots is saved at the patch level. What this does mean is that when patches are recalled, the position of the pots will not immediately be reflected on the panel, requiring the user to tweak a pot past its save point to get it to spring to life. This is exactly how synths such as the Jupiter-8 used to work, and is a very small price to pay for the ability to save up to 256 patches, in non-volatile memory locations.

VCO a go-go

The very versatile and comprehensive oscillator section, with two of everything and a third switchable oscillator, too

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Starting with the oscillators, VCO 1 and VCO 2 are identical in look and feel. In common with other Arturia hardware synths, the oscillators offer both a primary and sub oscillator and multiple simultaneous waveforms, each of which offer a form of modulation, and independent amplitude control. The Saw is equipped with the ability to ‘Super Saw’, the Square/Pulse offers the ubiquitous Pulse Width Modulation, while the final Triangle wave offers

the Metalizer. The latter is the most sensible name for the effect it has on the modulated wave, as it starts to sound harsh and metallic in nature through a form of wave-folding; it’s not digital, but could almost be – judging by the glorious harmonic overtones that emerge. In isolation, this sounds great (albeit bright), but when backed up with the simultaneous waves, it’s got weight and depth. The PWM goes right to the edge, but not out of audio range, while the Super Saw adds in an additional two waves, to thicken the texture nicely.

There’s no crudity in the Super Saw, as you sometimes hear on some other Super Saw machines, but bear in mind that crudity can be added at will, with the addition of further oscillators. We’re still only listening to one.
“The oscillators sound similar to SE’s Oscillation and not a million miles from a Moog Voyager”

Unlike other Arturia synth designs, there doesn’t appear to be any overdriving within the oscillator section. There’s opportunity to overdrive elsewhere and I like how the design’s complexity is uncluttered and, with the large fascia, it’s easy to work with.

There’s a sub oscillator on each VCO, and here’s where Arturia has made a significant improvement on its MiniBrute design, as the sub is sweepable between Sine and Square wave – so there’s no huge increase in level between the waves, as there was in switching on the MiniBrute. It’s comprehensive beyond all measure, akin to a 101 on steroids!

VCO 3 is slightly different, sharing duties between VCO 3 and LFO 3. VCO mode is activated by pressing the Keyboard Tracking button, and offers just basic waves, with none of the niceties of VCO 1 and 2, but it certainly has the ability to heighten the signal further if you feel you just don’t have enough to work with.

Finally, in the VCO section is a selection of noises, on a dedicated channel. Simply put, you have white, pink, red and blue at your disposal. It’s possibly the most comprehensive noise section I’ve seen on a production synth, certainly for a while.

And so to the sound of the basic VCOs. They do sound pretty immense, and even with just one VCO in play, the options are so extensive you’ll have plenty to work with. In keeping with other Arturia hardware synths, they sound very punchy. To my ears, the oscillators sounded very similar to the SE Oscillation, and not a million miles from a Moog Voyager, either, so it’s a good sonic pedigree. Pack in all three VCOs and Moog-like leads and earthshaking basses come to the fore.

I particularly liked the way that oscillator tuning is handled. After the ubiquitous warm-up period of just a few minutes, tuning is pretty stable: but if things wander too far, you can retune the oscillators just as you did on the 80s machines, via a slightly curious keypress of two buttons. Thankfully, the display springs the word ‘Tune’ into view throughout the short duration of tuning, which lasts just a few seconds. I know it would have been yet another button on an already busy fascia, but a nice Tune button would’ve been far more obvious and accessible, in common with older machines that offered the same facility.

A little additional trick up the sleeve of the Oscillator section is the Audio Mod section which, at the very least, allows for the modulation of oscillators, and other elements such as the filter, against each other. Even the most slightly detuned oscillators can quickly descend into something very dirty in texture, so much so that the cones on your speakers won’t know which low frequency to play next! Right next door to this is a dedicated VCO Sync button, which quickly allows VCO 2 to sync to VCO 1. All those tones you would expect immediately emanate, particularly if some pitch modulation of VCO 2 is bought into play.

VCFs

Moving to the filters, there is a choice of two filters, in two flavours. Deciding how (and which) of the VCOs are in play is as simple as pressing a small button next to each oscillator, that illuminates one of two lights, indicating routing. The options are to one or the other, or both. The filters themselves are both analogue: either Steiner-based or Ladder-based. I’ve always really liked the Steiner filter that Arturia have championed to date, as it’s got some character. Sure enough, there’s a certain ‘fuzziness’ in sweeping, and the resonance will really go sinusoidal if that’s what you want. The more conventional Ladder design offers a beautiful wispiness in the top end, which is missing from the Steiner. For me, there’s less character here; I found the resonance on the ladder filter to be a little bland, and not entirely Moog-like, which could be a tad unfair of me, as it’s up against the colour of the Steiner filter. The filters can, after all, be assigned in either series or parallel, and right in the centre of the filter section is a Master Cutoff pot, which will control the cutoff of both filters, in unison. Both filters offer Low Pass, High Pass and Band Pass modes: the Steiner also offers a Notch mode and all are available in 12dB or 24dB flavours.
“The Ladder filter is useful, but up against a Moog filter, lacked the finesse and smoothness”

I also mentioned earlier that overdrive was lacking from the VCO section. That’s because you’ll find it in the filter section, again in two flavours. The Overdrive is really lovely to use; it’s subtle, but if you apply some filter resonance, you’ll hear some really tasty 303-style tones immediately. It doesn’t go too far, and that could be because the excess is left to the next level of distortion, which is the Brute Factor. Apparently, there is a ‘secret recipe’ at play with the Brute Factor and certainly it’s helpful to have the bottom end slot back into place, with excessive resonance. I found anything above around 60 per cent of Brute Factor just seemed to turn my raw signal into something exceptionally aggressive; it almost seemed to become a lower frequency set of pulses. Maybe the Brute Factor has been fed too many steroids in this machine: but either way, in the lower ranges, it can have its uses.

Take two filters into the shower? Now I just mix and go…Steiner and Ladder filters, in series or parallel

In play, I was largely drawn to the Steiner filter more than the Ladder design, but this might just be because it’s something different. I’m very familiar with this design, from the other Arturia hardware synths, which may well be why I was so drawn to it. The Ladder filter is useful, but when placed up against a Moog filter, lacked the finesse and smoothness, especially in the resonance. Like the Brute Factor, I found the Ladder resonance to be a little ‘on or off’, but I’m being highly critical here and making comparisons with the best of filters available – and the Steiner is one.
“I was easily punching in modulations within seconds of moving to the matrix section”

One particular pot is curiously absent – and that’s keyboard tracking. If this is required, you’ll need to access it via the matrix, which we’ll come to later. But once invoked, tracking is available, albeit a bit inaccurate across more than two octaves – another sign of the Brute’s analogue nature.

Envelopes and LFOs

There’s plenty of everything on this machine and, sure enough, the story continues in the Envelope section, where there are three full ADSR Envelopes, in a fader-based design. By default, Envelope 1 is directed toward the filter cutoff, with the amount controlled independently, via a pot on both filter stages, while Envelope 2 is set to the default of amplitude. Both envelopes have an additional fader which is linked to the velocity amount, allowing for easy control, or the ability to quickly disable. Envelope 3 is assignable, and has a very useful Delay fader. This enables the start of the envelope trigger to be delayed, from the point of playing to the start of the attack phase. This is a really useful option, even for the most mundane of duties such as controlling filter cutoff. Phases are timed between two miliseconds and 10 seconds, across all envelope phases, with the obvious exception of Sustain.

There are two dedicated LFOs, with a third switchable between the aforementioned VCO3/LFO3 configuration, and here, you’ll find a comprehensive choice of all your usual favourites, from Sine and Triangle to Saw Ramps in both directions and Random/Random with Glide. Both LFOs allow for sync’ing to the sequencer section: however, LFO 1 also offers a phase control, so that the start of the cycle can be shifted between beats and timing points. LFO 2, on the other hand, offers a more conventional Delay control. Both dedicated LFOs also have a Retrig function, which can also be clocked to the internal sequencer.

The sequencer section is beside the matrix, right where you want it

LFO3 (which is switchable with VCO 3) is more basic, but does offer a clock button, for straight clock divisions. As you’d expect, switching between modes, the LFO 3 goes well up into audio range – debatably not necessary for a third LFO, but it’s nice to have the choice.

Entering the matrix

With all these enticing elements which are ripe for modulation, it’s time to turn our attentions to the factor which is likely to be for many, the main event –and is also where the MatrixBrute gets its moniker.

Taking up about a third of the whole panel fascia is the matrix. There are a bewildering 256 buttons to be pressed. The Matrix has three reasons to exist. Firstly, it represents an easy way to access the 256 memory locations to recall patches, which – although pretty perfunctory – is quick and useful. Secondly, it’s linked in with the sequencer section, which we’ll come back to later. But given that we’ve discussed so many of the features adorning the panel, let’s start by discussing the virtues of using the matrix for routing modulations.

This is pretty comprehensive, but it’s not a new idea, either. Possibly the most famous machine to implement a programming matrix of this kind is the VCS 3, produced by EMS, from 1969. Back then, it was groundbreaking, and signals were routed via pins which were stuck into place, using an X-Y matrix to dictate which signal was being sent to where. With the MatrixBrute, we get a more updated form, thanks to underlit buttons, offering a level of control.

In use, it’s as easy as selecting your chosen modulation source – which could be the usual suspects such as envelopes, LFOs, or even velocity and aftertouch – and pressing the button where the source crosses with the destination. Modulations that are in use will illuminate in blue, as you could well have several modulations in play simultaneously. Selecting any of the modulations will illuminate the button in purple, and invite the user to dial in the amount of modulation, via the large pot which is above the matrix. It will accept both positive and negative polarities, and the dial is surrounded by lights to indicate the amount; but if you would rather work with numbers, the patch number display will offer -99 to +99 for greater accuracy. It’s a beautifully elegant way of working and I was punching in modulations both easily and quickly within seconds of moving to the matrix section.

Four Macro controls, right in the performance section, along with pitch and mod wheels, and a very long glide time

It doesn’t end there, though, as four of the modulation destinations are up for grabs and programmable. I did have a head-scratching moment at this point, as I tried to work out how to implement this function. But having read the manual, I discovered that it was as simple as pressing the corresponding assignment button, at the top of the row, and moving the pot or fader I wished to send my assignment to. The purpose here is to open up any of the synth to modulation, which can include things like LFO speed, which is often one modulation too far on many synths. I have to say, this really is where the power lies, as the modulation possibilities are so complex, it opens up the sort of options that are exclusive to either Virtual Analogue machines, either in hardware or software form, or to modular… but without all the patch cables. I am completely sold on the concept of the matrix section, but it does have a couple of curious traits. There’s an accompanying LCD display located just above the grid and its primary purpose is to provide visual confirmation of the four user-definable routings. When routings are assigned, the LCD goes through a two-second flashing cycle as it redraws and the routing is put into place. I suspect this is down to the complexities of saving and routing a patch from the computer-controlled panel, but it feels a little disconcerting. The same panel also seems to have a beating heart, as the LCD remains illuminated even when the power is disconnected from the synth. I imagine this has to do with the battery powered, non-volatile memory. I thought this was an overlay sticker, for display purposes!

Referring back to the patch selection, either via the matrix or through the Preset section (which does the same job), you will also find that when switching patches, it’ll take a second or so for the patch to spring into life, and more worryingly, I found there would often be quite loud clicks and pops emanating from the main outputs. This could be a major issue for some, especially if you intend to use it live. The idea of those loud clicks and pops being amplified in a venue isn’t going to go down well, so it would be fair to say that if you need to pull up patches quickly and silently, perhaps playing live, you might have some issues. These matters should be resolved through firmware updates, but I can’t imagine the patch recall speed will be radically improved, as I’d think that for the most part, this is down to the speed of the internal processor chip onboard.

Sequencer and arpeggiator

The third element to the matrix is related to the sequencer, which glows red once the large sequencer button is pressed, switching the matrix over to four rows of 16 and allowing up to 64 steps of programming. This takes place in either step or real time, with editing available after a pass. It’s not just restricted to notes, either, as sequential duties can also be deployed to modulation sources. I also found the clocking and re-triggering from the LFOs to be very good here and, like many other modern synths, I found no hint of lag as I played sequencer-based patches. It’s always nice to be able to play a sequencer so it can be manually transposed with any harmonic movement in a track, as you can here. Sequences are saved either as patterns or as part of a programmed patch, meaning that it will immediately appear once that patch is called up.
“There’s a ‘Sync’ input and output, allowing sync to other analogue clock-based devices”

Thanks to the dedicated sequencer section, with its whole raft of controls and settings, it’s pretty easy and useful to gain access to most of the elements that you need to operate the sequencer. Of course, the boon of the matrix is a given here, but it does surprisingly take a few minutes to get your head around how this works, especially when relating what you play in real time to the information being displayed. As I discovered, as more than one line will often illuminate to indicate additional information such as mod and slide. Talking of which, it can go all 303 if desired, thanks to the comprehensive addition of both Accent and Slide. There are also numerous other parameters, in line with the likes of the Beatstep Pro, such as the ability to switch direction and go random, and clocking options, most notably over MIDI and via a dedicated Sync input.

Alongside the sequencer, and located in the same section, is the arpeggiator, which can either operate as a regular standard arpeggiator, offering the basic series of Up, Down and Random type patterns, or can be linked in with the matrix. In this mode, the concept is that you can play up to four notes and dictate both rhythm and octave, over a three-octave range.

It’s sequencer-like in operation and is an effective extension of the arpeggiator philosophy, which is more akin to the sort of thing you’d expect to find on a soft synth.

Alternatives

There has never been a better time to consider purchasing an analogue synth, with so may competitors vying for your hard-earned cash. At a street price of £1,659, the MatrixBrute is not cheap, so the draw of something with Moog written on the back, for far less, could be very alluring indeed. The Moog Sub 37 will cost you a couple of hundred less, and has become something of a classic in the last year or so. The Moog build quality is legendary, as is the sound, which will not disappoint. With the demise of the Moog Voyager in favour of the reboot of the MiniMoog, there are secondhand Voyagers out there for similar money to the MatrixBrute – and again, these are synths that are built like tanks and will last for years, if cared for.

Outside of Moog, there’s Roland’s System-8 (reviewed MT167) – it’s not analogue, but you’d never know it, and will give you the best of everything. It’s a Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 right out of the box, and will allow for the inclusion of other Roland mono classics, such as the SH-101, and one of my faves, the SH-2. You’ll also get a couple of hundred pounds of change from the Matrix, yet again. And possibly the analogue that’s giving everything a run for its money at the moment is the Behringer DM12 (reviewed in MT168). Costing just £1,000 and with a full three-year warranty, this is a 12-note poly with a unison mode, stacking up all 24 oscillators. That will give the Matrix a huge run for its money on sound, and offer you a full 12-note poly mode, too. It’s also got a very nice iPad app to go with it that assists with programming.

Some very comprehensive routing of the Matrix, but these routings feel a little bit subliminal!

Get connected

Moving to the rear of the MatrixBrute, we’re confronted by a bewildering array of sockets, in all forms, with very helpful legends so you can read what you’re doing from both above and below the synth. Firstly, there’s the MIDI side of the synth, which is handled via the usual USB and MIDI socket configuration, but then there’s the selection of 12 CV inputs and 12 CV outputs (13, if you include the gate sockets), which will allow the user access to all the essential parts of the MatrixBrute. These enable connection to the Eurorack world and other 3.5mm-equipped devices, such as other Arturia products – plus the likes of Korg’s Volca and Roland’s Boutique lines.

It’s comprehensive and could be desirable for any Eurorack owner just to have a nice keyboard and sequencer, which is in common with other current Goliaths, such as the Roland System-8. There’s also an audio input, which will bring the signal right into the heart of the synth, alongside the oscillators, as if your signal is going to need any further fattening, with all that oscillator action onboard, but it’s a nice touch!
“This isn’t cheap – we currently have the pick of so many great analogue and VA synths”

With another nod to the current crop, there’s a ‘Sync’ input and output, allowing sync to other analogue clock-based devices. This is switchable from one pulse per note, to 24PPQN and 48PPQN, which should allow settings that are most useful for all. Alongside a crop of sustain and expression-pedal inputs, there is also an insert loop, allowing the user to come out to an external device for processing. This is through an insert/Y-type cable, so you’ll need to have one of these handy for this area of functionality. It’s worth mentioning here that at the back end of the signal chain there’s a clutch of effects, with useful controls for each setting. On offer are mono/stereo delay, chorus/flanger and reverb, the delays being sync’able to the overall tempo of any sequence. Finally, there’s a stereo audio output, which is largely there to give space to the effects. Lest we forget, this is a mono synth, so anything further wouldn’t really be required.

Playing nicely with a Eurorack Skiff, the MatrixBrute sends CVs in and out, for all eventualities

Brute force

If you were to draw up a list of devices you’d like on a synthesiser, you could end up with a very long list. My overwhelming feeling is that the MatrixBrute has tried to implement as many ‘wants’ from the list as possible. Does it do this successfully? Well, for the most part, yes – in fact, that’s possibly not being generous enough,
as I discovered over time. What we
have here, in my view, is a damn good attempt at making a mono synth which has the flexibility in programming of both a modular and a soft synth, but with the wonderful hardware control that we all yearn for. If you then add into the equation the raft of hitherto unmentioned performance controls, in the shape of dual and paraphonic capability, pitch and mod wheels and a set of four keyboard macros, you’ve got a pretty cool live machine, as well as something which is perfect for studio use, thanks to its vast programmability.

I do get a sense that business is yet to be concluded, though. The audible ‘pops’ when changing patch will be an issue for live users, and I had a couple of moments when its behaviour wasn’t quite as expected, but then there’s a lot going on under the hood. I also managed to get some interesting stepping in the oscillator section when in sync mode, which seemed a little unusual. Not sure if this is due to the OS or the association between oscillators, but it was there nonetheless.

So the golden question is, would you buy one? It’s undoubtedly very, very powerful, but my sense is that it overplays the Brute aspect a little too heavily. If I had to apply an adjective to this, I would call it ‘gnarly’ and I’m not being derogatory here. It can certainly play a softer palette of timbre, but I don’t feel that this is the strength of this machine. So if you want something more garish, then you’re very firmly in luck – but for me, it just lacks the subtlety of something like a Moog, and why do I mention Moog at this point? Well, largely because of the price.

This is not a cheap synthesiser, and we are currently in a golden age of having the pick of so many great analogue and Virtual Analogue synths. With the exception of a couple of very high-end synths, this is the current winner on the high-price-tag front, so I think the burning question is whether you like the MatrixBrute enough to spend that much on a mono synth. I feel that in a marketplace that’s becoming crowded, the Arturia might shout the loudest, but might not always be heard.

Putting the cost to one side, this is a pretty outstanding bit of synth design. There’s an awful lot on offer here and, unlike its competitors, is has the draw of the matrix, which is very helpful indeed, especially when routing modulations. I do like the fact that it has a very quirky feel and sound, which is largely down to the Steiner filter and extensive oscillator section, and in an age when many synths are almost clone-like, you have to applaud Arturia for being so brave and actually offering something different.

It can happily reside next to other classics, but is perhaps competing in a different arena. Of course, you need to hear this before you think about buying one, but there’s no doubt that with this level of programmability, you’ll need some time to really get your head around its full potential. On this front, I like it immensely, as we could all use a synth which we have to learn to use like an organic instrument.

Do I really need this?

It is a mono synth and if you like monosynths, as I do, then you’ll definitely want to take a look. If you have a small Eurorack setup, the chances are you could implement this into your workflow quite nicely, as it offers not just sounds, but a wealth of connectivity, both to your Eurorack and also your DAW. It’s an expensive mono, but if you weigh it up in the context of Eurorack, it stands up very well. There is an argument that you could do without a Euro-based sequencer and MIDI interface – using the MatrixBrute instead could be worth a few-hundred-quid’s saving. The MatrixBrute does obviously offer plenty of live potential, but it is also an analogue synth and feels like one when you pick it up. It’s heavy at 20kg, heavier than some 88-note, fully weighted keyboards.

Key Features

  • Full-size
  • 49-note analogue synth
  • Monophonic, dual and paraphonic capability
  • Three oscillators
  • Three full
  • ADSR envelopes
  • Two different filters available simultaneously
  • Huge matrix for modulation routings and sequencing
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