When it comes to new and exciting ways to package hardware synthesizers, Arturia has been on something of a mission for the last few years. Whether it be the petite Brute series or the colossal MatrixBrute, the company has certainly been pushing the envelope to offer both affordable and desirable machines. Arturia’s latest little wonder packages familiar and existing technology into an altogether different casing, and at a price which – in synth terms at least – won’t break the bank.
It came from the west
The MicroFreak weighs in at a kilo and is just over 300mm wide. Part of the reason for its diminutive size could be because of its largely digital makeup. While some people might run a mile at the sight of the ‘D’ word, digital oscillators have an unbelievable amount to offer and the MicroFreak boasts no less than 11 oscillator modes, some of which are likely to surprise.
The other weight-limiting factor is the lack of a regular keybed, which is something of a point of reverence to the West Coast synthesis ideals of Don Buchla. He never liked calling his machines ‘synthesizers’, as it conjured up an image of a synthetic world which made him uncomfortable. He is largely credited as being one of the pioneers for control of synths through capacitive technology, which would often not take the form of a regular musical keyboard. It’s fair to say that these keybeds are something of a Marmite flavour; conventional keyboard players are likely to struggle with the lack of movement offered, as fingers hit the hard capacitive surface.
Another nod to the West Coast ideal is that the capacitive nature of the keybed offers polyphonic aftertouch. It’s also fully equipped with MIDI I/O (via breakout cables) and MIDI over USB, so without overstating the obvious, if you struggle with the nature of the keybed, it’s going to be simple enough to plug the MicroFreak into a DAW or larger keyboard, for more serious piano-like duties. Interestingly though, it is also equipped with a CV/Gate Output, allowing for easy connection to Eurorack.
A single audio output is offered, while there are syncing options with a clock connection going in both directions. Power is provided via an external DC power supply, although it can also be powered via the USB socket, from a computer or phone charger.
The main event
All of these features are a distraction from what I consider the main event, which is the oscillator section. In a departure from Arturia’s normal modus operandi, the oscillator is firmly digital and is present thanks to a little help from another French company – Mutable Instruments. Mutable is one of the most highly regarded Eurorack companies, producing some very desirable modules that cover the whole gamut of Eurorack, synthesis and modulation sources. It has an open-source approach to design and this has allowed Arturia to add extra functionality to the MicroFreak that’s previously been seen on Mutable’s own Braids and Plaits oscillators.
There are plenty of more basic subtractive waveforms included, albeit in a digital guise. However, this level of control over the wave itself allows for real detail. The small but crisp OLED display is perfect for offering some feedback to the user and it’s done in a very cute way, with three elements on show as test tubes and lab-styled beakers, which are filled or emptied according to which corresponding control you turn.
The infinite pots which relate to this element don’t always react in perfect sync with the screen; I am aware of a little lag between what the display was telling me and what I can hear, with the screen reacting ahead of the audio. This might purely be a calibration issue, or even just down to the early firmware in the review model, but either way, the level of audio which is on offer is stunningly impressive! The 11 offered modes of sound generation include some really interesting models.
Apart from the subtractive-styled waves, which are also open to ‘super’ wave generation, a Wavetable mode offers 16 different wavetables, which can be swept at will, while the Harmonics mode allows for some significant digital tones to be added and picked out, from the upper partials of 32 sine-wave tones. These can be pretty piercing when editing, but thankfully, there’s significant control available.
Another welcome addition to the lineup is the Karplus-Strong mode, which is an ideal method for modelling plucked and bowed string instruments. It’s a veritable feast of overtones, with a pretty formidable amount of control of tonal colour.
A further seven synthesis categorisations from the Mutable Instruments line-up include Waveshaping and a very powerful two-operator FM-tone generator, but one that piques my interest is within the area of vocalisation through electronic means. Two forms of wave creation offer considerable possibilities here: the first is Speech, which simply allows the selection of a number of single words, in a voice reminiscent of an electronic toy from the mid 80s. There’s a fair degree of timbral control and choice, from spoken letters and numbers, to a selection of words, such as scientific terms, colours or the phonetic alphabet.
It’s also possible to apply considerable timbral changes that are akin to formant control. It’s pretty fun, but even more esoteric and probably more useful, is the Formant/Granular synthesis mode, which allows for a substantial amount of tweaking of vowel structure. This is pretty fascinating, even when controlled manually.
One final element worth a mention is the Modal synthesis option, which has always been something of a Mutable calling card and is offered on its stunningly powerful Elements Eurorack module. The Modal mode is capable of creating really earthy and organic electronic tones that can both mutate over time or alter through strikes. This is sonically inspiring, and it’s so nice to see it offered on such a modest synth.
All of these oscillator modes are monophonic by default. However, it is possible to switch to Paraphonic mode by simply pressing the prescribed button, at which point, four-note polyphony is possible, albeit working in a paraphonic manner.
Considering the digital nature of what we have had so far, Arturia has helpfully included a beautiful but gritty 12dB/2-pole state-variable filter, which is analogue based. Offering simple control of cutoff and resonance, it is able to offer low-pass, band-pass and high-pass operation.
In use, I find it to be pretty quick to respond; being 2-pole, it’s not subtle, with the resonance joining in quite quickly; however, it sounds very fine, with just the right amount of colour to be able to knock off any overbearing digital edges which might emanate from the oscillator section. Experimenting, I find that around 60 per cent resonance applied, it sounds stunningly wispy, while the OLED does a great job of providing further visual feedback as the frequency is swept.
The mods are back
Arturia has also implemented a clever and very usable Modulation Matrix. Working on the principle of an X/Y matrix, it’s pretty easy to shuttle the white LEDs around this, indicating what you might like to employ to modulate which sonic aspect. The prospect of this is so appealing and you could easily find yourself using several of these at once. More traditional modulations are derived from two separate envelopes and the LFO.
The first envelope is the more advanced of the two, referencing the West Coast in its ability to cycle. This can be set to operate as a more usual ADSR-based envelope, but via a press button located immediately next door, the envelope can be placed into a cycling mode, while also allowing deployment to pitch modulation, filter cutoff, and most excitingly of all, the wave and timbral elements of the oscillator. This means that it’s possible to effectively automate beautiful movement from within the oscillator, placing all of those wavetable, waveshaping, FM and formant-styled sounds under complex control.
That’s quite a sonic powerhouse! The second envelope can be used in exactly the same way, but as a straight-firing ADSR affair, being also employed for usage toward the filter and amplifier, although the latter can be disabled, switching to a straight on and off gate.
The LFO can be similarly routed, offering six wave types from sine to random slew, with the immediate ability to lock into sync with the MicroFreak’s chosen clock source, whether internal or externally linked. Further to this sync option, the rate pot will provide varying forms of division.
Another interesting method of control relates to the capacitance nature of the keyboard; the more of your finger, particularly the flatness of your finger, engages with the note, the greater the amount that is applied in the direction of the Mod Matrix. It could be considered the capacitance equivalent to aftertouch, and is useful if you’re looking to control single notes or effects from the synth patch. It’s probably less effective to players that are used to playing conventional keyboards, as the flattening of fingers is counter-intuitive to technique, but it could be very useful in certain situations as a form of performance control.
In further pursuit of ultimate flexibility of routing, it’s possible to nominate a further element to which modulation sources can be directed, thanks to three assignable locations. Application is as easy as pressing the desired location button and moving the corresponding pot on the panel.
In terms of performance controls, these are largely located just above the keyboard. The arpeggiator and sequencer sections are adorned with illuminated switches, which also require the use of the shift button, to specify which mode you require. The arpeggio section is pretty easy to use, with the addition of the touchpad-like small buttons which are located on the flat of the keybed, on the left, above the keys. The hold button will also latch notes or chords, freeing up hands to tweak the interface at will. These buttons also double up as the transport buttons for the sequencer, which can be recorded on the fly and added to as a given sequence elapses when in record mode.
The new Spice and Dice option allows you to add random elements into the sequenced equation, with the amount derived in real-time via the capacitive touch strip, located on the right above the keybed. Illuminating the Dice or Spice buttons, while moving your finger along the strip, will induce subtle alterations to the sound – while not changing the note pitches themselves – of a sequenced pattern.
It’s also possible to capture those alterations should you find yourself in record mode. There is no doubt that it could be useful in a live setting, where the performer might like to induce a degree of controlled randomness into proceedings. The control strip can also act as a pitch wheel, allowing for straightforward pitch bend, above and below the triggered note.
Little synth, big aspirations
There can be absolutely no doubt that this little wonder came as something of a surprise to many of us; it’s got a brave look and feel and is highly capable of some very interesting timbral creativity. The oscillator section is a huge and welcome surprise, as it’s so full of timbral possibilities.
It’s taken a while to make my way through each aspect of what the MicroFreak has to offer. In tune with many Eurorack users, I’m a big fan of Mutable Instruments’ products, so having those tonal entities available in a single instrument is both wonderful and immensely useful. You can do so much up front you can sometimes almost forget about the filter, which also chimes with its slight West Coast character. It’s also equipped with 128 user patch locations, so you can get really creative with the matrix and save as you go.
This is a great little synth for use in a number of settings, especially if you’re considering live, working with and triggering sequences, or placing it into a setup with a DAW. Where it will not find easy bedfellows is with keyboard players, who’ll probably find the keyboard limitation an obstacle, both in range and design. If you can live with that, sonically, it has an enormous amount to offer and will really reward exploratory use.
Do I really need this?
The MicroFreak represents very good value for money, providing basic synthesis possibilities alongside more complicated and highly inspiring digitised formats. Add this to the included analogue filter and comprehensive routing and modulation capabilities and you have a powerful synth in a highly compact form that is very appealing.
Though it’s less appealing to conventional synth players, it leans toward automated performance with manual control, rather than as an out-and-out conventionally playable performance keyboard, but there is nothing to stop it being exploited over MIDI, where it will admirably perform. With its paraphonic capability, this would probably be how you’d use it to try and play chords, which is certainly a challenge on a keybed of this kind. Overall, it’s a very worthwhile addition to any Eurorack setup.
- Versatile monophonic/paraphonic synthesizer
- Digital oscillator offers 11 voice modes
- Up to four voices available
- State-variable analogue filter
- Flexible modulation routing via the matrix
- Arpeggiator and sequencer onboard
- ADSR and cycling envelopes
- MIDI/USB connectivity
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A similarly brave and compact design, the new Skulpt from Modal Electronics combines digital functions with monophonic and polyphonic modes. The upfront digital waveforms are capable of morphing, in order to create vibrant and tonal colour from the outset.