In many ways the Arturia MiniBrute is an exception to the rule. First, it’s French, a rarity on the analog synth market. Second, it’s something really special. THE analog synth of the year 2012 (and probably also 2013). In the lower price segment, in any case …
Most remarkable is the fact that a product of this high quality could be produced with such an exceptional price-performance ratio without any great sacrifices. Arturia, up to now primarily involved in the development of software synthesizers, seems to have managed the impossible.
The MiniBrute is well-made, sounds great, is versatile and – at 500 Euros – very affordable. An analog synth with MIDI, USB and CV/Gate. You might expect that you’d just be getting what’s absolutely necessary in basic sound design, but the opposite is true. The MiniBrute is full of little extras that total up to enormous flexibility. We’ll explain this in detail in the course of the following report.
We have also taken the liberty to compare the MiniBrute with the similarly designed Roland SH-101. But let’s start at the beginning …
On availability, the manual and other stuff …
The MiniBrute comes with a couple of suprises. First, concerning delivery times and availability: these can be sticky. Arturia has too few MiniBrutes available around the world. So, you may have to be patient at the moment.
Second, the manual: well organized – good printing quality, very informative … everything’s great, except … you’re limited to English, French and Japanese! For other languages (German, for example), please put on hold. They’ll get there in the long run. In any case, this is a manual you can browse in, great bedside reading.
Forget about the language. The instrument comes with a generous pile of sound sheets … nice, thick cardboard templates which fit perfectly over the control panel to visually record favourite sound positions. Analog in the truest sense! Arturia’s MiniBrute comes with 10 “presets” and 5 “blank sheets”.
The quality of the handiwork is very, very good. The MiniBrute doesn’t look impressive, that’s true. But just pick it up. It’s a whopper. Absolutely solid, a thick chassis, high quality knobs and faders. Nothing wiggles. Fantastic! Arturia didn’t stint on the hardware … and not on the sound, either, just to be clear on that.
And you see at a glance that the MiniBrute is another wonderful product from Axel Hartmann’s Design Box …
It goes to say that a whole arsenal of people were involved in its realization. The following list reflects an intensive French-Japanese-German cooperation.
Product and Project Management
Axel Hartmann (Design Box)
Suzy Zhu (Huaxin)
Yves Usson, above all, deserves mention. He is a senior scientist responsible for creating some of the most amazing analog modular systems. He started designing and building his first modular analog synthesizer back in 1977. Today, he freely shares his acclaimed designs and indepth knowledge with the worldwide community of SDIY (synthesizer do it yourself).
But let’s get back to the MiniBrute. That it has an external PSU is not suprising considering its small size (recollections of the Roland SH-101). Signs of the times. The 2 octave keyboard may seem minimalistic at first glance. But: the keys are normal sized (“big” – not kid-sized à la Micro-Korg) and, thanks to the octave range switches, you really have access to a full six octaves. So – minimalistic, yes, but also well thought through.
Something to watch out for on the keyboard: those metal plates under the keys may come loose. They were put there to enhance the playing feeling through additional weight. But some of these plates have been known to go loose. In that rare case there’s even a danger of them falling inside the instrument … in which event the MiniBrute shouldn’t be turned on. The manufacterer is indeed aware of this problem, so we are expecting a permanent solution in the very near future.
The MiniBrute contains …
- … a Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO) with sub-oscillator. The VCO is well designed. It offers sawtooth, pulse, sine and noise, each individually mixable via fader (signal mixer), so, in fact, you end up with an endless amount of waveform possibilities. The sub-oscillator can be pulse or sine, 1 or 2 octaves below the original signal. The main waveforms (saw, pulse and sine) offer some extras: Ultrasaw, for example, builds two phase-shifted copies of the basic sawtooth signal. What you get is a very thick sound, something you’d expect from a 2-VCO synthesizer. It’s sort of a supersaw, similar to what we know from the (virtual) Roland JP-8000. PWM is possible via LFO and envelope and the unique metalizer function turns the sine-wave into non-harmonic waveforms, something very useful, as there’s no ring-modulator. The VCO is, strictly speaking, an extremely versatile analog oscillator. Compliment!
- … a Steiner multimode filter. There’s lowpass, bandpass, highpass and notch. Not bad! The filter resonance is very aggressive (maybe that’s the typical “Steiner” sound?), so the MiniBrute is perfectly usable for raw, dominant, hard analog sounds. The VCF has its own ADSR and keyboard tracking is available from 0 to 200 (!) %. Filter frequency modulation is also possible by LFO (of course …), by modulation wheel, aftertouch (via MIDI or directly through the internal keyboard) and finally by an external CV-source. There’s an audio-input, too, enabling filtering of any external audio signal. If the gate source switch on back of the instrument is set to audio, you don’t even have to touch the MiniBrute keyboard … the external signal will trigger the synth.
- … a main LFO with lots of waveforms. Frequency ranges from 0.05 bis 100 Hz, so this LFO is perfect for very slow as well as for ultra-fast (ok, let’s say: fast) modulation purposes. 6 waveforms (including sample & hold) and multiple modulation destinations (VCO, VCF and VCA) turn the main LFO into a powerful sound design module. Last but not least, it’s possible to synchronize LFO clock and arpeggiator clock … something both useful and elegant.
- … a second LFO for vibrato. The special vibrato-LFO is controllable by modulation wheel or aftertouch. The aftertouch factory setting is very strong, so the vibrato might be more “jumpy” than smooth. But no problem, there’s the MiniBrute Connection software. It allows for personal aftertouch adjustment and for other goodies (such as selection of the MIDI channel, …).
- … two envelopes. Classic: two ADSR. Basic envelope time may be switched from fast to slow. That’s great, since it allows you precise control over a sound’s shape. This feature would do credit to a lot of analog synthesizers on the market.
- … the Brute factor. The Brute factor is an extra knob that enhances the filter resonance. It makes the sound more aggressive and wild … if that’s what you’re looking for.
- … a versatile arpeggiator. An arpeggiator is generally a useful tool. And this one is comprehensive as well. The MiniBrute arpeggiator has various playing modes (including random!) and octave range settings. The basic note length is selectable (quarter, eighth, sixteenth, …) and a swing factor gives you various groove options. The arpeggiator has its own internal clock, but may also be synched to MIDI clock. You can even tap in your own tempo … just hit the TAP button to adjust. Ah yes … arpeggio lines are transmitted via CV/gate to any external synthesizer … to your Roland SH-101 or ARP Axxe, for example.
- … glide, bend range and audio in. Glide (portamento) is always welcome. It’s that little extra that turns your simple arpeggios into groovy patterns or gives your solo lead lines that special human touch. Adjustable pitch bend range. Great. Another feature that would do credit to a lot of the analog synthesizers currently on the market. Finally, there’s audio-in, for processing stuff like vocal lines, drum patterns, polyphonic synth pads.
- … lots of INs and OUTs. Flexibility is one of the MiniBrute’s key words. This little monster can be hooked up to any modular system, to any (1V/octave) analog keyboard, any step sequencer, MIDI keyboard, computer (via MIDI and USB). Its connections are just as versatile as its sound design potential.
- audio in / out
- headphones out
- CV/gate in / out
- MIDI in / out
- CV-in for pitch, VCF and VCA
There is no question about it. The MiniBrute is a stunner. Small and beautiful. Just consider that low-budget aspect – 500 Euros – for which you get a new analog synthesizer with all those extras and a convincing sound to beat.
That’s a completely different picture to the used vintage synth market (those monophonic machines from the 70s and 80s are definitely overpriced). It’s very gratifying to find a low-priced new instrument with excellent sound. To be honest, Doepfer Dark Energy, Vermona MonoLancet, the Moog MiniTaur, tomoberheim SEM and the MFB Dominion X were quicker on the draw here. But none of them has a keyboard …
In any case, the MiniBrute sound is excellent. Rich oscillator waveforms, versatile filter modes, snappy envelopes … it’s all there. Basically, the MiniBrute sound is cheeky and aggressive. Filter resonance overdrives quickly, so sounds with higher resonance settings tend to be very similar in character.
This is no criticism. As a matter of fact, for cheekiness, …
… the MiniBrute tops the Roland SH-101 (?)
Whereas the 101 sounds are meaty, they are more mild than aggressive. Which also means that the Roland SH-101 is a perfect fit in a mix. This is a small (a very small) sore point with the MiniBrute. It tends to want to be the center of attention. Which is not to say that this isn’t exactly what modern musicians are on the look-out for: a sterling stand-out in a crowd.
Comparisons can be misleading. And it was just out of curiosity that we ended up comparing the MiniBrute with the SH-101. So it wasn’t at all suprising to determine that they actually can’t be compared. They do have a lot in common, theoretically speaking … a single VCO with mixable waveforms and sub-oscillator, a lowpass filter, an arpeggiator … But in reality, the Arturia MiniBrute beats the legendary Roland SH-101 in many ways.
Which is not to say that we’re about to kick the 101 over the edge. It’s really a draw: each of the synths has its assets, a character of its own. The Roland SH-101 is not the MiniBrute, but it’s certainly not scrap iron either …
Arturia’s MiniBrute …
… is a remarkable synthesizer. Versatile, performance- and sound-design-oriented, flexible, good sounding, well-made. The compact monophonic may lead to temptation, at least in your dreams: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have two of this synths right next to each other? … side-by-side …?” You’d get the equivalent of a 4-octave keyboard while having two complete and independent analog synthesizers (with all those MIDI- and CV/gate possibilities) in one package. For just under a 1000 Euros … unthinkable a few years ago.
We can congratulate Arturia – and all those involved in the development of the MiniBrute – on the realization of this exemplary musical instrument. A surprising step for a software producer. Let’s hope that Arturia keeps its sites set on the development of unique hardware. We’re looking forward, one day, to THE Brute …!
PS: December 2013 … Arturia just released the new MicroBrute synthesizer. We tested it and really fell in love with it! Read the full review, listen to the soundfiles and compare the Mini- and the MicroBrute …!
One special note concerning the sound files (to be found not only here but also in the Listening Room). Compare the MiniBrute to the SH-101 and you’ll see that both instruments have their worthy assets. Despite their similar architectures, each has its own distinctive sound. We’ve set up the files with the MiniBrute first in each sample.
Price: 499,– Euros