Rather than do the usual review discussing the feature set and my qualitative judgments of how this synthesizer sounds, I'm going to list eight reasons why I think this instrument is one of the best pieces of new gear for making music that I've seen in the last ten years.
1. Price. When I first saw this at NAMM two years ago, I thought it would cost between $4000-6000 based on the build quality and features. Now that I've had a chance to actually play it and hear it, I'm amazed that Arturia is able to sell this for a street price of $2000. This is significant as I'll explain when I get into the topology of this instrument.
2. Build quality. The look and feel of this instrument is very impressive, way beyond what most mass market manufacturers are doing these days. All of the knobs and sliders feel super solid and responsive. The aesthetic and design is both modern and classic in feel. The end pieces are really nice dark hardwood and the way the knobs and sliders section of the instrument are hinged is reminiscent of the Mini Moog. In fact this instrument recalls the Mini Moog in many ways and looks a bit like a Mini Moog that was given growth hormones.
3. Overall design topology and features. The thing I really dig about MatrixBrute is that it acknowledges the past but is firmly rooted in the present. I have a lot of older vintage gear and I use it daily and love it for what it does. But, the trend towards slavishly recreating older pieces of gear can get to be a bit much sometimes. This is particularly true in the current synthesizer market. I think there were three different Mini Moog Model D inspired clones released in the last year, including the beautifully handcrafted version by Moog themselves. The Mini Moog is a beautiful, classic, functional instrument but it is also fairly limited by todays standards. Limits are a good thing in my opinion, but Arturia has managed to take the three oscillator, voltage controlled filter with VCAs and envelope generators paradigm and significantly add functionality without making it additionally complex. Matrixbrute still feels like a simple and elegant instrument, despite it's deep capabilities and it does so at a price point that is nearly half what a Minimoog Model D costs and a build quality and playability that blows away the Behringer Model D clone. Since I'm comparing this to the Model D, let's look more closely at the two synths. The Model D has three analog oscillators (VCOs) and a noise source with the third VCO able to simultaneously work as an LFO. So does MatrixBrute, but it also adds two dedicated LFOs. Each audio oscillator also adds significantly more functionality than the traditional Model D oscillator. More significantly the MatrixBrute adds an audio mod option that allows the oscillators to frequency modulate the other oscillators which can get into the 'West Coast' school of synthesis that the Buchla synths pioneered, but again at a fraction of the cost. The filter section of the MatrixBrute has a ladder filter like the Model D with some nice added features, but it also has a second Steiner-Parker filter that sounds a bit more aggressive. You can run the filters in series or parallel and each sound source can be routed to either or both filters. One really nice feature is a master cutoff knob that controls the cutoff frequency of both filters simultaneously. The MatrixBrute also adds a third envelope generator and an onboard analog delay. But, one of the most obvious features of the MatrixBrute is it's namesake Matrix. This is a 16 by 16 switching matrix that is reminiscent of the pin matrix in the classic EMS VCS3 synth that allowed you to make routing and modulation connections for complex, evolving sounds. But again, it's worth noting that you could buy at least six MatrixBrutes for what one used VCS3 would set you back, and the MatrixBrute has more playability and is in most cases more reliable. Finally if that was not enough, the MatrixBrute also includes a 64 step sequencer, another feature similar to the VCS3 and based on Arturia's own BeatStep sequencers.
4. Paraphonic voice mode. Most of the classic synths that the MatrixBrute is inspired by, like the MiniMoog and VCS3 are monophonic, they can only play one note at a time. MatrixBrute adds a paraphonic mode that allows you to to play three notes and voice basic chords.
5. Intuitive interface. Even though MatrixBrute has deep capabilities, I was able to figure it out in under an hour without cracking the manual once. The front panel is so well designed and laid out, that the instrument is super intuitive and easy to program and play. Every function has a dedicated knob and there are no hidden or nested menus to wade through.
6. Playability. Bottom line is that this is a beautiful, expressive instrument that is inspiring and fun to play. Within 10 minutes of turning it on, I felt like I had come up with 10 new ideas for songs or parts. And in the end, that's kind of what we hope for in an instrument, something that is fun and inspires us, right? Again in this sense and in terms of number 5 above, I'm reminded of the MiniMoog.
7. Attention to detail. There are so many small but important design details to this synth and we don't have room to get into them all. I'll mention one as an example. At first glance, I thought the audio input gain knob on the back of the unit seemed very hard to reach as it was deeply recessed. But, when you press it, it pops out of it's recessed panel and is easy to adjust and can then be pressed again to keep it from accidentally being changed or damaged. This is just one of many small design decisions that illustrate the level of design detail on this synth.
8. Audio input. Not all synths have audio input, but the ones that do are much more versatile, such as the aforementioned classics, the MiniMoog and VCS3. The VCS3 in particular was used to great effect by Brian Eno and Pete Townshend with Roxy Music and The Who to process audio, with the intro to "Won't Get Fooled Again" a classic example. The small size of the VCS3 and it's smaller cousin, the Synthi made it easy to take to gigs and into the studio. The MatrixBrute has a similar form factor and ups the ante a bit as well by not only allowing you to use external audio as a sound source and use the MatrixBrute's filters, etc. but it also has an envelope follower that converts incoming audio to a control voltage and makes it available as a modulation source on the Matrix.
In conclusion, If I could only own one analog synthesizer, The MatrixBrute would be at the top of the list. If you narrow it down to monophonic synthesizers, the decision is even easier. The MatrixBrute is the first and only monophonic synth anybody really needs.