When Arturia introduced a new series of Brute synths and a Eurorack/power supply system at NAMM last year, we had several reviewers asking about them. Thom Monahan is an experienced analog synthesizer user and wanted to review the MiniBrute 2S, which has an onboard step sequencer but no keyboard. Geoff Stanfield who is completely new to analog synthesizers wanted to review the more traditional keyboard-based MiniBrute 2 and the RackBrute as he also wanted to explore Eurorack processing. Let’s start with Geoff’s review. –JB
I am not a synthesizer aficionado or expert, but if you are, you probably already know that Arturia, the French company that began making software emulations of classic synths, moved into the hardware realm several years ago and is now making high-quality analog synths with price points well within reach of small studios and independent musicians.
What do I know about synths? Some basics, but not much. Fortunately, Tape Op’s own John Baccigaluppi knows a lot about synths. He learned on a Buchla Modular system, an ARP 2600, and an EMS Synthi AKS during his time at Evergreen State College in Washington. He has a substantial collection of old analog synths, and an enviable modular setup, so I figured he was qualified to get me started.
Arturia sent me their MiniBrute 2 analog synth and the accompanying RackBrute case to house Eurorack modules. The MiniBrute 2 is their next generation mono synth with the addition of semi-modular architecture for integration into the Eurorack ecosystem. It's an excellent stand-alone beginner synth but is also expandable, with a perfect control center for a Eurorack system.
On a call with John he walked me through the basics of subtractive synthesis. To over simplify, subtractive synthesis is the foundation of analog synthesizers – the process of taking a complex waveform and altering its sound by removing or attenuating its partials using voltage controlled filters. John explained Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs), Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs), Filters (VCFs), Amplifiers (VCAs) and Envelope Generators (EGs). It was fantastic to get a personalized introduction on the subject of synthesis, which helped to give me the knowledge I needed to start creating sounds on my own instead of relying on presets or just blind tweaking. I am not a fan of small screen menus and sub-menus typically found on today’s synths – the MiniBrute is the polar opposite in this regard. There is not one screen to be found on the MiniBrute 2. It does come with a Cookbook that has a handful of settings for beginners.
The MiniBrute 2 sports two LFOs, two VCOs (the first having controls for Fine Tune, Glide, Pulse Width Modulation, FM synthesis, and modulable Metalizer). Metalizer takes the peaks of the basic triangular waveform and folds them downward to create more complex and jagged waveforms rich in high harmonics. The Metal Mod knob sets the modulation range for the Metalizer knob. VCO 2 has a more limited control set with three wave type selectors (Sine, Sawtooth, and Square) and a Range selector that sets the tuning range of VCO 2. The pitch of VCO 2 will track that of VCO 1 by default, but there is an input on the patchbay that allows VCO 2’s pitch to track another source. The pitch of VCO 1 can be modulated by the pitch of VCO 2 with the FM knob in the VCO 1 section. But there is also an input on the patchbay that allows VCO 1’s pitch to be modulated by another source, and VCO 2 can be used as an additional LFO. The MiniBrute’s two LFOs each have waveform choices of sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, or two types of random waves. Each LFO has its own Wave selector and Rate control switch that determines whether it will run freely or synchronize to the master clock. There's a secondary Shift function for each LFO that lets you decide if you want an LFO to retrigger when a new note is played.
The filter section on the MiniBrute is a Steiner-Parker multimode filter with FM synthesis and RM (Resonance Modulation). There are four selectable modes (Low-Pass, Band-Pass, High-Pass, and Notch) and offers -12 dB/octave slopes for low and high- pass filters with -6 db/octave slopes for band-pass and notch. Users will also find familiar controls for Cutoff and Resonance with the aforementioned RM and FM controls. All hardwired connections on the MiniBrute are noted on the panel (printed in blue). In other words, you can change this connection in the patchbay if so desired. The AMP section is the final output stage of the MiniBrute. Everything happens before this stage, ahead of the audio output connections.
Brute Factor is a cool feature that creates a feedback loop producing a range of distortion from smooth and harmonically enhancing (when used moderately) to full blown chaos when cranked. In this section there is also a Master Volume, Global Tune control, and an interesting ATT2 > Amp that controls the AD envelope (and the amount its stays open) –useful for drone sounds or patches that are continuously evolving as parameters are being modulated via the patchbay.
The Oscillator Mixer is just that, offering slider level controls for the four basic waveforms (saw, pulse, triangle and sine). Level control for the second oscillator is also in this section along with a level control slider for an external audio source (if there is one being inserted via the patchbay). The output of the oscillator mixer feeds the filter section of the synth. The ADSR sliders of the EG effect, the filters, and the AD filter effect the Amplifier section by default. The two switches in the AD Envelope section (Gate/Trigger and Once/Loop) determine the behavior of the envelope after it has been triggered. These functions are all re-routable via the 48-point patchbay. Plus, there’s a separate VCA for modulation routings, Sequencer and Arpeggiator, and is sync-able to an external clock via MIDI, USB, or CLK. Other connections include a USB port (for use with a DAW), plus audio and headphone jacks – there's even an external audio input so you can process audio through MiniBrute 2's filters and VCA. This gives you all the control voltage and audio inputs and outputs you'll need to interface MiniBrute 2 to a larger modular setup. Also, a nice tweak is the positioning of the mod and pitch wheels, which make more sense to the left of the keyboard rather than above it like they were on the original MiniBrute. Whew!
The modules mentioned above are internally routed as Arturia deemed best but, with patch points on the right of the unit, you can re-route to your liking. The manual has a great introduction to the basics of synthesis, which for a relative newcomer was a thoughtful and interesting read without being overly technical. Once I understood how things were laid out, everything became so much more accessible. I look at it this way; non-audio folks may look at a massive SSL desk and ask, “How do you know what all those buttons do?” Maybe you explain (or not!) that it’s just the same redundant channel strip 72 times over? Same deal here. The MiniBrute is a good first synth to learn the basics on, but it also sounds great while being versatile and expandable. You’ll probably keep it as you grow into a bigger rig, unlike that first cheap-o mixer you couldn't wait to get rid of once you learned what a good piece of gear was all about.
If you are new to creating your own sounds from scratch on a keyboard as opposed to scrolling endlessly through patches for sounds, and then maybe modifying them to your liking, there is a bit of a learning curve. But with the help of friends, family, and a few YouTube videos, you’ll be off and running. Practice makes perfect. The effort will reward you with sounds that are unique to you and the situation.
Now, on to the RackBrute! So, you want to be a modular synthesizer expert? Yeah me too. I have long been fascinated by those massive walls of Pink Floyd-looking modulars with all their blinking lights, wave shape selectors, faceplate wizard etchings, and the rainbow spaghetti of all those patch cables. RackBrute is Arturia's Eurorack format housing with a built-in power supply that is completely independent of MiniBrute while designed to work next to MiniBrute as an integrated Eurorack modular rig. On John’s recommendation, I picked up a few essential modules (LFO, Filter, I/O), and a few fun pieces like Mutable Instruments’ Clouds and Morphagene from Make Noise. In addition, my friend Graig Markel from Seattle’s Recovery Effects (effect pedals, pro audio and modular device manufacturer) brought over his Bleeding Hearts, Cutting Room Floor, and Oscilloscape modules – I already need another rack!
After my tutorial, I asked John to explain the integration of the Eurorack modules. He just told me to get cozy with the synth, then get back to him in a few weeks once I got comfortable. I felt like the Karate Kid trying to learn how to kick some ass while John was my Mr. Miyagi telling me to “wax on…wax off”. While John wasn’t paying attention, I did some exploring and experimenting on my own with the Eurorack. The RackBrute unit itself is a sleek unit made of aluminum with wood side panels and includes a +12V/-12V/+5V power supply. It’s available in two sizes: three rack space 88 HP and a six rack space 176 HP. It can be attached seamlessly to the MiniBrute (or not) and can be laid flat or upright. For transport, the bottom support rail doubles as a handle that protrudes from your travel bag. Because some of the modules I started with were wider than a standard single module, I filled up the provided three unit rack almost immediately. I suggest seriously gauging your module needs before selecting which size RackBrute is best for you. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have a gear habit problem, so I’ll have to buy a six unit RackBrute to go along with the three unit Arturia sent me. There are some good websites like Modular Farm www.modularfarm.de and Modular Grid modulargrid.net that can aid in visually planning and building your rack ahead of time – before you go shopping. For me this is a new universe of fun and unknowns, which sometimes can be exactly what’s needed to dig myself out of a creative trench – how could anyone not want to get busy with all those cool looking modules? I’ve used the RackBrute multiple times to process audio while mixing, by adding interesting and unique intros, outros, and transitions. There is a lot of exploring to be done, but even a short distance down the trail has yielded results.
Arturia’s MiniBrute 2, and their accompanying RackBrute Eurorack cases are a well-built, turnkey solutions for entering the world of analog synthesis without going broke –also perfect for complementing a growing collection of synths and modules. In a world filled with more and more presets, a lot of what we hear sounds the same. It’s an asset to have the skill to dial in your own unique sounds and settings. I am miles from some of my pals that are experts in the synthesis realm, but diving in makes me appreciate what they do even more. Even if you don’t have plans or feel that you may not have time to dive deep into analog synths or modular synthesis, it may be worth getting a small powerful rig like the MiniBrute 2 and/or RackBrute for dabbling and take your music production to the next level. -GS
Now, let’s dig a little deeper with Thom and the MiniBrute 2S.
The acid test for any synth really comes down to the oscillators. There’s kind of no way around it. You can overdrive and modulate, filter and manipulate, but when it’s time to provide deep tonality, if the oscillators don’t cut it, you’re hitting a major functional limitation no matter what the feature set may be. Based around a pair of gorgeously sonorous oscillators, the Arturia MiniBrute 2S semi-modular analog sequencing mono-synth reboots the heart of this beast; this thing rules – sounds bonkers – just wonderful.
Building off the control architecture of the popular original MiniBrute (featuring simply two oscillators with dedicated waveform modifiers, a Steiner-Parker multi-mode filter, ADSR and loopable AR envelope generators, and a BruteFactor output feedback loop), the MiniBrute 2S ditches the keyboard for a comprehensive and intuitive multitrack step sequencer with 16 pressure/velocity sensitive pads, corresponding endless encoder knobs, and an extended CV patchbay. The rear of the 2S is relatively simple, with a mono 1/4-inch unbalanced output, a 1/8-inch plug for headphones (signal is mono and has no dedicated level control), DIN MIDI jacks for input and output, a USB port for computer connectivity (no streaming audio), and a power connector. This revamp boasts more than just a few added features. The functionality provided by the patchbay can easily become the centerpiece of a larger modular system. Additionally, the 2S offers the same mounting points as the keyboard version MiniBrute 2 for the corresponding RackBrute powered Eurorack case, making for an aesthetically pleasing and ergonomic setup. Arturia is totally peddling a gateway drug to modular here. This is a lot of bang for your buck. It would be hard to put together a system of separate modules with all this functionality for this price.
Surprisingly heavy and well built, with respectable wood ends, the knobs, encoders, and pads sturdy and expressively playable, the MiniBrute 2S feels great under the hands. The patchbay is like most – respect it and it will last longer. If there was a small quibble, really more of an observation, it’s that because the patchbay is horizontally located (due to the ergonomics), it makes the patch points vulnerable to dust. Covering it when not in use is probably a good idea. Shipping with a handful of cables to get you started, the internal pre-wired patching of the 2S is thoughtfully labeled across the unit in blue, under the corresponding controls and patch points. The inputs and outputs on the patchbay have their own easy-to-read labeling, which makes the 2S and some of its useful quirks remarkably simple to learn quickly.
Recordable in step and in real time with multiple playback modes, the sequencer records up to 64 steps and has essentially four tracks of control per sequence, with 16 sequences per bank for four banks (labeled A through D). The four tracks are primarily Pitch, Gate, Velocity, and Pressure. The two last tracks have their own dedicated CV outs in the patchbay and are capable of assignment to a dizzying array of options: additional Pitch, Gate, Pressure (great for paraphonic sequencing of OSC 2, or external gear), CV with ranges from 1-8 V/Oct, Envelope Steps with adjustable Attack and Decay per step, or a multi waveform LFO that can change speed synced or un-synced with every step. There’s an onboard Arpeggiator that can be recorded, assignable ratchets per step – the LFO and Envelope Step capability alone is so rich with modulation possibility, it makes the unit worth having just for the ergonomics and depth of the sequencer.
Kudos to Arturia. Easily patchable, intuitive to use, capable of deep, deep programming with an inventive modern sound design while totally ready-made for “system shaking” house rocking. This is a synth of affordable raw beauty. - Thom Monahan goldenvoidstudio.com
In conclusion, if you’re looking to get started with analog synthesis, all of the Brutes are great entry level synths in terms of price, but also deliver serious sonics and flexibility well beyond what you’d expect from an entry level unit. These would make a great addition to an existing system like Thom’s studio or, if you’re just starting out like Geoff, are not likely going to be something you’ll want to replace as you get deeper with synths. At every price point Arturia is delivering gear that exceeds expectations. For another viewpoint, check out my review of Arturia’s flagship synth, the MatrixBrute.