The French brain trust at Arturia has done it again with MicroFreak; yet another brilliantly designed instrument that's intuitive, highly playable, and builds on some classic designs – but one that is also a unique hardware instrument offered at an affordable price. The modular world and some of the classic American and Japanese builders dominate a lot of the electronic music press these days, but for my money Arturia is developing some of the most interesting electronic instruments of this decade.
MicroFreak has some nods to a few classic synths in its topology. Its 25-key capacitive keyboard is borrowed from some Buchla synthesizers and the EMS (Electronic Music Systems) Synthi AKS. MicroFreak's hybrid digital design and compact size are reminiscent of the popular Teenage Engineering OP-1, and its digital oscillator is a port of the very popular open source Mutable Instruments Plaits Eurorack oscillator. But what really impresses me about the MicroFreak is that it builds and improves upon its influences while bringing it to the people with a price point almost anyone can handle. This is not a boutique instrument that only bored tech company workers can afford – even a busking musician can find the money for a MicroFreak.
Let's start with the oscillator – the heart of any synth and a big part of what makes this one unique. Like many synths these days, the MicroFreak is driven by a four voice paraphonic digital oscillator. It will digitally model the basic sine, square, triangle, and ramp waves of a classic analog synth, but that's only one twelfth of the sound generation options with MicroFreak as it's digital oscillators have an even dozen different algorithms – some designed by Arturia with others based on the open source code from the Plaits Eurorack module. From Plaits are virtual analog, waveshaper, two-operator FM, granular formant, chords, speech, and modal oscillator modes. Arturia has also added several super wave, wavetable, harmonic, and Karplus-Strong algorithms. Much like a Teenage Engineering's OP-1 synthesizer, the MicroFreak has an incredibly powerful and versatile digital synthesis system. Its oscillator has four orange knobs that set it apart from the rest of the white knobs. The first knob selects the oscillator's sound generation algorithm. The other three knobs change parameters on the oscillator, which vary from one algorithm to another. The MicroFreak has a small, but easy to read (even with my bad eyesight) OLED (Organic LED) display that constantly follows whatever you're doing on MicroFreak's front panel. Despite the oscillators' depth and complexity, they're extremely easy and intuitive to tweak – plus, I should add, a lot of fun! Being able to quickly change the oscillator's algorithm on a patch provides a very powerful way to experiment with sounds.
But what really sets the MicroFreak apart from many other digital synthesizers is that it has an analog filter. In this way it pays tribute to the original PPG Wave wavetable synthesizers – among the first synths to have a digital oscillator paired with a resonant analog filter. The MicroFreak's filter (inspired by the popular Oberheim SEM) sounds great and has low-pass, high-pass and band-pass modes, but can also self-oscillate. MicroFreak has a versatile LFO with six different waveforms, plus a three-segment envelope generator that defaults to the filter envelope but can also be assigned to the volume envelope. Another unique feature of MicroFreak is its cycling envelope generator that can loop repeatedly, thereby creating complex control voltages that an LFO can't replicate. The EMS VCS3 and some of the Buchla synthesizers had similar envelope generators. There's also an arpeggiator and four voice paraphonic step sequencer – another nod to the VCS3. Finally tying all these control and routing options together is the routing matrix; a smaller version of the matrix found on Arturia's MatrixBrute synthesizer. The matrix is essentially a 35-point patchbay with five sources and seven destinations. The first four destinations are preset, but the last three can be assigned to any control on MicroFreak (except master volume and the preset selector), which makes this synthesizer extremely versatile in terms of how it can be configured. The matrix is a bit less intuitive than the rest of MicroFreak, but it's easy to use once you get the hang of it. Speaking of presets, the first 128 presets do a great job of showing off the flexibility of MicroFreak's sound design possibilities. How useful they are in the real world will vary from user to user. Once I wrapped my head around the MicroFreak a bit, I found template presets 129-160 to be better starting points for creating my own patches for a particular song. MicroFreak has both MIDI I/O and CV outputs, so it can stand on its own or integrate into a larger system.
After spending several weeks playing with MicroFreak I'm really impressed. The capacitive keyboard is fun to play. If you're looking for an instrument that goes beyond the normal analog synth sounds into more experimental sonic explorations, this would be great place to start. Although they are very different instruments (especially their oscillators), I feel like the MicroFreak has a similar aesthetic to the Buchla Music Easel – an instrument that Arturia has faithfully modeled as part of their V Collection software synthesizer plug-ins. They both have a capacitive keyboard. They both have an internal routing that can be modified, and they both make complex and dynamic evolving sounds. While the Buchla Music Easel has more parameters available on the front panel, modular type patching, and a one-to-one relationship of knob/slider/switch to function, the MicroFreak has a little bit more hidden under the hood, including its digital oscillator, its many modes and modifiable parameters, as well as its matrix routing system. As I mentioned in my introduction, MicroFreak also borrows from the Teenage Engineering OP-1 synthesizer with it's flexible digital oscillator and OLED readout, but where the OP-1 is an extremely compact and flexible digital audio workstation with a beautiful, modern industrial design, MicroFreak is more of a mono-tasking instrument. I prefer Arturia's approach and the inclusion of the capacitive keyboard over the Teenage Engineering OP-1's push button keyboard. I think that people looking at the noisy side of the modular world (a la Make Noise's synthesizer modules for instance) will also find much to like about MicroFreak. At only $299 MicroFreak is much more affordable than a Music Easel ($4000), an OP-1 ($1299), or a Make Noise Ø-Coast ($499 without a keyboard). The MicroFreak is another soon to be classic synth from Arturia as far as I'm concerned!