The CreamWare Minimax ASB is arguably the best Minimoog emulation available. Its sound is undeniably authentic, and the feel of its controls is closer to the original than any software-based virtual Minimoog.
The Minimax is part of CreamWare's new Authentic Sound Box (ASB) series, which includes a Prophet-5, a B-3, and a recently released Prodigy/Odyssey. Each instrument is a hardware synthesizer, a digital emulation of an analog classic housed in a compact desktop box with real knobs and a look that pays homage to the synth being emulated.
The Minimax includes remote control software that allows onscreen editing of all parameters and the ability to archive and upload banks of sounds. The software I received with the unit came only in a PC version, but I downloaded the Mac version from CreamWare's ASB Web site. According to the company, current units ship with a cross-platform CD.
FIG. 1: CreamWare''s Minimax ASB models the sound and look of a classic Minimoog while offering additional features the original never had.
You don't have to be a classic-synth enthusiast to guess that the Minimax is channeling a Minimoog. Its layout, knobs, lettering, and attractive wood frame are all highly reminiscent of the Minimoog (see Fig. 1). One important difference is that the Minimax is 12-note polyphonic, whereas the Minimoog was monophonic.
In addition to MIDI In and Out, the Minimax features a MIDI Thru, making it especially adaptable for live use. The USB connection appears to your Mac or PC as an additional MIDI port, which is a necessity if you want to use the remote control software alongside your sequencer. I found that I needed both the USB and MIDI connections to get the Minimax and its editor software to work simultaneously with a sequencer. (I tried it with Cakewalk Sonar and Digidesign Pro Tools.) The solution I came up with — letting the remote control software have the USB MIDI port and using the hardware MIDI port for my sequencer — is not in the manual (which is poorly translated and not comprehensive) but works fine.
Two unbalanced ¼-inch jacks provide stereo output, and two more provide stereo input (see Fig. 2). If you want to be strictly authentic, you can run the Minimax in mono and it sounds just fine. Because its oscillators are not pannable, its stereo output really is useful only for its internal effects, which include a serviceable stereo delay and chorus/flange. The delay can be set in milliseconds or musical values, but it syncs only to its own internal metronome, not to MIDI Clock. The effects can be bypassed from a front-panel button. Power is supplied by a large wall-wart adapter.
The Minimax ASB's many knobs, buttons, and switches feel solid and work smoothly. However, each knob has a significant dead zone at the top and bottom that CreamWare says is intended to eliminate control jitter. According to the unit's specifications, the dead zones should not exceed 10 percent of the knob's rotation. On my review unit, though, the dead zone encompassed almost a quarter of a turn between the top and bottom of the range and was consistent across all the knobs. Once a knob kicked in, it covered the full range of MIDI values, but there was no reason to set a knob to a value below 1 or above 9 on the faceplate. (Increment/Decrement buttons are also provided for numeric control of parameter values.)
I have to admit that when triggering sounds on the Minimax, I occasionally found myself totally absorbed in sonic mayhem, abandoning all journalistic detachment in favor of primal knob twisting. The Minimax just begs you to throw down a chord (yes, a chord!), press the sustain pedal, and turn your entire attention to two-fisted filter tweaking.
Despite the 128-value limitation of every knob, I usually didn't hear zippering or discrete changes in the filter controls. I compared the act of tweaking the Minimax, with its knob-based interface, to that of adjusting an excellent software Minimoog emulation using the mouse and the sliders on my MIDI keyboard. The Minimax's knobs made for a much more authentic experience.
FIG. 2: The back panel of the Minimax features stereo output, stereo input for processing external signals, MIDI In, Out, and Thru, USB for connection to a computer, and a power connection for the rather large wall-wart adapter.
Because those knobs send MIDI messages, I assigned one to the software synth's filter cutoff, and it then sounded as smooth as the Minimax. Despite their pedestrian resolution, the knobs feel nice. Note, however, that the software synth can be controlled by high-resolution automation curves in a digital audio sequencer, whereas the Minimax is “stuck” with low-res MIDI controllers, whether from software or hardware.
The limited resolution of the knobs was really noticeable only when I was tuning the filter's resonance to an overtone of the oscillator (see Web Clip 1). Even though the Minimoog's knobs were just a bit grungy, the overtone slid into pitch ever so gradually. On the Minimax, it clicked into place from above or below. Once there, the sound was remarkably similar to the real deal, but if you're a serious knob twister, you may be in for occasional disappointments.
The knobs are not continuous rotary encoders but rather old-school “absolute” controls. They can be confusing because their positions are never indicative of the current values of their corresponding parameters, except when you've just turned one. If you design sounds, save them, and recall them as necessary, you won't have a problem. However, as soon as you turn a knob, the parameter jumps to the knob's current position, most often resulting in an audible skip in the sound as, for example, the filter cutoff opens or closes abruptly.
The solution to this problem is a series of LEDs labeled Match, which are found in the lower-left corner of the Minimax. As you twist a knob, the Match display lights to the left or right of center to indicate that the current knob position is below or above the preset's value for that parameter. The display moves toward center as the knob zeroes in on the parameter's value, and the center LED flashes when you match it. All you need to do to enable smooth knob tweaking is to call up a preset, use the Match display to null the knobs you want to adjust, and start playing. It's still better than having to set all 27 knobs on the original Minimoog to get a patch ready to play.
I asked CreamWare why the company didn't implement a “turn-and-catch” autonulling scheme like some control surfaces use. I was told that it had been tried, but that early testing showed a strong preference among musicians for the absolute knob behavior. Thus, my view appears to be in the minority. At least the Match display makes manual nulling reasonably easy.
On glancing at the included remote control software (see Fig. 3), you might be fooled into thinking the Minimax is a software synth in disguise. Every sound-controlling knob and switch on the unit is displayed on the Main page, and you can tweak all of them with the mouse. The Add page, however, contains additional parameters that are not controllable (or are only partially controllable) from the hardware. Besides the effects, these include a handful of parameters that can help carry the Minimax into sonic territory where the Minimoog can't follow.
For example, did you ever wonder what it would be like to play a Minimoog with Aftertouch? A section labeled CV lets you apply Channel Pressure to volume, filter cutoff, and Oscillator 3 amount. Bend range can be adjusted in semitone increments up to a maximum of two octaves, and the Mod Wheel's amount and offset can be set. Here you can adjust such items as the low- and high-note priority when playing in Mono mode, and you can choose to have the envelope retrigger with each note. The Minimax can also be set to Legato mode.
Additional windows offer monitoring of MIDI messages, preset management, and an onscreen keyboard for triggering notes with the mouse or the computer keyboard. Despite these useful features, certain parts of the software don't seem ready for prime time. If you try to trigger notes from the computer keyboard while tweaking a parameter with the mouse, the onscreen keyboard goes out of focus. You then must click on it with the mouse again before you can play any more notes from the computer keyboard, defeating the utility of the feature.
Although you can save comments with presets and also categorize them, you cannot sort the preset list by either of those parameters or, most surprisingly, by name. You can change the order of presets by dragging them up and down one by one, but you cannot select multiple presets for movement or deletion — if you wanted to delete a whole bank, you'd have to hit Delete 128 times.
On the Mac, things are worse. The arrows on the primary window that should switch to the next or previous preset don't work, the onscreen keyboard doesn't support triggering from the computer keyboard, and the windows are not resizable. The application often failed to see the USB connection to the hardware even when Mac OS X's Audio MIDI Setup recognized it, and it crashed each time I quit the program.
FIG. 3: The Minimax''s remote control software offers patch management and control of certain features that are not accessible from the hardware knobs and switches.
Is It Live?
To assess the Minimax's sonic authenticity, I set it beside the genuine article, a vintage Minimoog graciously loaned to me by the Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum (www.keyboardmuseum.com). I also fired up the Minimax's chief software competition. When I isolated the waveforms, the Minimax nailed everything but the narrow pulse wave, as did the virtual Minimoog (see Web Clips 2A through 2C).
I ran the filter cutoff control through its full range, and the Minimax sounded remarkably similar to the Minimoog, whereas the soft synth suffered from jittery mouse control. As I mentioned earlier, the soft synth's filter sounded much smoother and more authentic under the control of a Minimax knob. Filter resonance strayed a bit farther from this particular Minimoog at its extreme setting, although the Minimax's resonance still gave a satisfyingly biting self-oscillation.
Knob by knob, the Minimax came as close to the Minimoog as a fine recording does to a live instrument. CreamWare claims it even matched the knob positions, but given the large amount of play in its knobs, that claim doesn't quite hold up.
I created a variety of sounds (see Web Clip 3), and I felt the Minimax held up well next to its archetype. In most cases, the biggest distinguishing feature of the Minimoog was its oscillator drift — one point in favor of the Minimax.
The Minimax also scored points over the Minimoog with its 12-note polyphony and MIDI control, which give it capabilities the original never had. Building a searing lead sound and then playing big, fat chords with the sonic flexibility of (defeatable) Velocity sensitivity and Aftertouch is a welcome treat. The ability to recall that sound from among 256 onboard presets is priceless.
If I had both the original Minimoog and the Minimax in my studio all the time, I'd still reach for the Minimoog occasionally — the same as I sometimes reach for a primitive bamboo flute rather than my modern silver flute. I would also choose the Minimax over its software rival, not for any sonic advantage, but just because of its physical interface.
In short, the Minimax sounds and feels about as authentic as any digital Minimoog is ever likely to. It's a good instrument in its current state, and when CreamWare improves the software and documentation, it will have a hit.
Brian Smithers is Course Director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida. Special thanks to Joseph Rivers and the Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum.
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3QUALITY OF SOUNDS4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent, authentic-sounding Minimoog emulation. Well-implemented hardware interface. MIDI In, Out, Thru. Valuable nonemulative features, including defeatable Velocity sensitivity, 12-note polyphony, presets, delay, and chorus.
CONS: Manual is poorly translated and not comprehensive. Buggy and inefficient remote-control/patch-management software. Large wall-wart power supply.