Whether you use a keyboard or a DAW, it can be inspiring to have a bit of analog goodness on your desktop or in your performance rig. But size is often an issue in these situations; you don’t want a unit that takes up a lot of space or is too big to schlepp to a gig. In this article, we’ll look at five self-contained instruments that provide fat analog sounds within a diminutive footprint. (Read about other tabletop analog synths, from Dave Smith Instruments, Doepfer, Korg, and others at emusician.com.)
Arturia MicroBrute SE
In both hardware and software, Arturia has mined a variety of vintage analog sounds. Among their recent products, the most exciting have been the MiniBrute and its diminutive brother, the Micro-Brute. Both keyboards combine classic monosynth features with the buzzy and pungent timbres of the Steiner-Parker multimode filter—a major standout against the more commonly used ARP, Moog, and Oberheim varieties.
The Arturia MicroBrute SE has a built-in CV patchbay that significantly increases the modulation possibilities of the synth. Recently, Arturia released the MicroBrute SE, a limited-edition model that is available in three uncommon colors (white, blue, and orange), with a gig bag and patch cables thrown in for good measure. Like the original MicroBrute, the SE has a reduced-size and a 25-note keyboard that is surprisingly easy to play, with pitchbend, an assignable modulation wheel, and octave switches nearby. Overall, the front-panel controls are intuitively laid out yet provide a surprisingly powerful interface, considering the limited feature set compared to the MiniBrute.
Three waveforms are available simultaneously—sawtooth, square, and triangle—each with its own level control and tone-shaping knob (Ultrasaw, which adds two phase shifted copies to the tone; PWM; and the wave-folding Metalizer, respectively). To add girth to the sound, Arturia includes the Overtone oscillator, which provides either a sub-octave or 5th above the main oscillators; the associated mix control can be modulated with a CV.
The resonant multimode filter provides highpass, lowpass, and bandpass responses. I’m a big fan of the Steiner filter’s throaty bandpass response, especially for bass sounds where a little resonance is added. The MicroBrute SE delivers that tone (and more), especially when you mix in the Overtone oscillator.
In addition to the usual filter controls—frequency cutoff, resonance, envelope amount, keyboard tracking—Arturia includes something called Brute Factor, which increases the level of an internal audio feedback loop as you turn the knob. Crank it up to seriously intensify the sound, or use it to warp the pitch range of the resonant filter. A little bit goes a long way.
Another delight is having a slider for each stage of the ADSR envelope generator, as well as the ability to patch it to the filter and VCA. Of course, it would be nice if each stage had its own EGs like the MiniBrute provides, but space doesn’t allow it.
The step sequencer can store up to eight patterns and sync to an internal or external (MIDI) clock. The Tap/Rest button is used to set the tempo manually or to add rests when recording a sequence. You can use the keyboard to transpose the sequence in either direction, and the LFO, which provides three waveform choices, can be synchronized to the step sequencer, if desired. Because it goes into audio rates, the LFO (in combination with the volatile filter) can be used to add harmonic complexity.
The inclusion of 3.5mm patch points is one of the coolest aspects of this family of instruments, because it gives you the ability to stretch their timbral capabilities even further. The modulation matrix is located on the front panel and features a pair of CV outputs (LFO and EG) and six CV inputs (Metal, Saw, PWM, Pitch, Filter, and Sub). The rear panel provides further extensibility with a gate input and output, a pitch output (which follows the pitchbend wheel), and an audio input for running external audio through the MicroBrute SE’s filter—yum!
You can use the modulation matrix to repatch internal signals to the six destinations, which is exciting on its own, or bring in CVs, gates, and triggers from external instruments, such as a Eurorack or Frac Rack modular, both of which also use 3.5mm cables. The MicroBrute SE comes with two Stackcable patch cables to get you started, but I guarantee you’ll want more.
An unbalanced 1/4" output, a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, a standard MIDI In port, and a USB connection (for MIDI and data) complete the rear panel. MicroBrute Connection software (Mac/Win) is available online and can be used for editing and firmware updates.
In addition to the surprising amount of sonic flexibility it offers—from gentle to face-ripping— the other major draw of the MicroBrute SE is its size: At just over a foot wide and 8.7" deep, it doesn’t require much space, yet it feels solid when you’re punching out bass lines or tapping in sequences. The result is a ton of analog goodness from a lightweight synth that won’t empty your bank account.
Elektron Analog Rytm
More than just a drum machine, the Elektron Analog Rytm combines analog drums sounds and sample playback capabilities with loads of intuitive live-performance features. Referred to as an 8-voice drum computer by Elektron, the Analog Rytm is a hybrid rhythm composer that complements the company’s other analog instruments: the Analog Four and the Analog Keys. And like the other synths, the Analog Rytm includes specialized performance features that make it equally suitable for stage or studio use.
The instrument provides eight analog drum voices, each of which can be enhanced by a sample playback engine, a noise source, an analog multimode filter, and analog overdrive circuit. But rather than offering eight identical percussion voices, Elektron’s engineers created 15 different types, called Machines, to fill specific roles: a range of single-, dual-, and multi-oscillator synths for creating simple drums, complex percussion, and metallic sounds, respectively.
Additionally, each voice has its own VCA, pan control, stereo reverb and delay sends, and discrete output. To provide flexibility in such a small package, the individual instrument outputs are available in pairs from 1/4" TRS jacks, intended for use with an insert cable (a y-cable with a TRS plug on one end and a pair of TS plugs on the other). You also get a stereo pair of unbalanced 1/4" outputs, a 1/4" headphone jack, a USB port, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru (the latter serving as Sync outputs).
The samples aren’t just limited to percussion sounds, but include a variety of waveforms, sound effects, and rhythmic elements (piano, bass, guitar, and so forth). You can load additional samples by connecting the Analog Rytm to your computer via USB and using the Elektron C6 utility app.
The main interface feature is a matrix of 12 pads, each of which senses pressure, velocity, and Aftertouch, while providing colored lighting cues to indicate their status. The 0.75" pads are responsive and easy to play despite their size. The row of buttons at the bottom of the panel are used for triggering and programming duties.
An Analog Rytm pattern can include 12 drum tracks, although only eight tracks are voiced at a time. Kick, snare, and two of the toms have priority, while the other instruments work in pairs, where one sound will choke the other when the two are hit simultaneously (e.g., open hi-hat cancels closed hat). Each pattern includes an FX track, which can control Send (delay and reverb) and Master (distortion and compression) effects, as well as a dedicated LFO.
The Analog Rytm has 128 Kits already setup, each of which holds 12 drum Track sounds, the FX track, and control data. Once you’ve selected or assembled a kit, you create your Patterns, save those as a Song, and then store up to 16 Songs in a Project. This lets you build an album or set worth of material that is readily at your fingertips. Now it’s time to use the Analog Rytm’s real-time performance features.
In Performance and Scene modes, pressing a pad can alter several instrument-related parameters simultaneously. For example, using a Performance Macro in Performance mode, you can alter the intensity of the effects on, say, the kick drum by the degree of pressure you put on its pad. Scene mode can be used to switch between parameter changes when you press a pad. Chromatic mode lets you play a sound (an analog instrument, a sample, or both) chromatically through a fouroctave range using the pad matrix. Hit Mute, and you can silence individual tracks by tapping the appropriate pad. Dedicated buttons make it easy to jump between these modes.
The interface, overall, is set up to give you quick access to most sound parameters while playing the instrument. With clever use of voicing, tuning, effects, and the performance modes, you can make the Analog Rytm sound like an entire rhythm section.
The analog sound palette is wide ranging—from traditional percussion and instrumental sounds through old-school e-percussion to state-of-the art EDM timbres. The programmability and effects give you a lot of flexibility over each sound, while the velocity and Aftertouch capabilities, combined with the stereo delay and reverb, allow you to achieve deep dimensionality with your beats
Be sure to download the PDF manual from Elektron’s website, because it provides all the geekier info you’ll need to take full advantage of what this instrument has to offer—and believe me, there’s a lot going on here.
Moog Music Werkstatt-01
The Moog Music Werkstatt-01 is an easy-to-assemble synth kit that packs a big sound and loads of features into a small metal case. With the Maker/DIY craze in full swing, it’s nice to see Moog Music get into the game with a kit that anyone can build—absolutely no soldering required.
Although the Werkstatt-01 appears to be designed for beginners, there is plenty for intermediate and advanced users to explore. Moog included several design features aimed at education and modification, such as the test points and “experimentation pad” located on the circuit board. The synth’s schematic is also available for download.
A growing number of projects and tutorial videos are online at werkstattworkshop.com; in addition to showing synthesizer basics, they demonstrate control and modulation techniques that are surprisingly easy to set up on this powerful little sound module. The online retailer SparkFun (sparkfun.com) sells a mod kit ($29.95) for the Werkstatt-01 to help with the projects shown online, and they even bundle the extra goodies with the synth itself ($349.95).
You can also find “fan pages” online that describe various techniques for hot-rodding the Werkstatt-01, such as adding Arduino or MIDI control. Note that the manual says “hacking or modifying your Werkstatt-01 in any way will naturally void your warranty…” You’ve been warned!
Fig. 1. Assembling the Moog Music Werkstatt-01 is simple: All of the parts are included, along with easy-to-follow instructions. The Werkstatt-01 kit includes everything you need to build the instrument, except a screwdriver and scissors (see Figure 1). What you’re doing, essentially, is attaching the pre-assembled circuit board to the bottom of the metal case with screws, capping the keyboard buttons, then screwing on the top panel. It took me 15 minutes to assemble the instrument, and that’s only because I was staring at different parts of the circuit board to see what it offered. (I hope Moog eventually offers a see-through case!)
Once everything is assembled, plug in the power adapter, connect the audio output to an amp and start jamming. The synth has a 13-note keyboard of buttons that are raised slightly from the case and easy to play.
The voice architecture is pure Moog: a VCO with selectable sawtooth and pulse wave; a 4-pole ladder filter with knobs for cutoff and resonance; sections for routing modulation sources to the VCO and VCF; a triangle/square-wave LFO with rate control; a two-stage envelope generator with switchable sustain; a VCA that can be set to sustain or to follow the EG; a portamento/glide control; and a miniature patchbay. All this in a case that is roughly the size of a paperback book.
Despite its simple design, this synth sounds big! And because the LFO goes well into the audio range, you can create some seriously complex tones when using it as a modulator.
The tiny patchbay gives you additional tools to expand the Wersktatt-01’s timbral palette: five CV inputs (VCA, VCF, LFO, and linear and exponential FM for the VCO), 14 CV outputs (two of just about everything), and an audio input. Use the supplied patch wires to do fun things like modulate filter cutoff with the oscillator.
With so many patch points, it’s obvious the synth was designed to interface with the outside world. However, because the patch wires are not grounded, the manual suggests plugging the Werkstatt-01 and the external synth into the same mixer so they share a common ground. The manual also explains how to make hybrid cables that have, say, a 1/4" plug on one side. I simply used alligator clips to connect my 3.5mm Eurorack cables to the Werkstatt-01’s patch cables—brute force, but it worked perfectly. I had so many interconnections going at one point, it felt like the Moog was part of my modular system.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone put a Werkstatt-01 behind a modular panel. Its rich, full-bodied sound makes a great addition to any synth setup, yet it’s a blast to play on its own.
Studio Electronics Boomstar SE 80 and Boomstar 5089
$999/$949 EACH (STREET)
Although the Boomstar 5089’s resonant, lowpass ladder filter helps it create classic tones of the ’60s and ’70s, its gutsy sound fits modern musical stylings with aplomb. Studio Electronics have built a solid reputation with their line of high-quality, studio-grade analog synths. Recently, they’ve put their energy into semi-modular desktop products called Boomstar, each a complete MIDI-controllable, fully analog synth-voice that is chock full of useful features.
Using a sloped case reminiscent of the classic Oberheim SEM, Boomstar synths start with the basics—a pair of VCOs, an LFO, a VCF, a VCA, two EGs, internal modulation routing, an audio input, and a mixer. But what makes them so special is their sound quality and modulation capabilities. As a result, the Boomstar synths are suitable for a wide range of musical situations.
The main difference between the five Boomstar modules is the filter implementation (and related controls, if any). For this feature, we’ve chosen two of the most recent releases: the SE 80, which is based around the classic Yamaha CS-80 filter; and the 5089, which has a Moog-style, 4-pole lowpass ladder-filter. But before we look at those specific modules, let’s examine the features that are present in every Boomstar synthesizer.
To begin with, the Boomstar oscillator implementation is geared toward flexibility. Oscillator 1 lets you combine two waveforms—triangle or sawtooth with sine or square—as well as add a square-wave sub oscillator at half or full strength. Pulse width can be modulated internally or manually set. With oscillator 2, you can choose one of three waveforms (ramp, triangle, and square), switch it to hard sync with oscillator 1, and turn off pitch tracking for a drone effect. Both oscillators have independent controls for tuning, modulation depth, and range, the latter notated in organ-pipe lengths to indicate octave (2' to 32', plus a lowfrequency setting)—a tip of the hat to Moog and Yamaha synths.
An LFO with a continuously variable waveshape—sine through random—provides pulsewidth and frequency modulation to the oscillators, frequency modulation for the filter, and retriggering of the VCA. The rate can be set manually or synchronized to MIDI, where it is subdivided in a dozen different ways.
Boomstar synths have independent four-stage envelopes for the VCF and the VCA. The filter EG can be looped to create an LFO, while the VCA EG has single- and multitrigger modes (for achieving different types of keyboard phrasing, such as legato), a Drone mode, and the ability to be triggered by the LFO. The VCA envelope can also act as the master envelope for both the filter and amplifier, freeing up the filter envelope to do other things. Both EGs can be inverted. The VCA also includes an Overdrive switch—very nice!
The filter section has controls for cutoff frequency, resonance, envelope amount, and modulation depth (sourced from the LFO or VCO 2). A three-position switch (full, half, off ) determines the degree to which the filter tracks the keyboard. An audio input (3.5mm) is available when you want to run external sounds through the module for filtering and gating effects.
A row of tiny knobs lines the bottom of the panel giving you additional hands-on control over master tuning, MIDI pitch-bend distance, portamento/ glide amount, MIDI velocity sensitivity, and the level of PWM from envelope 1. My favorite part, however, is the mixer, which offers individual volume controls for each oscillator, as well as ring-modulation (based on the frequency settings of the oscillators), white noise, and feedback (the output routed back into the synth, internally). Dialing in just a touch of ring mod or feedback can add a lot to a patch, but of course you’ll want to crank them up and make the module scream. And with ring mod and noise onboard, not to mention a cross-modulation control among all the internal routing capabilities, you can make some really tangy sounds.
Studio Electronics thoughtfully included a row of 3.5mm jacks on the top of the panel, providing direct oscillator output and CV (pitch, filter cutoff, and VCA) and gate inputs. On the back are standard MIDI I/O, an Overflow button for connecting several Boomstars together, and a Learn button for automatically setting the MIDI channel. The unit has a single unbalanced 1/4" output jack, and all of these features are packed into a desktop-friendly case that is easily rackmountable.
At this point you’re probably wondering how five models with essentially the same feature set can sound so different from each other. The answer is the filter design. Each module is voiced around a classic synth sound, such as the 2-pole Oberheim SEM (Boomstar SEM), the 4-pole lowpass filter of the Roland TB-303 (Boomstar 3003), and the ARP 2600-style 4-pole lowpass filter (Boomstar 4075).
With its highpass and lowpass filters in series, the Studio Electronics Boomstar SE 80 can be as sweet or as aggressive as you need. What makes the SE 80 stand out in the Boomstar line is its far-reaching sound palette, which is directly attributable to having two filters in series—a resonant highpass filter followed by a resonant lowpass filter. The module includes two additional controls that are dedicated to the highpass filter—frequency cutoff and resonance.
This dual-filter configuration gives you the ability to design sounds across a wider timbre and frequency spectrum than the other Boomstar modules. For example, it’s easy to create quasi-vocal sounds that are reminiscent of a formant filter, or make a resonant bass with low chirps on the attack that ends with high, bell-like timbres during the release. The SE 80 is capable of very aggressive sounds that fit modern dance styles, yet the filters provide plenty of subtle tone shaping that can help the synth fit into a more traditional role.
And although both filters are resonant, they don’t go into full oscillation. But they do provide just enough ring to help create percussive and strident tones, especially when you switch the VCA into overdrive.
In contrast, the Boomstar 5089’s lowpass filter is happy to self-oscillate when you crank it up. Or back it off a bit to get the yummy squelch that’s perfect for leads, bass, and percussion.
The overall sound of the 5089 is big and full; you’ll want to play it through full-range speakers to really experience the low end this synth can produce. Those classic analog synth instruments— fat basses, solid leads, brass, plucked sounds, disco drums—are all in there and easy to conjure up.
Whether you use a keyboard or DAW to play the Boomstar instruments, they assimilate easily into a MIDI-based environment. At first glance their price may seem steep: But do the math and you’ll realize that it would be very difficult to assemble a modular synth with these features (that sounds this good) for less, once you take into consideration the case and power supply needed for a modular system.
All told, the Boomstar line provides a classic set of old-school tones that fits modern musical styles while easily interfacing with modern and vintage gear.