Review: Arturia MiniBrute 2 and MiniBrute 2S - EMusician

Review: Arturia MiniBrute 2 and MiniBrute 2S

A tasty update that's available in 2 flavors
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The MiniBrute 2 has the
 keyboard action of the
 MatrixBrute and increased
 sound-design capabilities
 thanks to VCO 2 and a
 loopable envelope.

The MiniBrute 2 has the  keyboard action of the  MatrixBrute and increased  sound-design capabilities  thanks to VCO 2 and a  loopable envelope.

Released in 2012, the original Arturia MiniBrute was an instant hit, thanks to its inventive waveforms, Steiner-Parker multimode filter, and $500 price tag.

This year, Arturia took things up a notch in the MiniBrute’s evolution by introducing two products designed to fit different musical needs—the MiniBrute 2 with a keyboard and the MiniBrute 2S with pads and extra sequencing capabilities. And thanks to their expanded patchbays, both models can serve as a powerful introduction to modular synthesis when integrated with Eurorack-based systems such as Arturia’s new RackBrute 6U and 3U cases.

KEYS VS. PADS

The MiniBrute 2 and 2S are far more capable than their predecessor, with an additional oscillator, dual multi-waveform LFOs, an impressive new looping AD envelope, and a 48-point patchbay that offers access to nearly every parameter on the synth. The MiniBrute’s aesthetics and metal construction remain largely unchanged, aside from the addition of retro wood end-caps. This is a good thing, because the entire line is roadworthy and both instruments are destined to make it into studio and live rigs.

The biggest difference between the two models is their approach to musical interaction. The MiniBrute 2 sticks with a 2-octave velocity- and aftertouch-enabled keyboard, which has the same action as the MatrixBrute. Another improvement soloists will appreciate is that the pitch and mod wheels are now located next to the keyboard instead of on the front panel.

The MiniBrute 2S is a bold step in a different direction, cribbing part of its design from the DrumBrute’s pads and sequencer, while adding a pair of voltage control channels for animating timbre in dramatic fashion. Its 16 velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads serve triple-duty for note entry, sequencing functions, and parameter settings via a shift button. What’s more, you can switch between several common keys and modes, such as major, minor, Dorian, Mixolydian, and Blues. This makes it easy to whip up musically interesting sequences with minimal effort.

Above the pads is a row of encoders that facilitate both dial-in note entry and access to the velocity and pressure values for sequencing synthesis parameters. In terms of innovation, the MiniBrute 2S feels like an instant classic for the dance-music scene.

Architecturally, both units are based on the standard analog design of two oscillators patched into a filter and VCA, but with an array of thoughtfully designed modulation tools that give it a unique flavor.

OSCILLATOR ENHANCEMENTS

The first oscillator in both instruments is based around the original keyboard’s innovative take on the SH-101, with mixable saw, square, and triangle waves. For those who are unfamiliar with the first MiniBrute, the sawtooth has a chorus-like Ultra-saw knob, pulse-width modulation is available for the square, and the triangle features a waveshaping function called Metalizer that transforms its texture from muted to bright and aggressive. The original MiniBrute included a dedicated LFO for the Ultrasaw, and the pulse/square offered simultaneous envelope modulation and LFO modulation, as did the triangle for its Metalizer effect. Additionally, version 1 included a sub-oscillator that blended sine or square waves in a choice of two different octave ranges.

The MiniBrute 2 includes those same distinctive, mixable waveforms, but with different modulation sources: LFO 2 now modulates the Ultrasaw, giving it a wider range of waveforms; pulse-width modulation is now sourced from LFO 1; and the triangle’s Metalizer depth correlates with velocity. Keep in mind that, with the exception of the Ultrasaw’s additional LFO, all of the original MiniBrute’s hardwired modulation routings can be duplicated using the MiniBrute 2’s patchbay and a little bit of planning.

The sub-oscillator has been replaced with a far more flexible, second VCO that offers sine, square, and sawtooth waveforms and three distinct modes for its tuning knob: Fine, All, and LFO. Fine mode delivers a tuning range of slightly more than an octave in either direction with integrated keyboard tracking. All mode sweeps across the entire frequency spectrum of the oscillator from around 1 Hz to well above 20 kHz. LFO mode provides frequencies below 1 Hz. This is the widest tuning range I’ve seen in a non-modular, hardware synth’s oscillator. VCO 2 can also act as a frequency modulation source for VCO 1, where it can be used as an LFO or audio-rate modulator for wild sideband effects.

Moreover, the MiniBrute 2 and 2S appear to be more stable than the original version, some of which were pretty inconsistent over a five-octave range. When I first fired up the MiniBrute 2, I checked the oscillator’s seven-octave range and my unit had a ±21 cent difference at either extreme when the opposing extreme was in tune. A few hours later, the differential was the same. After letting it burn in for 24 hours, I tested it again and the tuning differential was the same at the extremes. However, in all cases, when tuned to middle C, the result was a 5-octave range that deviated no more than 8 cents from the center.

Granted, these are extreme tests, but after experiencing the issues with my original MiniBrute, I wanted to examine the new model’s tuning stability thoroughly. Overall, it’s more stable than almost any vintage VCO you’ll encounter.

FILTER FUN

Arturia retained the Steiner-Parker multimode filter in the MiniBrute 2 and 2S. It’s an aggressive, even brutish (there, I said it) filter with nasty resonant behavior, regardless of which of the four modes—low, high, band, or notch—you select. Resonant notch filtering is a bit confusing if you can visualize the curve of that filter type, but sure enough, this Steiner-Parker filter offers that effect.

The filter’s normaled modulation routings take a few more chances than on the previous model, with its two cutoff modulation sources patched directly to the ADSR and aftertouch, along with an attenuator knob for resonance modulation from LFO 1. Devoting a cutoff modulation resource to pressure and not keyboard tracking is a bold design decision, but using the patchbay, you can change this if you want more familiar routings.

Having only two modulation inputs means that you can modulate the cutoff with an envelope, keyboard tracking, LFO, or alternate options, but you can only pick two without wrangling extensively with the patchbay. That said, newcomers will probably stick with the factory envelope and aftertouch defaults which give the unit a characteristic sound.

On its own, the patchbay solves many (but not all) of the most common routing choices, but the MiniBrute 2 really begs you to incorporate Eurorack modules if you want it to make several commonplace synth sounds.

MODULATION SOURCES

Each of the two LFOs is identical to the original MiniBrute’s primary LFO. There are six waveform options: Sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, random stepped (sample-and-hold), and random gliding (S&H with a lag generator). Noise isn’t available, because it can be addressed using the patchbay. Each LFO can be independently switched between free-running or tempo-synced to the arpeggiator/sequencer.

The envelopes, however, have a few significant changes; notably, instead of two ADSRs, the Mini-Brute 2 has a single ADSR and an AD generator with switchable gate (reminiscent of the ARP Odyssey). While the ADSR is normaled to the filter, it doesn’t include the fast/slow switch found on the original MiniBrute. Even so, it feels sufficiently snappy, so I’m guessing Arturia opted exclusively for Fast mode, which sounds better anyway.

I was originally disappointed with the AD envelope that is tied to the VCA, but after tinkering with it, I discovered how flexible it really is thanks to its two switches. One toggles between Gate (maximum sustain) and Trigger mode for plucked effects. Even more interesting is the inclusion of a Loop switch. If you read my Sound Design column on page 44, you’ll see how valuable this feature can be: With looping on, you can use this envelope for repeating notes or, using the patchbay, as a fourth LFO that can vary between triangle and sawtooth/ramp shapes, depending on how the attack and decay parameters are set. I like this configuration far better in terms of its sonic potential.

INS AND OUTS

The patchbay is so well-stocked that the eccentricities of the front panel can largely be overlooked, allowing you to reconfigure the modulation routings in a more familiar manner. Since it’s simply a collection of minijacks that the manual describes in detail, I’ll cover some of the most common, practical applications that aren’t obvious from the front panel’s controls.

The MIDI section includes outputs for keyboard, gate, velocity, and mod wheel, so if you want to add velocity control or keyboard tracking to the filter cutoff, it’s a matter of patching either of those to the secondary filter attenuator that is normaled to pressure; or skip the envelope modulation and use its bi-polar attenuator instead.

The VCA includes an attenuator normalled to a +5V generator for creating drones. Patching one of the LFOs (or VCO 2 in low-frequency mode) delivers classic tremolo or modern gated modulation effects.

To re-create the waveshape modulation on the original MiniBrute, with its enveloping of pulse-width and/or Metalizer, just patch the same ADSR that controls the filter to either of their modulation attenuator inputs. However, this is where we hit a snag with the patchbay: There’s no mult/splitter. For those who are new to modular synthesis, a mult lets you divide the signal from a single modulation source and route it to multiple destinations. In this case, to use the ADSR to modulate multiple destinations besides filter cutoff, you’ll need a Y-cable (or mult and attenuator modules in a Eurorack system).

SEQUENCER AND ARPEGGIATOR

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The onboard sequencer in the MiniBrute 2 keyboard combines the arpeggiator from the original version with the sequencer from the MicroBrute. This sequencing is for note and velocity only (whereas the 2S, described below, is much more sophisticated), but you can add ties and rests with a bit of forethought and button pressing.

Each of the eight sequences stores up to 64 steps, with time divisions ranging from quarter-notes to 32nd-note triplets. The vibe here is similar to the sequencer in the SH-101, so you can quickly whip up synthwave or techno patterns with a minimum of fuss. Eight sequences may seem a tad stingy, but you also can load and store sequences using Arturia’s MIDI Control Center, and the ability to transpose sequences using the keyboard adds musicality in a live context (see the sidebar MIDI Control Center).

The arpeggiator offers eight pattern types, including random and ordered, and shares the time division options of the sequencer. Additional timing possibilities include five different gate times (10% to 90%) and ten different swing settings.

The patchbay provides access to clock and reset functions, with a wide range of voltage clocks supported in addition to the usual MIDI and USB choices. These include 1step (Gate), 1step (Clock), 1pulse (Korg), 24ppq, or 48ppq. I ran some tests using my Korg Volcas and everything functioned flawlessly.

The focus of the MiniBrute 2S, on the other hand, is on sequencing, so these features are far more extensive in the non-keyboard model. It offers real-time note entry from the pads, capturing both pitch and gate time (note duration), quantizing that information and associating it with the relevant pad parameters. There is also a row of knobs above the pads that can be used to directly edit step values for more than just gate time and notes.

The sequencer memory in the MiniBrute 2S is organized into four banks of 16 patterns, but for some reason, they don’t all reside in memory at once. Instead, the 2S only loads one bank of patterns at a time. In general, this allows you to work with groups of related patterns in a fluid compositional manner. The downside is that loading patterns from different banks means that the current bank will be replaced. In most cases, it’s not a huge hassle, but it does require that you organize your sequences in advance.

Fortunately, there are amenities for loading, copying, pasting, and erasing data so that everything is coordinated for live performance. As with the keyboard version, you can also transfer sequence data using MIDI Control Center.

In addition to pitch and gate time, there are separate tracks for velocity and pressure on the MiniBrute 2S. While these can certainly be used for their labeled functions, you can get a lot more out of the system if you think of them as two additional parameter sequences: That is, if you patch a parameter for velocity control, you can sequence that value using the knobs when the velocity-track editor is active. The same process applies to the pressure track. Thus, it can function as a note sequencer with dual parameter step-sequencers for each pattern. A noteworthy feature of the MiniBrute 2S is that the Mod1 and Mod2 tracks can also be used as envelopes and LFOs. This allows you, among other things, to generate sequences of envelopes (with variable attack and decay times on each active step), sequences of LFOs (for wobble-like patches), another pitch track for duophony, as well as another gate track to trigger both envelopes separately.

Live performance with the sequencer is akin to working with 808-style devices: You can use the 16 pads to toggle steps on and off; or, when the load key is pressed, use the pads to switch between the sequences within a bank in real-time, either instantly or at the end of the current pattern.

The Shift key also allows for real-time interaction with the pattern playback in musically useful ways. While holding the key, the first four pads select between forward, backward, alternating (back and forth), and random, which is a lovely touch. Other pads let you switch between time divisions (note values) and even scale/mode changes, letting you rapidly toggle a sequence between minor, major, Dorian, or any of the others. This is a very musical function. The Shift key is also useful for editing details such as note slides, for a more 303-like sound.

All in all, the MiniBrute 2S sequencer is impressively dynamic in a live context, as long as you pay close attention to your pattern and bank organization.

E TWO, MINIBRUTÉ

After digging deeply into both units, I think they have the potential to repeat the success of the original MiniBrute. The MiniBrute 2 and MiniBrute 2S sound fantastic and are a friendly introduction to the modular world, especially in conjunction with the companion RackBrute expanders.

Personally, I think the MiniBrute 2S is the real innovation here, as its synth can easily be controlled from another keyboard or USB, if that’s your preference. Moreover, the MiniBrute 2S’s clear layout and intuitive approach to live sequencing gives it an addictive, one-of-a-kind feel.

MIDI Control Center

FIG. 1: The MiniBrute 2S combines the padbased
 interface and sequencing capabilities
 of the DrumBrute with the flexible synth
 architecture of the MiniBrute 2 keyboard.

FIG. 1: The MiniBrute 2S combines the padbased  interface and sequencing capabilities  of the DrumBrute with the flexible synth  architecture of the MiniBrute 2 keyboard.

Arturia’s range of hardware devices lets users customize their deeper behavior using the aptly named MIDI Control Center software. With it, you can adjust velocity and aftertouch response curves, modify continuous controllers and channel routings, and save/load sequence data, among other parameters. Shown here is the main page for configuring the MiniBrute 2S, including options for transposition, CV/gate functionality, note priority, and trigger modes.

STRENGTHS

All analog signal path. Innovative oscillators. Extensive patchbay. Steiner-Parker filter. Looping envelope. Pressure and velocity sensitive keyboard (2). Robust sequencing (2S).

LIMITATIONS

Mult and attenuator needed to re-create some common analog sounds.

MiniBrute 2: $649
MiniBrute 2S: $699
arturia.com

Francis Preve has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. Check out his soundware company at symplesound.com.