Arturia throw out the synthesizer rulebook with an instrument that dares to be different.
Barely a month goes by without the announcement of a cute analogue monosynth, promising to deliver that certain something that plug-ins can't. But is it really all about the analogue factor? The Eurorack scene is far from exclusively analogue, with many beloved digital modules. Perhaps the return of hardware synths is as much about the immediacy of hands-on instruments.
With tons of excellent, affordable analogue synths to choose from (not least Arturia's own MiniBrute and MicroBrute) I for one have been keen to see something different. The MicroFreak is a clever idea. Take a multi-algorithmic DSP sound engine, like Mutable Instruments' Plaits or Braids modules or Teenage Engineering's OP‑1/OP‑Z, and build it into a classic‑style synth like the MicroBrute.
As well as being intrigued by the potential of some fresh sounds, I was keen to see if the MicroFreak could become my new travelling companion and replace an ailing USB mini keyboard. With less voltage required than a typical analogue, the Freak can run from USB power. It's also very light, there are no keys to break, and it can work as a controller keyboard and sequencer over USB, MIDI or CV.
As we're talking keyboards let's start with the MicroFreak's most divisive feature. The MicroFreak has 'Grain de folie' printed on its front panel, and one of the ways Arturia have injected a 'touch of madness' is by opting for a capacitive keyboard instead of regular moving keys. This is certainly quirky, though not that uncommon in modular systems. Buchla have long favoured them and you see touch and pressure controllers for Eurorack from the likes of Make Music and Pittsburgh Modular.
The 'keys' are laid out on a PCB panel with a matrix of exposed nodes that sense contact with your skin. The white keys are separated by shallow ridges and the black keys are part of a slightly higher layer that also houses the performance touch strip and various touch-sensitive arp and sequencer controls.
I've not spent much time with this kind of keyboard before and it took quite a bit of getting used to. I quickly noticed one advantage: they're highly sensitive, and as there's no travel you can play notes extremely quickly. The flip side is that it took me ages to stop firing off notes accidentally with fingers that would normally be lightly resting on the keyboard.
The keyboard generates both velocity and aftertouch data, although again it took some practice to understand how to get the best out of these. The keys sense pressure based on both the firmness and area of the connection with your skin. To get higher values you not only have to hit/press harder, you also have to flatten out your finger to widen the contact zone. Once I got the hang of simultaneously applying pressure and rolling my fingers flatter on to the key I found I could get much more nuanced and controllable aftertouch than even with my main master keyboard. It's tricky when you're playing certain chords as it's awkward to get more contact, and trying to play fast runs with high velocity is also difficult as you're using your fingertips.
The MicroFreak's digital oscillator has 12 different algorithms, providing a huge range of sonic raw materials. The oscillator routes into an analogue filter and VCA then out into the world. There are no effects except for a chorus built into a couple of the algorithms. We'll look at modulation in more detail, but the spec is one main envelope, an LFO, a function generator that can be used as another envelope or LFO, and a detailed mod...
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