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Page 2: Arturia MicroFreak

Synthesizer
By Simon Sherbourne

MatrixFreak

Modulation is incredibly versatile on the MicroFreak, based around a digital patching matrix of five sources and seven destinations. A single encoder targets patch points and then sets the mod amount from -100 to 100. The main envelope is one of the sources, and there's a sync'able LFO with six different shapes and a dedicated speed encoder on the front panel.

More interesting is the Cycling Envelope. This is a function generator of the kind you'd more often find on a synth module, like the ubiquitous Make Noise Maths, for example. It has Rise, Fall and Hold stages which can be triggered and held like an envelope, or looped to create a custom LFO. You can change the shapes of the Rise and Fall independently, morphing from logarithmic to linear to exponential curves. The stage times can go fast enough to get FM. A nice feature is an Amount knob on the panel that scales the amplitude of the cycling envelope, giving you quick global performance control of this modulation. One thing to note about the Cycling Envelope (especially when applying it to pitch) is that modulation is always positive or negative of the starting point, unlike the main LFO whose modulation is applied from the mid-point in a bipolar fashion.

Four mod destinations on the matrix are fixed, and three are user assignable per patch. The assignable parameters each have a Learn button that you can hold while wiggling any control you wish to assign. All knobs are fair game (including the synth Type) except for the master volume and the preset selector.

Things get really interesting when you use the user slots to modulate the levels of other mod assignments. This opens the door to expressive performance like controlling vibrato with key pressure. You can also assign a modulator to itself for unpredictable generative results, for example patching the LFO to its own rate, or the Cycling Envelope to its own stage times.

Sequencing

The MicroFreak has both an arpeggiator and sequencer which share a common set of controls. The arp has all the normal modes you'd expect, with an interesting extra called Pattern, which generates a new sequence every time you play notes. Rather than being completely random, this emphasises the root note, and builds a pattern within the current sequence length (up to 64 steps). Adding notes or simply replaying the current ones changes the pattern, and if you get something you want to keep you can capture it into the sequencer.

Sequencer mode provides two separate sequences up to 64 steps, which can be recorded/updated in real-time or played in step by step, in the classic SH‑101 style. There's a really nice editing system where you audibly scrub through the sequence with the Rate knob and update individual steps with a new note or rest. During playback you can flip between the A and B sequences and they immediately swap in step with the beat position. You can also play the keyboard during playback: in monophonic mode this takes over from the current sequence, but in paraphonic mode you can play over the top. If you don't manually start playback, you can use the keyboard to trigger and transpose sequences. Most synths have one or the other of these behaviours; it's great to have both here.

The sequencer can additionally record up to four lanes of parameter automation. Again this can be recorded in real time, or you can 'park' on a step by winding through with the Rate control and lock a parameter value for that step. Lanes that have been used are indicated by the Arp Range LEDs, and you can choose to smooth the automation in individual lanes. The Sound Type (synth algorithm) can also be changed once per step, with wonderfully chaotic consequences.

Parameter automation is one means to add movement, but you also have Key/Arp as a mod source on the mod matrix. With a suitably wide-ranging sequence, applying this as modulation to a few other parameters can create some engaging modular-style results.

One last grain de folie is provided by the 'Spice and Dice' feature. This is a pattern variation processor that takes over the pitch-bend slider. It took me a fair while to figure out what this does, and perhaps it's more fun if I never fully understand it! In Dice mode, tapping the touch slider creates variations in the lengths, velocities, pressures, envelope times and occasionally pitches of the gates in the current sequence/arp. Each time you tap the strip ('roll the dice') a new randomisation is created; the further to the right you tap the more dramatic the results. The Spice parameter morphs between the 'straight' sequence and the current random state. For the most dramatic changes you can leave the Spice slider up high then keep randomising with the Dice mode.

In Conclusion

For me the MicroFreak was a grower; I wasn't immediately smitten. Perhaps it's because, compared to many digital synths and plug-ins, the sound is naked, not artificially widened, compressed and soaked in reverb and delay. As I dug into exploring the sound types and modulation (and yes, added a little reverb) I got captivated. With its many synth engines it's difficult to sum up the sound: it can do squelchy sequences and euphoric strings if you like, but more often than not it produces something unique, from abrasive to delicate.

It was the same with the keyboard: I initially thought there was something wrong with mine! But as I learned to play it I started to love it. The keyboard won't be for everyone, but I found if you really make use of the pressure it makes for an unusually playable and expressive synth. With the CV connections, the MicroFreak may be the cheapest way to add a capacitive touch controller to your modular rig, and with real MIDI and a USB port it can take power from it would certainly work for me as a go-to portable controller.

All this is rounded off with a great little sequencer and innovative live pattern generation features. It's great to see Arturia take a chance on something a little different. A touch of madness is sometimes exactly what you need.

Alternatives

If you're looking for a sub-£300$400 multi-algorithmic synth with a capacitive keyboard, the MicroFreak is it. The only similarly priced alternative is the Plaits module itself, presuming you already have a Eurorack system and only want the sound engine. Other options are in the region of twice as expensive. Sonicware's ELZ‑1 has multiple DSP synth types and also has an unusual keyboard. It seems pretty powerful (and has effects) but doesn't have CV connectivity. Teenage Engineering's OP‑Z has much less tweakable synths but is strong on sequencing. Neither have the kind of traditional hands-on synth panel of the MicroFreak. Korg's Minilogue XD does. Although it's primarily an analogue polysynth, it has a digital option that can also import Plaits algorithms, albeit one at a time.

Connectivity

MicroFreak rear panel connections.MicroFreak rear panel connections.

As I had the MicroFreak in mind as a possible new travel controller, I was keen to test its connectivity as well as its stand-alone capabilities. MIDI is catered for via standard mini-jack connections and USB, and the implementation is sophisticated. You can choose whether or not the arp and sequencer are transmitted over MIDI, and whether the knobs send CC values. There's a soft thru for the standard MIDI out, and you can choose to merge incoming MIDI with the keyboard from either the USB or MIDI ports, or both. The keyboard transmits both velocity and polyphonic aftertouch.

There's also connectivity for modulars, with CV outputs for gate, pitch and pressure and clock in/out. (The MicroFreak can also clock selectively via USB or MIDI, or can detect a source automatically). As with MIDI there's extensive control over formats and preferences. There's support for both 1V/octave and Hz/octave, and even 1.2V/octave for Buchla. You can set the voltage reference, and the pressure output's voltage range. I had a lot of fun using the arp and sequencer with my standard test subject, the 0-Coast. The pressure output was a new experience for me and has quashed my scepticism about touch keyboards.

As there's MIDI in, I won't complain about the lack of CV/gate inputs; if I was forced to ask for more I'd choose a CV output from the Cycling Envelope. Maybe the pressure output could be made assignable? In any case, the MicroFreak must be the cheapest way to add a capacitive keyboard to your modular rig even if you never used the synth!

Pros

  • Twelve versatile sound engines.
  • Four-voice polyphony, bar the filter.
  • Sequencer and pattern randomiser.
  • Cycling Envelope.
  • USB Power.
  • You can learn to love the keyboard.

Cons

  • The keyboard won't be for everyone.

Summary

A refreshingly different synth with multiple sound engines to explore and rich performance features. Can double as a portable controller/sequencer if you can get on with the keyboard.

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Published June 2019