Much more than just a bigger MicroFreak, Arturia’s MiniFreak is a six‑voice polysynth with a character like nothing else.
Arturia’s MicroFreak was a breath of fresh air, something different at a time when you could barely move for small analogue monosynths. The Freak’s pressure‑pad keyboard and eclectic collection of digital sound generators lent it an experimental, modularish vibe. In the last three years it’s probably been my most‑used synth, so I was really excited to get my hands on its new big‑not‑big brother.
It would have been easy for Arturia to have simply repackaged the MicroFreak into a larger frame with a ‘normal’ keyboard and some effects. They’ve done a lot more than that, taking the key ingredients and greatly expanding on them to make a new polysynth that can stand alongside new players on the scene like ASM’s Hydrasynth Explorer and Modal’s Argon8.
The heart of the Freak is the same: a multi‑mode digital oscillator offering diverse synthesis methods, including algorithms sourced from Mutable Instruments and Noise Engineering designs. But now there are two oscillators that can work in parallel or interact serially. The other big change is that the Mini has six voices of full polyphony, including the analogue filter and all modulators.
The MiniFreak is a similar size to Arturia’s KeyStep Pro (just an inch deeper) and appears to have the same 37‑key mini keyboard. The panel is graphite‑coloured plastic, but unlike the Micro the main housing is all metal. At first glance the control panel is the same as the original, but closer inspection reveals quite a few additions. All the same sections are present: oscillator, filter, envelopes, LFO and mod matrix, all of which are expanded, and there’s a wholly new section for effects.
A strip of 16 touch buttons operates the sequencer and arpeggiator, among other things. To the left of the keyboard you’ll see two touch strips. Even if you prefer mechanical performance wheels, I think you’ll come around when you see what these can do in their default macro mode. Around the back you’ll find a set of full‑sized MIDI ports, audio in and out, USB and power. Unlike the MicroFreak you can’t power the Mini from USB, but it does work with my mini 12V battery pack. There are inputs and outputs for analogue clock, and a sequencer reset out, but no CV/gate ports. This is another card that the Micro still holds.
Sometimes it’s fun when a synth arrives before its manual is ready, sending you on a journey of exploration. Predictably my journey started with playing presets. I noted in the original Freak review that some of the opening factory sounds didn’t do it justice, though that changed with later updates. The opposite is true with the Mini: if you play through the first 20 or so (or even listen to the sound examples on the web page) your credit card is put at risk. There are gorgeous crystalline poly keys and plucks, warm evolving pads, big dirty stinking basses, weird sci‑fi effects, massive rave stacks and hoovers, industrial/EBM sequences... I could go on but you probably get the idea.
The sounds are great in their own right, and are presented at their best courtesy of the onboard effects, but what makes them especially engaging are the macro modulators: the two touch strips that adjust multiple parameters or modulations with a slide of your left pinky. This and aftertouch (albeit mono) from the keyboard provides plenty of expression and movement before resorting to cutoff cranking.
The defining feature of the Freaks is their hot‑swappable oscillator section. There are currently 22 algorithms to choose from, and I’d be surprised if that number didn’t grow over time. These are compact sound engines employing diverse synthesis schemes, each with three tone‑shaping parameters (the orange encoders) in addition to pitch and level.
For example, Basic Waves gives you a morphing saw/square starting point, with pulse‑width control and a sub blend. Cosier dual‑osc analogue tones are served up courtesy of the VAnalog algorithm, where just three parameters (detune, shape and wave) somehow cover a large chunk of classic polysynth sounds. Other relatively conventional engines are Waveshaper, 2‑Op FM and Formant. Then there’s Karplus‑Strong for lovely plucked or bowed strings and SuperWave for big detuned stacks.
The second half of the list moves into more experimental territory, like the Modal and Speech algorithms from Mutable’s Plaits, and four synths from Noise Engineering with their trademark sonic range and wildness. The range of tones you can reach is inspiring, and all come alive with some modulation of the orange parameters. It’s interesting to play with each engine in isolation in an INIT patch, but what’s really illuminating is to take a lush moving patch like Preset 1, and step through all the different modes. Each patch becomes a doorway into a new world of sounds if you scan through the algorithms.
The MiniFreak really is a great‑sounding and uniquely versatile synth. It’s amazing for captivating pads and delicate crystalline keys, but there are also multiple pathways to extreme dirt and aggression.
Much of this was true of the MicroFreak, but with the Mini you can run two oscillators in tandem. All of the same modes are available in osc 2, so you can double‑up your sound or blend two completely different types. Additionally, osc 2 has the Chord synth, and six new modes in which the oscillators switch from parallel to serial operation. Four of these are digital filter styles and Destroy is a distortion and bit crusher. Most interesting though is the FM/RM mode, which is the only place on the Freak where you can cross‑modulate the oscillators.
The dual oscillators are independently tuned, and by default osc 2 is slightly detuned. Although the main pitch mod point on the matrix affects both oscillators at once, you can set up either as an independent destination — handy for the serial FM/RM scenario and for fattening up any patch. A great feature is that you can quantise pitch mod per oscillator: chromatically, by fifths or octave, by various scales, etc. What you can’t do is pan the oscillators — perhaps the signal path is mono up to and through the filters. There are, however, many opportunities to add stereo width in the effects section.
A couple of things are missing from the Mini’s synth engine repertoire, at least for now. One is the vocoder mode which was added to the MicroFreak in an update. The Mini does have an Audio In mode which uses external audio as a voice source, but perhaps we’ll see the vocoder return at some point as an effect module that takes advantage of the dual synths. The other gap in the engine list is the Micro’s Wavetable mode, and the WaveUser variant that was added for wavetable imports. Given that the competition is largely wavetable/scanning‑based, it would be nice for the MiniFreak to be able so say, ‘And I can do that too!’ The hint from Arturia is that new and improved wavetable synthesis should come to MiniFreak at some point in the future.
The Mini has the same sweet‑sounding (and self‑oscillating) tri‑mode analogue filter as the Micro, except here it’s six‑voice polyphonic, as are the envelopes and LFOs. On the Micro most of the architecture has four available voices but the filter and cycling envelope are monophonic. The Mini provides true six‑voice polyphony and, perhaps uniquely, has a paraphonic mode where both oscillators gang up to run one algorithm with 12 synth voices, sharing the six available filters, etc.
The main envelope (which unlike the Micro is hard patched to the VCA) has been upgraded with independent decay and release times. The stages can be switched between normal and ‘percussive’ curves. The Cycling Envelope has become even more useful now that it’s polyphonic, but the biggest upgrade goes to the LFO section. Not only are there two LFOs, there’s a 16‑stage LFO shape designer, which uses the sequencer button strip to help you draw custom modulation shapes.
Assignment of the modulators is via the matrix, which uses a single encoder to target patch points and dial in a mod amount. Active mod pairings stay lit so it’s easy to see at a glance where modulations exist. Looking at the matrix reveals a number of differences from the MicroFreak. For a start, there are now three pages of freely assignable mod destinations, for a total of nine. These can be mapped to any control on the panel, or to a number of other parameters in a list. You can also scale modulation amounts from other modulators.
One of the key performance modulators on the Micro is the pressure pad keyboard, which is swapped out on the Mini for the standard keyboard. This is a downgrade in one sense: the Micro’s pressure modulation is polyphonic, whereas the equivalent aftertouch source on the Mini is monophonic. Of course with a regular keyboard you gain back velocity, and the loss is further mitigated by the macro control feature which provides a new and easy way to add expression.
The macros map up to four other parameters or modulation amounts to the two performance sliders. Not only is it the multi‑way assignment that makes them superior to a traditional mod wheel: because they are touch faders you can store a starting position for them within your presets. You can even choose the macros as modulation targets if you can’t be bothered to use your fingers. Traditional mod and pitch wheel functionality is still present, but you need to flip the touch strip mode. An extra, dedicated LFO for vibrato can be switched in for the mod wheel.
The MiniFreak’s arpeggiator and sequencer section takes full advantage of the extra panel space. The strip of touch buttons has room for transport, 16 step buttons and page buttons for instant access to up to 64 steps. This means that as well as real‑time recording and SH‑101‑style step recording, you can directly enter or edit notes/chords by tapping a step. If you start playback from the transport you can jam over the top, or while in Stop you can play and transpose sequences from the keys.
In arp mode the sequencer buttons become mode buttons, of which there are loads to choose. Beyond the usuals it has some particularly interesting tricks like the Pattern mode, which generates a new pattern each time you play a new chord or tap the button. Ratchet and Repeat are handy momentary variations (it’s just a shame they can’t be used with the sequencer as well). Mutate introduces other permanent changes.
That’s not the only way to mix things up though. The Spice and Dice concept from the MicroFreak is here too, allowing you to generate new variations (rolling the Dice) and then morph into them with one of the touch faders (adding the Spice). With this system you don’t lose your original sequence. And it is one sequence: the MicroFreak’s ability to store two sequences per patch and flip between them has not made it to the Mini.
Parameters can be sequenced. You can capture automation in real time, or hold a step and dial in a value at that point. You can even choose whether automation points are smoothed between steps or fixed and discrete in the fashion of Elektron parameter locks. This is typical of the MiniFreak: it over delivers and surprises with its depth at every turn.
Here’s another example: it was only after a couple of weeks of using the MiniFreak that I realised each of the effects had multiple modes! I was all set to say that the reverb was lovely but I wished it could go a bit shorter, and then I stumbled upon a whole set of sub modes. In keeping with the Freak oscillator paradigm, the MiniFreak’s effects section features multiple components represented by cool wireframe animations, and with three tweakable parameters.
The three available slots route in series, except for the reverb and delay, which automatically get patched in as sends unless told otherwise. All the time‑based effects (chorus, phaser, flanger, delay and reverb) add some welcome stereo width. They also all sound really good — these are not a generic set of off‑the‑shelf effects slapped on as an afterthought. As well as the stereo effects, there’s a distortion, bit crusher, wave folder, a couple of EQs and a multiband compressor. This last is a monster. It can really push the sound — so much so that it can bring the noise floor well into play, but even that sounds rather appealing. It’s pretty epic for big in‑your‑face synth sounds, imparting a fabulous sandy grit.
The MiniFreak really is a great‑sounding and uniquely versatile synth. It’s amazing for captivating pads and delicate crystalline keys, but there are also multiple pathways to extreme dirt and aggression. It has a gift for classic club sounds like hoovers and saw stacks, and is awash with grimy drum & bass basses — all relevant again as dance music is joyfully re‑exploring old school rave, jungle and garage vibes.
When designing your own sounds, there’s an accessible level at which you can get satisfying results just treating the oscillator section like a standalone module — there’s so much to explore with just those four orange encoders. This compares favourably to typical wavetable synths where raw oscillators can sound lifeless without modulation. Having said that, to level up your sound design on the Freak and get the kind of glorious, nuanced and playable patches found in the presets you need to put a little time into learning how the modulation and macro systems work, and of course the sequencer. Experimentation is rewarded and you continue to find new and cool sounds and ideas. The MiniFreak is a synth you won’t get bored with.
The MiniFreak comes with a plug‑in: MiniFreak V. The V signifies that this is much more than just a companion app or preset manager (though it is that) — it’s a virtual instrument that completely recreates the synth. MiniFreak V can run independently, standalone or in your DAW (VST, AU or AAX), but will also link up with the hardware if it sees it over USB. When linked, the plug‑in is controlled entirely from the hardware. It behaves really intelligently — when you add a plug‑in it will grab the current patch from the hardware, but if you link to existing instances in your DAW the hardware will simply control it.
While the plug‑in is the same synth as the hardware (albeit with a digital emulation of the filter), it doesn’t emulate the control panel. The plug‑in makes many tasks like modulation routing faster, and also reveals features that you might not spot so readily on the hardware. For now, MiniFreak V is only available with the hardware synth — perhaps it will be available separately in the future.
Since the initial release of the MicroFreak, which we reviewed in June 2019, Arturia continued to add and refine features and we’re now on version 4 of the firmware. There were new oscillator types including the Noise Engineering set, voice unison, and the scales and chords modes which have gained a dedicated button on the Mini. However, not all the new goodies have made it into the new synth. The vocoder mode is not present, even though the Mini has an audio input. Also, as the wavetable oscillator is missing so is the updated feature that allowed import of user wavetables. However, if Arturia’s track record is anything to go by we’ll likely see the return of these features plus more in the future.
- Wide range of interesting synth engines.
- Feature‑rich generative sequencing and arpeggiation.
- Comes with a plug‑in version.
- Conventional keyboard...
- ...but keyboard loses polyphonic aftertouch...
- ...and some would prefer a bigger keyboard on a poly.
- No wavetable or vocoder modes — for now.
The Freak has blossomed into an intriguing and lush‑sounding polysynth, without losing its raw edge.