2013 Mini Synth RoundUp

This is a follow up to my previous post where I was wining about not having a proper keyboard to play.

This weekend I was at one of the local synth stores in Stockholm (4sound) messing around with some of the smaller synths (BassStation 2, MS-20 Mini, MiniBrute, Sub Phatty) that have entered the market recently. Smaller in footprint but not in sound. I thought I’d collect some of my thoughts on them, but this is not a comparison in anyway. Remember, they are different instruments with different character so comparing them would be unfair and pointless.

Novation BassStation 2

Base-Station-II-elevated-rear-3quartersNovation’s reincarnation of the classic BassStation. Very intuitive panel with lots of hands-on goodness. The keybed felt sturdy and nice, with just the expected action for a smaller, somewhat cheaper synth. During the 15 minutes I played around with it I found it really easy to get lost (in a good way) in tweaking a sound to go all the way from a subby bass to a crunchy lead.

I have to say the sonic palette was really impressive, and I would not write this one off as just a Bass synth. Compared to the Moog Minitaur, which I feel is an amazing, great sounding, creamy and fat one-trick-pony, the BassStation 2 might not have that warm, Moogy sound but who cares? It’s not a Moog, instead it’s much more versatile, hands-on and fun.

The Acid filter is an obvious (and great) nod to the X0X machines of the 80s and 90s where you can easily dial in great, classic acid techno sounds. In fact, it felt like the machine was quietly beckoning me to do just that. ‘I know it’s cheesy but admit it, that’s what you want me to sound like…’ Or perhaps that was just in my head… The signal path also contains an overdrive stage where you can really fatten it up and add plenty of dirt.

Thumbs up for this one, especially if you want a dedicated Bass synth, but really for any classic techno sound!

Korg MS-20 Mini

Such a difficult instrument to approach. I’ve dreamt of owning an MS-20 ever since I discovered that all my favourite sounds in the Arturia library came from their MS-20 emulation. Now that I’m standing face to face with one that’s actually within reach it feels so strange that it’s not 100% the ‘real’ thing. I know it’s almost exactly the same components, but I kind of want to find some problem with it to give me an excuse to get the vintage one.. Silly, I know…

korg-ms20-630-80

Anyways, the MS-20 Mini is simply put a blast to play. While the keys feel a bit flimsy and the knobs have quite a lot of wiggle to them, the patch bay felt sturdy and extremely inviting.

With my modular background I immediately felt at home and within just a few minutes I was able to patch bells, drones and straight out weird noises. (Yes, the filter is fantastic!)

The layout of the panel is very easy to understand, and since everything is given plenty of on-panel explanation I think this would be a fantastic beginner synth that’s both easy to get in to and extremely deep thanks to it’s semi-modular nature.

Thumbs up on this one too, especially if you are looking for your first analog synth.

Moog Sub Phatty

I have a Little Phatty Stage 2 in the studio, and I’ve always felt it’s like a Rolls Royce of synthesisers. Not necessarily the most exciting synth, or the most innovative, but very well built (despite it’s plastic front panel) and with a very reliable sound and character. For some reason I alway use it either as a Bass synth, or in combination with delay, reverb and distortion pedals. I feel like it lacks just that little extra spice to make it interesting as a Lead synth.

Sub-Phatty1wht-e1369738309637Not so with the Sub Phatty. In fact if it was my only chance of owning it I would trade my Little for a Sub any day. The new panel layout is an order of magnitude easier to get around and much better for live tweaking and performance. The oscillator section (with the sub osc), dedicated noise knob, the separation of the amp and filter envelope sections and the overdrive all combine to make this an excellent instrument for sound creation and live playing.

Some might say that the 2 vs 3 octave keyboard is thing to consider, but I disagree. I have no problem dribbling the octave up and down buttons when necessary and I actually think the smaller foot print is a big plus.

Of all the synths I played with this day I have to say the Sub Phatty was the most fun, and I found myself seriously considering buying one.

If you own a synth or two but you want to add that classic Moog sound, albeit in an updated and in my opinion more interesting incarnation, the Sub Phatty is a no-brainer.

Arturia MiniBrute

I have a complicated relationship with Arturia. I love their software emulations and the presets they bundle, but the quality of their hardware has never impressed me. I find this interesting since many reviewers of both their MIDI controllers and synths give them praise for great build quality.

The gear I’ve owned (2 Analog Factory boards, a MiniLab and the Spark Drum machine) have all broken down in one way or the other. That said, their prices are very competitive and the software is ace…

Minibrute

So is the MiniBrute any different? Yes and no. Yes, the build quality of the chassis and keybed feels reassuring compared to their MIDI controllers, but the the knobs and faders feel like they would easily break or get cranky if you get too excited during a live session.

The MiniBrute has one of the most interesting oscillator sections I’ve ever seen, essentially allowing you to mix 3 waveforms, noise, a sub oscillator and an external audio input in a 6 channel mixer. What’s really interesting though is that the waveforms are all generated from a single oscillator. Add to this waves haping capabilities on each wave and the famed ‘Brute Factor’ and you’re in for a ride.

Yes, the MiniBrute lives up to it’s name. I found it to be gritty, dirty, growling and just awesome in sound character. Very disrespectful of any fancy Moog smelling classical synth lead sounds, instead just begging you to steal it and start a punk band. My only fear is that the knobs, keys and faders might fall off before you make it to the first gig…

In summary, definitely a unique and fun sounding synth, and if I found a used and functioning one for a good price I would probably buy it. Is it a must-have? No, I would save the cash for the MicroBrute slated to be released on November 1st.

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6 thoughts on “2013 Mini Synth RoundUp

  1. I’ve played all of these too but wasn’t at all impressed by the Bass Station 2. Yes it had a wide palette of sounds but they were all somewhat flat to my ears. There just wasn’t enough character and harmonics in there for me. Each of the others you tried has that in buckets. So maybe the Bass Station is something you get to “sit in the mix”. But there was something about it I just didn’t like. Also, I don’t think the Minibrute is built any worse than the MS-20 Mini. In terms of “bang for the buck” it wins hands down here but I’d be happy to own any of these synths except the Bass Station 2.

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    • About the Bass Station 2, that’s an interesting assessment. I humbly disagree about the flatness, but as with all instruments it’s totally subjective. More importantly I think you have an excellent point that any synth, and especially one with a focus like the Bass Station 2, needs to be evaluated in the context of a mix.

      As for the build quality of the MiniBrute vs. MS-20 Mini, I agree on that point as well. It’s just that personally I’ve had some really bad experiences with Arturia gear so I have a harder time trusting them.

      Not sure about the bang for the buck part. I actually think there’s a ton of depth in the MS-20, but the MiniBrute wins in terms of unique character.

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  2. I haven’t tried any of these (but for my old and trusty MS20 that I use a lot), but one thing that could help you out in your thoughts is to check what kind of CV these synths output… For example, your modular has Volts per octave (i.e. linear CV), but the MS20 outputs Hertz per volt (i.e. logarithmic CV). So, you’ll not be able to send CV from the MS20 to your modular. There is a linear CV input in the MS20 so you could control it from your modular, but that input is not as good/stable as the normal CV input…

    So, check the specs for the synths and think about how you would like to use them in your setup. :-)

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    • Yep, I didn’t touch on expandability or connectivity above, but you’re right and for me personally that is very important.

      I guess with the MS-20 you could get an English Tear module which would allow you to interface with a modular, but that’s an extra expense and hassle.

      Personally I think the MiniBrute has the best connectivity of the bunch, and that’s also one of the reasons I like the MicroBrute…

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