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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Keyboard Abstinence…

It’s now been almost 3 months since I packed up all my gear and left San Francisco. Since then my entire studio has been placed in custom wooden boxes, stuffed in a container, placed on a ship, crossed the atlantic and is now sitting in a harbor somewhere along the Swedish coast.

I knew I would be away from my gear for a long time which is why I put together my portable little setup (more here), but I did not foresee how much I would miss having access to my modular and my keyboards.

I packed an LPK25 but I just don’t gel with it, also the build quality is poor and the thing is already starting to fail on me. To replace it I’ve been fiddling with the laptop keyboard and the built in Analog Four keys, but It’s going to be at least another 45 days before my studio is back up, and as a result I’ve started to long for a good key bed.

I’m really tempted to grab one of the new, interesting ‘mini-synths’ like a BassStation 2, a MiniBrute or an MS-20 Mini, and with Arturia announcing the MicroBrute the availability of portable, analog, mono synths have never been better! While not the cheapest option it would add a lot of extra value over a Midi controller.

On the other had I’m also curious about the new KeyLab series from Arturia. While dependent on a computer to run the KeyLab software, the quality of the Arturia emulations are just killer.

What’s your portable keyboard solution? Computer and MIDI controller or an actual synth?

Official Arturia MicroBrute Movie

Quick update on the Arturia Microbrute. If you go to the teaser site and click the Arturia Logo at the bottom of the site, you will be shown a full length intro movie about the synth, which is also already up on Youtube:

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.04.44 PM

Really makes you wonder what the count down is for?

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.08.27 PM

The MicroBrute from Arturia

So Arturia is about to announce ‘something BIg‘ on October 25. The internet is full of speculations but the most likely contestant is a mini version of their wildly successful MiniBrute synthesizer, dubbed the MicroBrute. The picture below has been floating around for the past 24h or so. No one knows if it’s real or not…

microbrute-image

I’m just speculating here but one detail that seems to give cred to this story is that already today the following link

http://www.arturia.com/evolution/en/products/microbrute/intro.html

appears to be a valid URL. It wont give you anything but a blank page, but any other ‘invalid’ URL on the Arturia domain actually produces an error message. The above one, which mimics the format of other Arturia product pages, actually looks like it exists.

If the new product is indeed a mini MiniBrute (MicroBrute) my guess is it will probably have the same fat and interesting sonic character, but with less variation due to fewer hands on controls and mod possibilities.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

Novation Launchkey Mini vs Arturia MiniLab

Disclaimer:
I have not used the Launchkey Mini yet, the below is based on specs and photos.

launchkeymini_angle-640x412So Novation has announced the Launchkey Mini (sp ~$99). With 25 mini keys, 16 pads, 8 rotary knobs and 2 performance buttons, all assignable of course, it makes for a sweet little MIDI keyboard, not at all unlike the Arturia MiniLab that also launched recently.

I got a chance to play around with the Arturia board for a couple of days and it certainly has the upper hand when it comes to design in my opinion. Of course the two are not entirely comparable given that you get a bloody awesome collection of 5000 analog synth emulation presets with the Arturia board..

My biggest gripe with the Arturia MiniLab was the touch strips. Very poor quality and performance which in the end rendered it almost unusable for me. The keys and the pads though were very nice and responsive. The Launchkey Mini has gone a step further and done away with the traditional modulation / pitch controls entirely. My suspicion is that you can use the two ‘performance buttons’ for this by assigning them your self?

MiniLab_275In terms of connectivity the only difference is that you get a foot switch input on the MiniLab. This could be important to you depending on your playing style. Both are USB powered and class compliant. I for one really wish they had a MIDI out port for connecting straight to some of my older analog gear, but that dear old round connection seems to be an endangered species these days…

Looking at the bundles software (Launchkey Mini: Bassstation, V-Station, Live Lite, Samples, Launchkey app for iPad vs. MiniLab: AnalogLab with 5000 classic synth presets) it really depends on your style of music and workflow. I love the Arturia emulations since they fit very well with the kind of music I make, but the flexibility of the Novation soft synths where you are not limited to presets is also very attractive. In the end it’s up to you.

Check out the rivals at their respective websites below: