What do you do if your company is famous for programming software designed to clone the synth behemoths of yesteryear? On one hand, you could carry on—after all, there's no shortage of classic instruments beyond even the second-hand financial reach of most of us—but alternatively, you could take inspiration from spending so much time in the company of such instruments and build your own instead. Enter Arturia's MiniBrute, a true hardware analogue mono synth manufactured by a company whose only previous hardware exploits have come in the form of controller keyboards for their hybrid Analog Experience software range. It's a bold move but, based on the know-how of such an impressive range of software titles, a hugely exciting one for analogue synth enthusiasts.
As soon as you've freed MiniBrute from its box, you're likely to be struck, first and foremost, by how physically compact this instrument is. Despite that, it seems ruggedly built and manages to pack a fairly considerable amount of knobs, sliders, switches and ports onto its upper and rear surfaces. As you might expect, the upper panel is where the action happens and, as it gives a comprehensive overview of the MiniBrute's capabilities, let's start there.
MiniBrute has only one oscillator, but if that immediately makes you think it won't have enough power for you, keep reading, as things aren't as simple as they first seem. The oscillator section actually features five separate but simultaneously available internal waveforms, as well as the option to route in external audio—more on that shortly. The main three internal waveforms are "ultrasaw," square and triangle shapes, while a sub oscillator can be toggled between saw and square waves, and transposed between two octave options. Finally, there's the option to blend in a noise generator in the oscillator mixer, of which more shortly.
Each of the three main oscillator waveforms feature bespoke additional controls, with the ultrasaw waveform providing amount and rate dials, the square wave a pulse width control and the triangle wave a flexible "metalizer" control. Additionally, both the square and triangle waves feature their own envelope amount offset dials. A full oscillator mixer section lies below all of these dials, giving you level control over the sub, the ultrasaw, square and triangle waveforms, the noise generator and the audio input. So while MiniBrute does employ a single-oscillator design, I can think of several synths which offer more than one while providing a less rich sonic foundation.
The filter section offers a multi-mode approach, with low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and notch options and as you'd hope and expect, is fully resonant to the point of self-oscillation. Arturia, of course, had the option to build their own filter for MiniBrute from the ground up but after extended research, finally opted to employ a Steiner-Parker design, as employed by the rare, but not terribly popular, Synthacon. This, at first glance, seems a curious choice, not least because the filter section employs a 12dB/octave low-pass filter and only 6dB/octave high and band-pass filtering, in a world where much more brutal filters have become the norm. However, I was surprised by how versatile the filter proves to be in use and, moreover, Arturia haven't let the filter go without a unique twist of their own. This comes in the form of the "brute factor" dial, which features in the master section along with headphone, master volume and fine tune controls, and it adds some serious tone-shaping mangling.
Some analogue synths, including the MiniMoog, allow you to plug the master output back into the audio input to create rich, thick, potentially bonkers sonic manipulation. "Brute factor" is designed to achieve something similar via internal routing, without the need to reach for patch cables to make the necessary connections on the back panel. It's capable of rich distortion, gentle sonic colouring and more besides.
The middle section of controls provides sliders aplenty, starting with the aforementioned oscillator mixer, before dedicated ADSR envelope sliders for the filter and amplifier stages. Between these and the keyboard itself you'll find a range of modulation options, starting with modulation wheel assignment, which can control cutoff, vibrato or the LFO amount. The keyboard features aftertouch and this too can control cutoff, vibrato or neither, while pitch bend range and glide speed are controlled by dials beneath these rocker switches. There's a dedicated LFO for vibrato effects, with three wave-shape choices and a rate dial, before a more fully-fledged, more widely assignable LFO takes over in the middle of this lower control set. This has four dials to select routing amounts to the pulse width of the oscillator's square wave, the overall oscillator pitch, the filter cutoff and the amplifier output, while this LFO offers six waveshapes and a rate dial, which can either clock freely, or take its cues from the arpeggiator.
This lies to the right and gives the first clue that despite its true analogue signal path, MiniBrute isn't entirely devoid of digital wizardry. As well as octave (1-4) and mode (up, down, up/down and random) dials, the speed for the arpeggiator can either be set freely, clocked to tempo or set via a tap button, while the external clocking option provides "quantized" step settings. When activated, the arpeggiator can be "on" (playing sequences while keys are held down) or deployed in "hold' mode, meaning they'll continue to sustain when you let go. The final controls are octave up/down buttons—which you'll need, due to the rather-too-compact two octave keyboard—and pitch and modulation wheels which are in the upper left-hand panel rather than in the more traditional, left-of-the-keyboard position, again to save space.
Round the back, analogue meets digital with USB and MIDI in/out connections at one end and CV/gate ins/outs at the other. Between these, you'll find main (mono) and headphone outputs as well as the all-important audio in, allowing you to route any mono signal you like through MiniBrute, primarily to access its filter section. As you might expect, the brute factor dial comes into its own under such circumstances. In true analogue mono synth style, there are no patch memories here but in a wonderful "blast from the past" twist, Arturia provide ten starter "presets" via printed overlays, allowing you to move the dials to the stated positions to hear the instrument's potential. Five blank ones are also provided if you build a sound you'd like to revisit at a later date which, if it doesn't feel too "digital" a suggestion, you could scan…
While it's clear that Arturia have taken MiniBrute's design seriously, what does it actually sound like? Well, really great, actually. It'll make no noise for five minutes after you switch it on, as its analogue circuitry is evidently good for nothing until it has made itself a coffee and a slice of toast but thereafter, it's a surprisingly versatile beast. For me, its secret lies in such a flexible oscillator stage, which brilliantly manipulates the concept of a single-oscillator design by pushing that limit to breaking point. The "one dial per function" approach is so welcome too. I own a DSI Mopho and while this is a more complex synth with an accordingly wider range of controls, I do sometimes wish that some functions didn't require menus or toggle switches.
The bass-end of MiniBrute is particularly effective with the sub oscillator coming to the fore to create thick slabs of richness at lower pitch ranges but subtle sequences, searing leads and brighter, thinner sounds are but a few dial turns and slider pushes away too. Arturia's gamble is that they'll sell a lot of these and they've backed their judgment by manufacturing sufficient numbers to allow them to sell MiniBrute for 499 euro / $549. At this price, the instrument is a steal and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a true analogue mono synth for studio or live use without hesitating. As a keyboard player, I'd love more than two octaves but as most of us have controller keyboards, setting MiniBrute up to be playable from another keyboard is simple enough. Equally, in keeping with the fact that Arturia have added worthwhile delay stages to so many of the software instruments they've modeled, I'd like to see something similar here but if either of these requests significantly forced the price up, I'm happy to live without them. After forging a company founded on an ethos of hardware synth cloning, the decision to build a brand-new, "real" instrument is a courageous decision by Arturia. How great, then, that such courage has paid off.