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MicroFreak - Arturia

MicroFreak - Arturia

by Ellison Wolf

Sometimes finding the right time to learn a new piece of equipment is as important as how much time is spent getting a good grasp on it. That is why, when faced with about forty-five hours of flight time in a month’s span, I decided to hunker down and spend some of those in-flight hours–as well as the many hours waiting at the airport—with the Arturia MicroFreak. The MicroFreak has been around for a while, but with another free [and great] update, one that brought new presets, user wavetables and more, it seemed like as good a time as any to get to know it better.
The MicroFreak is a tabletop paraphonic [all voices share the same routing through the filter, envelope, and internal VCA] four-voice synthesizer with a digital oscillator, analog filters, a capacitance-based keyboard, a digital modulation matrix, an arpeggiator, a step-sequencer, MIDI in/out, patchable Ins [clock, MIDi] and Outs [Gate, Clock, CV, Pressure] to sync with your modular, two envelopes, and on and on. There’s much more to it than this, and I suggest getting cozy with the manual, which is what I did when I arrived at the airport for my first flight with over two hours before boarding. Speaking of the manual, it’s well-written and informative, and at 146 pages [as of this writing] it’s pretty substantial to the point that if you printed it out it could very well be thicker than the MicroFreak itself, which measures about 12” x 15” 1.5” in size and fit in my carry-on bag quite well.
For my travels I picked up a USB battery so I could power the MicroFreak without needing a computer or power outlet since it can run off of either a 12V DC adapter or USB; and I also wound up picking up the special microphone for vocoding duties [though I wound up leaving that at home as I didn’t want to look like a Macrofreak staring out the window while vocoding in seat 31C. Sans microphone, I still drew plenty of curious eyes from fellow passengers and airline crew alike.]
The first thing most people notice about the MicroFreak is the keyboard. It’s quite expressive, though not in the conventional manner, and I rather like the look and feel of it. There are a few different configurations you can change in the Global settings, so you can customize it to your preference, and once you get used to how it operates—like the fact that the Press function has to do with how much finger you’ve got covering a key, and not how hard you press—you really start to appreciate the way it works.
The heart of the MicroFreak is its digital oscillator, with some of its sounds being borrowed [with the blessing of] Mutable Instruments Plaits module; and in the most recent update, a few Noise Engineering modes and presets have been added as well. As of this writing, there are seventeen types of oscillators in total: BasicWaves, SuperWave, Wavetable, Harmony, Karplus Strong, Virtual Analog, Waveshaper, Two Op. FM, Formant, Chords, Speech, Modal, Noise, Bass, SawX, Harm [these last three created by Noise Engineering], and WaveUser, where you can upload your own wavetable. There are three options to sculpt the initial sound of the oscillator through the Wave, Timbre, and Shape encoders; and when you start to tweak with these, a test tube, beaker, and flask—reminiscent of a science lab—pop up on the OLED screen to show the amount of change. It’s fun, if not necessarily freaky, and with so many different types of oscillators and ways to shape them, there is an endless supply of sounds that can be created. This is important, because even though the myriad of presets are stellar, I found myself mostly making my own sounds from scratch, by starting on one of the blank “Init” presets. It’s really easy to save, name, and recall presets, and you can even manage all of this [as well as perform updates] by hooking up the MicroFreak to your computer via USB and utilizing their MIDI Control Center.
While the oscillator is digital, the filter on the MicroFreak is fully analog—though digitally controlled—and inspired by the two-pole Oberheim SEM. It offers low, high, or band-pass modes with Cutoff and Resonance knobs for tweaking. The filter is really smooth sounding, and with the Res boosted you can get some pretty good screams, low howls, and formant type sounds.
The Arpeggiator and Sequencer take up the bottom left quarter of the unit and are easy to engage and intuitive. The icon symbols and touch strip located above the keyboard were fairly simple to figure out and offered a lot of options for adding variation to your arpeggios. For the Arpeggiator, there’s a four-octave selectable range and for the Sequencer, you can choose any amount up to 64 steps, with two different sequences, A and B. There is a Hold button, and buttons to choose if you want your arpeggio played Up, Order [in the order the keys were played], Random, or in a Pattern. Those same icon buttons have double duty for the sequencer as A/B sequence selection, Record, Play, and Tie/Rest. The features can go deeper than this, depending on your configurations, and you can also add some spice, literally, with Spice and Dice, two features that add some randomization via gate, trigger, and notes to a sequence or arpeggio. These add a lot of variety to an arpeggio or sequence and are great performative features. Like everything on the MicroFreak, there’s so much more behind the scenes that experimentation [and reading the manual] is key.
Perhaps the MicroFreak’s greatest asset is its digital modulation matrix. You can assign the five sources of modulation—Cycling Envelope, Envelope, LFO, Press, and Key/Arp—to practically any destination, as with the pre-configured destinations [Pitch, Wave, Timbre, and Cutoff] you are given three user-assignable slots for each source. Using the push encoder you just scroll over to the slot you want, hold the “Assign” button and turn the destination of your choice to engage it. Then select the amount of modulation you like using the Matrix encoder and you’re in business. One thing that I really found cool was to use one of the Assign slots with a certain amount of modulation, say 65%, and switch around from one destination to another. All you need to do that once the amount of modulation is dialed in, is hold the “Assign” button and engage whatever destination you like. This was a quick and easy way to try out a lot of modulation options without needing to constantly reassign anything. I did have one thought about the modulation matrix: I know that it’s not very widespread in modular, but it would be great if there were a way to bypass, or toggle on/off, the modulation on the patch matrix. As it is, if you assign a certain amount of modulation to a parameter, you can clear that amount back to 0 by scrolling to the patch point and pressing and holding the Matrix encoder for a second. I wonder if it’s possible to make it so if you press/held again it could return to the previous setting, thereby effectively “muting,” or temporarily bypassing the modulation so to speak. Just a thought.
I’d be remiss to not mention the LFO and two envelopes [one cycling] for modulation. Having three different modulation sources really brings a lot of variation, and with the ability to modulate practically any parameter on the MicroFreak via the Assign slots on the digital matrix, you can actually get quite freaky with it.
The deeper I got with the MicroFreak the more I liked it, and I noticed that in my later travels I would leave for the airport earlier and earlier, once arriving over four hours before takeoff, knowing that once I cleared security I’d have plenty of uninterrupted time to get my “Freak” on. There are a couple of things I’d love to see, however, mainly some built-in effects [delay/reverb], and it would have been nice to have more CV connectivity for modular integration, but it’s hard to label these as shortcomings, faults, or otherwise with all that the MicroFreak brings to the fold-down tray table. This is such a fun and feature-packed synth, with a depth that is belied by its playful appearance. If you’ve yet to take a long look at the MicroFreak, don’t wait to book a flight. Find the time, settle in, and you know...get yr frk on.
Price: $349

www.arturia.com