The MicroBrute is the perfect introduction for anyone who's never tweaked a real hardware synthesiser. Its laptop dimensions won't demand any space but its immense sounds certainly demand your attention.
The MicroBrute is very small. Its footprint will obscure a sheet of A4 paper, but only just. The keys have been squashed down to fit and have a cheap feel that you can simulate the key action by twanging a ruler on the edge of a desk. Nevertheless they're still playable enough to do the job. It gets a lot better once you peruse the control panel, which is filled with high quality knobs, sliders and switches that are big and firm enough to redress the quality balance.
It's all live
This is a monosynth. Synth nerds will know that means it can only play one note at a time, so that means no chords. However, there is a control to add a "fifth" note or a duplicate note one octave down. Everything on the front panel is directly connected to the circuits that make the sound, so every control is live. When you turn a knob or flick a switch you're re-routing the electronic pixies around the analogue maze, and every twist and turn alters the sound in some way. There's even a section on the end called the Mod Matrix, which allows you to "patch" one part of the circuit to another with 3.5mm cables, or use other gear to influence the sound. This is great fun even if you don't know what you're doing. If you do, it's even more fun.
While it has the classic look of a Roland SH-101 or MC-202, the MicroBrute is keen to assert its own character and style. Those bread and butter techno sounds are there but MicroBrute is a synth that begs to be pushed beyond the normal limits. For example, in the filter section there's a control called Brute Factor. This adds a kind of low frequency feedback loop into the signal which has the effect of overloading the sound with a deep, growling rumble.
How to make drum sounds
We've made another video to show you how to make drum sounds with the MicroBrute, which also demonstrates how versatile it is. Even though it lacks a white noise generator (the hiss that would normally be used to make sounds such as cymbals) its waveforms can be disrupted to such a degree that you can still get those wild, uncontrolled high frequencies. Here we've made a bass drum, some synthetic sounding high hats and a sort of hand clap substitute.
Big, fat sound
The source of the sound is a mix of four main waveforms, and each of these has its own modifier knob, so you can create far more complex and rich sonics than you'd expect from monosynth. The "Overtone" and "Metalizer" knobs are especially effective at fattening up the signal. The manual is surprisingly good at explaining what all the controls do and what's going on behind the scenes, so a bit of bedtime reading is in order if you're going to get the most of the MicroBrute.
Round the back you get a MIDI input but sadly no MIDI Out no Thru, but you do get Sync and Gate inputs which allow you to syncronise the MicroBrute with gear from yesteryear and the likes of the Korg Volca series. Unusually the headphone output is a 3.5mm socket rather than a 1/4 hole, and that's something we applaud for its convenience. You also get an audio input which lets you pass any audio signal through the MicroBrute's filters. It's a great effect to put over vocals and drum loops, and once you put the Brute Factor into the mix you can end up with some pretty hardcore industrial sounds.
Sequencer: turn up, press "Play"
Another fab feature is the sequencer. It's very basic but that also makes it easy to use. Crank the dial to select one of the eight memory slots, switch into Record mode, and then tap out the notes your sequence on the keyboard, using the Rest button to insert steps without a note. Flick it into Play mode, hold down a key and your sequence will be played back at whatever tempo you've selected. There are some tricks you can use to get more from the sequencer, such as triggering the sequence with different keys and jumping up and down the octaves. You'll see some examples of that in our video.
MicroBrute Connection software
It seems there wasn't quite enough room on the panel to squeeze in all the controls, because it's necessary to use the MicroBrute Connection software to alter some of the settings. This is fine if you've got a computer nearby but it does feel like something of an afterthought. However, it does also serve as a way of loading and saving sequences to and from the MicroBrute.
MicroBrute Review Summary
Almost every new synth that comes into the Stuff office instantly becomes our favourite new synth – that's partly due to the allure of new stuff. Whether it remains Stuff's favourite synth is another matter, but the MicroBrute is certainly holding that position right now. We'd like it even more if there was the option for battery power and if it had a full complement of MIDI connections. Regardless, the MicroBrute is a stunning synth, overflowing with character and small enough to be slipped into a backpack.
Review by Tony Horgan.