Arturia MicroFreak by Diogo C
According to the Collins English-French dictionary, grain de folie translates as a “touch of madness”. The phrase is printed in light gray color with a cursive font in the top right corner of the synth, right above the save/utility buttons and close to the preset encoder and information display, so it’s really impossible to miss. I think it perfectly represents the spirit of the company upon conceiving this lovely unit: after pouring out several analog synthesizers over the past years, Arturia has now gone hybrid with the Microfreak Algorithmic Synthesizer. This distinctive sound making machine powered by a flexible digital oscillator that is combined with the brand’s trademark analog filter and a design that stands out, enabling it to work either as a mono or paraphonic synth with up to 4 notes and boasting a well-rounded set of features that should make it quite appealing even to the most inquisitive synth enthusiasts. Without further ado, let’s break it down:
The digital oscillator is the core of this synth and perhaps its most interesting aspect. It is basically a ported version of the Mutable Instruments (MI) Plaits eurorack module, the successor of the highly popular Braids macro oscillator, featuring twelve oscillator types with three distinct parameters for each mode to enable a vast array of sounds. Pretty much all synthesis styles are covered here, from analog-esque subtractive and wavetables to FM, Karplus and much more — there’s even a speech synth which I must say it’s a bit cheesy but funny bit aside this OSC is no joke, it’s a tone generating powerhouse. Let’s have a quick allow at all twelve modes and their respective parameters — which are labeled on the hardware as “wave”, “timbre” and “shape” below the orange encoders:
- Basic: Morph, Symmetry, Sub
- SuperWave: Wave, Detune, Volume
- Wavetable: Table, Position, Chorus
- Harmonic: Content, Sculpting, Chorus
- Karplus Strong: Bow, Position, Decay
- Virtual Analog: Detune, Shape, Wave
- Waveshaper: Wave, Amount, Asymmetry
- Two Operator FM: Ratio, Amount, Feedback
- Formant: Interval, Formant, Shape
- Chords: Type, Inverse/Transpose, Waveform
- Speech: Type, Timbre, Word
- Modal: Inharmonic, Timbre, Decay
Two voice modes are provided on this synth: there's a mono mode and a paraphonic mode that turns the Microfreak into a four-voice polyphonic synth with all voices sharing the filter. This comes at a cost of a significant gain loss, which can be countered to some extent by raising the preset volume. Regarding note priority, mono mode will always play the last note while on paraphonic mode the first note will be suppressed when a fifth note is played concurrently. The Dave Smith Instruments synths comes to mind here as they offer several settings for note priority, so I hope Arturia can add this setting on a future update as well.
The filter follows Arturia’s tradition with Steiner-Parker design. This current implementation sounds very similar to the filters deployed on their brute line, although it seems to me that the filter on the Microfreak was tweaked in some ways and now it accepts more abuse than before, so crank up that resonance and let it sing. Unlike the brute series we now have a true 2-pole multimode filter, with low pass, high pass and band pass, which certainly furthers our tone-sculpting options.
Modulation options are superb and quite numerous, with the grid-based system providing an excellent way to quickly assign and edit modulation. The five modulation sources are quite powerful and allows for many creative uses, and the fact that both the pressure from the keyboard and the keys (or arp) themselves are a modulation source opens up for very interesting modulations. The destinations are also very well-thought and I really enjoyed the three slots for parameter assignment, which means that seamlessly everything can be modulated and other cool aspect here is that both positive and negative are allowed. In my opinion the only downside here is the single LFO, which despite having six shapes and going all the way up to audio rate is still just one single LFO. Other than that it's one of the best modulation systems I've seen on a synth that costs less than a thousand bucks.
The envelopes are also a step-up from Arturia’s past efforts, and the Microfreak is equipped with an interesting “Cycling Envelope” which can be assigned to basically anything within the synth and a 4-stage ADSR that is assigned by default to the amp section and filter. Both envelopes can either modulate parameters or be modulated by something else - including each other! The Cycling Envelope is particularly interesting, as it allows for rise and fall to be tweaked with exponential or linear shapes and it also features free-running or looped cycles, which is basically a non-synced and synced mode respectively.
The Arpeggiator/Sequencer section on the Microfreak not only serves their primary purposes but also opens up more modulation options with four parameter automation tracks with up to 64 steps and optional smoothing per track if one wishes to avoid wild and potentially clicky jumps. Another nice feature here is that you can easily transpose sequences by holding shift and pressing the desired key, which is super handy. I honestly wasn’t expecting this much here, so at least to me this was a very pleasant surprise and I’m glad to have the possibility of sequencer-based modulations. On the other hand, the arpeggiator is quite basic, and it doesn’t do more than what a vanilla arpeggiator would do with the exception that its octave range can is a valid modulation destination. Lastly, there are the “spice” and “dice” buttons that can shuffle or rearrange the notes for the sequencer and the arpeggiator on the fly, which is very cool for adding variations.
The choice of a pressure keyboard for the Microfreak couldn’t be more appropriate, it fits the concept and it’s refreshing to see a manufacturer departing from the vanilla mechanical keyboard. I’m not a fan of the keyboard on Microbrute for example, the keys were small and the response wasn’t great, and it wouldn’t be different here as the real estate available on the freak wouldn’t allow for anything more than that, so it was a very wise choice to drop it and go for the pressure-based solution.
Creating and editing sounds couldn't be easier, the layout nearly gives all parameters its own knob and there are few needs for menu-diving, so it's pretty much hands-on most of the time with minimum distractions. Preset handling and navigation is also quite a breeze, just turn the preset knob and enjoy the ride. The freak comes with 130 factory presets and a total of 256 preset slots, and the factory presets can be deleted in case one needs more space. I honestly didn’t like the factory presets but honestly it doesn’t affect me at all, and within a few days I had to wiped them out in order to store my own collection. It’s easy to save and recall presets but managing them on the synth is a bit of a drag, with lots of encoder clicking and twisting to rename and categorize them — I’d recommend using Arturia’s MIDI Control Center instead. Other key aspect about presets is they store LFO retriggering (on/off), envelope legato (on/off), volume (0-12), pitch bend range for the lovely pitch bend strip (-24/+24 semitones), velocity to amp mod (0-10), glide mode (time, rate or sync), sequence length, gate length and sequence smooth settings. There are also two possible settings per preset for the pressure keyboard and it can be set to work with velocity or aftertouch.
Build quality is very good, it’s a solid piece of hardware, made of durable materials and quality components. Encoders, knobs and touch-keyboard all feel very reliable. I’ve used some of Arturia’s brutes in the past (Microbrute and Drumbrute) and the encoders and knobs on the Microfreak are more refined, and they look and feel better — it’s a step up. It also shows a higher level of attention to detail, with a mix of stepped encoders on parameters that may need fine-tuning or that can benefit from steps (such as the LFO) and free-running encoders on parameters that will most likely require extensive value tweaks, such as the oscillator. The stepped encoders are also clickable and are used to access further configurations. Knobs are used on the envelopes, filter, glide and master volume. Buttons are also of good quality, with a transparency that nicely highlights then and overall the color-coding on the unit is also okay: orange for the oscillator, white for rates, matrix and preset/setup and black for everything else. A better distinction on the filter would be nice as it's only marked by an orange strip instead of the white used on everything else. In terms of physical footprint it is not a “tanky” nor heavy unit due to the choice materials, which is mostly a stiff plastic that seems sturdy whilst not impacting the weight — it's 1 kg, so it’s a light and mostly portable synth that can be carried around on a backpack quite easily. One thing that helps here is the fact that it can be powered by the USB Type B connector (not included with the unit), so you don’t need to carry around the included the 9V power supply unit (included) if your laptop has a port to spare or if you have a USB power outlet or adaptor around. Quality is also very good on the OLED display, which despite the small size has a good resolution and excellent contrast that helps to clearly see what’s going on regardless of the angle — it reminds me a lot of the display used on the Korg “logue” series. For the outputs Arturia has chosen a regular 1/4" TR/TRS for the main mono output and 1/10” for stereo headphones, and they also feel reliable. Important to note that the signal on the headphones output is merely duplicated on L-R as the Microfreak is not a stereo unit.
MIDI implementation is satisfactory, with IN/OUT provided on 1/10” connectors, with two adaptors to DIN being shipped with the unit. It covers all the basics and the fact that knobs can send CC data is a very cool addition as it enables the Microfreak to be used as a de facto MIDI controller. The pressure keyboard can also output polyphonic aftertouch, which is also a nice feature to have if you’re planning to use it with your virtual instruments. The arpeggiator and sequencer can also output MIDI data and the Microfreak can be set as a master or slave on a multi-synth setup with three sync options: MIDI, USB or analog clock, which can be set to 2, 24 or 48 PPQ or one step.
CV connectivity is offered but it’s a bit underwhelming as it is currently restricted to sending gate (S-Trig, V-Trig 5V/12V), pitch (1V/Oct, Hz/V, 1.2V/Oct), and pressure control from the keyboard (1-10V). I was hoping for an assignable output like Moog did on the Mother 32, so we could use the cycling envelope or LFO or the sequencer to send out modulation controls. Perhaps this is something that can be addressed in a future firmware update, so all hope is not lost on this one. The biggest bummer, however, is the absence of CV inputs, which would be really nice to have for total integration with eurorack rigs and modular synths.
A relatively compact (13-inch MacBook for perspective) synth that brings many interesting features with an attractive price point.
Sound quality: Microfreak can put out an array of different sounds, and that’s down to its insanely flexible digital oscillator and modulation matrix, which enables a ton of options to sculpt our tones. One small complaint that I have about the sound is the output can get a bit low depending on the patch even when cranking the preset volume to the max, so I’d advise to pair the freak with a good line preamp with adjustable gain. I think this synth can benefit a lot from a colorful preamp with “extra mojo” dialed to taste, as pushing it to overdriven territory can lead to interesting results, but the clean digital pres found on most interfaces will work nicely as well. For what is worth, on my tests I had the Microfreak going through a Steinberg UR22 (clean gain) and also through an Apollo X8P with its many preamp models, both leading to excellent results. And when I saw “a bit low” I don’t mean faint, it’s just a slightly lower output than I’m used to with my other Elektron and Moog synths.
Ease of use: It’s a joy to program this little freak, it has plenty of hands-on control with one knob per function on the oscillator and envelopes, minimum menu-diving and a keyboard that “you’ll actually use”. The modulation matrix system is also effortless to use, and tasks such as saving/recalling patches and system tweaks are easily done as well. Perhaps the only difficult part to work with is the sequencer, but I’d rather choose the words clunky or crammed, because it’s not actually difficult, it’s just a bit too much to program in a small space but nothing that can’t be mastered with a few minutes of practice. Overall Arturia did an excellent job on delivering a synth that is enjoyable to use and that does not get in the way of creativity. Lastly, the documentation is superb and the user manual is highly detailed and thorough on its explanations, covering all aspects and leaving basically no stone untouched. It’s distributed as a PDF file and there’s no printed version on the box, which is probably to keep costs as low as possible, but honestly I'm okay with that since I'd rather have a search box and hyperlink than ink on paper.
Features: The Microfreak is in my opinion the most interesting synth done by Arturia to this day and that is due to its clever feature set — yes, the Matrixbrute is a behemoth and has a ton of great things going on but it is still very much a “vanilla” analog synth, while this little freak is to me much more engaging. Everything comes together nicely on it and one feature adds to the other, so it’s not about having a ton of features, but having the right ones and having features that are actually engaging. Arturia made some excellent choices here, from the digital oscillator with a dozen of distinct modes to the intuitive layout of the modulation matrix, the powerful cycling envelope and the neat pressure keyboard are all elements that make it stand out and truly shine. Overall it’s a refreshing synth that packs a lot of nice things in a small package with a friendly price tag, so the feature per price ratio is outstanding. There are a few shortcomings which are all but inevitable at its size and price point, notably the mono output, lack of CV inputs and single LFO, but outside of that the Microfreak is an insanely versatile synth that is inspiring to use and can output some powerful sounds. Lastly, for my wishlist I'd like to see some effects — it’s a digital synth so maybe there’s some space in those chips for some basic stuff such as delay, reverb and bit crushing? Some oscillator modes have chorus, and delays can be somewhat faked with the cycling envelope, but it would be cool to have at least an oscillator mode with a reverb or a submenu on the oscillator section with effect slots if the onboard DSP allows.
Bang for buck: At $299 the Microfreak is certainly in the no-brainer category for all synth enthusiasts and electronic music producers, and not only because it packs a lot but most importantly because it brings interesting and refreshing elements to the table. The digital oscillator is fabulous, pressure keyboard and along with the modulation matrix it makes for an exciting synth with lots to offer. This is arguably Arturia’s best — real or virtual — synthesizer to date, and I'm really looking forward to what's next. Is it too soon to ask for a DrumFreak and a MatrixFreak?
- Superb oscillator section
- Flexible modulation matrix
- Pressure keyboard is one refreshing touch
- Useful sequencer with parameter modulations
- Easy to program and rewarding to use
- Excellent bang for the buck
- No CV inputs
- Mono output
- Only a single LFO
Update - New firmware released on May 14th
Arturia has been quick on this first round of updates, which came out shortly a week after this review was published. The latest firmware adds a handful of new features, notably on the Spice/Dice sections and program change support, and also improves the quality of life with updates for knob precision, better sync and others. A changelog can be found here. Hopefully this is only the first of many updates to come!