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Mini or Maxi Freak?

Nov 21, 2022 | Review

Programming the Arturia MiniFreak

When Arturia asked us if we would like to join a new project for sound design, we didn’t hesitate and said yes right away. The received project brief and its specifications are one thing, but design is something different. So to what did we say yes?

Well, after a couple of weeks we received a pre- production model of a new Freak in town: The MiniFreak. Oh boy we were impressed and overwhelmed by its design and features to say the least.

The Frog at full glance!

Some history

The MiniFreak builds, in a way, on the immense popular MicroFreak. This affordable 4 voice paraphonic synthesizer stole the hearts of many. Especially when Arturia decided to keep improving the little bird with 3 firmware updates with lots of extras to this date. And you know, the bird is the word!

These 4 digital voices with an analog filter, an LFO and two envelopes of which one was loopable with adjustable curves was and is really something special. It lacked effects, but hey, lots of synths out there lack effects, which is fine with us. The keybed is in style of some of the Buchla systems, accepts velocity and aftertouch via a capacitive keyboard and is quite a refreshing take in the sub € 350 synthesizer market.

Dare to be different, again…

So we were asking ourselves: “What were the engineers thinking when they heard; lets make a second Freak?” Well probably how to make this weird bird morph into another crazy animal. In this case it morphed into a frog, but then on steroids! Here’s why…

Jumping Frog

This Frog – hence the little frog(s) in the sequencer bar – is built like a tank, unlike the MicroFreak which is more compact and feels lightweight. You could say that it is twice the size of a MiniFreak with these dimensions: 22.75 x 9.09 x 1.57 inches (578 x 231 x 55 mm). It has a weight of: 8.37 lbs. (2.94 kg) 27 rotary knobs, 13 buttons and an OLED screen. The combination of steel and hard plastics make it feel like a chunky piece of gear that will last a long time!

Voicing wise it can be used in different ways: monophonically, as a 6 voice polyphonic synthesizer, or a 12 voices beast in paraphonic mode and even in several unison modes (mono/poly/paraphonic). The two sound engines are basically the same as on the MicroFreak, but the second one is enhanced – more on that later. First some more specifications.

An analog SEM-style (state variable) 12-dB-per-octave multimode filter with low-, high- and band pass modes based on the legendary Oberheim®-designed SEM-filter, 2 special LFO’s, 2 envelopes, 6 analogue VCA’s, 3 independent effect processors with customizable routing, a three octave keyboard with velocity and channel aftertouch support, MIDI in, out and thru on DIN (yes!) are added as well.

USB type B for MIDI, sustain pedal support on TS (1/4″ / 6.35 mm), audio in (1/4″ TS), balanced stereo outputs on TRS (1/4″), an unbalanced headphone output on TRS (1/4″), CV clock in, out (TRS) and reset out (TS) on 3.5 mm, and lastly a Kensington lock are added in the mix, but wait, there are also three little threaded holes to fit in something for a future upgrade? A 12V/1A DC power adapter fires all this horsepower up. So the MiniFreak loses the CV/Gate/Pressure option, but it isn’t fair to compare them because that’s apples and oranges.

Connections at the back of the freaky Frog

The engines or oscillators section

The Frog has two digital oscillators with the usual engine types as we know from the MicoFreak – see dialog for more info. Then the second oscillator has all the types from oscillator one, but with a few extra ones. Soundwise these can be manipulated with the usual suspects Wave, Timbre and Shape. Since my guess is that you already know the MicroFreak inside out or read about it, we will not dive in too much about these* see Oscillator Types Section.

The new features in this section are that you have the ability to use two oscillators and that they can interact via separate volume and detuning – in octave/semitones/fine intervals – controls for oscillator 1 and 2. Together with the ability to layer them by using different engines for oscillator 1 and 2 and that oscillator 2 has a bunch of new filters, you can really go crazy here.

The new filters are a Multi-, Surgeon-, Comb- and Phaser Filter. Together with fold, decimate and the bit reduction abilities of the Destroy type and the FM/RM oscillator type (cross engine FM or actually PM!) you can imagine the possibilities are endless. These special oscillator types will only work in mono or poly mode and can be mixed in via the Volume knob that acts as a Dry/Wet knob.

In the paraphonic mode both oscillators are being used as 2 voices that are being sent into each analog filter for a total of 12 voices but at the cost of losing the enhancements of the second oscillator. Did any synthesizer developer created such a mode?

Filtered coffee anyone?

So we started this review with mentioning one SEM style 12dB multimode filter, but it are in fact 6 to create a 6 voice polyphonic synthesizer. If you use the aforementioned extra filters of oscillator 2 you can imagine that filter wise you have so much options that you will never run out of ideas.

Imagine processing your own programmed sounds with this or some external sounds via the external input. So the SEM filter is almost the same filter as on the MicroFreak and that means it will self-resonate and that it is key trackable to create sounds without any oscillator in the mix. It is a beautiful flavour to put on top of the digital oscillators.

Apart from cutoff and resonance controls, the filter has a dedicated envelope amount which is reacting to the envelope of the VCA and with Shift+EnvAmt you can change how the velocity reacts to the envelope amount for the filter. There is a possibility to route the envelope to something different like the cycling envelope or an LFO or both for example.

Envelopes

There are two envelopes per voice, the cycling envelope with Rise, Fall and Hold/Sustain and the normal envelope with knobs for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. The latter is an improvement if you would compare it to the MiniFreak, which had a combined Decay and Release knob.

The shapes of the rise and fall parameter can be curved via the Shift knob. This can be used for very snappy envelopes for example. In the run (a global free running LFO) or loop (a synced on velo/sequence trigger LFO per voice ) mode, this can lead to very interesting results since these modes can work at really high rates. With variable rises or falls via the matrix you can make it even more interesting. Try this by using LFO2 or an envelope to change the shape of the cycling envelope curves or by itself for example.

Both envelopes have a couple of features that make it a bit luxury: the cycling envelope can behave in two ways. As a RHF and RFH. The envelope can behave in either a ‘Reset’ or in a ‘Continue’ way. Reset lets the envelope restart as you’d expect and with Continue the current amplitude of the envelope is the starting point for the attack phase when the voice is stolen. The length of the attack phase is reduced accordingly.

Both the envelopes also have LED’s to show visually how it behaves and where it is in time after pressing, holding or releasing a note; neat! One thing we noticed is that the Cycling EnvAmt knob is missing. we really like that feature on our MicroFreak and we sure missed it in the beginning when we started to design sounds. Luckily the smart guys at Arturia fixed this via the matrix. Neo would be proud.

Matrix

Speaking of the matrix, this has grown as well. Seven sources times seven destinations at first sight, but the clever thing about the assignable destinations is that you have three pages that you can access via shift assign 1, 2 and 3 to stretch the 7 destinations to 13! With the ability to positively or negatively change the modulation amount and to mix different sources or even cross modulate, the possibilities are endless.

You can also modulate an already setup modulation. So for example let the velocity influence the amount of filter modulation by one of the LFO’s. Setting custom destinations via the assign buttons is very easy. Just press and hold one assign button and you either move a knob of your choice to assign the destination or you browse to the right routing to set it up via a double click on the matrix encoder. There are a few extra destinations available that aren’t on the front panel via holding assign and turning the Preset knob. The options here are: UniSpread, CycEnvAmt, LFO1 and LFO2 AM, VCA, VibAmt and Vib Rate.

LFO’s

The new prince has two special LFO’s. We hear you thinking “special?” Yes special, since you can retrig them in different ways like once, or by the opposite LFO or by the cycling envelope for example. But you also have a big variety of waveforms to choose from. An exponential saw or exponential ramp, both unipolar, and a slew “sample and hold” are added, but also you have the ability to draw your own very freaky and complex waveforms via the so called shapers. And when you press Shift+‘keyboard bend/wheel’ you can activate the vibrato and change its depth with the ‘wheel’. The rate can be setup via Sound Edit/Pitch/Vibrato Rate.

So when we mentioned two LFO’s, we lied, basically you have three LFO’s. Two complex ones and the vibrato LFO. This extra LFO is triangle shaped and hardwired to Pitch 1+2, not per-voice but monophonic, not retriggered and not syncable. And if you use the Cycling Envelope in Run or Loop mode, you basically have a fourth LFO!

Since a lot of the features have indicators on screen or via coloured LED’s, these LFO’s couldn’t fall behind. So for LFO1 and 2 you have two LED’s indicating that the values are bipolar or unipolar. Yellow means above zero and red means below. The unipolar ramp for example, only results in a yellow blinking LED. Again a great feature and a nice touch if you ask us.

Shapers

The aforementioned shapers have 16 presets and 8 users slots and can be put on or off, curved and changed in amplitude per step via the sequencer and the pitch bend and modulation strips. This is very straightforward to setup since the steps LED’s of the sequencer turn purple visualising that you are in that mode and the modulation strips turn red in this mode.

A shaper pattern length can be between 1 to 16 steps long. A step contains a trig value (on, tie, off), a slope (rise, fall, triange, join), an amplitude value (bipolar) and a curve value (bipolar). You can add, delete or reset certain steps by pressing 1 to 16 if you like. Another thing you can do is using two or more steps to draw longer shapes i.e. create longer segments. You achieve this by holding down the first step of the segment you want to create and then extend it with one or more extra steps by pressing them once. Then adjust the amp or curve with the touch strips. The display will indicate how the segment looks.

Macros

Not only the shapers are new, the macros are also a new feature. These allow you to add 4 parameters per 1 of the 2 strips. They are a breeze to setup by pressing Shift+Macro M1/M2, then followed by a touch of one of the macro strips and a parameter of choice afterwards by just turning a knob! The LED’s will turn blue in this mode. If the 4 destinations are full, you can either remove one parameter for another by bringing the modulation back to 0 and grab another knob and twist it, or you can reset the value by pressing and holding the Preset Encoder for about a second.

While performing you can slide the macros or just tap them in random ways for creative effects for example. It reminds us a bit of the animate buttons of the Novation Peak and Summit and the morph function of the Clavia Nord Lead series, but it’s a bit different because besides sliding you can jump between values instead, which we like a lot. Sound design wise we used this to throw sounds into oblivion spaces, create our own S&H kind of pattern or to morph a sound from a pluck into a pad or vice versa.

Hold, Chord Mode and Scales

The MiniFreak has a Hold button that can be used to hold a chord that you play or to get sustained notes to get an ambient soundscape for example, by putting a massive reverb on top and just keep feeding it notes. Next to this knob you find the Chord/Scales knob. So the chord mode now has a dedicated knob, nice. Just press and hold the Chord/Scales knob, play a chord and let go of the knob and you are set!

Tip: try arping or sequencing these chords and play a little solo on top in the sequencer mode. If you create a c-major triad, you can change that to a minor chord via the scales functionality (Shift+Chord). A really nice touch! In this scales mode you can setup different pre- defined scales, but also create your own scale and change the root note.

The scales:
Global, Major, Minor, Dorian, Mixolydian, Blues, Pentatonic and User defined.

Digital Effects

The effects are not one, not two, but three separate effects! You can choose from quite a long list and the beauty of these effects is that the majority of them has special presets that are accessible by turning Type whilst holding Shift. Do you have a minute or two for the complete list?

  • Chorus – Default, Lush, Dark, Shaded & Single
  • Phaser – Default, Default Sync, Space, Space Sync, SnH & SnH Sync
  • Flanger – Default, Default Sync, Silly & Silly Sync
  • Delay* – Digital, Digital Sync, Stereo, Stereo Sync, Ping-Pong, Ping-Pong Sync, Mono, Mono Sync, Filtered, Filtered Sync, Filtered Ping-Pong & Filter Ping-Pong (P-P) Sync
  • Distortion – Classic, Soft Clip, Germanium, Dual Fold, Climb & Tape
  • Bit Crusher
  • 3 Bands EQ – Default, Wide & Mid 1K
  • Peak EQ
  • MultiComp* – OPP, Bass Ctrl, High Ctrl, All Up & Tighter
  • Reverb* – Default, Long, Hall, Echoes, Room & Dark Room

*Delay, MultiComp and Reverb are available once, since they are DSP hungry.


A lot of the effects are in a way derived from the Arturia Pigments synthesizer but tailored and optimized for the MiniFreak. So if you know Pigments, you know they sound really good. And luckily – or should we say “YES?!” – most of the effect parameters are destinations that you can use in the modulation matrix.

So add some gentle or over the top distortion after you already distorted the crap out of it via OSC2:Destroy, or just spice and change the character of a sound by just putting a MultiComp on is already so much fun that you forget about time whilst playing and experimenting.

As mentioned, the variations of the effects available via Shift+Type is a huge bonus and some of the variations like the Single Chorus – which can work as some sort of auto panner – and the Echoes Reverb – saves an effect unit – for instance, are really handy for sound design purposes and it will let you get the most out of the frog.

Arpeggiat…or Sequencer

For the sequencer and the arpeggiator, which are visualised by respectively orange- and yellow LED’s, Arturia combined a lot of the best functions of the sequencers and arpeggiators from MicroFreak, KeyStep series and foremost the PolyBrute, to which the sequencer is quite close, but the user interface is a bit different.

The arpeggiator has up, down, up/down, random, order, poly, walk and a pattern play modes and on top of that has features like 1 to 4 octaves, repeat, ratchet, rand octave and mutate. Spice and dice are back again too. Copy/paste and so on. This works like a breeze once you get a bit familiar with the way of working. In the arpeggiator mode the left strip acts as a gate controller and the right strip as spice controller. When you press Shift+Seq/Arp/Gate/Spice you throw the Dice; nice!

Sequence recording can be done in real time or in a step mode similar like the Roland SH-101 does. It has greatly improved, since it is polyphonic too, allows per step modulation, velocity and note lengths and has a ‘Last Step’ mode. Imagine building a live performance with just 16 steps and this last step mode! Furthermore the sequences can be copied between step 1-16 and 17-32 until 49-64 and thus can be 64 steps long. If there are some voices left you can even play a solo on top of a sequence for instance. Together with the Hold/Tie knob it is very easy to program.

It also has 4 modulation lines per sequence so that you can create very expressive sequences. These 4 modulation lines can be smoothed and the sequences can be pitched up or down by 1 or more semitones as well. When you don’t want to put the notes in in the SH-101 manner, you can use the metronome to play and record the notes in real time.

The metronome gets activated by using Shift and a push on the Tempo knob. You can then set an appropriate tempo for your sequence and off you go! Speaking of this Tempo knob, you can add swing from 50% to 75% with Shift+turn and change the time division from 1/2D to 1/32T with a push and turn afterwards. Lastly, via Sound Edit + Tempo you can change the level of the Metronome and Rec-Count-in as well.

Sound Edit – “Page X Mayhem”

The MiniFreak even has some more tricks up its sleeve. In the Sound Edit menu you can really unleash the Frog’s powers. To illustrate, you can set it up in a way that no matter what kind of mod signal you throw at the pitch of oscillator 1 or 2, it stays in a certain tuning. Like minor, major, fifth, octaves etc. This can be really useful for live situations and or sound design. You can choose between send or insert behaviour for the reverb and delay, oscillator free run (on/off), poly voice allocation modes (cycle, reassign or reset) and so on.

Another feature is that you have the ability to change the keyboard source signal. Do you want it to be linear or use an S-curve, to be random or have it setup per voice. It is up to you as sound designer. The destinations in the matrix, with the keyboard as source, will now react differently. For example in the random mode you get a random value on the keyboard mod source and in the voice mode each voice has a fixed value from -1 to +1 to create non-random dispersion (pitch, envelope times, filters, etc). So in this way you can create surprisingly great analog feeling and sounds from the MiniFreak.

Apart from these features you can also change how the velocity reacts to the envelope depth and length of the VCA envelope and the depth of the VCF for example.

We hear you moaning about “what, menu diving?!” Well, also for this the developers of Arturia created some clever shortcuts that are accesible by pressing the Sound Edit button and another button at the same time. So for example you want to add some velocity to the VCF. Press Sound Edit+Envelope. Mode to change the Envelope/Voice setting Velo>Time. Now the envelope will be stretched via the velocity. Or change the envelope attack, decay or release curves. See the Sound Edit Shortcut section for more info.

Utility

Shift+Sound Edit button gets you into the Utility Menu to setup your usual suspects like calibration modes, MIDI options, Sync Modes, Audio and Controls (Velocity and Aftertouch Curves) to name a few of the options.

MiniFreak-V

When you decided to get the MiniFreak, you also get the MiniFreak-V synthesizer plug-in for free. This plug-in has the same digital engines and a modelled analog filter and can be used in your productions or as a librarian to manage and store patches. It also gives you a clear view of a patch at a glance!

MiniFreak-V – the virtual counterpart and librarian

Conclusion

You probably already guessed it, but we barely scratched the surface with this review, since it is so fully packed with features. But we really do like this new and unconventional poly synthesizer from Arturia. And yes it has convenient octave buttons a dedicated glide knob, but it is a fresh new take on modular concepts from Mutable Instruments, Noise Engineering and Arturia itself, but with the ability to save patches and having 6 voices of polyphony! We really encourage you to check it out in a store and put it on your wishlist if you are looking for an affordable great sounding poly synthesizer with loads of sound design options.

We recently got hold of a PolyBrute and it seemed to us that a lot of those features have made it into the MiniFreak. After asking Arturia, they said that indeed a lot of the features were derived not only from the MicroFreak, but also from the PolyBrute. Think of the poly and voice settings, the ADSR envelope with different curves, some functions of the sequencer and mod matrix are a few to mention.

Add the analog SEM 12dB multi mode filter, velocity and aftertouch capable keybed, the sequencer, arpeggiator, modulators, big matrix, morph capabilities, the great sounding effects and the speed of programming with all the handy Sound Edit-shortcuts and you can imagine how much fun this is to use. Would MaxiFreak not be a better name for this synthesizer?

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A lot of synth for the price.
  • Great keybed, especially after tweaking the aftertouch curve to your liking, in our case exponential, it becomes a very expressive mini keybed for us.
  • The detuning/dispersion of the voices via different keyboard sources – derived from their flagship the PolyBrute – is a really great feature that stands out. This can make it sound really analog like on the old poly synths that weren’t always tuned ‘perfect’ on purpose or sometimes by accident. This is also saved per preset.
  • It is a hybrid and sounds great, what’s not to love about that!
  • The effects are very musical sounding and are equipped with lots of types per effect.
  • The visual feedback of the different colored LED’s is a nice touch. This is how each synth should work in our opinion.
  • The macros with morph capabilities are ace!
  • The arp/sequencer with lots of capabilities.
  • Chord mode.

Cons

  • Personally we miss the Cycling EnvAmt knob – Perhaps this can be fixed in the firmware with a Shift+hold/sustain combination with a value readout on the screen.
  • In the brilliant keyboard source mode (voice mode) you can’t use keyboard filter tracking in a normal way.
  • It isn’t possible to have separate velocity and aftertouch sources in the matrix, this is combined. You can select one of them to work instead of both though.

Oscillator Types

OSC1OSC2
Basic Waves
SuperWave
Harmo
KarplusStr
VAnalog
WaveShaper
Two Op. FM
Formant
Speech
Modal
Noise
Bass (Noise Engineering) SawX(NE)
Harm (NE)
Audio In
Misses Audio In, that is solely for OSC1, but has the addition of:
Chord
FM/RM With a modulator wave selector and FM and RM
MultiFilter with 6 pole (non resonant), 12, 24 and 36 poles
Surgeon Filter
Comb Filter
Phaser Filter; 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 poles
Destroy with Fold, Decimate and Bit Crush

Some Tips

Sound Edit Shortcuts

  • Env/Voice Options
    • Sound Edit+Envelope.Mode Button results the Env/Voice menu. With easy access to Velo>VCA, Velo>VCF, Velo>Env, Velo>Time, Retrig Modes (Env Continue/Reset), Attack Curve (Default, Quick), Decay (Default, Percussive), Release (Default, Percussive), Legato Mode (on/off), Unison Spread (Up to one octave!), Unison Count (2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) Unison Mode (See Access Unison Modes), Poly Allocation (Cycle, Reassign and Reset) and Poly Steal Mode (Oldest, Lowest Velo and None).
  • Cycling Envelope Options
    • Sound Edit+Cyclic Envelope.Mode Button results in Cycling Envelop options: Retrig Src, Stage Order and Tempo Sync.
  • LFO Options
    • Sound Edit+LFO.Select Button results in LFO options: LFO1 Retrig (Free, Poly Kbd, Mono Kbd, Legato Kbd, One, LFO2, CycEnv and Seq Start), LFO2 Retrig (Free, Poly Kbd, Mono Kbd, Legato Kbd, One, LFO1, CycEnv and Seq Start), LFO1 and 2 Sync Filters (All, Straight, Triplet and Dotted).
  • Oscillator Pitch Options
    • Sound Edit+Oscillator.Select or Oscillator.Tune or Glide results in Oscillator Pitch options: Osc1 and 2 Mod Quant(ization) (Continuous, Chromatic, Octaves, Fifths, Minor, Major, Phrygian Dom, Minor 9th, Major 9th, Minor Penta and Major Penta), Glide (Time, Time Legato, Rate, Rate Legato, Sync and Sync Legato), Vibrato Depth (0.1 to 12), Vibrato Rate (0.3 to 10Hz).
  • Effect Routing Delay & Reverb
    • Sound Edit+Digital Effects.Select results in effect routing of the delay and reverb (insert, send)
  • Keyboard
    • Sound Edit+Key Stroke results in the Keyboard options: Matrix Src VeloAT, Kbd Src and Bend Range.
  • Snapshot
    • Sound Edit+Save button results in the Preset options: View Snapshots and Details of the preset.
  • Metronome
    • Sound Edit+Press or turn Tempo knob results in the Metronome options: Metronome (on/off), Metronome Level and Rec Count-In (on/off).

All the ‘Sound Edit’-options from above are also available via the Sound Edit menu, but it saves a lot of time to use the options from above.

Access Unison Modes

  • Click the Mode button until the Uni LED gets lit and you are in Unison (Mono) mode.
  • Now press Shift-Mode to cycle through, Unison (Poly), Unison (Para) and back to Unison (Mono) mode. Notice that the Mono, Poly and Para LED’s get lit up in a dimmed way.

Keyboard Source Modes

For Random, analog (Voice) or crazy feel in the middle, but not in at the outer edges (S-curve) variations:

  • Go to Sound Edit > Keyboard > Kbs Src
  • Instead of Lineair choose Random, Voice or S-curve.
  • Setup values in the Matrix for
    • Pitch 1+2
    • Wave 1
    • Timbre 1
    • Cutoff or one of the other
    • 9 assignable destinations.

Side-note: Normal keyboard tracking for the filter is now gone.

Moving around in the matrix

Left and right turn of the matrix knob does what you would expect. Shift+left and right turn result in up and down.

Copy/Paste/Erase certain elements

With Shift+Off/Arp or Seq you can copy, paste but also erase certain elements of patch. This is very nice if you for example created a effects vibe, but you are not sure about the matrix and macro settings. Just erase those or go back to an init if you aren’t happy it all about the patch.

Vibrato, making use of the 3rd LFO

Activate Vibrato by pressing Shift+Keyboard/Wheel. Notice that the top LED of the Wheel is now blue instead of white. Now hold Keyboard/Wheel and adjust the Rate and Depth with Bend and Wheel respectively.

When you release the Keyboard/Wheel button the Wheel is acting as the normal modulation wheel but also as a sort of vibrato mixer. At zero you don’t here the vibrato and when the wheel is at the top the vibrato works in full effect.

Sequencer shortcuts

  • Press Shift+Seq and goto Seq to erase the sequencer by pressing the Preset knob.
  • To add per step modulation, press Mods, then the record knob and hold a step afterwards while tweaking 4 parameters per step then let go of the step and move on to the next.
  • If you want to delete the Mods, press Shift+Seq again and select Mods to delete all the filled lanes.

Sound Examples

More Information

For more information about the MiniFreak, please visit the product page on the Arturia website: https://www.arturia.com/products/hardware-synths/minifreak/overview

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