“Technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” -Steve Jobs
At their core, analog synthesisers are potentially unexciting and lifeless boxes of electronic components. It’s one thing to tune an oscillator to produce a musically relevant pitch, but constructing an inspiring, playable musical instrument is another discipline entirely.
In our ‘Art of Synthesis’ series, we examine contemporary musical instruments whose personality and character have transcended retail unit status, impacting musicians on an emotional level, leaving a distinct cultural mark on the industry.
We kick things off with French synth gurus Arturia, and what better place to begin. When it comes to embedding art into one’s business philosophy, few companies have approached the concept quite as literally as Arturia. Their namesake aside, Arturia often apply a visually artistic element to their product range, whether it be the dramatic biblical imagery seen on the limited run of Creation Edition synths, or the high production value DrumBrute Impact promotional video which pairs big electro beats with contortionist interpretive dance.
Founded in 1999, Arturia quickly found success with the release of their first product ‘Storm’, a comprehensive software synth studio similar in nature to Propellerheads’ Reason. This was still early days as far as software synthesisers go, however skeptical customers were immediately impressed by the rich analog like quality of the various synth modules provided.
In Storm’s wake, Arturia introduced a new line of software products, this time emulating specific classic electronic instruments. Their first target: the monstrous Moog Modular, a bold undertaking for which they enlisted the help of none other than the legendary Bob Moog, founder of Moog Music Inc.
Arturia’s catalog of software instruments quickly grew to include other such classics as the MiniMoog, ARP 2600, Yamaha CS-80 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. These products were eventually bundled into a single package called V-Collection which has long been considered an industry standard, and currently sits at version 6 which includes emulations of 20 classic instruments.
Along the way, a software program called ‘Analog Factory’ was developed consisting of 2000 presets taken from V-Collection instruments, neatly organized in single interface with a uniform set of controls. To further enhance the experience, Arturia released a range of hardware keyboard controllers which perfectly matched Analog Factory’s interface for immediate hands on control. This hardware-software combo is what Arturia referred to as hybrid synths whose power and ease of use far exceeded that of any available dedicated hardware synth. That was until Arturia made something even more powerful…
Given the ever expanding nature of Arturia’s product range, it was fairly reasonable to assume Arturia may venture into the realm of hardware synthesisers, and in 2009 they released the mighty Origin. A tremendously powerful (and possibly a little ahead of its time) hardware synthesiser which drew on the success of Arturia’s popular V-Collection. By breaking each classic synth down into individual components e.g. oscillator, filter etc. and allowing the player to mix and match how they see fit, Origin was an extremely flexible completely modular system..
While Origin was indeed a fairly groundbreaking hardware synth, many assumed it was essentially a computer running V-Collection, and at $3000 it wasn’t for everybody. But it was Arturia’s next hardware product that almost single handedly kickstarted a revolution that continues to this day, and looks to be still gaining momentum.
The Arturia Minibrute was released in 2012 and sent shockwaves through the industry. For a company that had built a strong reputation making software emulations of classic synths, their decision to develop a completely original hardware analog synth certainly came as a surprise.
This time, the message was very straight forward. Compact, analog, lots of knobs, no presets, and importantly, very affordable at under $1000. Keep in mind this was 2012 and with the exception of desktop modules like the DSI Mopho, the standard of analog synth affordability was the Moog Little Phatty at around $2000.
However, Minibrute’s appeal extended far beyond its price tag. The inclusion of just one voltage controlled oscillator seemed odd at first, until people realised just what this oscillator was capable of. Dubbed the ‘Brute Oscillator’, these nifty contraptions used wave mixing to blend multiple waveforms together creating hybrid waveforms not possible with standard VCOs. On top of that, each waveform has a variable modifier such as ‘Metalizer’ or ‘Ultra Saw’ for even more versatility. Add to this a sub-oscillator and you have a very capable, completely original and modern mono synth that truly belies its size.
Minibrute also features a very tasty multi-mode fliter derived from the classic 1979 Steiner-Parker Synthacon. For many younger people, the Minibrute facilitated their first hands on experience with an aggressive self-oscillating analog filter which definitely served as a captivating experience for those just beginning to explore analog synthesis.
Another big draw was the unique ‘Brute Factor’ feedback distortion allowing for a range of sound colouring options from overdrive to speaker destroying chaos. This sort of effect was previously achieved on vintage synths by connecting the headphone output back into the signal patch creating a feedback loop, and it was great to see this functionality built right into the Minibrute.
Within a year or two of the Minibrute’s launch, it felt as though analog synths were everywhere as keyboard companies swiftly added desirably affordable analog mono-synths to their catalog. The Novation Bass Station MKII could store presets and featured multiple filter voicings, while the Korg MS-20 Mini bought back a 1970s classic at 78% the original size, complete with patch bay.
Jump to 2018 and companies such as Roland, Behringer, Dave Smith, Korg and Moog all have a huge range of synths available at many price points. From the $200 Korg Volca to the $500 Behringer Model D, to the $2000 Japanese made Korg Prologue, to the $6000 Dave Smith multi-sample touting Prophet X we really are spoiled for choice, and Arturia are largely to thank. The Minibrute captivated musician’s imagination and bought synthesis back to mainstream popularity, possibly stronger than it ever has been before.
A true sign that the synthesiser market had come of age was the introduction of the Arturia MatrixBrute, possibly the most powerful mono synth ever made. At $3000, its acceptance and popularity indicate that synthesisers are firmly part of contemporary culture, and manufacturers are comfortable experimenting with brave, potentially esoteric designs. The MatixBrute packs in two Brute oscillators plus a traditional VCO, a Steiner-Parker Filter and a Ladder Filter as well 16×16 patching with total recall thanks to the intuitive matrix interface.
Arturia followed the success of Minibrute with the diminutive yet deadly MicroBrute, and the DrumBrute and DrumBrute Impact analog drum machines. The recently released MiniBrute 2 and MiniBrute 2S take all that was great about the original Minibrute and adds buckets more including a 48-point patchbay for semi-modular experimentation.
They have even catered to the growing Eurorack market with their RackBrute products, which makes the process of getting going with modular synthesis easier than ever, and also integrate nicely with the new MiniBrute 2 and 2S.
As mentioned before, Arturia’s software bundle V-Collection is still going strong and their line of MIDI controllers continues to grow. Their popular Analog Factory program has been reborn as Analog Lab 3 which includes 6500 presets from their V-Collection 6 bundle. Analog Lab is included for free with their KeyLab and KeyLab Essential keyboard controllers, and the compact Minilab MKII 25 key controller includes a cut-down version called Analog Lab lite.
Arturia also make various hardware sequencers which work great with or without a computer such as the BeatStep and BeatStep pro. Their KeyStep keyboard controller is particularly popular amongst the modular synth community thanks to the inclusion of C/V and Gate connectivity, and an on-board polyphonic sequencer.
Thanks for joining us in part one of ‘The Art of Synthesis’. See you next time.
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