It’s cute and small, it’s affordable, and now it’s getting more packed into it, in collaboration with boutique maker Noise Engineering. Here’s a look at what’s new in Arturia’s free 3.0.x firmware update to their MicroFreak synth.
I mean, look, the MicroFreak has a street price of about US$300. That means it’s competing with software budgets for a lot of people, let alone the cost of modular systems. But even if I had an unlimited budget, this synth would be high on my list, because of its unique sonic possibilities.
And it’s not just inexpensive when you buy it – it adds value over time, which is something we’ve seen from the best gear from Arturia, Novation (Circuit and — Station), and KORG (‘logue SDK) even at the entry level. On $300 synths, it’s just wonderful, as it still maximizes your hard-earned dollar over time – which may not be something the cheapest knockoff manufacturer can do.
On to what’s new — from Arturia’s MicroFreak 3 firmware notes (currently 3.0.6.x):
- Brand new Noise Engineering Oscillators: BASS, SAWX and HARM.
- Unison mode available for all Oscillators, with a control over the voice spread (shift+Paraphonic)
- Number of preset slots increased from 256 to 384
- Last saved preset is recalled on startup
- Improvements on the Save workflow
- Chord Mode can now be saved in the preset
- The Filter Amount parameter can now send and receive Control Change in its full range. Center position of the Modulation Amount parameter at 64 on the CC26 in/out
Where to start
So in fact the very first two things you should do if you’ve got a MicroFreak, after following the update guide, is try unison mode and the new oscillators.
For unison mode, you hold down shift + press the Paraphonic button (it’ll blink). That feature alone might be reason to reevaluate the MicroFreak; it’s a no-brainer to have the option of some fattened-up unison sounds.
That triggers unison mode, but each preset stores its own unison settings – in preset settings, set unison voice count from 2-4 and unison spread of up to an octave or anything in between. It’s all tucked away under the Utility control.
That’s a good place to check out generally: go to Utility > Preset and then dial in unison settings, along with powerful customizations like envelope and glide mode, bend range, and tuning reference.
And now you know how to find this unison mode, it’s a good time to dial in those three new oscillators from Noise Engineering.
Noise Engineering’s 3 oscillators
Los Angeles-based Noise Engineering is a small boutique producer – on Arturia’s site you get a glimpse of their actual house – making mainly modules with some Rack Extensions for Reason and sample packs.
They made three oscillators for the firmware update, with a ton of detail and background on their blog:
The vanilla-sounding names belie some eccentric and wonderful stuff underneath.
Listed here with parameters:
Bass adapts an algorithm from the writings of engineer Bernie Hutchins (Electronotes). The idea is basically this: combine an oscillation with saturation with wavefolding saturation modulation and noise between stages. So you take something, butter it up with saturation, and then butter it up some more – the distortion equivalent of French cooking.
Ah, for all the other things in the world, we’ve come a long way from the 80s when everyone wanted just the same terrible electric piano and brass patch for everything.
- Saturate (saturation of oscillator)
- Fold (wavefolder – their own touch)
- Noise (phase modulation)
SawX is a super-saw oscillator with… a ton of modulation. Again, this is their own special sauce, but very “2021: The Year We Make Everything Distorted In Unique Ways.”
Naturally, these come from their own modules. And this does sound like close collaboration of engineering teams. (The work with Mutable Instruments’ oscillators from the Plaits module is better described as adapting open source code than it is direct engineering collaboration, as I understand it.)
- Saw Mod (gain into modulus)
- Shape (chorusing added to oscillator)
- Noise (phase modulation)
Harm is their own special recipe additive oscillator. but again – distortion added.
- Spread (from zero-unison to octaves between partials)
- Rectification (of partials)
- Noise (phase modulation – notice the trend)
Yeah all their stuff has phase modulated noise at some stage of this.
But this all looks eminently tweakable with just the right amount of unpredictability and flavor.
Here’s how it came about:
Video demos / walkthroughs
Tom Hall live performance for Arturia:
Dacci has a very complete walkthrough/demo that’s the most compact of those I found:
And it’s nice to see this in combination with VCV Rack; thanks, Omri. The MicroFreak would integrate with any modular system, but it’s hard to beat this for price – a laptop you likely already own plus the MicroFreak is already an insanely deep combo:
Old review, but covers the essentials of the original release:
Plus remember version 2.0 delivered scales and noise:
The feature I’m sadly missing – which Novation did add to Bass Station – is tuning. You can change tuning reference (from the A=440Hz default), but you’d need outboard gear or software to have something other than equal-tempered tuning. That feature is in Arturia’s Pigments software, so let’s explore it there soon. This isn’t like an Aphex Twin thing, it’s more a “what does most music in the world and even most of the history of European music involve” thing.
And all the other recent features
This caps off a ton of stuff in firmware updates. That includes:
- Vocoder Edition for all, 16-band Vocoder oscillator with waveform, timbre, shape controls.
- Microphone settings in the Utility menu.
- Vocoder preset types with VU-meter.
- Vocoder Hiss modes.
- Chord Mode (hold Paraphony and press keys to make your chord)
- Noise oscillator
- Scale quantization (check Utility)
- Sequencer: copy a to B
- Clear Matrix routings (shift + long encoder)
Synth product info: https://www.arturia.com/products/hardware-synths/microfreak
All about the update: https://www.arturia.com/products/hardware-synths/microfreak/update
Update your MicroFreak: https://www.arturia.com/products/hardware-synths/microfreak/resources