I routinely state that the Arturia MicroFreak is one of my favorite budget synths. But honestly, I’m doing it a disservice. I think the MicroFreak is one of the best synths out there at any price. That has as much to do with the versatility of its sound engine as it does with Arturia’s relentless updates. Since being introduced in 2019 this little synth has seen countless updates, most of them adding fairly significant new features.
The forthcoming update to firmware version 5.0 is arguably one of the biggest. It adds a sample playback engine and three different granular engines. That brings the total number of synth engines on the MicroFreak to a frankly absurd 22. Sure, not all of the engines are as usable as the others, and some are relatively similar to each other. But still, it’s a lot of versatility in a small $350 package.
When the new firmware drops around May 30th (unfortunately there are still some kinks being ironed out) there will also be an update to MIDI Control Center that will enable users to upload their own samples (up to 24 seconds in length) for playback through the four new engines. The total number of preset slots on the MicroFreak will expand to 512, and there will be two new modulation options added to the utility menu – random per-key and snap.
Since the MicroFreak had a wavetable engine to start, and in 2021 Arturia added support for custom user wavetables, sample playback should be simple enough since the wavetables are just .wav files. And if there’s sample playback and wavetable support, then granular isn’t too much of a stretch since that’s just chopping up a .wav file and playing it back in little rearranged bits. Still, granular synthesis is pretty hard to come by in a hardware instrument so it’s worth celebrating here. (Side note: I would expect to see more in the near future as granular seems to be gaining popularity and processors are powerful enough now to make building them trivial.)
The sample engine is relatively rudimentary. You can change the start and end point and set a loop point, but that’s it. There’s no time stretching or anything (that I’m aware of), pitch changes are achieved simply by speeding up and slowing down playback. But there’s something about the way that is handled on the MicroFreak that sounds incredible. It’s got an almost late ‘70s, early ‘80s digital vibe that speaks to my love of grit. And many of the included samples at least remain usable over a wide number of octaves. In fact, I’d say that at the lower extreme’s they’re not just usable, but fantastic sounding – especially that PGTS Keys sample. And then, obviously, you’ve got the rest of the synth at your disposal to add filtering and modulation.
One trick I quickly fell in love with was using the new per-key random setting to slightly alter the pitch. Combining that with the lo-fi piano sample gets you something that’s never quite in tune, but never so far out that it sounds bad. It does require some minor menu diving, but it’s worth it. And then the key/arp row in the mod matrix becomes another source of randomization. And honestly, I didn’t really think I needed more randomization on a synth that has both sample-and-hold and random options for the LFO, plus the Spice and Dice parameters for injecting chaos into your arps and sequences, but here we are.
I assume that instead of one granular engine, it’s broken down into three separate engines in part because of the limited controls on the front. Scan plays a sample from start to finish (mostly), but it allows you to control the speed at which the grain moves through the file so you can get really lo-fi time stretching effects. But if you modulate the speed at which it scans and set the density (number of grains) reasonably low and the chaos reasonably high, you get this sort of warped vinyl tremolo sound. I especially love the way it sounds on the Braam brass sample. The biggest con here is that samples won’t loop in the scan engine, so you can't get good drones out of it.
Cloud, on the other hand, is built for drones. It plays back multiple overlapping grains, looping around the file to create alien textures perfect for scoring a retro sci-fi point and click adventure. This is the sort of thing that people immediately associate with granular synthesis. It has a strange character that can’t be mistaken for anything else.
Lastly, the Hit engine is all about percussion. This is where you go to create clicky sound effects and stuttering glitchy rhythm tracks, even if the source material isn’t a drum sample. In fact, I’d say the results are often more interesting when working with what was originally a melodic sample. Though, I won’t pretend it’s not loads of fun to pop an 808 kick in there and just let it create relentless, skull-crushing avalanches of bass.
It’s rare to see a company continue to add this many features to a product years after its release. Whether we’re talking about a synth, a phone or a camera. But Arturia deserves credit (Novation too, just for the record) for continuing to devote time and resources to even its entry level products. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the MicroFreak 5.0 update is that we haven’t seen its big brother, the MiniFreak, receive a single significant update. Despite costing nearly twice the price, it now has six fewer synth engine options, at least by my count.
While you wait for the free update to drop on May 30th, take a few moments to ogle the new MicroFreak Stellar limited edition pictured at the top of this post. It swaps the original's birds and floral flourishes for a space themed design and swaps out the white keys for a monochromatic all black deck. The MicroFreak Stellar is available now for $399.