The Best Budget Synth? – Arturia MicroFreak

The Limited-Run Vocoder Edition

Prospective synthesiser buyers have never had it so good. There’s an immense amount of choice nowadays and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. The fact that synth companies are constantly stepping up the standard of quality, innovation and features for the price may not help either. From cheap monos (like the myriad of Behringer clones) to flagship workstations (like the Fantom, Montage and Kronos) – all the bases are covered.

The MicroKorg dominated its corner of the synth market for a long time and is considered by many to be a modern classic. To this day, it’s a common first synth for musicians looking to add some electronic mojo to their music. However, as much of a classic the MicroKorg undoubtedly is, today it’s faced with some stiff competition.

Enter… the MicroFreak.

The version comes with the specially-designed microphone, also sold separately.

The MicroFreak is a digital/analogue hybrid synth, designed by trailblazing company Arturia. It combines an arsenal of powerful digital oscillators (some of which feature in Mutable Instrument’s Plaits module) with a SEM-inspired analog filter.

Originally shipping with twelve(!) sound engines, Arturia later released free updates that added a Noise engine (percussive and sound effects abound) and – most recently – a 16 Band Vocoder, which transforms the MicroFreak‘s headphone output into an input. The potential for future updates to the MicroFreak is huge and solidifies its outstanding value for money. Who knows what will be added next?

Whilst the MicroFreak is wholly capable as a mono-synth, it can handle pad duties with ease thanks to its Paraphonic mode. When engaged, the single analogue VCA is transformed into four digital ones. This means you can play four notes independently, thought they share the same filter. Don’t be dismayed by this, the juicy sound of the single analogue filter is worth it.

It’s capable of pretty much any sound you can conceive – it’s probably the most fully-featured synth that can fit in a laptop case and run off of a USB power bank! It’s perfect for producing and jamming on-the-go.

In addition to the breadth of sound that the MicroFreak is capable of with its oscillators and filter alone, it packs a tonne of other amazing features that’ll keep you experimenting for the foreseeable future:

  • Extraordinarily powerful paraphonic Sequencer: record up to 64 steps in step-mode or in real-time – jam and dub over a running sequence – record two separate sequences and switch between them – record up to four lanes of automation.
  • Inspiring arpeggiator with interesting performance options: choose from multiple patterns – goes up to four octaves – easily syncs to BPM with a variety of note divisions – store arpeggiations made with the Pattern mode as sequences – create interesting variations with the Spice & Dice modes.
  • Versatile Cycling Envelope: the cycling envelope is effectively an additional envelope/LFO with an adjustable shape – can be modulated and used to modulate all destinations.
  • Flexible LFO that boasts six different shapes and is syncable to clock.
  • Intuitive Mod Matrix with five sources and up to seven destinations, three of which are custom and assignable with a turn of a knob – almost everything can be modulated. The matrix itself uses LEDs to indicate what’s being modulated by what.
  • Unique PCB Keyboard: the MicroFreak‘s inventive PCB design makes the synth incredibly light as it has no moving parts. It’s capable of controlling parameters such as Shape and the pitch of notes polyphonically as well as Poly AT enabled hardware and software.
  • A crystal clear OLED display shows you the name of the patch and handy graphics depending on which control you’re tweaking. The visual feedback is useful when adjusting the filter and envelopes.
  • Store up to 256 patches onboard, give them custom names and back them up/organise them with Arturia‘s MIDI Control Center.
Plenty of connectivity options.

As of publishing, the MicroFreak comes in either a sleek dark finish or, with the limited-run Vocoder Edition, a striking white. The Vocoder Edition comes pre-loaded with the latest firmware and the specialised gooseneck microphone, the mic can also be bought separately.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for a synth for sub-£300, it’s hard to beat. Don’t be put off the PCB keyboard if you’re used to traditional keys, it’s super responsive and expressive plus the provided MIDI adaptors mean you can hook it up to a full-size keyboard if you so choose.

If you can stretch to another £100, I’d highly recommend pairing it with a portable effects unit like the Zoom MS70CDR and the Korg Nu:Tekt NTS-1 (which is also a digital mono synth). Like the MicroFreak, these particular units can be powered via USB so you can make a beastly portable rig if you combine them. The MicroFreak sounds fantastic on its own, when combined with some lush stereo effects it takes it to another level.

A powerhouse synth with features you’d find on more expensive options.

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