Mark Jenkins sends all six voices of Arturia’s new flagship model into controlled oscillation
Arturia’s Polybrute has become the flagship model for a manufacturer originally known only for music software.
The French company launched into hardware in a modest way with the Mini- and MicroBrute synths, but no one predicted the arrival of their huge MatrixBrute. With its variable sloping control panel, it resembled nothing more than the – at that time very well-established – Moog Voyager.
But the MatrixBrute had more to offer than the Voyager, including a huge matrix of patching points and a powerful onboard sequencer.
Jump forward a couple of years, and while the MatrixBrute remains the most powerful and impressive-looking monophonic synth in production (despite rapidly closing competition from a couple of US companies), Arturia has taken another forward leap with the release of the Polybrute.
What’s similar is the plush wood paneled finish, the sequencer/arpeggiator, and the (now smaller) matrix of LED pushbuttons that select patches and sequencer steps. What’s different is the addition of polyphony, of course, the missing ability to slope the control panel, and the inclusion of a new type of controller called Morphee.
The Morphee is a rectangular, wood-finished panel with rounded corners, which rather resembles the popular MIDI controller Touché from Expressive E.
When you touch it, a little diagram appears in the Polybrute’s LED display showing the available parameters. You can push down to open the filter, for example, slide a finger up to increase pitch of part of the sound (not simply in the sense of a commonplace pitchbend), or slide left-right to control Morph levels (this simply morphs one sound into another, most distinctive if you’ve chosen two sounds not too similar to one another).
The same LED display shows extended options for many Polybrute parameters. For example there’s not just one type of delay effect available, but eight, selected by small buttons beneath this display, including additional effects like Flanger, Ring Modulator, and Bit Crusher.
Naturally, above the Morphee pad there’s a conventional sprung pitch bender and un-sprung modulation wheel, and the Polybrute’s keyboard boasts both velocity and aftertouch sensitivity. So it’s a highly expressive synthesizer, with many parameters of its analog sound available to vary during the course of a phrase or even a single note.
There’s even more than this available in the way of modulation – above the keyboard a modest depression in the control panel constitutes a ribbon controller, capable of huge multi-octave swoops as found on the classic Yamaha CS80. Select “Mods” in the LED matrix to program this ribbon controller for pitch, filter cutoff, or any one of a number of other parameters. It’s great for Theremin impersonations too.
Like several competing models at the moment, the Polybrute boasts genuine analog oscillators, so a thick, detuned sound is easy to obtain (in addition, its digital effects include a sound-thickening chorus, alongside delay and reverb with variable length and depth). You can also choose Layer mode for even richer sounds, or Split mode, for instance to have bass on the left and string on the right, or organ on the left and lead synth on the right.
The Polybrute is a 6-voice instrument, which may seem a little limited – the original 5-voice Prophet 5 having now been superseded by 10-voice models, and some competitors offering as many as 16 voices of analog. The Moog One is an example, although that instrument is three times the cost of the Polybrute.
Each Polybrute voice has two oscillators with variable shape, VCO2 having a sub-oscillator for added bass, and these can sync together or be modulated in many ways (including at audio frequencies) to create anything from smooth string sounds to clangorous bells and ringmod effects. Here’s where the aftertouch comes in handy, for even attempting to simulate the mighty Yamaha CS80, with downward pressure opening the filters, boosting modulation, and increasing volume all at the same time.
Just as on the Matrixbrute there are two filters, a variable mode Steiner Parker type with Highpass, Lowpass and Bandpass modes, a more conventional ladder filter that can be arranged in series or in parallel with it, and a Master Cutoff knob for the pair.
There are three LFOs per voice, and these don’t have to take conventional shapes, with oddly shaped curves and retriggering modes available. This helps make it possible to create chaotic sounds, maybe with the sequencer and/or arpeggiator running, and echoes bouncing off the walls as white noise pumps in and out of your heavily randomized, rapidly sequenced riot of LFO modulation.
The LED matrix, simplified as compared to the Matrixbrute, selects extended modulation modes as well as patches (8 x 8 x 12, or 768 in all, though on the review model half of these were in a default state) and sequencer steps. Sequences can be 64 notes long and polyphonic, with up to six notes per step.
The rear panel lacks the massive number of interface sockets of the Matrixbrute, but does have MIDI In/Out/Thru, USB, three pedal connections, and a Sync In and Sync Out, so there are plenty of options for interfacing the sequencer to external instruments.
After the effects section, the final output stage has a general Stereo Spread control (which is handy); the option to arrange effects in Insert or Send mode; and a Fine Tune control, as well as independent Headphone and Main volume controls.
Of course the Polybrute is superbly built throughout, its all-metal and wood construction making it top out at a chunky 44.1 pounds.
The Polybrute has launched at a time when there’s increased competition amongst genuine analog oscillator synths in the over-$1000 range, notably from Korg, Sequential, and Oberheim. (Novation’s Summit doesn’t strictly speaking use entirely analog oscillators, but a design that the company staunchly and quite convincingly maintains is ever better).
There’s a more affordable end to this market too, in the form of the Deepmind from Behringer, and that company’s forthcoming Oberheim OB series clone, among others.
So who’s the intended market for this $2-1/2 thousand brute?
Certainly, studio and stage musicians seeking all the analog basics (rich strings, cutting unison leadlines, heavy squelchy basses, twangy chordal sounds, and crazy modulated textures) will get everything they want from the Polybrute.
But there’s an added layer of expression too, the combination of the pitch and mod wheels, velocity and aftertouch, ribbon controller, and three directions of the Morphee pad spanning the ability to modulate or morph from one sound to a completely (or only subtly) different one.
Many applications can be imagined for atmospheric movie music, subtle minimalism, slowly developing ambient textures, and much more. A piece of software Polybrute Connect makes patch editing and saving easy.
Try to get your own hands on the Polybrute at a dealer, or at least check out some of the impressive video demos. With all the power of true analog and the arsenal of expressive options at your command, it’s likely to be a rewarding experience.
Photos from Arturia and Mark Jenkins