As the Arturia DrumBrute approaches its first birthday, we assess its long-term impact.

Arturia’s DrumBrute first hit stores late last year. Our time spent with the machine has allowed us to assess its longer-term impact. Has it lived up to its initial appeal, and has it got the potential to become a modern classic?

The DrumBrute is just one part of a much bigger story. Little more than five years ago, Arturia was best known as a software company. That all started to change early in 2012 with the introduction of the MiniBrute monosynth. With a price of £429 at the time of release, the MiniBrute was one of the first of what’s now become a giant wave of affordable analogue hardware to hit the market. Arturia went even more affordable with the MicroBrute, but they also expanded outwards, into monstrous monophonic analogue with the MatrixBrute and then into drums with the DrumBrute.

Part of the reason drum machines can be so hard to put into context is that there are relatively few on the market compared to synths. There’s a huge difference between the more basic toys at the lower end of the price range (think Teenage Engineering PO-12 and Korg Volca Beats) and the top models like the Elektron Analog Rytm and DSI Tempest. As such, it’s hard to pick a direct rival to the DrumBrute in terms of its price point, its analogue circuitry and (most importantly) its user-friendly workflow. MFB’s Tanzmaus and Tanzbär Lite are probably the closest when it comes to the first two criteria, but their fussier, more technical workflow almost certainly makes them appeal to a very different kind of buyer.

Perhaps it’s easier to judge the DrumBrute in much more general terms rather than comparing features with vague rivals. Does it follow in the footsteps of classic drum machines in terms of features and workflow? Definitely. Is it intuitive to use? Absolutely. Does it sound good? Yes, with some caveats…

The DrumBrute is clearly inspired by the vintage analogue classics, and that’s most immediately evident in the sequencer. One of the main bits of feedback we’ve heard from users over the last year is how easy it is to get to grips with the workflow of the machine. For a device that’s very likely to be one of the first hardware purchases people make, that’s hugely important. The sequencing capabilities are intuitive, but they’re also powerful, mirroring to some extent the versatility Arturia offer in the BeatStep Pro.

Sonically, the DrumBrute follows the traditional formula of dedicated analogue circuits for each specific sound (as opposed to, say, the Tempest’s six identical synth voices). It’s here that opinions start to differ on just how good the DrumBrute is. If you’re expecting all the sonic impact of the original 808 or 909 in a £370 machine, you may be disappointed; the sounds of the DrumBrute are clearly intended to cover all the basics without ever really having too much distinctive character. Of the key sounds, Kick 1 is a slightly nondescript analogue thud which takes effort to dial in, while Kick 2 is an impressively powerful 808-style pitch sweep. The snare is one of the weaker sounds, with a basic blip sound for tone and noise to add snap, while the clap is strong and again vaguely 808-esque. The hats are slightly on the metallic side and maybe lacking in character, but they do offer a good range of adjustability with separate pitch and decay controls.

If you believe some of its more vocal critics, you’d think the sound of the DrumBrute is bordering on being totally unusable. In practice, that’s a bit of a stretch. The sounds might not be the strongest around, but they cover the basics well. The presence of individual outputs (which you don’t get on many of the rival offerings at this price point) also means that the sounds can easily be processed to bring the best out of them.

The chances of the DrumBrute becoming a future classic might be slim, but ultimately what has made it so popular is the fact that it's the best all-rounder at the price point.

What makes a classic drum machine or synth? Most of the time, it’s the same obvious factors: either being the first to do something, the best at doing it, or the most notable. Realistically, the DrumBrute doesn’t tick any of those boxes. But it does fit into another category, that of the affordable classic. In the past, think of the Roland TR-707, which was always something of a poor man’s TR-909 but established a cult following for precisely that reason. In modern terms, think of the Korg Minilogue, which represented a newly affordable price point for analogue polysynths and has been wildly popular as a result. Both are limited and cut down in certain ways when compared to more expensive options, but both are perfectly valid instruments in their own right. The DrumBrute absolutely fulfils those criteria in much the same way. It’s never going to compete with the raw versatility of the Tempest or the programming flexibility of the Analog Rytm, but it offers a sizeable chunk of usability at a price that makes it a realistic option for anyone making a first or second step into the world of analogue drum machines (the Korg Volca does similar at an even lower price, but there’s no doubt the DrumBrute feels like a much more professional instrument, even if the gulf in sound isn’t quite so large as the gulf in physical build quality).

The chances of the DrumBrute becoming a future classic might be slim, but ultimately what has made it so popular is the fact that it’s the best all-rounder at the price point. Ironically, that’s also what makes some people dislike it. If you’re willing to trade user-friendliness for sonic impact, by all means check out MFB’s offerings. If you don’t care about it being analogue, look at Roland’s TR-08 and TR-09. If you just want to go as cheap as possible, buy a Volca. In practice, the DrumBrute offers a compromise that will suit most first-time drum machine buyers, and that’s no bad thing.

Where does the DrumBrute go from here? It’s an interesting question. The nature of analogue hardware means that it’s very difficult to update existing units by firmware alone (although a series of updates earlier in the DrumBrute’s life did tweak the sequencer significantly). Instead, it would be great to see another version of the unit on offer alongside the original. Let the original take care of the generic, bread-and-butter sounds and allow the new unit to establish more of a distinctive character of its own with unique circuits designed to make it stand out from the pack. The potential here is huge, so why not take advantage of it and allow the sounds to grow into the rest of the platform?

30th October, 2017

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