Sonic Charge MicroTonic 3

Five years since its last proper update, does this acclaimed drum synth still beat the competition?

This eight-channel drum machine from the creator of Reason's Malström synth has been chugging along for quite a few years now, and it still has a great reputation among enthusiasts and pros alike.

So, what's so great about it, and does version 3 offer up any fresh incentives? Let's start with the main interface. You get a synthesis module for each drum, and unlike many drum machines - where you get different controls for, say, kick and snare drum modules - each module in MicroTonic is identical. We love this!

"Some of the sounds that can be achieved are mindblowing."

However, it can make things seem cramped at first: there's a lot of information packed into a relatively small GUI, and the software only lets you look at one drum at a time.

The synthesis engine in MicroTonic is simple: each drum voice is built on an oscillator and a noise generator. The former can use a sine, triangle or saw wave as its source, and its pitch can be modulated by an envelope, LFO (which actually goes up to 2kHz) or random source.

The noise generator runs through a filter (low, band or high-pass with adjustable cutoff and resonance) and has a stereo mode to add space to your sounds. Both sections have a simple attack/decay envelope, though the noise generator's one has three shapes: linear, exponential and a special one for clap sounds.

The output of the oscillator and noise generator are mixed (you can set the balance), after which you can apply EQ and distortion.

Pretty much any type of electronic drum/cymbal sound can be created with MicroTonic.

Rock to the beat

You have to know what you're doing to be able to dial in a particular type of drum sound, but it's worth persevering with the software because you only have to learn the synthesis controls once and you're off.

There's real appeal here for producers looking for an alternative to sample packs and Roland drum machine emulations.

There's a familiar step sequencer, with buttons for step, accent and fill. The steps can represent values of eighth, 16th or 32nd-notes, with triplet values for the first two. The sequencer can send MIDI data, enabling you to control other virtual instruments.

A new feature is the matrix grid, which lets you view all eight drum parts at the same time - this is most welcome. Up to 12 patterns can be stored and arranged in one preset, and you can chain them together to create multi-part patterns.

You can disregard the sequencer entirely if you like, using MT3 purely as a sound module. There's also a great option that let's you play any drum sound up and down the keyboard in pitched fashion, making it a tasty bass synth.

Another lovely touch is the Alt+click function, for auditioning an accented drum on the trigger pads. As some of the sounds can vary wildly with accent, this makes a lot of sense.

The Edit All function is another one that seems obvious when you think about it. When active, twiddling a control on one drum module will adjust that parameter on all unmuted modules by the same amount.

Then there's the MIDI drag button, which enables you to drag the current sequence out of the interface and directly into your sequencer as MIDI. While not unique to MicroTonic, this feature is surprisingly rare in virtual drum machines and sequencers.

One of the more underwhelming features is the new Morph function, which enables you to smoothly transition between two separate sets of drum sounds via one slider. It will have its uses, and some will love it, but it's not the kind of thing we'd use too often. It would be good for glitchy fills, and useful if you need to change the decay of drums for a tighter, 'gated' effect.

Other sundry additions include a choke option (makes drum pads mute each other), pitchbend over two octaves and the option to cut off a drum sound when the MIDI key is released.

The new features, then, are largely smart improvements and workflow enhancements rather than sweeping changes.

A pattern is emerging

One of the best things about drum machines like MicroTonic is their ability to mix and match patterns and drum sounds. It's always fun to take a sequence designed for an R&B kit and apply it to a techno kit, and vice versa.

With MicroTonic 3 you can take things even further, as not only can you load patterns and drum banks, you can also save individual drum sounds for the eight drum slots.

In terms of factory content, the sequences on offer range from excellent and useful to standard drum machine factory bank fodder. It's the drum kits and in particular the drum sound presets that really shine though.

There are a huge range of drum hit presets, all sorted by category, which you can scroll through at your leisure. Just be sure to set aside a bit of time, as there are a lot to audition!

And not only do these large banks constitute a useful creative resource, they also serve as a masterclass in MicroTonic sound design: by scrolling through and looking at the settings for each, you get a great starting point for every type of sound you might want to make.

Small but mighty

Despite all the additions, we do have a few things on our wish list. One is a global fill button that affects all drums, in addition to the buttons for individual drums. Another nice touch would have been some kind of output compressor/limiter. The option to use a MIDI keyboard to record notes and have them snap to the nearest step, MPC-style, would have been great too.

Features and functions aside, though, by far and away the most impressive thing about MicroTonic is its sound. The percussion sounds that can be achieved using synthesis alone are mind-blowing in their richness and complexity.

You'd have to go a long way to find 'pure' kick samples with as much weight and punch. But perhaps it's unfair to single out the kicks for special treatment, because whether it's snares, toms, hats, cymbals, or general percussion you're after, MicroTonic can easily stand up to absolutely anything else you might find out there.

What's more, its elegant synthesis system makes it more flexible than the vast majority of beat machines.

Overall, MicroTonic 3 is a fantastic-sounding drum synth with a very distinct and useful sound and a creative approach to drum sound design. Producers in any electronic genre will appreciate the wide sound palette, and those for whom drum programming isn't instinctive will love the range of patterns included.

On either basis it represents excellent value for money. And for existing registered users, it's essential, being a free upgrade.

Now listen to our audio demos to get an idea of what MicroTonic 3 can do:

Acorn Electro

Broken Nexless

Game Padding It Out

Lemon Sucker

Tiny Tim Pa

MusicRadar Rating

4.5 / 5 stars
Pros

Huge range of sonic possibilities. Powerful sound. Great drum presets. Versatile sequencer. MIDI keyboard mode

Cons

No output effects.

Verdict

Not a huge update, but then MicroTonic was already - and continues to be - one of the best beatboxes money can buy.

Description

Virtual drum synthesiser

Platform

PC, Mac

Review Policy
All MusicRadar's reviews are by independent product specialists, who are not aligned to any gear manufacturer or retailer. Our experts also write for renowned magazines such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Computer Music, Future Music and Rhythm. All are part of Future PLC, the biggest publisher of music making magazines in the world.