Minijam Studio launched on Kickstarter earlier this month, offering all the gear you need to start making music out of the box for just $163. Scott Wilson tests the budget set of hardware to find out if it’s as good a deal as it sounds.
Hardware synths have never been so popular. Ever since Korg introduced the Volca family in 2012 and made it possible to buy an analog synth for under $150, the market has been flooded with tiny, inexpensive devices for making electronic music. As affordable as these instruments are however, they still require a sizeable financial outlay to buy all the gear you need to put your laptop aside entirely.
Enter Mindflood, who earlier this month launched a Kickstarter for Minijam Studio, a drum machine, synth, filter, mixer and speaker for just £130/$163 (roughly the same price as a Korg Volca). Mindflood already has a proven track record with Patchblocks, an innovative set of magnetic components that allow you to easily build your own synths, and Minijam Studio is clearly intended to be an even simpler introduction to music-making. The devices are digital rather than analog to keep costs down, but there’s no denying that the prospect of a whole set of gadgets to jam with is pretty enticing, even if they are missing professional features such as MIDI connections.
Minijam Studio has already been a huge success on Kickstarter, smashing its £50,000 target with time to spare, but how good can a set of music making gizmos really be for such a low price? Pretty good, actually – but gear heads should be aware that these are definitely not devices for audiophiles, and nor are they they easiest instruments to pick up and play, especially if you’re a complete beginner.
However, they’re definitely portable. Nothing prepares you for how light and small the Minijam devices are: the tek.drums drum machine, tek.waves synth, mixer and portable speaker take up less than the footprint of a Roland Boutique synth with mini keyboard, and together they weigh less than my Volca synth (itself only 360g/12.7 oz). However, for some they may be too small: if you have trouble with the kind of mini keys seen on a Boutique, you’ll definitely struggle with the calculator-sized buttons on each of these devices.
The units feel much less sturdy than comparable devices from Korg and Roland. However, Mindflood has promised the finished articles will be constructed differently from the pre-production prototypes I was sent (my set was also missing the filter, which isn’t ready yet). What they lack in build quality, they more than makes up for in ease of use. The mixer has three knobs and three inputs, which function as both audio channels and clock synchronisation for each of the devices, keeping everything in time with a master BPM knob.
Minijam Studio is definitely at the no-frills of the market, but it doesn’t feel easy to damage either. Notes are sequenced with clicky buttons covered with a soft plastic overlay, so it feels like they’d survive a glass of water being spilled on them – something I wouldn’t necessarily say about the Volcas, which have exposed ports on the top of the unit. They’re cheap and cheerful, but at $163 for the set, you’re probably not expecting a luxury experience.
The tek.drum (which can be purchased separately for £45/$58) is the strongest unit of the whole package. It’s got a fairly standard 16-step sequencer with the memory to store eight patterns, each of which allows you to individually sequence bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, clap, tom, a generic percussion sound and cymbal crash. Finally, there’s a synth tone, which can be used to create very simple basslines, leaving the synth free to create melodic elements. It’s like having a very rudimentary 303 bass that you can’t tweak much.
Considering its tiny size, the tek.drum packs a serious punch. While the kick drum sounds noticeably lo-fi when played through a proper monitor speaker, it’s definitely got decent weight to it. It’s not the drum machine to buy if you want a straight Roland clone, but it’s got more than enough character to justify its existence in the face of all the other cheap drum machines filling the market. If you’ve got a taste for gritty textures, the tek.drum will give you exactly what you want.
It’s also got some surprising features for automation. The only real way you can shape the sounds are pitch and decay, but these together with delay time and delay feedback controls, which can be saved to your pattern, allow you to create some surprisingly dynamic loops. It’s a great beginners’ drum machine that’ll teach you everything you need to know in 15 minutes, and does a lot of what a Volca Beats does for much less money.
While Mindflood’s stripped-back design works for a drum machine, it’s not quite as successful with the tek.waves synthesizer. As the Volca’s touch keyboard has proved, you don’t necessarily need mechanical keys to be able to play a synth, but the clicky buttons on this device are a little tricky for anything other than triggering an arpeggio. You can record loops as you play the notes, but it feels like a traditional sequencer interface would have been easier to use.
As a synth though, it’s got a lot of character, even if it is difficult to get your head around. Rather than the basic subtractive analog approach taken by similar cheap instruments, the tek.waves is a tiny wavetable synth. Editing parameters such as frequency and resonance is quite fiddly, but you can get some really unusual, gnarly sounds out of it. Without any kind of visual feedback as to what you’re doing though (and most of it being done on four knobs via a shift button), creating sounds often feels like guesswork.
However, there are some great features that a lot of beginners will find quite useful. The scale mode makes it impossible to hit a wrong note, and you can change the root note or octave after a pattern has been recorded. Like the tek.drum, you can record automation to a saved pattern too. Overall it’s a cool little synth with features you don’t get on some more expensive models, it’s just a shame that using the keys for an extended time can leave your fingertips feeling a little raw.
Minijam’s .hub mixer might look like the least exciting part of the set, but it’s actually a fairly innovative bit of kit. One thing that’s been missing from a lot of the recent glut of affordable synths is an equally small and affordable mixer to go with them (Bastl’s recently announced Dude is an exception). It doesn’t have the EQ knobs some might want, but the combination of master tempo control and ability for a friend to plug their synth in is a winning combination.
The mixer’s best feature (and arguably the best thing about the entire Minijam Studio) is its micro SD card slot. Press the mixer’s record button, and it’ll create a WAV recording of your entire jam in real time, which you can then plug straight into a laptop to listen back to. It elevates Minijam Studio from being a set of simple toy synths into a useful Pomodoro-style tool that teaches you the discipline to actually sit and make something from start to finish.
Tweaking the levels is impossible once you’ve committed your track to the card, but it’s basically the modern equivalent of the straight-to-tape technique that early club producers and some contemporary artists have been known to use. It’s not precise, but there’s something undeniably fun about hitting record, going crazy on the knobs and seeing what comes out the other end. It’s the Minijam Studio’s killer app, and something that Korg or one of its competitors should have made years ago.
Be under no illusions: Minijam Studio is definitely not a set of high-end instruments. The speaker is very basic and lacks bass, which makes it tricky to know exactly how something’s going to sound until it’s been recorded. They don’t even have MIDI, which is where Korg’s Volcas and Roland’s Boutique synths have the edge. Instead, they’re inexpensive devices made predominantly for, in Mindflood’s words, “the enjoyment of noodling and jamming”. In that respect they’re a complete success, especially with the ability to just hit record and listen back to your work straight away.
Mindflood has also nailed the price point. A Novation Circuit, for example, will do everything Minijam Studio does and a lot more, but it’s twice as much money. There’s also something really cool about having an entire studio of gear in front of you. It also plays well with Volca synths and Pocket Operators via the sync function (though you’ll need a 3.5mm stereo to double mono sync cable to sync third party gear), so if you already have a collection of tiny gear you can use the mixer to record that too.
However, Minijam Studio occupies an uneasy space between pick-up-and-play simplicity and the frustration of having to use shift buttons to get to the hands-on experience you want from hardware. If you’re got the patience though, the Minijam Studio delivers exactly what it promises: a fun way to make tracks from start to finish for a price you can’t argue with.
Minijam Studio is available to back on Kickstarter until May 2. This review was written with the use of pre-production prototypes and the final models are subject to change.
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