ONN’s writer and editor, Stephan introduced me to BASTL a few weeks ago and I was incredibly impressed at their range of instruments. What they do and do rather well is create instruments that snap together, as a kind of modular music unit, yet the devices can be used as stand alone items. The larger flagship piece seems to be the microGranny. BASTL are pushing it as their main instrument, above the expected entry level MIDI and SQNCR units, which kind of speak for themselves without having to go into too much detail. For the purpose of keeping things linear, we’ll talk about the microGranny and expand on the article later and where the MIDI and SQNCR units fit in to the Trinity line. This article is a collaborative effort as we both road-tested the microGranny 2.0 (hereafter know as mG2) at the same time.
In short, the mG2 is a monophonic granular sampler, capable of playing back samples from an SD card on the press of the 6 buttons on the top, or recording 8-bit samples using the onboard mic or input. It appeals to people who like to keep their samples and/or playback simple, gritty and lo-fi.
Mikee: “As the appeal to own one was too much for Stephan and I, we both purchased one from Error Instruments, receiving them at the same time, even though they both shipped from Amsterdam, mine arriving in the UK. As a big shout out to them, they sent us a pair of headphones , a spare cable and the 9v battery and MicroSD needed to use the mG2. I can’t rate that kind of service high enough. The communication was fast, the product was packaged brilliantly and the ‘gifts’ were a lovely touch. No greater generosity is appreciated.”
What we’ll both aim to do is cover 4-5 of the main features together and our opinions on this, to give you a round view of the instrument and what you can do with it.
Mikee: “The microGranny reads samples from the SD Card. When I purchased mine, the card came with the product. I picked up a read, the Kingston MicroSD Reader Gen 2 for under £2.00 online.”
Stephan: “The SD Card came preloaded with a number of interesting samples, ranging from the usual bells and drum fare to a whole bank of Slavoj Zizek samples (who, admittedly, has a very sample-worthy voice). Recording new samples to the SD card is easy via the on-board mic or line in. Just press record, pick a bank and you’re good to go! I did a little of piano and some voice recording via the mic and it sounded very nice. The microgranny also features an input gain, allowing you to record from various sources without experiencing too much harmful background noise. All samples are stored on the MicroSD card in .txt files, which also allows you to use the recorded samples somewhere else. It is worth noting that the Microgranny supports both 16- and 8-bit samples playback but only records 8-bit samples.
The Microgranny has a peculiar logical structure, which can be confusing when you start playing with it: the samples on the SD card are stored in banks. Each samples can be manipulated in various ways to form a preset. Every button can hold one preset. This decoupling between samples and presets allows you to, for example, take different ‘slices’ from one longer samples and play them on the buttons, MPC-style. Another consequence of this structure is that the original samples can never be changed in the Microgranny itself, which ensures your recordings are always saved.”
Mikee: “Introducing your own samples is fairly simple and I managed to cut and edit a few samples easily in Audacity and drop them onto the mSD Card. The actual re-sampling of the device is suprisingly good quality despite the lo-fi credentials. Beats and bass remain big, whilst clarity is not lost. In terms of what the microGranny does, it’s very slick and modern feeling in functionality. It’s hackable too.”
The Microgranny features 4 potentiometers which get different controls depending on the page you’re currently on. The Green page contains the following parameters:
Sample Rate: allows you to speed up or slow down the sample in semitones or cents, from +6 semitones to -36. The upward range is a bit disappointing for me, and does not allow for ‘hip-hop’-style pitched vocal stabs in most cases. The downward range is often too much: any sample tuned down -36 semitones is reduced to a low growl or hiss.
Crush: A distortion/bit-crush effect, this one really destroys your samples. Very nice to make heavy basses and to warp sounds beyond recognition. One downside of the crush is that it also amplifies the background noise, which makes it very hard to use on noisier samples.
Attack: This setting is self-explanatory. Increasing Attack increases the time for the sample to reach full volume when you play a sample.
Release: Also self-explanatory. Increasing Release increases the time for the sample to return to 0 volume when you stop playing a sample.
The blue page features parameters related to the actual sample playback. Before we dive into the settings it is worth noting that each sample is cut up into 1024 individual slices:
Grain size: controls the size of each grain, where a grain is defined as a collection of slices. If this setting is 0, no grain effect is applied and the ‘shift speed’ parameter will have no effect.
Shift speed: This setting controls in which direction the grains are played if the grain size is > 0. Shift speed controls the speed at which the microgranny travels through different grains. The shift speed can also be negative, which means the granny will playback samples slowly. The shift speed setting is the real gem in the granny, it allows you to play samples very slowly and ‘timestretch’ samples without changing their tuning, getting you some really weird sounds.
Loop start/end: These parameters are controlled by 2 separate buttons but are quite similar in usage. As said above, every sample is cut up into 1024 separate slices. Loop start controls which of these slices is played first and Loop end controls the last slice. Loop end can never be smaller than loop start, for obvious reasons, but otherwise these function as expected.
Mikee: “The display can be confusing at first, but the display has a ‘key’ on the instructions that help understand this. I found some older instructions that made this more apparent, so some understanding has been lost in design there. But it looks crisp.
The packaging that the mG2 came in is simple and clean. It matches the actual product itself and it comes with a lilac ‘seal’ – as the devices can be kit bought and resold, build quality can vary.
The whole ‘feel’ of the product is high quality and satisfying.”
Stephan: “The feel of the product is great, although not all the buttons feel as consistent. I agree with Mikee that the instructions on the Microgranny are a great help as the display by itself simply doesn’t offer enough information. I also agree with that it looks very crisp. It’s sure to turn some heads or get some questions from audiences if that’s your thing.
One word of warning is that the devices are handmade and that build quality may vary. Of course all parts are machine cut, but I can imagine that not every granny is as pristine as the one I got.”
Mikee: “There’s always some. I’m going to mention the obvious problem with being a kit as, my device is not powering with a charger right now. I’ve triple checked the voltage and it will not stay on. My solution I suppose, is to either talk to the supplier and see their policy on a fix, or open the unit and try to fix it myself. The latter is something I’m not always confident on unless I have a spare device knocking around. While it stands, if you want an mG2, you’ll need to consider building it yourself or relying on the supplier to do this for you. This is a boutique product so don’t be frightened to get your hands dirty.
Relying on battery. It really is a fun portable device but I personally wouldn’t use batteries in the live environment. The only place this works is for on-the-fly-sampling. The machine starts to bug out when running low. Classic signs are that the settings on one pad are automatically applied to others. You can tell the battery is running out because the SRCH function kicks in but finds no samples on board.
There seems to be a problem with storage, as in, you can ‘overwrite’ samples with effects and have to recall them every time you turn on. I believe this is actually a problem with battery power as this stopped happening once I’d put in a new one.
My feeling is that the microGranny 2.0 comes across as a really nifty toy sampler and that’s OK. It’s fun, powerful and well, sometimes a bit problematic, but it sits very nicely in small micromusic sets. For me, dropping in samples into a 2 x Gameboy set was a lot of fun, particularly with the time-stretched vocal samples and crushed effect.” The only downside I can see to this is that it’s difficult to switch through samples quickly between songs, so you’ll have to adjust the sample names accordingly. As your schematic is two characters (o1, 48, FG etc) you can order the samples into alphabatised names.”
Stephan: “CHARGER STUFF”
“One of the major gripes I had with the microgranny is the behaviour of some settings. Specifically, the loop start and end settings make a sample replay from the start when they are changed. This is a good thing, as it would cause inconsistencies if the sample wasn’t forced to replay. However, sometimes one of the potentiometers gets ‘stuck’ between two values, which makes a sample get stuck because it is retriggered continuously and instantaneously. This happened more often than I would like (but might be a construction error in my granny?).
Another thing which makes the product harder to use than necessary is the lack of a well-written manual. The granny is very intuitive, but a good manual would go a long way to explain some of the design intricacies.
One of the great features of the granny also turns out to be one of its greatest vices for me. As said above, you can’t really edit the original samples on your SD card. This is great, because it allows you to do whatever you want to your samples and not ruin them in any way. The downside to this is best illustrated through a real word example: At one point I recorded a friend singing some vocal line, which went well. Unfortunately I also recorded myself saying “1,2,3 GO”. There is currently no way to delete the “1,2,3 GO” from the sample itself. That is, every time I want to use that sample I have to go to the blue page and change the loop start to not include my own voice. If the Microgranny had included native resampling this would be a non-issue. As it stands now I have to record the samples to a DAW and then cut off the undesired parts and reload them on the SD card, which is quite a hassle.
Ultimately I feel the granny is a great device with a limited scope. If you want a full workstation/sampling solution you are better off using something like a SP-404 or an MPC. I’m very satisfied with it, although I’m not sure if it’s worth the money for most people.”