The Freaq arrived in about a week from Australia to Washington State, USA. I probably should have taken some pictures of the build process, but alas … words will have to do.
The box was a nice matte black with a brand sticker. The unit ships with all the necessary parts neatly bagged and labeled. A single page quick start guide lists the part names and values. I’ve assembled many kits over the years and the Freaq is well thought out and easy enough for a beginner to wrap their head around. I chose the blue ring switches and blue matrix LED.
The main build doc lives online. I don’t have wifi in my shop, so I downloaded the PDF and kept that handy while I assembled the Freaq. Certain resistors are not labeled with values on the PCB, and I had to do a double take on R LED and R ISET before soldering them. The photos in the build guide may not match the look/placement of the components on the PCB revision you are shipped, but the board is sparsely populated so nothing is too hard to track down. The silkscreen print was a little small for my pathetic eyes to read, but you’ll manage.
The 100nf coupling capacitors are of the ceramic disc type. I was tempted to replace them with box type caps as I am always worried that I’ll crush or crumble those little buggers. Just a personal preference I guess.
The build was straightforward and took about an hour or two. You are guided through the process of aligning the buttons, LEDs, knobs at different points which is great. The matrix LED isn’t soldered to the PCB directly, so you can swap it out (which I intend on doing).
The Freaq fits nicely into my ever growing pile of desktop synths. The build feels nice and solid once complete. I recommend sticking some rubber feet on the bottom, as the hex screws holding it together protrude from the bottom of the unit.
The main I/O is accessible from the top of the Freaq as opposed to sticking out the back on the majority of my mini synth collections. The USB connection (used only for power) sticks out the front, so if you decide to use it to power your Freaq (instead of the dedicated power jack) you’ll need to do some creative cable management. Maybe a future model will flip the orientation so that the USB connector is on the back.
The Freaq uses a wonderfully bizarre 8x8 matrix LED for displaying parameters. I love it! I was very close to implementing the same thing in an FM synth I’m designing, so I’m happy to see the idea in reality. Most of the knobs serve dual duty with a “function” key giving you access to another layer of controls. You can decide which voice your changes apply to, or apply them to both voices. It was unclear to me at times if modifying a “shift” level parameter and backing out caused the device to re-read the “normal” parameter position. I felt this the most in the interaction of the “mutation” and “density” controls. I’d “shift” into the “density” parameter and when I let go of the “func” button I’d often feel like the “mutation” parameter would get shifted. It’s hard to say with so many things going on between the two voices.
The sound quality is beautifully lo-fi FM. The sequence length for each voice can be adjusted independently between 1-16 steps (visualized quite nicely on the 8x8). FM has alway been a bit of a mystery for me from a sound design perspective, so I’ll need to spend a little time familiarizing myself with the Freaqs 2 operator layout and routing options. I find the strength of the Freaq resides in just turning knobs and listening for interactions. I have not experimented with the parameter lock functionality as of yet.
When plugging a 3.5mm cable into the audio out, sound only comes out of the right channel. I decided to bridge the output channels on my Freaq after reaching out to the developer (who is super cool by the way).
SOME THOUGHTS & IDEAS (NO DEAL BREAKERS)
The following is a list of thoughts that crossed my mind while building and playing the Freaq. I love that people are making unique devices and chasing their own visions. What I want may not be what the developer intends, and I fully support that.
The Freaq has two FM voices and I wonder if more info could be displayed if a multicolor 8x8 was used. Red for voice 1, blue for voice 2 or something similar would be cool to see.
I would like the “mutation” parameter to have a destination. As of now, I believe it is locked to the note/scale settings, but I would personally like to be able to mutate other parameters over time. I’m adding this functionality into my own FM synth design and is not a trivial design choice.
Some capacity to save a patch would be nice. The Arduino Nano has 1k of EEPROM, so maybe we’ll see some capacity to save our creations to the device. Otherwise, you’re creating from scratch each time you fire it up.
A volume control would be nice, and seems to be lacking from many of the DIY synths I’ve purchased. There appears to be plenty of room on the PCB for an additional opamp and output circuit in a future revision.
My synth collection has quite a few DIY devices, and many of them have the “bare PCB” aesthetic of the Freaq. Not everyone has access to a 3D printer … but I’m hoping someone steps up and designs an enclosure for the Freaq.
The Freaq does not have MIDI implementation. That would have been a nice touch given the large number of parameters at play. It does sync with other gear via the “sync” input. You also have the option of setting how the Freaq interprets the incoming sync signal which is nice.
If you’re looking for a fun project to build that generates lofi FM goodness, this is a great project. The engine is gritty and takes to external FX well. The Freaq does a great job of making FM sound sculpting more accessible and hands on.
The sequence keeps running.
You fiddle with knobs and the sound changes.
Happy accidents happen.
You try to chase a sound down and find something else.
It’s an enjoyable experience and that’s the most I ask for out of my little synths.