Novation go back to their portable synth roots with a compact gem that reworks the Ultranova synth engine and adds a few extras...
Not only was Novation's previous synth, the Ultranova, a powerful stand-alone instrument, it also fitted comfortably into a DAW setup, thanks to its editor plug-in. Like a studio Swiss Army Knife, the Ultranova could be your USB audio interface and Automap-equipped controller too. If it had any shortcomings, they were its lack of multitimbrality and perhaps its size. Despite being just three octaves long, the Ultranova occupied a sizeable chunk of desktop real-estate.
Realising that some of us don't need another audio interface or MIDI controller, and that more studio space and cash are always welcome, Novation have pruned and trimmed. The result is the new, far-smaller-than-ultra-Nova, or Mininova. Scaled down as it is, the Mininova still manages to retain the Ultranova's synthesis goodies. It even introduces one of its own, a built-in vocal tuner that's not a million miles from Antares. So, with apologies for the ongoing abuse of astronomical terms, let's see if this little nova is also a star...
It's difficult not to mouth the word 'Microkorg' as you extract the Mininova from its convenient carry-box, but I doubt the physical similarity will lead to any long-term trauma. Novation's light plastic synth feels more substantial than a first glance would suggest, and its knobs are particularly good for a budget instrument, especially the large one dedicated to filter cutoff frequency.
Presumably for reasons of fashion, there are wood grain-patterns on the end cheeks and optionally glowing pitch and mod wheels. Even more eye-catching are the multi-coloured transpose keys and pads placed above the keyboard. This, you'll see right away, is a three-octave (37-note) mini-key keyboard, and it enjoys velocity but not aftertouch transmission. I found its action pretty springy, with a fair amount of resistance compared to that of the Korg Microkorg XL, for example. By contrast, the pitch-bender isn't quite springy enough — at least, not if fast and twangy returns are important to you.
The four performance knobs handle well — I actually prefer their smooth-sweeping action to the steppy versions of the Ultranova — but the plastic selector switch felt clunky at first. However, I warmed to it after only a short time because, although it's mechanical and workmanlike, it feels solid and positive in use. Thanks to an LED, you can always see your position in the front-panel editing matrix — well, except when it's dark, when you appreciate the clunkiness of the switch afresh.
A PC or Mac editor similar to that of the Ultranova was still under construction at the time of writing, but it is possible to perform patch editing — even in-depth editing — without it. However, even though the display is clear enough and reasonably proportioned, this is simply too deep a synth engine to enjoy servicing through a crack in the bonnet. For performance purposes, the matrix of front-panel options should carry you through most eventualities. We'll look more closely at that shortly.
Spinning the synth around in your lap is no problem, since it weighs just 2.5kg. I was pleasantly surprised to find a sustain pedal socket, plus an audio input that, when used, overrides the main panel's dynamic mic input (XLR). Vocoding and vocal processing are high on the agenda, so it's good that Novation supply a gooseneck microphone to get those vocal cords moving right away. As well as the stereo output jacks and a headphone socket, there's a USB port — your friendly way to connect to a PC or Mac. You can choose either the supplied adaptor or USB for power, but sadly there's no battery option.
After a moment's contemplation of the serious dark blue panel, the fun can begin. The second of the two large knobs is a 12-position switch to aid rapid patch selection. The Mininova ships with an impressive 256 factory sounds in two banks. These can be overwritten any time you like, but there's no hurry because an additional bank awaits, empty and ready to fill with your own creations.
Patches can be selected by Type or Genre. Turning the rotary switch picks suitable starting points, such as Pad/String, Bass and so on, or genres including Rock/Pop, Dubstep or House/Techno. Take the 'All' option if you prefer to scroll through the entire selection one by one. In that case you'll appreciate the switch that sorts the patches numerically or alphabetically. It's slick and fast, even if personally I could have lived without the inclusion of genres. That said, it isn't a huge overhead; Genres simply mean an extra step when saving patches.
So what of the factory patches? I'm happy to report that they're a well-constructed and usable bunch, a blend of contemporary dance material and more traditional synth fare. For example, in the Classic Synth category, I was impressed by the quality of the leads and strings, especially when you make a few tweaks and reduce the often excessive reverb. A spin of the Type knob to Bass conjures a squadron of aggressive, hard-edged basses, followed by some pleasingly squelchy examples ripe for filter knob action. It's unmistakeably a digital synth, but the Mininova is no slouch in the bass department.
Turn the knob to select Vocoder/Vocal Tune and be prepared to experience something new. Not only is this a well-stocked vocoder, primed with typical examples from the outset, but the vocal tuner component is way, way more fun than an evening singing karaoke to Simon Cowell. Automatic tuning effects are often derided, but they don't have to be annoying and clichéd.
Ironically, the one category that didn't move me was labelled Arp/Movement. Like the early episodes of the latest Dr Who series, you get the sense that its patches are trying a bit too hard to impress, but I'm confident that there are contexts in which they'll work fine. Incidentally, when you discover a patch you like, it can be stored as one of eight Favorites (sic).
While you explore the supplied sounds, various combinations of the eight rubber pads light up in a pleasant blend of purple and magenta. When any 'Animate' pad is pressed, it switches to a solid blue colour, indicating that an Animation is engaged. Above the pads, a small Hold button allows you to keep one or more of these Animations active until released. With all eight buttons in play, you therefore have 255 instant variations to any patch right at your fingertips — if my maths is correct, anyway. Each pad can control any function or functions that have been programmed into the modulation matrix, including the sophisticated trick of manually triggering envelopes that wowed me on the Ultranova. The buttons are close enough to the keyboard so that you can reach them with the same hand you're playing with, perhaps to slap in some transformations while casually sustaining a chord. If a pad is allocated no role, it remains dark. Naturally, I tested out recording of these expressive extras into a sequencer and although they are transmitted and received (as NRPNs), the synth doesn't show any indication that this has happened.
Supplementing the trusty cutoff knob are 24 performance-oriented parameters arrayed in the simple 6x4 matrix I alluded to earlier. At the top of the matrix are two rows of 'tweaks', eight user-assigned options for the parameters you'd most like access to; effects or modulation depths are often good candidates. Underneath is a row dedicated to filter regulars such as resonance, key tracking, filter type and drive. Then there are a couple of rows allocated to the filter and volume envelopes, before you reach the last row, its controls cherry-picked from two oscillators. Understandably, this doesn't form a complete picture. There are lots of oscillator parameters and with three oscillators to play with, there's no way to represent more than a whiff of them and still have meaningful performance control.
I mentioned that deeper editing can be performed: simply press the Menu button and dive in. The pages are logically arranged and even if they're no replacement for a panel full of knobs or an on-screen editor, I was able to successfully remove the reverb from the factory patches that way. The biggest hurdle was finding which effect slot, or slots, contained reverb in the first place!
At this stage, I'd suggest reading through the Ultranova review (/sos/feb11/articles/novation-ultranova.htm) for a better appreciation of this powerful synthesis engine. Up to 18 notes of polyphony, three oscillators and twin filters in a variety of configurations add up to an intimidating amount of synth squeezed into a tiny keyboard. There are five effects slots to fill, the only (small) limitation being that only two reverbs and two delays can be used at once. However, this is more than sufficient for a monotimbral synth! There are also twin ring modulators (for those times when just one isn't enough), six envelope generators, three LFOs, and wavetables and digital waveforms to keep the virtual analogue stalwarts company. I think it's safe to say that if you relish detailed programming, the Mininova promises many happy hours of tinkering.
The arpeggiator has a tempo knob and dedicated buttons for activation and hold (Latch). I confess I'm not sure about the value of a tempo knob compared to, say, a tap tempo button. Tap tempo tends to be easier if you need to match a rhythm by ear (say, in a band) while if you're sync'ed to an external MIDI clock, the knob's going to sit there looking pretty but untouched. However, when you're not worried about sync'ing to anything else, a knob is the way to go.
Flip the Animate/Arpeggiate switch downwards and the pads turn red, indicating that each one now represents a step of the arpeggiator. If you want rests, just press a pad. With only eight pads, Mininova patterns are limited to eight steps (compared to the Ultranova's 32) but a series of preset patterns are included that have more complex actions built in. These longer patterns were created on the Ultranova, but they play back correctly because the two synths are fully patch-compatible. Incidentally, this means that Mininova owners can avail themselves of the free Ultranova sound packs on Novation's web site.
I have only one minor gripe about the arpeggiator: it is permanently key-sync'ed. Unlike a classic arpeggiator, in which the keyboard merely supplies notes to be selected (the timing being out of the player's control), a key-sync'ed arpeggiator introduces the possibility of human error. One sloppily-played chord can leave you horribly out of sync with drum patterns or bass lines, usually at a crucial moment. I know this because I've done it — on an Access Virus, admittedly, rather than on a Mininova — but you don't forget such embarrassments in a hurry! Hopefully a non-sync'ed option, as found in Novation's own KS range (as well as venerable arpeggiators such as those of Roland's SH101 and Jupiter 6/8,) might appear one day. I've put in my request!
I remember not being hugely impressed with the vocoder patches in the Ultranova and my own attempts to improve on them didn't amount to much. I have no way of knowing if this provoked or inspired Novation's programmers, but there's a lot more to smile (and sing) about this time. I found the Mininova's vocoder patches to be capable of clear and articulate vocoding and whether you're in search of robotic, Kraftwerk tones or a more lush choir ensemble, the starting points provided are well chosen. Tweaking to taste was equally rewarding and even though this vocoder seems under-powered on paper (having only 12 bands), I'd have no hesitation using it.
Which brings us to the second vocal effect, and a bit of a departure from the world of vocoding. Vocal Tune heads off into familiar Auto-Tune territory. It's based around three possible musical processes: Scale Correction, Keyboard Control and Pitch Shift. As I was once known for my singing voice (until it broke, horribly), I tested these processes in turn, my appreciation growing with each. Scale correction confines the notes you sing to a specific scale, including the option 'played', which corresponds to the most recent chord played on the keyboard. Like some demented jazz teacher, the manual advises that "the more notes you add to your chord, the better”, since three-note triads don't give the process very much to work with. If you're looking for drastic special effects, making the process struggle can be a good thing; it certainly increases the number of weird artifacts and glitches, which I rather liked.
The second option, Keyboard Control, re-pitches the input signal as closely as possible to the last note played on the keyboard. If you play a chord, the Mininova attempts to find the note that is the nearest match. This is a great interactive take on automatic tuning, and having experimented with my own voice until the neighbours threatened police action, I switched to processing some samples (taken from proper singers and so on) via the external input. Triggering samples via Logic, I was able to jam along on the Mininova keyboard, reworking melodies until I found exactly what I was looking for. It was then a simple matter of recording the keyboard's notes and — hey presto! — the MiniNova was doing its very own Auto-Tune impersonation.
Pitch-shift adds real-time pitch-shifting of up to two octaves in either direction. You can position the Vocal Tune effect before or after the filters, or insert it at the effects stage. This last option is especially suited to pitch-shifting, as it removes the need to press a key before hearing the effect.
Vocal Tune is far from natural, but that's hardly the point anyway, and to push it even further into unreality, there's vibrato and pitch-wheel control too. The only cloud on the horizon is for Ultranova owners. Novation inform me that the Vocal Tune effect can't be added to the older synth, but the silver lining is that a major upgrade is scheduled for its vocoder, in due course.
If you can live with a keyboard so small — and the popularity of Korg's original Microkorg suggests that many of you can — this is a highly compact and portable version of the Ultranova which sacrifices none of its impressive sonic weaponry. The Perform matrix and large cutoff knob go further than I'd expected, especially given the number of patch variations afforded by the Animate pads. And as surprise extras go, the Vocal Tuner is an absolute blast. Even if it inspires a fresh burst of Cher imitators, it's definitely the Mininova's ace in the hole. Ditto for the vocoder, which is a real plus this time.
With so many boxes ticked, there are only two Novation have missed. The first is battery power. Perhaps adding USB-sourced power is enough, laptops being ubiquitous and all, but if you like to jam in the park, recording into an iPad or other portable device, omission of battery power could be significant. The second is lack of multitimbrality. As per the Ultranova, the Mininova can play just one sound at once. Fortunately, it sounds every bit as good as the Ultranova and with a similar editor to be supplied, should be every bit as easy to program. The Mininova is small enough to slot into just about any setup and priced to tempt you to do just that. I suspect it will do very well.
The obvious alternatives to the Mininova come from Korg. Their earlier Microkorg was superseded by the Microkorg XL, which itself was recently updated to the XL+ by the inclusion of extra PCM samples. However, these synths are fairly under-powered compared to the Mininova and other than battery operation and the new vintage samples of the XL, I know which tiny-keyed synth I'd go for. Other alternatives include the Akai MiniAK with its full-sized keys and multitimbrality. It's a powerful synth, but one that is larger and less immediately accessible, and its vocoder isn't so great.
Based on my memories of the Ultranova's editor, I expect the Mininova's will make a big difference. We received an early unit, and the editor had not yet been completed, although I'm assured that it will operate in exactly the same way as its predecessor. This means that the labyrinthine synth engine will be revealed to our eager eyes (and mouse), and it'll be far easier to program the modulation matrix and populate the Animate buttons and the eight Tweak parameters than it is purely from hardware. As before, the editor is planned to slip effortlessly into your DAW like a conventional plug-in. With patch selection and synchronisation duly taken care of, all you'll need to do is treat the Mininova like any other hardware synth, and record its output into your DAW.