The Supernova modelling workstation earned a pile of accolades for its excellent 'analogue' sounds, superb multitimbral effects, and its user-friendly, knobular interface. But Novation have now withdrawn the original and replaced it with the Supernova II. Can something so good get better still? Paul Ward finds out...
Although they were already well known for budget modelling synths like the BassStation and the Drumstation, Novation's launch of the Supernova in 1998 marked the company's entry into the big time. And what an impressive mark it made (see SOS August 1998 for the original review, or surf to www.sospubs.co.uk/sos/aug98/articles/novation.html). Things have come on in the world of analogue modelling synths since then, but even by today's standards, the original Supernova has a lot going for it, and it has taken even some of the longer-established manufacturers until now to catch up. With the release of the Supernova II, Novation are clearly hoping to up the ante once again.
The Supernova II comes in five-octave keyboard and 3U rack module versions, though sonically there is nothing to choose between them. Both rack and keyboard types come in three variants: Standard, Pro and Pro X. The difference
NOVATION SUPERNOVA II
Very authentic-sounding analogue emulations.
Friendly user interface.
No loss of Program effects in Performance mode.
Eight separately assignable audio outputs.
S/PDIF/ADAT digital option.
Reverb could be improved.
Manual could be better.
A superb-sounding synth with inspiring multitimbral capabilities. The wealth of controls and the well-designed menu system make it very usable too. And, apart from the original Supernova, have you seen a better-looking synth in the last couple of years? Hard to fault at the price.
The keyboard version has semi-weighted, velocity-sensitive keys with aftertouch, and offers various master keyboard facilities (see the box on page 168 for more on these). Novation make great play of the quality of the keyboard and I can confirm that it lives up to their claims; the keys feel smooth and solid in action. Personally, I would like a little more aftertouch travel to suit my own playing style; other than that, it is right up my boulevard. But then every player has their own opinion of what makes a keyboard good to play, so this is one area where I'll have to leave ultimate judgement to you!
The rack version (see pic overleaf) has fewer physical knobs than the keyboard, but I suppose this is the price you pay for a smaller, neater (and more affordable) package. Whilst the rack does have the same complement of editing features, this means that some editable features blessed with a dedicated control on the keyboard are accessed via the rack's menu system. Nevertheless, all of the physical controls present on both rack and keyboard transmit MIDI controller data, so your tweaks can be recorded and played back from a sequencer. The knobs and sliders can even be set to 'Jump' or 'Pickup' update modes when transmitting controller info.
An exciting aspect of both Supernova IIs (not present on the original Supernova, but included on the smaller, more recent sibling, the Nova) is their ability to take external audio signals and pass them through their audio inputs to the synthesis engine, filter, and built-in effects and vocoder (the last of these is also new to the Supernova II). The inputs are quite liberal about the signals they will accept, offering independent gain on both channels from +60dB to -8dB attenuation, which should accommodate everything from a guitar to a mixer line output. The resulting input signals can be independently routed to the Supernova II's effects or filter, or be used as either the carrier or modulator signals for the vocoder. Novation have even created some factory patches to make setting up easier.
The only quirk here is that the audio inputs double up for footswitch duty, which seems a shame. Even more oddly, on the rack version you can get around this by using a second set of audio inputs on the the front panel, which override anything plugged in the back. The rack Supernova Version 2 of the Supernova II's operating system promises further improvements. Novation are understandably cautious as to what will make it into v2, but suggest that it will include: Overdrive Curve parameter for filter and effects. Note: Version 1.5 of the Supernova OS was due to be released as SOS went to press, but sadly deadlines prevented a hands-on test.
The Supernova II's operating system is upgradable via MIDI System Exclusive messages. During the course of this review, I downloaded OS v1.4 from Novation's web site and had no trouble at all loading this from my Macintosh G3 running Cubase VST. Sending such an intensive amount of SysEx data can be a daunting task for some computers. Novation are aware that PC users (and certain Mac users with USB MIDI interfaces) can experience problems, and helpfully offer guidance on what to do if things go awry. It's important to note that this is not a fault of the Supernova II, merely the facts of life when dealing with certain combinations of computer hardware and software. OS updates are loaded into temporary memory while they are checked for loading errors before the Flash ROM is updated, which is reassuring.
1:0 and 0:1 ratios for tap delay effects.
Version 2 of the Supernova II's operating system promises further improvements. Novation are understandably cautious as to what will make it into v2, but suggest that it will include:
Overdrive Curve parameter for filter and effects.
Note: Version 1.5 of the Supernova OS was due to be released as SOS went to press, but sadly deadlines prevented a hands-on test.
A further socket provides an input for a continuous control pedal input, and both keyboard and rack have an option to plug in an S/PDIF/ADAT board for digital interfacing. This option allows the analogue inputs and outputs to be routed to and from the digital inputs and outputs, making for a very versatile A/D D/A converter.
Back in the analogue domain, it must be said that one of the Supernova's strongest points is the number of audio outputs. Eight outputs are provided in four left/right stereo pairings, although they can be used as eight separate mono outputs by panning Programs hard left or right.
Overall, the Supernova IIs seem sturdily built, with metal chasses (though the keyboard's end-cheeks are plastic, which is good for keeping the weight down, but more prone to damage). They certainly look the business, as you can see from the pictures accompanying this article. Under my studio lighting, I found the light-blue-on-dark-blue legending hard to read, but other than that, the designers should be congratulated for a very competent job. The red illuminated buttons are very classy and the blue VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) screen is a joy to the eyes. Backlit LCDs? You can keep 'em!
The Supernova II's synthesis engine represents an enhanced version of Novation's ASM (Analogue Sound Modelling) technology; in other words, most of the characteristics of an analogue synthesizer are modelled in cleverly-crafted software. The fascia full of inviting knobs and switches does nothing to dispel the illusion that you are at the helm of a sophisticated analogue synth.
The user interface is very easy to understand once you've grasped the fundamentals. All of the most basic editing is carried out using the per-function knobs and buttons, and most of the time this will be sufficient for general editing duties. To get further inside the instrument, the Menu buttons placed in each section
Features At A Glance
Synthesis System: Analogue Sound Modelling.
Polyphony: 24 voices for the standard Supernova II (expandable), 36 voices for the Supernova II Pro, and 48 voices for the Supernova II Pro X.
Three oscillators, two ring modulators and one noise source per program.
Eight different FM/Ring mod algorithms.
Modulation matrix with over 130 possible routings.
12-, 18- and 24-dB-per-octave resonant filter, configurable in low-pass, high-pass and band-pass modes, plus overdrive.
Effects: Distortion, Comb Filter, EQ, Reverb, Phaser/Flanger/Chorus/Quad Chorus/Ensemble/Rotary Speaker, Delay and Pan.
42-band vocoder with sibilance modes and spectrum analyzer.
Two balanced audio inputs, routable to filter, effects, and vocoder.
Eight assignable outputs.
1024 Programs in eight banks.
512 multitimbral Performances in four banks.
All knobs and switches transmit MIDI Controllers and NRPNs.
Flash-upgradable operating system via MIDI.
Built-in power supply.
MIDI In, Out, Thru.
Optional 12- and 24-voice expander cards.
Optional S/PDIF/ADAT digital I/O card.
Architecture: Programs & Performances
Understanding the Supernova's fundamental synthesis architecture is a doddle. The basic patch level in Novation terms is called a Program (more on these in a moment), and up to eight Programs can be assigned to the eight Parts which make up a multitimbral Performance. Each Part has a number of options associated with it, allowing independent control of Program tuning, velocity response, audio output, polyphony, keyboard range and various MIDI parameters. Parts can be assigned their own MIDI channel, or told to respond to the Global channel (set at machine level). When in Performance mode, new Programs can be selected in individual MIDI channels by MIDI program change messages, while Performances themselves are selected by sending bank/program change messages on the Global channel.
The Supernova II has sufficient memory to store 1024 Programs in eight banks (512 of which are factory presets), and 512 Performances in four banks (with 256 factory presets). Thus far, the situation is unchanged from the original Supernova, but Novation have added 400 Drum Programs and eight Drum Maps, four of which are preprogrammed with factory sounds. This is a welcome step up from the original Supernova, which didn't make any special provision for drum sounds. Although some excellent analogue drums can be created by the ASM engine, the best you could do formerly was assign eight drum Programs to a Performance, limiting you to eight simultaneous sounds and tying up the whole synth into the bargain. Novation have recognised this limitation, hence the new Drum Maps, which allow up to 50 Programs to be allocated to individual keys across the keyboard and played on a single MIDI channel. The only possible disadvantage of this approach is that all drum sounds in a Drum Map have to share the same effects.
Thanks to the sheer amount of Program and Performance material in the Supernova II, finding a specific sound manually can be a daunting task. To help with this, the Supernova II has a Find function that works by assigning categories to sounds and then grouping them by these categories to cut down searching time. I would have liked a character search function too, but you can't have everything!
Moving down below Program level, each of the Supernova II's single sounds consists of the output from three oscillators, two ring modulators (sourced from Oscillators 1+3 and 2+3) and a noise generator. Three envelopes, two LFOs, and an extensive filter section can also be brought to
It is clear that a lot of effort has gone into the Supernova II's manual, but I have to say that I found it decidedly hard work and often confusing. There are certainly several errors in there (the rack manual mentions the 'Transpose Zone' button, which doesn't exist!) and I found the order in which the controls were explained a headache. Apparently Novation do intend to revamp the manual, but for the moment, it's not ideal.information
Each oscillator has a Hardness control which allows you to round off the sharp edges of each waveform's harmonic content prior to entering the rest of the synthesis chain. In practice, this works much like having a separate filter for each oscillator, prior to entering the main voice filter. At extreme settings it can turn a square wave into something approaching a pure sine wave.
Modulation is taken care of by a neat Matrix (shown with the oscillator section above) Five modulation sources (Mod wheel, LFO 1, LFO 2, Envelope 2, and Envelope 3, but not Envelope 1) may be routed to five destinations (Mix, Pitch, Pulse Width, Sync, Hardness). Further controls for Sync Skew amount and Formant width also give a lot of potential for complex sound-shaping at oscillator level before any of the rest of the synth engine is brought into play.
Portamento and glissando options are available for smooth or semitone-stepped glides between notes. Legato glides are also possible along TB303 lines. I was pleased to see that Novation have included the option to switch between linear and exponential portamento in order to better emulate both the fixed-time type (as seen on the Sequential Pro One) and fixed-rate type (as on the Minimoog).
The Supernova II has two low-frequency oscillators with a choice of four waveforms -- namely square, saw, triangle and sample/hold. Speed is variable over a wide range, right up to kHz values, and can be derived internally or from external MIDI Clock. Modulation delay is programmable, as is a DC offset so that the modulating waveform consists entirely of positive or negative output. A positive offset, for example, could result in a waveform that would produce only 'upward' vibrato, to simulate a stringed instrument. As usual, deeper-level editing is possible via the Menu button and display, including options for adding a slew rate to the signal (similar to portamento) and the chance to modulate the LFO's speed from Envelope 3, the mod wheel, or aftertouch. A triggering parameter tells the LFO whether to freewheel, or reset its wavecycle on a new note trigger. An extra feature of the LFOs is that they can be used as simple envelope generators in static mode (ie. with their rate set to 0).
Of the main three envelopes, the first is dedicated to Program volume (hence its omission from the Mod Matrix), whilst Envelopes 2 and 3 take care of other modulation destinations, such as the LFO and filter. Single or multiple triggering are available, as is the ability to apply velocity and key tracking to the envelopes' output. At first sight these appear to be simple ADSR-type envelopes, but they have one or two tricks up their digital sleeves, including the ability to repeat the attack/decay phase a specified number of times, or infinitely. Worthy of particular note are the Sustain Rate and Sustain Time parameters. Sustain Rate 'ramps' the sustain to maximum or minimum level at a variable speed, while Sustain Time enables an envelope's release phase to begin before a key is physically released.
Despite these bells and whistles, the Supernova II's envelopes score on the simplicity front as far as I am concerned (especially the keyboard version, which has sliders for the Envelope settings instead of knobs). I have always disliked the complexity of the multi-stage envelopes used on many instruments, finding a simple ADSR sufficient for my purposes. Of course, some users may find themselves wishing for more control.
There are a staggering 18 different types of filter on board, including split/formant types. The majority of these are accessed via the filter section's 'Special' button, although Standard low-, band- and high-pass filters are selected from dedicated buttons. The filter may be set to a 12dB-, 18dB- or 24dB-per-octave response, and the filter cutoff can also track the keyboard by a variable positive or negative amount.
In keeping with the rest of the Supernova II, I found the filter to be very smooth, although it will go into self-oscillation if the resonance is pushed high enough. If this is not enough, a filter overdrive function is provided (with variable curve) to push the filter into fatter, more aggressive tones. The QNorm control knob tells the Supernova whether to simply add resonance to the resulting signal, or whether it should 'normalise' the output to keep the volume at a constant level -- or some value between these two extremes. The filter's modulation matrix allows LFO 1, LFO 2, Envelope 2, Envelope 3 and mod wheel values to affect cutoff frequency and/or resonance. Where a dual filter is in use (one of the 'special' filters), resonance modulation becomes width modulation between the two filters' cutoff frequencies.
Dipping into the filter's menu pages reveals a number of modulation options related to shifting cutoff frequency and resonance by aftertouch, or from LFO 2 at an amount determined by the mod wheel and aftertouch.
Every Program has a complement of up to seven simultaneous effects, namely Reverb, Delay, Distortion, Chorus (flanger/phaser), EQ, Pan and a comb filter. The important thing to note here is that, as on the original Supernova, Program-specific effects are retained when a Program becomes part of a Performance, unlike on most other multitimbral modules. I think this is where Novation really score. I tried A/B-ing Programs in isolation and as part of a eight-part Performance and I can happily report that no compromises seem to be in place to achieve this.
The Supernova II's effects are generally of excellent quality and form an integral part of many of the best presets. There are 19 effects algorithms which arrange the modulation effects, reverb and delay in various parallel or The keyboard also contains a bank of 128 'Favourites' which are essentially a collection of pointers to Programs, Performances and arpeggiator patterns in various other banks (rather like aliases or shortcuts on a Mac or PC). The Favourites can nevertheless be accessed from the front panel, or via MIDI program change messages, which can speed up access to the sounds you like best. This feature is also implemented on the rack module, but is only available there via MIDI. A set of 'tens and units' program-selection buttons on the keyboard make for two-button access of up to 128 Programs or Performances, since the 'tens' buttons go right up to 120.
Other Keyboard Features
The keyboard version provides a host of features to make it suitable for use as a master keyboard in the studio or in live performance. Performance mode needs to be selected to get at these features, whereupon you have access to the eight internal Parts and eight external. The keyboard can then address internal and external part, or both simultaneously. There are many parameters to tailor the master keyboard functions, including transposition, key/velocity zoning, bank/program change messages and mod wheel assignments. Various MIDI controllers can be selectively switched on or off, including mod wheel, pitch-bend, aftertouch and sustain.
The keyboard also contains a bank of 128 'Favourites' which are essentially a collection of pointers to Programs, Performances and arpeggiator patterns in various other banks (rather like aliases or shortcuts on a Mac or PC). The Favourites can nevertheless be accessed from the front panel, or via MIDI program change messages, which can speed up access to the sounds you like best. This feature is also implemented on the rack module, but is only available there via MIDI. A set of 'tens and units' program-selection buttons on the keyboard make for two-button access of up to 128 Programs or Performances, since the 'tens' buttons go right up to 120.
In keeping with the rest of the instrument, the effects are blessed with a small number of control knobs for the most important and oft-used parameters, whilst hiding other parameters behind their Menu buttons. Distortion, for example, merely sports a Level knob, yet inside its software menu lurk controls for Output level, Gain compensation, Distortion curve and Mod wheel amount. The modulation effects (Chorus, Flanger, Phaser and Rotary speaker) have control knobs for Level, Speed and Type, whilst menu pages cover more complex parameters such as Depth, Feedback, Delay, LFO waveshape, Stereo width, Mod-wheel control and Inertia. The latter two are of particular use for the rotary speaker emulation, although they act on the other modulation effects too.
The Panner ranges from being a simple control for stereo placement to providing auto-panning and tremolo effects, while the stereo delay is capable of being clocked over MIDI and offers a wide range of clock divisions. Stereo width is programmable, as is high-frequency damping and a delay ratio between the left and right delay signals. The amount of delay can be controlled from the mod wheel.
The reverb is, perhaps understandably, a fairly simple implementation. Real knobs control Level, Decay and Type, whilst Early-reflection level, High-frequency damping and Mod-wheel level control are handled via the screen. I would have liked a dedicated pre-delay parameter, although this can be simulated by feeding the delay into the reverb -- any chance, Novation?
The reverb types are generous, however, covering various chambers, rooms, plates and gated effects. Of all the effects, I found the reverb to be the least impressive, although not to such a degree that it would cause me any great concern. Given the amount of processing that is going on in the Supernova II it is remarkable that eight channels of stereo reverb can be accommodated at all!
The EQ is also simple, consisting of a pair of bass/treble cut/boost controls, but I still found these two controls very welcome allies -- they could make or break Supernova sounds in a mix.
Last but not least in the Effects section, there is the inspirational Comb Filter, hidden away under the 'Special' button. Frequency, Boost, LFO Speed and LFO Depth controls are provided, together with the ability to modulate frequency and boost from the mod wheel. There are actually two comb filters in operation and a Spread control adjusts the difference in frequency between them. It would have been nice to have the option to switch the comb filter for a simple notch filter.
Vocoder & Arpeggiator
Welcome as it is, at first glance the Supernova II's vocoder looks fairly simple. After getting to grips with the one in Roland's JP8080, I was prepared for a long read of the manual and some fairly major tweaking, but Novation's vocoder proved relatively easy to understand and use. Although it may not have the sophistication of some devices (some might call it 'unfussy'), it sports a vast 42 frequency bands and makes a good show of itself. Either of the Supernova II's audio inputs, or a Part within a Performance can be assigned as carrier or modulator. Sibilance may be derived from the input signal or artificially generated by a white noise signal.
I love a good arpeggiator, and I was pleased to find that the Supernova II's was up there with the best. All of the usual controls are there, including Direction, Speed, Gate time, Range and Latching modes. Arpeggios may also be transposed in real time, which took me back to the days of my old Sequential Pro One -- and what great fun it was! Programming arpeggio patterns is a straightforward process -- you simply assign note numbers to steps. Patterns are monophonic or polyphonic and consist of up to 64 steps. Gate time can be adjusted, and ties and rests may be included in the pattern. The arpeggiator will run to the Supernova II's internal clock, or can be made to sync with an external MIDI clock. Each Program within a Performance may make use of its own arpeggiator pattern, and run at its own speed and time signature, making for some truly awesome multitimbral possibilities.
To my ears the Supernova II sounds smooth and rich. There is a certain silkiness here that I have usually found missing from digital emulations of analogue synths. The basses are deep and powerful and certainly don't rely on the EQ toartificially pump them up -- something of which I often feel some other modelling synths are guilty. Pads are full and meaty, and I would guess that more time would be spent thinning them out than trying to find extra weight, which is not such a bad state of affairs. Lead and sequenced sounds can be brash and nasty, yet I found these to have an 'Oberheim-ish' smoothness that may not suit everyone -- the filter overdrive and distortion effect will help here. But the addition of FM capabilities has opened up a whole new area to Supernova owners. Tinkly bells, twangy basses and nasty leads are all possible with none of the grungy artifacts of the old DX-series synths.
Novation clearly thought long and hard when they developed the original Supernova, and what they have learned since seems to have been translated into a lot of useful additions for the Supernova II. 'Just the way it should be' is a phrase that sprang to mind several times during Supernova II Keyboard (24-voice) £1,499
Setting the right DAT recording level: SOS January 1995. Noise and how to avoid it: SOS May 1995. A Concise Guide to Compression & Limiting: SOS April 1996. The Mysteries of Metering: SOS May 1996.Minimising Mixer and Effects Noise: SOS July 1996.
Supernova II Pro Keyboard (36-voice)
Supernova II Pro X Keyboard (48-voice)
Supernova II Rack (24-voice)
Supernova II Pro Rack (36-voice)
Supernova II Pro X Rack (48-voice)
Supernova II Digital I/O S/PDIF/ADAT Card
Supernova II 12-voice expansion card
Supernova II 24-voice expansion card
Supernova II Keyboard (24-voice)
Of course, it's not perfect. I'd criticise the scaling of the controls -- I would rather read values in dB and Hz rather than +/-63, but then there's no substitute for using your ears. I also felt that the synth's architecture seemed too 'hard-wired' for my liking. I often felt I'd like to use Envelope 2 to modulate LFO speed, for example, but it's Envelope 3 or nothing. I'd prefer a larger screen to avoid some of the abbreviations that had me reaching for the manual -- and I wasn't over-awed by the manual, either (see the 'Manual Override' box on page 166).
But these are quibbles. This is a seriously good-sounding, good-looking, instrument in both its keyboard and rack forms. In a straight feature-for-price shootout, the Supernova II takes some beating. When I take into account how easy it is to use, I can't think of another product that comes close. A future classic? Maybe...