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Novation A-Station

Polyphonic Virtual Analogue Synthesizer By Paul Nagle
Published December 2001

Novation A-Station rack synthesizer module.

Novation's A‑Station seeks to combine the compact styling of their BassStation Rack synths with some of the spec of the prestigious Supernova and Nova — and all for £399! Is it an inspired bit of cross‑breeding, or a misbegotten mongrel?

Novation have come a long way since 1992, when they launched their two‑octave MM10 keyboard. Designed as a companion to Yamaha's QY10 sequencer, this simple piece of gear found an unoccupied niche in the market. Building on its success, Novation cannily focused on the lucrative dance scene, releasing a series of products combining well‑chosen features with affordable prices.

Continuing this trend, the A‑Station is a remarkably compact polyphonic virtual analogue synthesizer. At just one rack unit high and measuring less than five inches from the rounded ends of its knobs to its tidy rear, it is a cunning gene‑splice of Super BassStation body and Nova‑style brain.

Although it has just half the polyphony of the Nova (eight notes instead of 16), the A‑Station is far from being simply a cut‑down version. In fact, it even surpasses the spec of its older sibling in several areas. For one thing, it has more knobs, laid out in a fashion that, even if it is a little cramped, served the monophonic Super BassStation well. Do those choices apply equally to a more complex, polyphonic synth? Let's take a look.

Miniature Powerhouse

The A‑Station has three powerful oscillators, a low‑pass filter, two ADSR envelopes, two LFOs and a well‑specified effects section. Add to this a ring modulator, noise generator, an external signal input and an arpeggiator — and then wonder at how they managed to fit it all in the tiny case!

At the rear, a stereo output pair connects the sound engine to an expectant world and the single input awaits any external audio you care to process through the filter and effects. MIDI In, Out and Thru are provided and the external power supply is a standard 9V type and comfortably small.

A simple stereo out suffices for the A‑Station's connections to the real world. You do get a mono audio input and full set of MIDI connections, though.A simple stereo out suffices for the A‑Station's connections to the real world. You do get a mono audio input and full set of MIDI connections, though.

Ample tweaking control is on hand, in the form of 10 switches and no less than 25 stylish Nova‑type knobs. A rubber numeric keypad is used to select patches or to navigate through various menus. A headphone socket is placed on the front panel but there is no on/off switch. This isn't a major omission — in fact I'd hardly noticed it until I came to upgrade the Operating System (this being a simple feat involving the holding down of a key during power‑up and then playing a MIDI file).

With so much crammed in, some compromises are inevitable. Sadly missed is the glorious blue display seen on other Novation synths, replaced here by the smaller, two‑character LED display of the other 'Stations'. This means patches are numbers, not names and, worse, a series of obscure abbreviations are used for the (many) functions without front‑panel controls (more on this in the box on the last page of this review). The other main compromise is that the A‑Station is monotimbral (that's one sound at once). Depending on your needs, this could be a far more significant drawback.

Station Activation

The A‑Station powers up in Program mode — that is, ready for you to play any of the 400 onboard patches. These are arranged in four banks of 100, and the first 200 are already filled with factory patches. The remaining 200 are blank, awaiting your own creations. Simply type in the bank and patch number on the rubber keypad and you're away. Or, to speed things up, the keypad's '+' and '‑' keys allow you to step through the patches sequentially. Pressing and holding either of these keys advances your selection in groups of 10. Conveniently, Novation have positioned related factory sounds at these intervals. Thus locations 100, 110, 120, and so on are bass sounds, 106, 116, 126 are string sounds, and so it goes on. Their names are listed in the manual and, since you can overwrite all patch locations, it's handy that they can be restored at any time, either by full bank or individually.

You're probably wondering how you can tell at a glance which patch bank you are in. Novation have done the best they can to make the inscrutable display meaningful; therefore the Program LED blinks in patterns of one, two, three or four flashes to indicate the current bank number. Further attempts to exploit the display include the way numeric parameter values greater than 99 are represented: these are shown accompanied by a dot (ie. 100‑127 appear as '00.‑27.'). This isn't so bad — the really cryptic abbreviations are reserved for all the parameters that are accessed from the keypad when the Function switch is set to 'Shift'. For example, when the Function switch is set to 'Normal', the 'Porta' knob, as you would expect, sets the portamento amount (portamento can either be linear or exponential, which is a nice touch). When the Function switch is set to 'Shift', however, this same knob performs data‑entry duties. The switch is used to alter the behaviour of other controls too (eg. oscillator waveform, cutoff and resonance) and I'll refer to it here simply as Shift.

In 'Shift' mode, each numbered key corresponds to a different menu, through which you navigate by repeatedly pressing the key. Thankfully, the menus contain the functions you won't tweak so often during performance. These are: delay, reverb, chorus/phaser, distortion/pan/EQ, vocoder, arpeggiator, extra oscillator functions and routings for mod wheel, aftertouch, breath control and velocity. Oh, and the various trigger and MIDI clock sync settings too! It's only when you see that lot summarised in the manual that you realize just how feature‑rich the A‑Station is; it uses huge chunks of the best of Novation's programming code and squeezes them determinedly into this single rack. For my first few days with the A‑Station, I admit I had to constantly leaf through the manual (it has no index) to discover what each of the rather intimidating two‑character abbreviations stood for. After a time, I found I could remember many of them, although I did need to keep the manual's Menu Summary pages open for those lesser‑used options.

There's one final series of options, with an indicator LED for each to the right of the display, and a dedicated Mode button for stepping through each option. The modes are Program (the norm al 'play' mode), MIDI transmit and receive channel, utility functions and the save operation. Navigation within these menus is via the '0' key, confusingly.

The mode LEDs also collectively serve as an LED level indicator for incoming external signals. This is a really neat idea, but unfortunately a bug in v1.03 of the operating system meant that this wasn't working until the last day I had the A‑Station for review, when the v1.06 update arrived, and fixed the problem. If you're an early A‑Station purchaser, it might be a good idea to check that this upgrade has already been done on your machine.

Oscillators & Mixer

The three oscillators offer a choice of sine, triangle, sawtooth or square waves. With a single set of controls shared between them, the three‑position switch used to select the oscillator for editing will see a lot of active service. The octave selector switch shifts the pitch upwards by one or two octaves, or down by an octave. A dedicated control allows a further shift of 12 semitones up or down, and there's a fine‑tune control too, so you should have no trouble finding any interval you need.

Most of the other oscillator controls are self‑explanatory, with dedicated knobs for pulse width, vibrato depth (via LFO 1) and modulation envelope depth. Further switches activate Oscillator 2's sync and set the source for pulse‑width modulation (either manual or from LFO 2). When Shift is activated, pulse‑width modulation via the mod envelope is also possible, although this is not printed on the panel.

So far, there's nothing too radical; the oscillators sound rich and full and when all three of them are brought into play, they can sound really thick. The A‑Station does offer something extra, though: select any waveform other than square and the pulse‑width knob transforms that waveform into a 'doubled' version of itself (we've seen this before with the 'DoubleSaw' wave on the Nova). And with Shift activated, the doubling effect can be modulated by LFO 2 for a warm ensemble effect.

The available sound sources are mixed in a dedicated mixer section (something the Nova lacks) with a level control for Oscillator 3, plus a knob that sets the balance between Oscillators 1 and 2 (an 'Off' level for both is at fully anti‑clockwise). A third knob has its function determined by a three‑way switch. It controls the levels of noise, the external signal or ring modulation (the latter taking inputs from Oscillator 1 and Oscillator 2). If you set all the sound sources to maximum, you may need to reduce the overall level to prevent the mixer from overloading and introducing distortion.

Filter

The low‑pass filter may be switched between 12 or 24dB‑per‑octave operation, and features the expected cutoff, resonance, and keyboard‑tracking controls (the latter with positive keytracking only), plus controls for LFO 2 depth and modulation envelope depth (in positive or negative amounts). When Shift is active, the Cutoff knob sets overdrive amount and the Resonance knob becomes 'Resonance Normalise' (Overdrive boosts the overall richness by simulating a mild analogue distortion and Resonance Normalise progressively reduces the signal level as resonance increases). Thus you can create a wide variety of filter responses from relatively few controls.

The filter is perhaps the only area where the A‑Station felt like the Nova's poor relation, lacking all the latter's versatile additional filters and dual‑filter configurations. Also, in use, I noticed some audible stepping when adjusting cutoff frequency. It's not too bad, but it'd be great if a future OS could make it a little smoother.

Novation A-Station front panel view.

Station Modulation

LFO 1 is used exclusively for pitch modulation (vibrato) but LFO 2 may be applied to pulse width, filter cutoff or 'double‑wave' detune. This imposes the slight restriction (one of the A‑Station's few, in fact) tha t you cannot set a moderately fast pulse‑width modulation and a slow filter sweep at the same time. Each LFO has four waveforms: triangle, sawtooth, square and sample and hold, plus controls for speed and delay. The LFO delay has a fade‑in built into it (so the effect of the LFO gradually ramps up, rather than starting off at maximum) and this works well enough — although you have no control over the fade‑in time, and I occasionally wished it was longer.

Control Station

Although lacking a modulation matrix, the A‑Station allows you to specify most of the control routings you'd expect. The modulation wheel can directly set vibrato amount, LFO 2 filter amount (or 'wow wow', as the manual brilliantly describes it), amplifier level, overall oscillator pitch and various effect levels. Pitch‑bend amount can be set independently for each oscillator.

The synth responds to both aftertouch and breath control (MIDI Control Change 2) although I could discover no means to remap this to another (possibly more convenient) controller number. Aftertouch and breath amount can each control overall pitch, vibrato, filter frequency or filter modulation, and amplifier level. Finally (and perhaps surprisingly), velocity can be routed to just three destinations: amp envelope level, mod envelope level and FM envelope level.

MIDI & Triggering Modes

The MIDI implementation includes extensive MIDI clock sync options, incorporated at strategic points and in divisions ranging from 32nd triplets to 12 bars. This clockability encompasses LFOs and several effects parameters such as delay time, auto‑pan and the LFOs that are built into the chorus and EQ sections — all good stuff. I was also pleased that all the controls transmit MIDI information, mostly as discrete control changes, although a few do send NPRNs. None of them are listed in the manual, however.

The A‑Station can operate in monophonic or polyphonic modes, and there are several options for retriggering the envelopes in mono mode, or applying automatic glide between notes with legato playing. Two different polyphonic modes allow the user to decide whether to retrigger voices that are already in use or allocate a new voice for every note received, even if a voice is already active at the same pitch. I was impressed to see that you can set external audio triggering of envelopes or choose to send the external signal directly to the effects section.

Effects

Novation don't just add effects as icing on the cake, theirs are a vital part of the overall sound. There are seven effects in total: stereo delay, reverb, chorus/phaser, distortion, auto‑pan, EQ and a 12‑band vocoder.

To use any (or all!) of these, you activate Shift and check out all the tiny printed options above each key on the keypad. Key 1 steps through all the stereo delay options, Key 2 is Reverb, Key 3 Chorus, and so on. Special mention must be made of the stereo delay, with its selection of 13 different delay ratios, and separate, musically useful delay time divisions for left and right outputs.

Vocoders seem to be everywhere these days, and the A‑Station's performs rather well, despite having just four parameters (balance, sibilance level, sibiliance type and stereo width). Some of the factory sounds show it off most effectively. Finally, there's the EQ. Found in the distortion/pan/EQ menu (this menu requires a full 14 presses of key 4 to reach its end!), this provides a vital boost for any sound. As well as variable frequency and amount, this equaliser has its own LFO that can be sync'ed to MIDI Clock. Although not quite as versatile as a second filter, the equaliser adds a welcome final coloration to any sound and, with its LFO slowly sweeping, can add additional movement too.

Arpeggiator

Arpeggiators now seem to be part of the expected armoury of modern synths — even rack‑based modules. The A‑Station's arpeggiator has enough modes to keep you interested — but not so many that you'll get lost. Along with random, up, down and two up‑and‑down modes, there's also a 'last note played' mode, which happily regurgitates notes in the order they are played. It's not as flexible as some arpeggiators, maybe, but perfectly adequate all the same.

The Good Of Small Things

As I explored the A‑Station, it rapidly revealed itself, in Estate Agents' terms, to be 'deceptively spacious'. I can still remember when eight notes of polyphony were regarded as 'all a polyphonic synth needs' and I think there are still times when you'd want to guarantee a full eight notes rather than perform the juggling acts that multitimbrality requires. However, for those on a budget, or just starting out, lack of multitimbrality is more likely to be an issue — probably even more so than the A‑Station's limited display (to which you adapt). Pricewise, the A‑Station is a real tempter, coming in well below the Virus Rack, the Nova and Waldorf's MicroQ Lite (but as a monotimbral synth, it really doesn't compete head‑on with these). I've used the Nova as reference throughout this review, but the A‑Station could be seen by some as a logical progression from the Super BassStation, with added effects and polyphony.

By providing as many knobs and synthesis options as is practical within the constraints of the 1U rack format, Novation have produced a synthesizer that performs well and sounds very impressive indeed. It has instant access to all the important parameters, with far more hidden under the covers. If there were a computer editor available, you'd have the best of both worlds.

Personally I like small things, especially small synths. The A‑Station should be able to fit into any setup and is particularly well suited to a live rig where rack space is precious. If you've been considering adding Novation's virtual analogue sound to your setup, but have been dithering because you have a variety of gear already, there has never been a cheaper way to do it than with the A‑Station.

Features At A Glance

  • Eight‑note polyphony.
  • Three oscillators featuring variable pulse, sawtooth, sine and triangle waveforms.
  • Oscillator FM and sync plus a ring modulator and noise generator.
  • Low‑pass filter, switchable into 12 or 24dB‑per‑octave operation.
  • Two LFOs with four waveforms and delay.
  • Two main envelopes plus an FM envelope.
  • An effects section featuring simultaneous reverb, stereo delay, stereo chorus (or phaser), distortion, auto‑panning, EQ and vocoder.
  • External audio processing either through the filter or direct to the effects.
  • Arpeggiator with six patterns.
  • 400 onboard patch locations.
  • Extensive MIDI clock sync (for the LFOs, arpeggiator, and various effects parameters) and a good MIDI spec.

Sounds

As you might expect, the A‑Station sounds like the more expensive Nova and Supernova in many ways. The 200 factory sounds include lush pads, analogue bass patches, screaming leads, and electric pianos.

Here are some of my particular favourites; just click on the links to hear examples of the sounds.

pad2.mp3 — a warm, swirly pad. OK, I admit it; I love pads.

strings2.mp3 — pizzicato strings of near‑D50 quality (and I mean that as a compliment, in case you were wondering!).

bass3.mp3 — it's very squelchy!

dance3.mp3 — just to show that the Virus isn't the only synth ideal for techno.

keyboard5.mp3 — a tasty DX Rhodes.

fm1.mp3 — classic FM‑style bells.

'Fd', 'un', 'dr', & 'op' — Cryptic Abbreviations

I've mentioned briefly elsewhere that the A‑Station's numeric keypad conceals a wealth of menu options that you will only unlock with time, patience and a thorough read of the manual. For example, activating Shift and pressing the '7' key repeatedly scrolls through additional oscillator settings (with a total of nine options). These are shown via a display that alternates between the name of the parameter and its value. In the case of the oscillator settings, the names are depicted as: 'un', 'ud', 'dr', 'Pg', 'oP', 'FL', 'FE', 'FA' and 'fd' and you'd be forgiven for not instantly identifying these as: Unison, Unison Detune, VCO Drift, Oscillator 1/2/3 Preglide, Oscillator Start Phase, Oscillator 2‑3 FM Manual level, Oscillator 2‑3 FM Envelope Amount, FM Envelope Attack, and FM Envelope Decay. OK, they are obscure (and this is one of the easier sets of menus!) but they're not nearly so daunting after a few sessions. They're worth the effort, too, because they extend the power of the instrument so much.

The Unison mode allows (up to) eight voices to be stacked for some monster monophonic patches. Inclusion of two‑operator FM synthesis, complete with a dedicated two‑stage envelope is especially cool, and opens up a range of tinkly, cutting sounds that even the Nova can't accomplish. Preglide is a simple up or down pitch‑sweep, its time set by the portamento amount, and VCO Drift is a digital simulation of the way that analogue oscillators drift slightly as they warm up.

Pros

  • Rich sounds, powerful synthesis.
  • Affordable.
  • Small and cute: the Winona Ryder of synths.

Cons

  • Two‑character display is rather cryptic at times.
  • Not multitimbral.

Summary

A diminutive, eight‑note polyphonic virtual analogue synthesizer. The display hides a multitude of features but there are plenty of knobs for instant access too. If you need a powerful, portable synth at a good price, the A‑Station is currently in a class of its own.

information

A-Station £399 inc VAT.

www.novationmusic.com

Test Spec

A‑Station OS version reviewed: v1.03 & 1.06.

Published December 2001