Novation have squeezed the innards of their successful BassStation analogue bass synth into a 1U rackmount model, throwing in some handy new features along the way. Jonathan Miller gets lost in bass...
One of 1994's runaway successes was an unassuming little product by UK manufacturer Novation, namely the BassStation analogue MIDI monosynth. Prior to this breakthrough, Novation were known for their cheap‑and‑cheerful MM10 battery‑powered mini keyboard controller for Yamaha's QY‑series of 'pocket sequencers' — a useful combination for those awkward outdoor occasions when musical inspiration strikes. The BassStation keyboard heralded Novation's timely foray into the world of subtractive synthesis, coinciding with the ongoing analogue revival and 'price hike' of so‑called classic monosynths like Roland's SH101 and the much‑sought‑after MiniMoog.
However, it is undoubtedly Roland's TB303 Bassline, the essential ingredient of Techno music in one or more of its facets, that tops the class in this respect, now commanding 'silly money' — offers are currently swanning around the £700 mark! As implied by its Analogue Bass Synth subtitle, Novation are obviously aiming their instrument directly at this market. However, as the review unit is indeed a full‑blown, two oscillator, analogue monosynth with many of the trappings that this entails, it offers a sufficient range of sounds to make it useful long after the current TB303 fad is over. I gave our review model a side by side listening test against Roland's 'silver dream machine' and found the BassStation Rack can produce convincing TB303‑style sounds — Novation even dedicate a page of their excellently presented user manual to setting up a 'TB303 Emulation'.
Needless to say, both amateurs and pros alike rushed out to buy the BassStation keyboard, including Ozric Tentacles' Ed Wynne, who sees it as a kind of "MIDIfied Pro One" and SOS contributor and Keyfax author Julian Colbeck, following his SOS July 1994 review.
Around the time of its introduction, the BassStation's main competitor was the Deep Bass Nine from Control Synthesis, essentially a single‑oscillator 1U rackmounting TB303 clone, with MIDI and a very useful built‑in MIDI/CV convertor — see Paul Ward's December 1994 SOS review for further information. Since then, German electronic instrument manufacturers Doepfer have muscled in on the action with their 1U rackmounting MS404 MIDI Analog Synthesizer, which appears to fall somewhere between the BassStation and Deep Bass Nine in terms of the facilities on offer.
With the history lesson over, let us move onto the subject of this review — the Novation BassStation Rack, which is a rackmounting offspring of the original BassStation. This time the unit is emblazoned with the words 'Analogue Synthesiser Module', suggesting Novation have acknowledged the fact that the BassStation has also found favour outside of the dance fraternity — and deservedly so.
Physically, the BassStation Rack obviously bears little resemblance to its moulded plastic keyboard forefather, being a brushed steel affair of rigid construction with an incredibly shallow depth of 3.9 inches — no racking problems here then, such are the wonders of modern technology. Novation have even seen fit to supply four rubber feet to stick onto the underside of the unit, should you desire to employ it in a desktop capacity — nice touch.
The all‑important rotary pot controls for real‑time sound tweaking are arranged across the front of the unit in the same order as found on the original BassStation's control panel. Starting on the left, the first section contains Volume and Portamento (between 0 and 5 seconds), a headphone socket (sorely missed on the keyboard) and a Write Protect/Enable switch relating to the adjacent control panel for accessing 100 patch memories — a vast improvement over the keyboard's miserly seven!
Memory allocation is in fact shared between 60 user programmable memories and 40 factory presets, all accessible (when sequencing) with Program Change commands, as are the keyboard's seven. These are backed up by an internal battery with an approximate 10‑year lifespan, so it's very unlikely that sounds will be lost in this millennium! If you run out of storage capacity — let's face it, in the instinctive world of hands‑on subtractive synthesis, you undoubtedly will — the BassStation is capable of dumping singular sounds or its entire contents to a backup storage device for instant recall, via System Exclusive.
A 12‑button Data Entry panel calls up stored sounds in time‑honoured fashion — simply key in the corresponding sound number which in turn is displayed on the two‑digit LED, yet another feature sorely missed on the keyboard. When used in combination with the Mode Select button, these same keys double up to access the extensive MIDI Controller functions that the BSRack is capable of receiving, including: pitch bend; pitch modulation; filter modulation; aftertouch/breath modulation and aftertouch/breath filter modulation — again, the keyboard is distinctly lacking in this area.
Continuing our eastward journey, the LFO, Osc 2, and Filter control sections are identical to their BassStation keyboard counterparts. You can even sync the LFO to MIDI Clock to create various sweeping sounds and rhythmical pulses. A quick glance at the accompanying photograph and the more astute amongst you will spot my deliberate Osc 1, Osc 1‑2 Mod/Sync, and Envelopes section omissions, the reason being the Rack's ability to mix an external sound source (more of which later) against its second oscillator; additional oscillator sync facility — perfect for those searing lead lines a la Howard Jones' 'What Is Love?'; and its envelopes' increased switching ability.
In layman's terms, the Rack is capable of receiving MIDI Controller information relating to all stages of its envelopes — Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, and Velocity on Envelopes 1, 2 and 1 & 2 — as opposed to only Attack and Decay on Envelopes 1 and 2 on the keyboard model. Although there is only one set of physical envelope controls, the Envelope switch determines whether you are working on the amplifier (Envelope 1) or filter (Envelope 2) envelope shape, or both. Either way, it's essentially a compromise due to panel space restrictions. This could be a tad confusing for novices, even more so given that the user manual employs different terminology — ie. volume (amplifier) and brightness (filter). On the plus side, the BassStation is velocity sensitive, hence the Velocity parameter in the Envelopes section.
Graphically, the BassStation Rack has undergone a cosmetic change for the better, such that it is more pleasing to the eye and consequently a lot easier to use.
The back panel includes all the necessary connections for communication with the outside world: 9 Volt DC input socket for the external power supply, without an on/off switch; obligatory MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets; Line Output. Here all similarity with the BassStation keyboard ends.
A major plus point and one which, in my opinion, justifies the Rack's £399 price tag, compared with the keyboard's £349, is the inclusion of a built‑in MIDI/CV convertor with CV/Gate inputs and outputs. Obviously Novation have taken a leaf out of the Deep Bass Nine and MS404 books along the way.
I am happy to report that the BassStation Rack's MIDI/CV convertor functioned perfectly when I hooked up my trusty old Sequential Circuits Pro One and heard it in all its sequenced glory in the marvellous world of MIDI for the first time [see 'No Self Control: The MIDI/CV Convertor' side panel].
Unlike the Deep Bass Nine, the BassStation Rack's MIDI/CV convertor is not simply restricted to the 1 Volt per octave (1V/Oct) variety, as popularised in the past by the likes of Roland, ARP, and Sequential Circuits. It is also capable of generating the Hertz per Volt (Hz/V) linear system used by old Korg and Yamaha synths and supports an S‑trig option for old Moog equipment. (Tom Carpenter's March 1995 SOS article on controlling vintage synths via MIDI is a particularly useful source of additional information on this subject.)
The BassStation Rack could equally act as a keyboardless expander for a vintage synth by simply connecting the synth's CV/Gate outputs to the Rack's CV/Gate inputs and playing the synth's keyboard. Every time a key is pressed, the BSRack will simultaneously 'play' the same note — all this, and not a MIDI cable in sight!
It's worth pointing out here that it is not necessary to have a keyboard, either MIDI or CV/Gate, connected to the BassStation Rack in order to hear its sounds. The Audition/Demo button in the Data Entry/Program section can be used to trigger a currently selected sound, providing a convenient way of monitoring a sound when tweaking.
One final addition worthy of mention is an external audio input to the BassStation Rack's Filter and Envelope sections, enabling these to be used to further process any sound source, in much the same way as on a Pro One. A flabby acoustic kick drum, for example, could be trimmed using the envelope controls to make it sound more punchy or clicky.
For a more in‑depth appraisal of the BassStation's synthesis capabilities, check out Julian Colbeck's comprehensive July 1994 SOS keyboard review. As far as my youthful ears are concerned, the review model is sonically capable of holding its own against my Pro One — I pitted the BassStation with its filter in 24dB per octave mode in a head‑to‑head dual against the Pro One for 'Best Moog Emulation' award, and the result was a draw; they both sounded equally good. When monitoring on headphones, the BassStation's background noise was very low for an analogue synth — a sure sign of a good design.
All the bleeps and squelches you could wish for in an analogue monosynth are featured in the first 40 factory preset patch locations — Novation have obviously done their homework, albeit with a bias towards the dance market (check out the BassStation Rack's impressive demonstration sequence, accessed in 'Utility' mode by pressing the Audition/Demo button). My personal favourites include patch 08, 'Power Bass', a deeply thunderous bass sound reminiscent of the Moog Taurus bass pedals; 'Spit' (18), the resonant click much beloved of Kraftwerk; and 'Yazoo Lead' (20), a highly playable MiniMoog‑type lead voice. I couldn't resist having a tweak — once hooked, you're off into analogue heaven!
However, common sense should prevail and tell you that the BassStation Rack's 18 rotary pots and 12 switches are not going to permit the same degree of sound sculpting as the Pro One's 28 knobs and 23 switches (excluding sequencer and arpeggiator functions) — the BassStation's modulation options are somewhat limited by comparison.
Of course, every synth has its merits, the Pro One's being its incredibly fast envelope generators. In this respect, the BassStation fares reasonably well with its tightest attack time of 1ms. However, given the current fashion for percussive textures, Novation could do themselves even more justice by reducing the attack time even further.
The BassStation has enough flexibility to keep the new generation of analogue enthusiasts happy, despite the drawback of two waveforms (Square and Sawtooth) per oscillator, plus a switchable pulse width option for either Osc 1 or Osc 2. Unfortunately, you cannot independently control the pulse width setting for each oscillator. Still, that's a lot more than can be said for the Roland TB303!
On the subject of oscillators, the BassStation's are not true VCOs (Voltage Controlled Oscillators) in the Pro One sense, but are in fact based on digitally‑synchronised, analogue ramp generators from which are derived the sawtooth and pulse waves. This reduces dither and instability considerably when compared to a traditional VCO, though some purists may feel that a degree of instability is part of the character of a true analogue synth. Whatever the technicalities, I don't feel the BassStation has quite the same 'warmth' as my Pro One, but then again, I'd prefer to stay in tune any day of the week!
Since the BassStation is primarily designed as a bass synth, Osc 1 does not have a dedicated octave‑switching facility, being restricted to its C‑2 to C‑7 range. This is a bit of a bind, although the instrument's sound palette extends way beyond this field.
If monosynths are not to your liking, multiple BassStations can be chained for polyphonic playing, although this could prove a costly way of 'creating' an analogue polysynth (£3,199.92 inc VAT for 8‑note polyphony, if my mathematical brain serves me correctly!). Rumour has it that Novation are presently working on an analogue polysynth — a very attractive proposition indeed, assuming the price is right.
For anyone wanting to doodle on the move, the original battery‑operated BassStation with its two‑octave, full‑size, velocity‑sensitive keyboard, remains without comparison and is highly recommended — after all, Mute mogul and Depeche Mode mentor Daniel Miller uses one as part of his portable setup on "stressful business trips."
All told, Novation have surpassed themselves here, ably overcoming the shortcomings of the original BassStation — its flimsy casing and limited patch memories — and adding enough extras to give the competition a good run for their money — or even yours.
By connecting an external MIDI sequencer to the BassStation Rack, plus a suitable CV/Gate synth (like the Sequential Circuits Pro One) via the CV/Gate outputs provided, the additional synth can be simultaneously sequenced on an independent MIDI channel selected from the BassStation's Data Entry panel. In other words, the BassStation deals with incoming MIDI data both for itself and the connected external synth. The result is two different monophonic analogue sequences playing at the same time — brilliant!
Setting the correct type of CV/Gate system for your vintage synth is a fairly straightforward procedure: Put the BassStation Rack into 'Utility' mode, stepping from the default 'Program' mode by pressing the Mode/Select button (in the aforementioned Data Entry panel) three times. Press button 8, which doubles as the CV/Gate Ch. button, and select the correct option — 00 (1V/Oct), 01 (Hz/V) or 02 (S‑trig) — using the +/‑ increment buttons, and voila — you can forget about it.
However, it's worth bearing in mind that the MIDI/CV convertor will only automate the triggering and pitch of the connected vintage monosynth's oscillator(s), such are the constraints of analogue CV/Gate technology. Any additional sound tweaking must therefore be manually done 'on the fly', as in days of old.
Obviously this is not the case with the BassStation Rack, which transmits MIDI Controller information whenever its relevant knobs are twiddled — the MIDI Controller info can be recorded into, and replayed from, a connected MIDI sequencer, effectively automating the entire sound sculpting process.
(NB: refers to the BassStation as a monophonic sound source)
- Range C‑2 to C ‑7
- Waveform Square, Saw, Pulse
- Master Tune +/‑50 cents
- Range C‑3 to C‑10
- Waveform Square, Saw, Pulse
- Semitone Tune +12 semitones
- Detune +/‑50 cents
- Range 16', 8', 4', 2'
OSCILLATORS 1 & 2
- Pulse Width Variable depth and source mod
- Range Variable mix control between Osc 1 & 2
- Cutoff Frequency 5Hz to 10kHz
- Resonance 0 to self‑oscillation (24dB)
- Envelope Variable +/‑ control of LFO Mod Depth
- Cutoff Slope Switchable between 12dB and 24dB
ENVELOPES 1 & 2
- Controls Full ADSR with variable Velocity
- Selectable Autoglide, Single & Multi
- Range Auto, 0 to 5 secs ramp time
- Wide range of usable analogue sounds.
- Built‑in MIDI/CV convertor.
- External input to Filter and Envelope sections.
- Receives extensive MIDI Controller data.
- Transmits MIDI Controller data during editing.
- Potentially confusing Envelope switching controls.
- No octave‑switching facility on Osc 1.
- No independent Pulse Width for Osc 1 and Osc 2.
A true programmable monosynth for the '90s, without the reliability and durability problems that plague the analogue equivalents of yesteryear. As with the BassStation keyboard, tremendous fun and an unqualified bargain, with built‑in MIDI/CV convertor to boot.