Novation seem to be on a roll. Scarcely had the monotimbral A‑Station made the cover of our December 2001 issue, when news broke of a £500 keyboard version. We look at one of the first UK production models.
It's always nice when a dream becomes reality, whether it be video recorders that set their own clocks, a film of Lord Of The Rings that doesn't suck, or Nicole Kidman arriving on your doorstep professing undying love. OK, that last one remains a dream — until I master long-distance hypnosis, anyway. A slightly more attainable dream began when I first saw a Korg Prophecy. How wonderful it would be (I thought) to have a portable, self-contained, performance-oriented synth that was also polyphonic. The idea seems to be catching on at last, with three-octave synthesizers from Access and Waldorf beginning to challenge the five-octave norm that seems to have fixated designers since the Prophet 5. Now Novation have taken the initiative, following up their desirable A‑Station rack synth with a small, cute, keyboard version — the K‑Station.
As the K‑Station is essentially an A‑Station repackaged, I suggest you refer to my review of the latter (see SOS December 2001) for the full story. Actually, the more spacious layout, improved display and additional controls on the K‑Station create a far more intuitive interface than that of its older sibling, so it is this aspect that I'll concentrate on.
The K‑Station's sleek, silver-grey curves, blue trimmings and backlit display define an instrument that is both attractive and curiously strokable. At 52 x 29 x 8cm, and weighing only 1.6 kilos, it is impressively small and light — but don't let its size mislead you. This is no high-tech toy but a serious polyphonic synth that just happens to be optimised for portability or limited space. Its numerous MIDI-transmitting knobs, soft rubber buttons and red LEDs offer a high fun factor, whether for enthusiastic amateurs or studio professionals.
An important part of the fun equation, the two-octave keyboard, has a pretty light action but is quite serviceable. Just don't be misled by the phrase 'touch sensitive' in Novation's adverts. This keyboard transmits velocity but is not equipped with aftertouch — a significant loss of expressive potential. The keyboard's range is extended using two Transpose buttons which shift it upwards by a maximum of five octaves and down by as much as four. The rounded modulation and pitch-bend wheels feel positive, and the whole instrument seems designed to fit comfortably in your lap or on any available desk space.
The rear panel has stereo outputs, a headphone socket, the power switch, three standard MIDI ports, an external audio input and a connector for the 9V power supply. Sadly, there is no pedal input — something that might have compensated (slightly) for the lack of aftertouch. A pedal input could have been used for conventional sustain-type duties or, if assignable, as a means to fake aftertouch or breath control. The K‑Station has dedicated edit menus to determine how it responds to both types of performance data, yet cannot generate either of them itself. Speaking of external control, you can, of course, hook up the K‑Station to be played from a full-size keyboard, if necessary.
I flipped the keyboard over, looking hopefully for a battery compartment, but no luck. It seems a shame that such a handy, compact synth, which simply begs to be carried around, has no battery option. Had it featured one, musicians could have made the most of their K‑Stations on trains, in the park, anywhere.
- Polyphony: Eight-note.
- Keyboard: Two-octave, velocity-sensitive with no aftertouch.
- Sound sources: Three oscillators, ring modulator, noise and an external signal input.
- Envelopes: Modulation (filter, oscillators), Amplifier (level), plus two-stage FM envelope.
- LFOs: Two, with delay and four possible waveforms (sync'able to MIDI Clock).
- Filter: Low-pass 12- or 24dB-per-octave.
- Effects: Seven (delay, reverb, chorus/phaser, distortion, EQ, pan and vocoder).
- Arpeggiator: Six patterns, with adjustable gate time and range.
- Oscillator modes: Unison, Sync and FM.
- Patch memories: 400 (all fully compatible with the A‑Station).
As you can see from the picture at the head of this article, the K‑Station features more physical controls spread out over a greater surface area than the A‑Station, so parameter accessibility is improved throughout. The increased panel space has been put to good use; there's a generous number of knobs and buttons for the three oscillators, low-pass filter, two LFOs, the mixer and ADSR envelopes. There are two of the latter; the mod envelope (four knobs) for sweeping the filter frequency, oscillator pitch or pulse width, and the amplifier envelope, consisting of four sliders.
The A‑Station had switches to determine (for example) which oscillator or LFO was to be tweaked. The K‑Station improves on this slightly, incorporating numerous rubber selection buttons, each with an associated LED for clarity. There is no need for a Shift button, or for the Portamento knob to share duties with data-entry, as on the A‑Station. The effects section, too, is far more approachable thanks to the presence of a dedicated level control and selector buttons, and I was pleased to see that the arpeggiator has its own On/Off button and tempo knob. Arpeggio notes will be transmitted via MIDI, but this will only happen as of the OS upgrade to version 1.08, and it wasn't working on the review model, which featured v1.07.
If I could have made just one change to the control panel, it would have been to make space for a dedicated Oscillator Sync switch (as featured on the A‑Station); as it is, this feature is only accessible on the K‑Station via a menu. That aside, this is a synth that even novices should get to grips with easily, but with sufficient depth to reward even the more experienced — especially in the area of MIDI Clock-sync'able parameters. Usefully, the synth stores the keyboard transposition and all current switch settings (such as the effect selected for edit) with each patch. As on the A‑Station, you can assign the mod wheel to control effects depth, filter cutoff and/or oscillator pitch and modulation.
When you give the Menus button a prod, the rubber keypad (normally used for patch selection) becomes a series of menu entry points. In this mode, the Program Up/Down buttons become page up/down controls within the menu system, and values are edited by the data (Program) knob. Eight of the 10 menu functions are labelled in dark blue (which isn't easy to read against the black background) and consist of detailed parameters for oscillators, filter, LFOs, envelopes, effects, mod/pitch-wheel control, aftertouch and breath control, and arpeggiator settings. The remaining menu options are 'Utilities' and 'Global' which take care of essentials such as patch dump and restore, MIDI and external input setup, and so on. One useful menu option determines whether or not held notes are silenced when the Transpose buttons are used. I found it cool to trigger a low drone, transpose the keyboard upwards so it keeps playing, and then play a solo line over the top — not something you'd normally expect to do on a two-octave keyboard. To silence notes held in this way, you just push the Program button.
Do you ever get grief from your partner for locking yourself away for hours with your precious gear? During my time with the K‑Station, it spent as much time in my front room as it did in the studio. Consequently, I was able to get my synth fix on headphones whilst still passing as 'sociable'! It proved invaluable for trying out ideas and programming sounds, and I discovered that the short keyboard inspires new playing techniques. It soon became second nature to constantly adjust transposition, oscillator mix, timbre and effects as an integral part of a performance. For solos and basses, the keyboard length was adequate, and I learned to adapt and play chords differently. I found these limitations inspired me, but if you are more used to pounding out 10-finger chords on your 88-note weighted controller keyboard, perhaps the K‑Station will leave you rather baffled. If, however, you learned your technique on a two-and-a-half-octave monosynth, this little marvel could be just the ticket.
At any time during a sound-programming session you can press and hold the Compare button to hear the original stored patch and, naturally, the Write button is used to store your creation into any of the 400 memory locations. Patch memories are arranged in banks of 100, the first 200 already programmed at the factory.
It's odd, but somehow, I still find myself surprised that something as small as the K‑Station manages to sound so good; maybe it's because I've been conditioned to think of a polyphonic synth as huge. But with its wide range of analogue-type sounds, the bijoux K‑Station can hold its own alongside far more expensive models. The onboard effects do the business (I found the distortion particularly pleasing), the oscillators are rich and full, the filters are sweet and musical (a recent update has smoothed out the slight quantisation I remarked upon when reviewing the A‑Station) and the envelopes are fast and punchy. Sonically, it's hard to fault.
Few would mourn the passing of the A‑Station's two-character LED, here replaced by a blue backlit LCD, thus making cryptic menu abbreviations unnecessary. You can therefore see the full names of all menu-based parameters along with their values. I never once needed to refer to the manual, and found everything I needed without fuss. Having said this, it is a little frustrating that Novation did not implement patch naming, keeping instead to the number system used by the A‑Station. Thus, the display shows: 'Prog Number 124' and 'Prog Number 266' instead of 'Pad3' and 'Trance7'.
According to Novation, this is because they wanted to maintain full compatibility with A‑Station patches, and also because onboard storage of 400 patch names would just push the K‑Station above its current memory capacity. However, apparently the design bods are looking for a cunning way to squeeze a naming facility into a future upgrade, so I'm crossing my fingers. As parameters are altered, an asterisk appears next to the program number to show a change has been made. Furthermore, if you tweak a control — say filter cutoff — the parameter name and value appear in the display, along with a small graphical representation of the distance between the stored and current values.
This is almost the portable synth I've wanted for years. I say almost, because the lack of aftertouch is a drawback from my point of view, possibly because I use it in performance even more than I use velocity. Depending on your preferences, though, you may take a different view. The two-octave keyboard is small and, in an ideal world, I guess another octave or even a half-octave would have made it more versatile. But, as the lady in the Renault advert says, size matters. The K‑Station's great strength is its portability — if you need something convenient for composing in hotel rooms or for throwing into a bag and taking down to the local pub for a jam, it really takes some beating. I guess this is why I found the omission of battery operation so annoying. This aside, though, there really isn't much to complain about. It would have been nice if the display had facilitated the use of patch names rather than numbers, but even so, the K‑Station is clearly a bargain at just a hundred quid more than its rack counterpart. The user-interface enhancements, plus the cute keyboard and performance controls make it even more desirable than the A‑Station for many applications.
So, despite the two drawbacks I've mentioned, the K‑Station gets my vote. As a self-contained gigging synth capable of a wide range of pads, organs, basses, leads, and arpeggios, there isn't currently anything that comes close in this price range.