The monotimbral K‑Station offered keyboard players an affordable Novation — but now, for a bit more money, the company have released the KS4 and KS5, which add plenty of new features, better keyboards and multitimbrality. The perfect marriage at the perfect price? We find out.
Having successfully transplanted their A‑Station module into a cute two-octave keyboard (the K‑Station), Novation have decided to take the recycling concept further. Both of the Stations stripped away the multi-functionality of the flagship Supernova, delivering their lush sound courtesy of a much less complex interface. Priced within the 'stocking-filler' category, these little wonders deservedly raised a few eyebrows, sounding far bigger than they looked.
With the new KS4 and KS5, Novation are serving up everything that made the A- and K‑Stations so desirable, and more besides. The two new synths differ only in the length of their keyboards (four and five octaves respectively), so although I received both a KS4 and KS5 for review, I turned my attention to the KS4 after a cursory bang on each keyboard, and it's to the 49-note version that I'll refer to throughout this review. Everything I have to say applies to both — it's just that the shorter keyboard found a niche on the last remaining shelf in my studio, where the larger one wouldn't quite fit!
As these new KS models owe much of their lineage to the synths that preceded them, I heartily recommend getting up to speed by perusing the A‑Station and K‑Station reviews (see SOS December 2001 and April 2002). Assuming you are familiar with these, let's get down to business...
As I sat down in front of the KS4, much was already familiar from my (near-daily) use of the K‑Station. A few things have moved around, some apparently arbitrarily, and a little multi-functionality has crept onto buttons too. I'll cover the most significant layout differences as I come to them, but even if you've never used a K‑Station, chances are you'll find your way around the KS-series with no trouble at all.
Internally, polyphony has been boosted to a respectable 16 notes and the new multitimbral mode enables up to four parts to be played at once. As this is a Novation synth, each part retains its full complement of effects and, better still, each part is sourced from a discrete memory location, quite separate to the main programs. The oscillators and LFOs have received additional waveforms, the mixer section has been extended to include level modulation, and the filter has band- and high-pass modes as well as the original low-pass. There's more too: drum maps have been added, patch Categories implemented, and all clock-sync'ed options have been gathered together in the same menu, alongside the mysterious 'Hypersync', of which more later.
The physical changes are obvious. The new, longer keyboards feel more substantial but, more significantly, they also sport aftertouch. To enhance multitimbral operation, two additional audio outputs have been provided, along with two pedal inputs, and the audio input is still there. Power is now courtesy of an internal supply and — possibly my favourite improvement of all — the display is larger at 2 x 20 characters, and you can actually name your patches. Hooray! The larger display also does away with the K‑Station's 'little square' — a graphic whose shape changed during editing according to how far away you were from the stored parameter. Now, the old value is shown underneath the new one as you tweak, so you have a real-time comparison between them.
In short, it seems that almost every reservation I had in my original K‑Station review has been addressed — and there weren't many of those because, as you may have already gathered, I bought one myself!
It's time to take a more detailed look at the new features. The oscillators are a good place to start; all three of them now boast 24 extra digital waveforms, taking the KS4 far beyond the traditional 'analogue' sawtooth, square and so on that were the mainstay of the K‑Station (incidentally, I'll refer to the K‑Station in my comparisons throughout, but they apply equally to the A‑Station's synthesis engine). The KS's new digital waveforms consist of: organ, four electric pianos, harpsichord and clavinet, plus analogue and slap basses, and no less than 15 single-shot percussion samples. Add four additional flavours of noise (essentially noise with different frequency components) and you have a synth that is more 'all-purpose' than before — at least for keyboard, bass and percussion use.
It's great to have more oscillator waves, but they do come with a penalty — namely that they are now selected by a knob rather than the button of the K‑Station. So it's more fiddly to reach precisely the waveform you want — especially if you mostly want the analogue waves. A continuous, notched encoder such as the one used for data entry would have been preferable.
Some new, improved factory sounds have been created to exploit the additional waveforms; in particular, there are several delightfully playable electric pianos. The organs are good too, but lack any form of Leslie effect to lift them into a different class.
Other minor changes to the oscillators (to be found within the Oscillator menu) include a means to modulate the amount of FM between Oscillators 2 and 3 using LFO 1. If necessary, the oscillators may be set to a fixed pitch, which is useful when programming percussion. There's one more addition here, but I'll hold off mentioning it until I'm talking about Drum maps.
When the extra waveforms were being handed out, it's nice to see that the LFOs weren't excluded. As with the oscillators, selection is now with a knob, but the 27 new waveforms will certainly see some use, especially when you take into account the other major enhancement: a 'one-shot' mode that allows an LFO to function like a simple envelope.
If your use of LFO modulation tends to revolve around slow filter sweeps, vibrato and pulse-width modulation, any waveform other than a sine may seem superfluous. However, the extra shapes can be enlisted to perform a wide range of roles, from spicing up arpeggios to dynamically fading oscillators in or out. You can select the initial phase of an LFO from within the menu, something you'll need when using it in one-shot mode. Also within the menu, several other options increase LFO versatility still further. You can vary either LFO's output level using velocity and also determine whether it performs in bipolar or unipolar mode. If you've never come across these terms before, a bipolar LFO wave is the type most of us are familiar with, which modulates a value such that it increases and decreases from its original position, whereas unipolar modulation merely changes the value in one direction.
To briefly review the new waves on offer, Quantised Sample and Hold is perhaps the most 'normal'. It is similar to traditional S&H (which the synth has too) but, randomly, this LFO wave outputs the maximum or minimum level possible and therefore performs more like an irregular square wave. Many of the other waves are designed as preset envelope shapes and so work well in one-shot mode. Thus, a series of shapes with characteristic attack, decay and sustain phases and three piano-type envelopes are included. There are also three ascending stepped waves: chromatic, 'maj modes' and 'major 7'. When modulating oscillator pitch, these shapes introduce discernable note intervals, and, since modulation amount may be negative, you can step downwards in pitch too. Finally, nine pattern shapes are just perfect for unusual rhythmic effects not typically associated with an LFO.
There's just space to mention that LFO delay can be sync'ed to MIDI Clock — something not possible on the K‑Station. This is another tool ideal for adding timbral variations during arpeggio playback, perhaps delaying the introduction of an LFO effect such as a cutoff frequency sweep.
The updated mixer section has taken a tentative step towards multi-functionality. On the K‑Station, the mixer did exactly what it said on the tin: it set the levels of all the sound sources (ie. three oscillators, noise, ring modulation and the external signal from the audio input). Now, with one push of the new Modulation button, every knob takes on an alternate role; that of setting modulation amount. So Oscillator 1's level is controlled by LFO 1, Oscillator 2 by LFO 2 and Oscillator 3 is controlled by the two-stage AD (attack/decay) envelope. Just as on the A- and K‑Station (where it was referred to as the FM envelope), the AD envelope is concealed within the Envelope menu. As the menu offers velocity control of this envelope into the bargain, you can produce some quite touch-responsive patches, varying the levels of different waveforms with it. Indeed, some of the aforementioned factory electric pianos use this technique to great effect. To round things off, ring modulation, noise and external signal amounts are also controllable via LFO 1 within this section. Level modulation, in conjunction with the LFO's one-shot mode, offers far more evolving and dynamic possibilities than were ever available on the K‑Station. I found it especially good for adding a little noise 'chiff' at the onset of a note for woodwind-like patches.
The Mixer section also has its own menu (one the K‑Station didn't have) where just two options reside. One is a selector for the noise type (white, high-pass, band-pass and high-/band-pass) and the other allows Oscillator 1's output level to be controlled by LFO 2. I mention these fairly unimportant features not only for completeness, but also as another illustration of how the menu system has expanded compared to the less powerful, simpler K‑Station.
The KS4, KS5 and Rack can import patches created on the K- and A‑Stations. Most patches will sound the same with just one main difference you should be aware of: the sawtooth wave on the KS-series' LFOs is inverted compared to the earlier models. In practice, this doesn't make any difference when programming (modulation amounts can be positive or negative), but I was surprised that the import of patches didn't compensate for it; you have to adjust any programs using this waveform yourself.
The only other audible differences I spotted were caused by the variations in the Program Boost parameter. As on most digital instruments, distortion is something that can easily creep in if you crank up all the oscillator levels and then play chords (this even happens in some of the factory patches). On the K‑Station, boost may be positive or negative but the KS-series only permit positive boost. So if you import patches and they distort, you must reduce the levels of individual oscillators. Novation claim that the next OS upgrade should address this shortcoming.
NOTE: a v2.0 OS was announced by Novation as this review was going to press, but could not be tested before publication.
The arpeggiators include all the modes of the K‑Station, but have been enhanced courtesy of 32 preset rhythm patterns that can be applied to the familiar up, down, up/down, and random directions (plus others). Back in display menu territory again, an option lets you choose whether to apply preset velocities stored within the patterns or not (naturally, the patch needs to be programmed to respond to velocity in the first place for this to make sense). These patterns are fun but fixed, and they can become annoyingly distinctive after you've used them a few times. If you break them up with sync'ed LFOs and delay effects, they'll give you more mileage.
I'm grateful that an arpeggio Latch button has appeared on the front panel. It's a simple extra, maybe, but something all arpeggiators should have.
One useful function that has not (yet) made it to the KS4 is 'octave kill'. On the K‑Station, you can set this to 'Off' so that when you hit the transpose buttons, arpeggios that are playing, or notes that are sounding, are not cut off. If you transpose the KS4 by an octave, notes and arpeggios are silenced — something you'd rarely want, in my experience! Mind you, the longer keyboards will probably mean you need the transpose buttons far less.
The K‑Station filter was a low-pass 12 or 24dB-per-octave affair. The KS4 boasts high-pass and band-pass modes too, making the whole filter section feel far more complete. For some reason, the K‑Station's filter key-tracking has been shunted into the LCD-based Filter menu, its place given up to the Overdrive knob — presumably because it is more in demand. However, there's room for both on the panel, and I would have liked both as physical controls. Also within the display menu is a setting for velocity control of cutoff frequency — something I never missed in my K‑Station until now!
Several people have asked me whether the filters on the new Novations sound better than the older ones, meaning the ones on the Nova and Supernova. Having used both a K‑Station and a Nova for some time now, I wouldn't go quite as far as 'better' but they are clearly different. Novation's newer, so-called 'liquid-analogue' filters do have a greater clarity to my ears, seeming somehow brighter and capable of imparting more 'presence' than the earlier generation.
The K‑Station was a powerful eight-note polyphonic synth, but it was also monotimbral, so if you wanted to play a monophonic bassline on it, there was no way to capitalise on those seven unused voices. After blessing the KS4 with 16 notes of polyphony, Novation also decided to give the synth a Performance mode — ie. four-part multitimbrality. In this mode, each part keeps its own complete set of effects — including reverb and delay. The KS4's effects are the same as those in the K‑Station, so by layering just two parts, you have the equivalent of twin K‑Stations, but with the added bonus of a longer, aftertouch-sensitive keyboard.
In a departure from most multitimbral implementations, Novation have decided that Performances should point not to programs in the synth's 'normal' program memory, but to a completely separate pool of patches — discrete copies of the originals. This excellent idea means that if you make changes to any individual program in Program mode, your Performances will be unaffected.
There are 100 available Performances, 50 of them pre-filled at the factory. They include various layered pads, organs, strings and electric-piano combinations, plus keyboard splits such as bass and lead. There's some very tasteful stuff here — possibly the strongest evidence so far that the KS4 has 'moved on' beyond the capabilities of the K‑Station.
You select patches for use in Performance mode from within the Program banks. Then, as soon as a Program is chosen, it is copied for you — and from that moment, the synth handles its storage as a part of the Performance. Should you tweak a patch from within a Performance and then wish to make it available to others, you need to Export it; you achieve this by pushing the Write button as if you were going to save the entire Performance. However, instead of confirming the write, you then push the right Select key, and choose any ordinary Program slot to complete the operation.
To accompany the KS4 and KS5, a KS-Rack module should be available by the time you read this. It has the same functionality as the keyboards, with just a few changes, including an audition mode, sliders for both main envelopes and an oscillator solo button (as seen on the Nova/Supernova).
Within a Performance, each Part has its own key range, transposition, detune and MIDI channel, and may be directed to the normal stereo outputs or the second pair of outputs. For increased flexibility, each of the outputs may be addressed individually — so with four parts and four outputs to play with, you can see how this would work. Actually, you can set key ranges and output settings for individual Programs too, because Program mode is treated like a Performance in which you can only select the first Part.
Arpeggios become much more interesting in Performance mode, as you can have up to four of them running at once, all playing different patterns or at different divisions of MIDI Clock. Enlivened further with sync'ed LFOs and effects, arpeggios can easily become as complex as most of us can comfortably handle.
You activate each part using a dedicated button (see below) and you can hold down up to four of them at once. Beware that if you do, you'll discover that layering four polyphonic parts easily consumes those 16 notes, reducing them to just four. To edit each part in turn (though only one at once), you simply push that part's dedicated Edit button. When playing live, you might create a Performance of up to four related patches, selecting each one in turn as you play.
In Performance mode, the foot controller may be defined as a different MIDI control change number for each Part; so you can, for example, boost the resonance in one patch whilst simultaneously cranking up the distortion in another. The only disadvantage with the handling of the external pedal is that its travel is always mapped to the entire MIDI range of 0-127, making it very hard to boost (say) the resonance only slightly. The second pedal input, the footswitch, has two possible modes: sustain and arpeggio latch.
It's a shame that there is currently no implementation of the 'pass-through' mode seen on the Nova and Supernova. This is ideal to prevent those sudden parameter leaps that occur when adjusting different patches within a Performance. However, it does give me at least one genuine shortcoming to moan about, however small it is! As is often the way, though, writing this has prompted me to think of another: if you accidentally hit the Program button at any time, all your edits to the current patch are instantly, irrevocably lost. On the K‑Station, you can prod the Program button as many times as you like, but you only lose your edits if you change patches. The K‑Station's approach is far, far better.
One of the innovations featured on both of the new instruments is Hypersync — such a fiendishly simple concept, you wonder why nobody has implemented it before. Hypersync gathers together all tempo-related parameters and allows you to store them as presets. There are eight factory Hyperpresets which you can overwrite, plus eight blank user locations. The parameters included are the speed and delay settings for both LFOs, delay time, panning, chorus rate and EQ 'sweep' cycle. Working with Hypersync really takes the pain out of trying different sync'ed combinations, and lets you enforce your own favourite tempo-aware settings onto the four parts of a Performance — and all at super-duper speed. The only thing lacking is a Performance Hyperpreset, so you can store the sync parameters of all four parts in one go — but I'm just getting greedy now.
To call up a Hyperpreset at any time, simply turn the knob of the same name. This will impose your pre-organised sync parameters onto the patch. You can then resave the Program with these modifications or, to restore it to its former state, you push the Prog button to reload it from memory. Alternatively, turn the Hyperpreset knob fully anti-clockwise and it is deactivated, its LED goes out, and all parameters are restored to the values stored in each Program.
Drum maps are another inclusion likely to widen the KS4's appeal. Far from being a gimmick, these are instantly revealed as a great source of electronic percussion sounds. There are two factory kits already created for you and two blank user kits. Each kit has 49 notes (even if you purchase the KS5 with its 61-note keyboard) and all drums in a kit share the same effects settings and output mapping. As each drum may be overwritten, this amounts to 196 separate percussion voices.
The drum kits are pre-mapped, their individual voices referring to the first 49 patch locations of banks 500, 600, 700 and 800 respectively (normal patch locations are banks 100-400 inclusive). The method of drum-kit selection seems a little unusual at first, because each of the patches plays the entire kit, so successive Programs in a bank sound exactly the same. However, to edit a specific voice, you need to select the patch that corresponds to it. Fortunately, if you push the Drum Edit button at the same time as you play a particular drum voice, the Program corresponding to that voice is automatically selected. When you save an edited drum, it is stored in a memory location that corresponds to the correct note of the drum map. This can't be changed, but as the synth handles all the mapping details for you, it isn't something to be concerned about.
The 15 oscillator waveforms dedicated to drums consist of three kicks, three snares and an assortment of other percussion. Ironically, it was synthetic drums that I enjoyed creating the most, ignoring the 'real' waves and, instead, drafting in the various noise sources, filter and even bringing oscillator FM into play. Programming zappy Kraftwerk-snares and New Order kicks was a doddle and far more fun than I expected.
Remember there was a new oscillator mode I didn't explain earlier? I can now reveal this to be 'Drum Mode Time' — and it doesn't appear in the manual. Nevertheless, its use quickly becomes obvious: it prevents the oscillators from looping. As oscillator waves are designed to be continuous, the stored drum samples are also looped, and with this parameter, you can ensure that each waveform only plays for as long as you want it to.
Some reviews are hard to write and require more than their fair share of sweat and tears. Others are much easier: either because the product concerned just feels 'right' or because it simply has so many features for the price that you know you're in bargain territory. The KS4 certainly feels right to me. The various improvements over the K‑Station are delivered without seriously compromising one of the simplest user interfaces around, although inevitably, you'll be drawn into more display-bound menu-hopping with a KS4 than you would with a K‑Station.
I admit I struggled when it came to compiling a list of faults. The most significant missing feature is a knob 'pass-through' mode, and this omission does hamper some of the smooth performance tricks you might otherwise enjoy. Personally, I preferred the K‑Station's button-driven method of selecting waveforms, but I'm sure many people will count this as a small price to pay for the inclusion of those new digital waves. Of the other additions, the drum maps, Hypersync and Performance implementation all play their part in making this one of the best-equipped virtual-analogue synths, regardless of price. The filter is up there with the best modelled filters I've heard (that of the Access Virus comes to mind) adding an extra glossy finish that I find very appealing and remarkably 'analogue'.
I'll end by going out on a limb and saying that we have reached an important stage for analogue modelling. It's harder and harder to justify remaining fixated on ageing, error-prone analogue polysynths. To my mind, this is because the new generation of DSP-based instruments have closed the gap at last. Whatever may come next, I have no reservations in recommending both the KS4 and KS5 as excellent-sounding, well-priced and easy to use. Buy one, make music — what else is there?