Novation's latest synth is a more affordable 'laptop' version of their powerful Supernova, which capitalises on its user‑friendly front panel while adding the ability to process external audio signals. Simon Trask discovers new life in the synth universe...
It's a little over a year since Novation's analogue‑modelled Supernova burst onto the scene, and the popularity of digitally‑recreated analogue synthesis and analogue‑style accessible front panels shows no signs of abating. Although a later arrival at the modelled synthesis party, Novation can rightly claim to have been in at the beginning of the modern‑day analogue revival. With the BassStation, their first synth back in 1994, they were influential in the return to controller‑rich front panels and analogue synthesis in modern‑day synth design. In its own cheap‑and‑cheerful way the BassStation also played an early part in the synth style revival, which has brought us to a stage where, thankfully, it's more important for a synth to look uniquely stylish and stylishly unique than to be boringly anonymous and anonymously boring.
Rather than compete against the synth industry giants, Novation with the BassStation, BassStation Rack and Super BassStation — inexpensive analogue bass monosynths all — found a niche for themselves. But ultimately, the company needed to go digital while still playing to their strengths of analogue sound and accessibility. The future belongs to digitally modelled, or virtual, analogue as opposed to 'real' analogue, which is always going to be constrained in terms of affordability, flexibility and reliability. In an early sign of greater ambitions, 1996's DrumStation marked Novation's first foray into digital sound modelling. But it was last year's introduction of the Supernova that really marked the company's move beyond nichedom into a much wider competitive field. Novation took their time getting itright, but their obsessive attention to detail and excellence produced one of the finest synthesizers currently on the market. So where do you go after igniting a Supernova? One option for Novation was to come out with a keyboard version, which inevitably would have been more expensive. But while this is still planned, the company have sensibly opted to produce a less expensive desktop version first. At the same time, however, they've also added two features not available on the Supernova: two audio inputs with 20‑bit A‑D converters, and a built‑in 40‑band vocoder. N ovation have named their self‑styled 'laptop' model the Nova, but is it any less Super than its progenitor?
The first thing that struck me about the Nova was that it was more compact than I had expected; the second, that it was quite heavy for its size. However, at 4kg it's still fairly portable, and it does actually sit quite comfortably on your lap, so you can sit back and edit sounds to your heart's content from its front panel. The Nova's compact dimensions mean that you can always keep it near you in your working situation, whether on a desktop next to your computer or on the front panel of a controller keyboard. And its curvaceous casing and generous provision of knobs and buttons give it a seductively tactile appearance that makes it something you want to keep close by, rather than just stick away in a rack (though, perhaps surprisingly, it can also be racked up, as a 6U‑high unit).
While its rounded edges and tapered side panels are a (welcome) change from the purely functional rack ears of the Supernova, the Nova's overall 'look and feel' will be very familiar to Supernova users. There's the same deep blue fluorescent LCD and metallic blue casing (though now with a black strip running across the upper section of the front panel), the same smooth‑running and smoothly contoured knobs and buttons, the same clear white labelling, and the same generous provision of red pinpoint LEDs indicating button on/off and selection status. If anything, the Nova's 'laptop' design makes for a more natural and effective presentation of Novation's controller‑rich front panel than does the Supernova. You can even use the Nova to edit sounds remotely on the Supernova via MIDI, as the two models are compatible (both run the new v3 system software) and support extensive parameter editing over MIDI (only the Restore From ROM parameter isn't MIDIfied).
To accommodate the front‑panel controller layout to the more compact dimensions of the Nova, Novation have essentially situated the Arpeggiator, Part Edit and Effects sections underneath, rather than to each side of the central Arpeggiator, Filter, LFO and Envelope sections, reducing the width but increasing the height of the new unit. However, there have been a few omissions: gone are the Supernova's numeric keypad and second set of envelope ADSR knobs, while the five knobs in the Supernova's effects section have been replaced by a single knob for all the effects (so you can't make simultaneous effect level changes). Also, the power on/off switch and headphones socket have been moved to the rear panel (which, admittedly, is much more accessible on the Nova than on the Supernova). However, the Arpeggiator section actually gains a button, Mute, which you can use to drop in and out any selected arpeggiated Part in the Nova's six‑part multitimbral Performance mode (or arpeggiated Program in Program mode, though this seems less useful). This has a slightly different function to the Mute button in the Part Edit section, as it only mutes the Part if its arpeggiator is on. Finally, the Effects section also gains a new button for selecting the vocoder.
While the Nova has the same synthesis and effects capabilities as the Supernova and features the added attractions of the vocoder and audio inputs, it does make a number of compromises in order to keep the price down (after all, it is £350 cheaper than the 20‑voice Supernova). You can find a run‑down of the key differences in the 'Quick Comparison' box on page 216.
At heart the Super/Nova is a digitally modelled analogue synthesizer, using Novation's custom Analogue Sound Modelling (ASM) technology. As such, it adopts the waveform‑based subtractive synthesis model, though it employs a nicely versatile version of that underlying model. Thus you get the familiar Oscillator, Filter and Amplifier sections plus two LFOs, three ADSR envelopes, and sophisticated matrix modulation capabilities, with each of the two LFOs and two of the three envelopes (not the amplitude envelope) plus the mod wheel able to act as modulators for parameters in the oscillator and filter sections (cutoff and resonance individually, in the latter). The oscillator section has three main oscillators and a pink‑noise generator, and includes two ring modulators, pairing oscillators 1 + 3 and 2 + 3 respectively. Thanks to the wonders of synthesis modelling, each of the three main oscillators also has its own 'virtual' oscillator, so each can have its own (modulatable) sync effect, which means that you don't have to tie up two of the main oscillators to create a single sync effect. Novation also added other non‑traditional capabilities such as formant width and soften.
Each of the main oscillators can output sawtooth or square waveforms (with a dynamically controllable pulse‑width modulation option for the latter) or the signal from one of the two audio inputs. The filter section provides low‑, band‑ and high‑pass filters, with a choice of 12dB, 18dB and 24dB rolloffs. Filter cutoff point and resonance amount can be adjusted, and there's also an overdrive parameter which can create a fuller, warmer sound by generating a saturation effect. The two LFOs provide a choice of square, saw, triangle and sample‑and‑hold waveforms, and can operate at audio frequency rates, allowing the creation of non‑traditional LFO and FM effects. In addition, either one or both LFOs can be sync'ed to internal or MIDI clock and assigned different note durations for (cross‑) rhythmic effects. The internal setting automatically syncs the LFO(s) to the arpeggiator speed, providing more interesting possibilities.
The Nova's built‑in arpeggiator(s) can also be sync'ed to internal or MIDI clock. In Performance mode, each Part (which is assigned a single Program) has its own arpeggiator, allowing you to mix and match a variety of monophonic and polyphonic arpeggios, either presets or ones you program yourself from the front panel or via MIDI. You can turn the arpeggiator and latching on or off for each Part — so, for instance, you could have three latched Parts playing kick, snare and hi‑hat parts (the Nova is good at creating traditional analogue‑style drum and percussion sounds), a fourth playing a latched bass line, and a fifth a latched chordal accompaiment, leaving the sixth free for live playing. Alternatively, you can forget the arpeggiator and use the Nova as a six‑part MIDI sound module for playing back externally sequenced parts.
The Nova has two fewer Performance Parts than the Supernova, but otherwise has the same capabilities, which means that, like its big brother, it provides up to seven effects per Part, all of which are editable: stereo delay, stereo reverb, stereo chorus/flanger/phaser, distortion, comb filter, EQ and panner. None of the compromises that normally afflict multitimbral instruments when it comes to assigning effects are tolerated here!
The operating system for both models can be readily upgraded via MIDI transfer into flash ROM (updates are downloadable free from Novation's web site), and so far the company have a fairly good track record in adding new features. As well as upping the polypho ny of the Supernova (from 16 to 20 and 32 to 44 voices), on both the Supernova and the Nova they've added 15 additional reverb types to the original one, and 18 additional configurations of the reverb, delay and chorus/flanger/phaser effects to the original single configuration. Also added is the unusual Config Morph feature, which morphs the 'normal' effects routing configuration and one of the other configurations into a third, 'in‑between' configuration. The additional reverbs (see box for listing of reverb types) bring improved reverb quality as well as greater versatility to the Super/Nova, and allow you to make the most of being able to have different reverbs on each Part.
Novation have also significantly enhanced the usability of Part muting in Performance mode, by allowing multiple Parts to be muted and unmuted at the same time (originally on the Supernova you could only mute or unmute one part at a time). So for instance you can drop kick and snare drum parts in and out together, or drop down to just the kick drum from a full six‑part Performance. Novation have also used OS upgrading to rectify another criticism of the original Supernova, namely that you couldn't copy Program effect settings to Performance Parts. Not only can you now do this, but you do it on an indvidual effect section basis, so you can be fairly selective about which effects you copy. However, the company have yet to come up with the extra digital waveforms and additional filter types that were promised when the Supernova was first launched. The Nova manual does acknowledge plans for these capabilities, but merely says they will be available in "future software upgrades" (hopefully, that means version 4).
The Nova's ability to process external audio signals gives it a definite sonic edge over its more expensive relative. Novation have gone to town on the implementation, not only adding the aforementioned 40‑band vocoder but also providing flexible routing of the external signals within the Nova. As mentioned earlier, instead of the conventional square or sawtooth waveforms, each of the three main oscillators can be assigned Audio In 1 or 2 — which in this context are described by Novation as Special Waveforms. In a sense, it's like triggering an onboard sample; you could, of course, actually trigger a sampler and the Nova at the same time via MIDI, and have the sampler output routed into the Nova. Assigning audio inputs as oscillator 'waveforms' allows you to apply the full gamut of the Nova's synthesis capabilities to the input signal(s). As any Program in Performance mode could be using the audio inputs in this way, you can treat the same input signal in different ways simultaneously — perhaps routing it through low‑pass, band‑pass and high‑pass filters together.
The Nova's Effects section contains a parameter called Pass To Effects, which can be set to Program Only, Audio Input (1) Only, Program & Input (1), Audio Input (2) Only, or Program & Input (2). If you choose Program Only the input signal(s) will only be heard if they're assigned to one or more of the currently‑selected Program's oscillators (and will therefore be heard in their 'synthed‑up' form). If you choose Audio Input (1) Only, on the other hand, then the audio signal at input 1 will be routed directly to the effects, and the Program won't be heard. Alternatively, you can effect both the direct input signal and the Program. Bear in mind that each Part in Performance mode can have its own routing choice, and of course its own effects. Another option is to set the Dry Level parameter in the Pan section to zero, so that you only hear the effected portion of, say, the Input 1 signal.
Last, but by no means least, there's the 40‑band vocoder, which in Program mode treats the internal signal (Program) as the carrier and the external signal as the modulator — meaning that the frequency spectrum of the external signal is transferred onto the Program. Using the Effect knob, you can actually adjust the vocoder balance all the way from unvocoded Program signal only (at the leftmost position) through vocoded signal only at the midpoint to unvocoded input signal at the rightmost position. Unlike the other effects, there's only one vocoder, so you can't have different vocoded effects in Performance mode. However, you can select any one of the six Parts — and therefore any one of the six available Programs — as the carrier. Not only that, but instead of audio input 1 or 2 you can select any one of the six Parts/Programs as the modulator; this turns out to be a very worthwhile addition to the Nova's arsenal of sonic effects (including the ability to vocode a Program with itself!). A good Performance to try it out with is A001 Master Blaster!, with latched arpeggios enabled on all the Parts.
Other vocoder parameters are width (0‑15 — mono to stereo), sibilance level (0‑15), and sibilance type (high‑pass filter or noise). A sibilance level of 0 removes all sibilance from the modulator signal; while the high‑pass filter is used to remove sibilance from the signal, the noise option actually puts sibilance into it. Finally, there's also a Vocoder Spectrum LCD page which shows a 40‑band audio spectrum of the modulator signal. The rear panel has a four‑position input sensitivity switch, so you can stick a variety of sources into the audio inputs — microphone, guitar, synth, sampler, effect sends from a mixing desk, amplifier outputs, and so on. In fact, it's a pity that each input doesn't have its own sensitivity selector, so that you could combine 'differently levelled' iputs (such as an input from an amp/CD at Input 1 and a mic/vocal input at Input 2). The latter input, incidentally, can alternatively be used for a sustain pedal or an expression pedal (mapped to MIDI breath controller).
The Nova is an inspired addition to Novation's product range. Its compact laptop/desktop format capitalises on an already accessible front panel, while its synthesis and effects capabilities not only haven't been compromised, but have actually been significantly enhanced by the addition of the two audio inputs and built‑in vocoder. These additions, together with the flexible audio signal routing within the unit, which allows the input signal(s) to be synthesized and/or effected and/or vocoded, give the Nova an extra edge of desirability — particularly if you're into creative manipulation of sound. At the same time, just the Nova's internal sounds and its synthesis and multi‑effects capabilities make this a very desirable module. The company's version of virtual analogue synthesis, Analogue Sou nd Modelling, has a lovely warm, mellow, rounded quality to it, but is also capable of providing a hard edge and deep, thumping bass — in short, a full gamut of sounds, running from delicate and ethereal to grungy and in‑yer‑face.
The Nova is an inspired addition to Novation's product range. Its compact laptop/desktop format capitalises on an already accessible front panel, while its synthesis... have actually been significantly enhanced...
Of course there are cost‑conscious compromises on the new model, with the Nova having two fewer multitimbral parts and audio outputs, half the Program and Performance memories, and eight fewer voices than the unexpanded Supernova, along with a modest reduction in the front‑panel knob count compared to its more expensive relative. To my mind most of these are acceptable, given the Nova's reduced cost and increased sonic flexibility. The one which is most likely to become a stumbling block is the polyphony, and you might want to think about whether 12 voices will be enough for the way(s) you would want to use the unit — if, for instance, you'll want to play dense chord structures and layered sounds, or have multiple latched arpeggiators playing synthesized drum and percussion sounds along with basses and pads. Unlike the Supernova, the Nova has no expansion option, so 12 voices and six parts will be your lot.
Cold mathematics says that shelling out an extra £350 to get the Supernova will buy you an additional eight voices and two parts, plus the option to further increase the polyphony by 24 voices for another £349. If you already own and make heavy use of an unexpanded Supernova, on the other hand, you could pay a further £349 to gain an additional 24 voices, 512 Programs and 256 Performances — or you could spend £849 on a Nova, and gain 12 more voices but also an additional six parts, 47 effects, six arpeggiators, 256 Programs and 128 Performances, plus the ability to synthesise, effect and vocode external as well as internal sounds. This ability to feed in external audio and manipulate it within the Nova's synthesis and effects environments makes it potentially a great tool for DJs and for live electronic musicians working with a singer or rapper. And, while not discounting the appeal of its compact casing and accessible front panel (or the sub‑£1000 price tag!), it's this ability which ultimately gives the Nova its own identity and its own desirability compared to the Supernova.
- Gated reverse.
- Gated rising.
- Gated gentle.
- Gated falling.
- Dry Chamber.
- Echo Chamber.
- Small room.
- Big Room.
- Medium type 1 (the original reverb).
- Medium type 2.
- Medium Plate 1.
- Medium Plate 2.
- Large type 1.
- Large type 2.
- Large Plate 1.
- Large Plate 2.
Rather than take the easy route of simply transferring over some existing Program and Performance Banks from the Supernova, Novation's Phill Macdonald has programmed new banks for the Nova. Here's some examples of Programs and Performances in the unit.
- A007: FM EP — lovely mellow chorused electric piano sound also with a tinkling FM edge and bite.
- A010: Velo 303 Dist — classic vicious 303‑style acidic growlings with typical relentless acid/techno riff courtesy of the arpeggiator.
- A015: Square Basics — crisp but mellow classic squarewave sound (Mr. Fingers 'Can You Feel It', anyone?); shows off the Nova's rich, deep bass end well.
- A031: Anafuzzy Logik — massive synth riffing sound, using heavy but warm distortion.
- A044: No Moralies — punchy, elastic but well‑rounded synth bass sound with a nod to master Dave.
- A057: Eleventh Hourpad — a delicious muted brassy pad sound with a bright, fizzy edge when played hard.
- A110: Novebella — charming sparkling bell sound with a mysterious, ethereal quality.
- B021: PolySikz Strings — rich, silky strings pad with a slight brassy edge.
- B020: Flaterhead — that damn puppet gets everywhere! Good recreation of the Flat Eric sound.
- B028: 909 Snare 2 — good example of the Nova's ability to generate electronic drum and percussion sounds.
- B061: Xfade HPF — eerie distant cosmic burblings.
- B063: Pocket Stylophone — the Nova can do cheesy if you want it!
- B079: Liquinova — FX lives! The sound of water flowing down a drainpipe.
- A000: Blaster Master! — hold any low note for instant driving house beat and bass: good example of the Nova's multi‑arpeggiator sequencing capability.
- A008: Cool Pad — ethereal, heavenly pad sound.
- A030: Conetik — funky, acidic, trance‑y, more driving multi‑arpeggiator dance sequencing.
- A033: Kit 1 — six electronic drum and percussion sounds spread across the keyboard (mind you, that's the whole Nova taken up with a single drum kit!).
- A035: String + Pluck Lead — smooth if light string pad in the left hand, echoing guitar‑ish lead sound in the right.
- A042: Trance Nation — the name says it all. More heavy dance sequencing: a neat feature of the Nova's approach is the way you can drop out parts or collections of parts simply by lifting your finger off the keyboard.
- A043: Morphwave — etheral pad sound, a good example of Wavestation‑ish 'inner movement' on held notes.
- A092: Lead & Pad — plangent strings pad in left hand, fizzy, echoing lead in the right.
- A115: Atmospherics — enchanting gently undulating pad sound with a sparkling, airy quality.
The most apparent difference betweent the two units lies, of course, in their relative dimensions. However, it's worth noting that, like its 3U 19‑inch rackmount cousin, the Nova lap/table/desktop unit can actually be rackmounted, in this instance as a 6U unit (think of it as being up‑ended, with room spare at the top for cables plugged into the 'back' panel); Novation supply the necessary rackmounting kit with the unit. The following chart provides a quick overview of the other key differences between the Nova and Supernova:
20 or 44 voices
8 audio outs
512 Programs (20‑voice)/1024 Programs (44‑voice)
256 Performances (20‑voice)/512 Performances (44‑voice)
2 sets of knobs (1 for amp envelope, 1 for envelopes 2 and 3)
1 knob for each effect
As well as having two fewer audio outputs, the Nova puts outputs 5 and 6 on a single mini‑jack socket, which means you'll need a breakout cable to use them as separate outs. What's more, this socket doubles as a headphone output, whereas the Supernova has a dedicated quarter‑inch jack output for headphones on its front panel. However, it's worth noting that the outs use the same 128x oversampling delta‑sigma D‑As as those of the Supernova — symptomatic of a desire on Novation's part to not compromise the sonic quality of the new model. The Nova also loses nothing in terms of synthesis and effects functionality compared to its more expensive cousin, and even gains sonic flexibility with its built‑in vocoder and two audio inputs.
- Novation Supernova (SOS review August '98), £1199. See comparisons in main text and 'Nova Vs Supernova' box.
- Access Virus (May '98), £899. Sixteen‑part multitimbral. Original version offered 12‑note polyphony; soon‑to‑be released new version offers 16‑note polyphony. Includes vocoder and similar synth features to the Nova, along with (less sophisticated) effects and arpeggiator.
- Clavia Nord Rack 2 (Nord Lead 2 reviewed September '97), £899. Four‑part multitimbral, 16‑note polyphonic two‑oscillator virtual analogue synth with separate 'analogue' percussion section, but no effects or audio input/vocoder.
- Quasimidi Polymorph (January '99), £599. Four‑part multitimbral, 8‑ or 16‑note polyphonic synth module combining DSP‑generated waveforms and samples, with two audio inputs and (like the Nova) truly multitimbral effects.
- Quasimidi Sirius (October '98), £599. Dance workstation incorporating three synth engines and four drum parts, with up to 28‑note polyphony. Built‑in keyboard and vocoder with gooseneck mic, 7‑track sequencer and basic global effects.
- Roland JP8080 (November '98), £1099. Bi‑timbral, 10‑note polyphonic, with 12‑band vocoder, arpeggiator and real‑time phrase sequencer. Two‑oscillator synth architecture and effects implementation are slightly more basic than the Nova's.
- The same sonic richness and solid bass end as the Supernova.
- Added sonic flexibility with the two audio ins and built‑in vocoder.
- All effects programmable for each Performance Part (bar vocoder).
- Arpeggiator for each Part.
- Parts muteable simultaneously.
- Easy editing via controller‑rich front panel.
- Extensive live parameter editing transmission/reception via MIDI.
- Non‑infinite knobs don't 'pick up' at the programmed value.
- There's no way to trigger notes individually away from a keyboard.
- Not expandable.
More affordable and more cutely packaged alternative to the Supernova which retains all of the latter's synthesis and effects capabilities, and even adds its own unique sonic flavour via its vocoder and audio inputs.