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Novation Peak

Polyphonic Synthesizer
Published May 2017
By Paul Nagle

Novation Peak

Novation’s ambitious new synthesizer brings together the best of analogue and digital.

We’ve been subtractively filtering the same handful of waveforms for so long it’s often worth stepping back to remember the instruments that took a different approach. Whether this brings to mind the PPG Wave 2, Sequential Prophet VS, Waldorf Microwave or even the humble Korg DW-8000, the effect of an analogue filter on digital waveforms almost invariably lead to unexpected delights. Hence I was rather excited to get an early look at a new synth from Novation. The Peak is a polyphonic synthesizer whose eight voices each have three digital high-resolution oscillators processed by an analogue multi-mode filter. With three envelopes, two LFOs, effects and a modulation matrix this is an ambitious hybrid bidding for its place in history, as well as on your desk or workspace.

The review was conducted using pre-release firmware in which most of the intended functionality was in place. And even though there were only a few example patches, the synth’s accessibility meant I was more than happy to begin filling it with my own highlights.

Feeling Peaky

Picking it up for the first time should leave no doubt the Peak is a hefty chunk of hi-tech real estate. Its metal body is framed in wood and there’s an optional aluminium stand if you prefer angled use (but no rack ears). If you’re partial to stroking your gear fondly to while away the hours there is much to relish here, from the generous collection of sturdy knobs to buttons, encoders and a couple of sets of envelope sliders. It’s an interface optimised for quick results, but when you need the extra detail, there’s a well-stocked menu system supported by buttons for direct page access and page navigation.

Like beneficent fairy godmothers, the Novation team have blessed their offspring with amber LEDs, clear text and an even clearer black and white display (complete with screen-saver) making it universally easy on the eye. Other than the external 12V power adaptor, there’s no visible evidence of cost-cutting; so as you peruse the tasty rear panel, you’ll note the trio of MIDI ports, MIDI via USB, two pedal inputs, a CV input (on mini-jack), a headphone socket and stereo outputs.

The synth is monotimbral and has no voice panning, therefore the stereo output primarily exists to take advantage of the spacious chorus, delay and reverb effects. When you aren’t in the ‘taking advantage’ frame of mind, a connection to only the left output will deliver good, old-fashioned mono.

The Peak’s back panel features headphone and stereo outputs, CV Mod In and two pedal inputs, as well as MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, and a USB port. The Peak’s back panel features headphone and stereo outputs, CV Mod In and two pedal inputs, as well as MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, and a USB port.

Memory Matters

There are four banks of patches (A-D), each with the expected 128 entries. Since at this stage there were only 64 examples, I quickly whizzed through to get a taste. Those that leapt out included swooshily mellow strings, numerous gradually shifting pads and filter sweeps, bright, clear bells, humongous basses and several top-notch acid squelches and squeals.

Patches may be drawn from 14 sensibly named categories, assuming you agree with me that Bass, Pad, Lead, SFX, String and the like are generally more friendly than grouping by genre or similar. I’ve been a fan of Novation’s simple but effective category search facility since the Supernova synth, and although you can’t define your own names, there are two User categories to take care of types Novation didn’t think of.

Via a quartet of Patch buttons you can painlessly save, audition, compare an edit to an original patch and even start from a set of initialised values. The only omission was a ‘manual’ setting to make the current panel values live, a feature Novation assure me is planned at some point. One issue to be aware of is that the patch selection encoder and buttons are active in all modes, so if you happen to touch any of them during a lengthy editing session, hey presto, your work is gone! I typically lost stuff when adding entries to the modulation matrix, realising later that I’d been automatically trying to replicate my Waldorf Blofeld’s nippy way of navigating the matrix (by spinning the encoder at the left of the screen). That’s one muscle memory I had to unlearn! Novation are considering ways to prevent such losses in a future firmware update.

All the controls send either MIDI CCs or NRPNs and the resolution varies quite widely. For example, you get 255 discrete values of filter cutoff but only 63 of positive filter envelope depth (since it is bipolar). In general, envelope modulation is allocated half the resolution of LFO modulation, which seems an odd decision. Fortunately, apart from a few noises heard when adjusting effect depths, zipper noise is almost entirely absent. Finally, to prevent potentially disruptive leaps as you begin to tweak a freshly loaded patch, the system settings menu features a ‘pickup’ mode with the display showing both the current and saved values.

Digital Heart

Starting our ascent with the Peak’s oscillators is an exhilarating if lengthy climb. Named in honour of Oxford Synthesizer Company founder (and Novation guru) Chris Huggett, the oscillators are digital NCOs (Numerically Controlled Oscillators) generated by an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) clocked at 24MHz. All we musician types really need to know is that the high clock speed is responsible for the pure and accurate waveforms that don’t suffer from the usual levels of aliasing — although some artifacts are discernible at the extremes of transposition. Inevitably, some people are going to bemoan the lack of dirt, especially those raised on early digital synths where aliasing was a significant part of the character.

Novation report that on an oscilloscope, it’s hard to tell the NCOs apart from the DCOs of their Bass Station II. Certainly, and unlike many digital oscillators, there was no need to stack them all up to fatten out the sound. If anything, all three together were usually too full-on. Bear in mind you also have a ring modulator to call upon (sourced from osc 1 and 2) and a white-noise generator that can be low-pass filtered using an option in the Osc menu.

The oscillators all have the same controls, which consist of range selector buttons, coarse and fine tuning and a set of waveforms that appear, at first glance, to match those of a well-stocked analogue synth. The ‘more’ option is a hint that extra waves are to be found somewhere, but to find out what they are, you’ll need to enter the first of the menus: Osc.

Leading the Osc menu are a couple of Oscillator Common pages, where intriguing options such as Divergence and Drift are located. Their purpose is to shave off some of that perfection and stability, introducing exactly the kind of unplanned pitch drift we once hoped to avoid. Divergence adds offsets to each of the eight voices, pushing them slightly out of tune with each other. To explore this further, it’s worth going straight to another menu — Voice — and trying out a few of the play modes. Amongst the regular poly and mono assignments is one not often seen — Mono2 — where each note played is on a new voice. Cycling through them is ideal for highlighting voice differences and helping you to grasp that, although the oscillators are not vintage analogue, they can be given convincingly wayward characteristics.

Continuing to progress through the Osc menu, you encounter Keysync, which will optionally reset the phase as each note is triggered. This is particularly handy when you require an exact, unchanging waveform playback, eg. when synthesizing a kick drum. Beyond that point you’re into the meat of the oscillators and finally the revelation that the ‘more’ wave amounts to a choice of wavetables (about which more anon). In this menu you also determine the per-oscillator amount of pitch-bend and whether you’d like to remove any oscillator from regular keyboard tracking and give it a fixed pitch instead. The available range for this is C2 to D#5, so it’s fun, if a little limiting. A ‘Low’ or ‘Wide’ option would have been cooler still.

The oscillator’s next page holds several valuable options — first up is Vsync. Every oscillator features built-in sync courtesy of a hidden virtual oscillator. Vsync represents a pitch offset for the slaved oscillator and, as it increases, a splurge of extra tonality is generated. While not so rip-roaring as a Moog Prodigy or ARP Odyssey, it’s useful nevertheless. Better still, Vsync can be added to any waveform, applying the kind of bright, splashy harmonics that are oscillator sync’s trademark. However, even with Vsync active, the pitch knobs on the panel remain firmly locked to the master rather than the slave pitch. Thus, to generate the familiar envelope-driven sync, you must enter the modulation matrix and patch it up manually. This seemed to be an opportunity missed, given there are perfectly good controls sitting around not doing very much (unless you’re an advocate of pitch-swept oscillators, I guess).

Two parameters on the same page relate specifically to the sawtooth wave. SawDense represents the density of a generated extra sawtooth and DenseDet is its detune amount. It transpires that this is a variation on the theme of ‘supersaw’, famous for its fuzzy, creamy pads and an endless succession of euphoric euro dance patches. Toss this waveform through a resonant band-pass filter, add a splash of reverb and you’re in glow-stick heaven!

All waveforms are subject to Shape modulation, with three hard-wired sources and bipolar amounts for each. The results of shape-changing are unique to each wave but, briefly, the sine wave adds distortion-type harmonics while triangle morphs into square in one direction or wavefolds in the other. Sawtooth shape modulation applies a phase shift to the second sawtooth and, unsurprisingly, you get PWM from the square wave. If ‘more’ is selected, Shape provides a means of scanning through the individual waves in a wavetable.

These wavetables should not be confused with the more complex tables found in Waldorf or PPG synths. Novation’s have far fewer waveforms with gentle transitions in between. In total, there are 17 tables, each containing a mere five waves. Initially, this felt pretty underwhelming (after all, the Ultranova has twice as many), but if you’re a ‘glass half full’ sort of person, you’ll come to see the movement and variety as welcome partners for the analogue waves. Amongst the wavetables are bells, organs, electric piano, a pair of vocal formant types, a didgeridoo, solo string and several that are vaguely nasal and Clavi-like. Shifting vowels or didge impressions are sure-fire ways to impress your friends, but perhaps the most unusual tables are those containing octave shifts and chords — they are superb for lending shimmering textures to any patch. Or, if you’re still searching for more edge, the tables ‘Random’, ‘Zing’ and ‘Wobbler’ are all ideal starting points for analogue filtering.

The Analogue Filter

Following the lead of the rather splendid Bass Station 2, the Peak has a larger than average filter cutoff knob. The filter’s analogue design offers 12dB and 24dB slopes with a choice of low-pass, band-pass and high-pass modes. Each mode is rendered considerably more versatile by the application of overdrive, available in both pre- and post-filter forms. The pre-filter version earns a knob on the panel while the post-filter drive is tucked away in the Voice menu along with an extra parameter — Filter Diverge.

Diverge is a term we’ve met before and here it’s all about making the eight filter frequencies slightly different from one another, a feat that is potentially subtle but becomes more obvious and exciting when the differences are emphasised by resonance. Post-filter drive applies a gritty and bright presence compared to the bloating or filling-out effect of pre-filter distortion.

Even with distortion reined in, this is a feisty filter design. In low-pass mode at 24dB per octave, its high resonance is scarier than that of the Bass Station II — it spits like an acidic cobra! Resonance happily self-oscillates with all mixer levels at zero, the resulting tone tracking pretty well over at least four octaves. Actually, except for gratuitously old-school bass lines and solos, the low-pass 24dB filter was often too full-sounding for eight-voice pads and general polyphonic use. Fortunately, the 12dB option supplies a more even response coupled with a less intimidating resonance, but it can still rasp under the influence of overdrive! For band- and high-pass filtering, 24dB surely has the edge for its liquid and musical resonance, but all modes are perfectly serviceable.

As well as the hard-wired LFO and envelope modulation connections (both bipolar), filter frequency can be modulated by keyboard position and by the output of oscillator three. The latter’s audio-rate modulation is raw and rippy, and at the highest frequencies, extracts a range of cool formant tones from this already versatile filter.

The Peak’s front panel styling is certainly reminiscent of its Bass Station forebear, and it’s a substantial bit of kit, measuring 46 x 23 x 7 cm. The Peak’s front panel styling is certainly reminiscent of its Bass Station forebear, and it’s a substantial bit of kit, measuring 46 x 23 x 7 cm.

Mod Matrix

The 16-slot modulation matrix currently has 17 sources and almost 40 destinations, with more entries in the pipeline, including polyphonic aftertouch. Each matrix slot has a bipolar depth and twin sources, making it very straightforward to create typical combinations such as a mod wheel controlling LFO amount or CV input amount driven by aftertouch.

The matrix is fairly well-stocked and features pitch, level, shape and virtual sync amounts for every oscillator, plus most of the filter, LFO and envelope settings. But it does lack a few desirable options, such as pitch-bender as an assignable source and maybe a few user-defined MIDI CCs too. Unlike some mod matrices, you can’t modulate the levels of other slots, nor are fun extras such as sawtooth density and detune accessible. Having adopted numerous Novation synths over the years, I found it slightly disappointing that I couldn’t use the mod wheel as an effect depth control, but on the other hand, I did appreciate access to both filter distortion parameters and the VCA level (to make drones).

Interestingly, one highlight of the Peak’s synthesis is only accessible from the matrix — the linear FM implementation. The oscillators themselves don’t appear as free modulation sources — their presence in the matrix is confined to preset FM routings. However, once you’re aware of that you can fully appreciate the Peak’s FM, which works very simply. Each oscillator serves as the modulation source for the next in sequence, with the circle completed by osc 3 acting as the source for osc 1. In addition, noise can modulate osc 1’s pitch or the filter’s cutoff frequency.

Making all the possible connections will obviously cost modulation slots but it’s well worth it for the experimentally minded. Admittedly, the Peak doesn’t quite stretch to DX-style FM (even if you limit the oscillators to sine waves), but it does cover many typical FM sounds. When you aren’t striving to program electric pianos and log drums, FM is a ready source of complex, often harsh or metallic sounds, particularly bells and noisy percussion, all ripe for filtering and dousing in reverb.

The panel’s Animate buttons are always-available modulation sources. When either is defined in the matrix, it lights dimly as a reminder, becoming brighter when pressed. Sadly these are simple on/off buttons rather than the pressure-sensitive versions I’d imagined, but on the plus side, either (or both) can be kept active indefinitely using the Hold button. What this might achieve is entirely up to you, but Animate offers two possibilities to transform any patch — or three if combined. In my own patches, I often built alternate envelope times into the first and different LFO speeds into the other. Given two footpedals are also supported, there are plenty of transformational options to play with, and those 16 matrix slots can soon be eaten up.

The CV input is accessed exclusively from within the modulation matrix. This valuable asset can be used in a variety of ways; for myself it gave the Peak a third LFO, sucked straight from my modular. Naturally, any voltage source can be used and in combination with an internal source if desired.

Effects

The effects engine consists of distortion, chorus, reverb and delay. Of these, distortion involves a single level control. Distortion is positioned directly after the filter but ahead of the other effects and has quite a refined quality — and is all the more usable for it.

The default routing is parallel, meaning reverb, delay and chorus are fed equally. However, in true Novation tradition, the path can be changed in the effects menu where any serial combination is up for grabs. With eight pages of parameters for the effects, there’s plenty of fine-tuning available.

Chorus comes in three varieties, and surprisingly not the chorus/flanger/phaser varieties of earlier Novation synths. Instead, three chorus variations — two-tap, four-tap and ensemble — are supplied. They’re jolly nice too and should help establish the Peak as a go-to pad machine.

The delay can be tempo-synchronised and has programmable left/right ratio settings, width and slew rate, the latter ideal for conveying a sense of analogue wobble when adjusting the delay time. From 32nd-note triplets as the top speed to four beats at the most leisurely, the delay’s only let-down is that, when non-sync’ed, it must be programmed in arbitrary 0-127 values. (Milliseconds would have been so much more useful.) The maximum delay time is a respectable 1.4s.

Reverb has three types and a decay time that stretches into infinity if you tinker with the high- and low-frequency damping. Time is, again, represented on a scale of 0-127 and without a manual I’d guess that type 1 is a room reverb, type 2 a hall and type 3 is a cavern or cathedral-like space. With adjustable pre-delay and modulation, this is one of Novation’s best reverbs to date and is especially well suited to dark ambient pads and brooding sound design.

LFO, Envelopes, Arpeggiator

Thanks to prominent controls, the LFOs are pretty self-explanatory. Each has four waveforms, a programmable fade-in (or out) time and three ranges. These begin at 0Hz rising to around 200Hz, or 0Hz to approximately 1.4kHz at the High setting. Select Sync and your LFO cycles will straddle up to 64 beats (!) or at top speed rattle off intense 32nd-note triplets. Plunge into the LFO menu and you can choose whether each LFO runs freely or is restarted by incoming notes, and also whether its output is slewed. For an easy example of the benefits of this, increasing slew on the S&H waveform will replicate the softer S&G (Sample & Glide) found on some other synths. An even rarer feature than this is the ability to define a specific number of cycles after which the LFO should stop, and whether either LFO should be per-voice or common to all. Stirring stuff!

There’s even less to say about the envelopes, other than to point out that the two mod envelopes share controls and that there are pre-wired velocity connections to all. Every envelope can be independently set to single or multi triggering.

Which brings us to the arpeggiator. While arguably not as desirable as a step sequencer would have been, it is no bad thing to have. As well as the usual up and down directions, it includes Played (note order playback), Random and Chord modes. Usefully, you can choose whether the arpeggiator operates in key-sync’ed mode (ie. is restarted for each note played) and whether swing should be applied — in a negative or positive direction. Arpeggios may also be broken up a little — by punching holes in them. To achieve this, no fewer than 33 preset rhythm patterns are included. Finally, a dedicated gate control is always to hand for instant staccato to legato transformations.

Peaky Blinder?

It’s a constant source of surprise that there aren’t more synthesizers with digital oscillators and analogue filters — they go together like strawberries and cream. The Peak’s Oxford oscillators are very flexible and deliver far more than the tried-and-tested analogue waveforms. Waveshaping, sawtooth doubling, virtual sync and FM all make important contributions to what is a varied and sometimes enigmatic palette. And if the wavetables don’t quite stack up to expectations, they still contribute a glassy sheen and expressive movement you’d be hard pressed to match with pure analogue emulation.

Even the most basic waveforms gain new life when treated by a bona fide analogue filter and it’s surprising just how much grit this one can add, even to clean, glitch-free wavetables. Surely the star of the show, its multi-mode design, is based on that of the Bass Station II but with a more unfettered resonance and that pre- and post-filter drive. I occasionally see comments online where Novation filters are described as lacking in character, but if this claim is made about the Peak’s filters, it will be further evidence we’ve shifted into a post-sanity phase of existence.

Working with a pre-release version of the firmware, I was impressed that only a handful of errors and omissions remained, all of which are scheduled for resolution before it’s made available. Other than a desire for a more raucous oscillator sync and faster navigation through the mod matrix, my wishes are few. OK, given the importance of modulation generally, I’d have liked a little more depth and scope in the matrix itself, but perhaps I’ve been spoilt by other synths. Ultimately, apart from the ‘pro’ asking price, there isn’t much to complain about. This is a polyphonic synth capable of much that is familiar from the analogue and digital repertoire, yet with distinctive strengths and a surprisingly wide range. With extra depth beyond its accessible panel, plus decent, if conservative, effects, this is a synthesizer sound designers will love to program and performers will love to show off with.

Alternatives

Possibly the nearest rival is the Modor NF-1, a wholly digital synth also with three oscillators, and plenty of knobs and effects. The NF-1 has two filters, one of which is an unusual formant filter and if you’re into big, bold and distinctive, it has to be worth an audition.

Another worthy alternative could be the diminutive Waldorf Blofeld. Although considerably more cryptic and under-endowed in the knob department, the Blofeld has analogue-modelled oscillators, dual filters, a powerful modulation matrix, plus a full set of high-quality wavetables and 60MB of sample RAM.

If knobs are essential, the Studiologic Sledge 2.0 is an interesting virtual analogue and wavetable synth, although it comes with a keyboard and a rather unorthodox colour scheme.

Published May 2017