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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Those versatile, high-resolution oscillators.
- The analogue multi-mode filter armed with pre- and post-filter distortion.
- The friendly user interface.
- The solid spread of bread and butter effects.
- The price.
- The wall-wart.
- The slightly underwhelming wavetables.
- The modulation matrix could be more comprehensive.
In taking a few steps away from current trends, Novation have hit on a winning formula. By pairing multi-faceted oscillators with a flexible analogue filter, they’ve created a polyphonic synth that can be warm, subtle and endearing, or crisp, aggressive and biting, with all that comes between to explore.