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Novation Super Bass Station

Analogue Synth By Christopher Holder
Published August 1997

Novation are championing affordable analogue synthesis again, this time with even more bells and whistles. Christopher Holder fills up with Super.

Okay, let's go over this one more time for those at the back of the class. The year was 1983 and Roland's TB303 Bassline was released onto the market, with little fanfare, as a bass‑playing sequencer and companion to the TR606 Drumatix drum machine, allegedly a complete auto‑accompaniment system for instrumentalists. Instrumentalists stayed away from the silver box in droves — the 303 was hellish to program and approximated the sound of the bass guitar as effectively as a Pepperami Gobbler approximates a Christmas dinner. During the mid‑'80s, rumour had it that 303s found new roles as adventure playgrounds for pet gerbils or handsome bird tables, and locating a brand new boxed 303 with manuals was as easy as sticking your head into your grandmother's loft. Second‑hand prices plummeted, hitting rock bottom around the £20‑50 mark, while units were often given away in garage‑sale job lots with assorted gnome collections or Hornby railway kits.

Later in the decade, dazed party‑goers returned home from Ibiza with tales of squelchy repetitive dance music. Predictably, 'acid' music soon hit the UK (much to the Home Office's consternation), and seminal choice cuts such as Acid Trax on DJAX became hot property. It became common knowledge that the sound that was responsible for the organic, morphing, squelching bass lines was the Roland TB303, and equally it became apparent that to produce acid music all you needed was the Bassline, a TR808 or 909, ideally, a few fuzz pedals, and (shock!) no musical training. The resulting price escalation of these requisite components is well documented, far exceeding the realms of 'silly money' (check the SOS free ads for proof).

It slowly came to the attention of manufacturers that long‑discontinued analogue synths were commanding serious prices, but they denied any intention of re‑releasing '90s versions of analogue 'classics' (a decision that has, naturally, undergone a complete U‑turn). Like gumboot sellers at Glastonbury, smaller opportunistic manufacturers exploited the niche, helping to slake the market's thirst for all things analogue. Novation were probably the pick of the bunch, releasing the BassStation, a dinky‑looking two‑oscillator, monophonic bass synth residing in the chassis of Novation's two‑octave controller keyboard. There were other contenders, of course, but the BassStation shone with its two oscillators, two envelopes, LFO and flexible modulation section, providing passable 303 emulation but, more importantly, a whole lot more. The BassStation rack soon followed, with all the facilities of its predecessor but heaps more memory, CV/gate outputs, an external input to the filter and envelope section, and a more business‑like feel and appearance.

Now, a full two years on, Novation are introducing the Super Bass Station. Novation bring far more to the table than some minor alterations to the aesthetics and spec; instead the scope for sound creation and manipulation has undergone a quantum leap. So let's run through a few of the new additions: an arpeggiator, a noise source, ring modulator, two LFOs instead of one, a sub‑oscillator, analogue chorus and distortion effects, panning, larger memory capacity, clock output, and even more pots and switches in the process. Phew... where to begin?

Let's Get Physical

Physically, the Super Bass Station shares some characteristics with the BassStation rack. For starters, it's housed in a 1U rack, and the keypad and numeric display share the left end of the unit with the headphone socket, and volume and portamento pots. The rest of the user interface is organised in a similar fashion to the previous BassStation's, with some minor alterations to the architecture to accommodate the extra facilities. The LFO section includes a LFO Select switch; the Oscillator 1 & 2 and modulation sections have been combined where waveform, pitch, tuning, and modulation parameters are dealt with; the mixer section has been expanded to accommodate the sub‑oscillator, a white noise source, the external input and a ring modulator; the filter section stays familiar with the addition of keyboard tracking and LFO2 depth; and, finally, the envelope section is filled out to give the second filter envelope its own dedicated ADSR controls.

Around the back you'll find MIDI In, Out and Thru, jacks for CV and gate outputs, and an external input jack. What's new is stereo outputs rather than mono, and a clock output. The stereo outputs are required to give the stereo chorus options full effect, not to mention the panning. The Clock Out jack is a natty provision: this output sends an analogue trigger signal synchronised to either of the LFOs or the arpeggiator (all of which may, in turn, be synchronised to MIDI clock signals produced by your sequencer). The arpeggiator of pre‑MIDI analogue synths such as the Korg MonoPoly, Sequential's Pro One, and the Roland SH101 will respond to the click, and play along in time.

More Is More

That's looking at the outside, but a look at the internal additions tells us where the action is. Firstly, the actual sound sources have been expanded, notably by the addition of a sub‑oscillator. The sub‑oscillator has its own level pot; it produces a square wave one octave below oscillator 1, and is modulated along with oscillator 1. The sub‑oscillator can't be sonically manipulated to the same degree as the other two, but acts as a third voice to fatten up the sound — great for stonking lead lines, as well as beefing up your acid. The noise source joins the signal chain in the mixer section and is great for adding a harsher texture to your sound; on its lonesome you can use it to spend hours making perfect Vangelis swooping wind noises (no, I'm not referring to his digestion), or waste hours of your life making analogue percussion noises (after a few minutes I was producing classic Richie Hawtin/Plastikman phasey, plucking sounds... oh joy). The ring modulator is also new, and a welcome inclusion; it's an effect rarely seen since the grand ol' days of the monster modular synths. If it's the clangorous you're after, then the ring modulator delivers. I won't go into an explanation of the electronics behind ring modulation, particularly considering Paul Wiffen has gone to the trouble of doing it already, on page 92, but it is a very useful synthesis tool indeed.

The resulting factory presets, or Programs, are naturally more varied and more interesting than anything Novation have previously achieved. Of the 200 Programs, 50 are in ROM (and cannot be overwritten), while the rest may be adjusted, fiddled and saved as you desire. The preset selection is good quality and the number of user programs generous. Novation use all their new bells and whistles to full effect, with many programs panning, chorusing, or distorted. Fat lead sounds are well represented, and white noise and ring modulation effects are present, as is the just plain weird stuff.

Heritage Listing

I have to admit to being a fan of the Novation sound, so it doesn't surprise me that I immediately took to the Super Bass Station. When the original BassStation landed on my doorstep (after I'd 'borrowed' my girlfriend's credit card to make the acquisition), it arrived with a four‑page pamphlet that Novation imaginatively called the manual, it only had seven memory locations, and it functioned on six AA batteries — but, disregarding its limitations and dinkiness, the BassStation was impossible to dislike. The latest Bass Station incarnation has undoubtedly honed, distilled and expanded on the strengths of its heritage.

For a start, the manual is a weighty and comprehensive piece of contemporary literature, taking the novice through the basics of subtractive analogue synthesis as well as running through all the features of the Bass Station in a clear and concise fashion. As Novation have added more and more facilities, it is natural that their user interface will come under closer scrutiny. Alterations have been made to accommodate the added LFO, oscillator and sound sources, and the result is a straightforward approach to synthesis. The Super Bass Station has enough going on in Utility mode that it would benefit from a LCD rather than the two‑digit screen, but getting around the keypad is far from painful. Elsewhere, centre detents on the relevant pots would be useful, as would a DIN sync output to trigger the likes of a Roland TB303 or MC202 (considering that a clock output jack is supplied, why not?)

Now that the Bass Station's newest guise is given analogue effects, white noise, a ring modulator, expanded LFO and oscillator facilities, and an arpeggiator, among other things, it begins to leave the realms of the humble 'acid machine' and make a niche for itself. If you were planning to purchase a synth such as the Korg Prophecy or Clavia Nord Lead on the strength of its analogue emulations, you should be looking at the Super Bass Station before you go ahead and do so. Likewise, if you're looking for a cheaper analogue sound source, you owe it to yourself to investigate the Super Bass Station anyway — you may decide that you can't do without the other features.

As far as the price is concerned, all the covetable extras would seem to make the Super Bass Station well worth the £449 asking price. The unit's capacity for producing something unusual, even unique, has been greatly increased, and it will be a great tool in the hands of a skilled programmer. But — at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious — in a judgement of its financial value, it also has to be noted that the Super Bass Station is only capable of playing one note and one program at any one time (although there are rather more expensive monophonic synths on the market). If you do decide on the Super Bass Station, though, I'm sure you'll agree that it looks good, feels right, sounds great and is brilliant fun to work with.

Hallelujah Chorus

The Super Bass Station's newly‑acquired analogue effects are a welcome inclusion. The Chorus effects owe much of their character to the Roland Juno 6 and Juno 106, and can vary from the gentle to the extreme. Interestingly, you can use LFO1 or 2 to dictate the waveform and speed of the chorus modulation and, even better, if you have the LFO locked to MIDI clock, the chorus can be modulating in time to the sequencer.

One of the first things anyone with a TB303 does is plumb its wibbles into a distortion pedal or distort the acid line on the desk. So it seems a judicious move on Novation's part to include a gritty analogue effect on board. The distortion bears little resemblance to its digital cousins on your multi‑effects unit; instead it adds a certain crunchiness to most programs. If you do want something more extreme, I can recommend cranking up all the oscillators, bumping up the white noise and ring modulator levels and re‑routing an output back into the unit's external input. About as subtle as a hand grenade.

If you're after even more movement and variation in your sound, the stereo panning effect should deliver. You can have either LFO or Envelope 2 modulating the panner to an adjustable depth.

By way of example, you might have your arpeggiator pattern rattling along on 16th notes sync'ed to MIDI clock, with the notes meanwhile undergoing a chorus modulation effect locked to LFO1 coming in and out on every eighth note; finally, you could have a random waveform LFO2 modulating the panner, scattering the notes over the stereophonic field in any way it sees fit — all synchronised to the bpm of the song.

MIDI Implementation

As far as I can tell, every pot on the Super Bass Station recognises and transmits MIDI controller messages, including the ADSR controls of both envelopes, all level information in the mixer section, tuning information, LFO details, and the analogue effect control in Utility mode. Furthermore, the Super Bass Station responds to aftertouch and breath‑controller information. Having such comprehensive MIDI control is really valuable: just send the sequencer running and tweak to your heart's content, safe in the knowledge that anything outstanding can be reproduced (provided your hardware and software package is up to the task).

Ups And Downs Of Programming

The arpeggiator section is possibly the single most outstanding new addition to the Bass Station: it's well conceived and interesting results are quite easily achieved. The Arpeggiator utility runs you through the options step by step. The first page in the utility switches the arpeggiator on and sets the speed. Next you're given a choice of octave range, dictating how many octaves the Bass Station will sweep through while arpeggiating. Other facilities determine whether the arpeggiator runs only while notes are being held on the controller keyboard or whether it 'remembers' the notes played and continues arpeggiating ('latching'); a keysync function dictates whether new notes can be added to your arpeggio or whether it's reset every time a new note is played. More interesting are the pre‑programmed patterns. Apart from the usual up, down, and 'round 'n' round options, Novation have supplied 100 arpeggio patterns. Some are designed for TB303‑style autoglide patterns, others are more ponderous rave riff patterns, while others still give you an instant ticket to New Romantic cheese. I'm in favour of any feature that gets your creative juices flowing, and these patterns certainly do it for me. Patterns can be sync'ed to MIDI clock signals from your sequencer or internally sync'ed to either of the LFOs — so playing along from your master keyboard is pretty simple. Also the Arpeggiator Latch may be switched off and on using sustain MIDI information — if you have a sustain pedal this would be particularly useful for playing live.

Novation have chosen to have the arpeggiator parameters stored as Program information rather than as a global section. On balance, I wonder whether this was the right way to go about it. Perhaps having the Bass Station responding to the arpeggiator globally would allow you to find the right pattern and then allow you to scroll through the Programs to arrive at the right sound. To then have arpeggiator pattern numbers respond to controller information would be the icing on the cake. Actually, the glacé cherry on the icing of the cake would be a physical arpeggiator switch on the front panel to turn on the arpeggiator and all your carefully selected parameters without descending into the utilities pages.

Getting It Ron

I don't know whether it was intentional or merely an unfortunate spell‑check glitch, but occasional references to Roland in the manual have appeared as Ronald. Nice touch.

Pros

  • Huge range and variety of analogue sounds.
  • Comprehensive arpeggiator section.
  • Ring modulator.
  • Flexible MIDI sync options.
  • CV/gate output.

Cons

  • No on/off switch.
  • No centre detents on appropriate pots.
  • Arpeggiator parameters saved with Program.

Summary

More knobs, dials, buttons, switches, oscillators, effects and sounds for not much more money. An instant upgrade choice for aficionados of the Novation sound, user interface, and reliability; and a compelling alternative for anyone looking to purchase an analogue (or analogue‑sounding) synth, with enough features to produce something out of the norm.