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Novation Supernova

Polyphonic Synthesizer Module [Preview] By Simon Trask
Published May 1998

Novation Supernova

Simon Trask previews the Supernova, Novation's most ambitious synthesizer module to date.

From humble beginnings in the early '90s with the MM10 keyboard add‑on for Yamaha's QY10 Walkstation sequencer, UK company Novation have steadily built a strong reputation for themselves as developers of affordable latter‑day analogue monosynths, based on the success of the BassStation, one of the earliest recreations of TB303‑style analogue bass synthesis. However, the company's latest synth module, the Supernova, is set to take them into an altogether more ambitious league, in which they will join the growing ranks of digital synths that model traditional waveform‑based subtractive analogue synthesis in software.

New Model Synth

A 3U rackmount unit with the sort of controller‑rich front panel we've come to expect from Novation, the Supernova is an all‑digital instrument which uses a more developed version of Novation's proprietary Analogue Sound Modelling technology, as first employed on their 808/909‑emulating drum module, the DrumStation. The Supernova is also Novation's first polysynth, coming in a choice of 16‑ and 32‑voice models, with an optional 16‑voice expansion board allowing the polyphony of the cheaper model to be upgraded.

For each voice of polyphony the Supernova has three fully independent oscillators (each with its own virtual sync oscillator), two ring modulators, and a noise generator. In this section the module also provides three special mod effects — Sync Skew, Formant Width, and Soften — for altering the oscillator timbres.

Oscillator outputs are routed through a mixer section into a multi‑mode resonant filter section which offers a choice of low‑pass, band‑pass or high‑pass filtering, with 12dB, 18dB and 24dB/octave roll‑off options, plus an overdrive function. The filtered output is then passed through a familiar ADSR volume envelope and on to a multi‑effects section which lets you use up to seven effects — distortion, reverb, chorus/flanger/phaser, delay, pan/tremolo, EQ and comb filter — in a variety of configurations. Two freely assignable ADSR envelopes and LFOs are also available as general‑purpose modulators. The oscillator section has a 5x5 modulation matrix for each oscillator, while in the filter section you can independently modulate filter cutoff point and resonance amount from any of five mod sources — the two envelopes and two LFOs just mentioned, plus mod wheel. Effects, too, can be dynamically modulated.

The oscillator, filter and effects sections each have a button labelled 'Special', which is reserved for accessing further features to be added via operating system updates. Owners will be able to download these from Novation's web site and then upload them into the Supernova's flash ROM via MIDI from a sequencer or other MIDI utility.

Novation's new module also features a programmable arpeggiator, syncable to internal or MIDI clock, with not only standard up, down, up/down and random patterns, but also 128 preset and 64 programmable monophonic patterns and the same number of polyphonic patterns. LFO rates and delay effect rate can be synced to the arpeggiator.

Values for all the parameters mentioned above can be stored for each Program memory. The 32‑voice Supernova has 1024 Programs, while the 16‑voice model has 512, expandable to 1024 with the 16‑voice expansion board fitted.

Performance mode lets you play up to eight Programs independently or in keyboard split/layer textures via MIDI. However, more unusually, you can also have up to eight arpeggios running at once, which turns the Supernova into an exciting compositional tool.

Star Performance

Novation's new module also has an 8‑part multitimbral Performance mode (the 32‑voice model has 512 Performance memories and the 16‑voice model has 256, expandable to 512), and it's here that things start to get really interesting, creatively speaking.

As you might expect, Performance mode lets you play up to eight Programs independently or in keyboard split/layer textures via MIDI. However, more unusually, you can also have up to eight arpeggios running at once, which turns the Supernova into an exciting compositional tool. And as if that wasn't enough, each of the eight Parts in Performance mode has the same effects‑processing capability that's available to an individual Program in Program mode. That's right — you don't sacrifice anything in Performance mode (well, OK, you don't get eight times the polyphony). Eight audio outputs, in addition to the usual stereo pair, provide scope for separate routing of effected Parts to a mixer.

Arpeggio note data can be transmitted live via MIDI, as can all front‑panel sound edits, so you can record live arpeggiator‑based performances into an external sequencer. The pre‑production model I spent a couple of hours with, in the company of Novation's Phill Macdonald, didn't allow arpeggiated parts to be dropped in and out live from the front‑panel Part buttons — a feature I'm hoping will be added for the production version.

Watch This Space...

My initial impressions of the Supernova are that it has a natural, realistic and satisfying analogue sound, enough programming functionality to provide a rewarding combination of sonic versatility and depth, and a user interface that will prove accessible enough to make programming an enjoyable experience. Also appealing are the module's rich multi‑effects functionality and the live compositional possibilities of its multiple arpeggios. I can't wait for the full review...