Widely admired for their hardware synths, Novation have now taken the bold step of releasing a software plug-in synth. But is it the wave of the future, or a software pirate's delight?
Novation may not have been the first to explore VA (virtual-analogue) synthesis — PPG's ill-fated Realiser from 1986 should earn that distinction — but they were certainly amongst the first to produce truly affordable instruments of this type. The DrumStation in 1996 was their first product to dabble with ASM (Analogue Sound Modelling) recreating the sounds of the TR808 and TR909 drum machines. The Supernova followed in 1998, Novation's first full-blown ASM polysynth. Given the current pace of technological progress, this makes Novation distinguished veterans in the affordable virtual analogue field.
Until now, Novation's VA synths have only been available in crunchy, hardware shells. The V-Station sees a change to this situation, being Novation's first virtual analogue synth plug-in, featuring a delicious, high-calorie soft centre. For this venture, Novation have chosen to model V-Station on the K-Station — an eight-voice, monotimbral, three-oscillator synth, (reviewed SOS April 2002) which itself was developed from the A-Station rack synth (reviewed SOS December 2001).
V-Station is compatible both with Windows 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP (as a VST instrument only) and Mac OS X 10.2 or higher (as an Audio Units instrument only). Unusually, V-Station cannot run as a stand-alone instrument — therefore a host VST or Audio Units-compatible host sequencer is necessary to be able to use it. Throughout the course of the review, I was running V-Station in Cakewalk's Sonar v2.1 using the DirectiXer v2.4 VST Wrapper, and barring one problem which appears to be connected with my use of a wrapper, the software (at version 1.12.01) was otherwise stable.
Installing V-Station requires the user to register via the web site — the software creates a unique 'machine code' for your computer, which you must input together with a user name, your email address and the software's serial number. An unlock code is subsequently sent by return email, which you must enter when you first insert V-Station into a sequencer project. Of course, you might also have a laptop on which you wish to install V-Station, or you might be wanting to upgrade your computer. In this case, the V-Station licence allows a second registration — however, if you wish to make further registrations, you must present your case in writing to Novation, who will then decide whether your circumstances are valid. No snail-mail registration form is provided, so registering in the (increasingly unlikely) event that you don't have Internet access will require a visit to a friend who does, or an Internet café, armed with your computer's machine code and a pencil and paper to take note of the unlock code. Failing that, you could also register over the telephone.
The similarity between V-Station and the K-Station is clear from the screenshot shown above. The V-Station 'casing' is the same shape as that of the K-Station, with similar graphics and silver/grey/blue colour scheme. The panel section containing the main 'LCD', arpeggiator and effects controls has been moved down to where the keyboard and pitch/mod wheels would be on the K-Station, providing some extra real estate above for more virtual knobs. This means that, for example, each of the three V-Station oscillators has its own dedicated set of controls, whereas the K-Station has one set of controls and a three-way selector switch. This direct, 'one-knob-per-parameter' approach obviates the need for the menu-driven editing system of the hardware K-Station — which naturally speeds up the creative process no end.
V-Station's user interface is spread across four screens. The 'Main' screen contains the main synth controls, and the 'Extra' screen contains more in-depth settings for oscillators, envelopes, LFOs and the arpeggiator. The 'Controls' screen is the place to set up response to modulation, pitch-bend, breath control and aftertouch, while the Global screen contains general settings for master tuning, memory management and various other preferences.
The majority of patch creation and editing is done from this screen, where the primary synth engine controls reside. These controls are laid out in the traditional analogue left-to-right fashion, starting with the oscillators at the left-hand end. The three oscillators are identical: four clickable 'LEDs' provide a -1 to +2 octave range, with knobs for -12 to +12 chromatic tuning and fine detune over -50 to +50 cents. Each oscillator has four waveforms — sine, triangle, saw and square, only one of which can be selected at a time. The pulse width of these can be varied by any summed combination of up to three sources — Pos (basic width as set by the PWM knob), LFO 2, and the Mod Envelope. The oscillators' pitch can also be modulated by the Mod Envelope and LFO 1. The oscillators have an extra trick up their sleeves — the Dual Saw wave. Dual Saw was first introduced in the Supernova's version 2.0 software — basically, when set to the sawtooth wave, each oscillator can generate a 'doubled', detunable sawtooth wave — effectively giving you the weight of up to six oscillators. Dual Saw is achieved by modulating the oscillator pulse width with a sawtooth wave generated by LFO 2.
Next in line is the mixer section consisting of five knobs — three of these control the level of the three oscillators. The level of ring-modulated signal generated between Oscillators 1 and 2 is controlled by 'Ring 1*2', and a fifth knob sets the level of the Noise oscillator. Each of these mixer knobs has its own Solo button, which is handy for isolating each individual element of a patch.
The filter is Novation's self-styled 'liquid analogue' (low-pass) resonant variety, with a choice of 12dB and 24dB-per-octave types. Although some may view the lack of band-pass and high-pass filter modes in a negative light, it should not be forgotten that many revered synths such as the Minimoog, Memorymoog and Prophet 5 managed to become timeless classics with just the one low-pass filter. V-Station's low-pass filter can also elicit a little help from the EQ effect, as described later. Filter controls include Cutoff, Resonance, Overdrive, Q-Norm (to keep levels in check at high resonance settings), and modulation sources in the shape of Keytrack, Mod Envelope amount, and LFO 2.
Two ADSR envelopes are provided — 'Mod Env' and 'Amp Env'. 'Mod Env' is permanently routed to the Filter, but can also be used to modulate oscillator pitch and pulse width. 'Amp Env', as the title suggests, is routed permanently to the amplifier, and performs only that function.
LFOs 1 and 2 are identical, having triangle, saw, square and S/H (sample and hold) waveforms, with Speed and Delay controls. The delay actually fades in the effect of the LFO over a variable time, rather than delaying it — as such, 'delay' is a bit of a misleading title.
Parameter editing (in all four screens) is performed in the usual way — you point and click to select things, or point, click and move the mouse to change values. The value of whichever parameter the mouse is currently pointing to is shown in the lower panel's LCD display. Right-clicking anywhere on the panel performs the same function as pressing the Compare button in the lower panel area — this is always useful for checking the original patch for one-click reassurance that you've not programmed your way up a gum tree.
Each instance of V-Station is, like the K- and A-Stations, eight-voice polyphonic and monotimbral. You can of course achieve multitimbralilty by running multiple instances, depending on your computer's available CPU power. My computer showed around five percent CPU usage when one V-Station instance (with effects on) was idling, and two percent with effects off. This rose to around 20 percent when all eight voices were playing (with effects on) and 16 percent with effects off. It should therefore be possible to run up to half a dozen V-Stations on an average modern computer (for the spec of mine, see the box on the next page) without too much trouble, as long as the per-instance polyphony is kept to within modest levels, and the effects are switched on only when required. So confident was I with this prediction that I ran up a little tune using six instances of V-Station. This used mono bass, two arpeggiators, a three-voice pad, three-voice rhythm chords and a mono lead, with effects running on all instances. The CPU idled at around 29 percent, averaging 65 percent while the tune was playing — better than I'd expected.
On the subject of polyphony, it is surprising that V-Station shares the same limitations as the K-Station, since the CPU resources of V-Station's host computer should outperform those of the hardware K-Station by many times. There will always be occasions when the maximum of eight voices is insufficient — for example when using piano-type patches with the sustain pedal, or pad sounds with a long-ish release phase. It would be nice to see the polyphony at least doubled, but preferably with no limit imposed by the software in future versions.
The 'Extra' screen (shown on the next page) is very much an extension of the parameters on the Main screen, containing additional behind-the-scenes settings related to the oscillators, envelopes, LFOs and arpeggiator. Importantly, the parameters that govern the V-Station's FM capabilities are found here. Although extremely simple in structure compared to what a dedicated FM synth has to offer, the V-Station's FM facility is nonetheless very useful. FM tones are created by the frequency modulation of Oscillator 3 by Oscillator 2, and the FM Level knob controls the amount of that modulation. The FM amount can be additionally controlled by its own dedicated AD (attack/decay) envelope to produce complex harmonic changes over time. Some dramatic and unearthly sounds can be achieved using the FM envelope in conjunction with 'Mod Env' set to modulate both the oscillators' pitch and the filter. The FM amount can also be modulated with velocity — all deceptively simple in concept, yet the results can very rewarding.
Two monophonic modes and two polyphonic modes are available: the two mono modes vary the way portamento (glide) is applied. When portamento is active, Mono mode applies portamento to every note played. Conversely, Mono AG (Auto Glide) applies portamento only between notes played in legato style — often referred to as 'fingered' portamento on other synths. The two poly modes affect how voices are cycled when the same note is played repeatedly. Poly 1 cycles around the eight voices, producing an 'overlap' effect if the sound has a long release phase, whilst Poly 2 retains the same voice for each note, negating any overlap effect.
Oscillators 1 and 2 can be sync'ed together for tearing lead sounds, and the switch to turn the sync function on can be found here. Further oscillator treatments include Unison Voices (up to eight voices in mono mode; in poly mode the polyphony is reduced according to the number of unison voices) and Unison Detune. Start Phase sets the point at which oscillators start their wave cycle — there are 15 steps going up in 24-degree increments. The PDF manual states that a setting of 0 forces the all waves to start in sync at 0 degrees, while a setting of 'off' allows the waveforms to start at random phases, like real analogue oscillators. The review version of V-Station had no 'off' position — presumably this is a misprint or a legacy from an older beta version, as in fact the '0' setting produces the random start phase.
Pre-Glide applies an automatic upward or downward pitch bend, selectable between -12 and +12 semitones, to every note played when portamento is switched on. The bend speed is set with the portamento time knob — portamento operates normally if this value is zero. Portamento also has the option of linear (glide speed is constant) or exponential (glide speed is relative to note interval) modes.
Additional envelope controls include program level, the FM Attack/Decay envelope, and velocity sensitivity for each of the three envelopes. Each envelope can also be selected as single or multiple triggering.
The LFO panel contains additional controls, identical for each LFO. Sync Rate offers a wide choice of multiples for sync'ing the LFO tempo to that of a song. When Sync Rate is off, the LFO is free-running according to the speed set on the Main screen. Key Sync resets the LFO phase to zero for each new note. The LFOs are polyphonic, but they can be made monophonic (all notes modulate in sync) by selecting voice common. Key Sync offset provides an alternative start point in the LFO waveform phase, and single/multi triggering affects whether LFO delay is applied to every note or not when playing monophonically.
The Arpeggiator panel has controls for tempo (for internal clock only), gate time, key sync and latch (hold). By default, the arpeggiator is sync'ed to the host sequencer's tempo, and the sync rate sets the arpeggio rate as a multiple of the song tempo. The arpeggiator's tempo can be made to run freely by setting V-Station's master clock to internal.
This is where you choose how the V-Station responds to four of the most commonly used performance controllers: pitch-bend, mod wheel, breath control and aftertouch. Options are limited compared to other, more complex synths, yet the choices are well made. The mod wheel is endowed with the most options — oscillator pitch, pitch mod, filter cutoff, filter mod and amp mod can all be controlled in positive or negative amounts. Delay, reverb, chorus and distortion levels can also be controlled — as long as the effects are turned on. The pitch-bend amount can be set independently for each oscillator, and there are oscillator pitch, pitch mod, filter cutoff, filter mod and amp mod amounts for breath control and aftertouch.
One significant problem occurred within this screen with version 1.10.03: V-Station responded as expected to live aftertouch data from a MIDI keyboard. However, when playing back a sequencer part containing aftertouch, the parameter being controlled in V-Station would freeze at its maximum value the instant it received any recorded aftertouch data. The only way to recover was to delete and re-insert V-Station. I contacted Novation about this, who reported that the problem didn't occur in any other host sequencer. It therefore appears that Sonar is generating invalid aftertouch data that causes V-Station to throw a wobbler — a problem quite possibly connected with the DirectiXer VST wrapper. I subsequently received an update, version 1.12.01, which included a workaround to this problem by making V-Station ignore this invalid aftertouch data, although it will still receive live aftertouch data from a MIDI keyboard.
Besides dealing with master tuning and various other general preferences, the Global screen provides the means to manage your patches. You can transfer data to and from your hard drive, either as single patches or complete patch banks. An additional bonus is that V-Station patches are fully compatible with the K-Station, and vice-versa. Since the synth structure and memory structure (200 preset patches, 200 User patches) of both are identical, this makes sense; indeed, the 200 preset patches in V-Station are exactly the same as those found in the K-Station. The Import and Export buttons access this facility, and patches are saved or loaded as standard MIDI files. V-Station can also import raw SysEx files.
This panel is displayed constantly, whichever of the four screens is active. To the left is the main LCD, with buttons for program up/down, compare, write and confirm along with a master volume knob.
The arpeggiator has controls for On/Off, Octave Range (1-4 octaves) and Pattern. The pattern options are simple: up, down, up/down 1, up/down 2, 'Random' and 'Order'. The 'Order' setting is the closest the arpeggiator offers in the way of 'custom' patterns; it simply arpeggiates notes in the order in which they were played. No phrases, no user patterns, it just does what it says on the tin — and perfectly well.
The effects section boasts delay, reverb, chorus/phasing, distortion, EQ and panning, all of which can be used simultaneously (except chorus and phaser, which is an either/or choice). I've never been convinced by Novation's phaser algorithm, but nevertheless these are good effects overall, adding the requisite icing to the cake. Delay time and any cyclic effects such as chorus, phaser and auto-panning can be sync'ed to the sequencer's tempo. The EQ is surprisingly versatile, given its simplicity. It has one sweepable band that sets the frequency centre, and a level control that biases the volume on either side of the chosen frequency, like a see-saw. Not only that, but the centre frequency can be swept (in tempo sync) by its own dedicated LFO, creating modulated filter-like effects — a nice bonus. In this way, the EQ can also be used as a makeshift static or cyclically modulated high-pass filter. This isn't as flexible as a having a genuine high-pass filter, but it's useful all the same. The only effect on the K-Station that is missing from V-Station is the vocoder — a shame, but I imagine its inclusion would have bumped up the price.
V-Station's parameters can be remote controlled from an external MIDI device, and as you'd expect, any on-screen tweaking you perform is also recorded into a sequence. This data is output from V-Station as NRPNs, and I was impressed to discover that when Sonar's controller editing window is open, selecting NRPN as the controller type causes a complete drop-down list of V-Station's parameters to appear. This is perfect for easy identification of the correct parameter for editing, or for drawing from scratch with the mouse. And if you are using a K-Station as a MIDI controller, every parameter on its hardware panel controls the corresponding parameter on the V-Station, for that total hands-on control experience. Evidently Novation are still encouraging us to buy K-Stations! Unfortunately, V-Station's NRPN parameters are fixed, so if you are using any other MIDI control device, it will have to 'learn' the V-Station's NRPNs, rather than vice versa.
Even though V-Station is modelled on the K-Station rather than the more complex Supernova design, it reveals itself to be a surprisingly versatile synth, despite the lack of multiple filter types. It is bestowed with many of the features that made the Supernova great, and its relative simplicity makes it an excellent learning tool for anyone new to synthesis and to the concept of plug-in synths generally. Both the short printed manual and the much more detailed PDF manual are written in a refreshingly clear, almost child-like manner. This would be very helpful for beginners, although I fully expected to be told it was time for bed on the last page!
The experienced or adventurous synthesist may find V-Station's rigid architecture frustrating, but nevertheless, its clear, uncomplicated layout make it ideal for the novice, or anyone in the market for a plug-in synth offering quick, on-the-fly sound design — a welcome quality when time and inspirational flow are important. At £149, the V-Station is £350 cheaper than its hardware equivalent, and you can run as many instances as your computer can handle, which also makes it excellent value for money.