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NOVATION K-STATION

November 1, 2002
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You can't beat portability. The other day, I tossed a Novation K-Station into a duffel bag, drove to a friend's studio, and poured out colossal bass lines, rasping leads, mellow chords, bubbling arpeggios, and swirling pads. Don't be fooled by its small size and low price; the K-Station is a great-sounding and easy-to-use instrument that has some surprisingly deep capabilities.

Despite its name, the K-Station is a performance synth, not a do-it-all workstation. Although it can play eight notes at a time, it is monotimbral, meaning it can play only one sound at a time. Like the vintage analog synthesizers it emulates, the K-Station creates sound from a handful of basic waveforms, not samples, so don't expect realistic acoustic sounds such as piano or saxophone (though the electric pianos and organs are quite tasty). If you're looking for rich leads, bass lines, and pads in a compact package, however, you've turned to the right station.

SEIZE THE K

Because I had recently reviewed another silvery two-octave keyboard, the Midiman Oxygen 8 (see “Surfin' USB” in the September 2002 EM), I was struck by the K-Station's heft. Housed in metal with plastic endcaps, it's almost nine pounds — nearly triple the Oxygen's weight. A more interesting comparison is with the all-plastic BassStation, Novation's first two-octave synth. I've owned a BassStation since 1995, so it was illuminating to set it up side by side with the K, especially because the BassStation has true analog oscillators and filters.

I'll compare their sounds in a moment, but Novation has made great strides in industrial design. The K-Station feels far sturdier than its flyweight predecessor does. Its knobs are easy to grasp and intelligently spaced, and they turn with just the right amount of resistance (see Fig. 1). Its pitch-bend and mod wheels are hard rubber with horizontal grooves for good traction. The keyboard, though not the crispest in the world, feels solid. Buttons with status LEDs have replaced the BassStation's touchy slide switches. A bright, 16-character LCD makes it surprisingly easy to navigate the K-Station's inner workings. The display alone is reason enough to pick the K-Station over the rackmount A-Station, which is sonically identical but offers just a two-digit LED.

Astonishingly, though, the K-Station doesn't display patch names — only numbers. With 400 memory locations (inexplicably numbered 100 to 499), that scheme makes it much harder than necessary to locate the sound you want. Although the factory presets are generally organized by tens — you'll find basses in slots 100, 210, and 260, for example — slots 108, 208, and 268 contain an organ, a clicky arpeggio, and a telephone ring, respectively. I had a hard time remembering where I'd stored my own sounds (slots 300 through 499 are empty), especially when I'd modified an existing sound and wanted to save it to a new location. According to Novation, patch naming was omitted to make the K-Station totally compatible with the A-Station, but I sincerely hope it can be added in a software update.

When you twist a knob, the K-Station's display changes to show the parameter name and value. Some knobs go from -64 to +63, and others go from 0 to 127, but the markings around them don't indicate that. Fortunately, a helpful little animated graphic shows each knob's position relative to its stored value (see Fig. 2). All knobs and sliders transmit MIDI Control Changes, so you can capture and play back your performance in a sequencer. The buttons send MIDI data as well.

The K-Station's two-octave keyboard generates Velocity but not Aftertouch, which would have been welcome in a performance synth. I was pleased that the mod wheel can control a number of simultaneous parameters, including filter cutoff, volume, pitch (over four octaves!), and the send level for each individual effect, which greatly increases the expressive possibilities. The values sent by the wheel can be either positive or negative, so you could make a lead sound bright and distorted when the wheel is down, then gradually more mellow and echoey as you push it up. (I programmed that example in less than 60 seconds — that's how simple it is to operate the K-Station.)

For more expression, a dedicated button lets you quickly configure how a patch will respond to incoming Aftertouch and Breath Controller (CC 2) data. I connected a Yamaha BC3 breath controller with a MIDI Solutions Breathalyzer interface, mapped CC 2 to pitch, and was able to play some stratospheric glissandos on a brass patch.

K IN, K OUT

Revealing the K-Station's primary role as a monotimbral lead synthesizer, the sparse back panel contains only stereo analog outputs, MIDI ports, a headphone jack, and an unexpected bonus — an audio input (see Fig. 3). Because the K-Station bristles with MIDI-belching knobs, a built-in USB MIDI interface would have been convenient, turning the synth into a compact software control surface like the Oxygen 8. Of course, adding USB would have driven up the price, and for laptop-computer use, you could always get a pocket-size USB MIDI interface such as the Edirol UM-1, the M-Audio USB Midisport Uno, or the Yamaha UX96.

Notably missing from the K-Station's back panel is a sustain-pedal jack. Although a pedal isn't always essential to my playing technique, I missed having one, especially when using the K-Station to control external sound modules and software synths. Most players will probably want to control sustain with another MIDI instrument's pedal, but that doesn't help if the K-Station is the only keyboard that's available.

SHIVER ME TIMBRES

On the surface, the K-Station's synthesis engine appears to be a standard oscillator-to-VCF-to-VCA model with two LFOs and two envelope generators, but several hidden goodies make it more powerful. Each voice can use three oscillators plus a noise source, and the external input can be fed through the filter and amplifier as well for an effective five sound sources per voice. Not fat enough? You can detune the three main oscillators with themselves for a sound that'd take eight sources on a conventional synth. Add the unison mode, which stacks from two to all eight of the K-Station's voices, and things really pork up.

The oscillators produce only four basic waveforms — the venerable sine, triangle, sawtooth, and pulse — but you can adjust the pulse width with a knob, LFO, or envelope to create square waves or a variety of warm or nasal tones. Modulating the “pulse width” of a sine, triangle, or sawtooth wave actually offsets the phase of a copy of the waveform. Modulating that phase offset with a slow LFO creates the detuning effect I mentioned previously.

You can hard-sync or ring modulate oscillators 1 and 2 for gritty vocal or metallic effects. Oscillator 2 can frequency-modulate oscillator 3 to create glassy bells and electric pianos. The FM sounds aren't as complex as on a Yamaha DX7, but they add a clarity and depth to the overall palette. The FM feature has its own Velocity-sensitive attack-decay (AD) envelope.

The K-Station lacks a dedicated pitch envelope, but a modulation envelope is mapped to simultaneously modulate pitch, filter cutoff, and pulse width, and you can adjust the amount for each. At a rate controlled by the portamento knob, a handy parameter called PreGlide causes all oscillators to swoop up or down to their specified pitches when a note is triggered. With a fast rate, that can really punch up the attack of a brass patch. By using the envelope instead of PreGlide and applying positive modulation to one oscillator and negative modulation to another, I was able to create a cool Lyle-Mays-style voice in which the pitches converged from opposite directions.

The filter is a resonant lowpass type with 2-pole and 4-pole modes. You can crank the resonance up to self-oscillation, creating a sine wave that tracks the keyboard perfectly. The similarity between the K-Station and the real analog filter in my BassStation was amazing. Both synths can achieve that moist, throaty growl that makes tracks jump out of the speakers. Parameters such as key tracking and a mild overdrive make the K-Station's filter more flexible, however. If the BassStation didn't weigh almost nothing and run on batteries, I'd have no qualms about replacing it with the K-Station.

MODULATION SOCIETY

Offering only triangle, upward-sawtooth, square, and sample-and-hold waveforms, the K-Station's two main LFOs aren't the most comprehensive on the block; nor can they modulate each other for spicier effects. However, they do run as fast as 1 kHz, allowing you to whip up some rude timbres. When you delve into the LFO menu, you'll uncover some extra tricks. The LFOs can be synced to tempo (either internal or MIDI), with a cycle that ranges from 32nd-note triplets to 12 bars. You can also assign all eight voices to use the same LFO, so that each note of a chord will burble in unison. You can even retrigger the LFOs from a specific point in the waveform with each key press.

The K-Station's two main envelopes have a basic attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) design. I appreciated having sliders for the amplitude envelope and knobs for the modulation envelope; there was never any doubt about which control to grab. My biggest disappointment was that, except on the FM envelope, Velocity can't be mapped to attack time, an expressive feature I find very useful. Compensating for that somewhat is the ability to disable retriggering for either or both envelopes, so you can play a legato run on a brass patch without generating a phony-sounding attack on each note.

Speaking of triggering, you can set the K-Station to fire its envelopes when a signal at the input jack reaches a certain threshold. Although that capability vastly expands the oscillator palette, the triggering can be very ticklish. When playing another synth into the K-Station, I had to disable the source instrument's Velocity sensitivity to get a level that was consistent enough to open the envelope dependably.

Quite a few of the K-Station's presets make you want to stop scrolling and just play. (That's mostly because they sound so good, but partly because the K-Station clicks as it pauses to update its effects processor every time you change programs.) The main patch categories are bass, hard lead, soft lead, arpeggio, dance (mostly obnoxious, monophonic riffing sounds), pad, keyboard, strings, brass, and organ, with a handful of presets devoted to FM, sound effects, and external input. I grew up on real analog ARPs and Moogs, and while I fondly recognized many of the buzzy timbres, I don't remember the original instruments sounding so clear and varied.

BECAUSE OF EFFECTS

Much of the K-Station's sonic gloss is the result of its effects. Six processors — delay, reverb, chorus/phaser, distortion, shelving EQ, and pan — can be used simultaneously, along with a 12-band vocoder that can feed any or all of them. External audio can be sent straight to the effects, or first routed through the synthesis engine or vocoder. The order in which the effects are connected isn't documented in the manual, but from listening, it appears to be panning; then distortion; then delay, reverb, and chorus in parallel; and then EQ.

To adjust the settings, simply press the Up and Down Select buttons until the LED corresponding to the effect you want lights up, and then twist the Level knob to set the send level. In the case of EQ, the knob will boost lows and cut highs when turned left and do the opposite when turned right. For pan, the knob acts as a simple left-right control. When the vocoder is selected, the knob controls the balance between the carrier and modulator signals (the K-Station's oscillators and the external input, respectively). For more detailed tweaks, punch up the effects menu, where you can perform tasks such as assigning an LFO to control panning or to vary the EQ's center point.

The effects sound very good, although the delay is not an interpolating type, so you will hear clicking if you change the tempo (using either the arpeggiator's Tempo knob or MIDI) while audio is passing through it. You can make the chorus approximate a flanger at some settings. I've never been keen on digital distortion, but this one complements the sound well, particularly because you can use the wheel to vary the amount during performance. The vocoder is a blast, and it comes with enough controls to produce intelligible speech. That's quite a bonus on such a small, inexpensive synth.

ARPEGG-U-LATER

Given the number of interesting parameters that can be synced to internal or MIDI clock (LFO speed, delay taps, phaser speed, panning, and EQ sweep speed), I was disappointed that the K-Station's arpeggiator is such an underachiever. It provides only six patterns: up, down, up-and-down, up-and-down with high and low notes repeated, order played, and random. Although you can change the subdivision from 32nd-note triplets to whole notes, every beat is played; there are no rests or rhythmic variations. Nor is there any variation in Velocity; each note (and its octaves, if enabled) plays at the same Velocity you entered.

That said, one of my favorite patches combines the arpeggiator with synchronized effects and a filter sweep set to different time divisions. I set the arpeggiator to 16th notes, the delay to dotted eighths, the filter LFO to three bars, and the phaser to free-running mode for a sound that evolved endlessly. For more variety, you can also change the arpeggiator pattern and other sound parameters (such as attack time) during playback. Still, if there's any room left in the ROM, adding more arpeggiator patterns is high on my wish list for a future OS update.

I was initially baffled by the update process, which is supposed to require simply playing a MIDI SysEx file into the K-Station. Because the keyboard shows a truncated readout of the OS version on power-up (1.0), I tried for days to update the OS, not realizing it already had version 1.0.09 installed. Each time, the display would slowly increment to “99%,” then complain, “Packet Error.” To see the full six characters of the OS version, you need to power up the K-Station while holding down the number 5 button.

HAVE A NICE K

Sometimes a piece of gear looks so cool that you stretch to devise with a justification to buy it. Happily, the K-Station is both attractive and practical, even doubling as an effects processor. It's smaller and less expensive than the Korg MS2000 and Waldorf MicroQ, its main competitors in the compact analog-modeling keyboard realm. The K-Station has double the polyphony and more effects than the MS2000, though it lacks the Korg's multimode filter and Mod Sequencer.

The feature gap between the K-Station and Waldorf — notably in multitimbrality and modulation options — is far greater. With the Waldorf's recent price drop, the K-Station's main advantages could be its smaller size, larger number of knobs, and straightforward user interface. On the other hand, the Waldorf's three-octave, Pressure-sensitive keyboard might be preferable to compactness in some setups. As always, the most important criterion is the sound, so I recommend auditioning all three.

Even disregarding its cost advantage, I'm very impressed with the K-Station. With its high-class sound and effects, boatload of knobs, and straightforward, two-tiered editing system, it could easily enhance a variety of music setups. Beginners should find the manual's background on synthesis and MIDI helpful, whereas more-experienced players will be able to dive in and get expressive sounds right away. The instrument's potential as a software control surface is also a big plus.

The K-Station has a few shortcomings, but I found work-arounds for several of them. I'm dismayed that the K-Station doesn't support patch naming. I'd also like to see more arpeggiator patterns, including a few with syncopation, Velocity variation, and perhaps chords. Velocity modulation of envelope attack time would be very welcome. Considering that the K-Station is a two-octave instrument, it's inconvenient that it has no semitone-transpose feature. Still, none of these gripes is a showstopper, and I'll bet that at least one of them will be addressed in a software update. (Although you should never buy gear based on what it might do in the future, Novation's track record of offering updates is good.)

For several years, I hated returning my tray table to its upright and locked position, because that meant I had to stop playing my Novation BassStation. The two-octave, analog BassStation has great sound and is easy to customize, and it makes me really appreciate the virtues of portability. With the K-Station, Novation has taken that concept into the digital realm, and the results are excellent. Now if it only ran on batteries…


David Battino (www.batmosphere.com) has come to know the seven patches in his Novation BassStation very, very well.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Novation
K-Station
analog modeling synthesizer
$899

FEATURES 3.0
EASE OF USE 4.0
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.0
VALUE 3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Compact size. Rich, clear sound. Juicy filter. Six simultaneous effects plus vocoder. Excellent knobs. Tempo sync. Easy to program.

CONS: No patch naming. No footswitch jack. No attack-time modulation of filter and amplitude envelopes. Patch changes cause clicks. Minimal arpeggiator.

Manufacturer

Novation EMS
tel. (888) 782-3166
e-mail sales@novationaudio.com
Web www.novationmusic.com

K-Station Specifications

Audio Inputs (1) unbalanced ¼" mic/line TS
Audio Outputs (2) unbalanced ¼" TS; (1) ¼" stereo headphone
Keyboard 25-note unweighted; Velocity-sensitive
Sound Engine analog synthesis modeling
Polyphony (8) notes
Multitimbral Parts 1
Patch Memory (400) RAM locations (200 are blank)
Sound Sources (3) oscillators with hard-sync, FM, ring modulation; noise; external audio input
Oscillator Waveforms sine, triangle, sawtooth (all with doubling effect); variable pulse
Filters resonant lowpass; switchable 2- and 4-pole
Envelopes (1) amplitude ADSR; (1) modulation ADSR (controls filter cutoff, pulse width, and pitch); (1) FM AD
LFOs (2): LFO 1 controls pitch; LFO 2 controls filter and pulse width. Both offer tempo sync; delay; triangle, saw, square, and sample-and-hold shapes
Effects delay, reverb (6 types), chorus/phaser, distortion, shelving EQ, pan, vocoder; all available simultaneously
Arpeggiator (6) patterns; 64-191 bpm or external sync
Controllers (25) knobs; (4) sliders; (1) pitch wheel; (1) mod wheel
MIDI In, Out, Thru
Dimensions 20.7" (W) × 3.7" (H) × 11.6" (D)
Weight 8.8 lb. (excluding adapter)

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