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NOVATION SUPERNOVA II 2.0

December 1, 2002
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When I'm shopping for an analog-modeling synth, I want all the features I'd wish for in a real analog, and more. I want an instrument that sounds luxurious, with thick oscillator banks and juicy filters. I want expressive control capabilities and flexible modulation routing. I want silky-smooth transitions and imperceptible zipper noise. I want to reach out and change almost any parameter with the turn of a knob or the touch of a button. I want more polyphony than real analogs offer. I want hundreds of rich, versatile sounds at my command. When I dream, I dream big.

I was immediately intrigued with the appearance of Novation's Supernova the first time I saw one. Once I began exploring the unit, I was so entranced, I didn't come up for air until I realized I was late for an appointment. When EM asked me to review the synth's most recent incarnation — the Supernova II with OS 2.0 — I jumped at the chance. What I found was a thoughtfully designed instrument that sounds great and boasts a feature set that should satisfy the most demanding synthesist (see Fig. 1).

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

The Supernova II's front panel is laid out quite intuitively, which makes it easy to use without having to spend much time reading the manual. Almost every function has a dedicated knob or button, and the buttons light up to show what the knobs currently control. Menu buttons in each section flash when selected. A bright blue, two-line, fluorescent display shows two parameters at a time. You can scroll the display by using page-up and page-down buttons located at its left, and you can edit using a pair of detented, infinite-rotation data knobs located at its right.

The remaining knobs are standard pots with finite throws. If you select the global Pickup mode, the parameter you're editing doesn't reflect any changes until the knob “passes through” its stored value. I prefer that scheme to one in which the parameter instantly jumps to an arbitrary value whenever you touch the knob. Additionally, all knob moves and button presses transmit MIDI data as continuous controllers and NRPNs (no messy SysEx), which you can record into any sequencer.

The rear panel presents a well-conceived series of I/O options. Besides +4 dB main stereo outputs, three pairs of balanced stereo outs are provided (see Fig. 2). Strangely enough, two additional jacks can serve as either balanced audio inputs or assignable footswitch jacks.

You can route external signals directly to the Effects section or process them with the synth engine, passing audio through the filters and envelopes. You can manually key the envelopes or press the Constant Gate button to open them and keep them open as if you were holding a note. Also on the rear panel are a dedicated pedal input, a headphones output, and the obligatory MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports. An optional Lightpipe and S/PDIF board can provide digital audio I/O.

The Supernova II's keyboard and rack versions are both available in three configurations. The basic unit ($2,999) has 24 notes of polyphony; the Pro ($3,299) and Pro-X ($3,499) upgrade the unit to 36 and 48 notes respectively. If you already have a Supernova II Pro, upgrading it to a Pro-X requires removing the installed SIIEX12 card and replacing it with the SIIEX24 card. Consequently, it costs less to buy an instrument with the polyphony already expanded than to do it later.

INNER BEAUTY

The Supernova II contains eight banks of 128 Programs (all of which can be overwritten) and features a useful Find function that allows you to search for sounds by category. The Novation sound-design team did an outstanding job, providing an extremely varied selection of sounds. As in previous versions, the dance and techno-oriented Programs are still onboard, but the current set also has loads of delicious meat-and-potatoes synth patches that are guaranteed to excite even an aging proghead like me.

Performance mode is capable of 8-part multitimbral operation. Each Part can have its own set of 7 effects, adding up to 56 simultaneous effects in a single Performance (yow!). That capability alone puts the Supernova II in a class by itself. Each Part can be split or layered across any key range, so you can make some really massive timbre stacks (especially if you have the 48-note Pro-X).

Independent arpeggiators can be assigned to each Part, and each responds to its own clock. Auditioning individual Parts within a Performance is effortless, thanks to dedicated Mute and Solo buttons. And because each Part can control an external MIDI channel, the Supernova II is an excellent live controller.

The synth features a very cool Drum Map mode that lets you access 49 sounds simultaneously in the lower four octaves of the keyboard. The 50th Program in each Drum Map makes no sound but controls the effects configuration and parameters for the whole Map. One thoughtful feature in Drum Map mode allows noise to be filtered separately from the waveforms, providing control over the transient attack when you're programming drums. With eight banks of 50 Drum Maps, the Supernova II provides a plentiful percussion palette.

A special menu is provided for storing Favourites (spelled that way on the front panel so you won't forget the unit is British). The Supernova II provides 128 slots, and into each you can copy a Program, a Performance, or even a new arpeggiator pattern for the currently selected Program. I was disappointed that I couldn't scroll through the selections; the only way to choose Favourites is by using the Program select keys.

WAVES OF THE FUTURE

I first learned synthesizer programming on a Minimoog, and I've always been partial to synths that offer three oscillators per note. Consequently, while I was predisposed to like the Supernova II's Oscillators section from the get-go, it operates quite differently from most of the synths I've used.

On the front panel, the oscillators appear to offer only sawtooth and square waves, but a Hardness parameter (in essence, a lowpass filter) changes the waveforms' harmonic content by smoothing their shapes to create additional waveforms. The Special button accesses the Double Saw waveform, which multiplies the sawtooth wave without consuming more notes. An LFO varies the depth of phase shift or detuning between the two sawtooth waves. If all three oscillators are set to Double Saw, the result is essentially six oscillators per note with no loss of polyphony. Unison Detune (using from two to eight notes) and Simulated Oscillator Drift let you fatten the sound even further.

You can do some basic FM-style programming by using Supernova II's oscillators and envelopes as FM operators. Oscillators 1 and 2 serve as modulators, and oscillator 3 as a carrier. A noise waveform can substitute for either modulator. Although much less flexible than the 6-operator system used in the old DX7, the Supernova II's FM programming allows a variety of possibilities, especially for creating sounds with biting transients. In Performance mode, you can conceivably stack two or more 3-operator FM programs for more-intricate tones. You can also use the filter to further control harmonic content.

The Supernova II takes a unique and innovative approach to handling oscillator sync. Each oscillator has its own virtual slave oscillator, so that each of the three oscillators can be independently synced as if there were three masters and three slaves. However, that's just the beginning of the fun.

The oscillators have three funky sync parameters that you probably won't find on conventional synths, letting you do some very interesting things with the raw waveforms. Key Sync lets you independently adjust the slave oscillator's pitch tracking, which changes the sync effect as you play up and down the keyboard. Sync Skew allows you to manually adjust the slave oscillator's frequency within one cycle of the master's, making the sync effect sound even harsher. You can apply Sync Skew to a square wave to simulate pulse-width-modulation effects, or to a sawtooth for cross-modulation-type effects. A third sync parameter, Formant Width, controls the sync oscillator's level. When you use Formant Width with the Hardness parameter to smooth out sharp edges, it can simulate resonance within the oscillator. Formant Width can also boost the treble content of the sawtooth and square waves. To create even more interesting waveforms, you can use the Sync Skew and Formant Width parameters together.

FILTER FRENZY

The Supernova II's Filter section is quite flexible. Dedicated buttons let you choose from three slopes -12, 18, or 24 dB-per-octave — as well as highpass, lowpass, and bandpass modes. Increasing the resonance kicks the filter into self-oscillation quite naturally, so you can use it as a sine-wave generator. In addition to the obligatory Frequency and Resonance knobs, you can adjust the filter's overdrive (for a saturation effect), keyboard tracking (in half steps), and Q Normalization. That last parameter determines whether audio levels stay the same as you change the amount of resonance, and it's especially useful for live performance.

In addition to the three standard filter modes, a Special mode provides nine additional filter types. Three Hyper Resonant types (Res LPF, Res HPF, and Res BPF) let you turn the resonance “up to 11” (sorry, I couldn't resist). The other six types combine two parallel filter blocks in various configurations: LPF + LPF, BPF + BPF, HPF + HPF, LPF + BPF, BPF + HPF, and Notch (LPF + HPF). In those dual-filter modes, you can offset the two cutoff frequencies with the Filter section's Width parameter to produce some great-sounding speechlike effects. When dual filters are in use, the Resonance Modulation knob in the filter's Modulation section affects filter width instead of resonance. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't split the dual filters discretely, so that each could process a separate oscillator; that would have been a nice feature.

The Filter section's modulation matrix is comprehensive and easy to use. Simply touch a source button (such as LFO 1) and adjust the frequency and resonance modulation depths to taste. You can even route all modulation sources to both parameters in varying amounts — nice touch, Novation!

BLOCKS AND CLOCKS

The Supernova II has three envelope generators (EGs) per note, though only two of them have dedicated controls. EG 2 and 3 share the same controls, whereas EG 1 (the amp envelope) has its own set of controls. Although they look like mild-mannered ADSR envelopes (except EG 2/3, which has a dedicated knob for adjusting delay), much more control is available. The sustain segment features parameters for Rate and Time; Rate determines the sustain's slope, and Time determines how long it lasts. You can loop the attack and decay stages individually, and you can specify how many times they'll loop before entering the sustain segment. Another neat feature is that you can sync the delay time of EG 2 and 3 to internal or external MIDI Clock, and you can individually set each envelope's sync value to note lengths.

You can positively or negatively adjust the depth and rate at which the keyboard tracks envelope times and levels, and you can set tracking to engage or disengage at a particular note number. You can also switch between single- and multiple-triggering modes. I was glad to see dedicated knobs for controlling the amount that Velocity modulates the envelopes. I was also pleased that Novation provided sliders for controlling the ADSR segments; I really prefer using sliders to knobs for envelope control, as I suspect most synthesists do.

The LFOs section contains two low-frequency oscillators that can generate square, sawtooth, and triangle waves and provide a sample-and-hold function. Although the LFOs have no sine wave, you can use the LFO Slew Amount parameter to smooth the other waveforms (much like the Hardness parameter in the Oscillators section). You can set the LFOs to run at fast, normal, or slow speed, allowing oscillations ranging from DC to audibility. A dedicated Delay knob and an Offset parameter increase the flexibility of control; you can even use Delay to make the LFOs act as very simple envelopes if you need extras.

Both LFOs can be synced to an internal or external MIDI Clock and independent time signature; a huge range of meters is available. You can also set the LFOs' Triggering parameter so that they either Freewheel (run independently) or Keysync (synchronize their phases at the beginning of every note).

Like the rest of the machine, the Supernova II's full-featured arpeggiator is extremely easy to use. It has enough memory locations for 640 patterns — 128 monophonic presets, 128 polyphonic presets, and 384 user slots (which ship empty). Patterns can be up to 64 steps long. Each step can be a note, rest, tie, or glide between steps, and you can set the Velocity and gate time for every step.

The arpeggiator has dedicated buttons for octaves (from 1 to 4), direction (up, down, up/down 1, and up/down 2), latching, key sync, and zone transposition, as well as knobs for Speed and Gate Time — just about everything you'd need in live applications. That's just the beginning, though: the submenus have plenty of options for tweaking parameters such as latch type, quantization, and sync, along with a Fill-in mode that you can set to do clever musical things when you play a different number of notes than the pattern is expecting.

EFFECTS COLLECTION

The Supernova II's effects processors are nothing short of mind-blowing. They're one of the strongest selling points for the Nova line of synths. As I noted earlier, each Program has as many as seven simultaneous effects — distortion, high and low EQ, panning (with auto-pan and tremolo), stereo comb filtering, delay, reverb, and chorus/flanger/phaser — and each Program retains its effects settings in Performance mode.

You can arrange the delay, reverb, and chorus effects in 18 different configurations, and the synth can morph between two configurations in real time. A more-than-satisfactory selection of dedicated controls is provided for most parameters that you'd want to tweak in real time, and menus for each section make it easy to fine-tune anything else. You can route dozens of parameters to the Mod Wheel for outstanding real-time control. You can internally or externally sync LFOs and delay taps, and you can set individual clock values for each. It's a blast to create complex rhythms by syncing several LFOs to control phase, flange, pan, and so on eight Programs at the same time. My only negative observation is that the reverbs sound somewhat metallic, but that's a minor complaint.

Once the audio inputs are appropriately routed, the 42-band vocoder has an amazingly simple interface: just a Menu button and a Balance knob. You can assign either input or any Program as the carrier or modulator; instead of being restricted to an internal sound as the carrier, you can use an audio signal being fed to the external input. Only one vocoder is available in Performance mode, but you can select Parts 1 through 6 as the modulator. Submenus provide control over sibilance level and type, as well as stereo width. One menu page turns the display into a 42-band spectrum analyzer. Voc Freeze, a new feature in OS 2.0, lets you freeze the vocoder's spectrum by pressing a footswitch.

MANUAL LABOR

The owner's manual began promisingly with lessons on subtractive synthesis, FM, effects processing, and other basics. Unfortunately, it soon deteriorated into an overly dry, outline-type format that was ponderous to slog through. What's more, the manual was written for earlier models of the Supernova II. The software has been revised several times since the original documentation was written, and I found cases in which information is either incorrect or out of date. For instance, the example Programs used in the programming tutorials are not at the locations specified (if they're in the machine at all).

Two addenda are included, but one is mostly for features added in OS 1.4, and the addendum for 2.0 is quite technical and contains no Program lists. The other texts contain Program and Performance lists, but each is different and both are wrong. A current list would have been welcome. Fortunately, Novation says that a new manual has been written in the more casual style of the K-Station manual, and it will be shipping by the time you read this.

CREATION SUPERHIGHWAY

Except for the manual, I liked everything about the Supernova II. Its industrial design is beautiful, its semiweighted keyboard feels great, and its user interface is intuitive and easy to navigate. The synth contains a slew of widely varied sounds, multitimbral setups, Drum Maps, and arpeggio patterns — enough to keep any synthesist busy. Almost every feature was in exactly the place I expected to find it, and the Supernova II performed almost precisely as I had hoped it would. In addition, more than a few unique twists allowed me to do things I've never done with any other synth. Outstanding work, Novation — two thumbs way up!


David Bryce is a keyboardist, composer, and voice-over artist living in the Los Angeles area. He also claims to make killer lasagna.

Supernova II Specifications

Sound Engine analog synthesis modeling
Keyboard 61-key semiweighted; transmits Velocity and Channel Pressure
Polyphony 24 notes
Multitimbral Parts 8
RAM Programs 1,024 (512 preloaded)
RAM Performances 512 (256 preloaded)
RAM Drum Programs 400
Sound Sources (per note) (3) oscillators; (1) noise generator
Filter Types 12, 18, or 24 dB-per-octave; resonant lowpass, highpass, bandpass; (6) dual filter modes; (3) Hyper Resonant modes
Effects (18) configurations; (7) effects simultaneously available per Program or Performance Part: distortion, comb filter, 2-band EQ, reverb, elay, panning, chorus/flanger/phaser
Vocoder 42-band with sibilance modes, spectrum analyzer, freeze function
Arpeggiator (128) monophonic presets; (128) polyphonic presets; (192) monophonic user locations; (192) polyphonic user locations
Analog Audio Outputs (2) balanced ¼" TRS main; (6) balanced ¼" TRS assignable; (1) ¼" stereo headphone
Analog Audio/Footswitch Inputs (2) balanced ¼" TRS assignable
Control Input (1) ¼" TS footswitch or expression pedal
Digital Audio I/O optional Lightpipe and S/PDIF
MIDI Ports In, Out, Thru
Display fluorescent 2-line × 22-character
Dimensions 40.0" (W) × 4.5" (H) × 13.0" (D)
Weight 22 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Novation
Supernova II 2.0
analog modeling synthesizer
$2,999

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 4.0
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.5
VALUE 3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Abundant features. Lots of killer sounds. Intuitive user interface. Has 56 simultaneous effects. External audio processing. Versatile arpeggiators.

CONS: Needs current documentation. No way to scroll Favourites. Dual filters can't be used discretely.

Manufacturer
Novation U.S.A.
tel. (888) 782-3166
e-mail sales@novationaudio.com
Web www.novationusa.com or www.novationmusic.com

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