PLUGGING IN >With two phantom-powered mic pres and 24-bit, 48kHz operation, the X-Station 25 is a perfect centerpiece for the beginning producer or traveling musician.
Technology is emerging so quickly these days that it's difficult to keep up with the advancements that are made from year to year, much less from week to week. It used to be that to create a great demo or even a final mix, you had to rent a professional studio with a massive collection of equipment and fork over a hefty fee. Although that may still be the case if you want a superior finished product, advancements in the personal project-studio market have tipped the scales to a more balanced state, in which musicians can create, edit, mix and burn their creations on desktop machines — all from the comfort of their homes.
With the ever-increasing power of laptops, similar results can be had on the road. In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking Penguin), Ray Kurzweil touched on Moore's Law on Integrated Circuits, which implies that “every two years, you can get twice as much circuitry running at twice the speed for the same price.” That exciting concept is reflected on technology as a whole, including the music industry, in which more new products are becoming increasingly powerful with a broader range of features, often merging functions that were once only available on separate machines.
The Novation X-Station 25 is a truly revolutionary product that combines several aspects of the studio into one integrated device: MIDI keyboard, MIDI control surface, eight-voice polyphonic synthesizer and high-quality audio interface with built-in effects processors. This means that someone's mobile setup could include a laptop, sequencer software, the X-Station, and that's all! The X-Station can be powered by six C batteries or via USB and can function as a stand-alone synth and MIDI controller or a 2-channel audio mixer and preamp with a pair of Neutrik connectors. What's more, all of this can be run through a USB cable.
MEET THE FAMILY
Given that the X-Station is a jack-of-all-trades, it's best to concentrate on one facet at time. The unit comes in three sizes: the two-octave X-Station 25, the four-octave X-Station 49 and the five-octave X-Station 61, all of which are packed with the same features and functionality (minus the octave range, of course). For players, the semiweighted keys have a solid feel and response with velocity sensitivity and aftertouch. Compared to previous Novation pieces, the X-Station may not look as cool, but what it lacks in stylish visual cues it makes up for in functionality — always a good trade-off in my book.
With a grand total of 28 knobs, 55 buttons, nine 30mm faders and a 2×16-character LCD, the face of the X-Station is filled to the brim with control. An x-y touchpad allows transmission of as many as four MIDI data values, any of which can be freely assigned to any parameter. Instead of the standard pitch and mod wheels, Novation opts for a less traditional joystick that simultaneously controls both. Usually, users have to keep one hand on the joystick to maintain any changes in modulation (Sprung Mode), but with a simple adjustment made on the bottom of the unit, the joystick can be changed to Static Mode, in which modulation is applied without having to hold it in place. Connections for sustain and expression pedals are also found on the back. It's obvious that Novation has put a lot of time and effort into making the X-Station a musical instrument, not just another computer peripheral.
Although I have always preferred outboard gear to virtual instruments or soft synths, it cannot be denied how much these pieces of software have added to my creative process. Products such as MOTU MachFive, Spectrasonics Trilogy and Atmosphere and the Native Instruments arsenal of weapons are invaluable tools. However, nothing beats the tactile intuition of having a set of knobs, buttons and sliders at your disposal instead of having to mouse over values on a computer screen. One of the X-Station's strongest roles is that of a MIDI control surface. Although the Synthesizer Control Panel is already arranged in the format of a typical analog subtractive synth, there are 40 electronic presets that can be used specifically to control a wide variety of software and hardware modules. Presets for Native Instruments' Absynth, B4, FM7, Kontakt, Pro-53 and Reaktor; Spectrasonics' Trilogy, Atmosphere and Stylus; and Access Virus A, B and C are all included, among others. The company was even thoughtful enough to include five preprinted physical templates that fit perfectly over the control panel and are customized with labels that match the existing electronic presets for FM7 and B4, as well as Propellerhead Reason MalstrÖm and Redrum. What a delight it is to be able to control virtually all of the parameters of Trilogy, for example, right from the X-Station! Want to fiddle with the ADSR for the amp and filter envelopes? No problem. Need to switch between layers or adjust the filter frequency and cutoff? Easy.
Of course, it would be impractical to include enough knobs, buttons and sliders to accommodate all of the different software and hardware that's available, but it's relatively easy to assign or reassign anything on the X-Station's Control Panel. That said, you can also create your own electronic template by overwriting one of the factory templates (bummer, but I seriously doubt anyone will use all of the 40 existing presets) and use one of the three provided blank physical templates that fit nicely around the controls. (What's more, a template editor is in production, and it will allow users to create a tweak templates from their computer screens. The program will be a free download and should be available by the time you're reading this.) Even more enthralling is that the X-Station can be used to control sequencers such as Apple Logic, Cakewalk Sonar or MOTU Digital Performer. With the supplied set of templates, the sliders become channel faders with mute and solo buttons, pan pots and levels for six sends. Additional transport controls for rewind, fast forward, stop, play and record are located just below the screen. Also, the X-Station serves as a MIDI breakout box by providing one MIDI In and two MIDI Outs (not counting the USB MIDI).
AUDIO CONTACT HIGH
The X-Station also provides two Novation mic pres with more than 70 dB of headroom. The unit operates at sample rates as high as 24-bit, 48kHz for both input and output. Each input can be recorded separately, simultaneously, or the synth output can be recorded at the same time as one of the audio inputs. Input connection is via combination Neutrik connectors that accommodate ¼-inch or XLR with 24-bit delta-sigma A/D converters and +48V phantom power for use with condenser microphones. There's also a pair of ¼-inch plugs to handle analog output. The unit even comes with a S/PDIF digital output at no extra charge!
Alternatively, all of the audio can be routed out to the USB connection. Yes, you heard right: The USB connection can not only handle both MIDI input and output between your computer but also fit low-latency audio simultaneously down the same pipe. Driver software is included to run on Windows XP or Mac OS X. Independent headphone and monitor controls are present on the face, as well. The X-Station also features two channels of onboard multi-effects — including delay, reverb, chorus, compression, EQ and distortion — all of which can be used simultaneously on each channel. A standout feature of the X-Station is its ability to alter the way that the effects are applied to the audio signal. Besides being bypassed completely, original audio signals can be recorded with or without the effects, even though the effects can be heard. For instance, while recording a vocal, you can give the singer a little reverb but still record the dry signal. Gain is adjustable between -60 and +10 dB.
Based on Novation's KS series, the X-Station is also an eight-voice polyphonic virtual analog synth with some slight differences. It's monotimbral, so it can only play one type of sound at any time; the drum waveforms found in previous incarnations are not available, and there is no vocoder. However, the X-Station does have three oscillators, four noise sources and 17 waveforms (including square, saw, variable pulse, tri, sine, double saw, double tri, double sine and nine complex waveforms). All other standard synthesis parameters are represented, such as ADSR for amp and mod envelope, filter section, LFO section and an arpeggiator with Latch button (which allows the arpeggiator sequence to continue playing even after notes have been released). There are 200 factory sound presets split into two banks covering a fairly wide variety of sounds, including basses, leads, pads, strings and effects. Unfortunately, just like the electronic templates, there is no additional memory set aside for user-created presets, so you have to overwrite to save your own sounds. However, the included CD-ROM includes backups of all of the factory programs and electronic templates, just in case.
THEIR OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
Novation states that the X-Station is in a class by itself, and I have to agree. There's nothing else on the market that combines a MIDI keyboard, a MIDI control surface and interface, quality 2-channel audio I/O with phantom power, a full-featured synthesizer and built-in effects — all in a streamlined, compact design that is not only highly functional and intuitive but also great-sounding. Aspiring producers and remixers often ask me questions about how to get started building their own project studios. I usually have some basic recommendations, but it always ends with the notion that because there are so many ways of going about it these days, there is no right or wrong answer. It's generally a personal preference about which computer platform to use and what sequencer to get. Now, after being exposed to the Novation X-Station 25, I can clearly say that anyone looking to get their start in the studio should take a serious look at the X-Station series. Except for a computer and a sequencer, it contains practically everything someone needs to get started — and at a price that isn't intimidating.
X-STATION 25 > $499
Pros: Massive bang for the buck. All-in-one solution for MIDI, audio I/O, synthesis and effects. Integrated audio and MIDI through USB. Semiweighted velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keys.
Cons: Synth not multitimbral. Saving of custom templates and synth patches overwrites factory presets. No U.S. tech-support line.
MAC: G3; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.2 or later; factory-installed USB port
PC: Pentium III; 256 MB RAM; Windows XP; USB port