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NOVATION KS4

9/1/2003

electronic musician webclips additional contentNovation is clearly on to a good thing with its“liquid” analog-synthesis modeling. In the past two years,the British manufacturer has rolled out the single-rackspace A-Station;the functionally identical two-octave K-Station keyboard; and now theKS4, KS5, and KS-Rack synthesizers. (V-Station, a software version ofthe KStation, is also available.) All four K instruments feature solidconstruction; an intuitive layout with plenty of knobs; lush sound; andsurprisingly low prices.

Compared to the K-Station (reviewed here in the November 2002 issue ofEM), the KS range adds a significantly enhanced synthesisengine, better interfacing, and some ingenious programming features.Most significant is Hypersync, which synchronizes the arpeggiators,LFOs, and effects. Because the KS-series instruments are four-partmultitimbral (the KStation produces only one sound at a time),Hypersync makes it easy to whip up some insane polyrhythms, witheverything pulsing in sync.

To boost the KS-series' rhythmic power further, Novation includedsampled drum sounds that can be mapped to individual notes to form drumkits. Version 2 of the KS operating system (free from Novation's Website) adds a new arpeggiator mode called Drum that plays drum grooveswith a maximum length of eight bars. The 33 drum patterns (mostly houseand trance styles) are fixed, but they make the KS-series fun to jamwith.

K BY K

The four-octave KS4 and five-octave KS5 differ only in number ofkeys and price ($1,399 versus $1,499). The six-space KS-Rack, which isidentical minus the wheels and keyboard, lists for $999 — just$100 more than the K-Station. You can also use the KS-Rack as atabletop sound module. For this review, I tested a KS4 and will focuson its improvements over the K-Station.

FIG. 1: With its metallic silver case,29 knobs, and bright blue display, the Novation KS4 looks as elegant asit sounds. The Hypersync feture, however, makes it jump up anddance.

One very welcome enhancement is the two-line LCD, which displaysProgram names and categories (see Fig. 1). (The K-Station showsProgram numbers only, and Novation has no plans to add namingcapabilities.) Pressing the two Select buttons beneath the displayswitches among the 24 sound categories, which include Arpeggio, Bass,EP/Clav, Soft Lead, Strings, and six User slots. (The K-Station has nosuch grouping feature.) Hit the adjacent By Category button, and the Upand Down buttons and Data knob will select sounds from the currentcategory only. Oddly, the Vocoder category has no factory presets,although the vocoder has been boosted from 12 to 16 bands and soundsquite smooth and detailed.

The clicking I complained about when switching patches in theK-Station has been cleaned up in the K4, but I still heard it whenswitching between certain patches — for example, from Performance134 (World Com) to 133 (Mr & Mrs Gurner). Sadly, I also heardobvious clicks when I exceeded the instrument's polyphony or adjustedthe delay time.

The KS4's lightly weighted keyboard feels more substantial than theK-Station's, and it adds pressure sensitivity. The keyboard action gaveme sufficient control, even though it has only two Velocity curves— Soft and Hard.

Nearly every part of the KS4 synthesis engine — oscillators,filter, LFOs, and so on — has more parameters than those on theK-Station, but fortunately, the KS4 also has more knobs and buttons toadjust them. Only the mixer knobs are pressed into double duty with aShift button. That one-knob-to-one-function design makes the KS4 easyto operate, which is something I really liked about the K-Station. Fordeeper editing, you call up menus at the panel's bottom right.

FIG. 2: The KS4 has four individualoutputs, that can also be addressed in stereo pairs. The mic/line inputcan feed the synthesizer voice, effects, or 16-bandvocoder.


I/O SILVER

With six effects for each of its four multitimbral parts anda vocoder (that's 25 simultaneous effects!), the KS4 doesn't need a lotof individual outputs for external processing, but it has four (seeFig. 2). You can route each Part to any output or in stereo tooutputs 1 and 2 or 3 and 4. Unlike the K-Station, the KS4 has sustain-and expression-pedal inputs. A headphone jack, a trio of MIDI ports,and a monophonic audio input round out the back panel. And the KS4replaces the K-Station's wall wart with an internal power supply.

I was pleasantly surprised by the KS4's construction quality andheft. The case is metal with plastic endcaps, and the knobs, though notbolted to the panel, feel solid. The four sliders in the envelopesection, however, feel a bit fragile. Although the knobs turn withenough resistance to make them easily controllable, some knobs wouldbenefit greatly from being detented. The smooth knob response is finewhen you're adjusting a single parameter such as filter cutoff, butit's not good for selecting discrete values such as waveform shape.Conversely, I was constantly bamboozled by the effects section —one of the few areas that uses buttons for incrementing anddecrementing values — because those buttons are arrangedhorizontally whereas the seven LEDs that indicate the current effectare stacked vertically.

BETTER OSCILLATE

Like the K-Station, the KS4 offers three oscillators per voice aswell as a noise source and the ability to route an external audiosignal through the signal path. Novation's unique doubling feature(described in the K-Station review) allows you to detune each mainoscillator with itself for an even thicker sound. The polyphony hasbeen boosted from 8 to 16 notes, and 28 new waveforms complement theoriginal sine, triangle, sawtooth, and variable pulse. The new waves,credited to sample developer Ilio, sound more like single cycles ofsampled waveforms than the extended recordings in typicalsample-playback instruments. Consequently, the KS4 can generate complexsounds that retain an appealing analog flavor and are more realisticthan a traditional analog synth, but more organic than a rompler.

The new percussion samples, which make up 15 of the 32 waveforms,are all looped. With a fast envelope you can transform them intostraight drums, but I whipped up an amazing raspy lead by using akick-drum sample as a tone source and transposing it up until therhythm blended into a ragged, woody tone. The percussion samples areall short and sound electronic; you get the TR-808 and 909 staples aswell as some burly kicks and snappy snares. Because each note in a drumkit is actually a complete KS synthesizer voice, though, those 15waveforms go a long, long way. (You can use the other waveforms fordrums, too.)

Unfortunately, all drums in a kit share the same effects settings— including panning — so you can't make a kit with a drykick and an echoing snare, or even pan the hi-hat to the side withoutmoving everything else in the kit. I came up with some work-arounds,such as mapping the mod wheel to reverb level and flicking it up anddown on alternate beats, and running the drums through a panning delayto spread them out in stereo, but that limitation was frustrating. Youcould run an entire drum kit to the individual outputs forexternal processing, but there's no way to assign specific drums in apattern to individual outs. (However, the KS4 supplies three kits thatcontain only kick, snare, or hi-hat.)

AN LFO NEVER FORGETS

A new button in the mixer section allows you to modulate the levelsof the three oscillators, noise source, ring modulator output, andexternal input with the two LFOs or the two-stage FM envelope. Becausethe routings are hardwired with LFO 1 controlling four of those sixdestinations and pitch, that design is not the most flexible, but it isstraightforward. I crafted some bubbling, animated patches by settingLFO 1 to a rhythmic waveform and LFO 2 to sweep the filter and pulsewidth. The filter, incidentally, now has highpass and bandpass modes.It drips with goodness; that must be the “liquid” soundNovation refers to. I really like the sound of this synth.

Whereas the K-Station has just 4 LFO waveforms, the KS4 offers 32,as well as the ability to run them in unipolar (positive-only) mode.The manual (which is unindexed and crawling with typos) doesn't listthe waveforms. Some of the more interesting ones are the quantizedsample and hold, which pings between high and low values with a randomrhythm; several that play chromatic or major scales (or evenarpeggiated seventh chords) when the LFO is in unipolar mode and thedepth is set to 30; and a handful with envelope shapes. When you pressthe adjacent One Shot button, a selected LFO becomes an envelope withup to 12 stages — great for adding unusual transients to thebeginning of notes, particularly at faster speeds.

The KS4 also provides a selection of nine Morse-code-like rhythmicLFO patterns. I briefly amused myself by holding a chord and modulatingthe filter cutoff with the LFO patterns while juicing the cutoff knobwith my other hand, but the rhythms were so square that I soon lostinterest. For an instrument with so many tempo-syncing features, it'sdisappointing that there's no swing control.

SYNC AND BE MERRY

The KS4's arpeggiator improves on the K-Station's rudimentary one byadding the Drum mode as well as 32 rhythms you can apply to the basicpitch sequences (up, down, up-and-down, order played, random, andchord). Some of the rhythms do have a swing feel, but I thought most ofthem sounded awkward, and you can't make your own arpeggio patterns.However, once you twist the Hypersync dial, nearly all is forgiven.Hypersync instantly synchronizes the arpeggiators, LFOs, and effects tothe current tempo, with assignable rhythmic subdivisions for eachparameter.

FIG. 3: Turning the Hypersync knobinstantly locks as many as 16 parameters to a common tempo. Here, delaytime is set to a dotted eighth, chorus rate is set to a 16th, EQ sweepis set to ten beats (2 1/2 bars), and pan sweep is set to 12bars.

The KS4 has 16 rewritable Hypersync setups, each with 16 parameters(see Fig. 3). Hypersync Preset 4, for example, sets the chorusrate to a quarter note, the pan sweep to four bars, the delay time toan eighth note, the pitch LFO rate to quarter notes, and the filter LFOrate to one bar. You can specify rhythmic subdivisions and send levelsfor each of the tempo-based effects (delay, chorus, EQ, and panning);the rate and delay of the LFOs; the left-to-right time ratio of thedelay taps; the type of chorusing (though the display mysteriouslytoggles between Room and Chamber); and the EQ's center frequency andmodulation depth. When you like what Hypersync is doing to the currentsound, a few clicks will save the Program or Performance with the newrhythmic settings.

MULTITIMBRAL OPERATION

The feature that most impressed me is the way the KS4 handlesPerformance editing. On most multitimbral synths, you createmultitimbral Performances (aka Combis) by layering monotimbralPrograms. That forces you to remember which Programs make up eachPerformance; if you delete or alter a Program, all the Performancesthat use it will change. Worse, few synths have enough effects tofaithfully duplicate all the original Programs in a multitimbralcontext, so you have to make hard choices about which effects tokeep.

On the KS4, each Program in a multitimbral Performance retains itsarpeggiator and all six of its effects. (Only one vocoder can beactive.) When you edit a Program from within Performance mode, the KS4creates a new version of the Program in a hidden area of memory.Consequently, you never have to worry about keeping Programs linked toPerformances. That scheme also makes Performance editing far morepowerful. When you create a Performance on most multitimbral synths,you can specify levels, panning, note range, and Velocity range foreach Program — and that's about it. On the KS4, you haveimmediate and risk-free access to every parameter. I couldeasily set up wheel-driven crossfades between Programs and scalespecific controller response.

If you've visited EM's Web site, you might have heard theaudio loops I created with the K-Station and layered in Ableton Live tosimulate a multitimbral performance. I was able to dump my K-Stationpatches (also on the Web site) into the KS4 and quickly re-create thosepainstaking productions to play back in real time.

I then created a Performance with four arpeggiators and gobs ofsynced effects and LFOs. Next I used MIDI to connect a Korg MicroKorgto the KS4 and let it rip. The combination of the Korg's masterarpeggiator and the KS4's four slave arpeggiators blasting through myquad speaker system with synchronized echo was outrageous; it was likea one-finger rave. Although the KS4's tempo knob tops out at 191 bpm,the KS4 happily followed the Korg all the way up to the smallerkeyboard's maximum of 300 bpm. It even stayed in sync as I maniacallytorqued the Korg's tempo knob.

When I tried to return the favor by clocking the MicroKorg with theKS4, however, I was shocked to discover that the KS4 doesn't transmitMIDI Clock; it only slaves to it. To play your K-Station grooves into asequencer, you must drive the KS4 from the computer. Onstage, thatone-way sync limits your interfacing options. I also found thattwisting knobs while a drumbeat was playing caused the groove to flamand hiccup.

AS CLEAR AS K

With its rich, clear sound; simple interface; extensive tempo sync;and accessible price, the KS4 is a good choice if you're looking forexpressive analog-like timbres and rhythmic inspiration. The basiconboard drum patterns (and limited drum mixing) won't put workstationsout of business, and the clicking and flamming are disappointing, but Ikeep coming back to the KS4 for its sound and ease of use. It's so easyto dive in and create your own timbres and then lose yourself playingthem; to me, that's what synthesizers are all about.

In the analog-modeling realm, the KS4 has some tough competitionfrom the Nord Lead 2. But the Nord lacks effects, a vocoder, andAftertouch, and its display has only three digits. Korg's MS2000 costsseveral hundred less but is only four-note polyphonic, which limits thetypes of music you can play, and it's skimpy on effects. The upcomingAlesis Ion may be the KS4's closest competitor, but it wasn't yetshipping as I wrote this. If virtual-analog synths make your mouthwater, you'll find a lot of choices, but Novation's“liquid” modeling KS4 is a very tasty instrument.


David Battino is hard at work on Crank It Up to 1,a how-to book about digital music production based on tips andinsights from top artists. More at www.crankitupto1.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Novation
KS4
analog-modeling synthesizer
$1,399

FEATURES3.5
EASE OF USE4.0
QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0
VALUE3.5

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Lush sound. Brilliant multitimbral editing. Sixsimultaneous effects per Part. Detailed vocoder. Hypersync. Simpleprogramming.

CONS: Exceeding polyphony and changing Programs can causeclicks. No individual send levels or panning for drum sounds. Can'ttransmit MIDI Clock. Arpeggiator stutters when controls are changedduring drum-pattern playback. Manual needs work.

Manufacturer

Novation E.M.S. Ltd./eblitz Audio Labs (distributor)
tel. (805) 258-1465
e-mail eblitzaudiolabs@cox.net
Web www.novationmusic.com

KS4 Specifications

Sound Engine

analog-synthesis modeling, sample playback

Software Version Reviewed

2.0.00

Audio Inputs

(1) unbalanced ¼"" mic/line

Audio Outputs

(4) unbalanced ¼"; (1) ¼" stereo headphone

Keyboard

49-note, semiweighted; Velocity- and pressure-sensitive

Polyphony

(16) notes

Multitimbral Parts

4

Program Memory

(400) RAM locations (200 are blank)

Performance Memory

(100) RAM locations (50 are blank)

Drum Map Memory

(4) RAM locations (2 are blank)

Oscillators

(3) with hard-sync, FM, ring modulation; 32 waveforms (27 withdoubling effect)

Additional Sound Sources

noise (4 types); external audio input

Filter

(1) resonant lowpass/bandpass/highpass; switchable 2- or 4-pole

Envelope Generators

(1) amplitude ADSR; (1) modulation ADSR (controls filter cutoff,pulse width, and pitch); (1) AD (controls FM and Osc 3 level)

LFOs

(2) with tempo sync, delay, 32 shapes, and one-shot mode; LFO 1controls pitch and Osc 1 level, noise, ring mod, and external input;LFO 2 controls filter, pulse width, and Osc 2 level

Effects

delay, reverb (6 types), chorus/phaser, distortion, shelving EQ, pan(all available simultaneously per part); vocoder (applied to singlepart)

Arpeggiator

7 types × 32 patterns; Drum mode (33 patterns); 64-191 bpm orexternal sync

Controllers

(29) knobs; (4) sliders; (1) pitch wheel; (1) mod wheel

MIDI

In, Out, Thru

Dimensions

33.5" (W) × 3.7" (H) × 11.8" (D)

Weight

16.5 lb.

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