Analog emulation has dominated synthesizer technology for a few years now, and judging by the ongoing development of new models from almost every major synth manufacturer and a few newcomers as well, it looks like this trend will continue for a while. Novation, known for the Bass Station and Drum Station bass and drum sound modules, made a grand entry into the arena of analog-emulation synths a few years ago with the Supernova, which was an instant sensation due to its huge, fat sounds. It also boasted a rather large price tag, which put this dream machine out of the reach of many musicians with limited budgets.
Recently Novation introduced the Nova Polyphonic Synthesizer, a desktop synthesizer module with slightly fewer features and a lower price than the Supernova but the same big sound. Like the Supernova, the Nova features Novation's Analog Sound Modeling (ASM) technology and a synthesis structure based around three independent oscillators, two ring modulators, and variable noise source per voice. The Nova delivers a maximum polyphony of 12 voices and offers six different parts in its multitimbral Performance mode. You can store sounds in 256 Program locations and arrange up to 6 Programs in a group as a Performance in 128 available Performance locations.
LITTLE BIG SYNTHThe Nova is compact-just slightly larger and heavier than an average college textbook-and fits nicely on top of a keyboard controller without getting in the way. The unit is slightly more cumbersome when mounted in a rack, requiring six rackspaces-twice as much space as the flagship Supernova requires. Although the Nova itself occupies less than five rackspaces, you'll need additional room in order to accommodate the DIN-style power jack and its cable, which plugs into the top-facing surface. The cable uses up an entire rackspace, making the rack-mount capability seem like more of a concession than a true design feature.
Chances are you won't want to stash the Nova in a rack anyway. With 20 knobs and 90 buttons on its front panel, the Nova is all about the instant gratification that comes from adjusting sounds while you play. The unit provides a wide variety of parameters for shaping sounds. The high-, low-, and bandpass resonant filters have 12, 18, and 24 dB slopes as well as frequency, resonance, and overdrive controls. Each voice has three attack/decay/ sustain/release (ADSR) envelopes and two low-frequency oscillators; the latter have a selection of square, sawtooth, triangle, and sample/hold waveforms, in addition to speed and delay controls. A flexible modulation matrix offers a choice of 130 different routing paths.
The Nova boasts an equally versatile and impressive effects section. Each of the six Performance parts essentially has its own multi-effects processor with seven different effects (distortion, comb filter, EQ, reverb, chorus/ flanger/phaser, delay, and panning/ tremolo)-a total of 42 separate effects that you can use simultaneously and independently. You can set entirely different reverb and delay settings on each part, for example. Unlike the comparatively limited effects sections in many other synths, the Nova's does not force users to compromise one iota when creating compositions with just the unit itself. You can also assign a 40-band vocoder to one Performance part at a time.
EXTREME ARPEGGIATIONEach Performance part can also be assigned its own separate arpeggiator pattern. The Nova arranges the arpeggiator patterns in three banks-mono, poly, and user-each of which offers 128 different patterns, for a total of 384 choices. The mono and poly banks are preset, and you can program 64 mono and 64 poly patterns in the user bank. An especially flexible creative tool, the Nova's arpeggiator operates more like a step-pattern sequencer than a traditional arpeggiator, although it can produce all of the standard arpeggiator effects as well. The mono arpeggiator provides patterns consisting of up to 12 notes, up to 64 steps long. You can set notes to sustain or assign rests to steps. The polyphonic arpeggiator transposes a played chord to intervals over a 6-octave range. You can make these patterns up to 64 steps long and assign ties or rests to individual steps as well. The Nova can program the velocity of each step in both mono and poly modes. The Nova's arpeggiator is such a powerful creative feature for composition and live performance that it would easily merit an entire review on its own.
The Nova has five audio output jacks-a pair of stereo 11/44-inch master outputs, a pair of stereo 11/44-inch auxiliary outputs, and one 11/48-inch stereo headphone output. You can use six individual mono outputs to process or mix each Performance part externally when you attach a splitter with one 11/48-inch stereo jack and two 11/44-inch mono jacks to the headphone output. This isn't exactly the most elegant arrangement, but it does save space on the back panel. The Nova includes MIDI In, Out, and Thru jacks as well (not a combination MIDI Out and soft Thru, as on many other modules). It provides a pair of 11/44-inch audio inputs for processing external sound sources with effects and filtering, and an input-sensitivity switch features four settings for matching levels to microphone, guitar, and -10 dB and +4 dB sources. Input 2 also doubles as an expression-pedal input, allowing users to control sustain with an optional sweep pedal.
GIANT SOUNDSThe Nova packs an incredible array of features into a small box-but this unit's most impressive feature is its massive panoply of sounds. Analog bass and kick drum patches sound fat, punchy, and tight, with none of the grainy lack of definition in the nether regions that plagues many other digital analog-emulation synthesizers. Many of the lead patches are nasty and squelchy, with a vocal-like expressiveness that jumps out of a mix. The rich, complex pads offer everything from classic analog warmth to a bright, shiny digital sheen. Although the Nova is designed to provide accurate emulation of analog sounds, you can also use it to create distinctive, modern digital tones.
The front panel gives you immediate access to frequently used parameters such as filter frequency and resonance and LFO speed and delay, but the incredibly deep operating system buries many features several pages down within editing sections. Given the limited amount of surface area on this compact device's front panel, Novation has done a good job of making most performance-oriented parameters accessible. However, finding desired parameters deep in the editing pages is often difficult without the manual. The configuration of the editing pages makes sense, but it takes a while to memorize where certain controls reside. The 2-line, 40-character LCD; Fast Data controls; and Page Up and Page Down buttons facilitate navigation of the editing pages and settings.
The Nova is so powerful that, armed with just a keyboard controller and sequencer, you can use it to write entire songs and rely on it as your sole sound source for live performance. Novation really pulled out all the stops when it came to packing this little device with as many features as possible. And the company promises more goodies to come, thanks to an operating system (currently version 3.0) that resides in flash ROM-you can easily upgrade it via a free MIDI-file download from Novation's Web site.
NOVATION Nova Polyphonic Synthesizer $1,499
PROS: Excellent analog emulation and digital sounds. Separate effects processing for all six Performance parts. Sophisticated arpeggiator.
CONS: Hogs space when rack-mounted. Buries some parameters deep within editing pages.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4.5
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