Novation UltraNova Review

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Ultranova brings the power and “largeness” that made the original, late-''90s Nova line a hit, but adds USB, software editors, Automap, and some creative options that extend playability to new heights—even while lowering the price point. This 37-note, aftertouch-enabled synth/vocoder/controller and Audio/MIDI Interface packs a lot of punch, and while it may look a bit daunting at first, its streamlined interface makes for intuitive operation.

The hottest feature is undoubtedly the set of eight conductive rubber knobs that line the unit''s top. In Tweak mode, the endless-but-detented rotary encoders control eight patch-specific parameters most likely to be used for that particular tone (or chosen by you). In Touch mode, they become finger-activated triggers that turn parameters on/off simply by touching the knob (or multiple knobs). Combined with the larger, higher-resolution Touched/Filter knob, they offer complex interactivity with the synth engine for on-the-fly tricks that would be near-impossible on traditional synthesizers. When playing in Tweak mode, the big knob controls the same parameter as the last mini knob you “touched,” then retains that value after switching back into Touch mode for primo performance potential. Pressing the Touched/Filter knob''s associated Lock button locks in the current setting no matter what it is, while the neighboring Filter button locks the Touched/Filter knob to the Filter 1 Frequency, the most commonly used parameter on any synth patch.

The 18-voice, virtual analog synth engine recalls the Supernova II Rack, but doesn''t offer multi-timbrality. Each voice has three oscillators with independent density, virtual sync, and detuning functions for extreme thickening and fattening, as well as global oscillator drift control for randomizing. Each oscillator has 70 sound source options: 14 analog and 20 digital waves, along with 36 wavetables. These are mixed with the Noise Generator and sent to the Filter section, which offers 14 filter types; you can use two simultaneously in various routing layouts (series, parallel, etc.).

The mod section is rich—inputs include six ADSR envelope generators, three LFOs, channel aftertouch, velocity, key tracking, mod wheel, and 1/4" expression pedal input. These 14 inputs can load into 20 modulation slots, with 66 available destinations including the modulators themselves. There are also five available effects slots, with six effects (Distortion, Chorus/Phase, Delay, Reverb, Compressor, “Gator,” and EQ), each deeply editable and some BPM-syncable, with several FX chain setups.

A classic-style Arpeggiator incorporates 33 patterns and a novel Chord function that listens while you play in a chord, then applies the same chord quality to your single-finger notes. There''s also a classic Vocoder, which takes input from the two rear 1/4" inputs or the front panel XLR in. The included gooseneck mic is perfect for singing, but also great for scratching, strumming, tapping, or pointing at other sound sources onstage like drums or guitar amps. The vocoder has only 12 bands, but they occupy the speech region of the audio spectrum to emphasize vocal effects. It''s still a lot of fun, and easy to use.

Although an avid synth programmer''s delight (there are 200 blank patches so you can create your own without erasing the factory patches), UltraNova is also really easy to just play. You can surf the 300 well-programmed, modern-sounding factory patches with a great Patch Browsing system that categorizes by type (Arp, Bell, Bass, Drum, Vocoder, etc.), genre (House, R&B/HHop, Techno, Dubstep, and the like), or alphanumerically for quicker navigation. The included Librarian app allows saving, renaming, and loading patches and banks, even from within the separate Plug-in Software Editor. A Compare button can A/B your current sound against the last saved version, or return quickly to the original patch.

Front-panel programming takes some effort, but the workflow is relatively elegant considering the breadth of what it does, and the programming approach is logical.

The sleek Plug-In Software Editor is a more convenient way to program. Used as a VST/AU plugin, the software editor opens on a MIDI Channel in your DAW and connects with the UltraNova via USB. Once you''ve also opened an audio channel to hear the synth, you can simultaneously tweak hardware and software settings while hearing them live, and connect directly with the Patch Librarian without leaving the DAW. Furthermore, the editor offers visual information not available on the physical unit (oscillator waveforms, a handy visual Mixer, and an awesome Mod Matrix). However, anything you can do in the editor, you can do in the hardware; the biggest advantage to the editor is presenting a visual overview of the patch, and seeing more than one element of the synth at a time.

The USB connection also provides an audio interface. Audio flows from the synth into your DAW (including the UltraNova''s mic input, making it an easy solution for audio tracking/overdubbing) and from your DAW to the synth (for routing through the filters/envelopes/effects or for playing along to backing tracks). In fact, with four assignable outs, you can send your DAW mix and synth mix separately, or route the dynamic microphone input through Effects and outs 1&2 while the Synth and DAW feed outs 3&4. There''s also a Master Volume control, a balance control for the “From Host” and “Synth/Inputs” signals.

Novation''s Automap software, also accessed via USB, turns the synth into a USB MIDI Controller where the eight rotary encoders automatically reassign themselves to appropriate DAW parameters as you surf from device to device. The dedicated Automap buttons below the encoders change the encoder''s functions, including the ability to “learn” new mappings, view the live Mappings window, choose the user bank, or manually switch among controlling effects, virtual instruments, or the mixer. Most Automap devices also have assignable buttons, but unfortunately the UltraNova has none.

For an under-$800 synth, the UltraNova provides a staggering range of features that nonetheless remain logical and well-organized, and has huge synth tones that sound great right out of the box. It might not sound exactly like a real analog synth, but if there''s an advantage to be had by using digital technology, the UltraNova has it.

Whether you want to expand your tones, need a centerpiece for your computer production rig, or seek a flexible combination controller/interface/tone module, the UltraNova will please, both aesthetically and logistically.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the UltraNova product page.