Sonic LAB: Novation Ultranova Synthesizer Review

Compact synthesizer with audio interface and more      18/02/11

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    MP4 12:0 mins

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Novation Ultranova
Its been what, 10 years since we last saw anything in the Nova range from Novation? That was a well regarded synth back when everyone was sequencing trance and house. This latest model, the 18 voice UltraNova takes the Nova name, ads more waves and several new synth parameters and features. It also integrates a USB 2in/4 out  audio  and MIDI interface, a vocoder and AutoMap.

First Impressions
Small and blue is the first thing that strikes you, the 37 key synth-action keyboard has after-touch and a quality feel to it, a cut above one might say. The 8 rotary, touch knobs and the larger filter/parameter and program/bank knobs have a rubbery light feel - not sure they would stand up to a knock too well, but feel good to use. Novation opted for the long, one line LCD display akin to the reMote range. Knobs correspond to the  paremeters below. All sections of the synth; Oscillator (3), LFO (3), Filter (2 multimode), Envelope (6!), Mixer, Voice, Effects (5), Modulation (20) have their own rubber, backlit, button which brings up one or two pages of edit parameter per instance - eg 3 oscillators, 3x 2 pages of edit params.

We’re talking subtractive synthesis here with 34 waves. plus 36 wavetable waves and ring mod between osc 1*3 and 2*3, Multimode filters x2 with series/parallel routing.

Just to clarify also, this is 18 voices but mono timbral - which means single sound at a time only. But the synth has some extremely deep editing  - which give a large palette of sound available - though not entirely best displyed by the presets.

The raw sound of the oscillators is not as hugely fullsome, as say a Virus but has more depth than say the GAIA. They have a lot of tonal scope, with a nifty cloning function - dial in up to 8 more waves (density) and detune  (density detune) them for some hypersaw style action - available on all waves. You’ve also got some interesting filter distortion types which greatly change the character of the raw sound.

Modulation routings and effects bring things to life with 20 slots for creating some extremely complex voices.
Effects are pretty configurable, with up to 8 routing setups with combinations of series and parallel. Algorithms are:

All parameters are available via the front panel within a couple of button presses, although if you like, there’s also a very tasty looking editor plug-in which runs as a VSTi or AUi - you also get a librarian app too.

Touch Me
One of the unique features UltraNova has to offer is the ability to assign each of the 8 rotary encoders to control a synth or effect parameter when simply touched. Pushing the Touch button (who’d have guessed?), gives you up to eight additional momentary control (by touching thew knobs) which can be setup however you like. This is great for performance and gives a lot of extra expression. Alternatively, you can enter Tweak mode and have the knobs assigned to various parameters.

Record Me
Also on board is the USB audio/MIDI interface - you need to install the Novation drivers, but you get 44.1/48kHz audio with 2 inputs and four outs. Integration is pretty straightforward and the unit sounds good to my ears. Monitoring via the Ultranova headphones is flexible allowing you to mix between USB 1&2, 3&4, inputs and Synth outputs.The  two input channels can also be used to process external audio via the synth and effects.

Map Me
There is a dedicated button for AutoMap - Novation’s system for controling plug-in paramters. You’ll need to install AutoMap on your host, but once you do, the LCD readout and 8 rotarys become AutoMap controllers - when you hit the AutoMap button. Its a useful addition, and AutoMap becomes more integrated as time passes.

Nova Me
While this is not the fattest synth I’ve ever heard, but one thing that has become clear while using it in a musical context is that it does sit well with other instrumentation, which I think counts for quite a lot. The deep synthesis engine gives you ample opportunity to get lost in sound,  while not being a PITA to program. It seems to do well at polyphonic, complex sounds, with some sweet leads too, basses are perhaps its weakest card, but having said that, they still aint bad.  All the additional features, such as the audio interface, AutoMap and the 12-band vocoder (did I mention that it comes with a gooseneck mic?) make it quite a compelling package for the laptop musician, live performer or studio synth nut. Probably the closest direct rival is the Roland GAIA, which while certainly hands-on, just isn’t as  deep a synthesizer and lacks some of the extra features present in the UltraNova.

My only disappointment was that it was not multi-timbral - even just a simple split would make a difference, but sadly its not to be.

Based on the price of £499 / $699 I’ve seen it for online, I think its got to be a contender.

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