Novation UltraNova
By Stephen Fortner
Thu, 28 Apr 2011
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Ultra_Elevated_WHITE_HRIt’s been over four years since Novation released a new hardware synth. This was the XioSynth (reviewed Jan. ’07), which we loved because it offered a lot of virtual analog goodness for not a lot of cash and, like a good indie film, was so endearingly unassuming. Put “Nova” in the name, though, and you’re creating expectations along “scariest movie since The Exorcist” lines. That’s because in the late ’90s, Novation’s Supernova possessed synth players and made our heads spin. By 2000, an expanded Supernova II was arguably the most powerful virtual analog machine out there—I still use mine. Like any good sequel, the Ultra- Nova doesn’t try to be the original, but stakes out its own narrative. In so doing, it winds up offering an Imax 3D blockbuster of a playing experience at a popcorn price. Silence your cell phone, because the feature presentation is about to begin. (Click the image above for a large close-up.)

Controls

If you tried to package the UltraNova’s synth engine in a one-knob-per-function interface, you’d cover a wall, which is why I’m so impressed with the thought that went into making this compact front panel so intuitive. Novation gives us separate edit buttons for the oscillator, filter, mixer, LFO, envelope, and other major sections, instead of stashing them as pages behind a single edit button.

Hitting one of these backlit beauties sends all the parameters that live under it to the LCD and its eight endless knobs, a.k.a. rotary encoders. To the right of the LCD is a larger endless knob that can either do filter cutoff all the time, or change the same parameter as the last knob you touched. You can lock this so that further exploration doesn’t change the big knob’s function.

Adjusting anything is never more than two or three button presses away, but you can make things more immediate still. Hit the Tweak button, and the knobs change eight parameters of your choice. That the knobs are skin-sensitive like on Novation’s Nocturn and SL Mk. II controllers enables a further, unique form of performance control. Hit the Touch button, and tapping each of the knobs does one of two things: engages one of the UltraNova’s modulation routings, or re-triggers one of the six (!) envelopes, so whatever that envelope is modulating “fires” again. You’ll find uses for this no matter what style of music you play—it’s more than just a DJ toy. Unfortunately, the knobs are momentary only: Lift your finger, and the modulation stops. A latch mode (where it keeps going until you touch the knob again) needs to be a priority for a future OS update.

There’s just a data dial for scrolling through patches; pressing it as you turn it switches banks. It’s better to use the patch browser, which sorts by both category (bass, lead, etc.) and musical genre. I recommend finding sounds you like, then writing them to bank D (which is empty) in the order you want. Better yet, use the freely downloadable UltraNova Librarian to arrange patches to your liking.

Sound Engine

The UltraNova isn’t multitimbral, but to its credit, the sheer depth of the sound engine, modulation matrix, and effects let it crank out sounds so animated that you’d swear a few layers of patches were involved. The factory sounds showcase this very effectively. Still, most keyboardists at least want the option of playing different sounds with their left and right hands. With that gripe out of the way, let’s go down this rabbit hole to sound design Wonderland. (More on the synth engine after the SoundCloud player).

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UltraNova Patches 1-30 by novationmusic

Tempo sync. Everything in the UltraNova that’s time-based can sync to internal or external tempo. This includes LFOs, delays, the arpeggiator, chorus rates, auto-panning, and the Gator effect. What stands out about the UltraNova is the range of rhythmic subdivisions available. The usual straight, dotted, and triplet notes are present, but then you get oddball ratios like three cycles for every two bars, two cycles per three beats, three cycles per ten bars . . . it’s like BT meets Brubeck in here. Absent, though, is any sort of tap tempo feature.

Oscillators. Three oscillators each offer modeled analog waveforms (sine, triangle, sawtooth, nine flavors of sawtooth/pulse combos, pulse, and square), all of which sound very smooth. You get a handful of PCM-based bell, EP, organ, and FM-like waves, and even better, 36 digital wavetables with nine waveforms each. First pioneered by Wolfgang Palm’s PPG in the early ’80s, wavetable synthesis stepped through a set of digital waveforms in rhythmic fashion, creating animated sounds that analog polysynths couldn’t. In the UltraNova, the harmonic changes within each set of nine waves range from subtle to dramatic, and an “interpolation” setting decides how abrupt or smooth those changes are. Use an LFO to modulate the Wavetable Index parameter, and you can step through the wavetable to tempo, using any of those rhythmic divisions I raved about. Remember, this is within a single oscillator—with two left, it’s easy to create patches that sound like you layered a vintage Prophet, Jupiter, or Oberheim with a PPG Wave. This is why I’m not missing multitimbral capability too much.

A Hardness parameter acts like a lowpass filter, but without using either of the actual filters. The Density setting stacks a waveform on top of itself up to eight times over. You then adjust Density Detune for the fatness you’d get from unison detuning between voices (which the Ultra- Nova also does), but you’ve still used just one oscillator.

Virtual hard sync in each oscillator achieves that Greg Hawkes squawk without tying up another oscillator as the sync source. Pitchbend range is separate for each oscillator, so you could program sounds that “taffypull” a three-note chord from one fat, three-oscillator note as you move the pitch wheel. Strangely, you don’t get separate up and down ranges for the wheel. Two semitones up but a whammy-bar octave down is an option I’d use here.

Filters. Dual filters can be routed in series, parallel, and a few setups where they split sources from the pre-filter mixer. Fourteen types for each filer cover high-, low-, and bandpass options with rolloffs from 6dB to 24dB per octave. You can even adjust the bandwidth of the resonance peak. Suffice to say there’s enough here for you to emulate the filter characteristics of any vintage synth you might have in mind.

Modulation.With all due respect to analog purists, modulation is one of those things that the virtual realm does really, really well. With real analog circuits, only a huge modular synth might offer the UltraNova’s level of flexibility. This matrix can have up to 20 slots, each of which can include two sources and a destination. If one source is a physical controller such as aftertouch or the mod wheel, and it’s at zero, the other source (e.g., an LFO) has no effect—how you’d usually want it, in other words.

Three LFOs and six envelopes are among the available sources; the first two envelopes are dedicated to volume and filter cutoff, respectively. Sensibly, “gating” a modulation routing with a Touch knob (see “Controls” on page 44) doesn’t use up a source slot. Another nice touch is that the mod wheel can control a dedicated vibrato that lives in the oscillator section, so you don’t need to waste an LFO on this most common type of modulation.

Effects and Gator

You can use up to five effects at once, with routings that cover straight serial, all five in parallel, and six hybrid setups. To these five slots, you can allocate a three-band EQ, two each of compressors, distortions, delays, and reverbs, four choruses, and a single Gator. The distortion types include bit-crusher and lo-fi sample rate effects as well as modeled tube overdrive.

The Gator creates those chopped rhythmic effects heard in everything from electronic dance music to the synthetic organ part on Seal’s hit “Crazy.” It lets sound pass (or not) according to a 32-step temposynced pattern, with adjustable volume per step, which you can edit and save per patch. An adjustable panning delay is dedicated to the Gator, an “Edge Slew” setting determines whether gated notes sound abrupt or fade in, and you can choose whether the Gator restarts the pattern each time you strike a key. Like with most anything in the UltraNova, you start off thinking the Gator is fairly simple, then find you can spend days exploring possibilities.

My one beef with the effects is that to bypass them, you have to dial down through effect types until you get to “bypass.” I’d prefer to just press a button to kill and resurrect effects during live performance. The workaround is to assign an effect’s amount to a knob in Tweak mode so you can crank it all the way down, but then there’s the fiddly matter of turning it back up to the desired value. Suggestion for an OS update: Make effect bypass an option for what the knobs do in Touch mode!

Vocoder and Audio Interface

If you can hit the UltraNova’s Vocoder button and last ten minutes without saying “harder, better, faster, stronger” or “trans-Europe express” into the included gooseneck mic, you’re much less of a geek than I am. Since you can make any sound in the machine a Vocoder patch, it’s easy to find sounds that work well with your voice.

The mic sounds decent, but I got better word articulation by plugging in my old-faithful Shure Beta 58. Since Novation put a nice XLR jack (as opposed to something cheaper or proprietary) on the panel, this was easy. The 1/4" balanced inputs on the back can also feed the vocoder, which means you could sidechain the whole synth off an audio source such as a drum loop for exotic rhythmic percolations. Francis Preve is gonna want one of these.

Speaking of audio input, the UltraNova has a two-in/four-out audio interface, and can process audio through the synth engine. For doing the latter, the external inputs show up as oscillator waveform choices. The XLR jack is on the same channel as 1/4" input 1, and in the Audio menu, you can toggle whether inputs 1 and 2 are independent or stereo linked. You can also record the synth itself over USB to your DAW, but I never got quite as hot a signal as I wanted using this method—it topped out around –10dB. Otherwise, the sound quality and low latency were excellent, on par what I’d expect from an entry-level Saffire from Novation’s sister company Focusrite. It doesn’t do 88.2 or 96kHz, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Other Features

Though the arpeggiator has all the features you’d expect, it’s one of the only UltraNova areas I’d describe as relatively basic. The usual up, down, up/down, random, chord, and as-played modes have 33 further variations each, called patterns, and they’re old school—no drum parts, no instrument-specific phrases. A separate chord generator can memorize one chord of up to ten notes, playing it back when you strike a single key, which is always the root. The arpeggiator and “Chorder” can work at the same time, but both seem intended for internal sounds only, as I couldn’t get them to transmit MIDI to play any of my soft synths. These only registered the notes I physically played on the keyboard.

Portamento is quite sophisticated. In addition to a linear mode, you get a curve where the glide slows down as it approaches the target note. In “pre-glide” mode, notes begin up to an octave (adjustable in half-steps) up or down from the keys you strike, then glide towards them. This effect re-triggers separately for each note struck, and is great for woozy CS-80-ish sounds. All arpeggiator, Chorder, and portamento settings are storable per patch.

I’ll shoehorn in a couple of notes that’ll keep you from cussing out your UltraNova on your first day with it. First, it’s not USB class compliant, so you’ll need to download a free software package (Mac or Windows) if you want your computer to see it as an audio and MIDI device. This also gives you the librarian and editor. Second, if you’re editing, accidentally moving the data dial one click is all it takes to load a patch and lose your work. An “unsaved changes” warning in the LCD would go a long way here. Novation says they’re working on this, and all my other nitpicks, for a future update.

Conclusions

Given the three octaves, three oscillators, and same street price at press time, comparisons to the Roland Gaia (reviewed July ’10) are inevitable. They’re also misguided, because the UltraNova is such a different animal. Where the Gaia’s classic signal path design and one-slider-per-function panel (well, almost) make it an ideal first virtual analog synth, the UltraNova’s far deeper sound engine makes it the last such synth you’ll need for some time. A better comparison is the Waldorf Blofeld (reviewed May ’08), which also bundles virtual analog waves and PPG-like wavetables in a three-oscillator format, and has similar polyphony at 25 voices. Though the Blofeld is multitimbral, you need host software or a multi-channel MIDI controller to get at this, as there’s no “multi” mode onboard. (UPDATE: Version 1.15 of the Blofeld OS adds 128 onboard Multi mode slots, which can be programmed right from the front panel. There are even graphical screens for splits and layers, MIDI channel assignment, MIDI volumes, and so on. Thanks to reader Mark Mosher for this update, and apologies to Waldorf for the flub. -Ed.) The UltraNova has far more effects power, and the Blofeld can’t touch it for realtime control and ease of editing. Also, the Blofeld has no audio inputs or audio interfacing.

The UltraNova has sound quality and programming depth to please the most hardcore synth snobs, but is so fun to use that beginners won’t feel intimidated. The vocoder is a cool addition, and the audio interface has the fidelity and routing options of a standalone unit. The only real shortcoming is the lack of multitimbral capability. I hope Novation has an eye towards some kind of “UltraNova II” with more polyphony, perhaps 61 keys, and eight (heck, four) multitimbral parts. Given what the present UltraNova does with just one part, though, I might go so far as to call it the deepest implementation of the virtual analog paradigm next to Arturia’s Origin—which lists for $3,200. This makes the UltraNova one of the most outstanding synth values you can buy.

Specifications

PROS Very smooth virtual analog sound. Intuitive front-panel editing. Tons of realtime control. Touch-sensitive knobs. Crazy modulation matrix. Has aftertouch. Fantastic software editor and librarian. USB powerable.

CONS Not multitimbral. No latch function for knobs in Touch mode— they’re momentary only. No warning if you leave edit mode and lose your changes.

Ultra_Rear_closeupCONCEPT Performance-oriented virtual analog synth with built-in vocoder, audio interface, and Automap control surface functionality.

POLYPHONY 20 voices.

SYNTHESIS TYPE Modeled analog waveforms, PCM wavetables, plus subtractive.

SYNTH ENGINE 3 oscillators, noise source, 2 multimode filters, 3 LFOs, and 6 envelopes: volume, filter, plus 4 assignable.

AUDIO INTERFACE RESOLUTION 24-bit, 44.1 or 48kHz.

PRICE List: $849.99
Approx. street: $700

novationmusic.com

AutomapScreenThe UltraNova comes with a code to download Automap Pro, Novation’s software that maps hardware controls to onscreen ones. I needed to update my existing install to the latest version (3.7 at press time) for it to work. Once I did, the eight knobs became software controllers, and dedicated buttons on the UltraNova switched between modes to control soft synths, plug-in effects, or my DAW’s mixer. The patch select knob becomes Novation’s trademark Speed Dial, which adjusts whatever you point your mouse at. A couple of limitations: None of the UltraNova’s buttons can be controllers (so you can’t do play, rewind, etc.), and when in Automap mode, you can neither control nor hear the UltraNova itself; press “Synth” to get back to where you can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UltraNova-EditorUltraNova Editor

The free download that includes the USB driver you need for computer connection also gives you a fantastic software editor. Two-way updating between hardware and editor is instant and glitchfree. You need a VST, AU, or RTAS host program in which to put the editor on an instrument track, but it doesn’t pass audio, so set up a separate audio track to hear the UltraNova. The included patch librarian is a separate standalone program.

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