Novation Bass Station II Analog Synth Review

December 6, 2013
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Back in 1993, Novation released the Bass Station. It was a monophonic analog synth optimized for bass, with a sound that was reminiscent of the Roland TB-303, which was all the rage with the early ’90s rave scene. Twenty years later, Novation is back with a 21st-century take on the original, retaining the original’s fully analog signal path and adding a slew of modern amenities that make the Bass Station II a worthy contender in today’s back-to-the-future analog landscape.

PROS: Fully analog signal path. Tons of filter options. Ring mod, overdrive, distortion, and filter FM deliver a ton of sonic flexibility. Excellent arpeggiator. USB-powerable. 

CONS: Toggling between oscillators, LFOs, and filters can be a tad fiddly.

Bottom Line: If you’re familiar with the original Bass Station, it’s back with a vengeance. If you’re not, this is an excellent and affordable entry into having a real analog synth on your desktop.

$629.99 list | $499.99 street | novationmusic.com


Overview

The original Bass Station included the essentials for a solid analog synth: Two oscillators, a resonant lowpass filter, dual attack-decay-sustain-release envelopes, and an LFO. By today’s standards, that’s still a solid offering. For the Bass Station II, Novation didn’t want to simply regurgitate the original specs into an increasingly crowded market of affordable desktop analog synths. Instead, they piled on a ton of extras, like multimode filtering, dual LFOs, ring modulation, a sub-oscillator, two different kinds of distortion, and an array of other goodies, all while keeping the original’s overall feel and compact two-octave footprint.

Unboxing the unit, I plugged it into my computer via USB and reached for the wall-wart power adapter. Returning to the synth, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually USB powered as well. So with everything up and running in less than three minutes, I jacked it into my mixer and began fiddling.


Synth Engine

The Bass Station II’s architecture is extraordinarily flexible for a $500 analog synth. Each of the dual oscillators includes sine, triangle, saw, and variable pulse, as well as the ability to hard-sync the oscillators. The pulse width can be adjusted manually, or modulated by an envelope or LFO—and these settings are independent for each oscillator, resulting in some super fat sounds when combined with a touch of detuning.

The sub-oscillator is a bit more flexible than most, with options for sine, square and pulse waves and either one- or two-octave tracking.

Over in the mixer section, there are separate knobs for each oscillator, the sub-oscillator, and a switchable knob that does triple duty for blending in a ring-mod signal, white noise, or—yes!—an external input for processing audio through the Bass Station II’s filter and amp modules.

The filter section is where the Bass Station II really shines. For starters, it offers fully resonant lowpass, highpass, and bandpass modes, but that’s just an appetizer. There’s also a slope switch for two-pole or four-pole operation (12dB- or 24dB-per-octave) and a very cool amenity that switches the filter between “Classic” and “Acid” modes. Classic mode is smooth, warm and transparent. Acid mode is where things get interesting, as it affects the character of the filter resonance, giving it that trademark TB-303 squelch, especially when combined with the filter’s super-meaty overdrive. A pair of modulation knobs let you modulate the cutoff via the second envelope or LFO, so all of the standard animation tricks are present and accounted for. As an added bonus, the cutoff frequency knob is quite large—about four times the size of the rest of the knobs on the unit—which a big plus for realtime performance, especially in a darkened venue. 

The dual LFOs and ADSRs are fairly standard, with sync options for both LFOs and a nifty “slew” parameter that softens the edges of the sample-and-hold and square waves quite nicely.

Rounding out the voice architecture is a pair of effect knobs at the end of the chain: Distortion and filter FM (called “Osc Filter Mod” here). The distortion is also analog and really ratchets up the acid-style aspects of the Bass Station II’s filter. Finally, a full-featured arpeggiator delivers all of the standard percolating effects and includes a few nifty sequencer-like functions for non-standard riffing.


Sound Quality

So, even with a truckload of synthesis tools on board, there’s the issue of overall sonic character. After all, today’s analog synth market is brimming with options around the $500 price point. On one hand, you’ve got synths that ooze character, like Arturia’s MiniBrute and Korg’s new MS-20 Mini. At the other end of the spectrum are instruments with a smoother feel, like Dave Smith’s Mopho series. So where does the Bass Station II fit in?

The first thing I noticed when comparing the Bass Station II to the other analog synths in my arsenal is that it reminded me of a vintage Roland keyboard. When the filter is set to lowpass and Classic modes, the overall vibe was reminiscent of the original Junos and Jupiters. It was definitely on the smooth and creamy side, which would sit nicely in a mix without sounding awkward or dominating. Even with the overdrive knob turned up, there was a transparent quality to the sound.

Things get a whole lot different upon switching the filter to Acid mode and cranking up the analog distortion effect at the end of the chain. This beast cuts beautifully through a mix, commanding center stage while still leaving room for other parts in your track. For musicians looking to dive into analog while remaining in familiar sonic territory, the Bass Station II is a fantastic choice.

What’s more, the “Bass Station” moniker is a total misnomer—in a good way. Sure, you can use it for chunky bass and 303 emulations. This is bolstered all the more by its sub-oscillator, which adds a lot of girth, especially in sine wave mode. But this synth is so much more than a bass instrument. It’s fantastic at soaring festival leads and quirky techno riffs. In fact, it’s just as good at those as it is at bass.

The only caveat to all of this sonic goodness is that there are so many parameters that Novation had to forego the standard one-knob-per-function approach to analog, relying on switches to toggle between multiple oscillators, envelopes and LFOs. In addition, a smattering of more esoteric parameters are accessed using a function switch combined with keys on the keyboard itself. Granted, this isn’t a huge issue, and numerous other synths—notably Dave Smith’s Mopho line—take a similar approach. But when you’re caught up in a programming frenzy, it feels like a tiny speed bump on a stretch of clear highway.

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Conclusions

The Novation Bass Station II is a stellar analog synth that packs a ton of sound into a small footprint at a truly affordable price. I highly recommend it if you’re looking to go true analog for the first time—or if you’d like to add another color to a growing collection of desktop analog goodness. Plus, the fact that its external input allows you to process any kind of audio is a huge plus for DAW users who want to fatten up recorded tracks with analog lushness, making it a perfect companion for bedroom producers looking to expand their laptop-based studios. Overall, its value for the money makes it a Key Buy winner.

 
 

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