When Keyboard reviewed the Novation UltraNova in April 2011, editor Stephen Fortner praised it for delivering “sound quality and programming depth to please the most hardcore synth snobs.” His wish list for the next generation was short: more keys, more polyphony, and multitimbrality. Novation went the opposite direction with the new MiniNova, packing the UltraNova’s sound engine into an even smaller case. They also added some slick performance features and cut the street price by $200.
What It’s Like, What It’s Not
At first glance, the MiniNova resembles a MicroKorg XL, with its three-octave mini-keyboard, gooseneck mic, and large patch select knob. Both offer virtual analog synthesis and digital waveforms. Both are 22 inches wide, fitting inside carry-on luggage. They’re even street-priced the same. Having reviewed both the MicroKorg and the UltraNova, I can speak to the differences.
The MiniNova has 18 voices of polyphony to the MicroKorg’s eight; in vocoder mode, the Korg drops to four voices. Each MiniNova voice has three oscillators; the Korg has two (although it includes some longer samples and is two-part multitimbral). The MiniNova offers five simultaneous effects—three more than the Korg. It also sports a sustain pedal input, full-size pitch and mod wheels, a much deeper modulation matrix, and a more solid feel.
Unlike the MicroKorg, the MiniNova doesn’t run on batteries. It also lacks the Korg’s outstanding Natural Touch keys. The keys on the MiniNova are stiff, and the black keys have more resistance, so it can be hard to play precisely. That said, I found the keys fine for all but the fastest leads and bass lines. You get three velocity curves plus a drum mode (two velocity levels) and fixed velocity. If you want full-size keys with a crisp Fatar action and aftertouch, there’s the UltraNova.
Other differences from the UltraNova include weight (5.5 versus 13 pounds) and connectivity. The UltraNova adds a two-in/four-out USB audio interface, MIDI thru, an expression pedal jack, S/PDIF out, and AutoMap controller capability. It also has an extra patch bank and many more knobs and buttons for editing.
Novation bills the UltraNova as more of a sound designer’s synth, with all parameters easily accessible from the front panel. You can adjust almost every setting on the MiniNova too, but that requires lots of button-tapping. The upcoming editor software should help. A librarian program will load UltraNova patches into the MiniNova, as the internals of the two synths are identical. In fact, we go a lot deeper into the sound engine in the UltraNova review, which we’ve re-upped here
As to included software, the MiniNova comes with download codes for Ableton Live Lite, Novation’s Bass Station soft synth, and 1GB of Loopmasters samples. The well-written manual is a download as well.
Meet the Panel
Notice the two huge knobs. The left selects patch type and the right always controls filter cutoff. Having a giant grip for that all-important parameter is a treat. All the knobs on the MiniNova have a quality feel. You can set the five performance knobs to “pickup” mode, so they don’t cause jumps in the sound.
You can tag each patch with a sound type and musical genre (for example, bass and dubstep). Stops along the left hemisphere of the selection knob are types; you get genres on the right. You then use the data encoder or patch buttons to choose patches in those categories. At 12 o’clock, the big knob lets you choose sounds from all categories. A switch sorts patches by name or number, which can speed up getting to the patch you want.
Category assignments are user-programmable, so you could assign all your lead sounds to alternate categories if the factory organization doesn’t suit you. The beta version of the software librarian made this easy. You can also store your eight favorite patches under the light-up pads for quick access.
My favorite patches were the bases, leads, vocoders, and synth pads. Basses are particularly massive, and the leads benefit from the nasty filter distortion and wild LFOs.
With up to 65dB of gain, the balanced mono input handles both guitar and
line-level signals. Using it disables the XLR mic jack. Around back, you also get a
sustain pedal jack, which is unusual on a mini-key synth.
The four Performance knobs at right work with a six-position slider to access 24 sound parameters. The first seven parameters are assignable per patch. The eighth controls global effects level, a convenience lacking on the UltraNova.
One UltraNova innovation was its eight skin-sensitive knobs: Simply touching the knob could momentarily offset the value of a parameter. I used that to transpose Oscillator 2 for parallel harmonies and increase delay feedback to make a solo pop out. The MiniNova improves on that feature by adding eight multicolor “Animate” pads and a Hold button to lock in their values. You can lock multiple pads at once, and even assign multiple modulation destinations to each pad. For example, a single pad could boost filter resonance and distortion while adding the fifth above the root note.
Flip a lever, and the pads become on/off buttons for steps in the arpeggiator. Flip back to “Animate,” and you can modulate the arpeggiated notes. Most of the deeper arpeggiator controls in the Edit menu stay live as well, such as gate time, octave span, swing, and length. That offers lots of performance variety. The big omission is a tap-tempo button, especially because the Tempo knob is not detented. I’d like to see a future OS update make the Favorite button double as a tap-tempo control.
The other big new feature on the MiniNova is its VocalTune effect, which has three modes. Scale Correction mode lets you specify a scale and a key. The MiniNova then pitch-shifts audio from the mic or line input to the nearest note in the scale. That’s ideal for hands-off correction.
Keyboard Control mode shifts the pitch to match the last note you played. Play a chord, and VocalTune shifts the incoming audio to the nearest note in the chord. This lets you play wacky melodies using external audio as the sound source. You can also bend the pitch and add vibrato with the pitch and mod wheels. It’s great fun—and highly overused, but the MiniNova is deep enough that you’re sure to find your own sound.
Finally, Pitch Shift mode transposes external audio. I created realtime harmonies by setting Oscillator 1 to use the incoming audio instead of its own waveforms, and then gating that audio with the keyboard. I then mapped the eight pads to change VocalTune’s pitch-shift value so I could add different harmonies by pressing a pad. On my voice, the transposition sounded natural up to a fourth above the original note.
The included gooseneck mic is really good at rejecting off-axis sounds, so I never got feedback when playing with my band. However, the mic picks up thumps when you play the MiniNova’s keys or tap its pads, so you may want a cabled mic instead. Plugging in my AKG D3900 improved the sound significantly.
Of course, old-school vocoder patches abound, and the MiniNova was audibly better than the UltraNova at making my synth-ified words understandable. Novation confirmed that this is due to an improved vocoder algorithm, which will also be available for the UltraNova in a firmware update.
For the same price as the MicroKorg XL or XL+, the MiniNova gives you deeper synthesis, a third oscillator, more polyphony, more effects, more performance controllers, and triple the patch memory. The keyboard action is just adequate, and we’d still like to see at least two-part multitimbral capability, but the MiniNova offers so many other ways to get hands-on with your sound that it sets a new level of expressive potential for a compact, affordable synth.
Powerful synth engine. Impressive virtual analog and digital sounds. Thoughtful, grab-able performance controls. Good-sounding vocoder and VocalTune effect. Generous software bundle.
No tap tempo button. No built-in battery power. No physical switch between mic and rear-panel inputs. Not multitimbral.
The power of a full-scale virtual analog and wavetable synth packed into a mini-keys package.
$ 625 list | $ 499 street