Review: Novation MoroderNova Synthesizer - KeyboardMag

Review: Novation MoroderNova Synthesizer

Review of the Novation MoroderNova synthesizer
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Back when i was in high school, my best friend got a Casio mt-40 as his first keyboard. Synths with miniature keys were just starting to hit the market and despite its diminutive size, the MT-40 actually became something of an underground hit. It sounded great through a chorus and phaser, and several of its auto-accompaniment sequences actually made it into a few new wave and even reggae tracks.

Overview

In the three decades since that era, mini keyboards have become a way of life for smaller studios and touring artists. Korg kicked the snowball down the hill back in 2002 with their MicroKorg and then Novation jumped into the fray in 2012 with their Mini-Nova keyboard. Most recently, Roland and Yamaha have entered the market with the JD-Xi and Reface keyboards, respectively, both of which are swiftly becoming major hits in the portable market.

The MiniNova is an extremely capable virtual analog synth, based on the synthesis engine of its big brother, the UltraNova. This year, Novation took that technology and approached synthesizer legend Giorgio Moroder about creating a “signature series” synth with a brand-new visual aesthetic and a collection of presets based on Moroder’s legendary discography. The result is the MoroderNova.

With its streamlined, brushed aluminum design festooned with Moroder’s funky mustachioed logo, the MoroderNova’s aesthetics are both retro and clean. Beyond that, the underlying technology is essentially the same as the MiniNova. The front panel sports a fairly intuitive layout, reminiscent of the MicroKorg in some ways, with two massive knobs for preset selection and filter cutoff. Editing the collection of presets is a relatively straightforward process, thanks to a matrix of four multi-function knobs that can be switched to control the most commonly used parameters, depending on the position of a small lever.

The six editing modes for the knobs include oscillator functions, filter parameters, ADSR envelopes for the amp and filter, and two modes aptly named “tweaks:” one for effects and another for clever synth macros that are tailored for each preset. Further customization is accessed by another Novation innovation consisting of a set of eight pads that can be switched between editing arpeggiator steps and an “animate” mode that calls up alternate versions of each preset. In addition to its synthesizer features, the MoroderNova also includes the same vocoding and vocal tuning amenities as the Mini-Nova, along with an included gooseneck microphone to get you up and running out of the box.

Synthesis Architecture

Fig. 1. The included software editor communicates seamlessly with the Moroder- Nova and offers control of everything pretty much at once. While basic edits to the presets are easily handled by the front panel knob matrix, the MoroderNova’s underlying synthesis engine is extremely deep. Yes, you can access it from the front panel via convoluted methods, but thanks to the included VST-based editor (see Figure 1), there’s no need for that. Just attach the MoroderNova to your computer via USB and fire up your DAW.

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From there, the synthesis tools are surprisingly deep for an instrument this size, thanks to the fact that it’s based on the UltraNova. What’s more, UltraNova patches can be loaded into the MoroderNova with full compatibility. There are no multi-timbral features in the MoroderNova, but considering the size and performance, I didn’t feel that was a deal-breaker.

The Nova’s signal path is a standard subtractive affair with three oscillators feeding dual multimode filters with up to five effects at the end of a patch. The oscillators are quite a bit deeper than the usual virtual analog fare, with sine, square, triangle, and pulse, nine combination saw/pulse waves, 20 digital waveforms, and 36 wavetables that can be swept like a PPG or Xfer’s Serum soft synth. In addition to wavetable sweeping, the oscillators also offer virtual hard sync for each and a “density detune” section that’s useful for today’s ubiquitous super-saw effects. The oscillators feed a mixer that includes discrete levels for each, a noise generator (with four different noise types) and two ring modulators. With all of these options, the possibilities here are extremely complex, though I must say that the overall sound has a digital edge, much like an Access Virus or a Nord Lead.

The dual filters can be configured in various ways, including series and two different parallel modes. Each filter can operate in lowpass, highpass, or bandpass modes with multiple roll-off slopes available for each mode. All but the 6dB-per-octave highpass and lowpass modes are resonant, and both filters include a drive section with seven different models available, including bit-crushing for extra crunch.

The Nova’s modulation amenities are extremely complex, with three LFOs and six ADSR envelopes that can be routed to pretty much every useful synth parameter. The LFOs go far beyond the usual waveforms, with exotic options that are tuned to specific scales and modes, as well as several pseudo step-sequencer presets. As for the envelopes, they deviate slightly from standard ADSRs in that there are individually adjustable slopes for attack and decay, as well as a sustain time parameter for long fades as a note is held.

The effects section is complex as well, with eight possible effects routing configurations, including six with elaborate feedback loops. The effects themselves cover all of the essentials, with distortion, compression, EQ, delay, reverb, chorus/phaser, and a gating tool. At first, I was disappointed by the lack of a flanger, but the chorus can be set up for flanging if you use a very short delay with high feedback—which is crucial for many ’70s-era Moroder sounds such as the sequences from “I Feel Love” and “The Chase.” That said, I was quite impressed with the possibilities lurking in the Nova’s effect section and it really rounds out the sound of the synth beautifully.

Presets

With so much hype around the Moroder-approved preset banks, I was eager to dive into the Nova’s collection. Like the original MiniNova, the MoroderNova includes 384 patches, arranged in three banks of 128. The first two banks are identical to the MiniNova, while the third bank is dedicated to the Giorgio Moroder patches, of which there are 50 sounds, with the other 78 patch slots blank so that you can add your own patches or edits of the others.

I’ll be candid here. I’ve designed a lot of my own synth patches over the years—both professionally and for my own enjoyment—and I’ve been listening to Moroder since I was a teenager. So I really put the Moroder bank under my electron microscope. Overall, I was quite impressed with many of the sounds, notably the bass patch for Berlin’s classic “Take My Breath Away,” the bass from “Call Me,” and the pads from “Cat People.” On the other hand, I felt that the bass and percussion sounds for “I Feel Love” were a tad off. In the case of the bass sound, the decay wasn’t sharp enough and the resonance too extreme. This was easily fixed by a trip to the front panel knobs. As for its percussion sound, Novation’s emulation used a phaser instead of the obvious flanger from the original. Again, this can be fixed by swapping it for the chorus effect with a short delay, described above. Of course, the majority of users probably won’t notice this level of detail and you can quickly edit most patches to taste via the front panel, but I’m a purist and this is a signature edition, so naturally I’m going to go deep on the specifics. That said, taken as a whole, these patches are certainly evocative of Giorgio’s sound and lend an air of authenticity to the branding of the product.

Vocoder

The vocoder section here is identical to the Mini-Nova and frankly, it’s one of the better integrated vocoders on the market, especially if you’re going for a vintage vibe. While there are only 12 filter bands in the Nova’s model, these are great for those classic ’80s robot voices and Kraftwerk-style voice effects. In addition, the vocoder section includes a “vocal tune” effect that does a fine job of emulating Auto-Tune for R&B and pop styles.

Conclusions

I was already a fan of Novation’s UltraNova and MiniNova, so perhaps I’m a tad biased about the MoroderNova, as it’s identical except for the cosmetics and presets. For a portable keyboard, it’s a fantastic sounding digital synth with a lot going for it, including a solid vocoder with pitch-correction features. As for the Moroder-specific patches, I’d give those four out of five stars as a fan and a sound designer. These presets are extremely good overall, but with only 50 available and Giorgio’s name on the product, I was expecting absolute perfection across the board because I know that the Nova architecture is capable of it. Either way, if you’re in the market for a Mini-Nova and have a soft spot for Giorgio’s sound, this could be the ticket.

Snap Judgment PROS

Deep and flexible synthesis architecture. Tons of real-time performance controls. Integrated vocoder with vocal tuning. Elaborate effects with sophisticated routing. Eighteen-voice polyphony.

CONS No battery power. A few Moroder-inspired patches fall short.

Bottom Line

A great stand-alone mini-synth and a powerful homage to a legendary producer.

$624.99 | $450 street
morodernova.com