As I recall Novation were a leading company right out in front of everyone else at the end of the nineties with their classic Supernova II synthesizer. This award winning synth captured my heart at the time, but it was some years later before I was able to buy one. I was saddened by the fact that they stopped making Synths after this and moved their expertise to a different product range with Focusrite’s acquisition of Novation in 2004. I was therefore extremely surprised to find that after more than 10 years they were releasing a new synth, perfectly named – The Ultranova.
In this review I want to provide you with my feelings on the instrument as I find it after unpacking and try and look at some comparisons with the Roland GAIA and indeed the Supernova II. If you need any additional information not covered here then please go to Absolutemusic who have also included a couple of great You Tube Clips demonstrating the Ultranova and showing you how sounds are created – great stuff.
LOOKS AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The Ultranova is a blue 18 note polyphonic, monotimbral, 3-octave virtual analogue keyboard with 3 oscillators, dual filters, touch animation and a vocoder. You can assign up to 5 great effects to each patch, it can be used as a USB interface and an Automap Controller. It also has an intricate Modulation Matrix and is great for Dance, Trance, Electro and all associated genres.
Like its predecessors, I love its gorgeous blue colour (which has some real twenty-ten gloss to it), its futuristic slimness in its design and its new knob-twiddling experience with touch-sensitive encoders, its long thin LCD and illuminated pitch and modulation wheels. OK so now I am hooked by its looks, but is it going to come up to my expectations for my priorities? I want it to have a great sound, be very user-friendly and logical in its layout and be designed in such a way that you are able to create awesome new sounds very easily?
CREATING SOUNDS – NO PEEPS AT THE MANUAL
I am going to start creating a sound before I know anything about this synth by taking a preset and altering it beyond all recognition into something WOW! I have selected a lead sound as a basis, yes this preset sounds OK but it is not really doing much for me, I want a sound that excites, soars, screams and can cut right through the mix. After all that’s what a lead sound should do – isn’t it?
There are 8 knob-encoders and one large encoder at the end and the button under knob 8 shows a light under the word “Filter”. Presumably, if I just turn the large encoder it will adjust the Filter. Yes that is better; this lead sound has more bite to it. As I click on the Oscillator button my display is showing 8 different fields so I assume correctly that logically the 8 encoders change the corresponding values in the fields. After making a series of random changes to the selections including the effects section, I realise I have quickly made a sound I like. Your ears are very important in this respect, probably more so than the random tweaking that was going on but I know what I like and I experimented until I was happy with the result. Sometimes carrying out this approach on some synths, leads you to disastrous results, but I found the Ultranova to be very accommodating in that all my changes to the sounds were good and not too destructive, whilst others were more appealing to me.
NAME THAT SOUND – SAVE THAT SOUND
I have my superb creation – how do I name and save it? I hit the “Write” button and the long display changes. I tried encoder 3 and I could amend the first character of the name but I was not sure how to amend the rest. Then I noticed a star above the first character and encoder 2 had an arrow indicating position. Again I assumed correctly that encoder 2 in this circumstance would move along the name for you to amend each character.
Now what do I do? I hit the “Write” button again which gives me the option to decide what Category and Genre to give it and exactly where I wish to save it; which bank (A, B, C or D), which patch (0 – 127)? Do I consider this User-Friendly? Yes, I have created a new sound with no knowledge extracted from the Manual. The clear readable display and simple buttons and encoders make the job a breeze.
OK let’s now have a look at the Manual. I personally think that Manuals should be clear, easy to follow and contain hints and tips for everyone to get the best out of their product. Novation do try to give you a lot of information here and I did find myself a few times reading the same bit over again but all in all I would recommend that you do go through it.
On my first glance through I did pick up some vital info on the two “Animate” buttons – Tweak and Touch. When you press the Tweak button, your eight encoders become an edit facility for eight parameters that the Ultranova considers the best areas for you to adjust/edit your sound patch. The Touch button makes the eight encoders touch-sensitive to change and tweak your sounds “live”.
I did however think that there is very little information on using the Ultranova as an Audio Interface. Perhaps Novation could create a supplementary document on this?
There are 3 Banks (A to C) of 128 presets = 384 sounds with an empty bank D giving you a total of 512. I worked my way through them and found some great evolving Pads, some gritty bass sounds and usable lead sounds. I may be wrong but it seems that Novation have created many presets on a basic level but with the tweaking controls bringing them to life. I suppose I am like most people and I want something more in the presets, so that when you tweak them, they go into Outer Space. This may be easier said than done but I am convinced this keyboard is capable of this.
If you purchase this keyboard and find you are a little disappointed with the presets, then I would advise that you turn this into a positive and tweak these sounds to your hearts content, making them personal to you and special. This exercise will provide you with not just your own great patch banks but a great deal of knowledge on the synth you have purchased. With 3 oscillators, 3 LFOs, a great selection of waveforms, 14 filter types, 6 envelopes and a whole load of modulation sources there should be no stopping you.
There are two balanced audio inputs and four unbalanced outputs, 3 MIDI, USB, Auto-sensing sustain and an expression pedal, headphone socket ans S/PDIF output. It also has a power adapter connection with a three-way switch to select Mains, USB or Off and a Kensington Lock port.
It is interesting to see the visual differences between the Supernova and the Ultranova and how things change after 10 or so years pass. The build seems more plastic-like today as the world demands more for less and compromises are made to keep costs down but at the same time as technology moves on, the specifications increase. The Supernova had almost too many knobs whilst it is very noticeable that the Ultranova has a lack of them. Owners of the Supernova II want to know if it is worth having an Ultranova as well in their setup. I must say I am tempted by its charms and they really are very different beasts in terms of sound, layout and performance.
The Ultranova and the GAIA are very similar in functionality and price. It is a difficult choice trying to say which is the best, but for me personally, I wish there was a hybrid of the two. I love the effects layout on GAIA but equally I love the eight tweakable touch encoders on the Ultranova and its modulation matrix. I think if you have other Roland keyboards, then choosing the Ultranova would add a different sound flavour to your collection.
The Ultranova does have a large thin 2 x 72 character LCD and editing is very straightforward but the experience can be so much quicker and easier with the use of the software editor provided. Unfortunately this five-page editor needs to run in your DAW and will not work in stand-alone mode. As I loaded this up, I was surprised as to how clear everything looked with superb graphical images to show you what was going on inside this little beast.
I went straight to the Modulation Matrix (my favourite bit). This was mainly because it has twenty instances of modulation and each of these can have two modulation sources and I wanted to see what this looked like. You can also assign the Touch functions here, so I made some very quick changes by mouse. Moving to the Filter Page, I had a go at randomly dragging my mouse over the filter envelope and I was very pleased with the results. This definitely converted me to editing by the software editor as the best means of editing and creating.
I also wanted to change the name of one of my patches and I hunted around but could not find it until I decided to look in the Librarian. I suppose this is a logical place for it as the Librarian is designed to manage your patches.
I did not like the fact that the Modulation Matrix in the Editor displayed the choices in two stages 1 to 10 and 11 to 20. I expected to see the whole 20 on screen and their parameters. I feel this would be more sensible to identify any editing errors. For example, as you touch encoder 3, you may not like the sound it is producing. You then start to edit encoder 3 in sections 1 to 10 not realising that you have another routing for encoder 3 in sections 11 to 20 causing the problem.
The Librarian is a separate software application which installs at the same time as the editor. I opened it to reveal a familiar looking file-manager. I found patches in two folders – “On My PC” and “On My Ultranova”. Within the “On My PC” folder, there were three sub-folders named:- My Patches, Grabbed Patches and Factory and in the “On My Ultranova” folders were the patches in the four banks A-D. That all seemed very logical with very simple naming conventions however, I was stumped by the “Grabbed Patches” as to what they are and why they were there? It seems that a “Grabbed Patch” allows you to quickly store on your PC or MAC, the sound currently in use on your Ultranova. Although it is not said, I think that this is a temporary folder for to save various edits of the sound you are working on so that you can quickly sort out at a later point as to which edit you wish to keep.
The Ultranova comes with a 12-band vocoder and also generously supplies an XLR microphone. You can select one of the 8 vocoder preset patches to add some interesting vocal sounds. This is a bit of fun and its addition makes me think of the Quasimidi Sirius Synth. At this price point, I would stress the fun element here as I feel this is not one of the Ultranova’s strong points.
AUTOMAP AND 2 IN 4 OUT USB AUDIO INTERFACE
I activated Automap and the Ultranova became a control surface for me to tweak my soft synths. I could see the value changes on the Ultranova’s screen. I believe it uses Automap Pro which is great for mapping the parameters of your VSTs instantly.
Yes, the Ultranova also acts as an audio interface with two inputs and four outputs. I felt that this is a great bonus to an already feature-packed synth and could be very useful in some “live” situations
ARPEGGIATOR, GATOR AND CHORD FUNCTION
This Synth is designed for Rhythmic Sounds and the arpeggiator is one way to achieve this. You can choose from 33 patterns and change various modes such as; the number of octaves, tempo, velocity, the gate time and Sync mode. I enjoyed playing with all the mode variations to produce my dance-oriented sounds.
The Gator in the effects section reminds me of a step sequencer. It acts as a clocked gate over the other effects you have selected. I found that on many occasions, this really did provide that polyrhythmic groove that I was seeking.
There is also a chord function. I know it is dreadful one-note playing by assigning all of the polyphony to one note, but it does have its uses and adds to the Ultranova’s versatility.
For me the touch animation is what sets this synth apart from the rest. What a simple but brilliant idea. The potential to easily change sounds in different ways in a “live” setup are enormous. The Modulation Matrix starts to push this synth up to the dizzy heights of the Access Virus. If you add in its portability, wide LCD, Software editor and Librarian, Arpeggiator, Chord memory, aftertouch, animate buttons and DAW integration, you have a great little synth with a small price tag.
MY SOUND PATCHES
TECHNOVA – 64 GREAT SOUND PATCHES FOR YOUR NOVATION ULTRANOVA – Please go here for full details, details of the patches and a You Tube Clip to demo the sounds:-http://www.tonylongmusic.co.uk/novation-ultranova-sound-pack/
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