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On first impressions, Novation's UltraNova hardware synth is a beautiful thing, with its pitchbend and modulation wheels glowing a cool blue, and the 3-octave keyboard set into a matching blue housing with little red buttons.
Not just a pretty face though, the UltraNova also includes a gooseneck microphone that slots into an XLR socket on the top panel for vocoding and can even double as an audio interface by hooking it up to your computer via the USB socket and I/O jacks on the back. Handy!
So, it looks great, but what does it actually do?
First, a bit of history. Novation have long been known for producing quality hardware controllers for musicians working on computers, and also have a background in hardware synthesisers. In 1998, they designed the highly regarded SuperNova synth rack, capable of producing immense pads and atmospheric textures. The UltraNova is the latest in a line of synths based on that original rack, and Novation have been improving and innovating along the way.
As a performance keyboard, the UltraNova's both responsive and fun to play. Working through the presets on offer (there are four banks of 127 each, some of which are blank patches), it becomes obvious fairly quickly that Novation have a wide user group in mind. Nasty dubstep bass sounds sit side-by-side with Eno-esque washes and Jean-Michel Jarre arpeggios.
The synth engine in the UltraNova is extremely powerful. Three oscillators, a noise generator and two ring modulators provide the sound sources, with each oscillator drawing on a bank of 14 analogue waveform simulations, 20 digital ones and 36 wavetables. The sources are mixed, then pass through two separate filters on their way to the enveloped amplifier and effects units. No less than 14 different filter types can be used, and the two filters can be used in different types of parallel and series arrangements, independently or with their cutoff and/or resonance linked. There are also filter distortion modes, with esoteric names like 'Valve' and 'Diode' which crunch things up rather nicely.
Oscillators are the key to a synth's character, and these don't disappoint. The waveforms are extremely useable in themselves, and there are some little tricks available to make them even more interesting. For a start, each oscillator has a 'density' control which seems to add multiple instances of the same wave, and turning the control produces the sound of several oscillators in unison. There's a detune control for this, so even a single oscillator can sound like massed synths. Not only that, but each oscillator can be put into hard sync with itself, and the harmonic series adjusted by detuning the sync source. This is a classic hard, cutting sound greatly loved in techno music, and it normally needs all of a synth's power to produce it. But, in the UltraNova, I can build sounds with three of these at once if I really want to.
Finally the sound escapes via five effects slots, stackable and splittable just in case you want to experiment with compressed reverb layered with distorted echo, for example. Pretty much every sound on the UltraNova can be modulated by pretty much anything else (with 20 sources and 66 destinations), and some of the presets make impressive use of the possibilities, sounding hugely complex and full of motion.
And yes, the vocoder sounds pretty good too. It's only a 12-band device, but very useable. If you want to, you can process any analogue input using the synth section, so even guitarists and drummers can get something out of this little synth.
With a bit of clever use of its ten knobs, programming the UltraNova is relatively simple and never tedious. One large knob always selects patches and, in performance, the other large knob normally alters filter cutoff. The other eight smaller knobs above the 144-character display edit whatever parameter is directly under them. Press the Filter button, for instance, and you get all eight parameters for Filter 1 on the eight controls. Press the Select Down key and all the parameters for Filter 2 appear. Press Next Page, and the shared parameters for the filters appear. Easy.
The eight knobs respond to touch too, so simply tapping one puts that parameter onto the large Filter knob. This can then be 'locked' so the large knob permanently edits that parameter, even if you switch to a different page - really handy if you want to balance, say, filter and effects distortion without toggling pages. Even better, you can choose your favourite eight parameters for each individual patch and assign them to the eight controls using the 'Tweak' page so, during performance, you have exactly the parameters you want to play with all on one page.
It's been a pleasure exploring the Novation UltraNova, I must say. There's a lot to like here, and very little to criticise. If anything, it's a little too diverse, and perhaps anyone who spends ten minutes trying out the patches will come away thinking that only 10% of them are useful. The point is: it's a synth with something for everyone and it's possible to make sounds with it that are personal and, above all, different. On reflection, the UltraNova is well worth the investment in time to explore properly.
For more information on the Novation UltraNova hardware synth (with free stand and headphones!), give us a call on 03332 409 306 or email audio@Jigsaw24.com. We'd also love to hear your thoughts on the UltraNova, so feel free to leave a comment and we'll be in touch.