Review - Novation Peak May 24, 2018 12:43
Novation, you might have heard of them! Back in the golden age of VA (the late 90’s of course) the British company came out with some top shelf Virtual Analog synths. The Nova series were powerful, offered advanced modulation, up to 8 part multi-timbral and up to 48 voices. They were distinctive in appearance too, a gorgeous blue with loads of front panel controls. I’ve been fortunate enough to own both a Desktop Nova and a special edition SuperNova II. The Desktop is still my preferred format, but they also made a rack version which I’d love to get a hold of one day (they are somewhat rare in the US).
After the Nova line was discontinued Novation released the K series in the early 2000’s, more streamlined, a little less featured and to my ears they sound different too. The K-station rack is still, I think, one of the best looking rack-mount synths ever made.
Sadly, Novation eventually stopped producing hardware synths, and for years I watched with disappointment as they announced nothing but ever more tedious MIDI controllers. Looking back though this was probably what kept them alive, hardware was going out of style as software was maturing. The dream of being able to do full production with soft-synths was finally viable and the recession solidified the importance of this value for money. Still, I did hold out hope that as the hardware synth market slowly started to grow again we’d see another Nova series. And in 2011 we did!
The UltraNova lived up to it's name. With 3 oscillators, wavetables, FM, 2 Filters, 5 effects per patch, a vocoder with mic-preamp, audio interface, a sexy new body with touch sensitive knobs, including a big one just for the filter, a proper VST editor that worked in tandem with the hardware, and to top it all off it was somewhere under the $700 mark.
Overall though I perceived a major problem in it's presentation. All the audio demos I remember from the time sucked. I think they were going for an edgy dubstep, EDM sound which was all the rage, but the synth engine isn't really ideal for that. I'd categorize the UltraNova as a very tricky synth to really program right. Even today it’s quite difficult to find a good demo of these things online.
While it’s true they core oscillator sound is not a silky and liquid as the original Novas, it’s still capable of some great sounds. It just takes patience and effort. There’s also a bug I encountered that makes the situation worse. It’s a little while back now but from memory I believe the Phase setting of the oscillators was reversed. Free phase was not free phase at all, and obviously neither were any of the other phase degree settings, I believe it was 0º alone that was actual free phase. This of course leads to a lot of rigid sounds or lazery sounding detune patches.
But I digress! Now, there’s another interesting side to Novation. Back in the early 90’s they also produced a very popular little analog synthesizer, the Bass Station. You might be more familiar with it’s modern incarnation, the bass-station II.
So with all this expertise in both Digital and Analog synthesis the logical step was to merge them. This is where the Peak comes in.
The Peak is the hybrid synth merging the two lines into one. It’s filter stage is analog but it’s oscillators are digital. These are not your dad’s digital oscillators however, these are NCO’s or Oxford Oscillators as Novation calls them. While older digital synths ran at 441.k, these calculated at an insanely high sample rate in the millions, the likes of which I can only recall seeing on some select (and expensive!) digital oscillators in the Euro-rack format.
Practically this means that in terms of fidelity, these oscillators are well beyond indistinguishable from analog. The FM is ultra pure, and the Peak certainly makes use of this, with all 3 oscillators in the loop, with Osc1 modulating 2, 2 modulating 3 and 3 modulating 1.
After this the digital stage is converted to analog where it stays analog all the way to the output. The analog Multi-mode filter is next then, with 12dB and 24dB variants, which I imagine must share characteristics of the Bass Station II.
This is then mixed with a digital effects section, but the analog signal path is preserved and the FX section is run in parallel.
The build quality is very good. It’s not a tank like a Virus, but it doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy and there’s no wiggle in the controls.
It has all the usual waveforms, saw, square with PWM, triangle and sine, as well as wavetables and 20 slot modulation matrix. All these waveforms are shapable, and it even has a dedicated modulation controls for shaping and pitch on the front panel. Just like the old Nova’s it can also simulate 3 sawtooth’s in unison for each oscillator, sadly this feature is for sawtooth only. For the phat sounds though you can stack the voices, with detune and stereo spread, in either 2, 4 or 8 voice unison mode.
It’s a bit of a hybrid in other ways though. It’s has neither the simplicity and gooey all-analog sound of say and Prophet 6, or the complexity of say a Waldorf synth. It’s got just enough of both to be very interesting (and addictive!) in it’s own right. Where I feel it lacks a little is in modulation capability. 20 Slots is great, but I’m missing panning as a destination, a random source (though see my video below for more on that) and perhaps an alternate mode, where each key produces the same 2 alternate values in succession. While that’s a little nit picky, I think more people will agree with me when I say it lack’s good wavetables. What we have is OK but it’s not on the level of say Waldorf Largo, but then Waldorf is famous for it’s wavetables for a reason. This is a similar complaint I had to another Hybrid, the DSI Pro-2.
I expected the Peak to be a kind of souped up Nova, but it really isn’t. It has a strange mix of analog grittiness, with a pure digital source. With the popularity of synth-wave today, the Peak is kind of ideal, as it can do both vintage analog and some big hair 80’s digital. All of it with it’s own distinctive flavor though. It’s also got a distinctive filter, especially in band-pass. With higher resonance it has a really interesting harmonic quality to it. This is sublime when used for pads, the old school kinds you’d find on rompers from Roland, especially when combined with the actual wavetables included, but it does seem difficult to keep it from distorting at high resonance. Lots of comments have been made on the FX, particularly the reverb. While the reverb is very good I think the chorus is excellent too.
On the whole I find the Peak to be a true hybrid synthesizer. With proper internal gain staging it’s able to do some extremely clean digital sounds, but then there’s 3 distortion/overdrive points to play with, allowing you to mangle that sound. It’s likewise capable of a range of analog sounds, from super clean to dark and angry, but because the distortion points are analog it never feels fake or plastic.
Some awesome features of the Novation Peak:
- Filter Divergance
- Modulate ADSR
- Arp has Rhythms and swing!
- Mono Panning
- S/H LFO reset
- Post Filter but Pre-VCA distortion
- VCA Destination (AM)
- Oscillator Diverge and Drift
- Shapeable waveforms
Check out some audio of the Peak here, from Star Drive