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Monday, September 05, 2016
MATRIXSYNTH Review and Overview of the Novation UltraNova
Hi everyone, you might remember, back in July I posted some pics of my newly acquired UltraNova, and mentioned that review posts would eventually follow. Well, I’m happy to tell you the first post is here. The UltraNova is one powerful synth, so to make the overall review a bit more consumable, it will be broken up over time. This first section includes an Overview, the Oscillators, and the Mixer sections. When new sections go up, I will be sure to let you know via a new post.
As with most of my reviews, I will say this one goes pretty deep into the synth engine and all editable parameters. If you are the type of person that likes to dissect and explore all of the available parameters on a synth, then this post is for you. I will touch on what each parameter does and will call out any interesting features and limitations as I do so. There are some pretty special parameters on the UltraNova that give you control beyond most other synths. Hopefully this review will give you some insight into what makes the UltraNova special.
Overview & Quick Comparison to Previous Nova Synths
The Novation UltraNova, released back in 2010, is a 20 voice virtual analog & wavetable synth with three oscillators, two ring modulators and one noise source per voice. The UltraNova also features two audio ins that can be assigned to the oscillator section and/or a 12-band vocoder. It’s worth noting that the Novation Nova from 1999 featured a 40-band vocoder, while the Supernova II from 2000 featured a 42-band vocoder. The UltraNova is a monotimbral synth while the 12 voice Nova was six part multitimbral and the Supernova II (24, 36, or 48 voice) was eight part multitimbral. The UltraNova supports up to 5 simultaneous effects per patch. The Nova supported 42 simultaneous effects, while the Supernova II supported up to 56. The Supernova II also supported FM synthesis while the Nova and UltraNova omit it.
The UltraNova, however, is the first Nova synth to feature wavetable synthesis. An interesting side note is that all of the oscillators on the UltraNova are actually stored as wavetables, including the standard waveforms. According to Novation, “The wavetables in the Supernova series are all calculated. The wavetables in the UltraNova, even the standard analogue waves are wavetable oscillators. This change in oscillator generation was first used on the A-Station and K-Station and subsequently in the KS series, X-Station and Xio.” This allows the UltraNova to have some advanced tricks when it comes to the oscillator section, which will be covered in detail below.
I asked Novation about the lack of FM synthesis and they told me, “FM would have been a lovely addition to the UltraNova, but it would have been asking too much of the DSP to be able to run everything the UltraNova can do and also add in FM. The wavetables were a really good way to introduce a new (to Novation) type of synthesis that is able to cater for some of the synth sounds that FM is known for and also to be able to create lush evolving pads.”
The UltraNova features two routable filters per voice with a total of 14 filter types to chose from including 6dB (no resonance), 12dB, 18dB, and 24dB with Lowpass, Bandpass and Hi-pass modes. The Nova and Supernova II lacked a 6dB mode.
As for hardware, although the UltraNova may have fewer knobs per function than its predecessors, it is extremely well laid out and super intuitive to use. Along with both keyboard velocity and aftertouch, the UltraNova has touch sensitive knobs. They literally respond to touch and can be assigned to various parameters. Worth noting, velocity is configurable, however, aftertouch is not. I found the aftertouch to be good, but it does require a little extra force than I prefer; it’s good for not accidentally triggering it, but not so good for subtle, natural performance.
Please note the above comparisons with the Nova and Supernova II were only for quick reference. The UltraNova of course is its own synth with a few tricks up its sleeves that are lacking in the original Nova line, including a level of control over the synth engine often only found in the modular realm. It sounds incredible, and for the price, currently only $599 new, it is an extremely flexible and powerful synth. You get the current top-of-the-line Novation Nova synth engine with new wavetables and more. The UltraNova is both a performance oriented synth as well as a synth programmers dream. It can be configured for easy access to specific parameters for a live situation, or you can dig as deep as you want with a clearly well thought out interface.
That said, let’s dig in.
The following review and overview will essentially go over the signal flow of the UltraNova followed by performance controls including the arpeggiator and the hardware interface. I’ll go into a little detail on what each feature can and cannot do in an attempt to give you a detailed idea of what the synth is capable of. Because my reviews tend to be a bit on the longer side, I will be posting the sections in chunks over time to make it easier on you to consume and for me to compose.
First we start with…
The UltraNova comes with three identical and independent oscillators, two ring mods, and a variable noise source. I want to stress that each oscillator is a full blown oscillator. On some synths you will get an oscillator or two that are actually stripped down compared to the main oscillator. For example, take a look at the original Nord Lead 1 oscillator section here.
On the UltraNova you get your standard analog style sine, triangle, sawtooth, pulse width, and square waveforms, however, you also get 36 wavetables with 9 waveforms each, and an additional 20 digital PCM sample based waveforms geared towards bass, electric piano, clav, reed, organs, strings, FM, and bells. What gets interesting is what the UltraNova allows you to do with them. Remember, the three oscillators are full blown oscillators independent of each other, and all oscillators including the standard analog are actually wavetables.
So what can you do with them? We’ll cover each editable parameter for them. Note: this might be a bit dry for some. You can skim what you are familiar with but keep an eye out for any of my commentary for each parameter for my thoughts on them as well as any tips, limitations or enhancements compared to other synths.
This is the high level tuning for an individual oscillator. The range is -64 to +63, with each 12 steps being an octave. This gives you just over a ten octave range.
This parameter allows for fine level tuning. The range is -50 to +50 for 100 cents. A value of 50 is a quarter-tone midway between two semitones.
An interesting side note is that tuning controls behave differently on different synths. For example, on a Minimoog you have a switched octave range knob for each of the three oscillators and two frequency knobs for fine tuning oscillators 2 and 3. The frequency knob allows you to tune up and down a 7th. A fun thing to do is to take the frequency of one oscillator up or down a 7th and then back in tune (you can also get a cool effect taking it to a 3rd and back in either direction). On the UltraNova and a Prophet-5 for that matter, you can’t do that. The fine tuning knob is meant for making subtle tuning adjustments between the oscillators to either get them in tune or slightly out of tune for a richer sound. You can, of course, assign the mod wheel to the pitch of one oscillator to mimic the same effect as on the Minimoog. This is just one of those differences between synths that some may or may not find interesting. Worth noting, on an Alesis Andromeda both the main tuning knob and the fine tuning knobs are not stepped, so you can do some interesting tuning tweaks that you can’t on a Minimoog.
Virtual Oscillator Sync
I found this setting to be a bit interesting compared to other synths. Instead of syncing between the existing oscillators, a virtual oscillator is used instead. According to the manual, “Oscillator Sync is a technique of using an additional ‘virtual’ oscillator to add harmonics to the first, by using the virtual oscillator’s waveform to retrieve that of the first.” It goes on to state, “When the Vsync value is a multiple of 16, the virtual oscillator frequency is a musical harmonic of the main oscillator frequency. The overall effect is a transposition of the oscillator that moves up the harmonic series, with values in between multiples of 16 producing more discordant effects.” You can adjust the range of sync between 0 - 127. What’s interesting is the amount of sync applied to each oscillator can vary, so you can have different syncs per oscillator. You can also apply sync to the various digital waveforms including wavetables being modulated by LFOs or Envelopes. Sync is also a destination in the modulation section, so you can imagine some of the movement you can create in a patch. However, using a virtual oscillator to sync with, you won’t be able to experiment with syncing between the various oscillator types. It’s also worth mentioning here that the UltraNova does not support FM, so you cannot modulate an oscillator by another, and accordingly oscillators are not a modulation source.
You get 34 waveforms to pick from along with an additional 36 wavetables, each with 9 waveforms a piece. The 34 waveforms are your standard analog waveforms including sine, triangle, 10 variations of sawtooth, PW, Square, and 20 digital waveforms including bass, electric piano, clav, reed, organs, strings, FM, and bells. There are also two audio ins, AudioInL and AudioInR, for either routing external audio through the signal chain or the internal vocoder. When using audio input as a source the other oscillator parameters have no affect (although the FixNote parameter, which I’ll get to in a bit, seemed to almost filter the sound as I adjusted it). You can, however, process external sounds through the ring mods and, of course, the internal filter and effects.
I asked Novation what the wavetables were based on and what the thought process behind the ones included were. They said, “The wavetables were generated in house, it was a largely experimental process to define the wavetables. Some were attempts at using additive synthesis to copy some wave types – like the reed instruments and some of the organ instruments. Others like some of the bell and harsh timbres were the result of experimentation. The first 16 wavetables (0-16) were a deliberate attempt to keep like waves together. The next (17-32) were designed to group unlike wave together. As the project progressed, it became apparent that naming the wavetables and trying to give each wavetable a particular meaning was not that useful. The best approach to using them is by using them.”
I was also curious why there were only 9 waveforms per wavetable. According to Novation, “There are hardware limitations with the amount of SRAM that we could use. This defined the total number of waveforms that could be accessed at once.”
Pulse Width/Wave Table Index
This setting allows you to either adjust the pulse width on waveforms that feature a pulse wave or the wavetable positions. It is a destination in the modulation matrix so you can use any source such as LFOs or envelopes to modulate it. Although according to the manual this parameter should only apply to pulse waveforms and wavetables, I found that it does have an effect on all other waveforms as well. The effect on them is more subtle when using the knob, however, if you apply an LFO set to max, you get a very noticeable vibrato type affect. I mentioned this to Novation and they stated, “The pw/index actually controls the relative phase of most of the other standard oscillator types. This can be used via the mod matrix to entirely randomize the oscillator phase on each key press, which can give a different sound to the free running oscillator type. To do this, use the mod matrix, set the modified as a single shot, key synced square LFO with its speed set to zero and assign it to the pw/index of an oscillator.”
One interesting thing to note with wavetables is that the range of the knob goes from -64 to +64. As there are only 9 waveforms in a wavetable, that means that you have to go through 14 steps before you transition to the next waveform in the wavetable. In practice, it’s a little awkward, however, this is by design for good reason and there is a work around. You want it when you enable interpolation or smoothing between the waveforms. The extra steps morph between the waveforms. According to Novation, “This is due to the design approach where the index 0-127 is used to change the wavetable index with smoothing between the waves if wavetable interpolation is not set to zero. Because the amount of interpolation is not just on / off, but is a variable amount, it makes sense for the wavetable index to control the position of the interpolation rather than access a wavetable number directly. If you want the effect of quickly jumping between waves, the interpolation amount should be set to zero and then either the continuous encoder (touched / filter) can be locked to the wavetable index, or the mod wheel can be assigned to control this from the mod matrix.”
This is one of those parameters that falls into “that something extra” category that makes the UltraNova stand out compared to other synths. This parameter essentially controls the harmonic content for the selected waveform. A value of 0 removes all extra harmonic content leaving you with a sine wave, while the max setting of 127 gives you the complete harmonic content of the waveform. On most synthesizers you get a waveform to pick from and that’s it. On the UltraNova you can actually scale back the harmonic content for each individual oscillator waveform, and you can modulate it. Hardness is a modulation destination so you can use any source in the modulation matrix to control it in realtime. What else removes harmonic content on a synth? The filter of course. Hardness is similar to having a separate filter (minus resonance of course) for each individual oscillator. Think about that for a bit. This is something usually exclusive to the modular realm and only if you have extra modules to do it! The functionality here is modular in concept.
Density is similar to what has become commonly known as the supersaw feature on some synths, except it can be applied to ALL wave shapes. It effectively multiplies the wave shape by adding up to eight copies of itself to produce a thicker sound. The knob range goes from 0 - 127. Like me, you might be wondering why there is 127 steps for only eight copies. I asked Novation and they said, “You’ve got the idea behind the density amount feature – it is cross fading the level between the amounts of copies of the waveform, giving you a finer control over the sound, than just relying on bringing in the copies at a fixed level.”
This parameter allows you to detune between the extra waveforms added via Density. The wider the spread, the fuller the sound. The range here is 0 to 127. Density and Density Detuning are very similar to the unison and unison detuning affect in the UltraNova and other synths, but it happens at the individual oscillator level and does not affect polyphony. Think about that for a second. You can have a unison effect on an individual oscillator while leaving the other two without, and/or you can add overall Unison on top of it. Again, modular in design. However, Density Detuning like Density above, is not a modulation destination itself.
Pitch Wheel Range
Another cool thing the UltraNova allows you to do at the oscillator level is adjust the pitch wheel range, or bender. This means you can have the pitch wheel only affect the pitch of one oscillator, leaving the remaining two unaffected. You can adjust the mix levels of each oscillator to have the effect be as subtle or substantial as you want. The range adjustment ranges from -12 to +12 for an octave up or down. Note this setting is in the oscillator section, and thus does not take up a modulation slot in the mod matrix.
Wave Table Interpolation
This parameter allows you to adjust the transition or morphing between waveforms in a wavetable. The range is 0 to 127. At 0 there is no interpolation so the waveform simply switches from one to the next as you sweep through the wavetable. Depending on the waveforms in a wavetable, that transition can be sudden or even glitchy. At 127 the transition between the waveforms is smooth so there are no sudden changes. A range between will, of course, vary the amount of interpolation. Note you can set Interpolation individually for each oscillator.
The above covered the individual oscillator parameters.
To touch on modular, one of the reasons many people love modular synths is because of the flexibility you have in being able to adjust and route the individual components that make up a patch. You can route and modulate individual modules however you like. The UltraNova doesn’t have the full level of flexibility found in a modular, of course, but it does get much more closer than many other synths. Using parameters, like those mentioned above, allow you do things at the oscillator level that is simply not possible on most other hardware synths - analog or digital. The UltraNova can as be simple or as complex as you want it to be when it comes to programming. The extra parameters and functionality allow you to finely sculpt your sound.
Common Oscillator Parameters
The following parameters apply to all oscillators at once. You cannot adjust these settings for each oscillator independently. Some of them will be obvious as to why that might be the case, but in the spirit of flexibly and the parameters discussed above, there were some I wished were available at the individual level as well.
Vibrato Depth and Vibrato Rate
As the name implies, these two parameters allow you to adjust the amount and rate of vibrato for all oscillators at once. The vibrato uses a dedicated LFO and not one of the UltraNova’s three LFOs. As for setting vibrato for individual oscillators, you can do so using the 3 LFOs in the UltraNova’s modulation matrix.
Most of you will likely be familiar with this feature on virtual analog synths. This parameter allows you to adjust how much each oscillator drifts with respect to each other. In a true analog synth, each oscillator runs freely and independently of each other. Depending on the synth and type of oscillator implemented, they may drift in tune. You might be familiar with the terms VCO and DCO. VCO stands for Voltage Controlled Oscillator and DCO stands for Digital Controlled Oscillator. DCOs essentially eliminate drift. They are great for keeping your synth in tune, however, the cost is you lose some of that richness or fullness in sound that comes from independent analog oscillators slightly drifting. In software, oscillators typically do not drift unless you tell them to. This parameter tells them to. You can add additional drift at the oscillator level by using an LFO or Envelope in the modulation section.
This setting adjusts where in the cycle an oscillator waveform begins or resets. Oscillator waveforms are typically single cycle waves that continue as they are gated/played. You’ve likely seen plenty of videos here on MATRIXSYNTH featuring oscilloscopes. What you are looking at is the shape of the waveform as it is being played. The Oscillator Phase parameter allows you to essentially shift the waveform towards the left or right. Why would you want to do this? I let the manual explain this one: “The effect of this is to add a slight ‘click’ or ‘edge’ to the start of the note, as the instantaneous output voltage when the key is press is not zero. Setting the parameter to 90 or 270 produces the most obvious effect.”
Remember, above in the Oscillator Drift section, I mentioned VCOs vs DCOs? While that section pertains to pitch, and this section pertains to the wave shape, part of the charm of analog VCOs is that they are always running whether they are being triggered or not, and they are always running independently of each other unless synced. The UltraNova has a setting to emulate this. If you set Oscillator Phase to Off, then the oscillators’ phase will essentially run freely. According to the manual, “The phase relationship of the waveforms is unrelated to when a key is pressed.” This means when you trigger a note, instead of the phase starting at 0, or where you specifically told it to start via this setting, it will start at wherever it left off. I was curious how Novation implemented this so, of course, I asked. According to Novation, “When a voice ceases to be audible, its oscillator phases are frozen until the voice is activated again. When oscillator phase is set to Off, the starting phase of a newly triggered voice's oscillators continue from where they were when they were frozen. This gives a good free phase effect.” So not exactly like a free running analog VCO, but similar in that they are not restarted from a specific point when phase is set to Off. I’m curious if having this control at an individual oscillator level would be interesting. You could apply the ‘click’ or ‘edge’ effect to a single oscillator and not the others.
Single Fixed Note [Update: see the comments section at the bottom of this post for a possible work around]
This will disable keyboard scaling and set all oscillators to only one pitch. This is useful for percussive sounds and certain effects, but is a good example of something I would have liked to have been able to set at the individual oscillator level instead. Imagine setting one oscillator as a background drone and being able to play the remaining two oscillators along with it. There is actually a factory preset, A119 ScottishSynth PM, based on the Bagpipes that effectively does this. The patch uses a modulation setting for the keyboard to to affect oscillator 2’s pitch by -52 steps effectively creating a low drone while you play oscillator 1. This works because the setting is so low, however, if you want to use a slightly higher pitch you will clearly hear the keyboard track, and the desired effect is lost. I can also imagine percussive patches taking advantage of mixed pitch oscillator settings as well.
Noise Source Type
There is one noise source on the UltraNova. Your choices are between White, High, Band, or High-band. This parameter allows you to select the type while you adjust the amount in the Mixer section. Note that Noise is separate from the three oscillators so you do not have to give one up for it. That said, it is also not subject to the oscillator parameters covered above, and noise type is not a modulation destination.
This portion of the overview/review is a bit of an extension of the oscillator section above, as not only is this where you adjust oscillator levels, but it’s where Ring Mod 1 and 2 come into play, which effectively act as two additional sound sources.
Oscillator and Noise
The oscillator and noise level mixer parameters are pretty straight forward. You simply get to adjust the level of each from a range of 0 to 127. One tip Novation gives, which applies to other synths as well, is to not overdrive the levels. Instead of using a max level for each, set them to about half or 64 to start. The more level you add to the overall mix, the more careful you should be, as setting everything to max can result in unpleasant clipping. If you are programming a patch and notice clipping, this is one of the first things to check. That along with Oscillator Phase per above and, of course, the effects settings.
Ring Modulator Level (Oscs. 1 * 3) & Ring Modulator Level (Oscs. 2 * 3)
These two parameters adjust the level of ring modulation for oscillators 1 & 3 and oscillators 2 & 3. Note there is no ring mod between oscillators 1 & 2. For those new to ring modulation, per the manual: “In its simplest form, a Ring Modulator is a processing block with two inputs and one output, which effectively ‘multiplies’ the two input signals together. Depending on the relative frequencies and harmonic content of the two inputs, the resulting output will contain a series of sum and difference frequencies as well as the fundamentals.” On the UltraNova RingMod will use whatever waveforms you have selected for the oscillators, including morphing wavetables and external audio. Think about that for a bit.
Pre-FX and Post-FX
Pre-FX is the audio signal before it hits the effects engine. Post-FX is the audio signal after the effects section, essentially the effect you dial in. On some synths, once you apply an effect, all you can adjust is the amount of that effect, meaning you lose the clean (Pre-FX) signal. The UltraNova lets you adjust each. This gives you finer control over what your hear. If you want to just hear the audio being processed through the internal effects, you can set the Pre-FX level to 0.
Finally, the mixer section of the UltraNova has Solo functions for each source of audio - oscillators 1, 2, 3, Noise, Ring Mod 1, and Ring Mod 2. Solo works similar to solo on a mixer, with a bit more control. When you initially enable it for one of the six sources, only that source is heard. However, if you then select any other sources, they will also play. In essence it’s more like a mute/unmute section that starts with solo on the first selection. It might seem a little counterintuitive but in use it works, as it’s easy enough to mute and un-mute sections. According to the manual, one purpose of Solo is to quickly see how a patch is built up.
The UltraNova comes with two filters, each featuring 14 filter types to chose from. The two filters, like the individual oscillators, are full-blown filters, meaning you have access to all the same parameters for each. While most synths only allow you to select the filter type along with cutoff and resonance levels, the UltraNova as you will see, offers quite a bit more. You are given access to the following parameters in order. You’ll find the filter types a little further below.
This is your standard cutoff range from 0 - 127 for low and high pass filters, and the center frequency for bandpass filters.
This is your standard resonance range from 0 - 127 for all filter types but the 6dB LP and HP filters. Be sure to see Filter Q Normalization below for some notes and tips from Novation.
Filter Envelope 2 Amount
On the UltraNova, Envelope 2 is the dedicated envelope for the filter, however, you can use Envelope 2 as a modulation source for other destinations in the modulation matrix, and you can apply different envelopes to the filter there as well. Envelope 2 is just there for simplicity and convenience. The range is -64 to +64 so you can use the Envelope to have a negative impact as well as a positive impact over time. For example, with a lowpass filter, a negative value can be used to close the filter over time as a note is sustained. According to Novation, “Envelopes 1 and 2 are slightly different to the remaining envelopes in that they have velocity response. Envelopes 3..6 have a delay parameter rather than inherent velocity control.” This will be covered again in the envelope section of this review.
This parameter allows you to adjust how much the filter tracks or opens up as you move up and down the octave range. The value range is 0 - 127. At the maximum setting, the filter frequency will track the pitch 1:1. If a lowpass filter is selected, notes played higher up the octave range will sound more open, while notes down the octave range will be more filtered. Note there is no negative or inverse filter tracking here, however, you can apply negative tracking in the matrix modulation section by selecting keyboard as a modulation source and filter as a destination, followed by a negative value.
The UltraNova includes the following 14 filter types (all have resonance except or the 6dB filters). Note 4 of the 14 are Lowpass with different dB slopes, and 4 are Highpass. I asked Novation if the filters were modeled off of any other synths and how they differ from previous Novation synths. They stated, “The filters are very similar to the ones used on the Supernova and Nova. These are mathematically derived, but they are not modelled on any particular synth filter as such.”
Lowpass: 6dB, 12dB, 18dB, 24dB
Highpass: 6dB, 12dB, 18dB, 24dB
BP6/\6: Symmetric Band-pass, 6dB/oct
BP12/\12: Symmetric Band-pass, 12dB/oct
BP6/\12: Asymmetric Band-pass, 6dB (hi-pass), 12dB (lowpass)
BP12/\6: Asymmetric Band-pass, 12dB (hi-pass), 6dB (lowpass)
BP6/\18: Asymmetric Band-pass, 6dB (hi-pass), 18dB (lowpass)
BP18/\6: Asymmetric Band-pass, 18dB (hi-pass), 6dB (lowpass)
This parameter allows you to add distortion to the filter. It is quite effective and adds that extra bit of punch to certain patches. If you find your Minimoog lead patch lacking that extra bite, try adjusting this parameter. Just remember to also adjust other parameters accordingly, such as filter resonance, oscillator fine detune and/or oscillator drift, as they will also impact the overall character of the sound. One thing you have to be aware of, with synths containing this level of control, is that related parameters are dependent on each other, and subtle edits can make a difference.
Filter Distortion Type
A nice feature of the UltraNova is that it actually gives you seven distortion types to chose from. Sonically, there are essentially three buckets they fall into: Feedback warmth (Diode, Valve and Clipper), Compression (XOver and Rectify), and Bit Reducer (BitsDown and RateDown).
Diode - Simulation of analogue circuitry producing distortion where the waveform is progressively “squared-off” as the amount of distortion is increased. This distortion type actually “warms” up the sound a bit.
The effect reminded me of the audio loopback trick you can do with some analog synths, where you feed the audio out back into the input, so of course, I decided to give it a try. I discovered routing the audio out of the UltraNova back into the input does not work quite like on an analog synth. The UltraNova is digital after all. When I first tried it, I just heard a clicking sound, as if the oscillator was cycling below audible range. I thought I’d check with Novation before giving up, and they confirmed that the loopback trick does not work the same as on an analog synth, however, with some tweaking you can actually get some super interesting effects using it (effects not possible on a fully analog synth, no less). You do have to make a few adjustments in the Audio configuration settings for the UltraNova to get it working, though. Novation sent the following to try:
“Settings for feedback
1. audio menu:
In1Gain ~ +28, In1>FX and In2>FX – set to zero.
Outputs 3+4 | synth 127, level 127 [I found setting “level” to 0 and tweaking the amount from there gave some very interesting results]
Loop back with a cable from output 3 to input 1
2. Oscillator 2
Set the waveform to AudioInL
Set oscillator 1 level high (127)
Set oscillator 2 level moderately low (~40)
4. Adjust the filter to taste – adding diode distortion helps keep the levels under control and setting Qnorm low also seems to help.”
Valve - Simulation of analogue circuitry producing distortion similar to Diode, but at extreme settings alternate half-cycles of the waveform are inverted. I found this setting to be very similar to Diode but slightly smoother or more subtle.
Clipper - Simulation of a digital overload. The effect to my ears is very similar to Diode and Valve but ever so slightly different. The three are sonically different flavors of the same effect.
XOver - Simulation of the crossover distortion generated by bi-polar analogue circuitry, e.g., amplifier output stages.
Rectify - All negative-going half-cycles are inverted, simulating the effect of rectification.
BitsDown - Reproduces the “grainy” quality associated with lower bit rates, as found in older digital devices.
RateDown - Gives the effect of reduced definition and HF loss, similar to the use of low sample rate.
Per above, Diode, Valve, and Clipper are very similar and add that extra bit of volume or presence to the sound. Per above, if you are attempting to program a Minmoog lead and it lacks that extra something, try Diode or Valve and turn them up a bit. Valve is a bit more subtle and smoother than Diode and Clipper brings more of a digital crispness to the effect.
One thing I noticed is that with the exception of BitsDown and RateDown, most of the distortion types are actually smoother than I expected, depending on the patch, of course. A patch with high resonance will bring in more distortion as expected.
XOver and Rectify are a bit difficult to describe how they sound, but in short XOver crosses over the sound from normal to compressed and back to normal as you sweep from 0 to 127, while Rectify goes from no effect to a buzzy digital signal, similar to a bit crusher, but minus the crunch if that makes sense. If you read the description above, on a sine wave, you are effectively taking the bottom sloping portion and inverting it upward.
Rate down is essentially a bit crusher, while BitsDown has a more subtle effect.
You can have one distortion type per filter at a time, and you can modulate the amount of each by any source in the UltraNova’s modulation matrix.
Filter Q Normalization
Here’s another example of the fine level of control the UltraNova offers you, compared to other synths. This parameter allows you to adjust the filter resonance curve. It’s there to allow you to emulate filter characteristics on classic analog and digital synths. Novation does not, however, provide you with any settings in the user manual to emulate various filters. One thing the Alesis Ion did was provide various preset filters named according to what they were emulating. You simply selected the filter type you wanted. However, unlike on the UltraNova, you couldn’t morph the Q between them. I asked Novation if they had any tips and they stated, “Some early analog synths had a filter circuit that pulled filter drive level down as resonance was increased, effectively reaching zero drive at filter self-oscillation. Q-Norm set to maximum (127) emulates this. When Q-Norm is set to 0, increasing resonance adds a lot of level to oscillator harmonics that match the resonant frequency of the filter and this can result in overload. We set a compromise default Q-Norm of 64 (i.e. half-way) in Init patches as some overload distortion is often desirable.”
Common Filter Parameters
Like the Oscillator section, the Filter section has a number of parameter settings that are common to the two filters.
This setting allows you to adjust the amount of each filter in relation to each other. The value ranges from -64 to +64. A value of -64 is for Filter 1 only, and a value of +64 is for Filter 2 only. A setting of 0 sets both filters evenly. Any other value will morph between the two filters. This is an extremely powerful feature. One of the differentiating features between the full-blown Waldorf Q and the Micro Q was the ability to balance between the two filters on the full-blown Q. The UltraNova offers this level of control.
Another powerful feature of the UltraNova is the ability to route its two filters in numerous ways. Options include the following:
Bypass - both filters are bypassed completely.
Single - Filter 1 only is in effect.
Series - Filter 1 feeds into Filter 2.
Parallel - both filters process the same input in parallel.
Parallel 2 - Filter 1 processes OSC 3 and Noise only. Filter 2 processes the OSC 1, OSC 2, and both RingMods. Remember the two audio ins are assignable per oscillator, so where they are assigned will also assign their filter.
Drum - Same as Parallel 2 with the output of Filter 1 fed back into Filter 2. Similar to Parallel, but only OSC 3 and Noise are processed by Filter 1 first.
According to the manual, “Note that Parallel 2 and Drum modes differ in an important respect from the others in that the Filter 1 and Filter 2 are fed from different sources. This allows the noise source and Osc 2 to be filtered in a different way from Oscillators 1 and 2 and the Ring Modulator Outputs, an important requirement when creating certain percussive sounds.”
Filter Frequency Link
This setting can either be on or off. When on, it simply links the filter cutoff of the two filters. What’s interesting is how it works and how you control it from there. Adjusting the filter cutoff for Filter 1 will adjust the filter cutoff of both Filter 1 and Filter 2 in parallel. Adjusting the filter cutoff for Filter 2 however will adjust the separation between the two cutoff values. As you open Filter 2 cutoff, Filter 1 cutoff closes, and as you close Filter 2 cutoff, Filter 1 opens. This allows you to adjust the levels between the two filter cutoff settings. Note that both Filter 1 and Filter 2 cutoff can also be modulation sources. Imagine modulating them using different LFOs, running at different speeds, with different waveforms.
Filter Resonance Link
This parameter works differently than how Filter Frequency Link works. Instead, it simply links the resonance settings of each filter. Adjusting the resonance of one filter equally adjusts the resonance of the second. Remember, you can still set different levels of resonance at the individual filter level with this setting off, and you can assign resonance as a modulation destination in the modulation matrix.
The UltraNova is a 20-voice polyphonic synth. The following are the different modes assignable for them.
There are three modes for Unison: Off, 2, 3, and 4. The numbers represent the number of voices you can stack in unison mode. Note that unison mode is not the same as on some vintage analog synths, where all available eight voices are stacked for a super fat monophonic mode. On the UltraNova, polyphony simply gets divided by the number of stacked voices you select, so a setting of 2 cuts polyphony down to 10 voices, 3 to 6, and 4 to 5. Remember you can also use Density at the oscillator level to essentially multiply oscillator waveforms, and that does not impact polyphony.
This setting, as the name implies, allows you to detune the stacked voices. The range is 0 - 127. Three things worth noting are one, you will still hear a difference with a value of 0 as voices are still stacked of course, two, you will not hear changes in detune until you trigger a new note (any held notes will continue at the prior setting), and three, Unison Detune is not a modulation destination. The setting is not meant to be applied as a performance parameter while holding notes down. For arpeggiated notes and externally sequenced notes then, of course, it can be used in a performance manner as new notes are triggered.
This parameter enables portamento on the synth. The value range is Off to 127. Portamento, of course, is pitch glide between notes being played, and the value adjusts the time it takes to go from the last played note to the next. Portamento on the UltraNova can be used in both mono and poly mode, although it is not recommended in poly.
There are two portamento modes on the UltraNova: Exponential and Linear. When set to Exponential, the glide rises quickly and then slows down as it reaches the next note. When set to Linear, the transition happens evenly over time.
This is another one of those extra settings you don’t see on other synths. What this allows you to do is turn off portamento between notes and essentially enable a virtual portamento for each note played. The range is -12 to +12 which corresponds to an octave down to an octave above the pitch being played. When you hit a note it starts at the relative pitch amount you set and then glides to the note you actually pressed or triggered. You use Portamento Time to adjust the speed at which it does this. Think about that for a bit, especially when using the arpeggiator or an external sequencer. Also think about how it applies to playing chords compared to traditional portamento. This setting actually works well in polyphonic mode as well, as you can get some nice drifting of pitches that come back in tune when holding sustained chords. This setting is actually very similar to applying an envelope to pitch, but is slightly more immediate and convenient.
The UltraNova also allows you to specify whether Portamento and Pre-Glide work when playing in legato mode. This is set in Polyphony Mode covered next.
This is where you select the different poly and mono modes of the UltraNova. There are a total of three mono modes and two poly modes.
Mono, Mono 2, & MonoAG
Mono is your basic mono mode where only one note plays. Mono is set for last note priority, and Portamento and Pre-Glide apply whether you play legato or staccato (legato, of course, is when you do not let go of a note before playing the next, and staccato is when you do). Also worth noting, is when playing legato in Mono mode, the Attack phase of the envelope only gets triggered once, by the first note played. All remaining notes do not re-trigger the Attack. This is useful in playing a smooth solo lead where you want each subsequent note played to remain at the current Sustain level of the envelope. Mono 2 mode is Mono mode with re-triggered Attack phases when playing legato. For some odd reason, Mono 2 mode does not come after Mono mode though. Instead it comes at the end of the list after the two Poly modes.
MonoAG is essentially Mono mode with Portamento or Pre-Glide only applied when playing legato. If you play staccato, where you release a note before playing the next, then Portamento and Pre-Glide will not be applied.
Poly1, & Poly2
The two poly modes enable polyphony. With Poly1 selected, if you play the same note more than once, then additional voices will be played, or rather stacked, on top of each other - same note, but multiple instances. If you have a long release time for the note, you will hear the additional notes being added and the volume of the note will increase. With Poly2 selected, additional voices will not be stacked, and the single voice for that note will simply be re-triggered.
Think about all of the voice options covered above for a bit, and the performance possibilities each one gives. There aren’t many synths out there that give you the choices that the UltraNova gives. It’s one of those things you might not truly appreciate until either the specific need arises, or you simply discover by accident while exploring sound. Speaking of, this reminded me of this specific video on the KORG Minilogue and the workaround: http://www.matrixsynth.com/2016/02/analogue-envelope-behaviour-minilogue.html. On the UltraNova the options are there and well defined.
The UltraNova comes with six ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) envelopes. Each is capable of looping the AD stages, setting the slope and tracking amount for the AD stage, and setting the Sustain level and time independently. Envelopes 3 through 6 have a Delay setting that allows you to delay the envelope from starting, while the Amplitude and Filter envelopes, 1 and 2 respectively, have a velocity setting instead.
As we are all familiar with the standard ADSR parameters, I’ll cover the additional parameters only.
Delay (Envelopes 3 to 6 Only)
Delay simply delays the start of the envelope. The range is 0 - 127 with a setting of 127 equating to a delay of 10 seconds. A value of 60 to 70 brings it down to only a 1 second delay, note the range is not linear.
Velocity (Amplitude ENV1 & Filter ENV2 Only)
This setting does not actually affect the envelope shape itself, but rather the overall level of the envelope, depending on how light or hard you play notes on the keyboard, or send velocity data via an external controller.
Envelope Repeat (available for each Envelope)
This setting allows you to have the UltraNova repeat the Attack and Decay portions of the envelope from no repeat, through individually to 126 repeats, or an infinite repeat (at 127), which are then followed by the Sustain and Release stages. According to the manual, “This can produce an interesting ‘stuttering’ effect at the start of the note if the Attack and Decay times are set appropriately.” Another way to think of repeating envelopes are as LFOs where you can adjust the start and end time of the loops. You cannot, however, use the full ADSR to create more complicated shapes to loop, but changing the attack and decay times will change this 'LFO' shape.
Touch Trigger (available for each Envelope)
This is where the interface of the UltraNova gets interesting. The eight rotary encoders above the display are actually touch sensitive, which means by simply touching them you can have them affect different parameters. With this particular setting you can have any knob re-trigger the envelope. The values are Off, and T1ReTrig up to T8Retrig. T1 to T8 corresponds to the eight knobs.
According to Novation, “triggering options for the envelopes are 'triggered’ ie the envelopes only not trigger when the touch sens control is touched, re-trigger ie the envelope is triggered on a note on event regardless if a touch sens control is touched, but it is retrigged so long as a note is held when a touch sens control is touched, and enable where an envelope only plays on a note on if the touch sens control is touched.”
Multi-trigger (available for each Envelope)
This setting allows you to have the envelope either re-trigger or not while playing legato. The options are Legato or Re-Trig. When set to Legato only the first note played will trigger the Attack and Decay phase of the envelope, all other notes played after will skip them. This setting, however, only works in Mono mode.
Another interesting set of parameters. In a standard ADSR envelop the Attack and Decay phases are typically linear, meaning the slope of the rise and fall over time is constant. On the UltraNova you can adjust the slopes to rise and fall more rapidly. The slopes would appear to curve up and over in the Attack stage, and curve down and under in the Decay stage. You can adjust the curve from 0 - 127 where 0 is linear. You cannot however flip the curves for each stage for the opposite effect, although you can assign a negative modulation amount for any envelope in the modulation matrix.
Attack and Decay Track (available for each Envelope)
These two settings allow you to track the Attack and Decay stages of the envelope according to the note being played. C3 acts as the fixed center point. The value range is -64 to +63. When set to a positive amount, the corresponding envelope stage increases (gets faster) the higher up the keyboard you play from C3, and decreases (gets slower) the lower you play. When set to a negative amount, the opposite occurs. An interesting note from the manual regarding positive values and Amplitude: “This aids in simulating the effect of a real stringed instrument (such as a grand piano), where the mass of the strings on the lower notes have a slower response time when struck.” Again, a reminder of the subtle level of control the UltraNova gives you beyond most other synthesizers. Will you ever need it? Who knows, but it is there if want it, and it does invite exploration.
Sustain Rate (available for each Envelope)
This is essentially extra Attack and Decay stages that happen at the start of the Sustain stage for finer control of the envelope. One thing to note is that in an ADSR envelop, when you set the Attack, Decay, and Release phases, you are adjusting the time for each stage. When setting the Sustain stage you are not. You are actually setting the level of the envelop after the Decay stage completes, for as long as you continue to hold a note down. That said, this parameter allows you to adjust that level either higher or lower relative to the Sustain level. The value range is -64 to +64. Set to 0, Sustain behaves as you would expect. A positive setting will result in a rise of the Sustain level, while a negative setting will result in a decrease. Of course this only applies while holding a note down. Once you release the note, the envelop will immediately go the the Release stage.
Sustain Time (available for each Envelope)
This is another interesting, if not odd, setting. Normally the Sustain stage of an envelope will continue as long as you hold down a key. This setting allows you to end the stage regardless. The value range is off, or 0 to 126. A value of 126 will set the time to roughly 10 seconds, while a value of 60 sets it to about 1 second. I guess this setting allows you to set a precise amount of Sustain time. I can see cases where this setting would be valuable, such as playing precisely timed chords, effects, and percussive sounds. It is interesting though. It’s not something you typically think about on most synths, because typically it’s not there.
Level Track (available for each Envelope)
This setting allows you to track the amount of the envelope across the keyboard from a fixed note. You set the fixed note using the Level Track Reference Note parameter (knob 8 on Page 2 of envelope 1’s settings). You then set the value range anywhere from -63 to +63. Positive values will increase, for example, amplitude (ENV1) or filter cutoff (ENV2) as you move up the keyboard from the fixed note, and decrease as you move down. Negative values will have the opposite effect.
The UltraNova is equipped with 3 LFOs. The parameters for each follow.
The range is 0 to 127. They get extremely fast after a value of 100. At 127 it’s pretty much a blur, which is a good thing for those who like fast LFOs.
LFO Rate Sync
There are 35 settings for rate sync ranging from 48 cycles per 1 bar, all the way down to only 1 cycle per bar. The rate is synced to either external MIDI clock or internal MIDI clock set in the Arpeggiator settings. When Sync is on, the LFO Rate knob is disabled. You set the rate by selecting one of 35 ratios.
Each LFO has 37 waveforms to pick from. 7 are traditional shapes including sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, random S/H, time S/H, and PianoEnv. PianoEnv sounds like the envelope stage of a piano key being struck, if you are curious. 7 are sequence-based LFOs that “jump to different values, holding each for a sixteenth of the LFO cycle rate.” 8 are sequence-based LFOs that “jump between a minimum and a maximum value, each value held for a varying interval of time.” Both sequenced based LFOs have a rhythmic pattern-based feel to them. The final 15 shapes are considered “melodic” in that they are based on different chromatic groupings, such as Major 7, Minor 7, Decreasing Minor, Minor 3rd, 4ths, and so on. Note that the sequence and melodic based LFOs are not lengthy multi-note sequences, but rather they range from about three steps to maybe five or seven per cycle. You will also want to lower the speed on them compared to traditional LFOs, as the complete cycles appear to happen in the same amount of time of a standard cycle LFO.
This setting allows you to set where in the LFO waveform to start. Imagine a sine wave and a line perpendicular to it. Now imagine that line as the start-point of the waveform. LFO Phase simply allows you to slide that line along the waveform. The range for the parameter is 0deg to 357deg, which makes sense as a complete sine wave from start to finish is essentially the equivalent of a 360 degree circle.
This setting lets you smooth out the shape of an LFO waveform. The value range is 1 to 127. If you start with a square wave, the more you increase the value the closer it gets to a sine wave. What’s interesting, is that this parameter works on sine waves as well. Have you ever tried to apply an LFO as a modulation source only to find the shape is too extreme? This setting lets you address that. This is one of those fine tuning features you truly appreciate when you want to get your patch just right.
LFO Key Sync On/Off
This setting sets the LFO to start at the beginning of its selected waveform when a note is played. If it’s set to off, then the LFO will start where it was last left off.
LFO Common Sync
This setting sets the LFO to be in sync across all notes played in a polyphonic patch. When set to On, the LFOs will match for every note played. It’s the equivalent of having one LFO shared across the keyboard, while when set to Off, you have the equivalent of one LFO per note played. When set to Off, the LFO state for each note played is independent from each other.
As the name implies, this sets the LFO to just cycle once while holding a note down. The values are On and OFF so you cannot set the number of cycles to more than one. You might be thinking it would be nice to be able to specify more than just once cycle. Well, you kind of can with the next parameter, LFO Fade In/Fade Out. Kind of, in that you specify the time rather than number of cycles.
The combination of these two settings allow you to adjust how an LFO either comes into effect or out. The value range for LFO Delay is 0 - 127. The settings for LFO Fade In/Fade Out are: FadeIn, FadeOut, GateIn, and GateOut. Fade means the LFO gradually comes in or out, and Gate means the LFO instantly comes in or out. A value of 127 equates to approximately 10 seconds.
LFO Delay Sync
This setting allows you to sync Delay to midi clock (internal or external). You can select one of 35 ratios.
LFO Delay Trigger
This setting allows you to specify whether the LFO Fade In/Fade Out setting should apply to each note played, or only the first note when playing legato. Values are Legato or Re-Trig. Re-Trig of course means re-trigger, so the LFO Fade setting will re-trigger for each note.
I’m going to keep this one short. If you’ve stuck with me through the review to this point, you should have a good grasp of all of the parameters available for the core synth engine on the UltraNova. You’ll also know that much of the modulation control for each section of the UltraNova is actually assignable within the control parameters for each section. The following is what you get on top of that. Note they are focused on the more common parameters you might want to modulate.
The following are the sources:
Direct (this one is important as it allows for the source 1 * source 2 modulation)
Keyboard (position of note played aka tracking)
LFO1 - LFO3 (+ only, or +/-)
Envelopes 1 - 6
The following are the destinations:
Note the oscillator, filter and FX destinations are per each, so for individual oscillator modulations it’s x3, for the filter it’s x2, and so on.
Oscillator Pulsewidth/Wavetable Position
Oscillator Hardness (harmonic level/filter)
Ring Mod 1*3 Level
Ring Mod 2*3 Level
Filter Distortion Amount
Overall Filter Balance
Env 1 Decay Time
Env 2 Decay Time
FX Amount (FX slot amount (1..5) for each of the five effects slots)
Overall FX Feedback
Overall FX Wet/Dry
EQ Bass Level
EQ Mid Frequency
EQ Treble Level
EQ Treble Frequency
- LFO’s can be both modulation sources and destinations and they can modulate each other directly.
- Only Env 1 and 2 decay time are modulation destinations. No other envelope parameters are.
- You cannot use oscillators as modulation sources, so no routable FM, of course.
- Compression, EQ, Distortion, Reverb and Gator FX are not included destinations, but when these are assigned in an FX slot, the amount or level of the effect can be modulated.
And that covers the Envelopes, LFO’s, and Modulation Matrix sections of the UltraNova. Next up? The Effects & Vocoder! P.S. I previously included the Arpeggiator as coming in the Envelopes, LFO’s, and Modulation Matrix section that just went up. It will actually come in the final section, The Arpeggiator & Interface.