Sonic LAB: Novation Ultranova Synthesizer Review

Compact synthesizer with audio interface and more      18/02/11

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12:0 mins


Novation Ultranova
Its been what, 10 years since we last saw anything in the Nova range from Novation? That was a well regarded synth back when everyone was sequencing trance and house. This latest model, the 18 voice UltraNova takes the Nova name, ads more waves and several new synth parameters and features. It also integrates a USB 2in/4 out  audio  and MIDI interface, a vocoder and AutoMap.

First Impressions
Small and blue is the first thing that strikes you, the 37 key synth-action keyboard has after-touch and a quality feel to it, a cut above one might say. The 8 rotary, touch knobs and the larger filter/parameter and program/bank knobs have a rubbery light feel - not sure they would stand up to a knock too well, but feel good to use. Novation opted for the long, one line LCD display akin to the reMote range. Knobs correspond to the  paremeters below. All sections of the synth; Oscillator (3), LFO (3), Filter (2 multimode), Envelope (6!), Mixer, Voice, Effects (5), Modulation (20) have their own rubber, backlit, button which brings up one or two pages of edit parameter per instance - eg 3 oscillators, 3x 2 pages of edit params.

We’re talking subtractive synthesis here with 34 waves. plus 36 wavetable waves and ring mod between osc 1*3 and 2*3, Multimode filters x2 with series/parallel routing.

Just to clarify also, this is 18 voices but mono timbral - which means single sound at a time only. But the synth has some extremely deep editing  - which give a large palette of sound available - though not entirely best displyed by the presets.

The raw sound of the oscillators is not as hugely fullsome, as say a Virus but has more depth than say the GAIA. They have a lot of tonal scope, with a nifty cloning function - dial in up to 8 more waves (density) and detune  (density detune) them for some hypersaw style action - available on all waves. You’ve also got some interesting filter distortion types which greatly change the character of the raw sound.

Modulation routings and effects bring things to life with 20 slots for creating some extremely complex voices.
Effects are pretty configurable, with up to 8 routing setups with combinations of series and parallel. Algorithms are:

All parameters are available via the front panel within a couple of button presses, although if you like, there’s also a very tasty looking editor plug-in which runs as a VSTi or AUi - you also get a librarian app too.

Touch Me
One of the unique features UltraNova has to offer is the ability to assign each of the 8 rotary encoders to control a synth or effect parameter when simply touched. Pushing the Touch button (who’d have guessed?), gives you up to eight additional momentary control (by touching thew knobs) which can be setup however you like. This is great for performance and gives a lot of extra expression. Alternatively, you can enter Tweak mode and have the knobs assigned to various parameters.

Record Me
Also on board is the USB audio/MIDI interface - you need to install the Novation drivers, but you get 44.1/48kHz audio with 2 inputs and four outs. Integration is pretty straightforward and the unit sounds good to my ears. Monitoring via the Ultranova headphones is flexible allowing you to mix between USB 1&2, 3&4, inputs and Synth outputs.The  two input channels can also be used to process external audio via the synth and effects.

Map Me
There is a dedicated button for AutoMap - Novation’s system for controling plug-in paramters. You’ll need to install AutoMap on your host, but once you do, the LCD readout and 8 rotarys become AutoMap controllers - when you hit the AutoMap button. Its a useful addition, and AutoMap becomes more integrated as time passes.

Nova Me
While this is not the fattest synth I’ve ever heard, but one thing that has become clear while using it in a musical context is that it does sit well with other instrumentation, which I think counts for quite a lot. The deep synthesis engine gives you ample opportunity to get lost in sound,  while not being a PITA to program. It seems to do well at polyphonic, complex sounds, with some sweet leads too, basses are perhaps its weakest card, but having said that, they still aint bad.  All the additional features, such as the audio interface, AutoMap and the 12-band vocoder (did I mention that it comes with a gooseneck mic?) make it quite a compelling package for the laptop musician, live performer or studio synth nut. Probably the closest direct rival is the Roland GAIA, which while certainly hands-on, just isn’t as  deep a synthesizer and lacks some of the extra features present in the UltraNova.

My only disappointment was that it was not multi-timbral - even just a simple split would make a difference, but sadly its not to be.

Based on the price of £499 / $699 I’ve seen it for online, I think its got to be a contender.

Available now



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13 Comments...  Post a comment    original story
tobeng    Said...

would not mind a blofeldish desktop version of this, sounds interesting and the editor looks nice but no way im using the display one the keyboard.

good review thanks!

18-Feb-11 12:18 PM

Nick B    Said...

Interesting idea - the desktop version, would be pretty useful as the keyboard is quite small anyhow.

18-Feb-11 12:21 PM

WaveFormTX    Said...

Thank you very much for this review. I see now it is NOT a repackaged K-station. Question: Can you use the inputs as a carrier signal into the vocoder or is it hardwired to the synth? Also would love to see a comparison battle between this and the other synths in it's price range, ie: GAIA, Venom, Blofeld, Radius, etc.

18-Feb-11 04:03 PM

Nick B    Said...

Hi TX, thats a good question, I will check. Shootouts are tricky, they take a lot of work and I dont have all of those synths on hand, I DO have the Venom - its next in line

18-Feb-11 04:58 PM

Robocode    Said...

Nick, can you ask Novation if they would make a rack-version with 2-Part Multimode ? But i know such companies don't care about consumer's suggestions.

19-Feb-11 08:28 AM

Harrison Chord    Said...

Nick, what do you mean with "basses are perhaps its weakest card" ? the presets or a user-sound after hours of programing with using all parameters like attack-slop, compressor.I ask because Virus-bass sounds weak too without such parameters.

19-Feb-11 08:38 AM

Marc JX8P    Said...

Great review, as usual. Very impressed by what it can do and how it sounds; esp. the envelopes and lfo's. For the rest, I know how to convert pound and usd, but it would be nice if you could include euro prices... :-)

20-Feb-11 08:50 PM

Benedict Johnson    Said...


I clearly know nothing about Novation. A few years ago, I had the misfortunte to buy a Xiosynth after many happy years with my sadly de-funked Bass Station. I was so disapointed by the promise of the Xiosynth I thought I'd never forgive horrible Novation!

This UltraNova appears in the form of a blue box of Touch-buttoned redemption! I played one recently in South Korea and was blown apart. I don't know much about synthesis but I recognise the benefit of all those LFOs/envelope modulations to the sound. The preset patches seem to be in constant motion, giving a rolling, animated feeling of energy. Plus everything not directly related to sound looks useful in it's own right. What a product! Novation are back in my good books. Darn - just when I was ready to invest in a Spectrasonics laptop-rig.

Now I wanna see the Venom review!

21-Feb-11 02:27 AM

JD New Zealand    Said...

Hey Nick

How long does it take you to research one of these pieces of kit before making the vid? You seem to get under the hood and into to the fine machinery. I OWN synths that I don't seem to know as deeply

01-Mar-11 04:49 PM

herbert farrington    Said...

nice review but then NICK IS MY GO-TO GUY FOR REVIEWS. he is always SPOT ON. he is honest and delivers his message with a nonstopness that makes me wonder if he is reading from a monitor. so this is a review of the REVIEWER. KEEP IT UP NICK...and also, you are one sexy man! (oh my god that was so gay).

13-Feb-12 05:47 AM

Gordo    Said...

I bought an Ultranova 3 months ago and am impressed by its depth and ability both as a synth and an Automap-enabled controller. It has Aftertouch on the keys which nothing else has at this price point, has a built in audio interface, and runs on bus power. In the USA sale prices are as low as $500 from time to time. For what you get it's a good deal, like getting a junior Virus at 20% of the price.

I agree with Nick that the presets don't show off the synth's sounds to best effect, but tweaking is easy, especially with the free editor that works as a VST to your DAW. And Novation has released some decent free sound packs for the Ultranova (and promise more this year) that really do impress, like the one from Daniel Fisher:

Fisher will be releasing more free packs for the UN this year too.

If the goal is performance it’s a great synth to start with and you won’t quickly grow out of it as it’s a monster synth engine. Can you tell I like it? :)

13-Feb-12 10:10 AM

JJ    Said...

Hi Nick, just seen your great review. Extremely useful in my part of the world ie India where there are hardly any stores to walk into for a touch and feel experience and then decide. Both the UN and the GAIA look great in the reviews and am confused on which one to pick up. Help! Thanks

02-Dec-12 12:19 PM

Bobby L    Said...

Hi Nick, First off thank you for the reviews and your wit, I purchased the Ultranova and Love it! I just watched the Korg Microstation Review and I'm picking that one up this weekend! Keep up the great work!

15-Feb-13 03:31 PM

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