UK-based Novation are known these days mainly for making MIDI controller keyboards for computers, but the company first made its name in synths. Novation’s virtual analog synths were beloved for their distinctive sound, accessibility – both in price and ease, and compact design. And some of that legacy, frankly, has been missing in recent years, even with the fun Xio keyboard.

UltraNova could be the hardware that brings back Novation’s soul. And the timing couldn’t be better, with a rekindled love for hardware synths even among dedicated computer users.

As the name implies, the UltraNova recalls Novation’s best-loved synths, the SuperNova and SuperNova II. Novation have brought back some of the spirit of the previous synths quite literally, with the design work of Nick Bookman (more on that soon). They’ve hit an absurd price point for what they’re promising, with a street anticipated around $699 here in the US. The UltraNova combines the kinds of tasty features people like – single part virtual analog synth with wavetables, effects, bus-powered USB and USB audio, software editor, and built-in arpeggiator and vocoder. But it also has a novel, touch-sensitive set of rotaries for editing.

And while there’s plenty of competition in the entry-level synth category, from boutique offerings from Dave Smith to big-name entries from Korg (MicroKORG II) and Roland (GAIA SH-01), I think the UltraNova’s feature set could make it a major competitive force.

Below, check out a high-resolution (1920px) gallery of the new instrument. Spec breakdown and promo video after the jump.

Image courtesy Novation; exclusive to CDM, a look at the UltraNova next to a MacBook and away from the Matrix-white vacuum of product photography, so you can visualize it a little better.

The specs that look most compelling:

  • Good-quality keybed: The UltraNova uses a 37-key, Fatar-made keybed. I think Fatar makes some of the best beds out there. (I need to check with them on which variety this is, but I believe it’s one of the semi-weighted synth actions.) And it has channel aftertouch.
  • Wavetables plus subtractive synthesis: Virtual analog, as expected, but there’s a bonus – 36 wavetables, for additional sound design possibilities, which should appeal in particular to Novation’s dance music crowd. (18 voices / 14 filters / 5 effects slots.)
  • FX: distortion, chorus/phaser, delay, reverb, and gator plus compression and EQ.
  • USB, with bus power. Not only is there USB MIDI and two-in, four-out USB audio, but the entire keyboard runs (quite amazingly, I think) off bus power – no dongle needed. It’s also class-compliant, Linux users / people who hate drivers.
  • Sensible I/O: Balanced line-level and stereo S/PDIF outputs, plus MIDI In, Out and Thru ports. Look for that on similarly-priced synths — and good luck.
  • Vocoder and other goodies. Finally, someone other than KORG figures out you like gooseneck mics and vocoders. Other extras: an arpeggiator, three LFOs, six envelopes, a noise source, two ring modulators, three oscillators with density and detune controls…
  • Those touchable rotary controllers. Perhaps learning from the kinds of controls available on MIDI controllers, editing is available via eight, instant-access “touch and tweak” controls. In a unique move, these rubber encoders are also touch-sensitive, which effectively makes them buttons as well as encoders. There’s also a big knob for fine control of any parameter. It’s a clever arrangement, and I’m eager to try it.
  • Free software editor. If you like to be able to manage patch editing onscreen and not just on the front panel, free Mac/Windows editing software is available as an aid. It’s not necessary, but it does make use of your screen (as seen running on the MacBook Pro above).

Pricing:
UK: RRP £587.49. Estimated street price £499.99.
USA: SRP: $849.99. At dealers for $699.99.
DE: UPE €679.99. EST €599.99.

I must say, this is the most I’ve been excited by a Novation product in a long time. Stay tuned. The UltraNova ships in Q4.

Novation promo video below (and yes, this is some of the folks at Novation trying to show it off)!

  • http://fzero.ca Fabio FZero

    It looks a lot like a SH-101 — which is absolutely NOT BAD. If this is good enough, I would be willing to trade my vanilla MIDI controller for it.

  • http://soundcloud.com/rumpelfilter rumpelfilter

    Actually the design is not really my taste (looks a bit cheap, and a bit too much like plastic to me), and the whole touch thing does not convince me yet. Everything must have the word touch sensitive somewhere there days (and I won't go into more adult-only puns). On the other hand it looks like a solid and small gigging synth, I would even consider it as a purchase if I hadn't already a Blofeld Keyboard, which does everything the Ultranova does, plus some more… though Novation certainly has put some more effort than Waldorf into the real-time controls part, at least as far as I can see from the videos.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Of course, blue is the traditional Novation synth color. I think the logic behind the touch encoders is that they are able to do double-duty as triggers, which they use in the sound design. You could opt not to use them that way, if so desired.

    It's also – as on Kore – a way to see which parameter is being controlled. And the interesting thing here is that they've used rubber but kept the sensitivity.

    That said, the fact is that the whole category is heating up, which I find interesting.

  • http://www.westsidemitras.com chajoe

    its fawesome!

  • Brian

    I love how all these manufactures are spoiling me with choice just as I decide to upgrade my midi controller to a synth to a. get more keys (to power my virus but also to allow me to play piano in my room and not have to go downstairs) and b. to have those be able to create some sort of sound.

    I mean DSI morpho, Waldorf blofeld, now this :D all in the butter-zone of cost and function. :)

    After all is said and done i will probably go with the blofeld as the morpho is too small, i need 4 octaves and this is….well i don't like cheap feeling things and like to minimalist the amount of plastic i consume.

  • http://vimeo.com/14050862 Chili

    Damn that video is so hard! So that's how you get that wobble bass sound! I've been looking for a keyboard that will do that for me… ahahha cause I want my patches organized by genre so when I wanna drop some ill dubstep I just push the dubstep button. These things are designed to get themselves off the sales floor at your local GC at that's about the extent of the thought that went into it…

    To be fair $699 is a decent price point for what it offers…

    I swore I'd never buy another piece of Novation plastic after the disaster that was my experience with both the X station and Remote SL… Novations build quality and QC is terrible… Stuff literally just falls apart.

    Knowing novation there will be some kind of super annoying design flaw that makes it clumsy for live gigs…

  • Vincent

    that video is hilarious! kind of de-inspired me.

    price is good though. but for that kind of sounds/music, you better go with magix music maker or flstudio and a midi controller which cost alltogether half of 699.

  • http://bedroomproducer.com Fractal Dimension

    Although I'm unlikely to buy a hardware synth in the foreseeable future, I rather liked the promo video, much better than any other I've seen recently. Of course the music was consciously chosen to appeal to (mostly British?) amateur/semi-pro tinkerers, but there is nothing wrong with having that as a focus group.

    Regarding build quality issues, I've been using my ReMOTE SL61 for years now (albeit only at home), and had zero issues. In today's consumer-electronics-time-to-market race every product is bound to have a couple of defective units, I guess you need to be lucky…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Has anyone ever tried to *make* a promo video? Typically, you have extremely limited time with the gear, and you're in the awkward position of trying to play and sell something at the same time. There's never a way to make everyone happy with the things, and plenty of things that can go wrong. So I tend to go easy on them. I think this one is just fine; it does a good job of showing the way the instrument is designed to be played.

  • http://xfader.com regend

    @Chili any analog synth or analog modeling synth can get that wobble sound. it's synth 101 basics. i have been using a Waldorf Pulse rack since 2002 for those sounds. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MrFarTSfWY you'll hear the bass filter sweep at 2:34 into the video. Wide range of sounds for this little beast. i think the Novation synths have a distinct character compared to the Waldorfs. i use a Basstation from time to time.

  • gusDW

    @Chili Yes – I agree the promo video is an obvious capitalisation on the bloated popularity of dubstep. That, coupled with the modest pricing point would lead some to believe that's it's just a uKorg XL (reliable – but limited sound palette) or Blofeld (sonically flexible – but poor reliability) with added bells and whistles to create a jack of all trades product.

    However, I would not underestimate Novation in terms of build quality and product design (occasional Automap issues aside – though I rarely utilise this feature). In my experience, I would much rather have my Remote SL for gigging than face the horrors dealing with m-audio/edirol 'cheap plastic' products…

    The only point I had a problem with was the 12 band vocoder; uKorg XL does 16. (Live's vocoder goes up to 40).

    In terms of playable instrument, this is contending across the board at all price points. I loved the demonstration of the touch sensitive encoders though. Definitely will be a selling point for a good few!

  • justin

    @regend

    i think it went way over your head.

  • Jake Gilla

    It would have been cooler at 25 keys as you'd have a synth, controller and audio IO that you could throw in a backpack. Still seems kind of cool.

    However, after the success of Maschine I'm hoping NI will do some sort of synth in that style, which has the potential to be pretty cool.

    Any ways, it's ridiculous how many options there are at this price point. I'm quite amazed at the times we live in.

  • RichardL

    Don't overlook the Korg R3 in comparison.

  • Polite

    The touch sensitive encoders make it really stand out in my mind. Actually looks like a pretty good bit of gear. I'm looking forward to giving one a shot when it appears in my local store.

  • pierlu

    They synch the sound of the kick to the drummer hitting the hi-hat.

    Some of the notes played with the wobbly bass are out of tune, to my ear.

    This makes me think the keyboard is just a toy.

    Ah! The power of (bad)advertising.

  • http://www.myspace.com/ideletemyselfbitbyebit ideletemyself

    i dunno, it looks pretty pimp to me… but wtf do i know i own a microKORG XL(which i outright love, can do it all & more at a resonable price). To me i don't get all caught up into my synth or anything being made of plastic and therefore somehow being inferior.

    i don't go gigging with it at all yet but it does everything I ask and can still do more. My APC 40 is one of the best purchases I've ever made, hands down. So, all I'm saying is just because a product is plastic don't go writing it off or looking at other options that are uber-cool non-plastic products that are more often than not either not as flexible or have as many extra features. Add to that they tend to cost $100-150 more than their inferior "plastic" competition that are to me sometimes better platforms… That's not always the case but I'm tired of people writing off great products because it's "plastic looking" …

    Maybe I'm wrong, wouldn't have been the 1st time ;) Cheers!

    ** oh and i thought this Novation was really great looking and had me liking what they had to offer **

  • http://www.myspace.com/casimirsblake Casimir's Blake

    I have more of a problem with the wobble bass bollocks people like to call dubstep now. Burial is dubstep. The stuff used in this video, and popular with the likes of Rusko etc, surely would be closer to something like "crunk-step"? It's simplistic dancefloor nonsense either way, and has no depth. Just like the promo video for this underpowered synth.

    Oh but it has an on-board mic and vocoder! So you can be Owl City too!

  • http://www.groovemonkee.com/ Loop drum

    Ultra nova is quite an amazing instrument with so good features and qualities. It will surely be part of many music players for their great compositions.

  • http://bedroomproducersblog.com/ bedroom producer&#03

    The only thing that concerns me about UltraNova is it's build quality. Everything else about it makes me want to have it!

  • Chris

    I still think the SH-01 is the best virtual analog in that price point, unless you just NEED vocoding, which I'm sure most people here could live without.

    Gimmie my sliders and knobs for envelopes and modulation. You can keep your vocoder.

  • http://cl516.blogspot.com Calvin

    Does anyone know if simple osc FM will be on it?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Nope, that's right. Competition is basically:

    Korg (microKORG XL, R3, and for that matter the original microKORG since you can get them really cheap)

    Waldorf

    DSI (completely different animal, but that's not to say it isn't in the same market)

    Roland SH-01 GAIA (and yes, absolutely — finally finishing my review but the front-panel accessibility of this thing can make it a big winner over the Novation. It's also prettier.)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    …note that another way to look at that is, you've got the front-panel, old-school programming approach:

    DSI, Roland

    …or the new-school, more digital approach:

    Waldorf, Korg, Novation

    In the latter category, the Novation pushes the envelope most in terms of making things accessible. On the other hand, there's a big workflow difference between that and the traditional, knobs and faders approach of the Roland and DSI.

  • jonah

    How much of a drain is it on the laptop battery when usb powered? That is pretty amazing.

    I'm confused by the fact that the supernova seems more powerful(minus wavetables?) Or can it do all the Supernova sounds?

    A good demo for me would've shown more(any) sound creation.

  • http://chrismcguinness.com midihendrix

    This thing looks cool and the color is nice but it seems to have a few drawbacks:

    1. mono timbral. (you will have to freeze/bounce down audio if you plan to use this synth for more than 1 sound in a project.

    2. only 8 encoders. no enormous array of dedicated controls that give the user the unique/inspiring experience of hardware.

    i have no doubt this thing is capable of amazing sounds. but to me it just seems like a VST plugin in a box. and nowadays with extremely powerful plugins like waldorf largo, i would prefer the portability and multiplicity of soft symths.

    the only compelling draws of hardware are a slick user interface or real analog (moog, dsi, andromeda). but imo novation, access, and nord do not make hardware that is sonically better than some plugins.

    if i were in the market for a low cost synth i'd go again wiith the underrated alesis micron which does better VA than my access virus and many other synths.

    but for me these days, the real crazy synth editing/programming happens with layering, automation and chopping – so i will stay in the path of plugins and nice controllers.

  • http://chrismcguinness.com midihendrix

    p.s. i would rather have any of the old novation synths instead

  • http://www.nk-e.com nk:e

    Wow. Some folks are harsh!

    1) I think the video is neat. It does what it's supposed to do (demo the instrument and make you want to know more) without being dry, overly slick, or boring.

    2) Someone mentioned build quality. I have a SuperNova 2 rack and a SL37 and both have been nothing but solid for years (in a home studio though).

    3) I think the price point is spot on. Sweetwater already has it listed on it's site (though unavailable).

    4) I agree with someone else here that hardware (if you don't gig) is an increasingly hard thing to justify given the breadth, ease of use, and quality of the plug-ins available today.

    Can't wait to try one out locally.

    Cheers.

  • cubestar

    At first I was excited because I love my X-Station. I do like the style and 8 knob LED matrix editing (as opposed to 3-4 knobs at a time), and the software editor. What is not cool is 18 voices monotimbral, no XY pad, no OSC FM (XS has this), and $699.

  • Jonathan

    I've lost faith in Novation ever since my ReMOTE 61SL pitch wheel started sending random controller data. This is the sort of thing I expect to "just work." My last controller, a Roland unit, started to have dead keys due to the contact material wearing off. All just sitting here on my desk being played normally.

    Let's say I want a controller that's going to last me at least ten years. How much do I have to spend? It'd be awfully nice if I didn't have to shell out $1,200.00 just to get something that isn't going to destroy itself under my fingers.

  • Boba Fett

    Is anyone else not impressed by this?

    $699 for virtual analog with timid features already included in most major soft synths (wavetables? big deal). Besides the "touch and go" knobs, I don't see anything noteworth about this release… and even those knobs are of questionable use.

    Perhaps I'm disappointed because up until this Novation has released a consistent stream of, innovative, affordable and nice products like the launchpad and remote SL's. This just doesn't seem to fit in their lineup. I much prefer roland's dedicated knob methodology over a series of hidden menus to this. The SH-01 seems like a better buy for a virtual analog. Heck, there are cheaper fully analog modules out there. The DSI Mopho Keys is just a hundred dollars more than this (not to mention it's way prettier… though that's subjective).

    Also, come on, that's a pretty bad product demo video. You can do better, Novation.

    end rant.

  • http://www.vstreview.com Dood

    Tons of choice in this corner of the market now! Watch prices plummet in about a year. Good times!

  • KeepItDigital

    What blows my mind is that this is the first synth to incorporate digital audio outputs and I'm pretty sure it's the year 2010!  Kudos to Novation for adding it in, but unbelievable it's taken so long.  Love the Waldorf Blofeld and other keyboards in this area, but who wants to go a/d the back to d/a a million times only to add unwanted sound to the mix.  For F's sakes synth makers, get with the times already!

  • ozric

    i prefer to buy a used novation supernova on ebay