Upon its arrival towards the end of 2010, Novation's UltraNova synthesizer gave birth to a new breed of Nova synth, which connected the company's present to its past. The Supernova, released in 1998, was a staple for many a producer, featuring a flexible architecture and, crucially, a ready collection of sounds which slotted effortlessly into dance music tastes of the time. Times and tastes change, of course, but this principle remains popular, as Ultranova continues to prove. If you can pack a synth with programs relevant to contemporary electronic music genres, provide both onboard and "via software" editing and add real-time performance features, you'll create a desirable product. Following in Ultranova's footsteps now comes MiniNova, at a price point to bring the Nova ethos within range of a new generation of users.
Right out of the box, MiniNova looks like a synth you want to play with. It boots up either from an external power supply or via your computer's USB bus and is housed in the customary dark blue that Novation has reserved for the Nova range. Its tactility is enhanced by an upper surface which features eight rubberized buttons which can toggle between Arpeggiation and Animation effects (of which more shortly) and, above this, a matrix of editable parameters, with rotary dials below and a "runner" slider to the right, to move from one group of four parameters to the next. As real-time manipulation goes, I like this design a lot; while it's now quite common to find matrices like these on synthesizers, they usually feature a button to cycle up or down through parameter groups, which is less immediate than the slider system offered here.
Centrally placed on the front panel, a dominant filter rotary dial provides cutoff control, while further real-time manipulation is provided by pitch bend and modulation wheels, which are sleekly back-lit in blue to match MiniNova's screen. It's worth reinforcing at this stage that, as the photos show, MiniNova will look the part on stage.
Sounds, meanwhile, are organized into banks both in genres and in terms of sonic type. You can either choose from Rock/Pop, R&B/Hip-Hop, Dubstep, House/Techno, D&B/Breaks or Classic Synth on the Genre side, or select Arp/Movement, Pad/Strings, Keyboard/Lead or Bass Sounds from Type. These choices are made with another rotary (detented this time) and the extra options here include an All position, which gives you free run at all programs (there are 256 presets, room for 128 user patches onboard and additional free to download patches available from Novation's website) and Vocoder/Vocal Tune, which brings both new and classic voice functionality via the supplied microphone.
Vocoding, the process of blending a microphone-based signal with the synthesis brain of a synthesizer, remains a standout feature on Ultranova and it returns here but with a new twist: VocalTune. This allows you to sing or speak a word and tune it by playing monophonic melodies on the keyboard. The difference is that, rather than letting the synth engine sink its teeth into the sound to shape it dramatically, VocalTune provides a fairly clear representation of what's going into the Microphone, albeit one processed with real-time pitch shifting. VocalTune is huge fun and complements the capabilities of the Vocoder nicely.
So what exactly is the engine lying at the heart of MiniNova? Well, each program can feature up to three oscillators and there are 14 conventional waveforms, such as sawtooth options and square waves. Alternatively, you could choose to build sounds from digital sampled blocks, with 20 options here including bell, woodwind instruments and organs. Lastly, 36 wavetables are offered to create more biting sounds which, in classic wavetable fashion, can scroll to produce more animated sounds. Oscillators can be detuned, sync'd and, on a per-oscillator basis, "hardened," which you can consider as an extra low-pass filter treatment for each sound source.
As for the filters, there are 14 different types, of which two are available simultaneously for each program. It gets better—factor in six envelope generators, three LFOs and 20 modulation slots for tying control parameters to the sources of your choice and you begin to get a sense of how powerful MiniNova's sound engine is. The cherry on top is that five effects modules are available to each program so you can reverberate, distort, delay, phase, flange, EQ, compress—and more besides—to your heart's content. You can pour through menu pages to get at these parameters, but many of those you'll need most often are assigned to the editing matrix in the top right-hand corner. with eight locations left empty for your own "tweaks" (four for synth parameters, four for effects editing), this is a pleasingly open system.
One of my favourite features of MiniNova is the real-time manipulation afforded by the Arpeggiate and Animate pads; you can toggle between either operational mode with a switch to the pads' left. In Animation mode, the pads light up blue and, when pressed, each button produces a shift in a chosen parameter to create a real-time sonic "interruption" of the sound. These might be a snap-shot filter offset, a pitch glide up or down, or a spot reverb treatment, to give but three of many possible examples. In Arpeggiate mode, you can control up to eight steps of a running arpeggiation sequence (activated on the far left) simply by punching steps of the sequence in and out. While you can select arpeggiation tempo and choose whether to latch the running sequence on the left, further parameters including step duration, gate time and swing amount can be adjusted through the menu.
So, where's the catch? After all, that's an awful lot of power for a synth with such a modest footprint and price tag. Well, truthfully, there aren't many. That said, I have never been a fan of Mini-key keyboards and while MiniNova is a great instrument, I haven't forgotten my misgivings through the review period. I completely understand Novation's decision to want to squeeze 37 keys into MiniNova's shell but I'd much prefer a bigger instrument and full-size keys instead. The other compromise the developers have made is entirely to their credit. They've decided to keep MiniNova's synth engine stacked to the rafters with editable parameters but, on a screen and instrument this size, that does make for a lot of jabbing of the menu button and scrolling. Were this the only way to edit and build sounds, I'd be moaning but, via USB, MiniNova can connect to your computer and even integrate as a plug-in within your DAW, whereupon a graphical version of its editing options becomes available. Whether you're playing live or sound-building in the studio, at this price point, MiniNova can only be thoroughly recommended.