I’ve been wanting to add a physical synthesizer with good performance capabilities to my setup for a while now. There are two reasons. The first is that I’m trying to set up a complete rack that will allow me to experiment more with ‘live’ recording without too much involvement from a computer. I’ve mentioned this before. The second is that it let’s me experiment with sound creation in a much more intuitive, hands on way than using software synths. (I’m sure there are arguments for why the other way around is true for you, but I’ve found that this style works very well for me personally.)
Given my criteria in terms of price and features I was going back and forth between the Roland Gaia SH-01, the Korg Minikorg and the novation Ultranova, and below is a short, very subjective review of each and my motivation for ultimately choosing the Ultranova.
Roland Gaia SH-01
First off, the Gaia is a great, retro looking synth (yes looks are important!) that gives you very rich, hands on controls for just about any parameter you would ever want to tweak. I played around with it at Guitar Center and the programming and controls were really inviting and easy to work with. Also, with 64 note polyphony and a ton of on-board effects that can be layered (up to 5), sound design looks like it could be a lot of fun (the D-Beam is there as well :).
However, it does not have a vocoder and it’s kind of bulky for the limited space I have in my bed-room studio. Another issue I had was with the character of the sound. For some reason I wasn’t able to really get it to sound dirty or warm in the more analog type sounds I experimented with. I didn’t investigate this very far but I suppose it’s in the modeling of the analog signal chain. It wasn’t dramatically off, just not what I had in mind, which of course is entirely subjective. Also, integration with DAWs looked more or less non-existent, and that could become an issue going forward.
The Microkorg is another great looking (wooden panels FTW) option that certainly has size on it’s side. It has a good built in vocoder and a very nice bank of presets that demonstrate the richness and spectrum of sounds that this machine is able to produce, despite it’s tiny size.
Those presets serve as a great starting point for your own designs and explorations, which can be saved into any of the on-board 128 memory slots. Doing so however requires you to overwrite the factory preset in that location since there are no open banks by default. (Yes you can reset any slot to the factory default later.) One drawback though is that you cannot name your patches since the Microkorg’s only display is a 3-digit segmented one that shows the bank letter (A,B,C…) and slot number.
The Microkorg has other things going for it though. Since it’s based on the well renowned and loved MS2000, the architecture is very easy to understand, and the filter is versatile and joy to work with. It has two timbres that can be modelled individually and mixed, or muted for true monophonic sounds. Also, just like it’s bigger brother (MS2000) it comes with the same virtual patch capabilities that allow you to set up a modulation source (such as LFO) and destination (pitch) and then control the intensity individually for each such patch.
So why did I rule out the Microkorg? Well, first of all the MS2000R already sits comfortably in my rack and provides most (if not all) of the functionality the Microkorg does. What I was looking for this time was something with a slightly more modern architecture with better (as in more performance oriented) on board physical controls and more detailed modeling capabilities. Also, the Microkorg, in keeping with its name, comes with micro keys (super tiny) without aftertouch, that felt flimsy and generally too plastic (cheap?) to me.
So, enter the novation Ultranova. Starting with looks, this one comes in a really tasty blue-metallic color that manages to feel both fresh and modern, and retro and playful at the same time. Though I have no experience with the older novation synths (such as the supernova) I understand that this color scheme is typical for novation. It has fewer physical controls than the others, but a richer display and a more modern and performance friendly layout and setup. You can tell that its an instrument designed to be played both on and off stage with all the typical parameters and settings easily accessible, and the more esoteric ones hidden behind a menu system.
One thing that stands out from the others is that the main 8 encoders are touch sensitive, meaning that not only can you rotate them to alter a parameter (duh) you can also engage effects for example simply by resting your finger on them. (Performance friendly! Think of the possibilities!)
The keys are full size, with velocity sensitivity and aftertouch. They have a distinct (perhaps some would say almost hard?) feeling to them, with clear response and release. I found them superior to both the Roland and the Korg, and the closest to a traditional piano touch among the three. Also, the mod wheels are illuminated in the same tasty blue color as the rest of the body. This can be turned off but then you loose some of the nice spacey feeling :).
The Ultranova has the best DAW/Computer integration of the three, hands down. There are two software packages, a Librarian that allows you to browse, load and off-load patches, and a VST plugin Editor that you can use to really dive into and go deep in your sound design escapades.
Sound wise the short story is that the Ultranova is mono timbral, with 18 note polyphony. This means you wont be able to play more than one patch at a time, but note wise you have a lot of width to build beautifully deep pads and chords (not as many as the 64 on the Roland though…). You have 3 oscillators, 1 noise generator and 2 ring modulators per patch to work with. The oscillators have a huge selection of wave forms and tables (including 20 digital waveforms and 36 wave tables). Two filters can be applied per patch with 14 options on board, most of which are Hi/Band/Lo Pass filters with varying ratios. There is also 5 effect slots per patch with a palette including reverb, delay, distortion and EQ to choose from.
The Ultranova also comes with an arpeggiator with 33 presets, a ‘chord’ function which allows you to tie an entire chord to a single key on the keyboard, and a decent vocoder.
Really the long story on the sound is reserved for another post since there is just so much goodness going on under the hood, but so far I’ve found it to be extremely versatile, capable of producing anything from soaring leads, deep rich pads and growling basses, to more classic analog as well as FM type sounds.
I am extremely pleased with my choice in this matter. The Ultranova sounds great, plays great and looks great. It is solid, not too bulky, and with great performance oriented controls. The presets are up to date and the perfect playground for inspiration. Also, the fact that it plays so nicely with my otherwise software oriented workflow is a huge plus that I know will only grow bigger as I explore this instrument more.
Let me know if you have any questions about it.
For more in depth reviews of the three synths, check out the following Sound On Sound articles:
Gaia SH-01: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug10/articles/roland-gaia-sh01.htm
You can get the Ultranova from Amazon at the following URL:
Novation Ultranova Nova Series Analog-Modeling Systhesizer