And here is a real crush I had for this little blue synth during 2010. What immediately seduced me is:
First : The interface blends the best of both worlds: an lcd screen and real-time controls. Too often we find machines that just offer an LCD screen with 6 or 8 programming buttons around and nothing else. The complete opposite exemple is the Roland SH-201 : lot of controls on the synth panel, but a complete or almost complete lack of precise information, which ultimately requires us to go through a software editor. But the Ultranova has a wide lcd display offering a visualization of up to 8 parameters in a glance, and there are 8 rotary knobs allowing the control of 8 parameters in real time. The easiness and efficiency of this interface is just outstanding.
Secondo : it is a synthesizer inheriting from Supernova’s synthesis engine, which has already proved its worth. On the other hand Novation seems to communicate a lot about the live tweaking possibilities, using the « auto-select » hit buttons (sensitive rubber) but I certainly did not buy this machine for that very specification, not only because three octaves is far too small for me, but also despite those 8 rotary knobs, I’m not convinced by this system for fast tweaking parameters from a specific menu page…
Under the hood, we find a Freescale 56367 DSP (24bits – 150Mhz) which is a very classic dsp used in modeling synthesizers. It is surprising that with such a DSP pretty powerful like that, this synthesizer has no multi-timbral mode (the Waldorf Blofeld is a 16 parts multi-timbral synth, using, however, a similar DSP). There are three Alliance S-RAM circuits, and a microprocessor which is almost identical to the one already found in the Korg MicroKorg, a Rensas H8S 2321 (the microKorg uses a 2320). The rest of the circuits manages the keyboard scan, I/O, USB port, … The audio converter is the awesome Cirrus Logic CS42416 ADC / DAC converter !
But let’s get back to the synthesis engine, which is a classic subtractive synthesis scheme using up to three independent oscillators that can be combined to create the sound. There are three kinds of waveforms that can be generated. The classical « primitives » (square, sawtooth, pulse, sine, triangle), PCM sampled (raw digital sounds, typical « DX » sounds, …) and wave tables. The 3 oscillators are completely independent and have no constraints. In addition there are many parameters like virtual oscillators, phase angle, wave hardness, oscillator drift, detuning, and so on … In fact, 16 different parameters can be used per oscillators, which is already quite impressive. The drift parameter introduces random changes in the nature of the oscillator to emulate in a better way the analog feeling.
Then we have the mixer section, allowing different things like doing ring modulation between two oscillators, mutating oscillators, individual volumes, setting up the noise generator level, … After the mixer section we have two resonant filters quite impressive (and are really largely configurable) because they can be wired together in many ways, giving us a large range of possibilities.
The filters have 18 different modes (HPF, LPF, NOTCH, and various 24, 18 or 12 dB / oct variants). There is also a distorsion parameter acting on how the resonance will behave around the cutoff frequency. This possibly emulate certain analog filters specifications, having a very particular character, or even doing the filter to « scream » but at the resonance curve level and not how distortion connected to the output of the synth would do.
There are 5 effects slots (reverb, delay, various modulations, Eq, compression, …) and they are very well conceived (excepted, maybe, the reverb algorithm). It’s interesting to mention you can use multiple times the same kind of effect on different slots. Those slots can also be combined using different schemes.
To conclude the overview of the synthesis engine, it should be noted that there are three largely configurable LFOs, 6 envelopes, and 20 modulation slots that can add two modulation sources combined for a destination.
The quality of the sound produced is really amazing. The ultranova will perfectly reproduce old analog sounds, but also will do for a large range of digital sounds, from very complex sounds through the sounds of type « DX » (for those who like). I use it intensively especilly for some majestic analog pads as well as for digital lead sounds or special effects …
I wrote this article two months after using this machine intensively and definitly this synth is extremely well made and I think it will still to surprise me for many years … However I noticed that the polyphony range (18 notes, or rather 18 oscillators) tends to largely get down according to the number of effects used, and/or the complexity of the sounds beeing produced.
Even without using the unison mode, I notice sometimes the polyphony is just limited to 4 notes for some of my sounds. So, 4 notes using 3 oscillators gives 12 oscillators being played simultaneously … I wonder where are the 6 others ?
The manual gives a small explanation, but loosing six oscillators is quite important… Does this DSP is really working so hard ? :/