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NOVATION MININOVA - INTRODUCTION
I do love Novation synths and I am still very happy with my Supernova II rack that I picked up for a good price a few years back. However, more recently, after a considerable break, Novation got my taste buds going again with the UltraNova and now, in a world of small portable gadgets, they have released the MiniNova, designed to take anywhere, fit anywhere, play anywhere and no doubt compete heavily with the excellent and very popular MicroKORG.
Before I even play a note I know that I am going to love the MiniNova's sound because it has the same synth engine as the larger UltraNova, but personally I am not a great lover of small keys. However, this is not going to stop me enjoying every minute of this fun instrument that looks as if it has all the power and 'oomph' of a full blown synth!
What intrigues me here is that if it is basically an UltraNova with a more compact design, can you manipulate the sound differently with the alternative set of controls? This may be difficult to see and hear without the two synths side by side - but let's see if we can find out!
NOVATION MININOVA - THE BLUE MACHINE OUT OF THE BOX
Set up takes seconds and before you know it, you're making sounds! Just plug in the power adapter, the included gooseneck microphone and your headphones, switch it on and away you go! I love the way it lights up with an excellent sized LCD showing very large text - (well done Novation), backlit midnight blue pitch and modulation wheels and eight pad buttons that do an assortment of flashing, changing colour and remaining static. It all looks very inviting, professional and colourful. Despite its small keys, the MiniNova does not look like a toy as some have said, but provokes curiosity as to what all the controls do.
As well as the gooseneck microphone and power supply, the MiniNova comes complete with a manual, USB cable, a software download card and a warranty registration card.
NOVATION MININOVA - WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE?
Well it should sound like an UltraNova but on first play, I think it sounds different somehow. Maybe it's the fact that Novation have improved on the presets to give you instantly likeable thrills. It is certainly a sound set that demonstrates the potential and capabilities of this little synth.
As I work my way through its 256 preset patches, I find squelchy acid bass, raw squealing leads, Trance arps, Dubstep wobbles, Chillout pads, vocal noises, soundtrack effects and silky strings among other gems. The MiniNova certainly features an up-to-date soundset and if this is what you are looking for, you won't find much to dislike.
If you are looking for true recreations of other instruments, I would say that this is not the product for you. However, whilst I was compiling this review someone asked me how many piano sounds there are on the MiniNova and whilst I found this an unexpected question, oddly enough, there are a few on there! As you would expect though, they all have that very modern and up-to-date edge to them - just the sort of piano sounds that you would expect to hear in today's music charts. The MiniNova is certainly not an instrument for piano purists though.
The MiniNova is every bit as powerful as the UltraNova with 18 voice polyphony, 3 oscillators per voice, one noise generator, two ring modulators, 14 conventional wave shapes, 36 wavetables and 20 digital waveforms, 14 filter types, 6 envelope generators per voice, 5 effects slots (select from 2 distortions, 2 compressors, 4 chorus/phase effects, 2 delays, 2 reverbs, a Gator and an EQ), a vocoder & vocal effects processor and a flexible arpeggiator, which rhythmically adds interesting nuances to enhance the sounds further. There are also 20 modulation sources per patch and 66 destinations to give you more modulation possibilities than you should ever need! If you want to store your own sonic creations on the MiniNova then there are spaces to store 128 patches in the 'User' area of the synth and if you need more spaces, you can save as many as you wish on your computer.
NOVATION MININOVA - CONTROLLING THE BEAST
You just can't help but notice the smart looking Pitch and Modulation wheels that are backlit in blue. In use I found these to have a solid feel to them and do exactly what they should. For a synth this cheap, they are certainly built very well.
The MiniNova's Pitch wheel is setup to return to the centre position when released. To the right of these is the 37-note (3 octave) mini-keyboard, which has velocity sensing but sadly no aftertouch. Interestingly and annoyingly the MiniNova synth engine does respond to external aftertouch, although the keyboard itself generates only velocity.
Above the Pitch and Modulation wheels are the Octave buttons, which are also backlit to indicate how many octaves up or down you are. Each press transposes the keys up or down one octave to a maximum of four octaves. The colour displayed by the buttons indicates the number of octaves shifted as follows: red for 1 octave, magenta for 2 octaves, purple for 3 octaves and blue for 4 octaves. If you have both LEDs off then the lowest note on the keyboard is one octave below Middle C.
Next up is the Arpeggiator, which has a Tempo knob plus 'On' and 'Latch' buttons. Above this is the Master Volume knob (which adjusts both the level control for the main audio outputs and the headphone output) and the XLR input for the included gooseneck microphone (which gives you access to the MiniNova's built-in vocoder).
To the right of this is a nice and clear custom 2 x 8 character LCD dot matrix display, which allows you to see your patch selections. What I like about this display is that it neatly and cleverly gives you a small bar graph meter, which shows you the audio input signal level, as well as the tempo in BPM, plus other useful status information - excellent idea - well done Novation!
Under this (and in the best place for them) are the navigation buttons - 'Page' to step forwards and backwards between menu pages, a 'Menu/Back' button, an 'OK' button and a 'Save' button to save alterations to patches.
The next section of the MiniNova introduces another great design feature; a large knob to select a subset of available patches by either Type or Genre. There is also an 'All' option so that you can browse through patches sequentially. What a great idea which gets another thumbs up from me!
The MiniNova has an added bonus of a 'Sort' switch so that you can organise your patches sequentially or alphabetically by patch name. I hope some of the other keyboard manufacturers are taking note here of these simple but extremely effective ideas. Also in this section is a rotary encoder data wheel and patch 'up' and 'down' selection buttons.
Moving on we have another large knob to take care of the filter cut-off frequency - great fun, great size and every synth should have one! To the right of this is the Parameter Matrix, which has four rotary tweak controls. The function of each control is determined by the setting of the 'Perform Row' selector (a six-way switch) located to the right of the matrix. This is extremely easy to use as you simply select the row and tweak the relevant parameters with one of the four rotary controls.
Below the Matrix are eight backlit, multicolour, pressure-sensitive pad buttons, numbered 1 to 8. You can use these in three ways. Firstly, you can use them to either animate or arpeggiate. Well, I understand the term 'arpeggiate' but I am currently not too sure what Novation mean by 'animate'...
Apparently 'animate' adds a pre-determined parameter change, so as you are playing you can hit one of the pads to alter or add an effect to the sound. You can create some great Dubstep live performances with these; they are enormously fun and bring further enhancements to the sound patches. If you want to keep the 'animate' parameter change on even when you release the button, there is also a 'Hold' button.
The third way that the eight pads can be used is in conjunction with the 'Favourite' button to save and recall your best eight patches.
NOVATION MININOVA - VOCALS
As you get carried away with all the synth features Novation have packed in here, it is easy to forget about the fact that the MiniNova has some great vocoder and 'VocalTune' effects.
The 12-band vocoder allows you to create some really great sounds by combining synth sounds with either your voice or another instrument such as a guitar. You can produce all manner of robotic vocal sounds and effects and you can even sing chords if you want to!
Novation are no strangers to vocoders and have been working on them for some years now. I think this is a much better vocoder that the one you will find on the Korg MicroKORG XL. I am trying to remember my time with the UltraNova and I know it is partially guesswork but I think the MiniNova's vocoder actually has some improvements over the UltraNova.
Using the vocoder is very easy and Novation explain it simply by saying: 'First set the TYPE/GENRE control to VOCODER/VOCALTUNE and select a patch from the available subset. Now hold one or more keys down and sing into the microphone (or play an instrument connected to the EXT IN input). You will hear the sound of the synth modified by the external audio input. As with any other patch, you can alter various parameters with the FILTER and four rotary encoders in the PERFORM section, or use the Animate functions' - easy when you know how!
As you work your way through the vocal patches, you will find that two of them, 'Aaah 1' (B073) and 'Aaah 2' (B074), do not make use of the built-in microphone. Although these use the MiniNova's vocoder functions, they use fixed formants which are stored with the patches. At the end of the day, I would start with simple experimentation and have some fun and see what the MiniNova can do for your own vocal sound
Ok, so here is a big bonus over the UltraNova; the MiniNova features the famous 'VocalTune' to give you that (sometimes annoying but) very popular auto-tune effect. VocalTune works by allowing you to sing and tune your sound by playing monophonic melodies on the keyboard. It is great fun and a very suitable addition to the on-board vocoder.
NOVATION MININOVA - SOFTWARE EDITOR AND PATCH LIBRARIAN
I do appreciate it when companies make it easier for you to create and organise your own sounds and in these respects I wasn't disappointed with the MiniNova, which provides some fantastic software additions; an Editor and a Librarian. It is always much easier to see what is happening on a big computer screen than on a small LCD. The Patch Librarian is very similar to the UltraNova Librarian. It is very clear and easy to understand and allows you to load in other patch sets, organise them and save them onto your Mac or PC.
The Novation MiniNova comes with Ableton Live Lite, the Novation Bass Station softsynth and a Loopmasters sample pack with 1GB of samples included as well as the aforementioned Editor and the Librarian.
NOVATION MININOVA - CONNECTIONS
Around the back (from left to right), we start with the 9V power supply input. Interestingly, the MiniNova can also be powered via USB.
Next are the MIDI Out and MIDI In connections, a sustain pedal Input, a 1/4" stereo headphones output, 1/4" stereo left and right outputs, an external input for processing external audio via the MiniNova's various processors, and a Kensington Lock. There are no battery compartments as you may have expected, possibly because it can be powered by USB.
NOVATION MININOVA - CONCLUSION
The Novation MiniNova has such a fantastic array of sonic possibilities for such a small compact synth - normally you would need far more controls to achieve this. The MiniNova impressed me right from the outset with its cool blue look, excellent lighting effects and user-friendly layout that is so easy to get to grips with.
It may be a mini-synth but the designers have done a great job here, allowing you to edit on-the-fly with fast access to predetermined changes or let you go wild by using your own judgement on how the sound should change. Let's face it - everyone enjoys a bit of real-time manipulation.
I think if I could be granted a wish for my own Novation design, I would want a MiniNova with Ultranova keys and aftertouch. I think the competition would then be very worried. Anyway, back to the real world where cost is a big issue for everyone - as it stands at the moment, I don't think there is anything out there that matches the price, build-quality, great design and performance of the MiniNova so I am sure the competition are already worried. As an afterthought, the Mininova may have worked very well as a rackmount, especially as rackmounts are making a little bit of a comeback at present - just a thought.
If you are looking for something that takes up very little room, has cutting-edge sounds and adds some variation to your Roland, Korg or Yamaha patches then this is probably something you should buy today!
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