Lyrics by Sam McNiece
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Digital synths have been around since the 80s, producing some of the most iconic synth sounds of the last 30 years and yet to this day we have people willing to shun all the technical and programming advantages of digital in favor of the classic analog synthesis appeal.
Synth purists with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) will bicker for days on what made this specific analog synth on a particular track so “warm”, “rich”, or whatever subjective shorthand used to describe a beautiful sounding synth sound. Yet, in the same breath, they will simultaneously ignore digital synths due to their “clean” or “sterile” sound output.
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Well, as anyone working in 2022 can probably tell you, the holy grail exists somewhere in the middle – a signal chain that harnesses the benefits of digital and analog components to deliver something that’s both tonally rich and highly flexible. in the app.
Enter the Novation Peak, a hybrid analog and digital synth that claims its oscillators sound completely analog while being created entirely in the digital realm. This eight-voice polyphonic synth has three octaves per voice, an analog multimode filter with multiple distortion stages, three quality effects, multiple LFOs, and a modulation matrix that allows just about anything to affect anything else.
Emulating this analog “heat” in the digital domain relies on their use of a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip instead of the standard DSP. The FPGA is able to operate in parallel, which speeds up internal processing, which Novation says has a direct impact on sound.
As the Peak is a hybrid analog and digital synth, the conversions that occur in the audio between the pre and post filter signal are imperative. Novation really went above and beyond that, using eight DAC chips for each voice, sampling at over 24 MHz (500x standard audio processing). This essentially eliminates aliasing in the Peak’s onboard processing, allowing you to use its wavetable functionality (which we’ll get to later) without that harsh, nasty top end you might find in wavetable synths. VST waves.
Using NCOs (Numerically Controlled Oscillators) on their new Oxford Oscillators, the Novation Peak produces some of the richest oscillator sounds I have heard in my time. There’s even a setting to add divergence and drift to further emulate an analog sound by slightly detuning the 24 oscillators away from center either at a fixed level (diverge) or changing over time (drift).
Each oscillator has an identical control set to each other, allowing a wide range of tonal control over synth patches. These controls are Pitch Octave, Coarse and Fine Tuning, Waveform Select, Pitch Modulation, and Shape Amount, which alter the waveform of the oscillator. Additionally, you can dig into the oscillator settings and use the Saw Dense and Dense Detune options to create the super saw of your trance dreams.
Although you can use classic waveforms to sculpt your sounds, wavetables are also available on all three oscillators. You can use the supplied ones that range from subtle to extreme variations and even use Novation components to add your own wavetables to the Peak for additional sound design avenues to pursue.
The mixer section of the Peak includes a volume control for all three oscillators, plus a ring modulator which multiplies oscillators one and two together, a noise generator and a VCA gain which is essentially a level control for the mixer of the Peak. oscillator before it reaches the filter section.
After blending the oscillators together, you come to the analog part of Peak, the filter section. This resonant multi-mode filter features lowpass, band, and highpass filter options at 12 or 24 dB/octave cutoff slopes with standard frequency and resonance knobs plus key tracking, and a knob handle. modulation options on the surface (with many more in the mod matrix but more on that later). What’s really nice about this all-analog filter section is that it’s independent for each of the eight voices. This allows this synth to have analog pre- and post-filter distortion applied per voice as well as overall distortion which can add a huge range of additive harmonics to the signal chain.
There’s an amplitude envelope alongside two modulation envelopes and four LFOs (two are in the menu) which have quite a few assignments to physical knobs. This, combined with other parameters, creates 16 “hard patched” modulation parameters that are perfect for making quick, decisive moves on the Peak, removing the dive into menus and modulation assignments that often stifle creativity.
For those more adept at creating synth patches, the Modulation Matrix has 16 flexible assignments that allow you to map a wide range of controls, be it MIDI/CV input, LFOs or envelopes, to even more parameters on the Peak. The modulation matrix can be explored in more detail using the animated knobs which essentially act as momentary, latching modulation switches that can alter the sound at the push of a button.
In addition to all of these fantastic features, the Peak has three dedicated effects that can all be used simultaneously to create track-ready sound in the synth. The Chorus, Delay and Reverb all sound great and I found in testing that I couldn’t turn them off on any of the patches I created because they added so much to the sound. That’s not to say you can’t turn them off, there’s an effects bypass button that cuts them out of the signal chain completely if that’s something you want.
The built-in arpeggiator is more complex than the single button on the surface indicates. There are several play modes including high, low, shuffle and chord which, when combined with the rhythm parameter, allow you to generate more than the average 16th note arpeggio sound. Rhythm has 33 different playback sequences that will follow the playback mode of your choice, allowing for simple or complex patterns to be played which can be combined with swing and octave range for interesting results.
Most of the Peak’s controls live within your sight, making it an intuitive experience when using it. There are digital menus for some of the lesser-used parameters, including FX, LFO, modulation, oscillator, voice, and arpeggiator parameters. Most could probably live without them, but they give the Peak more functionality, and as they continue to update firmware (last update was a month before writing this review), Novation can continue to build on what is already an exceptional synth.
Overall, this sleek and modern digital/analog hybrid is a beautiful-sounding synthesizer that easily emulates analog-sounding oscillators and combines the best of the analog and digital worlds in a single package. Whether you want to create lush pads, dense leads, or biting bass tones, the Novation Peak should be at the top of your list for the range of sonic prowess the unit is capable of.