- Novation are on a roll. Besides the Circuit, which they've nurtured through successive soft and firmware updates over the last year and a half, they recently released its bigger brother, the Circuit Mono Station. But the big daddy of the lot is Peak, which was announced at the same time as the Mono Station. Peak is traditional compared to the more innovative approaches of the Circuit models, but it also represents a move into the world of high-end synthesisers, and shows Novation is capable of creating a flagship polysynth that can stand alongside offerings from major players like Dave Smith and Moog.
Peak is an eight-voice hybrid polysynth developed in part by Chris Huggett, the man responsible for classics like the OSCar and SuperNova. It was marketed with the tagline "Analogue where it matters—digital where it counts" and does a nice job of sidestepping the analogue fetishism evident in some corners of the hardware synthesiser world. Opting for a hybrid solution seems to provide the best of both worlds with little in the way of compromise. On the digital side, there are three full-range oscillators per voice, each capable of generating standard, numerically controlled waveforms or 17 wavetables containing five waveforms each. The benefit of these digital oscillators is that they'll never go out of tune, something that can affect analogue synths that are showing their age.
On the other hand, it's that wonkiness in the tuning that gives such equipment its character. If that's what you're after, Novation has introduced a couple of algorithms that add what they call Drift and Divergence to the oscillators, mimicking the slight imperfections found in analogue voices by detuning and offsetting the oscillators against one another. These are set at zero by default but can be dialled in to taste through the menu. Whether or not it's that classic sound you're after, there's no doubt they do a nice job of beefing things up when more than one oscillator is in play.
One interesting benefit of the digital oscillators is that it's possible to change the shape of the waveforms or morph through different parts of the chosen wavetable in real-time, using the dedicated Shape control on each oscillator. Using the wavetable preset "VoxOooEe" on Oscillator 1 of an initialised patch, I'm turning the Shape control from it's lowest setting up to its maximum. The sound you hear is Oscillator 1 moving smoothly through the five waveforms that make up this vowel-y, resonant wavetable.
The VCA, state-variable filter and distortion take care of the analogue side of things. The filter is lifted from the Bass Station II and retains its main features, such as the switchable 12 or 24dB slope, dedicated LFO modulation control and pre-filter overdrive. If you used the Bass Station before, you'll know what to expect. It's smooth and subtle when used sparingly but switch to the 24dB slope and crank the resonance and things get out of hand pretty quickly. The distortion is nicely balanced across its three parts (pre-filter overdrive, a post-filter drive found in the menu and a global distortion), meaning that it can be used in a subtle, constructive fashion.
Visually, the similarities between models like the Prophet-6 Desktop and Peak are obvious and go some way to defining its intended audience. The wooden side panels, logical left-to-right, signal-flow-informed layout and metal-topped knobs reference the aesthetics of Dave Smith and Moog. The build-quality is faultless. The knobs have a decent weight to them with no discernible wiggle or looseness, while the solid plastic buttons have a reassuringly heavy click to them. These are a step up from the Bass Station II's rubber knobs, and it's good to see that they've dropped the metal switches, which always felt a little flimsy.
The lack of a keyboard compels you to play and sequence Peak in different ways. I happened to have access to a Bass Station II while reviewing Peak, and much fun could be had by playing their arpeggiators off against one another. In the below example, the Bass Station's arpeggiator was set to Random while the Peak's was set to Up and the third rhythm preset. The Peak's arpeggiator is receiving its MIDI information from a few key presses made on the Bass Station and the octave ranges of both arpeggiators are being adjusted throughout.
Peak also has a CV input, meaning a whole world of Eurorack-related sequencing modulation is available, while aftertouch enabled controllers like Push 2 work flawlessly as sources in the modulation matrix. The mod matrix is arguably the key feature. It has 16 slots, each with two sources and a destination, though it's possible to assign sources from other slots to the same destination, meaning lots of cross-modulation possibilities are available.
In the example below, I've set up slot 1 in the mod matrix to control the pitch of Oscillator 1 using both LFO 1 and 2 as sources. LFO 1 is set to a free-running square wave while LFO 2 is a synced saw. This provides the off-kilter rhythm you hear at the start. Modulation slot 2 sees Oscillator 1 being frequency modulated by Oscillator 3, with the source depth being controlled by one of the two Animate buttons. This is what gives that distorted, malfunctioning sound about halfway through, which really accentuates the speech-like nature of the wavetable. Bear in mind I've only used two of the 16 available slots, which should give you some idea of the possibilities available here.
It's certainly possible to get some real nastiness out of Peak. The three distortion points on each voice give an abundance of control over the wildness levels, while ring modulation multiplies the incoming signals from oscillators 1 and 2 before feeding them back into the mixer section. Another way to create an aggressive ring-mod style sound is to turn the level and feedback controls of the delay to maximum, while taking the time all the way down (ensuring the Sync button isn't activated). This creates a harsh, metallic tone that sits at the higher register of almost any patch.
The effects are just as good when used in a more traditional manner. Like the oscillators, these are digitally generated but they skirt around the main signal path and are fed into the main signal after the VCA. This has the advantage of offering a true effects bypass within Peak, allowing for a clean output signal. The delay has a clear, supple sound that never seems to get in the way of the original signal. Dotted and triplet rhythms are available as variations on the standard beat divisions, and those entertaining bouncing ball sounds can be created by engaging and disengaging the sync button while playing with the delay's time control. It's also possible to ping-pong the delay around the stereo field by playing with the Left-Right Ratios in the delay's menu.
The reverb is large and lush, with an apparently endless tail at its maximum setting. The three Type settings change the size of the reverb while options for predelay, filtering and modulation are available via the menu. At lower time settings it does a nice job of giving some air to percussive sounds, and when paired with a short delay it's possible to get some nice springy effects out of it.
Cranking the feedback in the Chorus menu will result in some serviceable phaser-type sounds. It's also possible to route the effects either in parallel or in sequence, so you can have the delay signal affect the reverb or the chorus affect the delay, for example. Unfortunately it's not possible to access any of the effects in the mod matrix, meaning that the different sequencing options are essentially the extent of the effect modulation possibilities. Hopefully this is something that will be addressed in a future update (this is something of a Novation speciality at the moment and another perk of a semi-digital synth).
While €1400 is always going to be a lot of money for a synthesiser, if you're fishing for a new piece in this price-range, you'd be foolish not to give Peak a chance. There is a bit of menu-diving but in practice it's a quick and simple system that rewards wth a multitude of options that allow you to make this synth your own. While it might not necessarily have the classy credentials of a DSI or Moog instrument, in many ways you're getting more synth for less money. With comparable build-quality, abundant features and the smart application of digital technology, the Peak's got an edge that's hard to find elsewhere.
Ease of use: 4.4