Novation MoroderNova review – MiniNova goes disco

Novation’s MiniNova gets a boost (and ‘tache) from synth legend Giorgio Moroder…

Hipster beards. Drawing a curly shape on your finger and holding it over your upper lip. That game where you put a moustache on the TV and drink when it lines up with a character. Moustaches on everything.

The Novation MoroderNova, 2015 limited edition MiniNova

What is the Novation MoroderNova?

Novation MiniNova: £200 (used) to £324 (new)
Novation MoroderNova: Around $800-1000 (used)
UK offers on Amazon

With roots going back to the EDP Wasp and Oxford Synthesizer Company OSCar, Novation has consistently produced affordable, punchy instruments with a unique character. Its flagship SuperNova helped shape the evolution of mainstream techno, dance and trance thanks to a greater depth of control and expression than many contemporaries.

In 2015, Novation recognised another definitive character in electronic music. Giorgio Moroder. Unlike some manufacturers who jack up the price for limited-edition rarity, Novation has always allowed new technology to make their Nova synths more affordable – and the MoroderNova cost the same as a regular MiniNova when announced.

Given the UltraNova and MiniNova had been on sale for five and three years respectively, it seemed something was needed to draw attention to these powerful, affordable synths…

Special edition MiniNova

That something was announced in May 2015. A slightly patchy reception, with comments questioning the validity of a whole limited edition to package some signature sounds, suggests synth players don’t assign much weight to celebrity endorsements – unlike the guitar market where dressed-up low-end models can still command strong prices by aping the preferred style of famous players.

It’s a damn good collaboration though – the MoroderNova not only identifies with an undeniable legend of electronic music, it comes in at the same RRP as the regular model’s launch price (typically, around £50 extra on the street price).

The MoroderNova's original packaging

The MoroderNova is limited to 500 units worldwide. Apparently 50 were assigned to the UK, and my preferred music retailer PMT claimed to get just five.

I’d got an order in fast, and saw the stock status change to “Unavailable” later in the day. Already a fan of Moroder for many things, not least Electric Dreams and his reworked Metropolis, the appeal was boosted by a secondhand MiniNova I bought in 2014. That had proved really inspiration and fun, and the idea of owning a homage to a musical hero with the confidence that I already liked the core product was irresistible.

Getting the MoroderNova – number five is alive!

Differences between the MoroderNova and MiniNova are trivial in synth terms. The faceplate is silver with black graphics (some may remember the limited edition SuperNova keyboards) rather than the blue/black scheme traditional for Novation, and there are moustache and sunglasses details liberally applied.

The default patch set has been partially replaced with a set of patches either programmed by Giorgio Moroder, or programmed to match signature sounds he used throughout his career – it’s unclear, though in recent videos he is seen playing the minikey synth.

MoroderNova side panels

The limited edition nature comes down to a certificate of authenticity – and perhaps, if people don’t do the inevitable and share the patches, some unique sounds.

Update: Novation did release some of the sounds – you can download 30 of the 51 MoroderNova sounds for your MiniNova. They may also work on the UltraNova with slight differences.

It seemed pretty unlikely that the large community of MiniNova owners will somehow be prevented from getting the Moroder set.

Mine is number 005 – surprisingly, the only indication of this is the serial number and certificate rather than a limited edition number in a more visible location.

MoroderNova logo

Giving the patches away doesn’t really devalue the MoroderNova. I doubt many people have snapped up one of these because it’s going to have some future sales potential. It’s a bit of fun, a bit silly – the graphics tell you that this is no po-faced attempt at lending handcrafted/magical musical mojo to a mass-produced product, it’s no tolex-wrapped Moog or 5150 Kramer. If there’s any criticism I would want to make, it’s that it doesn’t quite go far enough in the silliness – Korg has done well with reverse/red & black keys on past models and the fun Volca Sample OK Go, and reverse keys on the MoroderNova would have enhanced the limited nature and visibility of it (as well as complementing the silver monochromatic feel).

MiniNova – reviewed

MoroderNova

It’s a MiniNova, pure and simple, so there’s nothing different about the sound or controls. The minikey keyboard is still a compromise, with no aftertouch, though once you get away from the snobbery of having professional, piano-sized keys the advantages in span and speed presented by smaller keys are quite welcome.

The USB port is for MIDI capabilities, with no audio interface unlike the UltraNova, and the audio input and microphone are unchanged.

MoroderNova ports are the same as the MiniNova

This is a good thing, as the MiniNova is still one of the best “cheap” synths going. Used models in good condition can be found for as little as £180, and even new they are often found for £250, or bundled with accessories that theoretically make them that cheap. The 18-voice architecture has 3 oscillators per voice, 66 potential modulation destinations, with 20 sources per patch chosen from 6 envelope generators, 3 LFOs and the usual selection of MIDI sources. Aftertouch is supported, even though the keys cannot provide it.

Flashy lights, glowing modwheels and performance controlled via animate pads

Each patch can be built from a selection of standard waveforms, digital waveforms and wavetables – and then, fed through up to five effects. The specification is derived from the SuperNova II, but loses the comb filter and FM capability – the latter is covered by the 20 digital waveforms. The small reduction in polyphony does not reflect a weak engine in the MiniNova though, you can make dense patches and still have plenty of notes remaining. An impressive sound creation tool can be found in the “Density” and “Density Detune” controls, which create up to 8 virtual oscillators without much impact on polyphony.

Given the low price, you could be forgiven for thinking the MiniNova sits behind even Novation’s earlier entry level keyboards – the underrated X-Station and KS/K-Station. Some of the standard patches are inevitably aimed at shop-demo impact for sure.

The MiniNova's clear white-on-blue LCD is easy to navigate

To assume that’s all it will do is incorrect, though, and there’s an immense palette available bolstered by performance-friendly animation control, an arpeggiator and the complex envelope and LFO matrix that allows the MiniNova to produce virtual analogue soundscapes of immense complexity and subtlety.

It may be small, but this synth could step into the armoury of Vangelis or Hans Zimmer producing a classic Sci-Fi soundtrack with no sweat at all.

Sound editing on the MoroderNova

Despite the stripped out interface, it manages to be quite intuitive too. The eye – and hand – are drawn to the immense filter control knob. Well weighted this gives great control with more precision than a typical rotary encoder or pot, and greater repeatability than a fader. It also feels good to use. Users of Waldorf’s synths and machines like the Use Audio Plugiator will find the matrix access to controls very familiar – a switch selects from rows of controls, with individual encoders. The controls “pick up” where the patch is set, and a memory indicator in the LCD tells you when you’ve returned to the original value.

Quick editing controls on the MiniNova

This layout suits performance tweaking more than patch creation, where the included MiniNova Editor and Librarian packages offer a better workflow. The VST Editor is still at version 1.5, and a few years out of date now when compared to Novation’s new Components system, but it opens up the MiniNova’s flexibility very quickly. I’ve discovered an interesting delay time glitch with it when using MIDI clock sync, but otherwise, it’s stable and a welcome feature.

MiniNova audio inputs

The gooseneck microphone, which seems to have become a requirement for any compact virtual analogue since Quasimidi’s brief moment of glory, feeds into a rather impressive Vocoder. Novation has recognised the adoption of pitch correction throughout the industry, and alongside the traditional vocoder patches (yes, it can do all the obvious ones) a Vocal Tune capability allows the singer to control pitch with the keyboard, live. Cher’s “Life after Love” can be a reality for buskers everywhere.

The MiniNova's vocoder and built-in microphone is fun and useful

For sheer accessibility the MiniNova’s vocoder makes it more appealing than some standalone options where MIDI control from an external keyboard is required, and for quick & dirty vocal tweaks it’s a lot easier than trying to set up scales in an ATR/AVP or VoiceWorks.

Access to the filters is also possible – a 1/4″ audio input on the back panel can either feed the vocoder, provide a dry mono mix just to save on plugs, or be fed through the effects and synth engine. The XLR socket on top is intended for a dynamic microphone, and the one provided is sensitive enough.

DAW integration – MIDI editing and librarian

With a USB port for MIDI, the MiniNova can be used to control DAWs. Novation have good form here, with the X-Station really pre-empting the soft of integration that is now commonplace. Ableton Live Lite is included with the MoroderNova and MiniNova, and while you’re downloading extras, the librarian makes it very easy to deploy the library of free sounds you can get from Novation’s website.

The MiniNova Editor VST

The editor is very easy to use – and graphically lays out just how many components you have at your disposal when creating sounds on the MiniNova. However, it’s occasionally a little unstable; as it doesn’t allow any other integration, I’d only use it when editing a sound – when playing, just treat the synth as any other MIDI device.

So what’s special about the MoroderNova?!

All of these things apply to the MoroderNova. You’ve made it this far and probably forgot that’s what this review is about. Apart from the appearance, all that changes is the 51 patches in Bank C.

MoroderNova special patch list

Patch NumberPatch NameTrack
C000I Feel BassDonna Summer
I Feel Love
C001BadGirlDonna Summer
Bad Girls
C002TpGnBassKenny Loggins
Danger Zone
C003No1Arp1Sparks
No. 1 Song In Heaven
C004MdntLeadGiorgio Moroder
Chase (Midnight Express)
C005WannaRockGiorgio Moroder
I Wanna Rock You
C006BeatTheClockSparks
Beat The Clock
C007BreathBassBerlin
Take My Breath Away
C008FlashLeadIrene Cara
Flashdance
C009E=MC2Giorgio Moroder
E=MC2
C010IFeelPercDonna Summer
I Feel Love
C011ScarIn1Giorgio Moroder
Intro Theme
Scarface
C012ScarIn2Giorgio Moroder
Intro Theme
Scarface
C013ScarOut1Giorgio Moroder
End Credits
Scarface
C014ScarOut2Giorgio Moroder
End Credits
Scarface
C015MdntBassGiorgio Moroder
Chase (Midnight Express)
C016FlashArpIrene Cara
Flashdance
C017FlashPad1Irene Cara
Flashdance
C018FlashPad2Irene Cara
Flashdance
C019TpGnArpKenny Loggins
Danger Zone
C020CallMeBlondie
Call Me
C021NeverArpLimahl
The NeverEnding Story
C022NeverPadLimahl
The NeverEnding Story
C023BreathPadBerlin
Take My Breath Away
C024DaftKeyDaft Punk
Giorgio By Moroder
C025DaftArpDaft Punk
Giorgio By Moroder
C026CatPadDavid Bowie
Cat People
C027CatPad2David Bowie
Cat People
C028ThemeArp1Giorgio Moroder
Giorgio's Theme
C029ThemeArp2Giorgio Moroder
Giorgio's Theme
C030ThemePadGiorgio Moroder
Giorgio's Theme
C031EvoBass1Giorgio Moroder
Evolution
C032EvoBass2Giorgio Moroder
Evolution
C033EvoBass3Giorgio Moroder
Evolution
C034EvoPadGiorgio Moroder
Evolution
C035EvoLeadGiorgio Moroder
Evolution
C036InLoveVocMunch Machine & Giorgio Moroder
In Love With Love
C037InLoveArpMunich Machine & Giorgio Moroder
In Love With Love
C038LABassGiorgio Moroder
Los Angeles
C039LAVocGiorgio Moroder
Los Angeles
C040UtopBassGiorgio Moroder
Utopia
C041UtopArp1Giorgio Moroder
Utopia
C042UtopArp2Giorgio Moroder
Utopia
C043LoveToStringsDonna Summer
Love To Love You Baby
C044LoveToLead1Donna Summer
Love To Love You Baby
C045LoveToLead2Donna Summer
Love To Love You Baby
C046EternityGiorgio Moroder
From Her To Eternity
C0473DegKeyThe Three Degrees
Jump The Gun
C0483DegLeadThe Three Degrees
Jump The Gun
C049No1Arp2Sparks
No. 1 Song In Heaven
C050HarmonySuzi Lane
Harmony
The back of the MoroderNova box. Exciting stuff!

They’re good. I particularly liked “BreathBass”, which is the distinctive bassline that drives Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”. It’s inevitable that the few music stores that have a MoroderNova in stock and on display will get very tired of that intro very quickly. As launching points for some solid dance, disco or electronica, the Moroder patches replace some MiniNova presets I really didn’t miss.

It appears the patches are write protected and Novation have stated on the forum that there are no plans to reveal the patch set outside of the MorderNova, but it does feel like there could be more in there. Soundtrack landmarks, like Top Gun, Flashdance and Scarface do have the limitation that if you want to use them, comparisons will be drawn with the original track. The whole feel of each patch is retained, so it’s not the situation of “this is the basic patch used” without the post-production effects; a benefit of the Nova architecture’s effects chain.

With an impressive career spanning five decades and multiple styles, it would have been good to have some genre-crossing material from Moroder, and it’s also telling that two of his highest profile works from the ’80s are skipped – Electric Dreams, from which the eponymous song got significant airplay and a good lead and bell percussion could be curated, and anything from his restoration and remix of Metropolis, which offers great classic ’80s potential in Rotwang’s Chase, The M Machine and Cage of Freedom.

MiniNova – still great, eight years on

Ultimately the MoroderNova’s limited release also limits the relevance of this review, except – patches aside, the MiniNova is the same thing. 5 years after the UltraNova launched, the sound engine still has little to match it on the market, and it stands alone at the price. It’s easily one of best synths you’ll find for less than £500.

Moroder’s retro credibility helped a relatively young company get in on the rose-tinted glasses fuelled revival – like Korg’s RK keytar and virtual Rolands.

When the obvious firms get in on the act, you get less than you hoped for – just look to Yamaha’s “Reface” revival models, where the scaled-down DX7 is a four FM operator engine, not the 6Op FM of the original. Novation has delivered more, for less, consistently since 1992 and it could be argued they don’t need a gimmick to sell synths.

In the future, I’d hope to see Novation and Chris Huggett’s talents turn again to something to rival the SuperNova II’s build and keyboard (at the time of writing, the Peak and Summit had yet to emerge). The leading position of the 48-voice, multi-timbral, multi-effect system has been eclipsed (though, it took a while) and yet the 18-voice capability of the Ultra and Mini would surely be scalable to get back into the 61-key, multi-timbral workstation market.