The place for bass?
Novation Bass Station
Analogue bass synth
Your music is crying out for some classic analogue bass synth sounds. But the old machines you've seen are knackered, there's nothing on sample CD that fits the bill, and the new technology just doesn't cut it. Where do you turn? Simon Trask finds solace in the Novation BassStation - a BassLine for the '90s
Some years ago, toward the end of the 1980s, the major keyboard companies decided that musicians no longer wanted synthesisers to sound like synthesisers. Digital sound-generating technology was clearly capable of producing more convincing impersonations of 'real' instruments than analogue circuits, and before long we were inundated with sample-based 'workstation' keyboards that did fine impressions of pianos, bass guitars, percussion instruments, and hundreds of other sounds from the acoustic archive.
There was only one problem with all this. It was a little tricky - not to say impossible - to coax 'analogue'-style synth noises from the new generation of digital machines. A harpsichord being played softly in the hall of a Baroque mansion was fine; a fat, filter-swept, in-yer-face bass sound was a different matter entirely.
Unfortunately for the keyboard companies, their move away from analogue technology coincided with the rehabilitation of analogue synth sounds in the popular musical vocabulary. As house, garage, and techno began to sweep the dancefloors of Europe, so the industry's output of clean, clear, sample-based sounds became increasingly irrelevant to a new generation of musicians. Hence the rapid revival of instruments like the Boss TB303 BassLine, the Roland TR series beatboxes, and 'telephone exchange' synths from ARP, Moog, Oberheim and the rest.
In the circumstances, you'd kind of expect the keyboard companies to respond by putting these antique instruments back into production. But large corporations like Roland and Yamaha have to plan on a global, mass scale, and invest their resources in developing new, more powerful and more economic technology. So it's unlikely, for instance, that Roland will ever bring back the TB303 - or any of their other analogue evergreens - to satisfy the current lust in this part of the world for old analogue gear.
What this means, however, is that there's a niche market which the 'little guys' can occupy without fear of being trodden on. One small UK company which has decided to try to satisfy the analogue urge is Novation. Having made their name with the two-octave MM10 MIDI controller keyboard, developed as a companion for Yamaha's popular QY10 walkstation, they've now produced their very own analogue bass synth, complete with plenty of knobs and switches for good, old-fashioned, analogue-style editing.
The BassStation is the sort of instrument you can get into as soon as you take it out of the box - providing, that is, you've got a suitable DC adaptor or six AA batteries, neither of which are supplied as standard with the unit. You can use it as a self-contained keyboard, or you can plug it into another MIDI instrument or a MIDI sequencer and use it as a basic MIDI controller keyboard; although the onboard bass synth section is monophonic, the keyboard itself is polyphonic via MIDI. You can, of course, play bass parts into a sequencer from the keyboard; what's more, you can even record live sound edits as part of a MIDI sequence - the BassStation conveys filter and envelope parameter changes via MIDI as controller data.
Before we get onto the raison d'etre of the BassStation, namely its synthesis capabilities, let's take a quick look at its other features. For a start, octave up/down buttons allow you to quickly 'extend' the BassStation keyboard's range over several octaves either side of its physical two-octave range. The pitch wheel performs its usual function, while the controller wheel can be switched between filter, off or pitch functions. If you set the Util switch to 'keyboard', you can set MIDI transmit and receive channels by playing the relevant keys on the keyboard - select different channels for send and receive if you want to play only external instruments from the keyboard. Using this keyboard method, you can also assign MIDI aftertouch, mod or volume controllers to the BassStation's controller wheel, and load or save single or all sound data via MIDI SysEx. Incidentally, onboard patches (a modest seven of them) can be selected remotely via MIDI using program-change commands.
And so to the synthesis section. Anyone familiar with old analogue synths will be at home with the instrument's subtractive synthesis architecture. Novation have given the BassStation two oscillators, each offering a choice of sawtooth and pulse waveforms. You can alter the octave, semitone, and fine tuning of oscillator 2, and vary the mix between the two oscillators.
The next section controls pitch modulation (from an LFO and/or oscillator 2) and pulsewidth modulation (manual, LFO, or envelope 2) for each oscillator. The LFO section, incidentally, allows you to set modulation speed and delay, and select from a random, triangle, or sawtooth LFO waveform.
Next up is the filter section, where you can set filter cutoff point and resonance amount, select between 12dB and 24dB rolloff, and optionally modulate the filter cutoff point from either the LFO or envelope 2. In 12dB mode, the BassStation's cutoff, resonance, decay, and env mod controls have been designed to emulate those of the TB303 - an indication of where Novation's minds were at when they designed the BassStation. In practice, I'd say Novation's synth can produce some fairly convincing 303 sounds, but taken in the round it's not going to replace the 'real thing'.
The final section is where you set the ADSR values for envelopes 1 and 2; you can also set the velocity-responsiveness of the sound (the choices include fixed response), and choose between autoglide (like Slide on the 303), single and multitriggering of notes.
What all this adds up to is an instrument which allows you to create a wide variety of analogue bass sounds - from clean and punchy to gruff and growly, from (reasonably) fat and warm to sharp and cutting. The 24dB resonant filtering is powerful, the bass end can really boom, and in fact the instrument as a whole has a powerful, gutsy, and gritty sound.
With the cost of secondhand analogue synths still soaring (there is a limited supply, after all) and no prospect of the big guns reissuing their old sounds other than as sample cards for digital workstations and modules, the BassStation has a captive audience ready and waiting.
The limited memory makes it a less appealing prospect for stage or club use, but as a studio bassline tool it has few equals. Sample CDs of vintage synth sounds are all very well, but you can't beat the realtime 'tweaking' of parameters which the BassStation's array of rotary controls positively invites you to indulge in.
Four hundred quid may seem a lot to spend on a machine that can 'do bass' but not much else, yet when you take into account the MIDI facilities and the full-size two-octave keyboard, you have a package which adds up to pretty decent value for money.
So if you've longed for a 'real' analogue bass synth but haven't been able to lay your hands on one of the 'golden oldies' - or you just want to add another analogue synth to your collection - cast your eyes and ears in the direction of the BassStation and be prepared to part with some cash.
Price inc V.A.T.: £349.95
[Errata: Originally printed incorrectly as £399.95]
More from: Novation Electronic Music Systems, (Contact Details)
On The Re:Mix CD:
17 Review - Novation Bass Station
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #3.
Review by Simon Trask
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