Novation are one of the greatest names in music production history, with a wide range of classic and innovative new products adorning our studios. This year has seen the release of a whole new range re-designed classics. So what better time to delve into their history…
Novation is one of music production’s success stories, and in just a couple of decades the company has come up with an incredible number of ground-breaking products, not to mention technologies such as Automap that have changed the way we interact with and control the software we use.
From the original Bass Station right up to this month’s cover star, the Launchpad Pro, Novation has continued to provide products that we need and those we didn’t know we needed. Here, we catch up with five of the Novation team – past and present – to celebrate a very British business.
Novation was formed in 1992 by Ian Jannaway and Mark Thompson, eventually being joined by legendary synth creator Chris Huggett as one of the chief designers. Chris had already been responsible for the ‘first synth that everyone could afford’, the Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) Wasp, and went on to form the Oxford Synthesiser Company. “It seemed logical enough as I lived there,” he recalls, “but it also had the bonus of the abbreviation OSC, for oscillator. The name OSCar wasn’t as clear-cut, and I’m not sure everyone liked it.”
Ian Jannaway, who formed the company with Mark Thompson
They did all love the resulting OSCar synthesiser, though – it became a classic and Chris became one of the UK’s eminent synthesiser designers. Engineer Jannaway had by this time used his skills to come up with “a small calculator-type device that would enable musicians who couldn’t read music to hear phrases to help with their learning”, and met Huggett demoing this product at an exhibition.
Jannaway recalls: “We found we had a passion for electronic musical instruments and he mentioned that a British company, Cheetah, were looking for a polyphonic analogue synth to be developed. With Chris’ invaluable guidance on the software concepts and a local friend in High Wycombe – Phil Perkins’ help on the hardware,I signed up for the task and about 18 months later the MS6 appeared.”
Cheetah would score big with the MS6 and also release one of the first affordable samplers, the SX16 [once owned by me! – Ed]. Jannaway, meanwhile, had “built up sufficient commercial experience and decided to ‘go it alone’. In 1991, a former band member, Mark Thompson, asked me if I could design a multi-reverb box, as products such as the Alesis Microverb were popular but could only process one audio signal at a time.
Home studio musicians were buying two, three or four of these units so they could run a live mix with one box doing the gated reverb delay on the snare drum, another with a long-tail reverb on the vocals and another on the piano, and so on.
“Work began on this ‘Quad Reverb Unit’ and during that time, in curiosity, I purchased a Yamaha QY10, which was a neat all-in-one 8-track sequencer with an audio engine in a little box smaller than a VHS video cassette. The problem with it was that it was fiddly to input pitch and timing information, so it was obvious that a neat accessory would be a simple portable battery-powered keyboard that it could slot into. On that basis, Mark and I decided to start a company, which we called Novation, the MM10 keyboard being our first product. Fortunately it went on to to sell over 30,000 units… oh and we never did finish the Quad Reverb product!”
The Brits are Here (and the Germans)
One of the reasons we’re celebrating Novation is because of its unique British appeal. “For us, we embrace British musical culture, sense of humour and use of language,” says Matt Derbyshire. But ask the team what other companies’ products and artists they admire, and the answers take on a Germanic feel…
Ian Jannaway “Native Instruments: A typical German software company with massive emphasis on engineering detail and quality.”
Chris Huggett “The Access Virus TI, which I think is an excellent great-sounding synthesiser incorporating some very clever software design.”
Nick Bookman “Kraftwerk! Seeing them using SL controllers is great.” But there are also the high profile Brits, none more so than Orbital. “Paul Hartnoll using the Bass Station II alongside other monosynths with much larger footprints – it’s great seeing people get the most out of the gear.”
The Story Continues…
While the MM10 was a success, Novation made a proper mark with the Bass Station, a product that might not have been so successful thanks to the apparent stubbornness of a Japanese music technology giant…
It has gone down in music history that the Roland TB-303 accidentally and single-handedly kicked off dance music in the late 1980s. A bit of abuse from a few forward-thinking producers morphed its output from the polite basslines that Roland had intended it for into acid-squealing melodies that would (in more senses than one) resonate with the effects of ecstasy – a drug sweeping the UK at the time.
Roland ignored the belated success of the product, deciding to focus elsewhere, leaving a huge gap in the market for 303 clones, and the Bass Station – whether intended or otherwise – helped fill the gap. The need for its acid-like sounds was so great that its success helped ensure Novation’s future.
“Seeing the Bass Station go on to become a popular instrument, and financially a success, was a hugely proud moment,” says Jannaway. It was such a success that the company tried to repeat it with the Drum Station, that would emulate another couple of dance music staples, this time Roland’s TR-808 and 909 drum machines. While it was successful, Jannaway now looks back at its concept with some regret…
“At the launch in Frankfurt, I was talking to the owner of Clavia, which was launching the Nord Lead 1 polysynth. He said they only decided to produce it after seeing our success with the Bass Station. I remember thinking, ‘damn, I wish we had made a polyphonic Bass Station instead of the Drum Station’, but we only had the financial capacity for a single product at a time in terms of R&D spend.”
Nevertheless, Novation went on to establish itself as one of the world’s leading synth and controller companies with products such as the A-Station, K-Station, Nova, SuperNova, KS synths, ReMOTE keyboards and controllers, X-Station, Automap technology and the Launchpad and Mini ranges.
Jannaway left the company in 2007, but remains proud of what it achieved, stating that its always attained the goals of “creating musical products that are innovative, easy to use, cost-effective and sonically perfect”.
Novation’s head of product and marketing (London) Matt Derbyshire
He cites the Bass Station keyboard and SuperNova rack as his finest moments (“the launch of the SuperNova rack was the first ever multitimbral synth with a complete multi-effects processor per part”). He is also still a proud user: “These days, I use a MacBook Pro with Logic Pro X and a bunch of plugs-ins, along with my trusty X-Station 61 keyboard!”
Chris joined as a main designer in 1998, and has been involved in “all of the Novation synths, and on all the earlier controllers (before the Impulse)”.
“For Supernova and Nova 1 and 2, I did the hardware design, synth engine and low-level software, while the human interface and arpeggiator software was done by Chris Pidd and Colin Jordan.
For the controllers, X-Station and XioSynth, it was a similar situation and Den Seunarayan did the human interface and housekeeping software. For A-Station, K-Station, KS4 and 5 and Ultranova, I did pretty well all the electronics and software. For Mininova and Bass Station II, I was responsible for the synth engine hardware and software, but a team of engineers were involved in the rest of the design.”