20 years after the original Andy Jones meets an update to one of his first synth dates for this, the MusicTech Novation Bass Station 2 Review. Is she marriage material? Time to buy a hat…
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Allow a little indulgence please. Twenty years ago a younger me was starting out on music technology magazines. It was a time when people danced to repetitive beats and bleeps in fields. The music was made by people with ancient Roland gear – notably a TB-303 for bass and TR-808 or 909 for beats. This gear, consequently, became very expensive. Other manufacturers saw an opportunity (not Roland bizarrely) and what started as a trickle soon became a wave of new music gear specifically tailored for those repetitive beats, bleeps and bass lines. One of the first such releases was the original Novation Bass Station.
I remember joining a magazine just after it had reviewed it, a glowing review which compared it favourably to those early acid machines. This angered ‘proper’ 303 owners who said it sounded nothing like them. (And you thought it was all happy pills and smiling faces back then. Oh no, there was a lot of filter-based anger in home studios of the time.) But even though it didn’t quite recreate the tones of the 303, the original Bass Station became quite a classic in its own right. A software version came out and did well but music changed and the synth was phased out to be just one in what is now a long lineage of Novation models.
So 20 years on and I find myself on another music technology magazine reviewing Bass Station II, an analogue-based monophonic, and monotimbral synth. It’s like the last couple of decades haven’t happened, or we’re in some kind of reverse-based music technology time loop thing. What? You mean people used to make music using software instruments? Crazy! And next month I’ll be looking at the latest steam-powered piano…
Future Past Future, er…
Yes, proper analogue synths really are the ‘in thing’ at the moment. But does this resurgence in classic synth hardware mean that the computer music revolution has faltered. Are people sick of software? Well the folk at Novation have certainly been getting a message like that and told us a few months back that one of the reasons that Bass Station II is coming is because people really do like knobs (stop laughing at the back – you’re better than that) and that they are just not getting this hands on control from computer-based plug-ins (and iPads/pods for that matter).
And then there’s dance music. Has it really changed that much over 20 years? Sure it’s become a bit slicker, a bit dirtier in places, but the emphasis is still very much on the beats (repetitive or not) and the bass. So the timing does seem right for a new Bass Station, and it’s not just the old one repackaged. It comes with extra dirt and – can any 303 owners calm down now please – it also comes with added acid…
So that’s the reasoning, and here it is. Actually this isn’t the first time I’ve laid my hands on one as we first encountered the Bass Station II at Novation’s HQ three months ago, a then unfinished prototype but similar to the finished item I have in my hands today.
Bass Station II’s an analogue synth in that its audio path is analogue but under digital control. It has two primary oscillators, a sub (locked to and always one or two octaves below the first) plus three other sources: noise, ring mod and an external input. A simple mixer section lets you adjust the levels of the first three with individual rotary controls, while a switch lets you select one of the latter three to be adjusted by a fourth rotary. The sub has its own octave and waveform section while the two primary oscillators can be switched between to adjust their waveforms and tuning.
Both oscillator’s pitches can be modulated by LFO1 which has four waveforms, a speed and delay selector plus a depth rotary. They can also be modulated by a Modulation Envelope (ADSR sliders) the depth of which is controlled by another rotary. Both options tend to give you pitch effects from anything like vibrato (subtle adjustments to LFO1 will give you this) to more dramatic movement over a longer period with the Mod Envelope.
The Pulse Width rotary comes into its own when either of the primary oscillators is set to square or pulse waves and controls the width of that cycle. Again this can be modulated by the Mod Envelope, manually or with the second LFO. Experimenting with this you can get some great edgy and very big sounds, with the Mod Envelope especially taking a dramatic role. Indeed, by exploring this section I found I’d created a pretty impressive hoover like sound from scratch. Press save and that’s preset number 70 in the clip!
Lastly in the oscillator section is Osc Sync which allows you to make the waveform from the first oscillator retrigger oscillator 2’s waveform before its cycle is complete. This can produce some interesting sideways types of effects which can add brashness to a sound, in my case it was a bit more pitchy edge.
You turn this on, by the way, using one of Bass Station II’s On-Keys where each of its playing keys is assigned another function which you access by holding the Function key. Osc Sync, for example, is the upper D on the keyboard so switch it on by holding Function down, pressing upper D and then the right arrow below the screen to nudge the value from Off to On. Easy.
The Acid Effect
Phew, so that’s the oscillators – a lot to say for a little synth. Moving over to the Filter section and whatever you have summed together from your various sources (the two main oscillators, sub, external, noise and ring mod) now streams through the filter and this is where things get very interesting.
Firstly you have a choice of Classic and Acid filter. The former is variable so the slope can be adjusted between 12 and 24dB and the type adjusted between low, band or high pass. The Acid filter, however, is a fixed 4-pole low pass based on diode ladder types ‘found in various synths popular in the 1980s’ according to the manual. We’re pretty sure they mean the aforementioned Roland TB- 303 as you get splashes of its acid like squealing across presets, but more on these later.
The very big Frequency control dial is the dramatic one you will return to for massive sonic changes while the resonance dial does its thing, enhancing or reducing frequencies around that set by the frequency dial. It adds growl and a lot of edge to whatever sounds you are working with.
Like the Pulse Width, the frequency can be modulated by both LFO2 and the Modulation Envelope. So think of Bass Station 2’s modulation possibilities simply as: LFO1 and the Modulation Envelope control the oscillators while the ME and LFO2 control the frequency (in Classic mode). It’s perhaps a little simplistic but you get why the Mod Envelope is so important – it has a hand modulating three important components in the synth’s architecture.
The Bass Station II really does come alive because of its arpeggiator which has all of the features and patterns you will want plus control over tempo. It has a bank of 32 increasingly complex arp sequences which are selected with the Rhythm control and you can easily adjust both octave and swing. A really useful performance or ideas feature is the on board sequencer. You can store four banks of 32 notes (retained on power off) so can jot down ideas easily when you are on your own doodling or trigger melodies when showing off to friends.
You Dirty Boy
By now the sound I’ve been accidentally creating as I work through the synth is taking on a life of its own and I’m starting to truly believe I’m some kind of analogue synth genius – a slightly less good looking Jean Michel Jarre perhaps. Anyway, my sound is huge, it’s fat and it’s very dirty. What do I need now? Overdrive! Yep, just in case you need it Bass Station II’s signal path encounters an overdrive circuit which determines the amount of distortion you can add (it actually comes in pre filter).
The Distortion rotary sits next to another Filter Modulation effect just in case you haven’t already whipped your poor sound to within an inch of its life. I hold back adding too much of either effect at this stage but it certainly didn’t stop Novation’s programmers…
On my sonic journey through Bass Station II’s features I’m quickly realising that the potential of the synth is way bigger than you might initially think, especially given its small size and fairly simple architecture. I’ve already created what I think are a couple of amazing sounds but let’s move on to what the professionals have done…
More than Bass
What you might expect the synth does well – basses and leads – are indeed a focus but within those confines the programmers have pushed the limits in all sorts of directions. So while the box might be marked ‘bass’ it’s a box that is absolutely chock full to the brim with brash sounds and often each comes with a lot of movement thanks to the on-board arpeggiator. Indeed the combination of arpeggiator and the extra layers the distortion and sub oscillator offer often make you feel you are wrestling with more than one note but monophonic this definitely is – it’s just that the ‘mono’ is very big.
So there’s already a lot more happening here than with our first face to face demo those few months ago. The sound designers have clearly put a lot of effort into what goes where and while there aren’t banks of specific sounds together – leads, subs and so on – this means you are constantly surprised and, in the main, impressed. Indeed there are only two presets that didn’t do it for me. The basses are rich, punchy, fat and varied and the leads tear through where they should. Plenty of the sounds have that added arpreggiation so you get rich melodic ideas almost instantly and you are constantly drawn to that big filter knob for even more instant frequency action. It almost becomes a performance pose: left hand playing riff, right hand dramatically nudging the filter knob.
Alongside the basses and leads, analogue synthesis is able to create other types of sound and the Novation team have excelled here too. So there are occasional vocoder-like presets and plenty of bleepy analogue percussion sounds: claps, snares, kicks etc. Get to the top end of the presets and they start to take a turn to the dark side with more in your face distortion.
The manual states 64 patches (plus 64 user) but mine ran to 70 which Novation has confimed is the true number shipping with the keyboard. Either way the journey through them ran out rather too quickly and I was left needing more. That’s possibly because the presets you do get are so surprisingly varied that you wonder why more weren’t included to show off what Bass Station II can do. I suspect, though, that those 64 extras will easily be filled either by owners (I’ve added to mine already, it’s so easy), third parties or Novation themselves. Either way the journey through what is on offer was one of the most enjoyable I’ve had – short, yes, but a more melodramatic me might say ‘high octane’…
What the Bass Station II is designed to do it does exceptionally well but do remember that it is a narrowly focussed synth in the grand scheme of things. Soft synths can, and do, do everything but this is analogue, pure and simple. It unashamedly nods back to those fields within the M25 back in 1989, and sometimes steams right up to date nodding its blue hat to dubstep, so the focus is on electronica, and dance music (old and new). No big pads or digital textures, no polyphony, no chords, no ‘real’ sounds or emulations, just pure, ferocious actual proper analogue synth sounds. Just the sound of the circuit at its raw, dirty, animal-like best. And at just £399.99 – just £50 more than the original was on its release two decades ago – it’s stunning, simple as that.
+ Superb rich, deep and painful(!) sounds
+ Great drive and dirt
+ Solid construction but light and portable
+ Acid filter adds punch
+ Lovely layout for performing
+ Sequencer and arpeggiator also great for performance
– Could’ve done with more presets
– Er, the power lead isn’t very long
Bass Station II is an exceptional synth. For £399 you could buy a couple of high-end synth plug-ins. Don’t. Buy this instead.
Analogue signal path, digitally controlled
Two filters, Classic and Acid
70 patches, 58 user patches
32-step sequencer & arpeggiator
6 sound sources