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Novation Peak

It’s Peak time, a deep and powerful synth with much to offer. Here I document and explore Peak’s character and capabilities.

Recently I announced the release of my latest sound bank, Himalaya for the Novation Peak. Consisting of 128 patches, Himalaya aims high with its plethora of cinematic soundscapes, lush pads and strings, unusual sound effects, usable/playable EPs, plucks and percussive elements. Here I’ll explain a bit about my journey with Peak. I won’t give a technical run down of everything as that info is elsewhere. It’s more of a feelings based analysis of what I like about the synth.

Himalaya focusses on the beautiful side of Peak. I’m very conscious I have chosen one side of Peak’s character, but as the sounds kept coming I felt the draw to refine my focus in one direction. The dark side of Peak? well that’s another story…

TL;DR

A while back I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a Peak. I’d dreamed of owning such an awesome machine since it’s release. I’ve always admired the Novation sound – the Mininova is a brutally underrated synth, even in 2021. All Novation synths exude a smooth, liquid sound quality, which can be as majestic or aggressive as you want it to be. Since the acquisition, I committed a cardinal sin in the synth world… and kept it in the box for 3 years. I reasoned that it deserved my undivided attention with some quality time to do it justice! I hope I have achieved that.

And so onto last year, with my desperation rising to be let loose on the synth, but stuff kept happening and so the poor powerhouse sat again neglected for another stint.

As many of you will undoubtedly know, Novation’s Peak and Summit are extraordinary machines. Their FPGA based waveform/modulation algorithms ensure very high resolution sound quality, especially in the higher frequencies. This high fidelity digital section is then fused to some very powerful analog filters. If I had to characterise the sound signature, it would be smooth, thick & luscious. That’s without the distortion! Once that’s mixed in, Peak sets course for Alderaan and untold sonic destruction, levelling everything in its path. It’s one of those poly-synths that can truly do both the subtle stuff, and raise hell with heart clogging basses and punchy leads. 

Peak Character

Oscillators

Amongst the many things I lurve about the Peak (and most critically), has to be the sound character. Like all great synths, it has a soul to it. Digital oscillators needn’t always be static or boring and Peak proves that. I’m not talking about the range of timbral information (that’s impressively wide), but more the signature within the waveforms. This can probably be attributed to the VCA section too. I’ve heard many say it doesn’t sound truly analog. Well, not being a member of the cork sniffing brigade I thought it sounds very analog indeed, depending on how it’s programmed. However I accept that I’ve not played some of the classics – “much to learn, I still have!” 

Initially, I was very interested to use the wavetables and combine these with classic waveforms and filters and see where things went. I also considered creating my own wavetables. However the more I delved in, the more I saw the wavetables as supportive timbral abstractions (at least for the sounds I wanted). Of course that’s purely subjective, but I didn’t feel I was missing out on timbral options!

I found Peak’s oscillators to be solid, with quite a rounded top end, capable of extreme frequency shifts when needed. There’s also plenty of mileage in playing with the oscillator diverge and drift. By using the classic waves, sonics can be moulded and finessed. Subtle variations and sweet spots are everywhere. But on the other hand, Peak can do great digital too! The best of both worlds as Novation would say. 

FM

Peak allows FM between it’s digitally derived waveforms. Oscillators 1>2, 2>3 & 3>1. Using these modulation routings, it’s very possible to set up complex tones using smatterings of FM. It’s the audible equivalent of sprinkling icing sugar. This worked nicely for some of my sounds. A separate noise oscillator can also be used as an another FM modulation source, roughing things up a little (or a lot).

Filter action

And onto the filter – the pièce de résistance! Unsurprisingly, the analog section absolutely makes this synth sing. Not only are filters fat, dirty, wooden, angular, liquid and (insert superlative adjective here), but depending on the pre or post drive settings, a universe of timbral sculpting can be achieved. They are multimode, with low-pass, high-pass and band-pass with 12dB/24dB responses. I particularly liked pushing the resonance up high and creating a thin veneer of vocal character over the top of other elements. The drive can become brutal so key to getting the sound you want out of Peak, is working through the gain balance between these elements. I’ve heard it said that the Peak can out-bass the Bass Station II. I’ve never owned one, but I can believe it.

Additionally, oscillator 3 can be used as a mod source to the filter (filter FM). As this itself can be modulated, filter FM can outzap a shed load of other instruments, definately one of Peak’s strengths.

Modulation

Another masterstroke is in the modulation architecture. For some reason, Novation have had this down good for decades. I still remember my old Nova synth, the modulation speeds on that were insanely fast (circa 5khz I believe). Peak’s LFOs sound fantastic, even when they go up into audio rates. They react in the way I expect – from the knob control laws that smoothly adjust, to the ability to apply multiple modulations additively. This has much to do with the modulation update rate used and probably the amount of dsp resources allocated. Regardless, From 0 to 1.4khz, Peak’s LFOs smash it out of the park. Likewise the 3 envelopes loop smoothly (or not as needed) and respond to recursive modulations. This is awesome for shaping an attack of a sound, or ramping elements up and down. 

Slew

Using an LFO to modulate another LFO rate can create cyclic rate peaks within a simple shape, almost bending the modulation. And then there’s Novation’s trademark LFO slew. Slew/glide smooths out transitional edges to LFO waveshapes, softening parameter changes, quite pleasing to the ear, but also emulation various vintage hardware.

The Matrix

The modulation matrix is the engine room to Peak. 16 modulation slots with 2 sources that’s just nuts! All manner of compex routings can be achieved. The effects have their own 4 which I’ll discuss below. I spent a great deal of time getting under the hood here, trying out all sorts of things. FM is to be found here. What I do like, is if more frequency modulation is needed than what one destination can provide, subsequent modulations can be stacked, increasing their range. If I might offer one minor gripe, it’s that the modulation resolution (7bit or 128 steps) is a little low, especially being bi-polar. On some settings there just isn’t enough granularity.

However I did a little bit of math on a napkin and the chart below can be useful. I used pitch as an easier way to distinguish the ranges but have left out the less useful ranges:

Parameter range scaling for the Peak’s mod matrix
1 semitone +12 10 semitones +28
2 semitones +16 11 semitones +29
3 semitones +18 12 semitones +30
4 semitones +20 14 semitones +31
5 semitones +22 17 semitones +32
6 semitones +24 18 semitones +33
7 semitones +25 20 semitones +34
8 semitones +26 24 semitones +36
9 semitones +27    

Using values below 12 one can tweak a fine range, whilst using another slot for the bigger alterations. Using this additively or negatively with more than one slot, it’s possible to adjust some ranges in finer detail, but still over a wide range. Hopefully that’s useful to someone.

Distortion

If there’s one area of Peak that’s absolutely overwhelming, it has to be the analog distortion blocks. I touched on this before, but with pre and post drive providing smudge, burn, clipping or grinding. The tonal palette is far out there. If that’s not enough, there’s also a global analog distortion after this! Mega shred alert.

Effects

Repeat after me – a great synth doesn’t need effects – discuss? Very true, raw timbre and character always win out, effects can always be added afterwards. Yep they sure can, but it’s even better when a great synth ALSO has great effects. With Himalaya I was after that cinematic sound for my ambiences and so the cherry on the cake is the combination of synth engine power with the effects. Whats more, the effects can also be modulated by a concise matrix dedicated to the task. I’m sure there’s those out there who prefer nice & dry sounds. With Peak that’s easy, global bypass gives that too.

The effects also benefit from being deployed either as parallel sends, or in a serial chain, much like the Supernova/Ultranova. There is a caveat here. When using serial connections, some settings can cause phasing with the original dry sound. I attempted to utilise this sometimes as a sound in itself. However it must be said, caution is needed. Speaking of caution, I did notice that modulating some effect parameters imparted some noisiness in the signal. As always, this can be used as a character in tiny amounts.

Reverb

I can’t continue without mentioning the Peak reverb. Really, it’s…well gargantuan. I know reverb is viewed as an easy sound smudging tool to hide crap sounds or crap sound designers ? yada yada. I had to resist that urge but probably still went too far. If they ain’t your bag, well c’est la vie, I love you anyway! For the sounds I like to make it has to be the best reverb onboard a synth I’ve ever experienced. It can be glassy, diffuse, reflective or cavernous. It can make the most elemental sound drift off in the clouds forever. Bravo!

Chorus/Delay

The chorus effect is perfect for a Juno swirl or two, but can also push out flanging and combing effects. The delay is straightforward and works well. The only thing i did notice is that the high/low damping only works on the second delay. This isn’t always what I’d prefer. Also some synths allow for delay time modulation. Peak can do this, but even with slew enabled the parameter resolution isn’t always easy to control. Still, it is what it is and I even used and abused this tendency with some sounds (Moondrops).

Hardware

To put it succinctly, Peak is a tank, ‘nuff said really. It’s solidly built, classy in appearance and retains a familiarity to a seasoned synth addict. The knobs all feel smooth and steady, but react really well when tweaked. The screen is clear and responsive and displays things logically.

Peak v Summit?

And now to the large Elephant in the butter. The Summit. Well if I could, I would, but I can’t so sorry about that. Undoubtedly it’s twice the Peak, but to me I’m fascinated by the filter permutations that would be possible. Twice the polyphony + layers – yep that too. Despite this, the Peak still stands out as a bold and innovative synthesizer, and a fitting legacy to the great synth designer, Chris Huggett.

R.I.P.