Novation MiniNova by keystation
I own and cherish my MicroKorg - an outstanding 12-year-old synth design that packed (then) unprecendent synth power into a nice little package. But a year in the electronics business is a "dog year" and things have changed dramatically, generally for the better. My small, crowded studio could not accommodate a full-size keyboard synth. So I went looking for another mini-synth to complement the MicroKorg (along with my Microbrute, Volca Keys and SQ-1 Sequencer).
The first candidate was Korg's MicroKorg XL, which is supposed to be the natural successor to the venerable MicroKorg. The XL does offer USB connectivity and a more robust sound engine than the original. But Korg skimped on tweakable knobs, assuming that most users would probably rely on the substantial number of presets offered. The XL also looks spare and un-sexy, more like a cheap 60's combo organ. Then throw in Korg's $100 XL premium over the MicroKorg and this eased off my list.
As for the MiniNova, I had to overcome my previous, "love-hate" relationship resulting from my previous affair with Novation's lamentable, X-Station, Synth/Audio Interface/MIDI DAW Controller. The X-Station valiantly tried to answer three needs with one box, but in practice, this turned out to be a mediocre performer. However, being a forgiving person, I searched for a MiniNova on eBay, where the "sweet spot" price range of a good used unit runs between $260 to $300. I got mine for just a shade under $300 and it showed up in excellent condition.
The MiniNova has a deceptively-simple-looking control layout. Generally speaking, on the front panel there are five control zones: (Clockwise from the L) The main volume and microphone input. Patch selection, programming & library controls. Filter and performance controls. Animation & Arpeggiation controls. Octave switches and performance control wheels.
In the patch section, there is large rotary switch is used to select program "genres" such as "Classic Synth", "Dubstep", "Rock-Pop", etc. Left and below this knob are a rotary, toggle and two push button switches used to organize and select patches. To the left of this is a generous, lighted, LCD screen describing patches and/or selectable patch parameters. Below the screen are six pushbottons used to program new patches and access specific patch menus.
The unit comes stock with 256 preset patches on board, most of which are quite good as-is, while others are promising enough to spend time tweaking. The presets are chiefly aimed at the needs of Novation's target market, which are EDM producers and performers. Having the UltraNova's digital synth engine, most all patches have a brightness and extra sheen in their sounds, which complements my MicroKorg's darker virtual analog tones quite well. And as luck would have it, the MiniNova and MicroKorg MIDI together nicely, allowing for the creation of big, robust pads and complex arpeggios.
Speaking of the arpeggiator, it is one of the best I've encountered on any synth, at any price. On the left side of the synth are switches for arp activation and latching, with a rotary tempo knob. On the right lower half of the panel are 8 arp step buttons which are switchable to an "animate" function, which triggers various functions of the performance section. There are also buttons that can be used to latch the arp or assign favorite patches to the multi-function arp step buttons.
The upper right portion of the panel is the performance control section, which has one large, easy-to-tweak filter knob. Four more smaller knobs are combined with a switch to fine tune control of parameters such as "tweak", "(FX) tweak", filter, filter env., amp env. and oscillator. The intuitive layout of these controls should please live performers who will like the effective, multi-function performance knobs that can be easily found on a darkened stage.
Upper left is the volume knob and an XLR input for the (included) gooseneck dynamic microphone for the on-board vocoder. Lower left are the octave switches and LED-lighted control wheels for pitch bend and modulation. The wheels also are larger than typical on mini-synths and have a very precise feel and good calibration.
The 37 key keyboard still has mini-sized keys, but the keyboard is 5/8" wider has 1/8" more travel than does the keyboard on the MicroKorg. Overall, this is the best-playing mini keyboard I have used or tried to date.
On the back panel are jacks for headphones, stereo analog outputs, instrument inputs, DIN MIDI in/out (but no thru), USB, and 12 volt power (wall wart included). There is a slide power switch in the back that selects either the wall wart, or 5V USB to run the synth, but the pretty LED lights in the control wheels won't light up using just USB.
The MiniNova is not designed to double as a DAW control surface. I guess Novation learned their lesson with the gone-but-not-missed X-Station? They also may be trying not to compete with their own LaunchKey and Impulse MIDI controller lines.
The build quality of the MiniNova is good. Quality plastic framing and metal front and rear panels are used. Its ability to withstand road wear should be similar to the competing MicroKorg (+XL) or Roland JD-Xi.
In summary, I recommend the MiniNova.