Novation Peak Review
Novation called it the Peak but to me it’s the Kitchen Sink!
- Roses are red, violets are blue, I love the Peak and so will you…
- The time for talk is through, lay down the beat!
- I remember when I heard that sound on the radio!
- The Peak and nothing but the Peak… well, maybe some bad reverb too.
- Weird Science
- Final Analysis
Roses are red, violets are blue, I love the Peak and so will you…
I’m growing old (especially by pop music standards), so I’ve been aware of Novation since they released the original Bass Station. Bass Station was discussed and debated by Acid House enthusiasts all over the burgeoning internet back then and I even owned a Bass Station rack model at one point. It was a pretty cool thing for an upstart company to bring genuine analog monosynths to the masses on a scale no one else was doing at the time. After the first generation of Novation Bass Stations disappeared, Novation dabbled in software and released big, digital polysynths like the Nova and they kind of lost my attention (maybe unfairly). I am sure the Nova line is cool, but it was swimming in a sea of similar options as Virtual Analog hardware and high quality software instruments emulating classic 70s and 80s analog synths became increasingly ubiquitous. Then Novation brought the bass station back in the face of Korg reissues and new offerings from the revitalized Moog, Dave Smith and the previously software-focused Arturia. The Eurorack boom hit, bringing back modular synthesis in a big way. 70s style monosynths were the hot ticket for people who weren’t customing out a modular rig. A new age had dawned. But I’m an unrepentant child of the 80s and I still had love for those early analog polysynths like the Prophets, Jupiters and Junos. I still love the DX7 and I am really passionate about the gritty sound of hybrids in the PPG Wave style that blended wavetable oscillators with analog filters… I still don’t think DCOs are inferior to VCOs, they’re just different and way more stable. I have longed for a modern machine that can do a little bit of everything for me from Pro1 to Jupiter to ESQ1… I love the Access Virus line (and have been fooling with them since my first recording studio employer got a virus A for review) but these modellers never tweaked my ear enough for me buy one.
Enter Novation’s latest creation… THE PEAK (lovingly capitalized here). If you are unaware Peak is an 8 voice polyphonic hybrid synthesizer. It features 3 Oxford oscillators (analogue sounding Numerically Controlled Oscillators that Novation says run at such high resolution that they can easily score a tie in the Folgers’ Challenge against ‘fully caffeinated’ VCOs), 3 snappy digital envelopes as well as 2 digital LFOs slaved to analog filtering and an analog VCA all controlled by a highly flexible and expansive digital modulation matrix. Peak’s front panel has a bevy of single-function controls for all of your run of the mill subtractive synthesis needs. Before its release I was glancing at the specs and started thinking that this poly was for me. The analog cork sniffer in me was skeptical of its abilities to pull off thick VCO sounds, however, when my review unit from Novation arrived in August and I dug in any doubts I had were laid to rest. Peak was far more capable than I expected in almost any musical role I could imagine for it.
Architecturally the Peak is a lot like Dave Smith’s Pro 2 hybrid synth. They have similar building blocks; NCOs that simulate analog oscillators while also providing complex digital waveforms coupled to analog filters, a 16x2 ‘kitchen sink’ mod matrix (16 slots with one source and two multiplying modulation sources, 16 is just a spiffy number) and a mix of analog and digital effects. Peak trades in an oscillator, sub-oscillator, two LFOs, the sequencer, the super waveforms (apart from supersaw, more on that at the end) and a handful of the Pro 2s more esoteric digital effects for 8 voices of Polyphony. In contrast, the Pro 2 has all those extra bells and whistles but is only Paraphonic. You have to split the oscillators up to get a mere 4 single-oscillator voices, which is maybe not convenient when you want to play a chord on the lush pad sound you just patched. The 8 voices of the Peak also provide you with the ability to stack up the voices in unison creating huge Jupiter style leads and basses in the two Mono modes or more subtly thickening basic triads in the Poly modes. The Peak also streets for less than two thirds the price of a Pro 2. So while the 2 synths are similar in conception they are very different animals when the rubber hits the road. I still haven’t tried a Pro 2, but I have a feeling that the overlap in features will be overshadowed by the differences which will definitely influence the applications you’ll use them in.
The time for talk is through, lay down the beat!
So the front panel of the Peak comes from the modern ‘virus school’ of synthesizer control, where you have a ton of knob-per-function control for everything you would expect to have instant access to (no pun intended) on a classic integrated synth from Moog, Oberheim, Roland etc. There’s also this deep editing menu setup for the matrix and other features one might not use on every patch. Unless you’re a synthesis novice you can get a high res image of Peak’s faceplate and for the most part understand what every knob and button does so I am not going to trouble you with those banal details. We’re going to focus on my fantastic voyage generating patches (and eventually creating whole songs using nothing but peak) in this section and, in covering all that fun I’ll give you hands-on description of the menus as well as the overall character of this instrument. Just know that most menus are no more than 3 deep with the exception of the Settings, Oscillators, LFOs and FX (which have extra menus to fine tune each oscillator, LFO and effect’s behavior). For me a good test of the limits of any synthesizer is to attempt good percussive sounds, from simple kick drums to the daunting task of cymbals. In the following audio example I included two versions of a classic subtractive kick drum (the second set of deeper kicks are an extremely refined version that requires you go beyond the front panel), a snare sound that leans on velocity to control its envelope via the mod matrix, closed hats that use the same velocity strategy as the snares, matching open hat, a classic Kraftwerk ‘laser tom,’ FM/subtractive tom/conga type drums, an 808-style cowbell and realistic FM/wavetable cowbell with velocity sensitivity.
If you listen to the first 2 kick hits they’re just created with front panel controls. All 3 oscillators are detuned and one of them has some drastic pitch bend from the second mod envelope. There’s some noise in there and a bunch of resonance, positive filter contour from mod envelope 1, cutoff to give that final amount of beater click and then a mix of filter overdrive (which is more of a warm-to-crunchy saturation that comes between the mixer and filter sections and basically sounds like overloading a minimoog) as well as a little front-panel distortion (which is like running your synth into a basic guitar stompbox such as the MXR Distortion+ and the FX section distortion falls between the VCA and the time based digital effects the way most people would set up their outboard effects with say, a TB303). If you listen to those 2 kicks they’re a little different even though they’re triggered the same. That’s a great example of the magic created by Peak’s analog componentry but if we go into the menus we can accentuate that behavior and generally improve the whole sound. For the second series of hits I went into the first 3 pages of the oscillator menu (which is common to all oscillators and named, wait for it, common oscillator) and turned up the simulated analog drift to give a thicker, VCO sound. In this menu you will also find a diverge control. I didn’t use diverge here because the oscillators are already detuned, but in a patch where you have the oscillators in tune? The diverge control mimics the random pitch offset between unstable VCOs in classic synths. This is really effective in poly where its cumulative through the voices. Turn it up for a 70s mess and set it moderately for early 80s, pre-DCO type infidelity; and don’t forget to page through the Voice menu and turn up the filter diverge too when you’re in poly mode. On a poly patch it gives you a little cutoff and resonance inconsistency between voices.
Now that I went off on a tangent about the voice menu let me return to drums by saying that, across the board, I found diverge is more useful for mimicking classic analog patches than for percussion, whereas drift thickens patches of every variety and unlike actual old synths you can get that gooey drift going with Peak without concern about oscillator phase. Here’s some engineering for those who aren’t following me; on an analog synth with VCOs the oscillators are free running, this means they’re playing all the time whether you trigger a note or not. Your playing or sequencing actually just controls the pitch and triggers the envelopes that shape the filter and VCA. Inside the synth the oscillators are droning away as soon as you power up but the VCA’s natural state is off so it’s not coming out of the jack. Those oscillators are not going to be in phase with each other and you might not always get the attack portion of a waveform like a saw when you come down on a beat so they can lack punch, particularly for drum sounds and short staccato bases. In a late-period DCO synth from the MIDI era the oscillators are digitally controlled and don’t turn on until you play a note. They always start at the top of the waveform and they will always be in phase. This is also true of fully digital synths like the Yamaha DX7 or any wavetable synths. Peak allows you to key sync their oscillators via their common menus which retriggers them DCO style but with key sync off they’re free-running for the most authentic analog sound. I have to say Peak allowed me to get a best-of-both world’s kick sound that has the consistent, phase coherent attack but still has some randomness from the drift control. Incidentally you can also key sync as well as tweak the retrigger of both LFOs in their menus so that they act like analog or various digital LFOs of yesteryear. But more on the powerful LFO section later.
At any rate, from the Voice menu I switched from Poly to Mono2 which allows envelope retriggering even when notes overlap (think digital monosynth, I think it’s better for drum attack and decay, but let your ears decide) and then turned up the pre-filter distortion to add weight (this simulates overloading the filter by moving the distortion engine before the envelopes and amp like the old minimoog trick of overloading the filter). From there I opened the Mod menu and created a matrix slot for oscillator 2 pitch modulated up by lighter velocity and also created velocity modulated slots to open the filter and reduce the resonance and VCA level a little at lower velocities so we can get a more dynamic feel in busy kick patterns with varying overtones, and click. You can really hear this programming in action in my first demo song where I utilized this finished bass drum patch with velocity changes for all of the accent notes between the main 4 on the floor beat.
The snare is mostly white noise; however I also threw in one of the complex oscillator shapes from the wavetable (accessed via the menus or hot-keyed via the front panel ‘more’ buttons) to create a metallic resonance as well as the traditional sine that gives a lot of analog drum machine snares their body. You can actually shape the noise generator in the Voice menu with a fixed-Q low pass but I left mine wide open. One thing I did with the sine was to modulate the pitch a bit and use the shape control to add a little harmonic distortion that sounded like snare ‘ring’. The shape control is ostensibly a PWM control for the pulse but has a different effect on each shape, adding harmonics to sines, morphing continuously between ramp and saw shapes, warping the triangle in cool ways and cycling the wavetable oscillator allowing for blended shapes or PPG Wave and Waldorf style sweeps through the table.
From there I used some pre-filter distortion and some short decay reverb with no pre-delay to gel the sound together as well as a little front panel overdrive to add character to louder strikes and tuned the 4 pole high pass filter and mod envelope to give the impression of stick attack. The final touch was to go into the mod menu and make the sine and wavetable levels velocity and aftertouch dependent as well as the amp envelope decay and release so that every strike would have its own character. You could also use the oscillator menu to fix the frequencies across the keyboard, but I trusted myself to sequence middle C only. This sound seemed to work best in mono 1 for me so the mod envelopes didn’t recycle when 2 notes were played right on top of each other, but YMMV. Once this snare patch got a little EQ and compression it REALLY came alive. It’s another featured sound in the first demo song below.
After dissecting two drum patches you should be getting an idea just how powerful the Peak is. Both my kick and snare utilize menu features to go just a little beyond what you get from a run of the mill analog drum machine but are totally sample free (if you trigger some samples and mix them in Dave Pensado style you can really turn some heads, but this isn’t a mixing article). With the exception of the detuned squares cowbell, the vast majority of my drum sounds are just not possible on a completely analog synth with typical modulation options. I used wavetables and FM to create the complex hihat, tom and cowbell sounds, but I made use of the filter and envelope generators too. The Peak covers a lot of ground in percussion and sound effects, from ARP 2600 to TX81Z and beyond into PPG, Waldorf and Ensoniq turf. Ignoring the menus, Peak’s a very analog-sounding polysynth in the style of mid-80s DCO instruments, but if you get down and dirty Peak will give up the goods and surprise you. It was really fun building up drum sounds like Daniel Miller and Human League used to back in the stone ages when drum machines weren’t terribly programmable, percussive or affordable.
I remember when I heard that sound on the radio!
What’s that you say? “What about tonal patches?” I’m glad you asked, because I think the best way to tell you about the rest of Peak’s features is to talk about recreating classic sounds from the golden age of synthesis. As a child of the 80s there are certain style sounds popularized by the early patch storage synths like the Prophet and Jupiter and a handful of earlier mono sounds used by everyone and their brother when I was a young punk that are literally built into my sound-design DNA.
After creating these patches I built up a little MIDI sequence utilizing all of them in an eight bar loop. In the Example you hear each sound individually and then the whole thing put together with no EQ and just a little brick wall limiting from the gold old L2 to goose the level up in the solo parts a hair.
The first sound is a Prophet 5 style dual oscillator sync effect. I couldn’t get it just right because the Peak has an overly clever sync engine they call v-sync (which can be found in each oscillator’s dedicated menus and can be modulated in the matrix), where all 3 oscillators sync to their own virtual oscillator that you can’t route to the mixer. I tried just using osc 1 and modulating the v-sync via the second mod envelope but it didn’t quite sound right so I wound up doing 2 oscillators with a lot of drift and diverge and V sync on osc 2. I used the 4 pole filter with a moderate setting and got it sounding as much like a Curtis chip as I could and finished the patch by putting it into mono and giving a 4 voice stack with more detune. It’s not perfect but it’s in the right ballpark.
I also decided to create a 70s gliding, mono lead and I feel I nailed the sort of thing one might get from something like a 2600 as well as can be expected using a filter that isn’t the classic moog 4 pole transistor-ladder low pass. There’s a little FM from oscillator 3 which is one of the hallmarks of a good Moog or ARP lead to me.
The third patch is a very close reproduction of the Prophet 5’s Harmonium factory preset. I’ve always really liked this style of poly pad and I have to say the Peak does a bang up job of in this role. The cutting voice and snappy envelopes of the Peak really lend themselves to Prophet and Pro1 type sounds and the drift and diverge options make it easy to get the right amount of instability. I should state that if you look at a Prophet 5 recall sheet for this sound, the filter settings are NOT going to be 1 to 1, but the overall character is close enough that a little ear tuning got me there. While this particular patch doesn’t utilize fast envelope attack, it definitely has a certain sharpness that was unique to Smith’s synths until his competitors followed his lead switching over to ICs for oscillators and filters almost a decade after the Prophet brought polyphony to the world. Yes, I know that you can go buy a pseudo-reissue prophet but you can also buy 2 Peaks and a really nice night on the town for the price of a Prophet 6.
The fourth sound is my best impression of a classic Model D bass. Like on my ARP style lead I chose to go with a classic sound that didn’t absolutely require that wet and sloshy Moog filter because the Peak’s filter just is a totally different design (in fact it’s different from just about every analog filter you’re used to, even other multi-modes like the Curtis IC-based filters, but more on that later) so I went with a nice long decay on both main envelopes. All 3 oscillators are set to squares with classic amounts of fine tuning and the continuous ‘shape’ controls of the second 2 adjusted to simulate the 2 fixed pulse widths found on a Minimoog while osc1 is left as square. Oscillator 3 is used as an FM source in the matrix, just like you would on a Mini when using osc3 in the audio range as both carrier and modulator. I set up my filter at about half-mast with really low resonance (the filter is highly resonant, far more than either bass station, though it shares the same lineage), 50% key track (unlike a BS2 the Peak has continuous filter key tracking and in the matrix ANY parameter can be key tracked when the keyboard is set as a modulation source), enough envelope contour to give a cool decay without drawing attention to the tighter sound of the filter and… last but not least, filter modulation by oscillator 2, a Model D staple. I programmed in PLENTY of drift and carefully tweaked all 3 dirt controls until I was feeling pretty content with the sound even when compared to a Studio Electronics rack set similarly.
Finally I decided to fill out the meat of my 8 bar figure by simulating 3 classic Jupiter 8 patches that I always liked; namely Low Brass, Low Strings and Honkey Tonk. The first 2 are classic pad/drone sounds whereas Honky Tonk is one of the worst piano emulations ever. The Jupiter 8 has a pile of piano-style sounds preset (many of which have piano in the name because you really might not be sure if they didn’t tell you) but Honky Tonk is the screwiest and I have huge affection for this type of key sound.
These pads are pretty similar old patches and mine come out a little more crisp then the original and again I attribute this to Novation’s proprietary filter. The discreet diode-ladder filter of the Jup8 and the pre-106 Junos has a sound that goes from fluffy, to rubbery to squelchy whereas the Novation 4 pole low pass has a much different midrange and more of a hardcore screech, not a 70s slosh or 80s squelch. Don’t worry, this filter can cop some 303ish bark with distortion. It’s a great sound, just a bit different and is actually one of the things that tickles me most about Peak as an instrument. She has her own voice. In contrast to the filter, it was VERY easy to get the two oscillators needed behaving in a convincing early 80s Roland way. For both patches I used Poly 1 mode in 2 voice unison to thicken things up Jupiter style and then I judiciously turned up the drift as well as adding a good bit of diverge for both the oscillators and filter. The 2 poly modes vary the ‘voice stealing’ behavior when exceeding polyphony on patches with huge release times. It wasn’t really an issue in this example, but Poly 1 is the way the old synths did it and Poly 2 apparently steals voices with a different logic. Just go with it. I also threw a little chorus on the strings (but not the brass) and tuned the wet signal’s high and low cut via the FX menu to get it as analog as possible to my ear, adding a touch of Juno flavor. If you want to learn more about the 3 digital effects engines and their detailed menu parameters I suggest you consult Novation’s website. I’m going to touch on my favorite FX menu features but I actually didn’t use a lot of effects on any of my patches even though they sound good. I’m just in the habit of working with more primitive synthesizer and recording them with guitar stompboxes, rack units or breaking out some cool plugins while mixing. The effects are really nice sounding though and I went on to showcase the built in delay with some MIDI sync on Hony Tonk in the last 4 bars of this little piece.
The Peak and nothing but the Peak… well, maybe some bad reverb too.
By the end of my first day with the Peak I realized I could actually create a whole song using only this synth assuming I was willing to laboriously sequence and record track by track, like the aforementioned Daniel Miller making Warm Leatherette in the 70s. Well, maybe not THAT laboriously since Peak has patch storage and MIDI. I knocked together some core musical ideas at the piano and started imagining parts and making patches right away. My brief was to use ONLY the Peak for sound generation but I allowed myself to use outboard effects as long as I printed those sounds and didn’t rely on plugins that I could twiddle until I obscured the Peak’s natural sound. I also tried to print any EQ decisions so that there wouldn’t be a ton of temptation to heavily alter the sounds while mixing.
In practice a lot of sounds from Peak have too much low end to work in context so I printed lots of low roll off. This brings me to my one major suggestion for a Peak revision. It needs an additional filter. The Bandpass is no substitute for a 2 filter setup like on the Roland Jupiters and Junos. I could settle for that simple high pass but I would REALLY like to have an additional LPF with a different voice so that I could not only have another flavor available but also dedicate the multimode filter to high pass and use the second low pass sometimes. Maybe you could add on the diode-ladder ‘acid’ filter from the BS2 right after the state variable filter? Asking too much, huh? Personally I think a simple HPF in addition to the multimode VCF is a serious omission. It’s one of the best features of the ARP Odyssey and Roland wisely copied it throughout their heyday and you should too. Next time, Novation? Hope so. For now I just rolled off some bottom on the channel strip as needed, but I want that HPF (preferably with a slider and not a knob).
I wound up ignoring Peak’s reverb because as good as it can sound I really wanted to do the ambiance my way during mix down. So there’s some verb plugins and hardware used to give a sense of space. Otherwise I just made surgical EQ corrections and worked with the dynamics (mostly in sub groups) to glue it all together and make everything cut through where it needed to. I tried to use Peak’s built in delay and chorus when I wanted those effects. This decision was no compromise since they are pretty well endowed. If I needed control of the wet/dry balance later I would print separate wet and dry tracks. Often I tracked the delay as part of a sequence where it was less of an echo than an extra voice and I used the chorus mainly as part of my patch design, especially tweaking the high and low and goosing the feedback up into flanger turf via the FX menu. I really enjoy the chorus. It doesn’t sound analog, but it doesn’t sound like the old chilly digital chorus algorithms either and its capable of a huge range of effects compared to the chorus on like a Juno 60 that’s lush but really limited in scope. Overall the effects onboard Peak including the various distortions, are very neutral and incredibly versatile. For me the reverb was only useful as part of 2 or so patches, but I could see myself using it more in a live performance scenario and I think it might be really handy if I decided to perform with a keyboard controller in a rock band running the peak into a guitar amp. As a studio rat I really preferred my own reverbs (and made heavy use of the psychotic EQD Transmisser filtered reverb I reviewed for Equipboard recently when I only needed mono) but I didn’t touch any of my delays or modulations. I hardly even strayed from the highly capable Novation distortion engines. When I tried a stompbox from my collection, no matter how I set it, the onboard distortion always sounded better to me unless I was trying to do something really extreme (I had some fun with a superfuzz on a sound at the end of the song, for instance). I also made extensive use of the routing features in the FX menu which allow you to run the 3 digital effects parallel or in any serial order and this can produce some pretty fabulous effects when you get outside the guitar-style box of chorus? delay? reverb. The reverb actually has its own modulation built into it in addition to the standard controls for high and low cut, damping and the 3 front panel voicings. There’s separate wet and dry level controls for the synthesizer voice and the digital FX as a group which can be handy. The front panel has individual mix knobs, but using the global controls in the FX menu you can create FX swells and fades while a sequence is playing controlling all 3 digital effects with 1 knob (though you will want to leave some headroom because you can definitely clip a mixer channel when you start cranking up knob on peak).
There are a couple sounds, including the bass line, on which I employed the big “Animate” pushbuttons marked 1 and 2 under the master volume as a performance element. These touch sensitive rubber pads can be assigned via the matrix as a modulation source. Rather than do a lot of filter sweeping on the bassline to add movement to the slightly cheesy arpeggiator riff, I assigned multiple parameters to each button (including FM, cutoff, resonance, filter FM, oscillator shapes, detuning, etc). I made 1 subtle, 2 pretty intense and then if I held them both down I would get some extreme sound warping. While recording the bassline I just found a groove and aggressively went at those 2 buttons, finger drums style. I think they’re supposed to be pressure sensitive, but I particularly liked that when you press a button there’s a short fade-in and out of the modulation that doesn’t seem to change regardless of how you stab at the buttons. They can produce highly musical results, controlling multiple parameters with a tap. And if you want to engage them for a while but you want your finger back? No problem, man! Novation gave you a little hold button underneath them that leaves the button or buttons you were holding down engaged until you touch one of them to deactivate. I used this in the slow arpeggio lick that goes over the key change, engaging oscillator sync after the first note of each bar so I could make space for the part to be doubled by another sound.
Soloed out on the left with the little bit of EQ removed you can really hear how much the Animate control is doing to morph the patch and you can really hear how it makes a space for the double on the right. Using the Animate control to kick on the Vsync and change the filter settings at the right moment and doubling with a totally different sound brought a lot more interest to a bread and butter pad like this one. I would have been hard pressed to pull this off without the powerful matrix and Animate controls. Many people won’t utilize Animate often, but it’s a fantastic, thoughtful feature for live performance.
So far I’ve presented patches that do minimal menu diving for the core of their sound. If you stop at the front panel and the mod matrix the Peak is still a pretty cool synthesizer. But if you’re willing to go knee deep in the menus (which are never going to drown you because they’re really well thought out) you will certainly get your money’s worth. At well over a thousand dollars you WILL want to exploit your Peak to the full. Maybe I’m wrong and you aren’t technically minded or you’re into big, bold and basic synthesizer textures and don’t need anything else. You can skip this part if I’m hitting close to home, but if you want to really know what every feature of the Peak can do then listening to the following patch examples while reading my explanations will thoroughly acquaint you with most of them. All of the audio from here on in is Peak only without EQ or outside effects unless otherwise noted.
Peak isn’t just a hybrid synth in the sense that it has NCOs masquerading as VCOs, digital envelopes and LFOs, it’s a basic wavetable synth too. I haven’t really talked substantially about the complex wave shapes accessed via the ‘more’ control on the front panel oscillator section and the Oscillator menus. Without cycling part or all of the wavetable using the shape knob and modulation options you can produce some very cool sounds just using these overtly digital oscillator shapes. If you’re my age and not a synthesis novice these shapes and the sounds you can make with them will take you back to the Ensoniq and Korg hybrid synths of the 80s and 90s. Just like the classic hybrids there are shapes drawn from instruments like electric piano, organ and even digeridoo. There’s the ‘chords’ shape that’s like a pre-stacked saw chord and even another sine iteration but hands down my favorite are the metallic shapes like ‘harsh’ and ‘ting’ as well as the vocal ‘ooh’ formant shape (I wish the second formant were an ‘ah’ and not an ‘eeoo’ but ‘eeoo’ is still darn cool).
The first sequence in this example utilizes a mixture of 2 metallic shapes made more so clinky with some gentle sine wave FM from osc3 to 1, controlled by velocity and an envelope generator to make the timbre of the sound pretty unpredictable. There’s also some low pass filtering swept by a tempo synced LFO in triangle but the other parameters are also being modulated via the front panel and matrix by the notes played on the keyboard in a reverse relationship where higher notes open the filter as one would expect when using filter key tracking but they also get higher resonance and envelope modulation on deeper notes making the whole texture pretty complex and interesting. This would be hard to set up on a lot of synthesizers and impossible on most, but on peak with all its front panel controls and intuitive matrix options it was a breeze.
The second phrase is a relatively straightforward choir stab utilizing the ‘ooh’ shape and a gently modulated sine through a 2 pole bandpass. But what adds some motion is that I used the mod matrix to make amp envelope decay and release inversely velocity dependent as well as applying a delayed LFO to the filter to create a trem effect on the release. It’s hard to make a generic patch on Peak because it tempts you to be subtle and crafty with your sound design.
Speaking of LFOs, peak has two of them and they have 2 range settings as well as tempo sync to whatever clock source you set the arpeggiator to follow. Low mode is pretty standard but high mode enters the audio range essentially offering you 2 fixed frequency FM modulators. Although you can definitely move that frequency around in a microtonal way because LFO rate (at higher frequency we would call it PITCH) is a destination in the mod matrix.
The first sound in the above track is a good example of an LFO in audio range. One of the LFOs is maxed in high range and the rate is modulated down to the bottom of audio range by the first mod envelope so it moves along with filter cutoff. This envelope controls mow much the LFO modulates the pitch of one of the oscillators, the pulse width of another and it also controls the sync amount on one more give a lot of parameters a synced ‘owww’ vowel quality. This patch is also an example of using the built in delay set to create an almost flanging bathtub reverb with a very fast delay time, high resonance and pretty heavy high and low filtering via the FX menu’s deep editing. Under the surface this patch is just a lame, stack of saws, but what’s really great about enhancing a boring patch on Peak is that if you utilize the front panel controls cleverly (in this case making sure to use LFO2 for pitch mod and LFO1 for PWM) you can do something like this mainly via the front panel. I only went into 2 menus on this patch, tweaking 2 or 3 parameters in the matrix and fine tuning the delay timbre (and that you could get away without doing, I’m just anal). I honestly spent ore timing naming and saving this patch then I spent creating it.
The next patch is from another song I used the Peak on and its little more complex utilizing some of the advances features in the LFO menu. It’s a real stylistic mutant mixing a cycling wavetable with a little FM, ring mod and dynamic 4 pole bandpassing. But the reason I’m bringing it up is that it includes time delayed and tempo synced LFO controlling a whole tone pitch bend. The fade in knob on the front panel is keyed to start at a specific beat and to keep that consistent I went in the menu and set it to key sync and cycle just once, so it’s almost like an envelope but with the ability to delay the start time, an envelope parameter Peak (and most other synths) don’t offer in their generators. But the other thing I did was mess with the skew and phase controls in the menu. Using these controls you can manipulate pulse width, rise and fall of the LFO shapes to behave asymmetrically. In this case I got a triangle to peak up and return to center in an asymmetrical way but without being a saw so that the whole thing feels like a guitar string bending up in a blues lick. Sure I could have done it manually with a pitch wheel, but this was actually much easier and it’s very consistent and precise the way it bends the note and that’s particularly important to me because I am bending each oscillator a little differently to change the tuning relationship when the bend comes in. The other LFO has an effect on the filter which is tempo synced and key synced and the single repeat LFO does a little filter opening too (the amount of which is modulated by the keyboard as is the envelope amount applied to the filter heightening the string bend effect). The 2nd mod envelope is set up to control how the wavetable oscillator cycles through the complex shapes starting on the vocal ‘ee-oo’ and the whole thing is rather thick and sounds like there’s effects on it already when really it’s just a complex pad with some distortion.
The last 2 sounds come from a carefully tweaked up legato lead sound. The first time through you hear the mostly dry signal. This sound is a mix of wavetable and FM synthesis with a little filtering and a righteous glide time in mono mode to make a sleazy slide guitar type of lick. There’s some flanging via deep editing of the chorus in the FX menu and the feedback and depth are carefully tuned to compliment the part with harmonic ringing as it slides into each note. The whole patch is mono so that both outputs are getting the same signal. In the second part the second output only is run through an Earthquaker Devices Transmisser reverb pedal. Rather than tweak the synthesizer while playing I tweaked the Transmisser controls to create a 50s Sci-Fi ambiance. With just a few extra items you can squeeze even more texture from Novation’s table-top masterpiece.
There aren’t a lot of affordable synths that are going to do the sort of things I did easily once I dug into the Peak. This is usually software territory. Peak offers you some serious complexity coupled with the immediacy of front panel controls and simple, idiot-proofed menus with no need to have your DAW map a controller to some CPU-hogging virtual synth. Peak actually has the ability to do some things that aren’t particularly my style. Each oscillator has a page for supersaw creation with saw density that controls the amount of de-phased saw layers and a detune control for them. I didn’t really wrap my head around the saw density and detune controls until it was nearly time to give the Peak back because I was surfing around the wavetables and playing with FM and esoteric LFO settings so much. As it turns out you can use the two saw parameters to create that ubiquitous detuned trance lead of the 90s that’s been making a comeback in EDM. I did use these parameters subtly to make some extra toothy leads in my second demo, but turn up both controls and its pure Roland JP8000, a sledgehammer of saw silliness for all your raving needs. Due to the limited time I had to evaluate Peak I never got around to recording a supersaw lead for you. I didn’t really try to make one until the last minute because it’s not a sound I use a lot. I apologize to anthemic trance and EDM enthusiasts in general, I know many of you love a good supersaw and Novation’s engine for this waveform is impressive. Trust me that the Peak will get you the sound you want for your melodic hook and then some. It can do a lot of shades of supersaw, far beyond the JP 8000 and with a different range than the hypersaws in an Access Virus TI. If this is your kind of sound you’re probably going to get all hot and bothered when you hear how Peak does it. It was really fun stacking up 3 super saw oscillators with different density and detune settings and then trying them as octaves or 5ths with full 8 voice unison making these huge 90s dancefloor leads for a few minutes.
Another feature that I wouldn’t typically use extensively on any synth is the arpeggiator. For me it’s an occasional thing. I much prefer creating ostinatos and modulated rhythmic patterns with step sequencers. But peak’s arpeggiator is incredibly robust. It has a big library of patterns including a house hihat groove, one that syncs well with the Amen break and even some 6/8-type shuffles in case you want to cover Personal Jesus live. The arpeggiator syncs well to MIDI but also has its own internal clock that includes its own quantization to add swing and shuffle (but it also will take the swing/shuffle from your sequencer/DAW in MIDI mode, so don’t worry). The arpeggiator syncs to clocks faster than most sequencers of arpeggiator via MIDI. At 120BPM there’s about 2 beats of latency over a standard MIDI cable and only about one beat over its USB cable. You can further reduce this by setting the internal clock to match the tempo from the sequencer getting the apreggiator and LFOs (when synced) pretty well in time from beat one unless your external clock source is wonky. The fun doesn’t stop there because Peak has a ton of note order options ranging from the typical Up, Down and Random to Chord (which holds your chord and plays it to the pattern, octave spread and note high-to-low sequence selected, 80s chord memory style) and Played (which allows you to create a repeating sequence by staggering the start times of the notes in a chord and also gives you the option to shake up the order for each chord sweeping through each on differently, which is super cool). I don’t think Novation invented any of these arp options but it packs almost every arp feature I can think of into the arp menu. And yes, there’s key hold under the button that activates the arp and the front panel knob for the gate it right above it.
In this last raw patches example I showcase a number of what I thought to be the most useful arpeggiator features. The first one shows off the chord function across 2 octaves, dry at first and then in stereo with some internal delay tweaked up to enhance the rhythm. The next demonstrates Played mode where the order of the notes in the chord and extensions added as passing tones become part of a complex riff. The bell sound is another complex, metallic waveform with some simple analog waveforms, but there’s a lot of FM. Adding some variety in note attack and release once as well as added extra depth to the whole thing after I made FM and many filter parameters velocity dependent. When you’re delving into the arpeggiator with the notes in the order played as well as a bunch of matrix slots in use patch creation will definitely slow down as you putter around. Getting everything the way you want it can take a sec, but it can be pretty rewarding and sometimes you get something even cooler than what you were imagining.
The last two parts are drawn again from the demo song and showcase the house/disco hihat arpeggiator pattern coupled to a simple bandpassed square in legato mode doing some basic acid stuff followed by the main bassline which relies on one of the patterns that is patently inspired by a classic breakbeat. It very effectively adds some electro funkiness to 4 on the floor beats without a lot of extra syncopated drums. There’s a ton of great arpeggiator patterns that will help add a classic groove to your songs when used wisely and I wish I could have demoed them all, but this article is getting pretty long already. If you try a Peak in person, make sure to go through all the patterns and to vary the tempo and quantization to get a great feel for them. If you’re making dance music for the most part the arpeggiator will make itself indispensable.
There’s no ifs, ands or buts; Novation has created a magnificent and inspiring synthesizer with Peak. It hits a lot of the points on my wishlist and offers its 8 voices and an impressively sturdy build (I remember the original bass station, pretty flimsy) at such a reasonable price that I feel guilty asking for more. I admit the Peak is not a cheap synth, but given that it offers 8 fantastic sounding voices and huge versatility the price/performance ratio is heavily skewed in favor of performance. If you consider that each voice is very much a powerful hybrid monosynth and divide 8 voices into about $1300 US you are looking at about 162 bucks per voice. Each voice has like 20 shapes available across 3 oscillators and its own analog multimode filter that I might add is a highly perfected descendent of designer Chris Hugget’s beloved CMOS design from the legendary OSCar and WASP. Would I like an arp/roland HPF or a diode ladder style low pass? Well, yeah! Would I like to be able to layer patches across multiple voices? Who wouldn’t? But I can hardly say that it completely breaks the Synth not to have an extra filter or multitimbrality and I definitely like the unique sound of the state variable filter Chris Hugget designed for it. I wouldn’t trade this filter in for something else, it’s a wicked all-arounder. Peak is the culmination of a storied career in synth design. The man threw the kitchen sink at this thing and the stuff he left out served the laudable goal of making this Swiss Army Knife affordable for the average electronic musician with a crappy day job and real world bills. Mission accomplished, my cap is doffed to you, Mr Hugget.
I only ran into two ‘problems’ using Peak. The first was that occasionally while adjusting the gate on the arpeggiator in real time using my DAW’s clock it would get stuck on a spot and I would need to save my patch unfinished and reboot the synthesizer to get it working again. I’m sure someone else will run into this problem but I also feel confident they will address it in the next firmware update. The other problem isn’t so much a glitch as a gripe. When you’re using the arpeggiator and LFO in tempo sync to create a rhythmically modulating pattern you can’t seem to get the LFO to retrigger via the keyboard. Regardless of how I set the key sync and retrigger up in the LFO menu the LFO would either be free running or retrigger from EVERY note played by the arpeggiator. A great workaround for this is to sue the CV input with an analog step sequencer running off the same MIDI channel as PEAK from your DAW but for people who don’t have access to a sequencer to create a rhythmic modulation pattern via CV in the mod matrix, using the LFO in this way with the arpeggiator might prove to be a frustrating experience requiring multiple takes to get the LFO pattern synced to the arp groove and the rest of the song the way you’re imagining. With the good 100 complex patches I created on the demo unit it’s pretty impressive that the peak only gave me two headaches. The thing is admirably plug-and-play.
The only suggestion I have for future updates that I think would be simple to implement is to allow the 3 virtual oscillators that are part of the v-sync setup to be used as FM sources so I could build some subtractive patches that have a Yamaha aesthetic… either that or let me take the LFOs further into the audio range and really tune them so I have 2 more FM operators to build up those DX7 timbres. It’s not a deal breaker but the FM would be more fun if it went a little further. I love dense FM sounds, especially when I can do a little subtractive synthesis over them, and I think all the tools are already in the Peak to get the job done.
But for all my nit-picking, Novation really loaded The Peak down with the kind of features I was looking for in a new polyphonic synth. The extra parameters packed into the menus are the cherry on top for me. The menus are easy to navigate and will prove to be a huge relief to people who were intimidated by classic digitally controlled synths like the groundbreaking Oberheim Matrix series that so clearly influenced Hugget’s architecture. Similar thing to the Oberheim Xpander here, but the menus are intuitive and there’s tons of knobs. Browsing and saving patches is also a breeze and the Peak offers 4 huge banks, 2 filled with factory presets. Novation also has their own online patch librarian so you can offload your patches or theirs to make space. If you need room and delete the factory banks you can always register your Peak, go online and download a factory patch you wish you hadn’t dumped. Of course, if you’re a dinosaur like I am you have an old fashioned MIDI librarian on your sequencing PC and Peak makes it easy to dump 1 patch or a whole bank via sysex.
The Peak is so hugely inspiring and the synth’s voice is so malleable, the process of fine tuning in the context of a song so fluid and intuitive, that one can wind up making huge amounts of a song without resorting to another synthesizer. During my 30 days with the demo unit I pounded out the song I shared earlier in the article and then I went on to start 2 more that are mainly Peak-based but also use other synths for the few areas where Peak failed to provide the exact sound in my head. Once that first demo song was done I felt free to work like I normally would, but I was enjoying Peak so much that I tried it first for most parts and often went ahead and sampled single notes, chords and loops to process and manipulate rather than go for a different synth or dip into the sample library.
While I was reviewing the Peak the crew at Novation, as well as making great conversation about synthesizers and life in general, was always prompt with support and answers. This is a great company with a passion for music and technology and if you’re new to the Novation family you will find that they really value their customers. Whether you deal with a Novation employee on my sound of the Atlantic or in the UK, you’ll find this to be a team that really likes musicians because all of these Novation people ARE musician… and therefore it’s pretty hard not to like all of them in return. These are the sort of people you would want to collaborate and hang out with and I for one feel good about using their instruments.
I know this was a long review. It might be too in depth for some people’s taste. I apologized if I bored you but I am was absolutely stoked to tell you all about the Peak. It’s one of the most exciting instruments I’ve played in a long time and is destined to become a classic. I’ve been missing the demo unit ever since I gave it back and I plan to purchase one (or two) as soon as I can free up some play money. Everyone who enjoys synthesis owes it to themselves to go try a Peak as soon as possible. I can’t imagine anyone being let down, the Peak is such a powerful machine.