Does Novation’s flagship polysynth live up to expectations?
The Summit is the newest synthesizer from Novation, a company that’s by far the most prolific synth manufacturer in the U.K. It is a 16-voice, bi-timbral instrument that allows you to split or layer two different sounds. It evolved from the Peak desktop module, an 8-voice synth that’s patch compatible with the Summit. If you’ve owned or heard a Peak, then you more or less know what to expect. Effects are independent for each sound, making it easy to summon dense soundtrack-like textures full of slowly evolving elements and deep echoes or reverb. You’ll find many such textures in the factory programs.
The Summit’s oscillators are direct descendents of the analog oscillators in the Oxford Synthesiser Company’s OSCar, which was designed by Chris Huggett, who also worked on the Electronic Dream Plant’s legendary Wasp. As such, they’re known as Oxford oscillators. Novation dropped any perceived obligation to stick with a completely analog signal path years ago, however, because true analog oscillators are costly to build and difficult to match so that they tune and track well together. To keep costs down, Novation’s oscillators are digital (NCOs or numerically controlled oscillators). On the Summit, they’re coupled with true analog filters and VCAs.
The Summit has a five-octave, velocity-sensitive keyboard that responds to aftertouch. Aftertouch requires quite heavy pressure and is one of the few parameters represented only on the programming LCD and not by a front-panel control. Nonetheless, it’s easy to make patches readily responsive to aftertouch, a controller that’s particularly handy if you’re on stage and don’t have a hand free to use the modulation wheel.
Look to the Left
The Summit has conventional pitch and mod wheels with octave up/down buttons just above. Above those are two less familiar buttons labeled Animate A and B, with a Hold option. These are momentary switches, bringing in modulation changes of various types (such as opening the filter wider or changing the octave). You can lock them on or tap them again to switch them off—very handy. Above those are Multi Mode selectors for layer, split, and dual modes, and A/B switches to determine whether one or both parts are edited by the panel controls in
Above those buttons are 16 LEDs indicating which voices are sounding (green for part 1, red for part 2). This gives a good graphic representation of whether you’ll run into any voice-stealing problems when playing big layered chords. Unison mode can use a lot of voices, too.
The Summit’s LCD display has just four lines and five selector buttons to choose various menu pages. Novation keeps many functions out of the menu by giving them dedicated knob controllers. Consequently, you won’t see too many menu pages—just about half a dozen each for the more advanced effects routing, arpeggiator, MIDI, and a few other options. The default display allows you to choose sounds by bank (four banks of 128 patches) or by category (Bass, Pads, Leads, FX, and so on).
Patch Initialise and Compare buttons are at the top left, alongside the Master Volume knob, which I expected on the right at the signal path’s far end. The left hand is more likely to be free for volume changes during performance, giving this placement a definite advantage.
A Forest of Knobs
Before setting off through the forest of knobs on the Summit’s front panel, I should mention that the synth features a beautiful bit of wood for end cheeks. Overall, it’s very substantially built and quite heavy; at almost 24 pounds, you wouldn’t want to carry it in one hand in a flight bag for very long. Most control buttons have sets of mini LED indicators next to them, so current parameter settings are well displayed even under dimly lit stage conditions.
Because Summit’s layout is fairly conventional, it’s easy to find your way around. The signal flow from left to right is basically voice mode and arpeggiator, then oscillators, oscillator modulation, FM or cross-modulation, mixer (including a level for white noise and ring modulator), dual filters, ADSR envelopes (with sliders rather than knobs), LFOs, and finally effects (distortion, chorus, delay, and reverb). Nothing is difficult to find. As I mentioned, the absolute minimum has been consigned to the multi-page menu, and most sound parameters have their own dedicated control.
When I played in panel mode, constantly changing and improvising with the sound, the Summit was very responsive. Without continuous rotary encoders, though, a parameter could jump to a new level during editing. You can quickly find adjustments for effects depth, slower attacks and glides, changes in arpeggio speed, and different types of cross-modulation.
What’s absent is dynamic voice allocation, the ability to continue playing a sound when you select a new patch and play the new patch only after you’ve released any held keys. This is really vital for long, organic improvisations on any polyphonic synth. On the Summit, however, the selection of any new patch instantly terminates the existing sound and its associated effects. You could keep the lower part of a split playing while you go through various new sounds on the upper part, but that’s not quite the same.
Editing and programming patches is straightforward. Each of the three oscillators per voice has buttons for footage (or octave) and rotary encoders for tuning. Each offers four analog waveforms and a set of digital wavetables (labeled More) that include metallic, vowel, and other sounds that help create exciting digital-type sweeps and noises. Oscillators can cross-modulate one another, and there’s a complete set of FM controls for this. Cross-modulation gives the Summit many of the capabilities of the old Prophet-5, which made extensive use of cross-modulation in many of its most useful factory patches.
The Summit has two filters—a 12/24dB switchable lowpass and a state-variable lowpass/bandpass/highpass—which can be routed in series or in parallel. Dual filter types have become pretty common on upmarket synths. They vastly expand their tonal range, making higher, more delicate sounds easier to create.
The Novation filters are utterly smooth, with absolutely no stepping as you sweep them downward, which is exactly what you’d expect from a true analog design. Having the envelopes on sliders makes it easy to see how they’re set. A Loop button allows stages of the envelopes to repeat, making useful strumming and multi-triggering types of sound. Two LFO sections have various waveforms and sync-to-tempo options, and two additional global LFOs can produce random sample-and-hold and other effects.
Effects and I/O
On the control panel’s right side is the Effects section, comprising distortion, chorus (with an ensemble mode that re-creates the tone of the old Solina and other string synths), delay with time sync, and reverb with three room sizes and an overall depth control. You can bypass all these effects with a single button, a feature that will likely be appreciated by studio musicians who are more interested in adding effects later in the mix, or even by stage performers if what they’re going for is a dry sound.
The Summit’s effects are extremely good. The delay is versatile, the reverb can be very deep and cathedral-like or much more subtle, and the distortion excels at grittier sounds. This post-filter distortion is in addition to the pre-filter overdrive.
On the rear panel, the Summit has two pairs of audio outputs, a pair of audio inputs, MIDI In/Out/Thru on DIN connectors, USB, two control-pedal inputs, and a minijack input for a single control voltage (which gives at least some integration into modular and other systems). A Kensington lock discourages theft, and a mains input accommodates a conventional IEC cable—no fussy external power supplies here. Although the internal power supply does contribute to the Summit’s weight, earlier Novation designs have used external power supplies with nonconventional and very hard to replace connectors, so internal power is appreciated.
The audio inputs allow you to use the Summit as a processing device, an application on which Novation has always been keen. In theory, you could simultaneously play the keyboard and process an external instrument through the effects. Sadly and surprisingly, the vocoder option present on many earlier Novation models with audio inputs is missing on the Summit.
Also missing is top-panel labeling for the rear-panel jacks. There’s also a problem with the placement of the data knob, immediately to the right of the LCD display. You can see what you’re doing when you use the Patch or up/down value buttons, but when you turn the data knob, your left hand obstructs your view of the display whose contents you’re editing. The large gap on the panel under the LCD would have been a better place for the data knob. On most gear, you could use the up/down buttons and hold them as they scan through the values you want, but the Summit’s buttons don’t scroll. They really are only +1 and -1 controllers, and you have to tap them repeatedly to make any larger changes. If you hold the Patch select buttons, they don’t scan through the presets, either.
Sound Is Everything
Now let’s look at some of the Summit’s factory patches. I could explain all the options and how one parameter can cross-modulate another or discuss whether the highpass filter sounds better than the 12dB lowpass filter, but the bottom line is this: the Summit can barely be faulted on any aspect of its sound creation.
If you are looking for an analog (or analog-sounding) synthesizer, then the Summit will fulfill every need you could possibly imagine. As you mix oscillators, white noise, ring modulator, and effects together, everything is totally controllable, and even the more advanced modulation parameters are quick and easy to access, always make the sound you expect, and never have any undesirable results.
The Summit’s fat sounds really do compete with anything that Moog or Sequential currently offer (and also with blasts from the past like the Roland Jupiter 8), while thinner, more delicate sounds are precise and simple to set up. In fact, every sound category is impressive—Brass, Basses, Leads, Sound FX, and so on. For spacey sounds with multiple layers (actually only two layers, but they often sound like more), the Summit is extremely well equipped.
The arpeggiator is particularly versatile, offering a quick selection of octave range, pattern, swing, and gate time, and endless possibilities for techno/dance styles. If you want to sound like Jean-Michel Jarre within a few moments, this is the place to be. (Jarre is a Novation user, so I would hazard a guess that he’s already a Summit enthusiast by now.)
The Summit is very expressive for solo sounds, and the glide is not only monophonic but polyphonic, too, so you can make big sweeping Yamaha CS-80-like drones in the style of Vangelis, circa Blade Runner. The Summit can handle experimental noises, as well. You can find some very random and interesting textures within the factory patches, and manipulating the effects produces even more.
Generally speaking, the factory presets make a little too much use of the effects, with many presets pretty much swamped in delay and reverb. Patches are apparently arranged in sets only according to who programmed them. In addition to a more logical layout of the factory programs (though using the Categories option is a help, of course), I would like to have seen less use of effects and more of modulation and aftertouch, which are generally programmed only at extremely modest levels.
Some obvious possibilities are missing from the factory patches. For example, I couldn’t find anything routing aftertouch to a sync-style harmonic bend, but that should be easy enough to set up. Names for some of the factory patches are a bit optimistic. Tape Choir? Not really. FM Rhodes? Perhaps. I also think the oscillators’ digital wavetables offer a lot more possibilities than are represented in the factory patches, but these are very minor concerns.
Your Next Synth?
Sonically, the Novation Summit more than holds its own against any of its competitors. If you’re looking for a source of endless, high-quality, analog-type sounds, then the Summit could well be your solution.
I have only minor criticisms: no dynamic voice allocation, no vocoder effect, no top-panel labels for rear-panel connectors, and poor placement of the data knob. Most of the slightly disordered factory presets fall short of showing off some the instrument’s wonderful possibilities, such as aftertouch, in favor of an overgenerous use of effects.
On the positive side, the Summit delivers on great looks and construction, internal power, a layout that’s easy to navigate, and massively versatile potential for programming new sounds, with practically every type of modulation you could hope for. It also has an expressive keyboard and controllers, a fantastic arpeggiator, and excellent effects. The Summit is ideal for rich, straightforward sound creation, and it would be a joy to use either in the studio or on stage.