Novation could have rested on the success of their 2017 Peak synthesizer, but instead, they packed two of them together and created the Summit. Our Novation Summit review takes a look at one of the most exciting synth releases of the past few years.
The Summit was designed in part by Chris Hugget, the man behind the iconic OSCar. Novation said the Summit would be their most powerful and innovative synth ever. At a glance, it looks very promising, indeed, let’s find out.
It wouldn’t be right to discuss the Novation Summit without referencing Twin Peaks at least once. Not only because it contains two Peak synths, but the iconic TV show was filled with dark synth soundscapes that make you want to play an instrument like this.
If you aren’t familiar with the Novation Peak, here’s a brief recap. It’s an eight-voice desktop synth that modifies digital waveforms with analog filters – a hybrid. Much of the control is hands-on via the top panel, with some additional menu-diving when you need to go deeper.
The digital oscillators are referred to as Numerically Controlled Oscillators by Novation. But, they work like any other digital oscillators and do so with minimal distortion even when pushed hard. They offer five waveforms, sine, pulse, triangle, sawtooth, and more. The ‘more’ waveshape utilizes 60 wavetables and uses the static waveform as the foundation of the sound. Alternatively, you can or move through the table smoothly to create evolving timbres. The Peak, on its own, is a desktop powerhouse.
The first thing to say is that the Summit is more than just two Peaks stuck together. They may power it, but Novation has built an entirely new instrument around the Peaks. As the Peak is an eight-voice synth, the Summit is a 16-voice polyphonic synth. Summit makes use of three oscillators per voice, which amounts to a total of 48. The main sound source for the Summit is the anti-aliasing Oxford digital FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) oscillators, along with wavetables.
Both engines (Peaks) are accessible via A and B buttons on the front panel, making the Summit bi-timbral. This simple workflow makes it easy to make adjustments on the fly. Selecting A or B allows you to focus on a particular engine while pressing A+B together, lets you adjust both simultaneously. The front panel of the Summit is well designed and intuitive. Even simple things like selecting one or both engines is made easier by the panel lights changing from blue to red to show which engine is being edited.
Each of the oscillators utilizes analog-style oscillators, along with 17 wavetables. This combination provides a wide range of sound-shaping possibilities. It’s important to put some focus on these oscillators because they are quite distinct. The digital New Oxford oscillators offer FM, subtractive, and wavetable synthesis. But, the really exciting part is that all wave types have variable shapes per oscillator. So, with just a single oscillator and LFO/contour generator, you have an incredible amount of modulation options. Another very cool thing about the New Oxford oscillators is that they offer adjustable drift and divergence that mimic the inconsistent nature of analog circuits.
The signal takes the true-analog path through overdrive, distortion, and filter before reaching any digital effects.
Modulation and filters
The Summit has an incredible amount of modulation options available, and what’s even more surprising is the ease of putting them to work. Most things are very hands-on with the Summit, and we will touch on the front panel in more detail shortly. Any modulation options that aren’t controlled directly from the front panel can be dialed in via the mod matrices. There are two 16-slot modulation matrices (one per Peak) sporting 17 sources, 37 destinations, and depth control. The mod matrix is accessible via the display screen, menus, and buttons.
Each of the 16 voices has two polyphonic LFOs with low and high rate modes. There is then a further two global LFOs and two modulation envelopes.
By default, every oscillator has the second LFO hardwired to pitch on the front panel. This routing does make things easier to start off, but you can re-route as you see fit. Assigning sources and destinations in the mod matrix does involve a bit of menu-diving, but thanks to some intuitive controls, it’s not too much hassle at all. Overall, the mod matrix is very straightforward to use but offers deep and complex modulation for the most ardent sound designer.
Continuing from the mod matrix, the front panel offers up some interesting modulation options, too. There are a further two assignable modulation envelopes beyond envelope one. Envelope one is hardwired to the filter on the front panel by default. Again, this is very helpful when getting started, but by pressing the select button, you get access to a second envelope. The additional envelope can then be assigned to a single destination or multiple destinations per layer. All envelopes have dedicated loop buttons on the front panel, too.
The outcome is that you can generate some killer sounds, thanks to the snappy and articulate envelopes. You’ll recognize some of the punchy bass tones from the Summit if you are familiar with the Novation Bass station. Once you get into the analog filters, distortion, overdrive, and digital effects, you have an unlimited palette for sonic creativity.
As far as filters go, there is a self-oscillating 12/24dB filter per voice. That filter has low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass modes available. On top of that, there is an additional dual filter mode for more complex sounds. The dual filter mode offers nine combinations of low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass. It’s in the dual filter mode that you can start seeing the influence of the vintage OSCar synth. Not just the OSCar, Summit emulates various dual filter synths very well.
The Peak is known for its gorgeous pre/post filter overdrive, and we are glad to say that’s readily available here. The precision in which you can control where the grit and dirt hit your signal path is remarkable. It provides you with the ultimate controllable overdrive or distortion.
Versatility is a common theme throughout the Summit, and that is seen again in the filters. They can deliver silky-smooth low resonance deliciousness or aggressive high resonance grit. In an upgrade from the Peak synth, the Summit features a stereo audio input that can be used to run external audio sources through these gorgeous filters. Like the oscillators, the filters have a divergence feature that provides a more human and authentic vintage tone.
Intuitive front panel layout
Despite having eight sliders, 55 function buttons, an OLED display, and an abundance of rotary knobs, it’s one of the cleanest major synth panels around.
One of the first things you encounter on the left of the front panel is the multi/single buttons. In single mode, you get huge unison sounds that put those 16-voices to use. If you engage multi-mode, you now have the option to use the A and B buttons. You are now in a bi-timbral setup that can feature synth A, synth B, or both layered together.
Just underneath, you can find the split button to map two voices across the keyboard in user-defined zones. You can also make the voices interact in a dual capacity with the help of an external MIDI controller. For example, A and B would respond to different MIDI channels, meaning the Summit triggered one, and the external device triggers the other.
Like the Peak desktop synth, control over the Summit has been kept as hands-on as possible. So, while the Summit is visibly larger, longer, and overall more refined than the Peak, the basic controls look and feel familiar. There is one noticeable addition to the front panel of the Summit, and that is the voice section. The voice section lets you choose from five modes, including poly and mono, with additional glide controls.
The front panel is dominated mainly by the oscillators, which can be modulated simultaneously. The oscillators are positioned one above the other on the panel, with fine-tuning options, and control over intensity and depth.
A shape dial is what lets you adjust and alter the shape of the waveform. As you make adjustments, you can boost or decrease harmonic character. Changing the harmonic character can be done manually via the shape dial or modulated via envelope one or LFO one. You end up with envelope or LFO one modulating shape and envelope or LFO two modulating pitch.
The LFO and envelope sections can be found on the right side of the front panel. LFO controls cover type, range, and fade time. Fade time is a lovely way to fade the effect in/out for smoother transitions when needed. New to Summit, are the global controls for the third and fourth LFOs. These global controls can have a dramatic impact on your patch, so use them wisely.
Due to the Summit being significantly larger than the Peak, there are some functions of the Peak that are only now able to have hands-on control. For example, the FM section where you can modulate the frequency of one oscillator with another. There are three controls in this section, and each offers a different combination of oscillators. It’s an incredible addition to the Summit that creates some spectacular electro-goodness, that’s a word, right?
Much of the Summit’s easy-going workflow is owed to the screen. Before we say anything positive, we will say this; you might not like its position. For whatever reason, Novation chose to place the screen quite far left rather than central. Let’s be honest, it’s not a huge issue, but we are musicians, and we like to complain at times. With that being said, the screen is a joy to use, and the dedicated buttons on the left help you change between tabs/menus/pages quickly. When you are adjusting any given parameter, the screen displays what you are doing. But, when you stop, it cleverly reverts to the menu.
Another simple but effective thing that makes the Summit a joy to use is the color-coding of certain buttons. Spend a little time with the Summit, and you’ll be whizzing around functions like you’ve had it for years.
Effects and arpeggiator
The overdrive and distortion that we mentioned is such a nice chunk of analog warmth. However, the global digital effects are not too shabby either. Digital effects include chorus, delay, and reverb – the reverb is particularly nice. Thanks to the Summit’s new audio inputs, you can also route external signals through the digital effects.
The arpeggiator is another area that shows something the Peak synth could already do but adds physical controls. The physical controls cover arpeggiator types, gate, and rhythms. The Summit has so many star qualities that the arpeggiator isn’t likely to be the thing you talk about most. It has 33 patterns, it’s not going to blow you away, but it won’t disappoint either. In fact, it’s distinctly average in comparison to any similar synth. The difference is that most don’t have the hands-on control, and any boost to your workflow is a game changer.
Playing the Summit
First, we should mention how good the build quality is, it’s top-class. The 61-note keyboard is very nice to play, and it feels more high-end than previous Novation synths. The keyboard is velocity-sensitive and pressure-sensitive, and the aftertouch is exceptionally responsive. As well as the conventional performance modifiers, there are two assignable animate buttons. The animate modulation buttons are a great way to inject some randomness into your sound if you feel it’s starting to stagnate a little.
The best thing about playing this synth is how easy it is to navigate. Not only the front panel that we covered but the speed in which you can be gig-ready with absolutely stunning sounds.
Depending on who you ask, using preset patches isn’t really the cool thing to do, but the presets on the Summit are absolutely gorgeous. Whether it’s the bass tones that are a clear nod to the Novation Bass Station or huge swirling pads, they have a unique identity. There are no throw away sounds on this synth, nothing is just run of the mill.
One of the amazing things about the pad sounds, in particular, is the amount of movement you can generate with oscillator/filter divergence. To be more specific, it’s the amount of movement you can create while still sounding entirely musical, and not falling into an abyss of noise. There is a feeling of control with the Summit that you don’t get with many other synths.
It’s definitely a performers synth and built for the stage. There is no doubt that it can do everything it needs to in the studio, but with how easily you can create one stunning patch after another, it would be a crime not to take it on stage. It’s not even just about the sounds; it’s the fact that it opens up your own creativity and doesn’t limit you. With the Summit, you are able to experiment on stage in a way you might be too timid to try with other synths.
For all the control you get, if you crank your speakers and blast out one of the enormous layered unison voices – it will blow a hole in the wall. It can do the lot.
Connectivity, in general, has been considerably improved since the release of the Peak. You get MIDI in, out, and thru along with USB MIDI. There are stereo quarter-inch outputs and stereo quarter-inch aux outputs. It also has stereo quarter-inch inputs, CV in, and two pedal inputs.
- Premium keyboard feel.
- Superb build quality.
- Intuitive design.
- Endless modulation options.
- Lovely analog filter modes and dual filter modes.
- Increased connectivity since Peak release.
- OLED display could be more central.
- Mod matrix routing needs some menu-diving.
The Novation Summit is a prime example of what a high-end polysynth should be. It does the simple things well, and it makes complicated things simple to achieve. It’s an absolute joy to play, from the way it feels right through to the stunning sounds. Any electronic musician, whether you are on the lighter or darker side of electronica, needs to check this synth out. It’s a performer’s dream; Novation has genuinely raised the bar for gig-ready synths. It’s an absolute powerhouse.
James is a writer and musician with a passion for audio production. He is a lover of all things tech, especially the latest keyboards, synths, DAW’s, virtual instruments, and effects plugins. Musical interests include jazz, funk, hip hop, blues, and rock.