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(Originally posted in guitar4christ.com forum, Aug 2008)

I’ve been putting this off for the longest time, since I’ve been writing a lot at work and don’t particularly relish the thought of doing more writing during my downtime after work. Also, I realised that a two-paragraph review wasn’t going to do the Nova System any justice so I’ve taken my time to piece together this somewhat lengthy review. It doesn’t cover all the dirty details – but I don’t think I should regurgitate stuff that’s already on the official website.

Anyway, I’ve quietly gone out to get this pedal and have been field-testing it for the past month or so, which should explain my long silence in the forum. As such, a review is most certainly in order, to record some of my impressions and thoughts about this unit

Straight up, I cannot possibly express how bowled over I am by this product and that’s no mean feat, considering that I’ve been averse to multi-effects pedals for the longest time ever, plus I’ve been quite desensitised to most new gear of late. There seriously has been very little coming out recently that’s impressed me or even raised an eyebrow – but the Nova System really had me impressed and wanting more. That I actually spent the time and effort to do up this long review is testimony enough!

I bought this unit to replace my delay and modulation section, after rationalising that having forked out a great deal of money for my delay and trem I might as well fork out a little more to get a unit that features solid delays, a decent trem, and some other modulation effects and reverbs that I might have use for some time down the road. Given that I do cover quite a lot of musical ground in my various bands and gigs, having the ability to call up effects that I don’t use very often on the spot is very useful and has been a secret wish that I’ve had, especially whenever I find myself wanting to throw a bit of chorus or phase on a song – effects which I had dropped from my board years ago.

I also bought this unit in the hopes that I could use it as a abbreviated pedalboard for rehearsals, smaller shows and overseas travel, but this would have been contingent on whether the drive section was actually convincing enough to suffice. More on that later.

Having put this unit through this paces in various situations, I think I am comfortable enough to talk about it for a bit. I ran this unit at home-practice levels, used it as a standalone and in combination for several rehearsals, and used it for a number of shows at the Esplanade, Singfest, Far East Plaza, NUS and ACS(I). I also ran it direct into the house when I led worship in church (sacrilege, I know but I wanted to try out its speaker sim capability).

CURRENT SETUP

In my full setup, I run the Nova System at the end of a signal chain that looks like this: Guitar > Jacques Trinity Filter > Lovepedal Eternity > Jetter Gainstage Gold > Jetter Gainstage Blue > BOSS PS-3 > Nova System > Amp / D.I. In this setup, I run into the Nova System’s “line” input, which bypasses the drive section (drive-pass input!). I usually run a mono out into an amp, though I did run a stereo out to a second amp during my show at Far East, as we were only running vocals through the monitors and my drummer needed to hear my guitar – hence the second amp, which was turned around to face him.

EASE OF USE
This unit has to be one of the most easy to use multifx pedals I’ve ever had. I started out on multifx 10 years ago with my trusty old Digitech RP6, and have been messing around with the various offerings from ZOOM, BOSS and Line 6 over the years. Having some familiarity with how to access and edit sounds from multifx pedals helps a lot, and from the first day I tried the Nova System out at Blackwood Guitars I was able to access most functions and edit patches with hardly any reference to the manual. Bringing the unit home, I was immediately up and running, setting global levels and programming presets before I’d even touched the instruction manual. Still, the manual does include some important information that is helpful in getting the unit set up – such as telling you where the clip indicator is, that the unit still reads and reflects string tuning even when the tuner is bypassed (nice!), and that the unit does not automatically sense when you switch inputs (not so nice).

Very helpfully, the unit allows you to store 4 presets for each effects block – which basically means you can store your 4 favourite delay variations, or 4 favourite drive variations etc and recall them on the fly when building presets. This proved to be a real time-saver when having to create presets from scratch. All I needed to do was to audition every effect variation within an effect block, tweak to taste and save under one of the 4 effect block presets. Again, it was pretty intuitive and easy to do this – I didn’t need the manual to tell me that I could do this, and I just inferred this feature from studying the front panel of the unit.

EFFECTS
OK, now for the stuff that everyone really wants to read about! I’ll run through the various effects blocks and talk a bit about what I like and don’t like about each.

DRIVE
The one thing that everyone is probably dying to know – can the Nova System’s Drive section make it? The short of it is that the Nova System has one of the most convincing drive sections I’ve heard from a multifx pedal in a long time. Compared to individual drive pedals though, the Nova System’s drive section is fairly decent and can be passable for rehearsals and shows where you don’t need balls-to-the-wall drive. The drive section features and Overdrive and Distortion, which basically features varying amounts of gain. The OD gets you from light blues dirt to punch rock n roll, and the Distortion does get pretty nasty at full-tilt, just shy of full-on sludge. There’s lots of gain on tap, but the drives generally still maintain some politeness and smoothness, except at higher gain settings for the Distortion. However what I do find lacking in the drives is the rich harmonic content that you can get from single pedals. Having been spoilt by my Jetters and Lovepedal, plus having played a good number of boutique drives over the past few years, I do find the extra harmonic content and overall boutique goodness of single pedals rather hard to live without. As such, I only use the onboard drive for rehearsals or for settings where having a quality drive is not my major concern.

COMPRESSOR
I’ve shunned compressors for years, since I found the compressor that I had been using at the time to really suck tone and kill my playing dynamics. Needless to say this really wasn’t an effect that I was intending to use. However, I did try it out and was pleasantly surprised to find the compressor very natural-sounding and musical. It added sustain, warmth and body to my guitar sound. It did kill a tiny bit of dynamics, but its not noticeable in a live situation. Definitely an effect I will be using more often.

REVERB
Reverbs turned out a tad disappointing. Whilst they are extremely tweakable, they still had a very artificial sound. Great for those post-rock explosions in the sky moments, but not something that I’d employ for subtle texture.

PITCH
The Octave function is a real blast to use – definitely something to threaten the bassists with! But the real winner is the detune function, which produces a shimmery chorus that I use more often than the actual chorus effect in the modulation block! Again, another surprising effects block that I found myself using more than I had initially imagined.

MODULATION
As expected, this pedal features some really great modulations. I experimented with all the variations but ended up really using the chorus and tremolo a lot. The chorus is lush, watery and warbly – but can get really out of control real fast. Also, doesn’t quite take you into uni-vibe territory, though I found that the vibrato and pitch-detune in combination can give a nice uni-vibe warble. The tremolo is pretty solid, not as tweakable as I’d like. Also doesn’t feature a boost function, which most modern tremolos feature (think Empress, Cusack et al) to overcome the perceived drop in level when the effect is kicked in. Still, nothing that a bit of judiciously applied drive or compression can’t overcome.

DELAY
The real star of the show is the delay block. Whilst not exactly very comprehensive, the delay section does feature some very meat-and-potatoes settings like Clean (digital), Analog, Tape, as well as some extras like Ping Pong, Dynamic and Dual delay. As expected, these are your classic TC delays, big, expansive, very tweakable and usable. As a certified delay junkie, these delays definitely deliver the goods and give you the entire gamut of delays, from your arena-rock U2 dotted eighths, to rockabilly slapback, the delay section does not disappoint. The only grouse that I have is a lack of modulation on delay repeats, something I’d grown accustomed to having on my DD20. Still, I can always use the pitch-detune function to make up for it. Or I can always do Frisell-style neck bends, which are always fun to do.

BOOST
The clean boost does exactly that – clean boost. It works as it should, and has proven very handy in situations where I need just that extra bit of kick for epic solos.

TAP TEMPO
Tap tempo isn’t exactly an effect, but I should mention it here. It works as advertised – and all the time-based effects like trem, delays etc can be adjusted to convert the tapped tempo into various rhythmic subdivisions. My main grouses with the tap tempo is that its rather inconveniently placed, and that – like all the pedals – it only activates when you release the switch, not when you press down on it. More on this whole release-activation later.

GOING DI?
A note must be made about the speaker sim, for those of you about to rock / go D.I. I ran my guitar straight into the house the last time I led worship in church. Clean sounds were pretty decent, but drives sounded muddy, lacked body and harmonic content. However, this worked well for the setup that day, since the other guitarist was running her Rickenbacker fairly bright through a Fender amp. Generally, the speaker sim seems like a basic EQ algorithm that rolls off some high end from the guitar sound – the next time I run DI I’ll probably experiment with using a global EQ, rather than using the speaker sim.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE NOVA SYSTEM
Essentially, what I really love about the Nova System is that it gathers some really great sounding effects and puts them in a single, relatively compact and easy to use unit. In the spirit of the G-System, the Nova System cuts out the amp simulation stuff that most multifx units just can’t pull off convincingly and focuses on its core competency of packaging studio rack-quality effects. The effects sound great, and its allowed me to access effects that I don’t normally use and expand my tonal palette. And whilst the unit isn’t true bypass, the AD/DA conversion is as good as any other TC rack unit and I don’t feel like I’m losing much tone.

WHAT I DON’T LOVE ABOUT THE NOVA SYSTEM
Just so it doesn’t sound like i’m gushing all about the Nova System, here are some bugbears I have with the unit.

Drive section isn’t convincing enough. Its passable for some applications, but if I were going overseas, I’d pack in an additional drive pedal for good measure.

Speaker sim is somewhat disappointing, though the EQ section should make up for it.

The unit doesn’t automatically detect which input I am using, and I have to manually set the unit for Line, Drive or Digital. Not a big deal, but I think its inexcusable on a unit with this price and pedigree.

NO USB PORT!! In order to load the software update for this unit, I had to source for a USB-MIDI convertor. Not wanting to shell out the bucks for the appropriate cable, I had to connect my M-Audio Radium 49, and run the MIDI out from the keyboard into my Nova System. It was a bit of a hassle, especially since my MIDI cable is a bit short. Its an inconvenience I’d bear if its something I’d do only once in a while – and given TC’s track record of issuing software updates, it sure looks that way.

No software editor. Not that I’d die without one, but having one sure would make a lot of difference in editing, naming and organising patches. But then again, without a USB port, a software editor would be too much hassle anyway.

Patches / effects trigger on switch release. Whilst I can understand why this is so for the other footswitches, since at least half of them have a press-and-hold secondary function, it is a bit disconcerting at the very least, and requires a fair period of relearning and coordination. However I find this quirk particularly annoying for tap tempo, since I’m so accustomed to tapping in the right tempo on the “downstroke” and not the “upstroke”, which is significantly harder to do.

Pedals not reassignable. Would have preferred if pedals could be reassigned to the player’s preferred layout – e.g. Would have appreciated having the mod, delay and tap tempo on the lower row.

Build Quality. The unit is generally well built, though a week in, the Compressor footswitch dropped into the unit during a rehearsal. Thankfully this was only a rehearsal and not a live show! I was able to gingerly open the unit up and screw the footswitch back in. But once again, for a unit of this price and pedigree, very inexcusable.

BOTTOM LINE

The TC Electronic Nova System is a relatively well-built mid-high end multifx floor unit that cuts the crap and brings you quality effects that you can actually use, the most convincing drive section I’ve heard in a multifx to date, and great AD/DA conversion. Well worth the price I paid for it, and definitely something worth keeping, even if I do move on and change my setup.

[2013 Update] – Despite that last paragraph, which I wrote 5 years ago, I sold the Nova System in favour of a seperate TC Electronic pedals (Nova Delay and Nova Modulation). Which I also sold not long after. I let all these pedals go because I figured that I needed gear that was more immediate, stuff that I could tweak on the fly, stuff that didn’t require me to browse through several menus to adjust. I realised that in SIngapore, where I don’t get a consistent or regular backline for every gig, I end up having to tweak patches to suit the amps that I get for every show… which results in a fair bit of menu-switching and patch-saving that tends to eat up all that precious soundcheck time.

That said, having settled down a lot more since that post, and having reviewed some live recordings of shows I’ve done with the TC Nova System on my board, I can definitely say that I’ve not enjoyed such pristine delays and lush modulations as when I was using the Nova System. If given a chance, I’d definitely use the Nova System again for smaller shows or fly dates… if I ever get to do overseas shows again. Fat chance, given that I’m a father now!

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