The Nova System


For electric guitarists, finding the right guitar is only one side of the coin, the other half is what sort of effects system into which to run your guitar. The war between multi-effects and stand-alone foot paddles has been waging since time immemorial. Nearly every guitarist has at one time or another vacillated between multi-effect pedals and stand-alone pedals. Every year, you see hundreds of new brands and new foot pedals; at the same time, new brands and new models of multi-effects hits the market at no less frequency. So in the end, what is the best choice? Should I use all foot pedals? Or should I just a single multi-effect pedal? Or a combination of the two? If you want to know what I think, read on.


Foot Pedals

I start off by putting the pros and cons of the two animals on the table. Foot pedals are simple and easy to use. You can learn to use it with a minimum amount of time. The controls of foot pedals take the form of knobs. Twitching them will give you different results. If all you need is just a single foot pedal, say for example, an overdrive, that is fine, you won't have any problem. The foot pedal will be the best thing for you.

But what if you boost up certain passages in your solo to give it more grit? You need to add a boost pedal to your overdrive. What if you want some delay in your Minor Blues solo? And what if you want some chorus in your chord work? What if I want some phasing effect, some flanging effect, and some compression? And what if I want a pitch-shifter? And what if I need delay in some of my solos? You can easily end up with 10 or 12 pedals. The weight of all these pedals will become problem.

Another problem associated with using a myriad of foot pedals is this : each pedal is connect to the next with a small lead cable. The more effects you have, the more lead cables you will end up having. If any one of those cables in the chain goes wrong you are going to have a real problem, particularly if you are in the middle of a show. You will need to check each and every cable to find out which one wrong. But what if you are not sure what is wrong? What if the cause of the problem is not obvious (and 9 times out of 10 it isn't)? There is simply time for you to dismantle the whole thing, go through each effect and cable to find out what went wrong. You are stuck on stage, and your show is ruined. Believe me, I have been there before. Unless you have a roadie helping out, some goes wrong in the effects chain be your swan song.

An additional problem you have to deal with using a large number of pedals is power supply. Each foot pedal requires power in the form of a 9 volt battery. Few people use batteries these days, AC converted power supply is what most people use these days. 9 volts batteries are just not practicable anymore. You leave your cable in the input of the effect and the battery is drained. What if the battery drops dead in the middle of a show? Using AC converted power supply poses two problems : noise and instability. On the market you can find a small stand-alone plug that claims it can power up to 6 or 7 effects through the use of a daisy chain. That just doesn't work. The more effects you power, the more unstable the supply of power. On top of that, you often get a 'pop' when you switch between pedals. The more effects you have, the more noise you will end up having. The tone of your guitar will also change exponentially with the number of effects you use.



So given all the problems associated with foot pedals, let us all use multi-effects and live happily ever after. Well, unfortunately that is not quite the case. There are just as many problems with with multi-effects albeit of a different but no less vexing nature.

With Multi-effects, you have a stand-alone unit in which you have multiple effects. There are no problems associated with lose cables, no problem with power supply (all of then require AC power). But the greatest draw back with multi-effects is the over all quality of the sound. Most multi-effect pedals sound stale and dead. The individual effects tends to give the guitar a nebulous and dubious tone. Some of the Amercian-made multi-effects sound so thin that your guitar sounds like coming out of a small transistor radio. There is a real problem with quality of effects in many multi-effects. But then and again, you have to look at what you are paying for. A top grade foot pedal can come up to half the price of a mulit-effect pedal. A great overdrive is the Eternity made by Lovepedal. Just that pedal alone will set you back for HK$2,000. You need a boost pedal. The Sparkle Drive made by Voodoo Lab is an excellent choice, but that will cost you something close to HK$2,000. With just the price of two pedals you will find you have a very good budget for most multi-effects you find on the market.

Another problem associated with multi-effects is handling. Manufacturers cram so many functions into one unit the user manuel becomes inches thick. These manuals are sometimes so brief as to be useless or some complicated you need a degree understand how it works. Adjusting individual effects have now becoming so difficult. It is no longer a matter of twitching a know. You have to get to the right page, the right patch, find the relevant parameters to adjust the effect. And you will have to know how to save it after you edit. It soon becomes a frustrating experience. Everything you want to make a simple adjustment you end up looking at the manuel.


The Nova System

I have never spent much time with multi-effects, foot pedals were my thing; until a few months ago that is. In the middle of the show, I started to get a buzz from my guitar. After a cursory, I could not find out what the problem was and I had to endure till the break. During break, I still couldn't find out what was the problem. The only way to find out is to check every effect, every cable and power supply line. I just did not have the time. I ended up plugging the guitar straight into the amp. By doing that, I lost a lot of colour in my music. So after that, I started looking again seriously into multi-effects. In the end, I bought the Nova System.

The Nova System in action in the Beijing Central Blues Bar

(the two foot pedals are a Samson Airline wireless and a Boss tuner)


The Nova System is made by a company called TC Electronic (nothing to do with me) and the company is based in Denmark. This European company made a multitude of signal process products for the guitar. The Nova System has a sister production similar in nature but for acoustic guitars. The Nova System comes in a very handsome and well-thought out metal box with a gradient. All the effect knobs look strong and durable. The is a light below each knob and one of them flashes non-stop on the thing is powered up. The Nova system contains these effects :-

Drive : Overdrive and Distortion

Compression : Sustaining, Percussive and Advanced

EQ & Noise Gate

Modulation : Phaser, Tremelo, Panner, Chorus, Flanger, Vibrato

Pitch : Detune, Whammy, Octaver, Pitch Shifter, Intelligent Pitch Shifter

Delay : Clean, Analog, Tape, Dynamic, PingPong, Dual, Spillover

Reverb : Spring, Hall, Room and Plate

At a mere glance you can see the Nova System is intended as an all-embracing multi-effect; from drive to reverb to pitch change, it simply has everything. And a tuner is also included. Now that is everything on paper. The most important thing is how it sounds when plugged in.

To my ear, all the modulating effects, the delay, the pitch shifting effects, the reverb, EQ and Noise Gate all work very well. By saying they work very well, what I mean is compared to other similar multi-effects unit on the market, the Nova System comes out on top without any problem. Unlike so many other similar multi-effects, the Nova System sounds solid when you have the various effecting operating. You guitar does not sound thinner than a piece of paper. You can hear the various effects well as opposed to a nebulous sound you get on some effects.

The handling of the various effects is also quite good. Once you get the hang of the basics, you should be able to adjust the parameters of the effects quite easily. There is one problem though. The Nova System can operate in Preset Mode or Pedal Mode. In Preset Mode, you can programme and save your settings and bring them back at any time. With Pedal Model, you simply use the Nova System as a series of foot pedals linked together. You turn on the ones you want. But there two problematic areas here :-

1. A problem arises when you want to switch between the pedal mode and the preset mode. You need to press two button simultaneously to change the Nova System from one mode to another mode. This is quite impossible in a live situation. Well, if not impossible, at least difficult.

2. You cannot switch between different modulating effects at will. With the Nova System, you start off with choosing a modulating effect, say, chorus. Now if you step on the modulating foot button, you will be able to switch the chorus effect on and off. But what if I want to switch the chorus off and bring in the phaser? Well, you cannot do that with you feet. You need to bend down and turn the knob under the Modulating Effects to go to your phaser. This is not practicable during a performance. The only way to get over this is do it by preset. But that kind of defeats the whole purpose of having a pedal mode.


I seldom use the Preset Mode. What sounds good at your studio or at home will sound completely different when you use a different amp, and play in a room of a different size. Nine times out of ten, you need to re-adjust your presets to suit the situation on stage. This is where changing parameters become troublesome. With foot pedals, I can just turn a few knobs and change the sound completely. With the Nova System and indeed most multi-systems, you need to remember where and how to bring up the right patch, the right parameter and how to edit the individual effects or presets. You will have to bring your manuel with you if you are not sure. This is one big draw back using multi-effects. But this is the DNA of the animal, you cannot change that.


So How does the thing sound?

I think the Nova System is probably one of the best, if not the best, multi-effect you can get on the market. Basically all the effects, with the exception of the overdrive/distortion and the tuner (see below), all the effects are effective and efficacious : it does its job well albeit not with flying colours. Well you cannot expect the Nova System effects to sound as good as some of the pedal effects. The price of the Nova System is only U$499. And it has more or less everything. You pay for what you get. The effects, power supply and effect rack I now use cost me well over US$900 :-

Boss Tuner : US$99

Lovepedal Eternity : US$230

Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive : US$128

Boss Chorus Ensemble : US$79

MXR Phaser : US$80

Lelhe ABY Box (for patching to two guitar amps) : US$210

Modtone Power Supply : US$165

Pedaltrain : US$100


And I have yet to buy a delay to top it up. So I will end up spending over US$1,000. And I don't even have all the effects the Nova System offer, for example, a compressor, a phase shifter and reverb. But in this life you get what you pay for. On a one against one comparison, every single one of my pedal effects come out better that those offer by the Nova System. This is so even with the least expensive of my effects : the Boss Chorus Ensemble. But don't forget I paid a lot more. I would be surprised if the result is otherwise. I mean if the multi-effects are so good, the foot pedals would be extinct by now. There is one or two, if you like, in the Nova System that I find lacking in quality : the overdrive/distortion.


I play Blues and when I do a solo, I need dynamics, I need to feel and hear the different energy levels I put into the guitar. A good overdrive pedal, such as the Lovepedal Eternity, the amount of drive increases or decreases progressively with the volume knob on my guitar. But the overdrive effect in the Nova System is not sensitive enough to do this. For my kind of music, which requires grit and drive but also a high degree of transparency, I cannot find what I want in the Nova System. I find that there is only one or two spots on the gain of the overdrive on the Nova System that can give me something close to what I want. But if I turn down the gain down just one notch, there is not enough drive. If I turn it up one notch, the sound starts breaking up. If your are looking for a gritty sound on your guitar in that is s;slightly overdriven but yet not entirely clean, you will not find it in the Nova System. Well, I should say I can't find it, someone else may be able to find it. In my experience, with the Nova System, you either have the overdrive or you play clean. There is no middle ground.

One other area where there may be room for improvement is the built-in tuner. It is just not sensitive enough. I play a fair bit of slide guitar in open tuning, but the tuner is not sensitive enough to catch the notes when you try to tune to Open D.


Final Words

So is the Nova System no good at all ? Far from it : the Nova System is the best multi-effect on the market to date. For some players and for certain kinds of music, this machine is ideal. If you are playing modern Rock and all you need are power chords and overdrive or distortion solos on an even curve without a lot of changes in dynamics, the overdrive/distortion in the Nova System will be good enough. I also feel that the Nova System is ideal for intermediate players. For intermediate players, just getting right the difficult passages in their music is often a challenge, they simply do not have enough head room to appreciate how good the overdrive sounds. The Nova System is the ideal solution for these players : just plug and play. There is no point buying expensive equipment when you are struggling just to play right chords or solo notes on stage.

You can get the Nova System for around US$499. For that price, it is a real bargain. But if you are an advanced player playing music that require a lot changes in dynamics, foot pedals may a better choice.