REVIEW: TC Electronic Nova System Limited

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TC Electronic’s Nova System is one of the company’s most popular offerings and it’s pretty easy to see why. It combines many of the same kinds of high-quality effects, intuitive operation and bulletproof construction that you might find in the venerable G-System, but in a smaller, more backpack-friendly configuration. The original Nova System – which you can buy here –has found its way onto stages all over the world with artists of the calibre of Chris Cornell guitarist Peter Thorn and solo artist/Guns ‘n’ Roses axeman Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal, and the Nova System Limited pays tribute to these high-profile gentlemen via the inclusion of several of their personal presets. And the ‘Limited’ in the name is quite apt: only 1200 will be produced. So if you want one, get on it!

But before we get to the presets and sounds, let’s look at the specs. At the heart of any good multi-effect unit is its distortion. Yet this is where a lot of similar units fall down: they tend to offer digital recreations of analog distortion sounds, and I don’t know about you but sometimes I could swear that I can hear the spaces between the digital bits. I don’t know if I have Matrix hearing or what. But the Nova System Limited uses NDT – Nova Drive Technology – to create all-analog programmable overdrive and distortion sounds which can be controlled digitally via the presets and an optional expression pedal. Aside from all that juicy distortion there are six effect blocks taken straight from the G-System: Compression, EQ/Noise Gate, Modulation, Pitch, Delay and Reverb.

Compressor modes are Sustaining, Percussive and Advanced, the latter offering finer control over all parameters compared to the siimpler Drive, Response and Level settings of the other two modes. Modulation effects include Phaser, Tremolo, Panner, Chorus, Flanger and Vibrato. Pitch effects are Detune (think of it as a chorus that doesn’t wobble), Whammy, Octaver, Pitch Shifter and Intelligent Pitch Shifter. Delay types include Clean, Analog, Tape, Dynamic, PingPong, Dual and Spillover. Reverb types include Spring, Hall, Room and Plate.

There are two selectable foot switch layouts (Preset, which lets you select sound combinations, and Pedal, which allows you to treat the Nova System Limited like a pedalboard – a really tidy, bulletproof, integrated monster pedalboard with a cool screen). There are two inputs: Drive and Line. Use the Drive input to use the programmable analog drive section, or use the Line input for using the Nova System in an amp’s effect loop for its pitch, modulation and time-based effects. There are balanced stereo outputs, digital outputs, MIDI in/out/thru, and a jack for the optional G-Switch extension. Controls include various effect select buttons, four algorithm select buttons, store, levels and menu buttons, and four knobs which correspond to effect parameters on the backlit LCD screen. It’s pretty easy to get around. The unit itself feels absolutely professional and road-ready in every way, and it’s a bit bigger than it looks in photos. I was actually kinda surprised when I lifted it out of the box and realised it was about 1 1/2 times the size I expected it to be after checking it out online a few months earlier.

There are several routing options for your effects within the Nova System Limited: Serial, Semi Parallel and Parallel. In Serial mode, the effects (Boost, Modulation, Pitch, Delay, Reverb and EQ) are connected one after the other in that order. In Semi Parallel mode the effects are in Serial configuration until they leave the Pitch block. From there the Delay and Reverb are split into Parallel, then the signal is recombined in the EQ block. In Parallel mode, the Modulation, Pitch, Delay and Reverb effects are all in Parallel. The Drive, Compression, Noise Gate and Pre-Volume are all in series (with the Tuner coming off in parallel after the Compressor.

In addition to Thal and Thorn’s presets there are a further 20 by TC Electronic’s guitar product specialist and demonstrator Russell Gray, including presets inspired by artists like U2, Pink Floyd and Van Halen. The sound quality is, of course, incredible. Everyone knows TC’s effects (especially delay and pitch) are great but the real surprise here is the dynamic range and punch of the distortions and overdrives. There are only two effects, Distortion and Overdrive, wach with only Gain, Tone, Level and Boost Level controls (up to 10dB), but these give you plenty of programmable options. The Overdrive has plenty of warmth and dynamism, from lightly dirtying up your sound to getting some pretty convincing amp-like crunch and singing leads. The Distortion effect gets much raunchier and is more compressed.

TC Electronic’s delay effects are legendary, especially their delays and reverbs so it’s great to have them at your feet like this. I particularly like the Dual delay setting, which lets you set, say, a quick slapback delay on one side and a longer one locked to the tempo on the other. 80s heaven. The Intelligent Pitch Shifter is also lots of fun, and as long as you have a little bit of theory knowledge it’s pretty easy to dial in the required key and scale. The Octave effect is the only letdown for me – not that the effect itself is bad or anything, but personally I prefer to run my actual octave pedal before my distortion rather than after it, and there’s just no option to do that within the Nova System Limited.

The Nova System Limited sounded great using the Line input through my amp’s effects loop, especially the pitch shifter, delay and reverb sounds. But perhaps what surprised me the most was that it sounded great through my Marshall’s front end using the Drive input. I’m used to using my amp’s inbuilt distortion instead of pedals and I usually prefer to run my delays and reverbs through the loop. It usually sounds much more ‘real’ that way. But the Nova System Limited sounds fully authentic and ‘right’ when used in the front end of with a clean channel.

From a practical standpoint, changing between presets is a little fiddly so it’s best that you thoroughly read the manual before taking this thing on stage. It took me a little while to figure out how to get from one preset to another, so I probably wouldn’t take the Nova System Limited out for a gig within a week or so of first buying it. But a little bit of couch time with a manual and some coffee is a very small price to pay for such killer tone.

I’m sure that if the Nova System Limited can handle life on stage with Guns ‘n’ Roses, it can handle anything. This is a fully professoinal piece of kit with incredible processing power, killer tone and a multitude of options for how you use it.

Link: TC Electronic