TC Electronic Nova System Review
The Nova System is a studio-quality digital multi-effects unit with analog distortion/overdrive. It seems designed for those seeking high-quality digital effects in a convenient, compact, road-worthy unit.
What It Has
The Nova System has two types of analog distortion (overdrive, distortion), three types of compressors (percussion, sustain, advanced), EQ, noise gate, six types of modulation effects (chorus, flanger, vibrato, phaser, tremolo, panner), five types of pitch effects (pitch shifter, octave, whammy, detune, intelligent pitch shift), six types of delay (clean, analog, tape, dynamic, ping-pong, dual), four types of reverb (spring, hall, room, plate), boost, and tap tempo. It also has a built-in tuner.
What It Doesn’t Have
The Nova System is not a modeler. There are no amp or cabinet models. However, it does have a speaker simulator so it can be used direct into a PA or recording rig. There is also no wah effect. If you want wah, you need to add a wah pedal.
The Nova System has two basic operating modes (pedal, preset) and a third “hybrid” mode if you add the optional Switch-3 pedal.
In Preset mode the The Nova System allows you to select from 60 user presets and 30 factory presets. As with most multi-effects units, many of the factory presets are “over the top” effects showing what the unit is capable of. Although there are several that make good starting points for your own tweaking. There are 20 user banks with 3 presets slots available for storing your own presets. Each preset can contain up to seven effects, one from each of these categories: drive, compression, EQ, modulation, pitch, delay, and reverb. You use the two switches on the left of the unit to bank up or down, and the remaining three switches on the lower row to change presets. This is a good mode to set up presets for individual songs and then switch presets between songs.
In Pedal mode the Nova System acts like a pedalboard with seven effects that you can turn on and off individually. In Pedal mode, the Nova System still allows you to change presets by holding down the bank buttons. So you could set up 60 different pedalboards with seven effects each and switch between them all. If you just need a few of the same effects for a gig, this is the mode to use.
If you add the optional Switch-3 (formerly called G-Switch) pedal you can use the Switch-3 pedal to change presets and still turn on and off effects individually. This is the best of both modes since you can set up both presets and pedalboards, and use both. However, the trade-off is you loose the option of using an expression pedal since there is only one pedal jack.
Without making this review impossibly long by describing each effect, I will simply say that TC Electronic is well-known for its studio-quality effects, and as expected the Nova System excels at clean effects. The reverbs and delays are pristine and lush. Some of the modulation effects do have a digital quality to them, but you can make them more analog sounding by tweaking the HiCut and Mix controls. The warmth many guitarists love from analog effects (and tube amps) really comes from them being more “low-fi” than “hi-fi”. Digital effects are very high fidelity, so cutting the high frequencies can help warm them up. I really like the phaser, it is warm and swirly like a good phaser should be.
The pitch effects allow you do some very cool things including octaves and key based harmonies. The intelligent harmonies allow you to choose a key and scale type/mode with up to three voices. It won’t fool anyone into thinking three guitars are playing, but it is a very cool effect and can allow one guitar player to do a passable Thin Lizzy “twin leads” impression.
I have to admit I was a little disappointed at first with the analog overdrive/distortion section, but that was due to my own expectations. I was hoping for a more tube-like overdrive. Instead it sounds more like a analog distortion pedal, which makes perfect sense because that is what it is. I was able to tweak some usable rhythm tones from it, but I think it is much better at adding distortion and gain to an already overdriven tube amp than simulating a tube amp in a preset. I prefer to think of it as a bonus distortion pedal thrown in for free and have come to use it and enjoy it for boosting solos.
The Nova System is more of a “lab coat” effects unit than a user-friendly pedal. While editing is fairly straight forward, you select an effect and use knobs to edit parameters on the display screen (using a menu to access all the parameters), the parameter values themselves are usually frequencies, dBs, and percentages. You really need to experiment and listen while you make changes. It can be intimidating to those used to twisting knobs from 0 - 10. But in exchange you get a lot of control over the effects.
You can also save four variations of each type of effect using four “variation” buttons. This makes it easy to add favorite effects setting to new presets.
I have "road tested" the Nova System in three very different bands. Playing in my jazz band, I needed mainly a few clean effects (especially reverb) to go with my solid state Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight amp. I created a “pedalboard” preset with reverb, delay, phaser, drive and boost. I put the Nova System in Pedal mode and turn on and off the effects as needed. I use the Boost switch when I switch between rhythm and lead playing. I have two additional preset next to it (slots 2 & 3) I can switch to if need. One for solo chord melody playing and one with some extra echo. On the few songs I need overdrive I use the overdrive section of the amp. I add the Drive pedal on the Nova system to the overdrive section of the amp to take me into the “soaring lead” zone.
For my cover band I use a Mesa Express 5:25+ tube amp with two channels (and boost) for my basic clean and overdriven tones. I use the Nova System in hybrid mode. I have three “pedalboard” patches setup. Each with six different effects that I can switch on and off individually as needed. I have a three switch pedal that allows me to instantly switch between the three “pedalboard” patches I use for this band, giving me easy access to 18 effects in a very small package. When I need a wah, I use a separate Dunlop Crybaby 95Q wah pedal.
For playing at church, I use a similar setup as with my cover band, but I have a different pedalboard setup and more individual song presets for delays, etc. I put the Nova system in pedalboard mode or preset mode depending on the songs in the set list. And if I am going direct into the PA I use a Blackstar HT-Dual tube distortion pedal to get tube amp overdrive, and turn on the Nova System’s speaker emulation.
One thing worth mentioning here is that the switches on the pedal operate in “on release” mode. That means you can step on a switch and nothing happens until you take your foot off of the switch. This is the opposite of almost every other pedal out there. It takes some getting used to. You can step on an effect before you need it and then release the switch when you want it, but it just seems backwards to me. I don’t understand this design decision, but it seems like TC Electronic is not going to (or can’t) change it.
There is a slight delay when switching presets in Preset mode so it is best to switch presets between songs. There is no delay when turning individual effects on and off in Pedal mode.
The Nova System has an external pedal jack that allows you hook up either the Switch-3 pedal or an expression pedal. The expression pedal can be assigned to presets allowing you to control effect parameters such as the whammy effect, volume level, tremolo rate, etc. Unfortunately, you have to choose between the Switch-3 and an expression pedal. You can’t use both.
The Nova System has MIDI for those who want to control it using a MIDI switching pedal. It can also be used to save/backup presets, variations, and SysEx files to your computer (using a MIDI interface).
The manual included with the Nova System is not great. It gives you only a minimum explanation of the unit’s features and how to use it. Fortunately, TC Electronic has several videos on its website that show you step-by-step how to use most of the functions of the Nova System.
The Nova System is a powerful effects unit with great sounding delays, reverbs, and clean effects. The tone of the overdrive/distortion effect is more like an analog distortion pedal than a tube amp, but it works great for adding distortion and gain to an already overdriven tube amp, and for boosting solos. It is built like a tank and uses a standard power cord (no wall wart.) The two operating modes make it useful in different settings. It has some quirks like release switching and only one pedal jack, and you will need to spend considerable time with it learning to edit effects and to discover all it can do. But if you are looking for a compact way to add several great clean effects to your rig, or a compact pedalboard replacement for smaller gigs, the Nova System is a worthy contender.