Novation and Aphex Twin’s limited-edition Bass Station II embraces the weird

The most immediate difference here is the design. But this isn’t just an aesthetic change, the labels have been completely revamped to make all the latest features easily accessible — you no longer have to remember that function and a double press of the second F# key is how you enable AFX Mode overlays.

Novation AFX Station

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

This might seem like a minor change, but trust me it makes a world of difference. The Bass Station interface is already pretty complex. So piling hidden features on top could make it quite intimidating to a novice. It’s one of the reasons why I hesitated to recommend it in my beginners guide to buying a synth. (That and the $440 asking price put it a bit above what we considered “entry level.”)

The overall look is also quite a bit darker and more modern. The somewhat dated boxy blue and black has been replaced with a retro black and white scheme, featuring pixelated fonts and purple highlights. The whole thing has an 80s computer vibe. The body is still bulky and boxy; you can definitely tell this isn’t an instrument designed in 2020, but the facelift makes feel more current. To be fair, unlike a lot of other mainstream synths out there, the Bass Station has full sized keys. And honestly, I’d gotten so used to minikeys, which I’d almost forgotten what playing on full sized keys was like.

The whole thing also comes in a special limited edition box with art designed by frequent Aphex Twin collaborator Weirdcore.

Novation AFX Station

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

To complete the package, the AFX Station is preloaded with the latest firmware and AFX Mode already installed. This adds features like extended sub oscillator controls and glide diverge (meaning the two oscillators will glide to a target note at different rates). More importantly, it adds what Novation calls “overlays,” which essentially let you create a different synth patch on each key (almost like sample locking). This enables you to play crazy glitchy leads and bass lines that mutate with every note and even turn the Bass Station into a full fledged drum machine. It’s one of the most unique features I’ve ever seen on a synth.

Rounding out the updates are seven new overlays (you can have eight in total) and 128 new presets from artists likes Noyze Lab, Richard Devine, Lightbath, rbeny and Perplex On. While there are plenty of classic leads, basses and even a few pads. A lot of the new patches play to the Bass Station’s weird side and new rhythmic characteristics.

I know that AFX Mode is basically a year old at this point, but I hadn’t had a chance to use it in person until now. And I’ve got to say it’s even more impressive than I expected. It’s just insanely fun to jam with and create crazy glitchy rhythmic parts on. It’s not often I find myself just getting lost in crafting drum parts, but I could easily spend hours just creating organized chaos.

Keeping track of your overlays can get pretty complicated, but Novation added a manager to their Components software tool which does help a bit.

Considering the updated look, exciting new presets and feature complete interface, it’s clear the AFX Station is the version of the Bass Station II to get. Especially since it’s the same price — $440.