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Clavia Nord Drum 2

Modelling Percussion Synthesizer
Published May 2014
By Mark Gordon

If the original Nord Drum was good, the sequel might just be perfect...

In 2012, Clavia made a somewhat unexpected return to their percussive roots with the release of the Nord Drum Virtual Analog Drum Synthesizer. I really enjoyed reviewing this innovative, unique and quite addictive little red box in the August 2012 issue of SOS. Its range of sounds was quite mind-blowing, and its feature set lent itself very much to live performance with its trigger inputs and easy, on-the-fly editing facilities. Great as it was, though, there were a few niggles that left me wishing for tweaks to bring the Nord Drum that little bit closer to perfection.

Two years later, I'm wondering whether my wish-list of tweaks might be answered by the Nord Drum 2. At first glance, it's almost identical to its predecessor, but closer inspection reveals a number of very welcome additions and enhancements, both physically and 'under the hood'.

The Nord Drum 2 is described by Clavia as a 'Modelling Percussion Synthesizer', a tag line that neatly sums up the product but only tells a fraction of the story. This surprisingly diminutive unit offers the user the ability to create and control an almost infinite number of drum and percussion sounds ranging from the classic to the truly indescribable, all derived via a wide range of real-time synthesis methods.

Sounds can be played via MIDI, the brand new Nord Pad or from almost any type of electronic drum pad or trigger through the trigger inputs. The well thought-out Nord Beat iPad app offers yet another alternative method of controlling this powerful sound source.

The Backside

The original Nord Drum had a four-channel design, meaning that it could only produce four simultaneous sounds. Although in practice this didn't hugely compromise usability, a couple more channels would certainly have been welcome. Hey presto, the Nord Drum 2The Nord Drum 2 Manager software. increases the channel count to six, and also adds two more quarter-inch jack trigger inputs on the rear of the unit, to bring that total to six too.

The other very welcome addition to the rear panel of the Nord Drum 2 is a second audio output. The single mono audio output on the original Nord Drum seemed a pretty serious oversight for a product of this type, so Nord have listened to their critics and included stereo analogue outputs on the new model. There is also a dedicated headphone socket (albeit a 3.5mm mini-jack type), so the spectacular sounds can be heard in full stereo.

As you might expect, the MIDI In and Out sockets and 12V PSU input remain unchanged, but what you might not expect to encounter is an RJ45 port. It's no surprise to find a USB socket on a piece of hi-tech equipment these days, but an Ethernet connection? Well, things may not be quite as they seem: the Nord Drum doesn't connect to your Local Area Network, and in fact the RJ45 connection is exclusively for directly connecting the new Nord Pad (which I'll come to later) to the Nord Drum 2, via a standard Ethernet cable, but using a proprietary protocol.

The Frontside

The front panel layout is very similar to that of the original Nord Drum, with eight parameter buttons spread across the middle of the unit. The increased number of editable parameters on the new model means that now every button has at least two, and occasionally three, functions, but these are very clearly labelled and easily accessed.

The Nord Drum's three-segment LED has expanded to four segments on the ND2, and there are now six sets of LEDs offering feedback on which of the six channels are selected for editing or are being triggered.

At the time of writing, the Nord Drum 2 has already seen a significant OS update which, in addition to a number of major enhancements in the sound-generation engine and MIDI implementation, also doubled memory capacity.While the Nord Drum 2 can accept trigger inputs from a variety of sources, the Nord Pad is only compatible with the Nord Drum 2 and cannot be used to trigger other instruments. The ND2 now has eight banks with 50 program locations in each. The first four banks contain the factory presets: Banks 1 and 2, 'Kits', feature lots of sounds of drum machines and acoustic-like kits; Bank 3 hosts tuned percussion sounds — marimbas, metals and string-like melodic percussion — and Bank 4 is entitled 'Fantasy Sounds'. The remaining four banks are left blank, so you can store your own programs without having to overwrite factory sounds.

The V2 update also introduced support for the new Nord Drum 2 Manager software (available as a download from the Nord web site) that lets you easily transfer and back up the Programs Banks between your Mac or PC and the Nord Drum 2.

Individual program banks can be sent via a MIDI connection, using the self-explanatory 'Send Bank to Drum' and 'Get Bank from Drum' buttons. I'm not sure it could be any easier! Not only does this allow for backup of drum banks to your computer, it also enables new drum banks to be loaded into the Nord Drum. Currently, just one new SoundBank, from Swedish Electronic Music Producer Beem, is available via the Nord web site, but I'm sure this number will increase over time.

The Inside

As with the original Nord Drum, all six channels of the Nord Drum 2 are identical in terms of their architecture and are based around three constituent parts — click, tone and noise — which are ultimately combined to produce the final drum sound.

Each of the three parts has editable parameters, the number of which has been increased for the ND2. The noise section (primarily a white-noise generator), where you can add bite and harshness, and perfect for creating hi-hat-type sounds, now features seven different filter types, each one affected by the Filter Frequency parameter. (A Filter Envelope parameter works dynamically with the Filter Resonance, adding emphasis around the cut-off frequency.)

The new Attack parameters are particularly interesting. In addition to a traditional Attack time, the Nord Drum 2 offers the option of adding a 'cyclical LFO' to the noise during the decay phase. Sawtooth, Inverted Sawtooth and Triangle waveforms can be applied, along with nine different 'Clap' settings, which add a short, reverb-type decay at the end of the LFO cycle. As these are applied during the decay phase of the noise generation, they are best used in conjunction with the Decay parameter, to create some truly exceptional and unique sounds.

The Tone section is really the 'meat' of the sound and has also been significantly enhanced by the inclusion of 33 source 'Waves' ranging from analogue-style Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth and Square through to FM, Harmonic modelling, Resonance Modelling, Drum Head resonance and Cymbals. This gives a huge tonal palette to work with, but is only the tip of the iceberg as far as sound creation is concerned.

Each waveform can be manipulated by a host of parameters. Many of them are expanded upon since the original Nord Drum, or entirely new, such as the intriguingly named Spectra, which allows you to 'stretch or tune the spectral components'! Using the Drum Head resonance models, you can tune the head separately from the body resonance.

The third and final component is the Click, ideal for adding attack to a voice. Here, the choice of sounds has been increased from 27 to 36 in the Nord Drum 2, covering everything from short, sharp pulses to clicks with significant tonal characteristics.

The method for mixing the levels of the three elements has changed slightly since the Nord Drum, which featured three dedicated buttons for Tone, Noise and Click respectively, enabling a level to be set for each. Now the Click parameter has its own level and the adjacent Mix button balances the levels between the remaining Tone and Noise parameters, like a pan control. It's different, but still very easy to use.

Another addition to the Nord Drum 2 is channel parameters that enable you to add effects to each of the six channels independently. There are two distortion modes, a single EQ band sweepable from 50Hz to 12kHz (+/- 24dB) andan Echo function with a number of variable repeat options. The speed of the Echo repeats is set simply via the Echo bpm button and dial, with a tempo range of 30 to 1000 bpm available. In practice, this means you can add distortion to a kick drum, EQ to a snare and different echo types to toms and hi-hats, all within a single program. Finally, a level control sets the individual channel (or drum) volume and, because the Nord Drum now features stereo output, a pan control is included to position the drum from left to right.

Mute Groups have been added to the Nord Drum 2, a handy (and quite familiar) feature that means sounds allocated to the same group cannot be played together. A slightly less familiar concept is that of Group Edit. With this mode, you can create a group of up to six channels that can then be edited simultaneously. Typically, you might want to change the decay or filter parameters of all the toms in a drum-kit patch. For the more melodic patches, Group Edit features a Group Scale mode, which applies a selection of tonal Scale presets to the selected channels. Being a drummer, the concept of scales and pitches (there's mention of Pentatonic and Hexatonic Augmented in the manual!) does pass me by a little, but the feature is extremely useful for quickly setting up different pitch relationships between pads.

Nord Pad

The Nord Drum 2 now boasts six trigger inputs which, like those of the original Nord Drum, can be attached to all manner of external drum pads and triggers. To make the most of these, Clavia have introduced the Nord Pad, a dedicated set of six rubber pads mounted on a sturdy metal base that connects to the Nord Drum 2 via the single RJ45 connection I mentioned earlier. It's worth making it clear that, in stark contrast to the almost infinite sources that can be connected to the trigger inputs of the Nord Drum 2, the Nord Pad is a dedicated unit that only works with the Nord Drum 2, via this rather unique connection.

Slightly smaller than you might expect, the Nord Pad is beautifully constructed and looks quite minimalist, with no knobs, buttons or controls of its own. Like the Nord Drum 2, it ships with a base plate, allowing it to be easily mounted onto a stand for live performance. When the Nord Pad is connected, all trigger inputs except for input 1 on the Nord Drum are disabled, the idea being that you can connect a separate kick-drum trigger alongside the Nord Pad.

The trigger inputs allow for individual setting of the trigger type, sensitivity and threshold, but when the Nord Pad is connected, all six pads are treated as a whole in terms of sensitivity and threshold, with the Trigger Type option limited to 'Hand' or 'Stick'. This doesn't limit the operation of the unit in any way, and crosstalk and false triggering are non-existent — which surprised me, as the pads offer a particularly hard playing surface.

As with the trigger inputs, playing on the Nord Pad not only plays sounds within the Nord Drum but also transmits MIDI data via the MIDI out to any connected sequencer or module. Although it's technically dedicated to the Nord Drum, this does mean that you can play any MIDI sound source from the Nord Pad.

Conclusion

When I reviewed the original Nord Drum, I thought it was an exceptional piece of equipment: innovative, inspiring, well thought out and with outstanding build quality. Having said that, there were definitely some issues that nagged a little. With the Nord Drum 2, it would appear that Clavia have addressed every one of these, and then gone further. The stereo out really was a 'must have' and the addition of the real-time MIDI control of parameters, along with the enhanced MIDI implementation, really opens up so many possibilities in terms of performance and studio integration.

Although it wasn't an issue for me specifically, four channels always felt like it could be limiting, so the increase to six puts that concern to rest completely. The addition of the Nord Pad is a great optional extra. It works well, is simple to connect, and absolutely looks the part.

I loved the incredible sounds that the Nord Drum could produce, from classic drums, through to acoustic emulations and on to the quite bizarre! The Nord Drum 2 takes this even further, with the new synthesis engine and parameters offering so many more options, colours and tonal variations. Combining these with the real-time MIDI control, it's a totally new proposition in terms of sound creation. As if that wasn't enough, the free Nord Beat app is great fun to use and is packed with features that complement the Nord Drum 2 perfectly. All in all, the Nord Drum 2, Nord Pad and Nord Beat are an inspirational combination.  

Alternatives

The Nord Drum 2 in itself is a unique proposition, as it is very much a synthesizer rather than a dedicated drum machine or percussion controller, so has few serious alternatives. As alternatives to the Nord Pad, however, you may want to look at Roland's SPDSX, HandSonic HPD20 and Octapad SPD30, the Alesis Performance Pad, the Yamaha DTX Multi 12 or the Korg Wavedrum Global Edition.

Nord Beat 2

Free to download is the new Nord Beat App for iPad, a six-track MIDI step sequencer that allows you to create up to eight individual patterns based around a familiar 16-step grid.

Connecting the Nord Drum 2 via a simple iOS/MIDI Interface (I used the iConnectivity MIDI 1+) to an iPad, I found that the Nord Beat software seamlessly combined with the Nord Drum to provide a very integrated working environment. The six horizontal tracks correspond directly to the six channels of the selected Nord Drum 2 patch, and programming patterns is simply a case of touching the screen to place a beat in any of the 16 step locations. Sliding up and down on any selected beat changes its velocity through three user-definable levels, indicated by corresponding yellow, orange and red colour changes. The level faders can be altered in real time as the sequence is playing back, to add a different set of accents if required. It's also possible to apply a flam, 32nd note or 32nd-note triplets to any beat. Each track can be easily switched on or off with a tap of its track number. A shuffle or swing feel can be applied to any pattern and altered in real time, adding to the live performance credentials of the app.

It's possible to create up to eight patterns using Nord Beat, by selecting one of the buttons marked A-H. Copy, Paste and Clear features make it very simple to duplicate patterns, so you can create slight variations without having to program again from scratch.

Once you've created your patterns, putting the Nord Beat into Sequence Mode means that each pattern will be played back in, er, sequence! A button above each pattern sets the number of times each pattern will repeat (from one to eight) before moving on to the next. Once the end of the sequence is reached, the Nord Beat loops to Pattern 1 again.

Any individual pattern or sequence can be saved as a song on your iPad, along with a program change number that can be sent to the Nord Drum 2 when the song is loaded, to call up the appropriate program.

The latest revision of the app includes MIDI Clock sync (send and receive), along with a more flexible MIDI output routing enabling you to select the global MIDI channel and MIDI note number sent out by each of the sequence tracks. Although the Nord Beat is clearly designed to integrate with the Nord Drum 2, this does mean that you can use the app with any external MIDI device, or even another virtual synth app, by way of internal routing.

The Nord Beat app also includes a virtual Nord Pad screen: six pads that can control the sounds from the Nord Drum 2 in exactly the same way as the real Nord Pad... although ideally with fingers rather than sticks! The velocity of a strike is dictated by how close to the centre the pad is tapped, and you can happily drum along in real time while a sequence is playing back.

More MIDI

The inability to transmit or receive MIDI continuous controller data to manipulate parameters was a glaring omission of the first incarnation of the Nord Drum. Fortunately, the MIDI implementation of the Nord Drum 2 has been significantly upgraded, to include both MIDI CC and multiple MIDI channels. This makes it a far more serious studio tool, as well as increasing the options for sound manipulation during live performances.

A Global MIDI channel can be set and all notes and Controller information will be transmitted and received on this channel. Alternatively, each Nord Drum channel (or voice, to make the terminology easier when talking about MIDI) can have its own MIDI channel, making it possible to effect each drum independently when sending MIDI controller data from an external source such as a control surface.

As far as I can see, every parameter of the Nord Drum 2 can be transmitted or received as a MIDI CC, which makes for some pretty detailed control.

Published May 2014