Clavia Nord

Lead Synthesizer

Published in SOS May 1995
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Reviews : Keyboard

In a synth market dominated by the Japanese and American manufacturers, it's a pleasant surprise to be looking at a synth made in Sweden -- especially when it's as technologically advanced as the Nord Lead. GORDON REID sees red...

 

I like surprises. In fact, I love them. Burst into the room and tell me that I've won the national lottery, or that Star Trek VIII -- The Search for Kirk is now in production, and I'm all smiles. Give me a box with a new synth inside and then watch as I discover that, instead of crumbly polystyrene, the box contains a flightcase with a new synth inside, and the effect is much the same. Open the case and... it's time for surprise number two. This is one weird-looking synth. It's decidedly hi-tech. It's bright red. It's very sexy. It's undoubtedly digital. And one end is covered with knobs and buttons bearing legends such as 'resonance', 'pulse width modulation', and 'envelope amount'. This is getting interesting...

BACKGROUND

If there's any litmus test for a 'classic' sound it has to be that players still lust after it years or even decades after the keyboard that produces it was discontinued by its manufacturer (which may well be discontinued itself). Very few sounds have stood the test of time that well. The 'Moog' sound is one such but, if you craved it, there was, as little as two years ago, no alternative other than to find (and pay an exorbitant price) for a vintage instrument. But recognising the considerable commercial potential that exists in emulating classic keyboards, the industry has turned its attention to recreating the sounds and features (with a little additional '90s polish) of the original items: witness the Hammond XB3, the proposed re-launch of a limited edition Mellotron, the Studio Electronics SE1 and the Clavia Nord Lead.

Clavia Digital Musical Instruments AB are a Swedish company, better known for the ddrum range of electronic percussion. The Nord Lead is their first foray into the arcane world of synthesis, and the instrument itself (which they call 'nord lead' in a lower-case typeface chosen to look suspiciously like the old Moog logo) is what they call a VAS, or Virtual Analogue Synthesis instrument. This, they claim, combines classic ideas with today's technology.

Setting the synth up couldn't be simpler: connect the mains, outputs, and MIDI (if required) and start playing. The top panel controls show that the Nord Lead emulates a two-oscillator-per-voice system with sawtooth, triangle, and pulse waveforms, the latter with pulse-width modulation. Equally clearly, the instrument has two LFOs, low-pass and high-pass filters with resonance, two ADSR envelope generators, and an independent AD modulation envelope generator. The top panel also hints at substantial arpeggiation, MIDI, voice allocation and system capabilities, although many of these seem to be hiding behind the skirts of a dreaded 'shift' key.

Internally, the Nord Lead couldn't be simpler or better designed. A tiny main board hosts the DSP (of which more later), a Motorola 68331 processor, some RAM, the software EPROM and ROM, and fewer than a dozen support chips. It also hosts all the connectors. The power supply is mounted on a separate board. The top-panel controls are mounted on a third (and, for the moment, final) board affixed directly to the upper side of the case. This almost certainly hosts a multiplexer and analogue-to-digital converter to enable the main board to poll the positions of all the knobs and switches. It's very neat, well laid out and (I'll stick my neck out here) it looks as though it will be extremely reliable. There is also room for a fourth board -- a memory and voice expander -- which will soon become available.

The heart of the synth is its Motorola 56002 DSP, the latest generation of the 56000-series of integer-mathematics digital signal processors. This is capable of performing over 12 million (!) calculations per second, some with a resolution of 56 bits. Whilst not as powerful as a floating-point processor, this is the chip used in many digital workstations (typically in banks of four or eight) and is ideal for calculating FFTs (Fast Fourier Transforms) and digital filters. FFTs are the mathematical operations upon which many digital audio tasks are based. More specifically, they convert waveforms into a form of frequency information which can easily be modified by digital filters. After such modifications, a further FFT then re-converts the data to a new audio signal. Compare the 56002's resolution to that of a CD player or DAT machine with (at best) 18-bit maths. The audio units look primitive by comparison. Of course, the Nord Lead doesn't output 56-bit audio. An 18-bit DAC converts the DSP's output to an analogue signal which is, as one might expect, crisp, dynamic, and silent when no notes are being played.

IN USE

The Nord Lead has clearly been designed for traditionally monosynth duties. The four-octave keyboard, which is velocity sensitive but not aftertouch sensitive, is clearly too limiting for demanding polyphonic playing. Having said that, there's a lot of keyboard work revolving around chordal playing or simple accompaniments which would fit quite comfortably within its limited range. To help matters, there's a five-position octave selector, making a total range of eight octaves available (even without oscillator tuning). In practice, the range extends from sub-sonic to super-sonic, so you're never going to run out of audio spectrum.

The patch functions are controlled using the aforementioned top-panel knobs and switches, and this is where it becomes apparent just how 'analogue' the Nord Lead is. There is none of the stepping and glitching associated with other digital, and digitally-controlled analogue, synths. This is due to the sheer processing speed of the DSP which, while stepping like any other digital processor, does it so quickly and with such tiny quantisation that the effect is imperceptible. The knobs themselves are very tactile, positive in action, and invite fondling. Similarly, the buttons are clearly labelled and positive. But the best feature, for me, is the wooden 'pitch stick' which, alongside a more conventional modulation wheel, replaces the traditional pitch wheel. The stick is beautifully sprung, its range is programmable, and it has two unusual attributes: it has no dead spot, and the effect increases logarithmically as you move it further from the centre. Clavia claim that this makes it ideal for natural vibrato, and they're right. It's superior to any pitch controller short of a Yamaha ribbon controller. The top panel is permanently 'live', making editing immediate and intuitive, and there is a manual editing mode which allows you to start editing from a set of user-defined basic values. The Nord Lead also features three important facilities common to '70s monosynths, and which further reinforce the analogue feel of the instrument -- sample & hold; portamento; and arpeggiation.

The S&H is implemented in a novel fashion: one of the three LFO1 waveforms is a quasi-random histogram-shaped wave which may be routed to either of the oscillators, or to the filter. This offers three distinct effects. The first two are traditional: filter S&H, and random pitch S&H. But a far more interesting effect can be obtained by applying the output of the LFO to oscillator 2 only, and syncing OSC1 to OSC2. This modulates the harmonic content of the note (or notes) but leaves the pitch and filtering constant. Very effective.

Portamento is difficult to implement smoothly on a digital synthesizer, yet the Nord Lead offers two portamento modes. 'Normal' is the type of portamento that you expect to find on any monosynth, while 'Auto', when applied within Mono and Legato playing modes, applies portamento only when the instrument is played legato.

The arpeggiator lacks the 'random' function of the revered Roland Jupiters (which is how, for example, Duran Duran created so many of their quasi-sequenced backing tracks) but has 'up', 'down', and 'up and down' modes that can be made to play over 1, 2, 3 or 4 octaves. The speed of the arpeggio is controlled by LFO2, which is disabled for other duties when arpeggiation is selected. There is no arpeggiator latch, but there are two ways to overcome this -- one of which is undocumented, and probably a fluke of the programming rather than a planned feature. This involves selecting Local Off, which latches the arpeggio, although, of course, it also renders it impossible to modify the notes being played. Setting Local On again does not cancel the latch and yet allows you to play melodies over the top of the arpeggio! Using an external pedal in Sustain mode also latches the arpeggio, but makes it impossible to play simultaneously because each new note is included in the arpeggio. In addition, the Local On/Off method also allows you to use the pedal input to control the modulation wheel functions whilst the arpeggio is running... for example, changing pitch, sweeping the filter... in fact, anything that you can do whilst playing normally. Neat.

THE SOUND

Those of you fortunate enough to have owned or extensively played a Minimoog will know that it's a very simple synthesizer with remarkably few facilities which has nevertheless remained for 25 years the standard by which other synths are measured. However, unlike the all-analogue Moog, and the digitally-controlled analogue SE-1, the Nord Lead is pure digital. Nevertheless, it differs from nearly all other digital synths in one important respect. While virtually every other keyboard and module currently available uses some variation of sample + synthesis to generate its sound, the Nord Lead's DSP is actually generating its final signal waveforms in real-time, much as the sawtooths and square waves on a D50 were generated in its non-PCM modes. Hence the 'No Samples' logo on both the manual and the instrument itself. You may wonder if this makes a difference, but be assured that it does. This is a '90s synth that offers much of the presence and sonic power of the Moog it seeks to emulate. It reeks of sonic authority. Stick it in a mix and it's the canine's reproductive equipment. The factory presets, which are by no means the pinnacle of Nord Lead programming, scream "edit me", and without a moment's hesitation (let alone a thought of the manual) you're synthesizing away in a way that hasn't be seen or heard since that programming abomination, the DX7, hit the streets in 1983.

Pretty soon you'll discover a couple of facilities that have never been seen on a pure analogue synth. The first (which, in fact, was implemented in an almost identical way on the Oberheim Matrix 6) is frequency modulation, with OSC1 acting as carrier and OSC2 as FM modulator. The second is the hugely flexible velocity sensitivity of the instrument. Any continuous parameter can be made velocity sensitive, and in addition, the maximum and minimum responses for each can be defined within the patch. Going even further, the Nord Lead allows you to control the velocity-sensitive parameters via the modulation wheel, giving what Clavia call 'Morphing'. In practice, the effect isn't genuine morphing in the Emu and Lexicon sense because the fundamentals of the sound remain constant. Nevertheless, it's a useful tool and, because it leaves the velocity sensitivity of the filter unaffected, can be used to even further control and modify sounds that can still be played dynamically from the keyboard itself.

VOICES, POLYPHONY & PERFORMANCES

There are 99 patch locations on the unexpanded Nord Lead, of which 40 are programmable. Any four may be placed in each of locations A, B, C and D, and this makes monstrous layering possible. Each voice, within the limitations of the total number of oscillators, may also be played in unison, and this is digitally implemented as four slightly detuned but otherwise identical versions of the voice spread across the stereo image. Though this is not really what happens in an analogue synth, it still has a 'thickening' effect that many players will find pleasing. The amount of detune can be set, but is global for all patches.

 

"This is a '90s synth that offers much of the presence and sonic power of the Moog it seeks to emulate."

 

However, Mono, Legato and Unison are only three of the four voice allocation modes available, the other being Poly. On an unexpanded Nord Lead this allows you to play a single patch with 4-voice polyphony, two patches with 2-voice polyphony, or a mixture of Unison and mono sounds up to the 4-voice limit. You can also access all four parts via MIDI and treat the Nord Lead as four monosynths. Portamento still works in Poly, but one shortcoming of the mode is the way in which the LFO is applied to all four voices simultaneously. So, for example, if the LFO is set to be velocity sensitive, adding notes to a chord can send the whole thing screaming off into insensibility, or alternatively return it to normality or gentle vibrato. This is either a pain in the a**e, or a stunning effect, depending only upon your perspective.

A four-patch arrangement is called a Performance, and this also contains the MIDI channel information for each patch, the layering information, pitch-bend, output mode and unison detune setting, and a number of 'special' MIDI settings. Unfortunately, the unexpanded Nord Lead can only store one of these Performances. Which brings us neatly to...

MIDI

The Nord Lead has an extensive performance and bulk-dump MIDI implementation which need not be agonised over here. Nevertheless, there are a number of refinements worth mentioning. For example, all movements of the front panel controls are transmitted as SysEx, enabling you to record a knob-twiddling performance as a sequence. (The last synth I owned that could do this was a Juno 106, which explains much of the classic little Roland's enduring popularity.) Other notable inclusions are the five 'special' functions: LFO1 to MIDI clock synchronisation; LFO2/Arpeggio to MIDI clock synchronisation; external triggering of the filter envelope; external triggering of the amplifier envelope; and external velocity control, which enables the 'morphing' function via MIDI. Whilst not approaching the power and flexibility of some of the SE1's MIDI functions, these offer a number of exciting possibilities -- none more so than the ability to synchronise the arpeggiator with an external sequence. In addition, the LFO syncs are 'soft' rather than 'hard' -- i.e. MIDI only defines the start point of the LFO waves, not the speed at which they run between start points. This means that polyrhythms and complex arrhythmic arpeggios are but a few programming steps away.

LIMITATIONS

Of course, not everything in the Swedish garden is rosy. For example, the Nord Lead's filter looks great, offering 24dB/oct and 12dB/oct low-pass modes, 24dB/oct high-pass, and 24/24dB/oct band-pass modes. But, whilst it will ring convincingly at maximum resonance, you cannot persuade it to self-oscillate. Perhaps the most glaring deficiency, this is the one that most distinguishes the Nord Lead as a digital, rather than analogue, synth. Indeed, it's very difficult to get a digital filter to exhibit the kind of overdriven warmth, distortion, and eventual oscillation exhibited by 50p-worth of well chosen analogue components, so Clavia should be applauded for achieving as much warmth as they have. Nevertheless, it's not impossible to design a progressively non-linear digital filter, so Clavia are to some extent culpable for the fact that, when placed alongside a Minimoog or Moog modular, the Nord Lead is impressive, but can be somewhat cold by comparison.

Another niggle is the omission of an 'off' position for the oscillators. Of course, with no external input and no filter oscillation, there would be no sound if both A and B were switched off. Nevertheless, the only means to mute an oscillator -- by turning the 'mix' knob fully clockwise or fully anti-clockwise -- isn't really satisfactory.

More serious is the omission of a 'compare' function, so any edits can only be compared to an original patch by saving the new voice to another patch location. Otherwise the edits are lost when you re-select the original. Serious bummer...

Worse still, unlike the voice programming (which is clearly laid out and intuitive), many of the system, MIDI, and special functions are contained within an arcane system of Shift functions, multi-key-punches, and parameter edits. To make matters worse, the two-digit LED screen has to resort to little dots to indicate some values and identify some functions. Why? Indeed, why Clavia should have displayed the best and worst extremes of user-interface design is quite beyond me -- especially since there is enough panel space for every function to have its own controls. And at the asking price I don't think a decent screen is too much to ask for.

Finally, the Nord Lead offers four independent outputs for the parts A, B, C and D. Just when you get into using the Nord Lead as four independent and hugely powerful monosynths you realise that, at best, you can only direct A and C to the left, and B and D to the right outputs. It rather defeats the object of 4-part multitimbrality.

CONCLUSIONS

When I first heard that I had the opportunity to review the Nord Lead, I was worried that the four evenings that I had would be inadequate to fully plumb its depths. I was right, but no matter -- within 10 minutes of lifting it from that rather encouraging flightcase I knew that, whereas many keyboard manufacturers have spent years attempting and failing to emulate the timbral quality of early monosynths, Clavia have been much more successful. And, as a bonus, the eight oscillators, polyphony, layering and multitimbrality take the Nord Lead into territory unexplored by any mono-(style)-synthesizer.

Nevertheless, you're probably still wondering who is going to rush out to spend £1500 on a quirky 4-octave, 4-voice, 4-part multitimbral synth with no effects processors, no ultra-realistic piano PCMs, no drums or percussion, no sequencer, and no disk drive. Ah well... you haven't heard the Nord Lead, whereas I have. And, if this is the only one in the country and I get my selfish way, you never will. Until my CD comes out, of course.

 

FAVOURITE SOUNDS

Unfortunately, the Nord Lead lacks a decent screen, so patches only have numbers, not names, but if you're in the vicinity of your local music emporium, you may like to try some of the following. My favourite has to be #55 -- an enormous oscillator sync'd, velocity-sensitive, detuned, filter-swept monster of a sound: instant death to a mix but glorious in isolation. I can't get this from even a GX1! Another fave lies right alongside... #56 is a perfect 'popping' bass patch. Again velocity sensitive (and all other sorts of good things too), it's the perfect answer for those of you dissatisfied with the limited and limiting TB303. Another classic is #82 which, had it been featured on a '70s Roland, would have been called 'Singing Voice'. In fact, this sound was featured on '70s Roland monosynths, and was called 'Singing Voice'. The name says it all. Patch 83... a bell that reeks of FM, and which no true analogue could emulate. Patch 84... an English hunting horn. Patch 85... a wonderful harpsichord that has you playing the theme from Randall and Hopkirk before your street cred has a chance to kick in and stop you sounding like a complete prat. Twenty years ago you might have bought a synth for this sound alone. Number 86... no! I refuse to list every sound. There are the obligatory fat basses, screaming leads, tearing oscillator sync sounds, delicate flutes, farting brasses... but, ladies and gentlemen, you'll just have to try them for yourselves.

 

RACK AND EXPANSION CARD

Clavia intend to release a rackmount version of the Nord Lead later in the year, and this will be identical to the keyboard version except that it will lack the keyboard, the modulation wheel, and the pitch stick. A proposed expansion card will fit both keyboard and rackmount designs, will extend the Nord Lead's polyphony to 12 voices, and adds a PCMCIA expansion slot. A standard 64k PCMCIA RAM card will hold a further 297 patches (three banks of 97) plus 100 further performances -- each containing four unique patches -- for a huge total of 697 patch memories. Unfortunately, the price of the expander that will host the cards is not yet known. Keep your fingers crossed...

 

SECOND OPINION

With the Nord Lead, Clavia have managed to capture that feeling of quality that they distilled into their ddrums -- when you sat behind a ddrum kit you just knew things were right, even before you'd turned the power on. The same is true of the Nord Lead. It looks great and has a kind of aura that you don't get from today's run-of-the-mill synths. This synthesizer has a name, not a number.

The Nord Lead has a good solid synth sound, of the analogue variety (hooray, no wavetables), such that I would have difficulty distinguishing it (in monophonic mode) from, say, an ARP Odyssey. I'm not sure if it's quite managed to capture the full Moog sound, but it does have a powerful bottom end, perhaps more akin to that of the OSCar.

Having all the main controls instantly available on the main panel is brilliant, and again this helps to make this a desirable 'dance'-orientated product. Every function has a knob -- and Clavia have ensured that all the knobs have a very high scanning resolution, so there's no zipper noise to give you that sad digital feeling. But the facility that makes the Nord Lead so powerful and pleasing to use is its morphing ability. You select a sound and then set two levels (a maximum and a minimum) for one or more of any of the parameters. By playing with increased velocity, or using the modulation wheel, you can control the setting of one or all of that voice's parameters -- and you can do this simultaneously for up to four voices. Using this feature, it's even possible to coax a form of speech synthesis from the synth.

The Nord Lead can be MIDI controlled, obviously, but Clavia have gone a stage further, giving the triggers to the envelope generators a separate MIDI channel ID, so it's possible to programme the synth to produce complex polyrhythms -- which could be useful, especially, again, for dance cuts. In fact, it's probably in the European techno area that this synth will do best, especially since it also has an arpeggiator.

I feel that the instrument is a bit too expensive -- not surprising for a Swedish product; for me, the 'Pitch Stick' (the Nord Lead's pitchbender) is not as useful as a standard wheel, and being made of wood is not in keeping with the overall design of the instrument; the synth would benefit from separate outs for the four voices; and it would be nice to have a pressure-sensitive keyboard included for this kind of money. Apart from these minor quibbles, this is a magic piece of electronics, a synthesizer of pure genius. Clavia designed, built and shipped this instrument in less than 10 months -- what are these Swedish guys taking? David Crombie

 

COMPARING THE NORD LEAD

The following table compares the Nord Lead to what is, in many ways, its closest rival, the Studio Electronics SE1, a rackmount monosynth modelled closely upon the original Minimoog. Indeed, since the Moog is such a yardstick, I've added its specification just for comparison.

FEATURE

MINIMOOG

SE1

NORD LEAD

OSCILLATORS:

Polyphony

1

1

4 - 12

Audio Oscillators

3

3

8 - 24

Number of voice modes

1

1

4

Number of waveforms

6

Unlimited

Unlimited

Pulse Width Modulation

No

Yes

Yes

LFO Pitch Modulation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Audio frequency Pitch Mod.

Yes

No

Yes

Oscillator sync

No

Yes

Yes

Sync modulation

---

Yes

Yes

Fine Tuning

No

Yes

Yes

Ring Modulation

No

Yes

No

Noise

Yes

Yes

Yes

Pitch bend

Yes

Yes

Yes

PERFORMANCE CAPABILITIES:

Number of notes

44

---

49

Velocity Sensitivity

No

---

Yes

Modulation wheel

Yes

No

Yes

Pitch controller

Yes

No

Yes

FILTERS:

24dB/oct LP filter

Yes

Yes

Yes

12dB/oct LP filter

No

Yes

Yes

High pass filters

No

No

Yes

Band pass filters

No

No

Yes

Filter resonance

Yes

Yes

Yes

Filter oscillation

Yes

Yes

No

Filter tracking

4 options

Infinitely variable

Yes

ENVELOPES:

Dedicated Envelopes

2 x ADSD

2 x ADSR

2 x ADSR

Assignable Envelopes

None

2 x ADSR

1 x AD

No. of Envelope destinations

2

12

4

Envelope inversion

No

Yes

AD only

Linear response

Yes

Yes

Yes

Exponential response

No

Yes

No

LFOs:

Dedicated LFOs

0

3

2

No. of LFO destinations

2

15

6

Number of waveforms

6

6

3

Sample & hold

No

Yes

Yes

ARPEGGIATOR:

Arpeggiator

No

No

Yes

No. of modes

---

---

3

Range

---

---

1-4 octaves

MIDI:

MIDI capability

No

Yes

Yes

MIDI channels

---

16

16

Multi-timbrality

---

---

4 part

SysEx functions

---

Yes

Yes

Functions controlled by MIDI

---

16

5

Controller ranges

---

0% - 99%

0 - 100%

Velocity sensitivity

No

Yes

Yes

Aftertouch sensitivity

No

Yes

No

MISCELLANEOUS FUNCTIONS:

Portamento (Glide)

Yes

Yes

Yes

Transpose +/- octave

No

Yes

Yes

Trigger modes

1

2

3

Note priority modes

1

3

1

STANDARD MEMORIES:

Patch memories

None

99

99

Performance memories

None

None

1

EXPANDED MEMORIES:

No. of patch memories

None

None

697 per card

No. of perf. memories

None

None

100 per card

 

PRICING

At £1500 for the keyboard version, and £1300 for the module, the Nord Lead is not cheap. But there is hope: the DSP design is highly cost-efficient (the 56002 is an 'off the shelf' chip costing about £20) and its use also reduces the amount of electronics required considerably. This means that, for the time being, Clavia are charging a premium for their software development -- and quite right too! However, this leaves lots of room for manoeuvre should competition appear in the future.

 

CLAVIA NORD LEAD £1495

PROS
• How it looks.
• How it feels.
• What it does.
• How it sounds when it's doing it.

CONS
• No filter self-oscillation.
• No 'compare' function.
• No ring modulator.
• The 'system' and MIDI editing procedures.
• Only two audio outputs.

SUMMARY
Though polyphonic, essentially the monosynth for the digital age. If you can afford it, try it. If you can't, hope that market forces work in your favour.

 

info

£ Nord lead £1495; £1295. Prices inc VAT.

A Key Audio Systems Ltd, Unit D, Chelford Court, Robjohns Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3AG.

T 01245 344001.

F 01245 344002.

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