When I reviewed the original Nord Lead Virtual Analogue synth, for SOS's May 1995 issue, I found that the instrument was beautifully designed, beautifully implemented, knobby, simple to use, and sounded great. Eighteen months later, a Nord Lead version 2 has just arrived, complete with enticing upgrades. However, I'm feeling nervous: the original Nord was so great that any upgrade has a lot to live up to. It may even detract from the essential quality and purpose of the original -- and that would be a great shame. So, are my fears justified?
First things first: the appeal of the Nord Lead was two-fold: firstly, the user interface; and secondly, the sound. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter what new goodies lurk beneath the surface -- if the simplicity of that user interface were compromised it would be, in my opinion, a significant step backwards. More fundamentally, if anything were to compromise that sound, we should shoot the designers. Fortunately, the Nord supplied for the review is still bright red, it's still very sexy, and all the knobs and buttons are still present. The only visible differences between versions 1 and 2 are in the legending, with five new scripts: Demo, Panic, Echo, Random, and Notch+LP. What's more (and as far as I can tell without an original 1 Nord for direct comparison), the sonic presence and authority of the original are undiminished. This continuity also extends to the inside of the instrument where, apparently, nothing has changed. The Nord is still driven by a Motorola 56002 DSP and a 68331 host processor. It's just that Clavia have updated the clever stuff in the software EPROM and the voicing ROM. So let's now get stuck in and find out what the differences are.
The original Nord emulated, using digital technology, a two-oscillator-per-voice synth with two LFOs, a resonant filter, two ADSR envelope generators, and an independent AD modulation envelope generator. Version 2 adds to these facilities a notch filter (see box) and aftertouch (pressure) sensitivity that you can route to either of the LFOs, the pitch of OSC2, the frequency modulation amount, or the filter cut-off frequency. The omission of aftertouch was a huge oversight on the original instrument, and it's just as well that Clavia have sorted it out. Mind you, the Nord Lead's keyboard still fails to generate aftertouch and, like the Nord Rack rackmounting version, it will only respond to controller data received over MIDI.
On the performance side, there are two improvements. The first is described as 'echo', although it is not a delay line, but simply a facility which replays a patch up to eight times (as determined by the LFO2 Amount knob) with decreasing velocity. Of course, if the patch in question is not velocity sensitive, you simply get nine repeats of exactly the same sound. Furthermore, the echoes chew up polyphony, so beware those choked envelopes! On the positive side, since the 'echoes' are identical to the sounds generated by re-playing the keyboard, they will morph in the same way as any conventional Nord sounds -- so if you move the Nord's Morph controller while the repeats are playing, the echoes will morph from the original tone to whatever end-point you select. I'm not sure what I'd use this for, but I'm sure that somebody will think of something.
More importantly, the Nord's arpeggiator has now been expanded with the addition of a 'random' function -- absolutely invaluable for creating all your favourite Jupiter 8 effects. I noted the lack of 'random' as a serious omission in the original review, and I'm delighted that it's now been rectified. As a sprinkle of angel-dust for your recordings, a well-implemented random arpeggio is unbeatable. Where would Nick Rhodes and Duran Duran have been without it? Thank you, Clavia. While I'm handing out the accolades, the Nord now transmits arpeggio notes over MIDI, so you can use the arpeggiator to drive any other MIDI synth. Excellent.
Many players will find the most important part of this update to be the inclusion of ten 'Virtual Analogue' percussion kits. Each kit has eight sounds, grouped in combinations that have a good chance of being useful together. Consequently, there's a Latin kit, a TR808 emulation, an Indian percussion kit, and so on. For those of you worried that the percussion sounds, which are held in ROM, may be a step away from the Nord's analogue emulation roots, fear not. Editing a sound proves that there's not a PCM sample in sight. Simply modify the envelopes to sustain the percussion sound and tweak the knobs to discover which facilities are creating the atonality. Editing itself is a doddle. Simply press one of the black keys within a range (say, C#2 to edit sound1) and the usual edit controls become active. You can continue to play the kit as you edit the sound, provided that you don't brush against another black key, at which point you'll find yourself modifying the wrong sound.
The drum sounds are allocated to fixed key ranges across the keyboard -- sound1 resides on the white keys between C2 and E2, sound2 from F2 to B2, and so on. This is not good. In fact, it's ridiculous. After all, you've possibly spent years becoming proficient at laying down grooves from the keyboard, and now you'll have to learn new techniques to reproduce drum fills on keys that have been almost perfectly chosen to be unplayable. This aspect of the Nord is going to drive you crazy, and means that there's no way to use Nord percussion in existing sequences, except by editing the sequences themselves.
There are further important limitations. For one thing, you can't save your edited kits inside the Nord itself, only onto a PCMCIA card. And, as you may or may not know, you can't do that unless you've bought the optional 8-voice expander. You can, however, dump a kit via SysEx, although you must do this in Program mode, or the sound-generating parameters will be omitted! (In Performance mode, SysEx only tells the Nord which kit to use, not the parameters that define the sounds within it.) Secondly, all the sounds in a kit share the same LFOs. Whether this is a consequence of the Nord running out of processing power, or whether a further software upgrade will rectify matters, I have no idea. Mind you, I don't really care, because it's not a facility for which I can see a great deal of use. You may disagree. There's one other thing to worry about: if you change the voicing of a kit in any given Performance, you change it for all the Performances that use that kit. This was a common limitation in the mid-'80s on synths such as the Roland JX10 (in which the voices that made up the Patches came from a common pool), but it seemed to pass away with the D50, in which all the partials in all the patches were separate entities. Maybe this is yet another example of the Nord's 'retro' nature.
But what of the percussion sounds themselves? Well, the Nord is no different from any other flexible analogue synth. Most of us have, at one time or another, messed around with Minimoogs and the like, coaxing all manner of drum-like sounds from them. The only difference with the Nord is that, rather than producing a single sound, it gives you access to eight at a time or, if you put percussion Programs in all four zones, an impressive 32, subject always to the instrument's 4- (unexpanded) or 12-note (with the 8-voice expander installed) polyphony.
Just as many of the Nord's conventional voices are imitations of Moog sounds, so too are its percussive timbres. This means that they are no replacements for sampled percussion but, unfortunately, neither do they exhibit the peculiarly lovely/ghastly nuances of a TR808 and its ilk. But lest this criticism gives you the wrong idea, the sounds are still very much analogue and many players will lust after them. Add to that their simple re-programmability and the immediacy with which you can manipulate them in real time, and overall I think the Nord's percussion is going to find favour.
I've left the best till last: without a PCMCIA card, the original Nord could only hold one of its 4-patch arrangements (Performances), which contain the MIDI channel information for each patch, layering information, pitch-bend, output mode, unison detune settings, and a number of 'special' MIDI settings. Version 2 is significantly better developed in this department. Less alluring than the drum sounds, maybe, but ultimately far more useful are the 100 new Performances stored in ROM. Each of these holds up to four preset patches, including 53 true 'Nord' sounds, 11 Hammond organ impersonations, 45 Prophet 5 factory patches, and backups for the first 40 factory presets.
Describing the new Nord patches will be an exercise in cliché, so I'm sure you'd prefer that I keep it brief. You know... searing leads, grunting basses, warm strings, fat analogue pads, and pulsating arpeggios. Less impressive are the so-called Hammond sounds. Generated using the Nord's four zones in what Clavia correctly call "pseudo-additive" synthesis, they aim to emulate genuine drawbar configurations, such as 888600000 with Leslie. But this reduces the Nord to monophony or, with the expansion board, 3-note polyphony, and causes some strange voicing quirks if you play too many notes simultaneously. In short, they're a dog's dinner.
It's the Prophet patches that have given me the most fun. Held in 12 Performances, these are remarkably successful and, if you think about it, for good reason. The original Prophet was developed from Dave Smith's ideas regarding a polyphonic Minimoog, so it follows that a polyphonic synth that accurately imitates four Minimoogs, as does the Nord Lead, will be very similar to the Prophet. The Nord can't really emulate a Prophet, since its filter is not self-oscillating, and is therefore incapable of creating those biting patches that occur when you drive the filter to the edge of self-oscillation. Consequently, the Nord is more courteous and maybe even a little over-polished. But in use, it's more than adequate.
There are other developments worth noting. For example, the Nord now incorporates a number of 'demo' songs that demonstrate its suitability for dance and trance styles of music. It also has a 'Panic' button (which, I assume, works, but which I never had cause to investigate). There's a spanking new manual that every manufacturer should read and learn from -- it's clear, well laid out, written for novices as well as experts, and very informative. There's even a library of sounds, some on PCMCIA cards, others free from Clavia's web site (www.clavia.se). And while I'm talking about cards, the new Nord will update old cards to handle the new parameters without losing or damaging existing programs and performances.
What you really need to know, if you're an existing owner, is whether the version 2 software is worth the £95 upgrade charge. And if you're not an existing owner, should the new facilities tempt you to become one?
Paradoxically, one of my first impressions was that the inclusion of the new parameters and the expanded memory highlighted two of the original Nord's failings. Firstly, you access many of the Nord's system, MIDI, and special features using a decidedly un-analogue system of 'Shift' functions, and the two-digit LED screen has to resort to little dots to indicate some values and identify some functions. If this system was arcane before, it's even more so now. Secondly, the Nord is now in even greater need of multiple outputs. It's all very well offering up to 12-note polyphony and simultaneous access to 32 percussion voices, but sticking the whole bunch down a stereo pair is plain stupidity. Everybody knows that snares need radically different treatments to, say, hi-hats, so the existing arrangement goes a long way to making the Nord's percussion useless for serious recording. It may be adequate in certain live situations, but beyond that, it's unacceptably limiting.
In contrast to that somewhat stinging criticism, however, the Nord is now clearly better value for money. Indeed, with its Prophet-style patches and 4-note polyphony, it offers very reasonable value when compared to the excessive prices being demanded for Rev 3.3 and other MIDI-retrofitted Prophet 5s. As for mint Memorymoogs or Roland MKS80s with programmers... well, these make the Nord look almost cheap. I'm not convinced by the percussion sounds or facilities, but if you treat the Nord's percussive capabilities as freebies (the version 2 Nord sells for the same price as the original) you won't go far wrong. Furthermore, if you treat each percussion patch as a repository for any eight sounds, you don't need to limit yourself to four conventional patches. You can have 32, provided that they don't need to be played across more than a handful of keys.
All in all, the new Nord is a much more attractive proposition than its already desirable predecessor, but maybe not for the reasons that you might have thought. Forget the drums, dial up the Performances, and start playing with the arpeggiator and aftertouch. Now that's what I call analogue synthesis!
The Nord filter now offers five modes. In addition to the original low-pass, high-pass and band-pass modes, there is now a fifth, called Notch+LP. This combines a notch filter with a 12dB/oct low-pass filter. Unfortunately, there are no separate controls for the centre frequency of the notch and the resonant frequency of the LP filter, so the notch always lies immediately below the LP cut-off frequency. Secondly, there's no 'Q' control for the notch, so you can't control its severity. This makes Notch+LP more of a curio than an important new facility. Nonetheless, with moderate resonance (so that the part of the spectrum immediately above the notch is emphasised before the LP filter takes effect) the new mode generates a sound that can't exactly be emulated using any other synth short of a fully-featured modular.
Unfortunately, and in common with the version 1 Nord, the filter implementation still refuses to self-oscillate. Consequently, while it will ring at maximum resonance, it still separates the Nord from the big analogue polysynths. It's impressive, sure, but it's somewhat cold and featureless when compared directly to the Prophets and Moogs it seeks to emulate.
100 new Performances and excellent Prophet 5 emulations.
Now recognises aftertouch.
Random arpeggiation added.
Arpeggiation now transmitted over MIDI.
Extra filter mode offers new voicing possibilities.
No way to re-allocate percussion sounds to sensible key numbers.
Too few outputs.
Disappointing 'Hammond' Performances.
Still no filter oscillation.
Screen not really adequate.
Version 2 is a worthy development of a desirable instrument. The drum mode has shortcomings, but overall there are enough additions here to justify the upgrade price for the existing owner and make the Nord even more attractive as a new purchase.
£ Version 2 upgrade £95 (includes EPROM and front-panel stickers; can be user installed); Nord Lead £1495; Nord Rack £1295; 8-voice expansion £355; RAM expansion £79.95. Prices inc VAT.
A Key Audio Systems Ltd, Unit D Chelford Court, Robjohns Road, Chelmsford CM1 3AG.
T 01245 344001.
F 01245 344002.