For the best part of two years, the Nord Lead set the standard as the polyphonic virtual analogue to beat. Using computer modelling techniques rather than unreliable analogue components, Swedish company Clavia repackaged the retro sound and interface of classic synthesizers and scored a surprise hit. After having been caught napping, the competition turned the full force of its attention to knobs, virtual sawteeth and squelchy filters, so will the Nord's successor, the imaginatively named Nord Lead 2, be as big a hit as its illustrious parent?
Since the new Nord is essentially a logical progression from the earlier model, I recommend a quick thumb through May 1995's SOS to bring everything back to mind. The December 1996 issue examined the 2.0 software upgrade, plus a welcome hardware add-on in the form of an 8-voice expansion module (for an extra £350). This boosted the Nord's rather meagre 4-note polyphony to a more useable, layerable 12 notes. Before we start, I guess I should point out that the software features offered in the original Nord Lead 2.0 upgrade (the notch filter, response to aftertouch, random arpeggiator modes, 10 analogue drum kits, organ and Prophet performances) are present as standard in the new instrument. Since we've had a version 2.0 already, maybe a different name for the new instrument (Nord Poly? Nordopoly?) would have made things less confusing. Anyway, since the Nord 2 has both hardware and software improvements, a further upgrade for owners of the original Nord would seem unlikely.
The Nord Lead 2 has 16 notes of polyphony, is 4-part multitimbral, and has four separately addressable outputs. To all intents and purposes, this gives you the functionality of four 'old' Nord Leads at the original selling price. Solidly constructed, and with green LEDs, push-buttons, (smallish) knobs and the now-familiar friendly red metal casing, Clavia's new baby looks superb. Some cosmetic panel improvements have been made, and controls for the new features have been added. On the back panel, as well as the four audio outputs, there are connectors for switched and continuous control pedals, plus MIDI In and Out. I was disappointed that there was no MIDI Thru -- a synthesizer at this price should provide all the basics -- but on the plus side its power supply is internal (although, switching into picky mode, I'd have preferred a standard detachable -- and replaceable -- mains lead rather than the fixed one). The small, 3-character display is cryptic by today's standards, but mostly you can ignore it and just use the knobs and switches.
After a little exploring, my first reaction was that the Nord 2 sounded more 'DCO' than 'VCO'. The oscillators are clean and clear, with little evidence of the random fluctuations to which analogue oscillators are susceptible. It occurred to me that, apart from the square wave with its variable pulse width, these waves could just as easily be samples (OK, OK, samples are 'out', models are 'in'). Fortunately, the traditional 'thickening' tricks we all know and love (oscillator detuning, pulse width modulation, unison mode, vibrato, and so on) soon warm things up nicely, and when you switch in two or more layers, the sound swells to impressively plump proportions. The factory sounds contain mostly the kinds of things you'd expect, with a few surprises here and there. Of the 99 single patches, only 40 are user-programmable. In addition, there are 100 layered performances, which would be fine except that they cannot be overwritten. You can edit them as you wish, but there's no way to store them internally -- for this
you'll need an optional PCMCIA card, on which you can store 100 performances, 297 patches in three banks, and 30 percussion locations. You can save performances as SysEx into a sequencer, but this is a poor substitute for adequate internal storage. Some skilful programming is in evidence in these performances, especially the atmospheric 'F0 Jungle' (very playable), 'F4 Acc Guitar' (delightful), 'E5-7 Voices 1-3' (powerful) -- the list goes on. The previous review dealt in depth with the organs, Prophets and drum sounds so all I'll add is that few of them set my world alight, but some were handy as starting off points. The best discovery about the performance mode is that it neatly sidesteps the age-old problem which arises when different performances refer to the same patch. Each performance effectively takes its own copy of that patch and leaves the original untouched -- spot on! One niggle, however, is the lack of an edit buffer or compare feature. If you edit a patch but aren't sure where to store it, you'd better get into the habit of keeping a few free locations to use as parking spots -- once you select a new patch, your edits are gone.
Layering is perhaps the Nord's strongest feature and results in its most powerful sounds. A maximum of four layers can be created, but using just a couple of patches simultaneously still leaves an ample eight notes of polyphony. Using four oscillators per note, however, certainly produces those thick, phasey, swooshy analogue effects. Some form of velocity layering would have been handy, but with a little ingenuity you can use the morph function to achieve something quite similar (more on this later). Layers may be routed individually to each output, or used as two pseudo-stereo pairs. In Unison mode, two voices are allocated per note, and a preset stereo effect kicks in. Using unison with the monophonic setting assigns four voices to each note, for some pretty big solos -- and if you're still not impressed, try grunging things up with oscillator sync! The synth does not respond to MIDI pan control (CC10), which is a shame, but otherwise all the options you need are available for routing different patches to different external treatments.
The Nord Lead 2 introduces a sine wave alongside the saw, square and triangle waves of VCO1 -- not exactly ground-breaking, but useful for the Nord's implementation of Frequency Modulation (FM). It's not FM in the DX7 sense (phew!), having but a single operator and carrier, but the results are interesting enough to make exploration worthwhile -- you can do more than just Fender Rhodes impressions. The ring modulator is also a welcome addition to the sonic toolbox, providing an assortment of atonal bell-like textures and strange effects. Unusually, the noise waveform is now available for oscillator sync, resulting in some decidedly spikey, un-analogue sounds as it slaves to the frequency of VCO1. The tone can be drastically altered using VCO2's semitone control, and is a welcome diversion from the realm of purely analogue sounds.
Morphing, as implemented on the Nord, is a means of changing between two values of any of the continuous knobs, via velocity or the mod wheel. This feature can totally transform a sound, by changing many parameters at once, or can be used to add subtle variations, if subtle is your bag. Controlling the VCA gain in this way is the only practical method of assigning velocity to overall output level -- crude, but it works. Another treat appears in the form of the external velocity control for the morph function, which takes the data from another MIDI channel and applies it to the current patch. Better still, both the filter and/or amplifier envelopes can be triggered in the same way, producing a host of groovy rhythmic possibilities.
A subtractive synth stands or falls by the qualities of its filter, and I found the Nord's to be very good, if a little polite -- its resonance seems to lack that wild excess of self-oscillation we all love. Five filter types are available: 12dB and 24dB low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, and notch with low-pass. The cutoff frequency knob sweeps evenly, providing a wide palette of traditional electronic timbres. Turning resonance to maximum robs a little too much bass end for my taste but the notch filter is a pleasing exception, allowing some pretty solid resonant twangs to be produced. A new Distortion switch adds a preset dirtiness which sounds a little like filter overload -- ideal for solos and basses. Keyboard tracking of the filter has a button and two green LEDs with tracking options of none, 1/3, 2/3 and full -- a marked improvement over the original. Ideally, though, this should have been another knob, preferably with positive and negative tracking.
Two LFOs take care of modulation duties, with LFO2 doubling as the rate control for the arpeggiator. LFO1 is the more complex, with five waveforms (including two kinds of random) and a single level for all modulation destinations. Both LFOs can be sync'ed to MIDI clock. The arpeggiator is fun but basic, and with several layers churning away madly it can soon appear more complex than it actually is. The modes available are up, down, up/down, and random, with a hold function activated by the shift key. Echo mode is a simple but very effective MIDI delay line which generates some unique effects if used in conjunction with velocity morphing. Of course, it does consume polyphony -- something to watch if you're operating multitimbrally. Naturally, the arpeggiator can send its notes out via MIDI. Incidentally, the Nord is handsomely equipped in the MIDI department, its knobs and switches sending and responding to 40 dedicated controllers. That's controllers -- the things you can draw and edit in Cubase -- and not SysEx.
I think the original Nord design suited the purpose of a lead synth very well, with its short keyboard and left-handed control layout. I'm not sure that this translates quite so well to 16-note poly status -- it might have been better to spread out the control panel in the same way Roland have with the JP8000. The Nord is no longer the only virtual analogue out there -- Yamaha, Roland, Quasimidi and Access, amongst others, all have designs on the number one spot, and each has tricks of their own to tempt us. Judged as if it were four 'old' Nords, the MkII seems good value, especially when you consider the extras -- such as the four outputs, syncable noise and ring modulator -- thrown in. With 16 notes of polyphony to play with, the layering facility quickly opens the way to monster sounds which are nevertheless immediately accessible.
For me, there are a few minor irritations that just don't add up on such an expensive synthesizer. For a start, after shelling out £1500, you shouldn't then need to buy a PCMCIA card just to store your layered or multitimbral performances. I could live without an LCD and a 5-octave keyboard, but the fact that the Nord 2 keyboard doesn't transmit aftertouch would rule it out for me. I suppose the final straw is the lack of effects. I don't see any argument in favour of this omission in these enlightened times and, indeed, the competing virtual analogues include effects and some means of controlling them as part of a performance, so why not Clavia too? Since many people swear by their Nords, it's probably safe to assume that there's something weird about me that explains why my affection for it didn't blossom into undying love. In his recent tour, that maestro of the electronic keyboard Jean-Michel Jarre made a special effort to show off his Nord, so you'll be in good company when you check out the Nord 2.
The Nord Lead 2's 4-octave keyboard (unchanged from the original Nord) won't satisfy everybody, but it does keep the instrument compact. My main grumble is not its length but the fact that, although it responds to aftertouch over MIDI, the Nord's keyboard is quite incapable of sending it. Other reviewers have complained about this in the past, but to no avail. You do, however, have the option of buying the Nord in rack format and using a keyboard of your choice. Performance features include keyboard splits and layers, the handy octave-shift buttons, unison, mono or poly switches, portamento, the cool thin mod wheel, and the even cooler pitch-bender, which is quite possibly the best method of pitch control I've come across in years. A gentle rocking motion induces a natural vibrato, while a wider movement gives traditional pitch-bend.
4-part multitimbral with four outputs.
Intuitive and accessible.
Great MIDI spec.
Only 40 internal user patch memories and no internal means
of storing performances (except via PCMCIA cards).
Keyboard incapable of sending aftertouch.
Not a major step ahead for synthesis; instead the Nord Lead 2
packs in more of what people liked about the original. Improved
polyphony and outputs make it an ideal analogue workhorse for studio or stage.
£ £1495; rack version £1295. Prices include VAT.
A Key Audio Systems, Unit D, Chelford Court, Robjohns Rd, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3AG.
T 01245 344001.
F 01245 344002.