Nearly 20 years after the original, Clavia's Nord Lead has become a studio synth staple. Can its latest incarnation keep the flame alive?
If you're old enough, cast your mind back to the beginning of 1995. It wasn't the most exciting era for synth fans because the world appeared to be stuck in an endless loop of incremental improvements to PCM-based workstations and samplers. The renaissance of true analogue synthesis was still gestating, and the only commercial synth based on physical modelling was Yamaha's VL1, which was both pricey and entirely disinterested in emulating analogue polysynths. But in March of that year, Sound On Sound contacted me to ask whether I would like to review a new instrument. It was, they explained, a digital synth that 'did' analogue synthesis. Was I interested? You bet I was! The instrument in question was the Nord Lead, the synth for which the term 'virtual analogue' was probably coined, and its arrival signalled a pivotal moment in the evolution of keyboard synthesizers.
The Nord Lead emulated a four-voice, velocity-sensitive, dual-oscillator polysynth with a resonant (but not self-oscillating) filter, dual LFOs, dual ADSR contour generators, and an independent modulation contour generator. Today, the Nord Lead 4 is the seventh keyboard-toting model in the family. Some of these have moved forward, some have moved backward, and some sideways, but all have retained the same underlying architecture and maintained the form factor of a semi-weighted, four-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard with a wooden pitch-control stick and a granite modulation wheel, all housed in a bright red case. So what's new in the Nord Lead 4? In truth, quite a lot, but if you were expecting it to be the most sophisticated Nord Lead yet, you're going to be disappointed. Far from expanding upon the Nord Lead 3, the new model has lost its screen and aftertouch, and forsaken a number of its voicing capabilities, and is broadly based upon the later but lesser Nord lead 2X.
The oscillators on the Nord Lead 4 retain the precise character of previous models, but without the waveshaping introduced on the Nord Lead 3. Perhaps to compensate, the number of Osc 1's digitally derived waves (which were first introduced on the very closely related Nord Wave) has increased. Strangely, the documentation claims that there are now 128 of these, but I could find only 92. More worryingly, the company describes these waves as 'wavetables', which isn't just misleading, it's wrong. They're single-cycle waves, and there's no ability to sweep through the ROM. Shame on you, Clavia.
There are two modes of Osc 1 sync, both driven by a hidden sync oscillator whose pitch is controlled using the Amount control and the modulation envelope (see below). This is a good thing; it means that you can still create dual-oscillator sounds when using sync. The documentation states that you can also sync Osc 1 to Osc 2 but, unless I've lost my marbles, that's another error.
Moving on to Osc 2, this substitutes a noise generator (with control over colour and bandwidth) for Osc 1's additional waves. While the ring modulator of some previous models has been discarded, there are now three FM modes. These offer nothing like the flexibility of the Nord Lead 3's FM capabilities, but they are simple to use and can generate some interesting results. Mind you, I would much prefer that manufacturers call this facility 'cross-modulation'; while you can obtain a wide range of bell-like, clangourous and enharmonic tones, it's not FM as we knew it back in the 1980s.
Lacking the multi-filter modes of the Nord Lead 3, the Nord Lead 4's filter nonetheless offers seven filter modes (five low-pass, one high-pass and one band-pass) that will be more than adequate for most purposes. Many players will be delighted by the M (Moog), TB (Roland), and 48dB/oct low-pass modes and, while the notch filter found on previous models has been discarded, that shouldn't cause too many headaches even though it means that some sounds can't be recreated here.
Keyboard tracking is provided in four amounts — zero, 1/3, 2/3 and 100 percent, as found on the Minimoog — and there's a dedicated, velocity sensitive, bi-polar ADSR contour generator. There's also overdrive, but I'm afraid that I'm not a huge fan of this. Rather than add power to sounds I find that, at anything more than subtle amounts, it can choke them.
At maximum resonance, all the filter modes except TB approach self-oscillation, although the filter always needs signal from the oscillators to kick it into life. What's more, the amount of resonance decreases smoothly with decreasing cut-off frequency in the 'M' mode, which is a key factor in being able to describe it as reminiscent of a certain Mini from the 1970s. Sure, it's not a perfect emulation, but it has a character that I think you will like.
There are two ADSR contour generators, the second of which is dedicated to the audio amplifier. At their fastest, these are super-snappy and capable of generating clicks (which is a good thing). At their slowest they offer satisfyingly gentle Decays and Releases.
A third contour generator — the aforementioned Modulation Envelope — generates either an AD or ASR contour. Clavia undersells this because, with the Dec/Rel knob turned fully clockwise, the Decay becomes infinite, thus offering an AS option, which is unusual. There are just six destinations for this, which is parsimonious in 2014, but they are well chosen and useful.
Modulation is provided (primarily) by a pair of LFOs offering 10 waveshapes and a frequency range that reaches well into the audio band. These can be sync'd to the Nord's master clock, key sync'd, and triggered manually. There are just nine destinations (a different selection of six on each LFO) and you can only select one destination per LFO at any given time, but the important bases are covered even though this is again rather limited by modern standards.
LFO1 can also act as an arpeggiator with the usual up, down, up/down and random modes, plus an unusual (and rather fun) poly mode. If offers a four-octave range, rates ranging from 30 to 300 bpm, and you can modify its timing (although not the note order) using Patterns. These are split into six types — elementary, straight, groove, back beat, odd meter and fills — and the names tell you what Clavia expects of them. Patterns can only be used when the arpeggiator is sync'd to master clock, which seems a little odd, but I can't see that this should cause problems.
Interestingly, you'll find a third LFO tucked away in a combination of the Voice Mode panel and the Sound menu. This is a dedicated delayed vibrato oscillator, and very useful it is too. With a range of just 4 to 8 Hz and two preset delay modes, it can also be controlled from the modulation wheel, and frees up the programmable LFOs for more exotic duties. That's a nice touch.
The addition of an effects section is a big deal, even though they're not the effects that I would have chosen. I rather liked the Nord Wave's complement of EQ, chorus, delay/reverb and amp simulation, as I have always found that EQ, chorus and, well, delay/reverb and a bit of amp simulation, complement the sounds of both monosynths and big polysynths. In contrast, the Nord Lead 4 offers you the choice of just one of the following — overdrive, compression, bit crushing, two formant effects and a comb filter — followed by Clavia's now standard delay/reverb section. Control is very limited, and even though the FX Amount (which experimentation demonstrates is not always what is being modified) can be affected by the modulation envelope and LFO2, it's not exactly state of the art. So when Clavia advertises the Nord Lead 4's effects as new and radical, that's hyperbole. Welcome? Yes. Serviceable? Yes. Well chosen? I'm not so sure. New and radical? Definitely not.
Clavia's blurb writers also make a big fuss about the Nord Lead 4's Morphing and Impulse Morphing capabilities. They're on safer ground here. In short, a Morph is a user-defined, smooth change of up to seven parameter values within a patch, all controlled simultaneously using a source such as the mod wheel, the control pedal, MIDI CC01 and CC11, and velocity. There are 36 continuous destinations and, because the amount of morph can be determined independently for each parameter, you can program a single control to affect a big change in this, a moderate change in that, and a subtle change in something else. There are also 21 switch destinations, which allow you to turn all manner of things on and off.
In contrast, Impulse Morphs jump from one value to another without passing through the intervening ones. There are three Impulse Morph buttons, and you can press these in any combination for a total of seven different changes per patch. With 55 possible destinations, this is almost like having seven variations of a single patch available at the touch of a button (or three). These variations can be as simple as lifting the brightness and loudness of the sound for a solo, or as complex as altering the underlying timbre, changing the modulation, altering effects settings, starting or stopping arpeggiation, and switching between Patterns.
Now we come to the real powerhouse of the Nord Lead 4: its Performance mode. Each of the 99 Performances offers four slots named A, B, C and D, and you can insert a patch (or 'Program' to use Clavia's nomenclature) — complete with its effects — into each of these. This makes the Nord Lead 4 a truly multitimbral instrument, which is still rare even in this day and age, and very welcome. You can then layer Programs, create AB/CD splits, and play them via MIDI whether they are active from the keyboard or not. But the best news is that you can edit the Programs in a Performance without affecting the originals, which doubles the number available.
To aid setup, you can copy and paste settings from one slot to another (even between Performances) and, if you choose, save edited Programs within Performances back to Program memories. Oh yes, and all four Programs within a given Performance can be driven simultaneously by the master clock. Given that this locks to MIDI Clock as soon as it detects it on either MIDI input (and, by extension, any Programs or Performances are then locked to the outside world) this is all good.
The philosophy behind the original Nord Lead was to create an instrument with the character of an analogue synthesizer, married to the stability and reliability of digital signal processors. To a large extent, this philosophy has been retained. However, when Clavia claims that "We have a physical button or knob for every sound-related parameter on the Nord Lead 4 front panel,” this is not true because of the vibrato oscillator, and at best it's disingenuous because so many parameters require Shift functions and multiple presses to access them. Nevertheless, if you read the manual from cover to cover to find where all the secondary and tertiary functions are hiding, it becomes pretty straightforward.
I loved the sounds in the original Nord Lead, especially with the v2 software and expansion board installed, because they provided numerous simple and usable emulations of analogue synths, focussing in particular on the Minimoog and the Prophet 5. With this in mind, I forsook the big, impressive factory patches and programmed my own set of Prophety, Moogy and ARPy patches on the Nord Lead 4. I found the control panel to be a little dense, and I'm not a fan of the 'snap to value' way in which the knobs work (I much prefer the pass-through or catch-up modes offered on some other synthesizers) but, notwithstanding this, warm pads, rich string ensembles, solo trumpets and flutes, tributes to Taurus pedals and other bass patches tumbled forth without fuss. Unison was also a welcome feature for many of my monosynth patches, as were the single- and multi-triggering options (which, for better or worse, simultaneously select the mono or legato portamento modes). Some of these sounds were good, while others were excellent. I was particularly impressed by the absence of aliasing, which is always the hallmark of a good VA sound engine.
I then graduated to programming sounds using the single-cycle waves in Osc 1, and to experimenting further with the sync and FM modes. I liked the organ waves because some lovely sounds emerged when I added a gently modulated comb filter and reverb to these. I also liked the first three piano waves, which formed the basis of numerous DX piano and Clavinet sounds. I have no doubt that I would find uses for many of the others if I spent longer with the instrument.
Nonetheless, not all was hunky dory. For example, I was disappointed that there are no high- or low-note priority modes for monosynth duties. These existed on the Nord Lead 3, and I feel that they should have been retained. In a similar vein, a four-octave keyboard worked well on a four-voice polysynth that was often used as a monosynth (the original Nord Lead), but whether it's adequate for a 24-voice instrument with a keyboard split is less clear. It helps to make the instrument small and light, but you'll have to decide whether the compromise is acceptable. But perhaps the biggest problem (for me) was the lack of aftertouch, which is received via MIDI but not generated. This resulted in me playing many of my patches from another keyboard, which is daft. Consequently, I suspect that the Nord Lead 4R rackmount may be the better buy for many prospective users. Since the comprehensive MIDI CC list addresses almost all of the front panel controls, you could even argue that there's no need to have the synth to hand, even for real-time twiddling (although, to be fair, it's possible that the admirable lack of stepping when you rotate the Nord's own knobs will be compromised over MIDI.)
Another annoyance is a perennial Nord Lead problem: having programmed my sounds, I couldn't access them except by scrolling through the Program banks or by sending MIDI bank select and program number messages. I also have to decry the three-character screens. Can you remember which sound is which with just a bank number and a patch number? I can't. As for remembering which Programs or their derivations exist within a given Performance (which is again identified only by a number)... don't get me started. There is also at least one minor error in the synth's software. The Sustain Pedal Polarity in the System Menu reports a value of 'A.C' on the synth itself, but this isn't one of the options offered on the panel or in the documentation. Everything still works correctly, so I wouldn't worry about it, but it suggests that the Nord Lead 4 may have been rushed out a little quicker than it should.
Finally, I have to return to the manual. This is, at least in part, a revision of the Nord Wave manual, referring to the older model and to sample playback in at least two places. I've already mentioned errors regarding the waveforms and sync, and more confusion lies in wait where, for example, the manual says that OS v2.0 or later is required for the Nord Lead 4 to be recognised by the Nord Sound Manager, whereas the latest version at the time of writing was OS v1.1. Elsewhere, four banks of 99 sounds do not total 400 memory locations, and the statement, "turn the Dial to scroll through the 100 Performances, P01 to P99” is just careless. Similarly, Performances 89 to 99 were not duplicates of P01 to P10 as the manual states. Come on Clavia — you can do better than this.
From the start, I wanted to like the Nord Lead 4 as much as I liked its great granddaddy, but I was always aware that, despite its advances, the loss of the Nord Lead 3's screen and aftertouch affected both how I programmed it and how I played it. Nonetheless, it's a better synth than the Nord Lead 2X. The additional waves and FM modes offer more starting points for sound creation, and the additional filter modes offer more ways to mangle them, as do the effects. Then there are features such as Impulse Morph, which add greatly to its performance capabilities.
Ultimately, the Nord Lead 4 retains much of what made people like Nord Leads in the first place and adds just about enough to keep it contemporary. If you loved the original, it's likely that you'll love this too because, as is usually the case with Clavia instruments, it sounds great and there's something about it that transcends its limitations. Indeed, by the time that I had finished this review, we were well on the way to becoming good friends. But whether it offers enough to keep potential customers away from the clutches of the KingKorg or a similarly priced analogue synth such as the Prophet 08 is another question.
The KingKorg is perhaps the obvious competitor for the Nord Lead 4. Offering equivalent sound quality, this also combines virtual analogue and single-cycle waveforms but, with more filter types (18 instead of seven), greater polyphony (although reduced multitimbrality), more modulation options, a far greater range of effects, a microphone input and vocoder, CV & Gate outputs, superior displays and a 61-note keyboard, it's superior in many ways. It's also cheaper. (Nords have never been sold on the basis of being cheap or feature-rich.)
Alternatively, you could look at the similarly priced Prophet 08 which, despite being an analogue/digital hybrid, offers a similar approach to synthesis. If you're prepared to shell out a bit more, there's even the Prophet 12, which offers flagship performance in another small and attractive package.
Although the Nord Lead 4 has no screen worth mentioning (six seven-segment LEDs don't count) it still has three menus. The System Menu sets up basic things such as global tuning and pedal modes, and allows you to allocate which output carries the signal from which Performance slot. (Note that the slot output allocations are global, so you'll have to plan ahead if you're going to use the synth multi-timbrally.) There's nothing surprising in the MIDI menu, but you should take care when you choose which MIDI channels are allocated to the slots. Since a slot always responds to incoming MIDI (even if it's not being used by the keyboard) you could end up wondering where that unwanted noise is coming from! Finally, the Sound menu determines things such as the delay effect mode as well as the parameters for the vibrato oscillator.
Released in 1995, the Nord Lead was the original Virtual Analogue synth, promoted primarily as a monosynth but actually offering four-voice polyphony. Shortly after its appearance, Clavia released an expansion card that expanded its memory and increased its polyphony to 12 voices, followed by v2 software that added a notch filter, aftertouch sensitivity (over MIDI only), random arpeggios, VA drum kits and a bank of preset performances.
The Nord Lead v2 was replaced by the Nord Lead 2 in 1997, and this increased the number of physical outputs to four, added ring modulation, and incorporated a number of minor voicing enhancements.
A bigger jump occurred in 2001 when the Nord Lead 3 appeared. This was the first (and so far the only) Nord Lead to offer a screen (only 2x16 characters, but nonetheless very useful) and an improved control panel with rotary encoders and LED collars to show existing parameter values. The synth engine was also improved, with numerous multi-filter modes, 4-op FM synthesis, enhanced morphing, and a much larger Program/Performance memory. It even generated aftertouch from its own keyboard. Some commentators suggested that it sounded less 'analogue' than its predecessors and, perhaps as a consequence of this (but more likely as a consequence of rising manufacturing costs) the next Nord Lead was an updated version of the Nord Lead 2. Released in 2003, the Nord Lead 2X offered increased polyphony and memory as well as improved DACs, but was otherwise much the same as its parent.
In 2007, the Nord Wave appeared. Based upon a mishmash of the Nord Lead 2X and Nord Lead 3, this lost two slots, two outputs and its arpeggiator, but retained the screen, multi-filter modes and 4-op FM from the Nord Lead 3. It added 62 single-cycle waveforms, 180MB of flash RAM to allow players to use sample playback as the basis of sound creation, and was the first in the family to incorporate an onboard effects section.
Finally, we come to the Nord Lead 4, which is again based upon the Nord Lead 2X. It expands upon the selection of single-cycle waves, offers new filter models and a revised effects section, but has a smaller memory. It also lacks the aftertouch of the Nord Lead 3 (which is a shocking omission, in my view) and has lost the VA drum kits from earlier models (which is not).
Despite its exotic name, the Mutator is merely a semi-random Program generator, similar in philosophy to, but more sophisticated than, the randomise buttons found on a handful of other synths. It offers three modes, Variation (each new version is based on the original Program), Mutation (each new version is based on any previous mutation) and Random. It's simple to use and, while I've never been a fan of 'serendipity programming' it can sometimes throw up an interesting result, although most of the time it demonstrates how useless the vast majority of combinations of parameter values are.
Like every Clavia keyboard that I've reviewed in recent years, the Nord Lead 4 takes advantage of the facilities offered by the Nord Sound Manager. When I first tried to run this, the synth wasn't recognised by the software, which asked me to "connect my Nord instrument to the USB port”. What was actually needed was the latest version of the Sound Manager, which I duly downloaded from www.clavia.se. The software then reported that the review unit was running the obsolete v1.03 operating system, so I quit, downloaded the latest OS, and upgraded to v1.10. Once everything was running, operation proved to be as painless as ever... perhaps more so since the Nord Lead 4 uses only a subset of the software's librarian capabilities.