Clavia Nord Modular v3.03 & MicroModular

Analogue Modelling Synths

Published in SOS July 2000
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Reviews : Synthesizer

One of the advantages of a software-based instrument is that it can evolve over time, as its makers add new algorithms and refinements. Clavia's Nord Modular has undergone exactly this process, and its editing software has also migrated to the Mac. Gordon Reid tries out the latest version, along with its baby brother, the MicroModular...

Clavia and I go back a long way. Indeed, the company's first keyboard appeared in March 1995, and I was delighted to conduct the first UK review of it in Sound On Sound. Those of you with complete collections of SOS will recall that I liked it a lot. And why not? It was the first of the DSP-driven 'physically modelled analogue' synths, and at a time when sounding like you were playing a Moog or an ARP meant that you were playing a Moog or an ARP, it was a revelation. Today, the Nord Lead's single 12MIPS 56002 looks almost as creaky as the discrete transistors it emulates, but no matter — it is still a fine machine, as are its descendants, the Nords 2 and 3.

If the Lead had limitations, they were obvious ones. Firstly, there was the 4-note polyphony. Then there was the lack of a screen or any editing software to illustrate the 'shift menu' controls. Another was the meagre provision of 40 programmable patch memories, and yet another concerned the filter (which refused to self-oscillate, no matter what the provocation). Then there was the lack of a sequencer, the lack of external patch storage (cards came later), the lack of effects... and, of course, the single 'physical' model of the instrument.

Fortunately, Clavia are not a company to sit still and in late 1997 they released the Nord Modular, a hybrid of synthesizer and PC that eliminated most of the Nord's deficiencies. It did this by the simple expedient of placing the editor and all the large-scale storage facilities on your computer, and freeing the, now considerably enhanced, DSP power for pure sound-generating duties. Paul Nagle was the lucky so-and-so to review the early version of this (see SOS April and May 1998) and he was as impressed with the early v1.1 Modular as I had been with its predecessor three years before. Since then, Clavia have been zealous in updating the Modular's operating system and editing software, and they have also released a rack version and a cut-down (in size, polyphony and cost) version called the MicroModular — see the 'Three Flavours Of Nord Modular' box.

Now, in 2000, we have v3 (actually, v3.03) of the Nord Modular. What's more, this isn't simply an update of the PC-based system: it's the first to run on a Macintosh, so this is a perfect opportunity to re-review the Modular, and see how well it has survived the transition between platforms.

CLAVIA NORD MODULAR £1299
pros
Mac compatibility (what more do I need to say?).
It's slick, enormous fun, and it sounds superb.
Huge synthesis power in a tiny space.
It remains a unique instrument.
cons
At least two major bugs still need correction.
No MIDI Thru.
No pitch-bend, modulation wheel or aftertouch on the Keyboard.
No way to enable/disable slots over MIDI.
summary
I love the Mac/Modular combination. It's impossible to specify exactly what it will do for you... it's too flexible to be categorised in a sentence or two. What it will never do, however, is bore you. Highly recommended.

Loading The Mac

Clavia have completely rewritten their editing software so that it will run on both PC (Windows 95/98, and NT4) and Macs supporting Mac OS 8.6 and later. However, the company are among the first to admit that some combinations of Modular hardware, editing software, Macintosh, Mac OS, MIDI interface, and MIDI drivers are problematic. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I loaded the Editor onto my G3/266 Powerbook running OS 9.0.4. (I had intended to use my aged Quadra 800 as the Editor platform, but a quick glance at the Nord manual put the kibosh on this. Version 3.03 only works on PowerPC machines.)

Once the software was in — a trivial operation — I plugged in my Passport MIDI interface, pressed Apple-M to configure the Editor's MIDI preferences, and... nothing. The Mac couldn't see the Modular hardware. No matter, it must be something simple...

Two hours later I had checked, re-checked and triple-checked my software, the software in the Modular itself, the continuity of my MIDI cables, and my MIDI drivers, all to no avail. As a final resort, I decided to download the latest version of OMS. A 'mere' 30 minutes and 2.6Mb later I had installed OMS v2.3.8 on my drive, and voilà! Instant success. The Powerbook could see the Modular, the Editor was active, and everything worked faultlessly.

Up To v2.1

At this point, I must ask you to read Paul's reviews from 1998, because a full assessment of the Modular would span a dozen pages, and you can find much of this in the early reviews. Since that time, the Modular has seen two significant updates.

Following the launch of the original system, 1999's v2.1 was a major upgrade. Whereas the original system boasted somewhat over 80 modules, this offered 107. Major new modules included an FM oscillator ideal for emulating DX-type sounds, and the Vocal Filter, which Clavia designed to imitate the vowel sounds of the human voice. Next on the list was a 14-band graphic EQ which exceeded the capabilities of similar analogue equalisers, and with much better band separation. In addition, there was the Digitiser (which 'dirties up' the signal by reducing the sample rate and resolution of the output), a Quantiser, and a Ring Modulator.

  Hooking It Up  
  The Modular has unique MIDI requirements. In short, the Editor running on your Macintosh requires a dedicated MIDI I/O pair that hooks directly to the Modular's PC In/Out sockets, and nowhere else. This is because a single Editor/Modular connection demands the whole MIDI bandwidth, even when it is not in obvious use. The consequence of this is that you can't use a single MIDI In/Out pair if you wish to sequence and edit the Modular simultaneously. This is a damn nuisance.

You have a number of options. Firstly, you could dedicate your Mac to editing duties, and have another computer take care of sequencing duties. Alternatively, you might be in a position to drive your sequences from a workstation. But most likely, you'll want to use your Mac for editing, sequencing, and any digital audio requirements. At this point, you'll need a multiple-I/O MIDI interface. Be warned, however, that many users have reported difficulties with numerous combinations of computer/interface/Modular. (See my comments in the main text about downloading OMS v2.3.8.) Potential bear-traps include Mac OS 9.0, earlier versions of OMS, USB, and some MidiSport, MOTU, Opcode, and Digidesign MIDI interfaces. If you're in any doubt about the reliability of your combination, it's best to try before you buy.

For the future, I can't see why Clavia don't shift the Editor interface over to USB or even FireWire. Either of these would handle the data requirements much more easily, and leave your MIDI connectors free for the job for which they were designed. What do you say, Clavia?

 
Given the increase of nearly 30 modules, it's clear that there's insufficient room here to describe all of them. However, we can't let v2.1 slip by without noting that Clavia also used this release to make a couple of existing modules more efficient (ie. they reduced the amount of DSP power needed to run them). The company even added a number of new Editor functions, implemented a bunch of other minor improvements to the modules, and provided a handful of bug-fixes. Of these, the memory list (which simplified patch selection) and the 'keyboard floater' — an on-screen mini-keyboard that allowed you to test and audition patches — were perhaps the most obvious.

...And Now v3.03

Moving on, it's v3 that really interests us. This is because, although it offers no new modules, v3 is the one that enables you to edit the Modular — and, for that matter, the MicroModular — using your Macintosh. So let's look at recent improvements in a bit more detail...

One of the most radical changes concerns the number of Modulars or MicroModulars that you can control from a single Editor. Whereas before it was just one lonely synth, the Editor can now support up to four hardware units simultaneously. Of course, this means that you need four pairs of MIDI Ins and Outs just to perform patch editing (see the 'Hooking It Up' box) but I like Clavia's confidence.

Another big step forward concerns patch storage within the Modular. This now benefits from a better data compression algorithm so the hardware can store more patches than before — up to 891, depending upon complexity. It's very different from the 100 memories of v1. Unfortunately, this enhancement does not apply to the MicroModular because it has 99 defined memories, no matter how simple or complex the patches within them.

Sticking with patch sizes for a moment, previous versions limited any given patch to 44 modules. In general, you would run out of DSP power long before this many modules appeared on the screen, but Clavia have removed the limitation nonetheless. I hope that this promises a more powerful Modular in the future — one on which 45 or more modules can coexist and operate happily within the power constraint.

As for the patches themselves, the big news in v3 concerns the Poly Voice and Common Voice areas. These allow you to divide your patches into two parts. The first contains the modules that are unique to each voice in the patch, while the second contains any that you wish to be common to the whole sound, such as choruses, compressors and so on. This can save significant DSP power, allowing you to build more complex architectures without sacrificing performance.

More obvious improvements stare out at you. Take the 'Knob Floater'. Whereas early versions used this only to create and check the links between the Editor's 'virtual' controls and the physical knobs on the Modular itself, it now works as a real-time controller within the Editor. Clavia claims that other enhancements "make it even easier to create, edit and overview your patches" and I'm prepared to accept this. I can't imagine working without v3's 'patch browser' (which simplifies saving, loading and storing patches within the Modular and the Editor) nor the multi-level Undo/Redo capabilities.

Finally, there are a number of minor but handy enhancements such as Mute and Bypass buttons in some modules. Unfortunately (and, I suppose, inevitably) some useful functions have bitten the dust between v2.1 and v3.03. Some of these may return later, while others may be gone for good. Examples include the Help Files (I understand that they will be posted on Clavia's home page as soon as they are ready) the Print function, the Delete All Visible Cables function, and the MIDI Tester. Clavia have posted a full list of these omissions on their web site.

  Three Flavours Of Nord Modular  
  There are three models in the Modular range: the Keyboard, Rack, and MicroModular. Essentially the same device, the Keyboard and Rack each have four DSPs, whereas the MicroModular has just one. You can expand the Modulars, but not the MicroModular, up to eight DSPs using the Voice Expansion Board. This doubles the available polyphony, but does not allow you to create patches of any greater complexity.

Now, let's dispel a myth. Some people believe that you can create architectures of greater complexity on the Modular. This is not the case, and there is no sonic difference (in terms of the flexibility of configuration or quality of any given patch) between the MicroModular and the full Modular. Each of the four 'slots' in the Modular has the same strengths and limitations as the single slot of the MicroModular.

So, are there any non-audio differences between the Modulars and their smaller sibling? Well, yes. More than just four MicroModulars in a box, the Modulars offer multitimbrality, more memories, more knobs, an enhanced display, and a certain amount of editing from the front panel.

If you can afford the Rack, then I recommend that you raise the small amount of extra cash for the Keyboard. The Rack is only for players with space problems, or those who have a specific reason for wanting the synth housed in a rack. As for the MicroModular... it's so tiny, so cute, and so affordable that I'm sure you'll want one of those too!

 

In Use

The first thing you must remember when programming and using the Modular is that the Macintosh-based Editor remains merely an editor, (Well, there's nothing 'mere' about it, but you know what I mean.) This means that you can disconnect the Modular from the computer and use it as a fully functional, self-contained synthesizer. OK, it only has a two-octave keyboard and 18 controls, and it loses all the architectural controls within the Editor, but there's nothing stopping you from using it as a powerful prepatched synth. Indeed, add a 'knobby' MIDI controller to the on-board controls, and you're in twiddly business.

The second thing you must remember is that the Modular is millions of synthesizers in a box. Think of it like this: vintage synths have but a single architecture, and when you talk about 'patching' them, you are merely talking about setting the positions of a handful of knobs and switches. In contrast, when you use the Macintosh to patch the Nord Modular, you can create completely new architectures. Consequently, there's nothing stopping you from recreating a Minimoog in the Editor and then spending the rest of your days playing the millions of sounds that it will produce — just as you would the real thing. However, that would be a waste, because the Modular allows you to configure ARPs, Korgs, Rolands, polyphonic Prophets, Oberheims, Crumars and Yamahas, plus a zillion other architectures that never existed before.

So how does it all work? In a word... it's superb. Indeed, the Mac/Modular combination is so flexible and so slick that I find it difficult to review it in a conventional sense. After all, which synth should I review? The punchy triple-oscillator monosynth? The over-endowed dual-oscillator polysynth? The FM synth? The additive synth? They're all in the Nord Modular, as are innumerable others. You can even use its short delay lines to create 'virtual' resonant bodies, thus paving the way for physical modelling (see 'Using The Delays' box).

The Modular is also a powerful effects unit,so you can use it to enhance, mangle, EQ, or otherwise affect any signals you care to direct into its dual external signal inputs. Furthermore, you can use the inputs and outputs as an effects loop which you can place anywhere in a patch. This is very powerful stuff.

  Loading Patches Created On Earlier Operating Systems And Editors  
  As you might expect, the Modular's patch structure has changed significantly over the past couple of years. Fortunately, v3 opens all v2.10 patches faultlessly. Furthermore, it seems that you can retrieve all your v2.00 patches simply by loading them into SimpleText and manually changing the version number to 2.10. Your shiny new v3 will then recognise them as v2.10 and open them without question. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to open v1 patches directly into v3.xx. You must load them into v2.1, save them again, and then load them into v3.xx.

However, be aware that, due to changes in the design of individual modules, some v2.xx patches may exceed the 100 percent DSP load limit in v3.xx. You will then need to edit or simplify them before a sound will emerge. Usually, you can do this without changing the fundamental nature of the patch (for example, by replacing oscillators with slaves) but sometimes it isn't possible.

 

So, How Does It Sound?

That the Modular is supremely powerful is without question. However, some people have complained that its filters 'lack bite' or some other such anorak nonsense. If this has any validity, it's because an inordinate — nay, ridiculous — amount of time is wasted by those same anoraks poring over every detail of the filters, almost as if nothing else matters. Of course, these are a very powerful and important part of an instrument's character, but you should remember that FM and additive synths, as well as some S+S workstations, have none.

Of the 11 filter types in the Modular, the Classic Filter 'F' is the smoothest and 'roundest', and undoubtedly the one to use in your emulations of vintage synthesizers. Take Patch 1, shown in the screenshot on page 184, as an example. This uses three oscillators, an LFO, a Classic Filter in 24dB/octave mode, two ADSRs and a touch of overdrive to recreate the classic Moog bass sound. If this architecture looks a little familiar, so it should. It's a Minimoog. Furthermore, as you can see from the 'Knob Floater', you can control the filter cut-off frequency, filter resonance, and output level using three of the Modular's front-panel knobs. Excellent!

Good as patches like this Moog bass are, I found the more esoteric filters far more interesting. In particular, the Vocal Filter and Vocoder are the sources of some gorgeous sounds, spoilt only by occasional digital artefacts that creep in when you modulate them using LFOs and the like. Patch 2, which uses both of these, is one of my own, and is a beautifully simple example of this (see screenshot above).

Patch 3, shown on page 187, is another of my favourites — an excellent recreation of the classic FM piano. As you can see, it's considerably more complex than the other examples, but it still consumes less than 49 percent of the available DSP power in just one slot.

  Editing WithoutThe Editor  
  Front panel editing on the Modular is a bit 'hit or hiss'.If you press the Edit button, the first port of call is always the MorphGroup in the header bar. Then, when you use the Shift-Navigator controls to move around the patch, you do so as the patch would be displayed on the Editor screen. Unfortunately, you don't have the Editor to refer to so it's unlikely that you'll know which module lies where. With care, practise, and a certain amount of constancy in your patch architectures, you can move around your patches and edit them from the Modular itself. But it's never going to be easy.  
Shortcomings

Up to now, I have written almost universally in praise of the Modular. It's strange, therefore, that I can create a substantial list of its shortcomings, bugs, and omissions.

Starting with the bugs, let's review two biggies. The first is obvious as soon as you start creating new architectures within the Editor. Create a patch and set it to drone. Then add a new module. On numerous occasions, you'll hear the sound change — sometimes quite dramatically — even before you connect anything to the new module! Scary. The second concerns Slot 'D'. Dump a patch into Slots A, B or C and it always sounds the same. Stick the same patch into Slot D and, on occasion, it will refuse to play every second note. This is not good.

There are minor bugs too. For example, if you modulate an oscillator using the conventional modulation inputs, its slaves are modulated too. But if you use the FM input on the oscillator, the slaves are unaffected. Weird!

As far as frustrating omissions are concerned, I think that the lack of mod-wheel, pitch-bend and aftertouch on the Modular Keyboard wins first prize and a gold star. Honourable contenders for runners' up prizes include the lack of an arpeggiator, the lack of digital outputs, and the lack of a 'MIDI clock to LFO' capability. The award for being a pain in the posterior goes to the lack of a MIDI Thru, making it impossible to place the Modular anywhere but at the end of a MIDI chain. Given that it already needs a dedicated MIDI interface for the Editor, this is just taking the mickey.

Have I stopped complaining? Sorry, no. There's no way to enable or disable slots using a sequencer command. The best you can do is to send an empty patch to the Slot you wish to silence — an operation that causes a glitch in the output of all four Slots. (This is because the Modular optimises its use of the DSPs every time the architecture of any slot is changed.) Clavia have confirmed that they hope to address this in a future revision, but until then... well, it's another pain in the you-know-where.

While I'm on my soapbox, I think that Clavia should consider two other enhancements. One is relatively simple: to be able to type parameter values from the keyboard; the other would be for user-definable configurations — building blocks of, say, half a dozen modules — that you could use to create larger architectures more quickly.

  Using The Delays  
  The Modular's delay lines are extremely short (maximum length, 2.65mS — approximately 1/400th of a second) because there is no RAM in the Modular other than that which is integral to the DSPs themselves. Why Clavia restricted the Modular in this way is a mystery but, whatever the reason, it means that there are no recognisable echoes lurking within it. Indeed, used conventionally, the delay time is only adequate for effects such as comb filtering.

Perhaps the most innovative use for the Delays is to construct primitive physical models. You do this by invoking a number of Delays simultaneously and using mixers to feed their outputs back upon themselves. Carefully set up, these then act as resonators and produce audio-frequency outputs. If you then control the delay times using the keyboard you can 'play' the resulting pitches as you would a self-oscillating filter.

Next, you can add further looped Delays to act as static resonators (like the wood of a violin, or the bore of a wind instrument). If you then combine both sets of Delays... well, it's probably a horrible noise, but with practice, you can generate some very interesting sounds. I love the irony of this: you are configuring a powerful DSP model of an analogue synthesizer to imitate in analogue fashion the powerful digital methods used to imitate 'real' analogue instruments. Delicious!

 

Conclusions

The Nord Modular may be inspired by traditional modular synthesis, but it reaches way, way beyond the confines of '60s and '70s modular synthesis. For every Moog-like sound lurking within it, there are a thousand new sounds beyond the dreams of a traditional synth. However, complex as it can be, the Modular is a doddle to understand and program. Almost before you open the manual (which is far better than most) you can simply mess around until you stumble across something interesting. Of course, you can cheat, sticking with the 600 factory patches, or by downloading any of the thousands available on the Internet. But what a waste that would be!

I think that the best way to summarise the Mac/Modular combination is like this: it's the synth most likely to make you a social outcast. I doubt that there's an owner anywhere that hasn't slipped out of bed, donned headphones, and indulged in a few wee hours of gratuitous experimentation.

Mind you, if your prime purpose for owning a polysynth is conventional songwriting or accompaniment, the Modular is probably not the instrument for you. If, on the other hand, sound design excites you (as it does me) you'll soon be addicted. Sure, instant gratification is not always on the menu, but long-term satisfaction is almost guaranteed. Just don't blame me when your friends complain that they haven't seen you for months.

  Specifications  
  Nord Modular Keyboard And Modular Rack:
• Polyphony: Minimum 4 voices, maximum 32 (depending upon patch complexity).
• Multitimbrality: 4-part.
• Operating System: Held in Flash ROM, upgradeable from PC or Mac.
• Memories: Up to 891, depending upon patch complexity.
• Data: 96kHz sampling rate, with 24-bit resolution.
• MIDI: In/Out only.
• MIDI Controllers: All parameters transmit and receive MIDI CCs.
• Hardware controllers: 18 user-assignable knobs, plus dedicated function buttons.
• Screen: 2 x 16-character LCD.
• Audio Inputs: Dual 16-bit, 48kHz analogue inputs.
• Audio Outputs: Four assignable outputs with 18-bit DACs, 96kHz sampling frequency.
• Control Inputs: Control pedal, Sustain or ON/Off pedal inputs.
• Keyboard: Two-octave, velocity-sensitive (keyboard version only, of course).

MicroModular Differences:
• Polyphony: Typical maximum 4 voices (depending upon patch complexity).
• Hardware controllers: 3 user-assignable knobs, plus one user-assignable button.
• Screen: 2 x 7-segment LED.
• Memories: 99.

 

 information
Keyboard £1299; Rack £1149; MicroModular £375; Modular DSP upgrade £329. Prices include VAT.
Hand In Hand
+44 (0)1245 225538.
+44 (0)1245 225701.
Click here to email
www.clavia.se/nordmodular/

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