Clavia Nord Lead 3

Advanced Subtractive Performance Synthesizer

Published in SOS July 2001
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Reviews : Keyboard

Clavia's new third-generation Nord Lead synthesizer augments its familiar virtual analogue modelling with enhanced FM synthesis capabilities, and introduces a striking new visual twist to the usual controller-rich Nord user interface. Simon Trask trips the light fantastic with Clavia's new Lead...

It was six years ago that a small Swedish company by the name of Clavia propelled itself onto the world stage with its Nord Lead synthesizer. At the vanguard of the 'real synth' renaissance in the latter half of the '90s, the Nord Lead included all the key elements of that renaissance: physical modelling of classic analogue subtractive synthesis, the controller-rich front panel for 'hands-on' editing, and stylish and striking case design, with an evocative name thrown in. Oh, and it was European in its parentage, if American in its ancestral heritage. For this renaissance has also been about the rebirth of the European synth industry, and Clavia can take credit for kick-starting that as well with its famous 'red synth'. While subsequent years have seen a slew of virtual analogue synths from European and Japanese manufacturers come onto the market, with the Nord Lead and its various siblings Clavia is in the enviable position of having a synth 'brand' that has proved to be uniquely and durably desirable to musicians. The company followed the release of the original model with an expander board that increased the original modest four-voice polyphony to 12 voices and added PCMCIA card-based patch storage via a rear-panel slot. Version 2.0 OS software (which required a new EPROM chip) was also released, introducing a number of tweaks such as an additional filter type, aftertouch sensitivity via MIDI, a synth-generated delay effect, a random arpeggio mode, and arpeggio note transmission via MIDI, along with 10 analogue percussion kit Programs in ROM.

Then, two years after the release of the original Nord came the Nord Lead 2. This provided 16-voice polyphony and a rear-panel PCMCIA memory card slot as standard, upped the number of audio outs from two to four, added a second rear-panel foot controller input, introduced two-way keyboard splits, and added new sonic features such as a sine wave option and sync'able noise in the oscillator section, distortion, and more keyboard tracking options in the filter section. Essentially it was an evolution of the original Nord and subsequent expander and 2.0 software.

The Nord Lead 2 was released in 1997, so it's taken twice as long for Clavia to come up with the next Nord Lead. In the meantime the company has turned to the interfacing and integration of hardware and computer-based software with the Nord Modular and Nord Micro Modular, and introduced the Nord Electro, a performance instrument dedicated to reproducing classic electro-mechanical organ and electric piano instruments (look out for an SOS review soon!).

So does the long wait for the Nord Lead 3 mean that we can expect any dramatic advances or changes in the Lead concept and functionality? Or, like the Lead 2, is the latest model an evolutionary instrument? Clavia came up with a winning recipe when they developed the original instrument, and the challenge in keeping the Lead line going is perhaps to not upset the overall flavour, but throw in enough new ingredients to keep it fresh and still relevant in a changing world.

CLAVIA NORD LEAD 3 £1895
pros
Adds further sonic versatility while preserving the characteristic Nord sounds.
Easy-to-edit, intuitive interface.
Synthesis parameters are MIDI-transmittable.
Responsive keyboard.
Looks great, especially with the useful LED collars.
User-upgradable OS.
FM synthesis capability.
cons
Relatively expensive.
No onboard effects processing.
summary
Another evolutionary step for the Nord Lead concept, rather than a revolutionary leap. The new Lead will please fans of Clavia's synth by improving on the winning formula while remaining reassuringly the same. Whether it will win over significant numbers of new converts, especially given its price, is another matter.

Flashy Looker

The first thing to notice about the Nord Lead 3 is that Clavia have kept to essentially the same 'red synth' design. The front-panel layout has been rejigged a bit, but the overall appearance will be very familiar to Lead users. Consequently Clavia's Lead synth looks as desirable as ever. The sprung wooden Pitch Stick and thin mod/morph wheel controller are still in place, but just above them you'll notice a new feature: the Nord Lead has finally got an LCD screen. Appropriately enough, perhaps, it's an '80s 'retro' two-by-16-character backlit affair; Clavia are having nothing to do with large graphical touchscreens (although probably large graphical touchscreens will be considered retro one day). One of the nice consequences of having the LCD is that you get a display of Patch, Performance and parameter names. Four mode buttons above the display — Master Clock, MIDI, Synth, and Sound — operate in conjunction with the adjacent up/down/left/right Navigator buttons and the large parameter value Edit/Patch Select knob to navigate you around a relatively small number of parameters in the display. Because the synthesis parameter editing is done via the wealth of dedicated front-panel knobs and buttons in the main panel, and the Nord Lead doesn't have a huge number of parameters beyond the patch edits, parameter editing via the LCD isn't particularly arduous.

Clavia have kept the four-octave keyboard span of the Lead 3's predecessors (though like them, it has a five-position Octave Shift function on the front panel to give an effective span of eight octaves). This in turn means that the synth retains its 'cutely compact' size and balance of proportions. However, for the first time the Nord Lead series gets an aftertouch-sensitive keyboard. The keyboard action is light yet not insubstantial, and has a sprightly bounce to it, while the travel is reasonably deep, so you need to pick up those fingers and thumbs and articulate clearly. All in all, it's quite a satisfying keyboard to play.

Lights Fantastic

Getting back to the looks, easily the most striking visual aspect of the new Lead is the colourful latticework of red and yellow-green LEDs that lights up in the main synthesis editing panel. For the most part, this is down to a new feature on the Lead 3 — the stepped circular LED 'collars' around all 26 sound editing knobs, which illuminate in segments to show the current position of the control. The knobs themselves are of the infinite rotary type (ie. you can keep twisting them round in either direction). The LED collars themselves do have start and stop points, roughly speaking at the five and seven o'clock positions.

When you call up a Program, the appropriate LEDs light up in each collar to roughly indicate the associated parameter value. For the most part these are red; however, if the parameter value is zero then the LED is yellow-green. Because the there is no physical position as such for each knob, when you twist a knob it automatically 'picks up' the LED parameter position and 'moves' the collar LEDs in the direction that it's being turned. It's a very neat (though presumably not cheap) solution to the problem of how to reconcile physical controllers with virtual parameters and at the same time provide meaningful visual feedback on parameter settings. And at the same time, the profusion of LEDs means that the front panel is lit up like a Christmas tree, especially in the dark. Perhaps most strikingly of all, thanks to the Nord Lead 3's multi-parameter morphing function, when you move the wheel you can get multiple LED sweeps all going on at once, in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, depending on the parameter polarity. It's a great kinetic effect, especially if you're using the wheel to create rhythmically pulsing timbral effects. And it also has the advantage that you can see at a glance which parameters are being controlled from the wheel. Software synths would kill to have a hardware control surface like this.

  Synthesis Architecture & Audio Outputs  
  Like its predecessors, the Nord Lead 3 is rooted in DSP-based modelling of classic subtractive analogue synthesis, and champions the sort of knob-intensive dedicated parameter access that got lost during the '80s in the transition from analogue to digital synths. Essentially, then, the synthesis architecture is comprised of two oscillators routed via a mixer through a filter and an amplifier, with modulation from filter and amplitude envelopes, two LFOs and associated modulation sources. However, the oscillator section can also be turned into a two- or four-operator FM synth whose output is routed through the filter and amplifier sections.

This synthesis architecture generates Programs, or synth patches, which can be stored in up to 1024 (8 x 128) onboard memories — representing a major increase in the available writable memories over previous models. Like the earlier Leads, the Nord Lead 3 has four Slots, labelled A-D and accessible from dedicated front-panel buttons, and each Slot can be assigned one Program. When you press an individual Slot button, its parameter settings are automatically assigned to the front-panel knobs and buttons for editing (you'll see the LED settings change). The assigned Slot is the individual one selected or, where more than one Slot is active, the one whose associated LED is flashing.

Being able to assign up to four Programs to the keyboard using Slot selection enables keyboard layers and (now, on the Lead 3 only) split textures to be created quickly and easily. When Keyboard Split mode is enabled, the Slot A and B Programs fall to the left of the (user-definable) split point and the Slot C and D Programs to the right. These Slots don't just point to the Programs but contain copies of the Program data, which can be edited individually within the Slots. Again as on the previous models, the four Slots can be accessed multitimbrally via MIDI, enabling up to four Programs to be played independently, with dynamic voice allocation.

Performances let you store combinations of Programs that you assign to the four Slots, along with associated performance, split/layer and other settings such as control pedal assignments, audio output routing, pitch-bend range, master tempo, and the Slot active for editing. The Nord Lead 3 has 256 onboard Performance memories, giving you ready access to a great variety of split and/or layered textures or MIDI multimbral ensembles, and greatly increasing the sonic versatility and power of the synth.

The Nord Lead 3 increases the number of audio outs to four from the two of its predecessors. You can assign each Slot to any one of the four outs (by selecting M1-M4) as a mono signal, or assign it as a stereo signal to Outs A and B (by selecting S1) or C and D (S2). If you want all four signals automatically summed to a single (mono) out, plug a cable into Out B only.

 

Performing Lead

Where the previous Nord Lead models were designated Lead Synthesizers by Clavia, the Nord Lead 3 is entitled Performance Synthesizer instead. This no doubt reflects the fact that the synth is no longer solely useful for monophonic leads as a result of the growth in its polyphony (it's now up to 24 notes — see the 'Quick Spec' box at the end of this review). Presumably, Clavia have retained the Nord Lead name, rather than opting for, say, the Nord Ensemble, for continuity reasons. However, they're also seeking to emphasise the keyboard performance aspect, with ready access to new features such as glide (mono or poly), mono (high or low priority), legato (mono or poly) and vibrato (from wheel or aftertouch), as well as the established arpeggiator (on/off, rate, and keyboard, internal master or MIDI sync, plus up, down, up/down and random directions, and a range of 1-4 octaves). You can even enable these options individually for each of the four patch Slots A-D, to which Programs are assigned for keyboard split and layer performances (see the box on synth architecture above). Each Slot can even have its own arpeggio settings; together with the other slot-assignable functions, this opens up a wide range of live performance possibilities. Other useful new features are Keyboard Hold and the Chord Memoriser (both accessible from dedicated buttons below the LCD window). If you enable Keyboard Hold, any note(s) you play on the keyboard will be sustained until you play one or more other notes, which in turn will be sustained. In conjunction with the arpeggiator, this acts as an arpeggio latch function. The Chord Memoriser function remembers any group of notes being played on the keyboard when you press its button; you can then trigger the chord from individual keys (suitably transposed of course). This function can be turned on or off for individual Slots. What's more, if you play the same note(s) multiple times while holding Shift and Chord Memoriser, you can stack voices to create bigger sounds.

  The Internet Connection  
  Upgrading the operating system software on the previous Nord Leads required a new EPROM chip to be fitted, and by a dealer for warranty reasons. However, with the Nord Lead 3 Clavia have stored the OS software in Flash RAM, which means that it can be overwritten whenever a newer version comes out. OS update files can be uploaded into the synth via MIDI as SysEx data dumps and written to the RAM. So no third-party intervention is now needed.

First, however, you need access to an Internet-connected computer in order to be able to download the latest update from Clavia's web site. The data is provided as a MID file, which means it can be loaded into most, if not all MIDI sequencing software (Clavia say they will also be making available a special OS Dump Utility for Windows and Mac users). First, you put the synth in Receive mode, by holding down the Performance Mode and Store buttons while switching on the synth), then press Play on your sequencer. The data is then played out over MIDI in real time. A status bar in the synth's LED window keeps you informed of progress, and is followed by messages telling you that the Flash RAM is being erased and written with the new data. The Nord Lead 3 then does a quick software reboot, after which you're up and running with the new OS, without any need even to turn the synth off and on again.

The instructions for the OS update are to be found in a sub-directory of Clavia's web site (www.clavia.se/nordlead3/softupdates.htm) and in a 'Readme' file available for download on the page; this file also contains a history list of new features and bug fixes. SOS's review model came with version 0.98 OS software installed, but Clavia had posted version 1.04 on its web site, so I took the opportunity to check out the updating process and found it to be straightforward and smooth-running. And while you might perhaps think the OS file would run to megabytes of data, it's actually a surprisingly small 158K. If you run your sequencer at 120bpm, the MIDI transfer takes a couple of minutes; Clavia suggest that you slow your sequencer down if you have any transfer problems, but I found everything OK at 120bpm.

Providing such ready software upgradability and putting it in the hands of the users of course raises the spectre of customer as eternal beta-tester. However, while each new OS version so far has included some bug fixes, the Nord Lead 3 — at version 1.04, anyway — doesn't feel like an instrument which is incomplete or sub-standard. And each new version has also included new or enhanced features — most dramatically, perhaps, the increase of polyphony from 18 to 24 voices which happened with v0.98.

Also available for download from the Clavia web site is the latest version of the Nord Lead 3 manual in PDF format. In sharp contrast to the OS file, the manual file runs to almost 7Mb in size (or a bit over 6Mb if you choose the zipped version). That's a fairly hefty download on a dial-up connection, but it's worth it. The synth does come with a spiralbound printed manual, but the PDF version has the advantage of Find searchability and clickable links in the Table Of Contents, the Index and the body of the document. You can also download the factory Programs from the web site, and Clavia says it will be making new sets available for free download.

 

FM Returns!

While Clavia's newest Lead has style aplenty, ultimately it needs to be backed up by substance. The Nord Lead's strength, and ultimately the reason for its durability, has always been that it has real sonic substance to back up the style. Clavia have even dropped the Virtual Analogue tag in favour of Advanced Subtractive because, as they put it in the manual, "it can do so much more".

Falling firmly into the "so much more" category, the basic FM capability of the previous models is expanded somewhat on the new Nord Lead by the introduction of a new Dual Sine FM option for the oscillators and an associated ability for the two oscillators to be combined in a four-operator configuration. Clavia have also introduced a new FM mode called Differential FM, which is the type of FM that Yamaha used in its DX synths. FM on the Nord Lead 3 is not as sophisticated as Yamaha's six-operator implementation with its multiple algorithms (ie. operator configurations), but it's worth bearing in mind that you can use FM in one oscillator together with traditional analogue in the other, and route both through a versatile multi-mode analogue-modelled filter. Yamaha didn't add traditional filtering to the FM mix until the SY85 in the early '90s, at which time it seemed like an acknowledgement of the failure of FM in the face of sample-based subtractive synthesis.

  Nord Lead 3: Quick Spec  
  • Synthesis: subtractive 'virtual analogue' and FM.
• Polyphony: 24 voices.
• Multitimbrality: four-part.
• Keyboard: 49 keys, attack velocity- and channel aftertouch-sensitive.
• Programs: 1024 (8 x 128).
• Performances: 256 (2 x 128).
• Arpeggiator: Yes.
• Effects: No.
• Sequencer: No.
• Disk drive: No.
• Audio inputs: No.
• Display: Two-by-16-character backlit LCD, three-digit LED.
• Top-panel controllers: Pitch Stick, Mod Wheel.
• Rear Panel: Control pedal and sustain pedal inputs; Audio outs A, B/Mono, C and D; MIDI In, Out and Thru; stereo headphone output (see below).
 
The Nord Lead remains resolutely sample-free, and while the reintroduction of FM has a certain retro '80s appeal, it more importantly highlights the enduring sonic uniqueness and validity of FM synthesis (see 'The Bluffer's Guide to FM' box in the review of the Yamaha DX200, elsewhere in this month's SOS). And it seems entirely appropriate that Clavia should have opted to utilise FM rather than go the Yamaha and Korg route of integrating modelled acoustic instruments alongside modelled analogue synthesis. The Nord Lead is about creating interesting electronic synth sounds, and FM fits in well with that modus operandi. In fact, the revelation of the Nord Lead is that it gives FM synthesis the real-time editability and responsiveness that it always deserved but lacked. Anyone who ever got a headache as a result of trying to edit FM sounds via the poky interface and endless button-pushing on Yamaha's original DX synths will appreciate this. And it's an object lesson in what a difference a user interface can make. When you're twisting parameter knobs and listening to the real-time sonic interaction of the parameters, you're just dealing in sound, not mathematical abstractions. I'd love to see Clavia do a full-blown virtual implementation of FM synthesis like Yamaha, but with a Nord-style front panel and interactivity.

As it is, the FM synthesis on the Nord Lead 3 still offers plenty of sonic versatility, and lets you create, for instance, classic FM electric pianos and basses, bell-like sounds and metallic drones. Both oscillators can be independently put into Dual Sine FM mode. Oscillator 1 has a simpler implementation, in that the Carrier and Modulator represented by the two sine waves have a fixed 1:1 frequency relationship. With Oscillator 2, you can change the coarse (partial) tuning of the Carrier and the fine-tuning of the Modulator. When both oscillators are in Dual Sine FM mode, you can use the Osc Mod knob to set the amount by which the output of the (modulated) Oscillator 2 Carrier modulates the Oscillator 1 Carrier — effectively creating a four-operator configuration.

The Nord Lead 3 lets you select from six different types of oscillator modulation for each of the two oscillators. I've already mentioned FM and Differential FM. Ring Modulation will also be familiar from the Nord Lead 2. However, there are three other options. The fourth is Filter Frequency Modulation, in which the signal of Oscillator 2 frequency-modulates the cutoff frequency parameters Frequency 1 and Frequency 2 in the Filter section. With the fifth, Distortion, the mixed output from the two oscillators is routed through a distortion processor, with the Modulation knob controlling the amount of clip distortion. Finally, there is Distortion Modulation, in which the combined output of the two oscillators is amplitude-modulated by a third, 'hidden' oscillator whose pitch is controlled by the Modulation knob, and the result is routed through a distortion processor — a good way to create weird enharmonic sounds. You can readily switch through all these options from a single button and audition the results, allowing you to try out a wide range of sounds from the same source material.

Another area in which the Nord Lead 3 has been developed significantly from its predecessors is the filter section. You now have a choice of Single Filter and Multi Filter modes. The former gives you a choice of six filter types: Band-pass, High-Pass, Low-pass, Band-Reject, Classic (a Minimoog-style low-pass filter), and Distortion Low-pass (a low-pass filter with adjustable feedback loop for overdrive-type distortion). 24db, 12db and 6db roll-off options are available, you have filter cutoff and resonance knobs, and you can turn keyboard tracking on or off.

Alternatively you can select the Multi Filter Mode, which gives you six options that represent various combinations of filter types in parallel or series, with predefined roll-offs. Here the Freq2/Distortion knob lets you set a second cutoff frequency for the additional filter. All these options significantly increase the range of sounds you can generate, and as with the oscillator mode selections, you can quickly audition the various options from the dedicated 'multi-step' buttons.

The Unison feature is worth a mention, as it has undergone significant development. When you activate this feature from its dedicated front-panel button (which you can do per Slot within a Program), you get five simultaneous voices per note, with two in the left channel, two in the right, and one in the centre, giving a good stereo spread. You can detune these voices against one another using the Detune knob to fatten up the sound. But even more impressively, Unison mode doesn't reduce the available polyphony — playing a single Program in Unison mode still gives you 24 voices!

Finally, the Morph function, which on the Nord Lead 2 lets you create two 'snapshots' of synthesis parameter settings and 'morph' between them from the modulation wheel has now metamorphosed, so to speak, into a Multi-Morph function, in which you can create four Morph Groups, each able to change up to 26 parameters. In addition to the modulation wheel you can control separate morphs from keyboard velocity, keyboard range, and aftertouch/control pedal. This can get pretty amazing, because you can use these morphs together. So you can be generating one morph from aftertouch while at the same time moving the mod wheel to generate another morph. In each case the morph isn't just a straight A-B change, but is relative to the position of the controller at any given moment, so you have a fine degree of control over the multi-morphed sound.

Conclusions

Clavia have done a fine job of developing and enhancing the sonic versatility and flexibility of the Nord Lead in a way which could be described as organic — existing Nord Lead users will find the Nord Lead 3 a natural outgrowth or extension of their instrument, and will take to it like the proverbial duck to water. The enhanced FM synthesis capabilities, new oscillator modes and new filtering options are all welcome additions, and particularly effective is the way the FM-generated sounds blend into the overall rich, warm sonic character of the synth, while giving it a broader range. And it's good to see that Clavia have responded to criticisms of the earlier Leads by providing keyboard aftertouch control, an additional two audio outs, a MIDI Thru socket, an LED window, and a much healthier number of Program and Performance memories. Also praiseworthy is the ability for users to upgrade the OS themselves via the Internet.

On the other hand, the Nord Lead 3 is a pricey instrument but it still doesn't have features taken for granted on many other synths, namely built-in multi-effects processing, an onboard multitrack sequencer, and a disk drive. Whether or not the absence of these features matters on a purist's synthesizer like the Nord Lead, which certainly isn't trying to be an all-singing all-dancing workstation, is ultimately an individual decision.

All in all, though, the Nord Lead 3 is a worthy if not earth-shattering or mould-breaking addition to the Lead series.

  Previously in SOS...  
  • NORD LEAD REVIEW: MAY 1995
www.soundonsound.com/sos/1995_articles/may95/clavianordlead.html

• NORD LEAD V2 OS: DECEMBER 1996
www.soundonsound.com/sos/1996_articles/dec96/clavianordleadv2.html

• NORD LEAD 2: SEPTEMBER 1997
www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/sep97/clavianordlead2.html

 

 information
Nord Lead 3 keyboard £1895; rack £1695.
Prices include VAT.
Hand in Hand Distribution
+44 (0)1245 225538.
+44 (0)1245 222873.
Click here to email
www.handinhand.uk.net
www.clavia.se

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