Clavia's new drum box takes a typically idiosyncratic approach to percussion synthesis.
The vast majority of SOS readers will be very familiar with the Nord range from Clavia. Their distinctive red and black livery is a prominent feature in many a studio and live setup, whether it's adorning the flagship Nord Stage 2 keyboard or a blast from the past in the form of the original ground-breaking Nord Lead synth, first introduced in 1993. But Clavia go back even further than that — way back to 1983, in fact, when they were best known as manufacturers of the Ddrum range of electronic drum modules, triggers and kits.
Ddrum were at the cutting edge of professional electronic drumming, creating the first pad featuring real drum heads and hoops. They remained under the Clavia banner until they sold to US company Armadillo, who continue to manufacture drum products under the name. So the introduction of the Nord Drum sees Clavia returning to their percussion roots, but with a very modern twist.
The first thing that strikes you about the Nord Drum, which is described as a four-channel, virtual-analogue drum synthesizer, is that it's quite a bit smaller than you might expect, at a mere eight inches wide. That's not a bad thing, of course and, like all Nord products, it's certainly a very well-made and solid piece of equipment, housed, as it is, in an all‑metal casing. In addition to the obvious colour scheme, it has a very familiar Nord look and feel, with very solid, tactile buttons, knobs and bright LED display.
The unit ships with a plastic (but solid) base-plate, which screws into the bottom of the module, enabling it to be easily fixed to a stand. Not only is this extremely handy, but in my experience of electronic percussion it's the kind of thing that can often be an expensive 'extra' that you need to purchase.
The rear of the Nord Drum is fairly sparsely populated. In addition to the four trigger inputs and the power socket, you simply have a MIDI In, MIDI Out and a single audio output jack. Yes... just a single mono audio output. We shall debate the practicalities of this later, but for now I'll merely leave it as pointed out!
The front-panel layout is uncluttered and easy to navigate. A bank of eight reassuringly solid, clicky buttons stretches across the middle of the unit, enabling direct access to the various editing parameters. The parameters themselves are split into two rows, with a simple Row Select button to switch between them. A red LED is located next to each parameter, making it very clear exactly which is currently selected.
A large data-entry dial located below the buttons is used to adjust the selected parameter values and scroll through the presets. This has a really nice feel to it and, in the absence of '+' and '-' buttons, works equally well with both small and large increments.
The Nord Drum is a four-channel design, meaning that it can only produce four simultaneous sounds. This may appear limited in today's world of virtually unlimited tracks, voices and performances but that really isn't what this unit is all about. The only possible area where you may want another voice is for open and closed hi-hats, but as the Nord Drum doesn't feature a 'hi-hat' mode, it's not really an issue.
The Channel Select button at the top-right corner switches between the four voices (or 'channels'), so you can select the one you want to edit or audition. Again, as with the parameters, the channel selection is indicated by an LED. These LEDs, in conjunction with an additional row above, also illuminate to indicate the trigger input level.
Interestingly, the four channels are not labelled kick, snare, tom 1, and so on. The reason for this becomes increasingly apparent as you start to scroll through the presets of the instrument...
Play That Funky Music
The Nord Drum features 99 preset locations. Slots zero to 80 are filled with the factory presets and the last 19 are left empty to allow you to store your own creations without having to overwrite anything. The large scroll-wheel allows quick access to all the presets, which you can seamlessly browse through while playing, for quick and easy auditioning.
Each preset comprises four individual voices that can be played either via MIDI, the trigger inputs, or a combination of the two. For editing purposes, you can also audition any of the four voices, using the Trig button on the front panel.
The Nord Drum is no slouch when it comes to 'drum kit'-style sounds, many of which are surprisingly 'acoustic' sounding, but this is just a fraction of what it can do. There is an amazing array of drum and percussion sounds crammed into this tiny package, from the instantly recognisable to the truly indescribable! Every one, as you'd expect from a product bearing the Nord name, is big, solid and sonically awesome.
The presets are grouped into four Styles: Real, Retro, Ethno and FX. These are then categorised into Drums (Presets ideally suited to using in conjunction with an acoustic kit); Percussion (Presets suited to playing directly from a set of pads); and Kit (Presets featuring a Kick/Snare/Hi-Hat configuration that would work well with a sequencer).
Of course, with a product that is so eminently editable, these excellent preset patches and voices also serve as a great starting point for your own creations.
The four voices are identical in their architecture and are made up of three parts: Tone, Noise and Click. Each of these components has a series of editable parameters, and the three components are then balanced in the 'Mixer' section of the Nord Drum. It's a very simple concept to understand, and the ease of operation meant that I was editing away within a few minutes of plugging in the unit.
The Tone part of the voice is really the 'meat' of the sound. There are 17 different waveforms to choose from, each with their own characteristics: three basic analogue types (sine, saw, square), nine complex, 'drum like' waveforms and, finally, five slightly more percussive options. On their own, they sound quite uninspiring but it's tweaking the parameters that makes the sound really come alive.
The Tone section has five editable parameters — Filter, Sweep, Decay, Pitch and Bend — with all but Pitch having two editable options. Bend, for example, can have its Range and Time values adjusted, with the latter parameter accessed by holding the Bend button down while turning the data-entry dial. A number of the parameters are also velocity sensitive. The Sweep parameter can be set to open up the filter more as the trigger source is struck harder, which adds a huge amount of dynamic expression to a voice.
The noise section of the Nord Drum is the perfect basis for hi-hat and shaker‑type sounds, but is also where you can add some 'bite' to your voice. The four available parameters (Colour, Filter, Sweep and Decay) enable you to sculpt anything from a grainy rumble to ear-piercingly harsh white noise. Once you start to mix this with the Tone parameters, the Nord drum really comes to life.
The final part of the voice is the Click. Far simpler than the Tone and Noise sections, here you can introduce an attack to the voice with one of the 27 available click types. The clicks are all fundamentally noise waveforms, but each has a different character, some of which include an element of pitch. It's only possible to edit the decay setting of the click element, but that's pretty much all you'd really want to do. Ultimately, you can quickly and easily combine the three elements of the voice in the Mixer section to create the balance you're after.
The LED display, although only three segment, is perfectly adequate for editing at this level. In fact, the simplicity of the display actually enhanced the whole experience for me. I like the fact that there aren't pages of complex menus, flow diagrams and virtual patch-cords to deal with when creating a sound. On other drum products I've looked at, I can see how a software editor could be an advantage (or necessity!), but with the Nord Drum I didn't feel that was the case.
It's All In The Performance
The Nord Drum really is all about the performance. MIDI triggering is simple and effective, and is made even easier with the device's MIDI learn function. Simply select the channel you want to trigger from your external MIDI source and press the Shift/MIDI Note button. Using the scroll wheel, you can either directly select a MIDI note number or chose 'Lrn' and strike the pad (or key) on the MIDI unit that you wish to assign to the selected Nord Drum channel. The note number that was transmitted will be automatically assigned to the selected Nord Drum channel. Interestingly, the MIDI channel for the Nord Drum can also be assigned using the Lrn function, which is handy if you're not sure what channel you are transmitting on. MIDI triggering works flawlessly, with no delays or mis-triggering, and the dynamics in your playing are translated perfectly.
At this point, before moving on to the analogue trigger inputs, I'd like to go through the MIDI implementation of the Nord Drum and how to assign incoming MIDI controllers to the Nord Drum's parameters. Unfortunately, other than velocity (and program change), the Nord Drum doesn't respond to any MIDI controllers. It would have been nice to be able to control parameters such as Noise colour, bend and filter either live or using the Nord Drum with your DAW in the studio.
While it's possible to use a percussion‑based MIDI trigger like the Roland SPDS or Alesis PercPad with the Nord Drum, its big advantage is the provision of four trigger input jacks on the unit itself. You can simply plug in a pad or external acoustic trigger and play the Nord Drum directly. The trigger inputs are compatible with all the major pads, and there's a Trig Type parameter that lets you select between Roland, Yamaha and Mesh pads to give optimal results. If you're using a trigger attached to an acoustic drum, you can even select trigger types best suited to kick, snare, and high and low toms. Further endorsing the Nord Drum's professional drum credentials are two Dynamic response curve options for each trigger input, along with Input Threshold and Input Sensitivity. Together, these allow you to finely tailor the input characteristics of any connected pad or acoustic drum trigger to suit your playing style and environment.
The option of working directly with triggers and pads is a very appealing prospect, particularly for an 'acoustic drummer' like myself. Connecting a trigger pick-up to your acoustic kick and snare and maybe adding a couple of pads for toms or effects is a fantastic way to augment your sound. The combination of acoustic drums and futuristic sounding electronics adds a really interesting edge to your playing. If you're a drummer, think Pat Mastelloto!
Looking for 'alternatives' to include in this review is actually pretty tricky, as the Nord Drum is a unique prospect. It offers an intriguing and inspiring combination of features, all packaged together in Clavia's solid and professional way.
If I'm being picky, the inclusion of real-time control via MIDI would've been a nice addition, but many of the sounds respond to dynamics exceptionally well, so voices can still be very articulate and expressive even without additional control.
The big issue has to be the single audio output. I appreciate that the Nord Drum is intended for drummers and percussionists to add to (and enhance) their existing setup, so the price point is important. At £369$499, it's a fantastic product and I can understand that asking much more than that for an 'add-on' could start to make it seem expensive. I would, however, expect to have a stereo out to give the sound of the Nord Drum some width, or to provide an FOH engineer with a separate kick and snare feed.
Aside from this, the Nord Drum's focus is on performance and quality. The inclusion of four well-featured trigger inputs, rather than just MIDI triggering, is evidence of that. The limitation of four voices further underlines its position as an augmentation of an existing drum, percussion or MIDI setup, rather than a stand-alone drum machine or drum brain.
Editing the Nord drum is both simple and addictive, with the great-sounding presets providing the perfect springboard, but it's when you play the Nord Drum via triggers and pads that it really comes alive. It has the feel of a synth, but is very much a percussion instrument, with each sound always managing to retain a unique quality. Overall, it's a great package, featuring some inspiring sounds and an innovative feature set.
The Nord Drum Factory Presets are grouped into four Styles: Real, Retro, Ethno and FX. Here are some highlights.
- P2 Classic Vistalite (Real/Drums): A kick, snare and two tom combination loosely based on the '70s translucent acrylic drums produced by Ludwig.
- P3 Blue House (Retro/Kit): Classic 808/CR78-sounding preset with a great retro snare sound.
- P10 Vince Gate (Retro/Drums): Retro kit including a kick with an underlying sub-bass note and two very '80s-sounding syntoms.
- P17 Kormal Melodic (Ethnic/Perc): Four tuned voices offering an Indian metallic drum flavour.
- P25 Red Beat (Ethno Perc): Four tuned voices with a marimba-like quality.
- P46 Click Gate and Vinyl (FX/Kit): Kit comprising retro kick, clicky snare, and a vinyl 'scratch'.
- P56 Clap Trap (Real/Drums): Kick, snare and hat, with a great clap sound added.
- P73 Clicks and Pops (FX/Drums): Solid kick with three retro toms.
- Sounds are strong, big and impressive.
- Includes four trigger inputs.
- Inspirational to play.
- Simple to operate.
- Good manual.
- No MIDI control of parameters.
- Single audio output.
The Nord Drum offers everything you'd expect from the Clavia we know today, giving access to deep, organic, analogue‑style synthesis, but also drawing on Clavia's Ddrum history with its trigger inputs and emphasis on live performance. It's an inspirational combination!
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