PART 2: Paul Nagle concludes his look at Clavia's groundbreaking new Nord Modular.
In part one of this review in last month's SOS, I introduced Clavia's amazing Nord Modular and ran through the basics of how the hardware and front‑end patch design software operates. In this second and final instalment, I'll describe how to create a new virtual synth configuration step by step, look at some more of the modules Clavia have designed (including the sequencers), discuss morphing and MIDI control, and try to arrive at some conclusions. This part is designed to be read in tandem with the first — I won't explain terms I already dealt with last month, for example — so you'll need to keep the previous issue handy as a reference for the basics.
DIY Synth Design
I dealt with all the theory behind patch creation and routing last month, so I thought it might now be instructional to take you through a practical example, and construct a synth setup from scratch in the patch editor. For this example, I've restricted myself to something comparatively simple; a straightforward 3‑oscillator polysynth with two envelopes, two filters and a couple of LFOs. First, I select New from the main File menu in the software, and, for the sake of this example, tell the program to create my new patch in Slot A of the synth; it can later be loaded into any Slot I wish. Clicking on the In/Out tab in the editing software reveals a selection of icons representing the synth hardware's physical connections to the outside world. The first thing I need to do is drag two of these icons into the software's work area: the keyboard module (so I can trigger envelopes from MIDI notes) and an output module with two audio outputs. Then I click on other tabs and drag in the other modules I'm sure to need: oscillators, envelopes, filters and LFOs. My choices are governed, in part, by how much polyphony I would like at the end of the patch creation process and also the type of tasks the modules should perform. Something I omitted to mention last month is that there is a limit of 44 modules per patch on the Nord Modular, but in practice this doesn't prove a constraint; you rarely get close to this number because you usually run out of DSP power first. And of course this limit is actually 44 modules in each of the four available Slots, so I don't think you'll get bored too quickly!
I plucked out three plump young sawtooth waves and, for this patch, don't need the oscillator sync option of the most sophisticated Oscillator (Osc A). Therefore, from the Oscillator menu, I pick (the sync‑less) master Oscillator B and two slave Oscillator Cs (Slaves still provide the sawtooth waves, but, as I explained last month, use up less of the Nord Modular's total DSP resources). I know I'll want to mix these together, so I click on the Mixers tab and drag in a 3‑input, 1‑output mixer. From the available selection of filters (see last month's 'Module Madness' box) I choose Filter F, the so‑called Classic filter, because this one has a powerful resonance which I like. I drag in a 'static' multimode 12dB filter too. As you can see from Figure 1, this latter filter has no modulation control input, but it is ideal for manual filter sweeps when assigned to one of the Nord's hardware knobs (more on knob assignment later on). Especially useful are the filter's three low‑, band‑ and high‑pass outputs (marked LP, BP and HP respectively), all of which can be accessed simultaneously. Finally, I grab two LFOs and a couple of envelopes from their respective sections. I picked an ADSR plus a basic AD envelope for the filter. As I think I want to hear each output of the multimode filter, I'll add another mixer which is automatically labelled Mixer 2 (because I already have the mixer for the three oscillators, if you remember).
As I want this patch to be polyphonic, I increment the voices count to eight, keeping my eye on the Modular's hardware display to make sure I actually get the amount of notes I request (as I explained last month, you don't always get the level of polyphony you request; the only place you get an accurate polyphony readout is on the synth itself). The DSP load for the patch is currently 36%. Figure 1 shows the progress so far.
Of course, I haven't made any actual connections yet; so now it's wiring and tweaking time. The Modular does have just a few 'hardwired' connections for which no cable connections have to be made in the patch editor — usually they are modules with a keyboard tracking parameter (such as the master oscillators) — so you needn't cable every oscillator to the keyboard signal. I create the signal path I want by dragging the mouse between outputs and inputs. The first connection is made by clicking the mouse and dragging it over the output junction of OscB1 to input 1 of the Oscillator Mixer. A red cable appears to show the connection has been made. Next, I'll take care of the envelope triggering by connecting the gate signal from the Keyboard Voice module to the gate input of the ADSR module in the same way. At the same time, I'll connect the second envelope too, piggybacking the lead into the two sockets by a deft wiggle of the mouse. I continue connecting modules in the same way until our audio signal reaches outputs 1 and 2 (I'll patch it across the outputs so it reaches both equally — if I want to add panning later, I'll just plumb in a Pan module before this stage). Now, playing the keyboard reveals the sound of the patch in its raw glory. Using the mouse, we can alter any of the on‑screen knobs, so a little experimentation should soon improve things. If you take a look at Figure 2, you'll see the total number of connections and the tweaks that were made to make it sound more interesting. The result is a patch which has a slow filter modulation, vibrato, one oscillator slightly detuned and another an octave below. I renamed a few modules for clarity (as this is sorely needed when you return to the patch at a later date), retitled the second mixer Multimode Mix, named the LFOs by function (Vibrato, VCF Mod) and moved the Multimode Filter Mixer nearer the filter (just so that the cables looked neater on the screen). Any mistakes are soon corrected: to disconnect a cable, a right mouse‑click on a socket brings up the option to delete just the one connection on a chain of cables. A quick left double‑click also allows you to pull one end of a cable and reconnect it elsewhere.
To make the patch I've made more fun to play, I'll assign some knobs to some of its key parameters. This is a straightforward procedure; for example, to control the cutoff frequency of Filter 2 with Knob 1 on the Modular hardware, I right‑click the mouse over the on‑screen filter cutoff knob to bring up the Assign Menu. The options here are : Knob, Morph and Controller. For now, I select Knob, which produces a list of the 18 knobs on the synth (plus the Nord's pedal or switch input or aftertouch), and click on Knob 1 from the list. A blob appears on the menu next to it and the LED next to the hardware knob lights up to show this knob is now in use by the patch. That's all there is to it! To assign any MIDI controller to perform the same task, you simply click Controller from the Assign menu and choose the controller number to which this parameter will then respond.
If, at any time you need to verify knob assignments you've made, hit 'K' on the computer keyboard. This brings up the dubiously‑named Knob Floater window — a graphic display of all 18 knobs plus aftertouch, switch or control pedals. Also, various function keys on your PC activate tiny pop‑up boxes showing knob and controller assignments which overlay the modules on the screen. F9 shows controllers, F8 shows knobs and F7 shows morph allocations.
If you want to record MIDI tweaks from the Nord into your sequencer, its controls must be 'double‑assigned' — ie. set for both onboard knobs and the external MIDI controller number of your choice. I suspect this is something that might be made slicker in subsequent releases, perhaps giving the knobs default controller assignments. The parameters for rest of the patch can be assigned for tweaking in the same way — envelopes, filter settings, oscillator detune, filter LFO rate, and the two mixer sections. Once the patch is stored in the synth, these can be controlled directly with no need for the editor.
As you can see, the patch I've designed has far more on‑screen knobs than the Nord hardware can accommodate, so I have to decide which elements of it I might want to modify during a performance — what you can't do with the onboard knobs can be assigned to any controllers your other MIDI devices can send. I found that even the 16 sliders of my Peavey PC1600 ran out all too quickly, so maybe the world is now ready for a 100‑knob MIDI controller box? I certainly am!
It is actually possible to change parameters in a finished patch for which you have not assigned knobs, as the synth hardware provides handy Navigator keys (the four directional keys above the data entry wheel). You hit the Edit button on the synth and jump through the parameters of your patch with the Navigator keys, or jump to different modules using Shift and the Navigator keys, before changing the parameters with the data wheel. You can't add modules or change cabling with this method, and you are 'flying blind' around the modules in your patch to some extent, but at least the name of the parameter you're editing appears on the Modular's hardware display, which helps.
While I'm on the subject of handy functions, the Find key can be used to identify what each knob is set to do and whether the current position of a knob matches the programmed value, which is important to prevent a sudden leap in sound as you start to tweak. The Find function is fine for finding out the status of one or two knobs, but a little cumbersome for the whole bunch. A relative mode for the knobs would be far better — and vital for live work, I'd say. You can't allocate more than one synth parameter per knob/controller directly; nor can you specify the range over which a knob will work. If you want to do this, you must set the parameter as part of a Morphing Group and then allocate a knob or MIDI controller to it using a special module, the Morph Module.
Clavia introduced their concept of morphing in the Nord Lead — it allows users to vary the values of several parameters simultaneously, perhaps from keyboard velocity or the mod wheel. A difficulty Nord Lead owners had when they returned to their patches later was remembering what parameters had been allocated for morphing — thereis no visual means of displaying this information. The Modular solves this one neatly by displaying Morphs as a coloured area of a knob or selector switch in the software. Four separate Morph Groups can store assignments for up to 10 different parameters in total (more would have been nice), and each parameter has a range and direction associated with it. The Morph module contains just four knobs, one for each Morph Group. These can be controlled, as you'd expect, by the onboard knobs or external controllers and also by velocity or key number.
The switches on some of the modules can be morphed, but for others this facility is not available. There have been occasions when I wanted to set up a knob to control the number of steps of a sequencer module. Ideally, I wanted to switch just within a small range of steps (instead of 1‑128) but there is no way of restricting this, because number of sequencer steps cannot be allocated to a morph.
This review could have been a great deal longer and still there would have been more left to say; but then that's the nature of the Nord Modular! In today's hi‑tech music technology market, it's a brave move to put so many decisions in the hands of synthesizer players, as some might find the very openness of this instrument potentially intimidating. On the other hand, any bizarre collection of modules that no manufacturer could ever expect to sell as a hardware system can be quickly assembled (or just as quickly discarded).
To those die‑hard advocates of 'one knob per function' and fixed synth architecture, I suggest that a synthesizer with this degree of versatility simply must use a computer‑based front‑end. And since this front‑end is PC‑only, potential Nord Modular owners with other computers need to decide if now is the time to allow the dreaded Wintel box to invade their studio, or wait and see if the software makes it to their platform. Sadly, it seems that if this ever does happen, it will take a while. Clavia tell me that the patch editor cannot be simply ported — the software requires a complete rewrite to work on a Mac, for example.
Speaking personally, I had expected to have a fundamental problem with making connections using a mouse instead of real cords, but amazingly, I now find I prefer it! I've got into the habit of booting the software at the same time I start my sequencer of choice (Steinberg Cubase) which means at any time I can make sweeping changes to my sounds beyond those possible with just the knobs. You can of course run the software without the synth being present and play the synth without a PC being connected, to the extent of editing existing parameters using the onboard navigation keys and data entry dial, as described earlier.
Synths these days seem to occur in two distinct breeds: either they're based on a finite number of controls, or they are complex, requiring the patient use of computer software or many pages of an LCD. The Nord Modular lets you work either way. I know that in an ideal world, you'd have a knob for everything but realistically, this just isn't possible without imposing all sorts of restrictions.
My complaints are few: firstly, those 18 knobs just aren't enough. Their layout may be sensible if you use the Panel Split feature (as described last month), but most of the things I like to do occur in twos or fours, not threes and sixes. Not all functions translate well to knobby control and I'd have liked a couple of switches for waveform selection or filter type. Also, at times, it's hard to remember what parameters are allocated to the knobs until you touch them; I may actually attempt to make a Blue Peter‑style overlay with cardboard and sticky‑backed plastic for use on stage. Or possibly not [wipe‑clean overlays would make a cracking optional accessory, actually — Assistant Ed].
My only other niggle is that some of the value changes are not smooth over their full range (ie. the first half of the rotation of the mixer knobs seem to do very little in some cases), but I hope these will be recalibrated in subsequent updates.
I'll close by saying that the Nord Modular is different from most MIDI synths you will have come across. Whether its open‑ended design is what you are looking for depends a lot on how much emphasis you put on creating unique and unusual synthesizer patches. A 'real' hardware synth with this amount of muscle would need to be pretty large and would also be prohibitively expensive for most of us; and furthermore, I don't know of any current hardware modular that offers this degree of MIDI controllability. Vintage modulars are hard to come by and harder still to afford and maintain. As far as I'm concerned, you can keep your ageing Moogs and Rolands; I'll take a polyphonic, MIDI‑controlled, software‑upgradable modular that I can actually carry any day!
Using The Nord Modular With A Software Sequencer
As I mentioned last month, the Nord Modular hardware has two sets of MIDI inputs: one for ordinary MIDI use and one solely for use by the patch editing software when this is up and running. The patch editing software ran fine on my PC alongside my copy of Steinberg's Cubase VST (allowing me to use Cubase to send notes to the 'normal' MIDI input of the Nord whilst I went into programming frenzy with the software), with one proviso; I found it best to ensure that the MIDI output intended for exclusive use by the editing software was not connected to Cubase's inputs because of the enormous strings of SysEx data the editor is constantly sending. For smooth operation, I'd recommend use of either a MIDI patchbay or multiple MIDI ports to avoid lots of cable pulling.
More On The Modules
I listed all the current modules last month and added notes on some, but not all of them; most notably I omitted the sequencers. Here's some more detail.
This module reduces audio signals down from the Nord Modular's standard 24‑bit resolution to a number of bits you specify, which results in things getting audibly grungier or dirtier. If you like the 'grainy' sound of older 8‑ or 12‑bit samplers, this is for you!
One of several audio modifiers designed to add distortion‑type effects. The input signal is amplified, and when it reaches the headroom of the system, does not actually distort. Instead this module alters the waveform itself, folding it down upon itself, which gives the resulting sound a harsher quality (with pure sine waves, for example, the sound becomes noticeably more metallic). Since this module has a modulation input, another control signal can be made to introduce this effect.
- Note Scaler/Note Quantiser
These modules are handy when combined with the sequencers, ensuring that the control signals produced will drive the oscillators in the correct octave range and in discrete semitone steps.
The four sequencer modules are of the step‑time variety, just like those found on old hardware modular synths. Looking at one of them in detail, Note Sequencer B offers up to 16 steps. It can loop, or play just once, and is reset to step 1 whenever a Gate signal is received at its Rst (Reset) jack. You can randomise the values at the flip of a switch and if you need more than 16 steps, subsequent Sequencer B modules can be added in series. Note values are stored by adjusting the sequencer's value sliders with the mouse or by clicking the Rec button and playing the keyboard, and if you assign the step values to knobs/controllers, you can vary them during playback. For a standard looping sequencer pattern, you just trigger from MIDI or Internal clock and cable the control signal output to the input of the oscillator(s) you wish to play. And of course, as this is a modular synth, just because this particular module is called a note sequencer doesn't mean you can't pipe its output into filter cutoff, resonance, pulse width, LFO speed, and so on. Triggering each step of a sequence via MIDI note‑ons instead of a clock signal means you can step through the sequencer as you play, perhaps altering a note's timbre at each step. The sequencers work polyphonically, which can throw up some unique patterns, although playing standard triad chords can generate some wild intervals.
Another of the sequencers, the Event Sequencer, is a totally different beast. Being concerned with trigger (or gate) sequencing, it has two parallel rows of 16 steps, each with a simple push‑button. If a button is depressed, a gate signal will be sent from its row's output each time the sequencer hits that step. A button at the end of the row sets whether two adjacent buttons should send discrete gate signals if they are both down or produce a gate signal which stays open twice as long. As with the other sequencers, multiple event sequencers can be linked. The sequencer can loop, play just once or can be cleared at a push of a button.
If the Nord Modular were frozen in time as it is today, it would already be capable of providing programming heaven for years to come, but I can reveal some new features that are already planned for the next upgrade (May/June 1998):
- Cut/Copy/Paste of one or several modules in a Patch
- Bank Load function (1‑100 patches) from PC to Modular
- Bank Dump function for loading of Patches from Modular to PC
- Stereo Audio Compressor/Expander/Limiter
- Looped Random Generator (length 1‑127 steps)
- Harmonic Overtone Quantiser (generates control signals for controlling Oscillators in exact multiples or harmonic overtones)
- Progammable Scale Quantiser (makes scales or control signals pentatonic, minor, major and so on)
- Formant Wave Oscillator (generates harmonic spectra that don't transpose with the note — like playing through a resonance box)
- Voice Filter for vocal sounds (like an advanced wah‑wah unit)
- 4‑stage Envelope Generator (as on the Yamaha DX7)
- ADSR Envelope with modulation inputs for attack, decay, sustain, and release.
- AHD (attack, hold, decay) Envelope
Apparently, there will be more...
Sounds Good — Favourite Factory Patches
The Nord Modular's sonic repertoire extends far beyond what most people would call analogue‑style sounds. Sure, it can produce big American‑sounding synth‑brass stabs, basslines fatter than Elvis before he died, and instant Tangerine Dream sequencer patterns. But also there are FM bells, booming church organs, even warbling insects, barking frogs and drizzling rain — and all with the tweakability a sampler could never achieve. A visit to Clavia's web site reveals a blossoming free patch page with many superb examples, whilst in the factory set, there are the following notables:
A rich vocal pad.
A big and lush sound, with morphing control of the detune between 14 (yes 14!) stacked oscillators.
A formant vocal effect which will be familiar to owners of the original Nord Lead.
This gives some idea of what you might do with the sequencer modules; press a single key and multiple sequencer modules are instantly triggered, giving percussion and bass riffs galore.
- P5 Pulse
A twirling, tweakable monster of squelchy analogue mayhem.
- DX Vari01
A pretty convincing FM electric piano.
- Supremely flexible polyphonic modular synth.
- Excellent level of MIDI controllability — all controller assignments are chosen in the patch creation process.
- The 'TARDIS effect' — the Nord Modular's hardware is small, but its software potential is huge.
- Only 18 on‑board knobs, and no selector switches.
- Editing software is currently PC‑only.
- Keyboard version lacks aftertouch, pitch‑bender and mod wheel and is only two octaves long.
For me, this is quite simply the most addictive synthesizer I have ever used. The editing software is very well realised; the existing modules have a staggering number of applications already, and more are promised in free updates. If you love to program or spend time honing a unique sound, the tools are here. The rest is up to you.