With the proliferation of prepackaged sound libraries, software instruments and samplers, it's easy to forget the feeling of actually laying your hands on a truly well-made instrument. When Clavia unleashed its Nord series of synths (which now includes the Nord Lead, Electro and G2 lines), it was obviously aiming to preserve this tradition while delivering some thoroughly modern pieces of gear. With the new Nord Lead 2x, the company has taken a product that has found its way into countless studios and live rigs and given it a long-overdue makeover.
The 2x uses the same synthesis engine and parameter architecture as the original Nord Lead 2. The bulk of the 2x update is centered on the unit's internal memory. Unless you've been living in a van down by the river for the past five years, it's no secret that memory options have done nothing but balloon in size and plummet in cost. And with this, the 2x boasts several times the internal memory of the original and no longer requires a PC Card for storage. The overall polyphony of the unit has also been upped to 20 voices. And now the best part: The price has substantially dropped — a brand new 2x keyboard now retails for $999, and the rack version goes for even less at $799. For users of the original, the overall functionality of the unit remains unchanged, and the 2x is even capable of directly importing patches saved on the original.
So how big is the new internal memory? Comprising Programs, Performances and Percussion Kits (more on this later), the 2x can now hold 297 user Programs (across three banks with 99 presets each), 100 user Performances and 30 user Percussion Kits (three banks with 10 presets each), as well as 693 factory Programs (seven banks with 99 presets each), 300 factory Performances (three banks with 100 presets each) and 70 factory Percussion Kits (seven banks with 10 presets each). And if that still isn't enough, users can, of course, archive and import patches via MIDI with any sequencing program. Also new to the 2x is 24-bit/96kHz A/D conversion for added fidelity within a recording environment.
For most seasoned Nord Lead 2 users, the remainder of this review will serve only as a refresher, as no other aspects of the unit have changed. If, however, you're considering adding a new piece of hardware to your rig, read on.
The 2x is based on a two-oscillator design that includes Amplifier and Filter sections, two LFOs, a Modulation Envelope, assignable controllers and various play modes. Beginning with the oscillator section, oscillator 1 includes four selectable wave shapes (sine, triangle, sawtooth and pulse); oscillator 2 includes triangle, sawtooth, pulse and noise, as well as the ability to sync to the time characteristics of oscillator 1, which allows for the creation of a wide variety of additional wave shapes. Oscillator 2 also includes a Semitones tuning knob (±60 semitones, or five octaves) and a Fine Tune knob (±1 semitone). The Semitones knob also pulls triple duty adjusting both the characteristics of the noise color and working as a wave-shape selector when oscillator 2 is synched with oscillator 1. Global oscillator parameters include FM amount, ring modulation, oscillator sync (as described previously), pulse width and mix (the desired blend between the two signals).
The Amplifier and Filter stages both include standard ADSR (amplitude, decay, sustain and release) adjustments. The Amplifier section adds a Gain knob, which is intended mainly to create consistent volume levels between patches. The Filter section includes two lowpass filters (12 and 24dB), a 24dB highpass filter, a bandpass filter and a combination notch/12dB lowpass filter. Knobs are included for both the filter frequency and resonance, as well as for the envelope/filter relationship. The Filter section also contains switches for Velocity (which adjusts the envelope amount with the key velocity), Keyboard Track (where the filter frequency is automatically matched to the specific note being played) and Distortion.
The unit also includes two LFOs with an integrated arpeggiator. LFO 1 can use one of five different waveforms (soft random, square, triangle, sawtooth and random), and it can be routed to the FM amount, oscillators 1 and 2, oscillator 2 only, filter frequency and the pulse width of both oscillators. Knobs are included for both the Rate and the Amount of LFO. The second LFO incorporates the functionality of a basic arpeggiator and an echo effect. Users can select arpeggiator patterns that move up, down or randomly through a group of selected notes. (Notes are selected by holding down the desired keys.) When Echo is selected, the unit will rhythmically repeat whatever note is held. The Rate knob controls the speed of the arpeggiator. The Arpeggiator Hold function, as the name implies, continues playing the selected pattern even after the keys have been released. The LFO can also easily sync to external devices.
Continuing down the signal path is the Modulation Envelope, which sports three knobs (Attack, Decay and Amount) and a destination switch (FM, pulse width and oscillator 2). The pared-down envelope is unique because unlike the other envelope section, the Modulation Envelope resets itself to zero whenever a new key is pressed. In use, it can be completely turned off or used to vary the amount of FM modulation, alter the pulse width of both oscillators or change the pitch of oscillator 2. Essentially, this section provides a way of augmenting a patch with anything from sweeping, padlike accents to pitched and rhythmic variations in the sound.
The mod wheel is assignable and can be used to morph between two sounds, adjust the output of LFO 1, change the pitch of oscillator 2, vary the amount of FM or tweak the filter frequency. The 2x also includes four play modes: Poly (multivoiced), Legato (in which the envelopes are only retriggered after the last key is released), Mono (which allows the keys and envelopes to be automatically retriggered) and Unison (in which more than one voice is used for each key). A selection of other functions — including portamento, octave shift, tuning, output assignments, local control on/off, Program control parameters, MIDI channels, special sync functions and global system controls — round out the remainder of the controls on the 2x. The back-panel output and control architecture consists of two pairs of ¼-inch line outputs, MIDI I/O, control (assignable) and sustain-pedal inputs and a ¼-inch headphone output. There is also a main volume knob, which controls volume for both the line outputs and the headphones.
Sounds inside of the 2x are broken down into three areas: Programs, Percussion Kits and Performances. Simply put, Programs are single sounds. The 2x has four Program banks — A, B, C and D — each with 99 “slots.” Within each bank are 10 Percussion Kits. The kits are located above the Program slots (that is, past Program 99). The Percussion kits contain eight percussion elements mapped across the keyboard. The sounds are only played with the white keys; the black keys are used for selecting individual sections to edit. To create layered sounds, simply select a sound for each Program bank and hold down the bank key for each. The last bank selected will be the only Program or layer available for real-time editing.
Performances, on the other hand, contain a max of four Programs, as well as information for which of the four programs should be immediately active, MIDI information for each layer, keyboard-split assignments and more. Performances can only be auditioned when the unit is put into Performance mode by pressing the Perf. Mode button. This mode is intended for live situations in which a player may want a number of sounds available at once and mapped to certain areas of the keyboard. Like Programs, Performance presets can be saved to the user bank or backed up and retrieved via MIDI SysEx. Individual Programs can also be extracted from a user or factory Performance. This is especially useful because certain factory sounds are found only in the Performance banks.
PLAYING THE BLACK AND WHITES
The truly wonderful thing about Nord products is the absence of fluff. The 2x, like the rest of the Nord line, is made for electronic music — gone are the useless copies of French horns and acoustic guitars. The 2x delivers nothing except bank after bank of searing leads, thick pads, excellent basses and a wonderfully rich and musical Filter section. Some of the highlights include the wealth of Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 emulations found inside the Performance bank. The sound quality is also top-notch. After noticing the 24-bit/96kHz spec, I think my judgment might have been slightly colored; nevertheless, on each of the songs that I used the 2x, it was obvious which synth tracks were created with software and which were created with the Nord. The bass and pad sounds had an especially rich and more fluid character to them.
The only additions that I would have enjoyed seeing on the 2x would be digital outputs. A pair of S/PDIF or optical outs would have allowed for a totally digital, pure 24-bit signal path. But this is a minor gripe. All in all, the Nord Lead 2x is an excellent instrument, and the revamped memory and sound quality — as well as the attractive sticker price — make this an excellent purchase for anyone.
CLAVIA (DIST. BY ARMADILLO)
NORD LEAD 2X > $1,499 (LIST)
Pros: Improved polyphony and sound quality. Affordable.