In 1995 an obscure Swedish company named Clavia breathed new life into a traditional synthesizer form with the introduction of its Nord Lead synthesizer. With the marketing cry of “No samples,” Clavia unveiled its virtual-analog synth, which emulated the functions of an old-school analog synthesizer through the use of digital circuits.
Six years later, in a market full of virtual-analog synthesizers, it's easy to forget just how groundbreaking the Nord Lead was. Now Clavia has introduced the third generation of the Nord Lead, which offers a greatly improved sound engine, more polyphony, and a new benchmark for real-time control and editing.
RED ALL OVER
Over the years, Clavia's products have shared a distinct look and feel that sets them apart from the competition. The Nord Lead 3 is no exception. It features a fire-engine red rolled-steel exterior that feels solid and roadworthy. The compact (albeit heavy) 49-key instrument presents the user with lots of controls arranged in a logical and accessible fashion (see Fig. 1). The front panel's left portion is dedicated to file and performance functions, and the center of the panel places editing controls within easy reach. The top panel's right side still provides enough room to accommodate a Clavia Nord Mini-Modular synth, which looks very much at home there.
The 46 rectangular push buttons on the Nord Lead 3's surface are the same style that appeared on earlier versions of the instrument. The buttons feel sturdy and help greatly in accessing functions with a minimum of menu surfing. There are also two displays: a 32-segment backlit LCD for housekeeping and editing, and a 3-digit LED dedicated to FM and oscillator frequencies. Near the LCD is a large plastic rotary dial for changing parameters. Because of Clavia's a-knob-for-every-function philosophy, the dial is used mainly to call up patches: there's no alpha-wheel editing here.
Knobs are essential to the classic analog-synthesis experience and offer a means for intuitive programming and real-time control. In the Nord Lead 3, Clavia has taken the knob into the digital domain: a circular LED graph surrounds the knob and provides instant feedback on the knob's position (see Fig. 2). The knobs turn freely, relying upon the digital indicators to let you know when you've set them to their limits.
The Nord Lead 3 keyboard has a springy, quick synth action that supports Velocity and Aftertouch. You can split the keyboard into two sections, but with only 49 keys, you don't have much room to work with.
The rear of the Nord offers a full complement of jacks, including separate control- and sustain-pedal jacks, four assignable output jacks, a power switch and fuse holder, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru (see Fig. 3). Unfortunately, the stereo headphone jack is on the rear as well.
The first Nord Lead had a power cable permanently attached, which, though convenient, became a problem when the cable wore out because of stress. The Nord Lead 3 uses a removable 2-pin power cable that looks more like a power cable from a portable stereo than from a professional music product. I wish it used the standard IEC 3-pin power cable found on most pro gear. That way you'd always have a spare cable if needed.
WOOD AND STONE
To the left of the keyboard is the most controversial portion of every Nord Lead, the Pitch Stick and Modulation Wheel. Those performance controls have inspired a love-hate relationship with many users, who complain that their size and feel aren't right. I find, however, that the highly tactile controls add greatly to the playability of the instrument.
The Pitch Stick, which is made of wood, has just the right amount of resistance for digging into a pitch bend. The Modulation Wheel, which is made of metal but has the feel of granite, rolls nicely under a sweaty thumb.
Functionally, the Nord Lead 3 continues the tradition established with earlier models by using a four-part multitimbral structure. Each part, or slot, in Clavia parlance, has a dedicated button below the main display. Each slot can access any of the 128 patches present on 8 banks. There are no protected factory banks, so any patch can be overwritten. Adding new programs from an external source is easy, provided you have a MIDI sequencer handy. Unlike prior Nord Leads, there is no provision for removable storage media on the Nord Lead 3.
Stacking slots for a layered sound is accomplished by holding down the buttons of two or more slots simultaneously. In a performance environment, it's easy to stack sounds to create rich textures, and saving a configuration of slots and performance settings is the basis for the Nord Lead 3's Performance mode.
THE NORD SOUND
From a sonic perspective, the Nord Lead's Performances demonstrate the full power of the instrument. Despite the lack of built-in effects, the Performance patches, which contain as many as four single programs, sound rich and full. That is because of what Clavia calls Polyphonic Unison mode. This mode fattens up the sound considerably and allows for variable detuning without stealing any of the Nord's 24 polyphonic notes.
The Clavia programmers were going for subtle yet complex patches in the Nord Lead 3, which is a change from the in-your-face factory patches of earlier Nord Leads. The screaming lead sounds are still present, but the new factory sounds have much more depth, warmth, and complexity.
Some highlights include Dreamer, a shameless knockoff of Tangerine Dream; Rock Stadium, a nicely distorted lead synth; and 10cc Wheel, a great electric piano and pad layer with tremolo. I also like the aggressive rave lead called TechYes, and Magic Box, which is a subtle and disturbing combination of warped bells and piano that will undoubtedly find a home in movie soundtracks. Many Performances use the Nord Lead's built-in arpeggiator, which, though primitive, provides some nice sparkle in the mix. (Version 1.1 of the operating system will offer a significantly enhanced arpeggiator.)
The single patches also provide a wide range of textures through a variety of leads, basses, pads, classic FM sounds, and synth effects. There are far too many interesting single patches to comment on them all. When you listen to the factory sounds, it feels like a highlight reel of classic synths. Some patches are reminiscent of Moog instruments, DX7 programs, and PPG Wave sounds, among other notables.
The sound of earlier Nord Leads has been described as edgy, hard, raspy, and digital. The Nord Lead 3 provides a much greater range of textural possibilities without sacrificing the sonic edge Nord Lead aficionados have grown to love.
A feature of other Clavia instruments, Morph Groups, makes an appearance in the Nord Lead 3. The Morph Group is a performance feature that lets you control as many as 26 parameters simultaneously using one modulator. You can also set up the range of modulation for each parameter. Using that feature, you can effectively morph from one sound to another in real time without changing a patch.
Morph Groups are assigned from their control source, which can be Velocity, Keyboard, Aftertouch, a control pedal, or the Modulation Wheel. The LED rings around the knobs provide a cool light show as the values in a Morph Group change. The Morph Groups have countless practical applications and really add to the Nord Lead's reputation for live-performance control.
The appeal of traditional analog synthesis has been the ease and immediacy of shaping sounds. To create something new, you just reach out and turn some knobs. The Nord Lead 3 lets you do that. At the same time, the instrument transmits MIDI information based on knob movement. You can also create a new patch from scratch by using the FM Init and Sound Init buttons. The buttons initialize a generic template patch for you to build on.
The Nord Lead 3 offers lots of visual feedback while you're editing. For example, LEDs on the front panel light up next to waveforms, modulation destinations, and filter configurations as you work. Additional feedback is given by the LCD, which snaps to the numeric value of the parameters you change. All in all, the Nord Lead 3 has the most active front panel I've ever seen, and the instrument is a real joy to program.
ANALOG AND MORE
Clavia now describes the Nord Lead 3 as an advanced subtractive performance synthesizer rather than a virtual analog synthesizer. That reflects the unit's enhanced sound engine, which encompasses much more than traditional analog synthesis. The Nord Lead 3's oscillators cover the basics well, with a complement of standard analog waveforms: sine, variable pulse, sawtooth, and noise are present for OSC1 and 2. The harmonic content of both oscillators can also be changed using a variable waveshape control. When noise is selected, the waveshape control is used to change the color of the noise.
Not content with modeling conventional analog synthesis alone, Clavia has added FM to the oscillators. A staple of '80s music that is now being revived in the synthesizer community, FM has earned a notorious reputation for being difficult to program. That isn't the case with the Nord Lead 3. Its 2- and 4-operator FM synthesizer is completely programmable using knob and push-button controls, and it is a breeze to operate. A display inside the oscillator section shows carrier and modulator values. The display also serves as a frequency indicator when FM is not active.
Having worked with FM on other digital synths, I can easily see the value of a knob-based editor. By playing with the controls, you can quickly dial up a variety of woody and metallic sounds.
In addition to two forms of FM (linear and differential), the Nord Lead 3 offers Ring Modulation and a new form of modulation called Distortion Modulation. Distortion Modulation combines amplitude modulation and distortion to create gritty and dirty textures.
The LFOs of the Nord Lead 3 are also more comprehensive than those of its predecessors. There are plenty of waveforms to work with. In addition to square, saw, triangle waveforms, you get three nonstandard waves: Stepped Random, Soft Random, and Special, a percussive wave suitable for rhythmic effects. The LFOs can also be pressed into service as additional envelope generators (EGs). When an LFO acts as an envelope, the Rate control is used to determine the speed of the envelope.
The Nord Lead 3 delivers two multimode filters to conjure a variety of fat, analog-sounding textures. In Single Filter mode, you can select from conventional filter types — such as bandpass, band reject, highpass, and lowpass — in 6, 12, and 24 dB-per-octave versions. In addition, the Nord Lead 3 offers a Classic filter designed to emulate the famous Minimoog filter sound (it is closer than most, but don't sell your Mini), as well as a Distorted Lowpass filter for grungy, snarling filter sweeps. Filter resonance can be set anywhere from 0 to self-oscillation.
For complex filter tasks, you can invoke one of the Multi Filter modes. Those let you use the two filters in series, in parallel, or as a comb-style filter for classic phase-shifter effects. Multi Filter modes combine two filters in various configurations, such as lowpass and highpass filters in parallel or series, or two bandpass filters in parallel. You can also access the Multi Peak and Multi Notch filters, each of which combines three allpass filters.
Like the oscillators, LFOs, and filters in the Nord Lead 3, the EGs surpass those found in other analog-modeling synths. Three EGs are available: one ADSR dedicated to the filter, another ADSR for the Amp, and a simple AR that can be used as a generic modulator. On all three EGs, the envelope stages can be set from a blistering 0.5 ms to a Brian Eno-like length of 45 seconds. In practice, the envelope generators were more than adequate for Kraftwerk-style percussive filter sweeps, which demand a fast response from the filter EG.
Other features include the ability to invert the Mod and Filter envelopes when using the Envelope Amount knob and the ability to loop the Mod envelope so it functions as an LFO. When the Mod envelope is acting as an LFO, the Attack and Decay settings are used to set the speed.
If you're a Nord fan, you'll find the Nord Lead 3 to be a worthy successor to the line. If you're not a Nord fan, the range, depth, and subtlety of the Nord Lead 3 may make you one.
The Nord Lead's price places it squarely in a field populated by tough competition. Most synths in this price range are workstations that can play many roles by offering sequencing, sampling, synthesis, and physical modeling. Among the analog specialists in this price range, many use samples, wavetables, vocoders, and step sequencers.
Instead of trying to be all of those things, Clavia designed the Nord Lead 3 for high-end analog modeling with an emphasis on live performance, playability, and sound quality. After all, there are still no samples being used in this instrument.
Craig Negoescuis media director for frogdesign. When not wearing uncomfortable MIDI-controlled robot suits, he is pushing the envelope of sound design for frog's clients.
Nord Lead 3 analog-modeling synthesizer $2,699
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE3.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Huge variety of analog sounds. High level of intuitive control using virtual knobs. Easy and fun to program.
CONS: Limited to four-part multitimbral. Basic arpeggiator. No onboard effects. Flimsy power cord.
Nord Lead 3 Specifications
Audio Outputs(4) unbalanced ¼" (-10 dBu)Other PortsMIDI In, Out, Thru; (1) control pedal; (1) sustain pedalPolyphony(24) notesMultitimbral Parts4Sound Enginesubtractive synthesis/FM synthesisKeyboard49-note, Velocity-sensitive, AftertouchControllersPitch Bend; Mod WheelRAM Programs(8) banks, (128) single programs (1,024 total); (2) banks, (128) performances (256 total)Dimensions34.25" (L) × 3.90" (H) × 10.90" (D)Weight13.8 lb.