Synthesizer manufactures have a lot in common with their auto-manufacturing counterparts. Large companies tend to build a wide range of products, most of which are designed to appeal to the widest variety of consumers, whereas the smaller outfits tend to build specialized products that cater to a select group of aficionados.
For a number of years, the market has been flooded with dozens of high-end workstation synths that are designed to deliver the most features at the lowest possible price point. Although those units work quite well at packing synthesis, sampling and sequencing capabilities into the same box, they often lack that certain “essence rare” when it comes to having a really distinct sound. Think of a Toyota Camry: It will get you there just fine, but the serious pucker factor is missing.
Clavia, however, defiantly falls into the other group. The company has made a name for itself (that is almost legendary among professional producers and synth gurus) by delivering no-compromise, analog-modeling synths, such as the new Nord Lead 3, that continue to the raise the bar for sound quality and flexibility — think more Ferrari than Toyota.
Just like a real Ferrari, the Lead 3 assaults your eyeballs with a bright-red paint job while the real power is located under the hood. Along with a 49-key keyboard that provides split, velocity and aftertouch, the Lead 3 has a button or knob for just about every editing parameter possible. The knobs provide great visual feedback with circular LEDs that light up red as you twist and turn green when you hit the original parameter value. A 32-segment backlit LCD keeps you informed when it comes to patch and parameter edits, which are entered with a large rotary dial and four up/down/left/right buttons. An additional three-digit LED acts as a readout for FM and oscillator frequencies.
Two particular controls stick out on the Lead 3's otherwise space-age-looking control panel: the pitch bend and the mod wheel. The pitch bend stick is just that — a wooden stick — and it looks like something Uncle Jed whittled out by the cement pond. It fits your thumb like it was carved just for you and features a much stiffer spring than any other synth out there. The mod wheel is made of what appears to be stone and has a nice weighted feel. It is positioned to work perfectly with the stick. Both controllers are far superior to any of the molded plastic controllers you may be used to.
The rear of the Lead 3 has four ¼-inch assignable output jacks, separate control and sustain-pedal jacks and a stereo headphone output. You also get MIDI In, Out and Thru connections; a power switch; and a detachable power cable.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Lead 3 is 24-voice polyphonic, four-part multitimbral analog-modeling synthesizer. It provides two oscillators per voice, with oscillator sync, ring modulation, waveshaping, a wicked multimode filter and a variable unison mode that fattens up the sound of the patch without cutting into available voices. The Lead 3 can also pull off two- and four-operator FM synthesis. Ample knobs and modulation routings allow for plenty of real-time sonic tweaks, and you can set up individual or groups of parameters to be modulated in real time. (Clavia calls that morphing.)
When it comes to oscillators, the Lead 3 has two nice ones. The included waveforms are sine, sawtooth, variable pulse and noise. Clavia includes variable waveshaping and FM synthesis just to keep things interesting. Waveshaping works by varying the intensity of the harmonics. When applied to a square wave, waveshaping really thickens up the sound; on a triangle wave, it accentuates the higher harmonics.
A dual-sine waveform is also provided, which pushes FM synthesis in wild new directions. The single oscillators provide two-operator frequency modulation, with one acting as a carrier and the other as the modulator. To get four-operator FM synthesis, use both oscillators and select FM or DFM (Differential FM). DFM is mellower-sounding than standard FM because it emphasizes lower harmonics. Adjusting the Shape knob changes the amplitude of the modulator, varying the timbre from nice and soft to gnarly and harsh. For an instant Brian Eno experience, the velocity, key position, aftertouch, mod wheel, envelope or morph assignments can control the FM modulator level.
The Lead 3 also has two fantastic filters. In single-filter mode, you get a resonant single-, 2- or 4-pole (6, 12 or 24dB/octave) filter with the usual lowpass, bandpass, highpass and band-reject curves. Clavia adds a lowpass filter with distortion and a “classic” lowpass offering with a cutoff between 12 and 24dB/octave. My guess is that by “classic,” the Nord is shooting for a Minimoog-type sound. The Multifilter mode provides six filter types. The first type combines a highpass and lowpass filter in series. Three of the others run two filters in parallel, with various low-, band-, highpass configurations. The final two types are allpass filters with multiple peak and notch settings. They create delays in certain frequencies — known as dispersion — an effect that sounds kind of like flanging.
The Lead 3's two LFOs affect the pitch or wave shape of one or both oscillators, filter cutoff for one or both filters, or oscillator modulation. In addition, LFO-1 can modulate the oscillator mix or amplitude; LFO-2 can work the filter resonance or panning. With square, saw and triangle waveforms for starters, Clavia then throws in some great Nord-only waves: Soft Random, Stepped Random (for computeresque sample-and-hold vibes) and Special. The Special waveform is great for easily building up creepy, electro-percussive sounds. The Special waveform can easily be synched to the internal clock by holding down the shift button and turning the rate knob till the clock light turns on. (Both LFOs can be synched to internal or MIDI Clock, regardless of the selected LFO waveform.)
The Lead 3 also has three envelope generators. One ADSR works the amplifier section for changing the level of the sound over time, and the other ADSR adjusts the filter section. You can use keyboard velocity in conjunction with the morphing feature to control the filter envelope amount, as well as to invert the envelopes. That provides wonderful ways to add feel and expression to your sounds. A simpler third AR envelope with a really sharp attack is provided as an extra modulation source that, again, works especially well for shaping percussion sounds. You can also set the second stage to release, meaning that it won't begin until you stop playing a note, which makes some really wicked sounds, especially at low speed, when everything is synched to the clock. This third envelope can also act as an additional LFO when it is set to repeat.
The Nord Lead 3 doesn't have built-in effects like delay, chorus or reverb. The only traditional effect offered is distortion, albeit with some interesting applications. The Dist LP filter mode really helps get a ripping filter sweep going for laying down the acid lines. In the oscillator section, the distortion is more subtle, giving the waveforms more bite — it really puts the “extra crispy” on the FM sounds. If you want to get deep down and dirty, press the Oscillator Mod button to call up DM (distortion modulation), which is a combination of standard distortion and ring modulation. Combine it with the filter's distorted lowpass mode and things get real nasty, real fast.
With four independent arpeggiators that can be synchronized to internal or external clock, the Lead 3 can really get the sound moving around. At first glance, the arpeggiator pattern types are pretty old-school: up, down, up/down and random. A quick scroll through the arpeggiator menus finds the Arpeggiator Mask. This feature adds 16-step groove-oriented patterns and squeezes a lot more usefulness out of the rather pedestrian arpeggiator patterns. I could not find any swing functions, which is a shame. The Lead 3 supports song-position pointer, so when you use the Lead 3 with an external sequencer, the arpeggiator will start from where the sequence last stopped, rather than the beginning.
WHAT'S IT LIKE TO USE?
Your world really starts rocking once you put down the manual (which is informative and generally well-written) and start playing with the Lead 3. To begin with, it sounds fantastic — just like you think real analog should but rarely does. Because there is a control for every parameter that matters, dialing up a sound is as easy as, well, turning a dial. You can also create original patches from scratch using the FM Init and Sound Init buttons. Soundwise, it's all there — anything you want from fat to thin, clean to dirty, cool to weird — as long as it isn't a natural piano or General MIDI sound.
A lot of thought has obviously gone into the control layout and operating system to give you maximum speed of operation. You can quickly get basic setups like the four-voice multitimbral Performance mode up and running; just select a voice and set its MIDI channel using the A, B, C, D buttons under the display. To layer sounds, push more than one button simultaneously. The Performance buttons on the left control section let you dial in some real-time fun. The Chord Mem function memorizes a chord that you play, and you can transpose the chord up and down the keyboard by playing only a single note — a good way to launch 1,000 trance lines. The KB Hold button is similar to a sustain pedal: Notes will sustain until new notes cancel the previous ones.
Morphing is a sweet feature that allows you to easily control multiple parameters in real time. You can morph as many as four sources (each source has its own button) with velocity, key position, aftertouch/CV pedal and mod wheel. Just hold down one of the buttons and turn the knobs that you want that controller to morph. The mod-wheel-controlled morphing can be performed in real time (instead of preprogrammed) to go from nice to freaky with a twist of the stone wheel.
The lack of built in effects never really seemed like an issue, because the Lead 3 just seems to spit out rich, three-dimensional sounds naturally. This is due to a feature called Polyphonic Unison mode, which allows for variable detuning without stealing any of the Nord's 24 polyphonic notes and fattens up the sound significantly. If you want to tart up the sound further, there are always plug-ins and stomp-boxes to add yet another facet to the Lead 3 sound.
I may have said this already, but if you are into producing electronic music, the Nord Lead 3 is awesome. It won't do everything, but for what it does do, I've never come across a hardware synth that sounded better. Of course, being awesome doesn't come cheap, but when you need the hardcore basses, pads and lead lines that cut through the densest mixes, you either cough up — or do without.
Nord Lead 3
Pros: Massive analog-modeling sounds, with FM thrown in for good measure. Supports song-position pointer. Easy to use.
Cons: Expensive. Does not transmit arpeggiator note information.
Overall Rating: 5