It’s that little red keyboard that coined the term “virtual analog.”
First arriving from Sweden in 1995, the Nord Lead used then-young
modeling technology to recreate the sound of an analog synthesizer.
What’s more, it had a dashboard laden with realtime control knobs—a
rarity for new synths at that time. It was a hit—so much so that we’ve
come to expect realtime controls in all types of keyboards, from solo
synths to workstations. The Nord Lead 4 is the latest model in the line,
and this time it comes into a world chock full of virtual analog synths
of all shapes, sizes, and prices. How does it compete, and where does
it stand out? Let’s put it to work.
The Nord Lead 4 sports a familiar form to its
predecessors: the signature red chassis, four-octave keyboard, knobs and
controls on the left side of the front panel, the trademark wooden
“clothespin” pitch-bend stick and pumice rock modulation wheel. New for
the Lead 4 are wooden end caps, like on Nord’s Stage and Electro
keyboards. At 13.3 pounds, it’s a lightweight gigging machine. Many of
the knobs and buttons feature an alternate function, accessed while
holding down the Shift key. A look at the panel gives a clue that the
Lead 4 has harkened back to some aspects of the Nord Lead 2/2X (more on
this below). The keyboard is a totally-unweighted 49-key synth action,
with velocity sensitivity but, oddly, no aftertouch. The action is tight
and fast, but it’ll take some getting used to if you’re a player who
likes a little resistance, even in a synth action. The main program
section has a three-digit LED and edit dial, with a menu of additional
functions printed directly on the front panel. Under the hood is a
20-note polyphonic synth engine with four-part multi-timbral capability.
The heart (and start) of a sound lies in the Lead 4’s two
oscillators per program. Both oscillators feature the familiar building
blocks: sine, sawtooth, triangle, two fixed-width pulse waves and one
variable-width (modulated by LFO 1) pulse wave. Oscillator 1 can also
produce one of 128 available digital wavetables (single-cycle waveforms
like you’d find in classic PPG or Korg DW synths). Note that these
aren’t fully sampled instruments from the Nord Sample Library, like
you’d find in a Nord Wave, Electro, Stage, or Piano series instrument.
Oscillator 2 features a noise generator with adjustable frequency
(color) and resonance. There’s an Oscillator 1 Mod section where you can
activate frequency modulation, soft sync, and hard sync. Overall, the
oscillators sound mighty clean. I attempted to produce some aliasing
noise and digital artifacts by pitch bending various notes to extreme
upper and lower ranges, and I was very impressed with how solid and
unfettered the Lead 4’s oscillators sounded. If you prefer a sound with
some dirt mixed in, we’ll find there are several ways to add some
nastiness in the filter and effects sections.
Each program has one filter, with seven types. Choose from
12dB-, 24dB-, and 48dB-per-octave lowpass filters, as well as bandpass
or highpass. A delicious new feature for the Lead 4 is the addition of
two vintage ladder filter emulations. We surmise that “TB” is based on
the Roland TB-303 Bassline, and “M” is based on the classic Minimoog.
They ooze character, and I’m inclined to reach for either when
programming my own sounds. The Drive control allows the oscillators to
overdrive the filter section (as is possible on many classic analog
synths), creating some tasty results including increased frequency
content and some activity in the sound while it sustains. If you’re
looking for a traditional overdrive that intermodulates the overall
sound (like an stomp box or tube amp), you can find that in the effects
section. I found the filters overall to be smooth and musical. It’s a
pity there’s no audio input run external audio sources through them.
Modulators and Arpeggiator
There are two ADSR envelope generators: one for amplitude,
and one for filter. There’s also a basic Attack-Decay-Release envelope
found in the Modulation section, which along with two LFOs are
assignable to various modulation destinations (including pitch). The LFO
waveforms are square, sawtooth, inverted sawtooth (LFO 1 only),
triangle, stepped random, and smooth random. There’s also a dedicated
global vibrato generator, with settings found in the sound edit menu.
Global vibrato can be activated in the Voice Mode Section, either as two
different delayed vibrato settings or assigning it to the modulation
wheel. Situated near the top left corner of the panel, the Voice Mode
section also includes controls for unison mode, monophonic/legato modes,
glide time, and pitch-bend range. The pitch-bend range is adjusted in
half-step increments up/down to one octave, then jumps to the two- and
three-octave range. Beyond that, there are -12 and -24 settings, which
will yield one and two octaves of downward bending, which you can
combine with a whole-step of upward bending. This is ideal for subtle
expressive upward bends but whammy bar-like dive-bombs when you want
Jumping back to LFO 1, there are a couple of key features
here that may slip by at first glance. While holding Shift and pressing
the LFO 1 waveform button, an LED labeled “MST CLK”(master clock) will
light up. This will bypass the LFO 1 Rate control and sync the LFO
to—you guessed it—the master clock. That’s not all; if you turn the Rate
knob all the way up (to the label marked “PAT”) the LFO will generate
one of several preset rhythmic patterns. It’s a welcome feature, if not
the most intuitively accessed. One more Shift-plus-tap of the LFO 1
waveform button activates the arpeggiator. All controls in this section
will now control the Arpeggiator rate, direction, on/off, and range.
It’s a wonderful arpeggiator, divisible in both duple and triple meters,
though it would’ve been nice to give it its own dedicated controls. So
far we’ve been spending a lot of time shifting this and holding that,
which slightly detracts from the user-friendliness.
Huzzah! The Lead 4 is the first of its line to have built-in effects. The first section, called
FX, gives you a choice of tube-style overdrive, compressor,
bit-crusher, and two types of “talk” effects. Moving the amount dial
with a talk effect activated will yield a “wow” type talkbox sound. At
first, I was disappointed that these types were chosen over the more
conventional chorus/flanger/phaser offerings, but the little
troublemakers won me over. From adding a little muck to sending the
sound into outer space, the FX section is just that much more fun
(especially when modulating the amount with LFO 2 or the mod envelope).
The final stage of the sound before it hits the output is
the Delay/Reverb section—an either/or proposition. You get a choice of
three types of reverb (room, stage, and hall), with adjustable dry/wet
balance and brightness level, but not reverb time control. As for the
delay, you also get the same dry/wet balance control, a choice of three
preset feedback amounts, and a “Tempo” control, which generates faster
repeats as you turn up the knob. The delay can also sync to the master
clock, with various note subdivisions (eighth, sixteenth note, triplets,
etc). The delay can be set to “normal,” or “analog” style; the latter
mode bends the pitch around while you move the tempo dial.
Morph, Impulse Morph, and Mutator
The term “morph” has meant different things to different
synth manufacturers. In the Lead 4’s case, it means the ability of a
control source to modulate multiple parameters simultaneously—“macro”
control by another name. The Lead 4 adds a new “Impulse Morph,”
triggering multiple changes instantly with the push of a button. Whereas
the regular morph is used to adjust continuous parameters (e.g.,
using the mod wheel to increase the filter cutoff, add vibrato depth,
and increase reverb wet/dry mix all at once), an impulse morph button
can be assigned to change switch-type parameters, such as changing the
direction of the arpeggiator, activating the chord function, and more.
There are three impulse morph buttons, yielding seven possible setups in
With all of these ways to turn your sound inside out,
there’s yet another feature that makes for delightfully unpredictable
results. The Mutator is an instant program generator that starts with
the currently loaded program, and messes with it to varying degrees (you
choose the intensity) to create a new program. Even starting with an
initialized program, I was able to create some interesting textures;
with the “random” setting we were in retro-sci-fi movie soundtrack
territory in a snap.
A Performance is a multi-timbral setup. You can combine up
to four programs (each sound in slots A, B, C, and D) for splits,
layers, multi-MIDI channel operation, or fast program switching from
slot to slot. What’s killer: In performance mode, there’s no sacrifice
of polyphony or sharing of effects. It’s really like having four full
synths at once. Score! The 99 performances, like the 396 single
programs, are all user-rewritable.
Nord keyboards have been known for surrounding their
technically digital hearts with signature style and character, and the
Lead 4 has a lot of personality. It’s brimming with sonic power, so much
so that its interface isn’t quite as simple as in previous editions.
Once you get the hang of it, you can really twist and maipulate the
sound to your heart’s content. With all of the analog and virtual-analog
synth choices available, the sound will still cry out “pick me” to
current Lead fans and synth freaks of all persuasions. At over $2,000,
the lack of aftertouch and LCD screen is regrettable, but the added
effects and lossless four-part multi-timbral operation add value. Like
its predecessors, the Nord Lead 4 is built like a tank, and continues to
be a leader in the synth world, be it “virtual analog” or otherwise.
PROS: Four-part multitimbral with no loss of polyphony or
effects. Additional oscillator waveforms include digital wavetables.
Tasty new ladder filter emulations. Built-in multi-effects. Master clock
syncs LFO, arpeggiator, and delay. Impulse Morph adds instant
expressive control of multiple parameters. High-quality construction.
CONS: Non-weighted keys with no aftertouch. Main screen is only a
three-digit LED. Internal power supply generates an audible hum. No
Bottom Line: A premier virtual analog synth gains a few new tricks—and loses a few as well.
$2,399 list | $2,299 street | nordkeyboards.com