Nord Lead 4 Reviewed

June 15, 2014
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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.

 

Overview

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. 


Oscillators

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.


New Filters

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 them.

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.


Effects

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 a program.

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.


Performances 

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.


Conclusions

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 audio input.

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

 

 

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