Nord Lead A1 reviewed

September 24, 2014

Surprisingly soon after the release of the Nord Lead 4, we are now greeted by a new little red Swedish synth from Clavia: the Nord Lead A1. This knob-laden analog modeling synthesizer (as is printed on the front panel) is the latest in a nearly 20-year history of Nord’s digital “virtual analog” technology, which strives to recreate the sound, feel, and experience of an analog instrument. In fact, if the original Nord Lead didn’t coin the term “virtual analog,” it certainly put it into common parlance among keyboard players. Clavia is quick to point out that the A1 is not a successor to the Nord Lead 4, but rather a more streamlined and affordable member of the family—not unlike the previous relationship between the Lead 3 and Lead 2X. It’s not a simple matter of cutting features, however. In fact, the A1 adds some new functionality and sonic treats that until now we had yet to see in a Nord Lead. 


Overview

The Nord Lead A1 resides in a familiar form factor, with a four-octave unweighted synth-action keyboard with velocity sensitivity (but no aftertouch), Nord’s signature wooden pitch-bend stick and pumice modulation wheel, and controls clustered on the left side of the front panel. There are LED screens for program number, oscillator wave, and oscillator configuration (more on this below). The rear panel has four 1/4" audio outputs, a headphone out, MIDI I/O, USB, and control pedal and sustain pedal inputs. The chassis (including end caps) is a sturdy yet lightweight construction and the unit weighs in at a very gig-friendly 10.3 pounds. The Lead A1 is 26-voice polyphonic and four-part multi-timbral. There’s also a MIDI module version, the A1R, for rack or tabletop use.


Sibling Rivalry

Fairly or not, keyboardists are bound to compare the A1 to its somewhat more costly big sister, the Lead 4, which carries a current real-world price of around $2,299. The Lead A1 claims to have Nord’s latest analog modeling engine that “recreates a total analog signal path.” The sound is reminiscent of the Lead 4, and has more of an analog vibe than the earlier models (which all have their own charms and sonic identity). All in all, the A1 sounds, robust, warm, and versatile, while still retaining a certain tidiness we’ve come to expect from a Nord Lead. Even the reverbs, while clean and pristine, seem reminiscent of the types of reverb tones used on many classic analog synth recordings.

The A1 lists for $500 less than the Lead 4, yet it sports more polyphony; simultaneous reverb and delay effects; and chorus, ensemble, and flanger—all of which come in handy for retro string machine and ’80s-inspired Roland Juno-style patches. Once the tweaking begins, an experienced synthesist may notice what the Lead 4 has that the A1 doesn’t: Of note, the amplitude and filter envelopes are three-stage (attack-decay-release or attack-sustain-release) as contrasted with the tried-and-true four-stage ADSR envelopes on the Lead 4. There are other tradeoffs, but it’s clear enough that the A1 is not lacking for depth when it comes to synthesis power. 


Oscillator Configurations

The essential analog waves (saw, sine, square, triangle) are represented on the front panel. You get access to other waveforms here as well: “extended” analog waves, fixed-pulse width waves (the A1 doesn’t do pulse width modulation), bells and tines, single-cycle digital waveforms, and a couple of EP and Clavinet waveforms. Waves of nine popular drawbar organ settings are included as a pleasant surprise. No one would confuse the A1 for an Electro or other clonewheel, yet you could easily route one of these sounds through one of the A1’s four audio outputs and into a Leslie or simulator of your choice, if needed.

If you want to layer multiple oscillators in a program, your search for oscillator 2 controls will instead lead you to “Oscillator Configurations.” These configurations are shortcuts for implementing immediate changes in both single and dual oscillator programs. The configurations allow you to modify pitch, add a noise oscillator, do FM and AM, bring in the second oscillator, and more. The oscillators won’t play sampled waves from either the Nord Sample Library or Nord Piano Library, but neither will the Lead 4’s. 


Filters and More

One of the best qualities of the Lead 4 was the selection of fantastic-sounding filters, especially the Minimoog and Roland TB-style emulations. The A1 has nearly all of them (save for the 48dB-per-octave lowpass) and they sound fantastic. Many of the expertly-crafted presets bring to mind a Switched-On Bach vibe, and offer plenty of smoothness and versatility. The filter drive is also effectively modeled, for even more vintage grit.

Next up is the A1’s “Like” button. Despite the inevitable cringing at the “Facebook-ification of everything,” this turns out to be quite useful. As you design a sound and come to points where you like what you hear but still want to keep working, you can hit the Like button to save up to 50 temporary versions of the patch. You can then scroll through the Like buffer, choose your favorite(s), and save to an actual memory location. Programming any synth has the pitfall of overshooting the mark and losing the sound you were after, and this is indeed a clever and sensible way around it.

In Performance mode, the A1 can have up to four programs sounding at once, with keyboard splits and/or layers. The multi-focus feature allows you to change the parameters of all of the programs in a performance at once. For instance, if you have a four-part layer and you want to adjust the attack time of the overall sound, multi-focus enables you to do so with one knob adjustment. We’ve seen this sort of “overall quick edit” functionality implemented in various synths and workstations before, and it’s a boon for live performance. 

Want more options still? Use the Mutator function to automatically create a new program based on the current settings, or the Randomize function to create—you guessed it—a program with random parameter values.


Conclusions

The Nord Lead A1 is a gorgeous-sounding synthesizer. The presets alone demonstrate its ability to evoke both the analog synths of yesterday, and the tidier modern sound that gave the Lead series its identity and appeal. Depending on what floats your boat, the additions may outweigh the subtractions when comparing it to the Lead 4, making the A1 warrant serious consideration. We lament the lack of aftertouch (the sound engine won’t even respond to it over MIDI); despite it being the more affordable model in the line, it’s still in premium-synth territory at a $1,799 street price. That said, the A1, like its big sister the Lead 4, is an inspiration machine. The presets alone beg you to get lost in the music, and there’s enough sonic potential here to keep you discovering and creating new and exciting sounds for a long time to come.

 

PROS: Excellent Nord sound at a lower price. Increased polyphony (26-voice) with four-part multitimbral performances. More simultaneous multi-effects including chorus and ensemble. “Like” button for comparing multiple sound edits. Tasty filter emulations. Oscillator configurations expand sonic potential quickly. High-quality construction.

CONS: No aftertouch, either from the keys or over MIDI. Envelope generators are three-stage (ADR or ASR) instead of four-stage ADSR. No pulse width modulation. No audio input.

Bottom Line: Don’t let the lower price fool you; the Nord Lead A1 packs a lot of synthesis power into a streamlined package.

$2,099 list | $1,799 street | Nord Lead A1R rack module:  $1,599 list | $,1499 street | nordkeyboards.com 

Keep up-to-date on the latest news
Get our Free Newsletter Here!

You Might Also Like...

Synthesizer
Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

What best describes your dream job?





See results without voting »