Nord Lead 4 Review - Sami Rabia March 28, 2018 18:19

Consumer Basics

The NL4 is the latest incarnation of the line going back to 1995 with the first Nord Lead.  The progress of the NL’s was quite linear from 1-3, 2 added more voices, then the 2x upgrade the converters and patch memory, and 3 added new filters and of course the fantastic endless rotary interface.  The 4 then is not quite the progression you might have hoped for. I think we all knew the rotary encoders weren’t coming back, but in terms of sound design too the NL4 offers a less complex sound engine as well as 4 fewer voices.  This really places the NL4 then as more the successor of the Nord Lead 2 than the NL3. That being said, there are some important new goodies here. The NL4 introduces new analog modeled filters, digital waveforms and retains all the ease of use and great build quality or the former models.


Physically the NL4 has a metal chassis but is surprisingly light weight at under 12 pounds.  It’s modwheel is made of stone and pitch bend is wood. The pitchbend style is uncommon, but this design has no deadzone in the center. It’s far more expressive and enjoyable to use than a pitch wheel.  The keyboard is synth style with 49 keys, it’s sensitive to velocity but features no after-touch.  It feels nice to play and doesn’t make a loud or clunky sound.  All the knobs feel firmly fixed in with no side to side play. The buttons also feel solid, they don’t slope to one side, don’t stick, and they provide a clear and satisfying click when pressed.   The interface is busy, with over 50 knobs and buttons, accompanied by some 80+ LED’s, but it’s logically organized and does not feel cluttered. On the topic of organization, the manual provided is extensive and well written, and when some companies are content to give us nothing more than a folded sheet of paper, Clavia are to be commended to keeping up professional standards.


The synth engine 4 part multi-timbral, these can be routed to four 24bit analog outputs.  A nice touch here is you can choose to route these outputs in 2 stereo pairs or 4 mono outs.  Multi-part synths with individual analog outs are slightly rarer than they used to be and so I again commend Clavia for upholding good practice.


Since the synth engine is multi-timbral, splits and layers are available. A nice feature here though is when working with multi-timbral mode you can simultaneously adjust all layers. This allows you treat the Nord as a single layered 8 oscillator synth, or co-ordinate all 4 layers when creating more complex performance patches.  You can activate the arp on whatever layer you’d like and leave it inactive on others, thus allowing you to stack arpeggio’s with pads for example.


You can assign the mod wheel and velocity sensitivity to any continuous parameter, and the impulse buttons to any switch, allowing you to drastically alter any patch with a few simple moves.  Making these assignments is extremely easy, you simply hold the modulation source button and move the parameter.  A green LED indicates when a parameter has been changed from it’s original position, and the LED goes out when there’s been no change.  Clearing assignments is a simple shift function.


An interesting new addition to the Nord range is the mutation function. Two processes allow you to deviate from the current settings.  Mode one keeps giving you variations on you original patch, whereas mode two continuously evolves the patch, from one state to the next.  There’s also a purely random mutation mode.  If one execution delivers a less favorable result, there’s a step undo function available, this can take you back up to 10 steps.


Lastly there’s now a chord mode, simply push the chord button, enter in your chords and the patch will now play those intervals on every keypress. 


The Sound Engine

The NL4 features two oscillators, osc1 has a fixed pitch while Oscillator 2 has both coarse and fine tuning and can also be switched to filtered noise. Both oscillators feature a nice set of analog waveforms, but oscillator 1 also features 128 digital waves.  


Osc 1 can also be frequency modulated, with osc 2 providing the audio rate modulation source.  This means you can modulate any of the waves in osc 1 with any of the waves in osc 2, including noise.  Osc 2 can also be decoupled from the keyboard so it can be set to a static frequency.  There’s also both soft and hard sync available, which uses the sine wave of oscillator 2.  


This all hugely opens up the pallet of the NL4, but I have to add here that the 128 digital waves are static and not wavetables as their website claims. It’s a real shame that there’s no shaping parameters on any waveform apart from the Pulse wave, especially as this ability was features in the later Clavia A1.


The oscillators provide a satisfying analog sound, they are full and musical, without at all being dull.  I prefer my oscillators to be sharp like this, though for some they might sound too digital.


The LFO speeds are fast enough to be used for FM, going into the audio rate.  Between the digital waves and the FM available, the NL4 is capable of departing from the typical sound scapes of the analog synthesizers it’s emulating.


You get a choice of 6 filters, one high pass, one bandpass, 3 Nord Lowpass filters at 12, 24 and 48db per octave slopes, and 2 new analog modeled filters, one based on the Moog 24dB ladder filter and the other the Roland TB-303.  I am hugely appreciate of these new filter types, but they are not on the level of some of the best soft-synth emulations, and from my limited experience even the Korg King Korg and Roland System-8 both offer a more convincing analog sound. The Nords filters can sound quite hashy at high resonance settings, but aside from that they do have a nice quality to them. They are also a tad more analog sounding to my ear than the Virus TI’s offerings, but in my opinion the entire character of TI and Nord synths are quite different, neither one better than the other but each having their own strengths when taken as a whole.


All filters feature Drive, which adds distortion inside the filter and is a applied on the voice level. While I’m not a huge fan of the character of this distortion, it is better to have it than not, as it does provide for further variety to the sound design on offer.


Perhaps a more interesting design feature though is how switching to the Moog filter changes the the characteristics of the amp and filter envelopes, to match more closely the shape of the minimoog’s envelopes.  These are very punchy indeed and add welcome variety.  This behavior was added in the 1.20 update.  Speaking of updates, there have been numerous bug fixes since release, and many small changes to the quality of the synth engine itself.  Something to keep in mind if you’ve ever tried the NL4 in a store, the last update was 1.30 at the end of 2014.


There’s a third, simpler mod envelope which can be assigned to pitch, FX, LFO2 speed among others.  The choices for FX are distortion, Talk box, comb, bit crush & compression.  Finally you can choose to add either a mono delay or reverb, the reverb has 3 different modes and a dark or bright control.  While I understand Clavia’s reasoning for the FX choices here, wanting to allow uses to explore more esoteric territory, I think their choices here are misguided.  A phaser for example would have been much more useful than a second talk box, a chorus would have been better than a compressor.  Instead these two effects were added to the A1, which also features a stereo ping-pong delay and allows for both reverb and delay to be active at the same time.  This is a real shame and is the likely reason why the A1 is more popular, despite it’s otherwise cut-back feature set.


The LFO’s are a bit of a weakness on the NL4, although they are very fast, they are only two of them.  Adding further to this sound design limitation, the LFO’s each have their own set of possible destinations.  Only LFO one for example can modulate Pulse width, but LFO one is sacrificed if you want to activate the arpeggiator.  It would be great if Clavia would allow an LFO to modulate more than one destination at a time.  A simple shift function would work here to assign the second destination, if the sound engine allowed for it. I say there’s 2 LFO’s, there’s actually a hidden 3rd LFO that takes care of Vibrato. It’s strength and delay time can be modified in the menu.  It would be better to have a fully featured 3rd LFO, but nevertheless this is a very useful addition.  One final issue I have with the LFO’s though, theres a stepped and smooth Sample and Hold waveform available, but the stepped version is still fairly smooth. It would be great if you could edit this in the menu.


I must make a final note here of the Unison.  There are 3 unison settings, these basically multiply your sound, detune each one a little and spread them in the stereo field.  These are preset configurations, there’s no way to edit the detune or stereo spread.  I usually either use no Unison or the highest setting, which adds 3 extra voices.  Each key press uses 4 voices, leaving you with just 5 notes of polyphony, but boy does it sound awesome.  It feels like the unison algorithms have been tweaked to give the most musical results here, there seems to be a slight delay introduced to each voices, giving it a bigger sound, but I’m not entirely sure either way.


So what about it’s direct competitors? The retail price is around $2300, putting it squarely in the range of the newer 16 voice Korg prologue, and the DSI Rev2 16 voice, both of which are actually analog and the Korg even has digital waves too.  Comparing it to other VA’s, the Nord Lead 4 is more expensive than Clavia’s own 24 voice A1, twice the price of the King Korg, Blofeld keyboard and Studio Logic Sledge.  Of course, none of these are RED. 


The NL4 then is clearly not the value for money option. That’s not to say however that I think it’s overpriced, but it is the more expensive option.


So who’s this for? Well, I’d say there are two groups of people who should consider the NL4. If you’re a gigging keyboardist, you’ll appreciate the light weight and quality feel of the keyboard, as well as all the aforementioned performance features.  IT’s not going to be subject to temperature and it won’t develop faults the way an analog synth might.  The build quality is great, better than the DSI pro-2 for example, about on par with the Virus TI.


The issue there is most in that camp should probably consider the A1 first.


The other group of people who should consider the NL4 are diehard fans of the Nord sound. That group is split though.  There are those to whom the A1 will offer all the features they need to get that sound, and save some money, and there are others who will prefer the sound of the old nords, the NL2 for example.  This leaves the final group.  Those who love the sound of the Nord, the appeal of the physical qualities of the board, and there particular features and updated filters of the NL4. That’s the group I fall into.


Personally, I don’t care much for the Mutate or impulse buttons, not to say these aren’t cool, but there’s a number of things I’d happy have in their place.  A full 3rd LFO for example, some more conventional effects, another 4 voices, oscillator stacking and real wavetables.  Some people won’t like the tiny LCD and the shift-functions. The lack of a software editor, the lack of USB audio and the lack of conventional effects.  There’s a lot of people that will simply not find the sound appealing enough to justify the high price tag, especially considering the newer wave of more affordable and well featured synths that have come out in the last few years.


In the end the NL4 is synth I prize.  Although I feel it’s limitations, I always enjoy programming it.  The layout is so immediate and fun to work with.  This is immediately obvious when you go from programming on the NL4 to something with a more economical layout.  The sound itself is always interesting to me, different from VST’s, musical and addictive. It makes for a near perfect master keyboard for me too, it’s compact and takes up little unnecessary space on my desk and has a ton of controls on offer for MIDI control of software. 


Pros - 

  • Solid build.  Metal body, stone modwheel, wood and unique action pitchwheel.
  • Immediate and clean interface
  • 20 Voice polyphony, with multi timbral play and 4 analog outs.
  • New filter types over older models, including new Envelope behavior.
  • Musical, clean punchy sound, especially with new envelopes.
  • Analog and digital waveforms, inc filtered noise.
  • A variety of sources for FM.
  • LFO’s go really fast.
  • Pseudo & Real unison
  • Modwheel and velocity assignments ideal
  • Mod Envelope is snappy
  • Surprisingly compact and light
  • It’s Red
  • Nord Sound manager is fine
  • No gimmicks or weird limitations to the basic utilities, proper patch storage, no need for a computer etc
  • Manual is good
  • No crashes or glitches so far


Cons - 

  • Only 2 Lfo’s
  • One is lost when using Arp
  • Some waveforms and destinations are exclusive to one LFO or the other.
  • No actual mod-matrix
  • TB filter is too quiet
  • Effects are not ideal choices at all, echo is mono, only 1 effect at a time, 2 talk boxes but no phaser, compression but no chorus. 
  • Waveforms are static, apart from Pulsewave.
  • 24 voices would have been better
  • Filters are not at current gen levels of emulation
  • The A1 competes with it at a cheaper price point, with some improved features, and most of what people want.
  • Costs as much as an 8 or 16 voice analog.
  • No after-touch

Here's a demo of some of the sounds I've programmed on the Nord Lead 4: