Nord Modular preview (long)

From Benjamin Ward
Sent Fri, Jan 23rd 1998, 15:22

CLAVIA NORD MODULAR
Virtual Analogue Modular Synthesizer

Preview, Sound On Sound, February 1998

If you'd love a modular synth, but couldn't possibly afford a real one,
it's possible that virtual salvation is at hand. Paul Nagle investigates.

If you've always been daunted by the sheer size and expense of vintage
modular synths, yet drawn by their programming power and flexibility, life
is about to take a turn for the better. Clavia, the Swedish creators of the
Nord Lead (reviewed SOS May '95 and September '97) have taken virtual
analogue synthesis to its next logical stage. Imagine, for a moment, a
synthesizer with no fixed signal path - indeed, no fixed structure at all.
This synthesizer would contain all the necessary building blocks and give
you the tools to connect them together. Using a software front-end to map
out you instrument, you pick how many oscillators a given patch requires,
you decide the type and number of filters, LFO's, envelopes...everything.
Better still, you can choose exactly how each component part should be
wired together, how it reacts to MIDI controller messages - even how it
incorporates external signals into the audio chain. Colour this imaginary
synthesizer red, liberally sprinkle it with knobs, build it into a package
small enough to pick up with one hand, and you have the Nord Modular.

The Hardware

I'm not sure if the Nord Modular's two-octave, velocity-sensitive keyboard
(no aftertouch) is intended for performance or purely for programming, but
with its lack of  modulation wheels and pitch-bender, I suspect the latter.
Either way, it's incredibly cute, and pretty handy too, although you'll
have to decide for yourself if it was worth the =A3200 price difference
between the keyboard and rack versions. The front panel has 18 assignable
control knobs, a dedicated volume control, four slot selectors (for each
part in a layered or multitimbral performance), various function and
navigation switches, a rotary dial and an LCD, plus two transpose switches
which give the keyboard a range of six octaves.

The Software

Most of the Nord Modular's programming is done via a software front-end,
which looks elegant, yet still seems usable. PC requirements are not too
demanding either, since the Nord hardware does all the real work: a Pentium
90 running Windows 95 or Windows NT is recommended; for the purposes of the
preview, I ran the software on both a Pentium 75 Notepad and my main P133
studio PC, with no problems at all. The bad news for owners of other
computers is that the Nord's software is currently PC-only.

The software, obviously, is what enables you to select modules and cable
them together. A wide variety of 'objects' means that you won't run out of
inspiration in a hurry, but I'll save the full list till next month, when
we'll look at the steps involved in designing a synthesizer from scratch.
I'll say now that there are all the expected components, plus some
unexpected ones too. There are eight types of oscillator, low-frequency
oscillators, envelope generators, chorus, delay, distortion, audio and
control mixers, and so on, plus more esoteric items such as step-time
sequencers, percussion oscillators, clock dividers and various logical
comparisons (sic; I think he means comparators) which offer mathematical
operations. The on-screen modules are laid out like a real modular synth,
but with the added bonus of graphical displays of envelope curves, filter
peaks, and even LFO waveforms which change, oscilloscope-style, as
frequency and phase change.

The Right Connections

To understand a modular system, you need a grasp of how different types of
signal flow around the synth. To this end, four types of connection can be
made, and these are colour-coded to help you see what's going on.
Connecting two modules together is as simple as dragging the mouse between
an output (distinguished by a square frame) and an input (round frame). If
you reposition modules on the work area, any connected cables magically
stretch to fit, so you can spread things around whilst working, then drag
them together to save screen space later. Various views of the cables can
be defined, and you can hide them all or actually unplug the lot and start
again.

As on a real modular, it's quite possible to experiment by connecting
different types of signal. You could, for example, connect the audio output
of an oscillator and frequency-modulate a second oscillator with it.

DSP Power

Patch complexity and polyphony are dependent on the amount of DSP power
available. The basic Nord Modular comes with four DSP 'engines', though
this number can be expanded to eight with an optional card. I found that a
typical two-oscillator polysynth with LFO, filer, envelope and output stage
mixer, plus a few exotic modules of my choice, still left a healthy 16
notes of polyphony left to play with. Helpfully, when  you select a module,
it gives an estimate of the DSP processing it will require - for example,
the single largest resource gobbler, a master oscillator, complete with
oscillator sync inputs and a modulatable pulse width, requires 11%, and
many of the simpler modules require less than 1%.

Much of the pleasure in a system like this is the freedom to experiment
with things you could never do with actual hardware; in real life you don't
get to trade off an oscillator with a filter, but since they all exist in
DSP RAM, the Nord can handle this kind of thing with ease.

Tweaking

You can build patches from scratch, or grab the current settings, modules
and cabling and display them on the screen as a starting point. If you want
to tweak the sounds you've made, 18 assignable knobs are provided on the
Modular keyboard hardware, so you can spend hours painstakingly creating a
patch at home, then take it on stage in the confidence that your complex
routings are stored safely away, but can still be modified during the
performance. Clavia have sensibly left the knobs unlabelled, other than by
a number, since they can perform different tasks in each patch that you
call up. When a parameter is allocated for knobby control, its
corresponding LED lights up.

If the 18 on-board knobs aren't enough for you, any external MIDI
controller can be used instead, although you can't allocate more than one
controller per feature directly. If you want to do this, you need to set
the parameter as part of a 'morphing'  group and then allocate a knob or
MIDI controller to control the morphing group. We'll take a detailed look
at morphing groups in the full review. Bear in mind that though you need
the software front-end to create new module routings, all the parameters of
the current patch can be edited via hardware - the keyboard's LCD and
rotary dial or an external controller. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Nord
Modular's own knobs don't by default send out MIDI information, though
Clavia tell me there is a way of setting them up to do so.

Conclusion

I hope this preview has whetted your appetite a little. In next month's
full review I'll look in far more detail at what's on offer. I must confess
that I've already had to reassess some of my own preconceptions, which
previously steered me away from synths that could not be edited by on-board
facilities alone. For this powerhouse of a synthesizer, all rules change.
Designing your own synths, as the Nord Modular's software allows you to do,
might make you think again about the value of computer-based editing.
Unlike my old modular, the Nord Modular's patch cords and connecting jacks
are all noiseless, and there's no danger of running out of leads just as
you need to make that one last connection. With the possibility of new
modules available in software, and the extensive MIDI and performance
control on offer, this looks like a remarkable and ground-breaking
instrument.

=A31495 (keyboard)
=A31295 (rack)
Prices include VAT (Value Added Tax)

Key Audio Systems
T 01245 344001
=46  01245 344002

www.keyaudio.co.uk/keyaudio
www.clavia.se

--------------------------------------

I'm _not_ typing out next month's full review! Either subscribe, or get on
their webpage in mid-Feb.
www.sospubs.co.uk


Also in this months (Feb98) SOS:

Meaty 4 page review of the newest (Doepfer) MAQ 16/3 (MIDI analogue sequence=
r).
Juicy 3 page retro review of the Jupiter-8.

Our own Adam T's letter about the Arp Odyssey filter versions, from last
months issue.

=46eature on Dave Rossum (co-founder, Emu Systems)

Plus what must be one of the best small ads of the year (IMO):

"Sequential Pro-One, custom aftertouch keyboard, filter input, arpeggiator,
sequencer, oscillator sync, good condition, best offer or swap for MC-303."

MC-303??!!

Plus "Minimoog sustain pedal, =A325"  Huh? _Sustain_ pedal?!

Ben,
off sick from work with a swollen mouth (don't ask)