The Clavia Nord Lead, released in 1995, was the world’s first virtual analog synthesizer. The phrase ‘virtual analog’ was even coined by the manufacturer for this unit. Rather than using analog components, the Nord Lead innovated the use of DSP chips to simulate the workflow of subtractive analog and frequency modulation synthesis.
The first thing anyone notices about the Nord Lead is the color. The case of this synth is bright Ferrari red. There’s 49 velocity sensitive keys to play on, and the top panel hosts a plethora of knobs for live tweaking of individual parameters. Considering the number of difficult-to-program synths of the 1980s that ditched knobs in favor of push buttons and backlist LCDs, this was a welcome feature. Also noticeable is the unusual pitch button and mod wheel.
What made virtual analog so special was the programming possibilities afforded by digital signal processing. Even as the very first VA synth, the features of the Nord Lead and modulation possibilities are impressive. Just about any parameter can be assigned to the mod wheel or even velocity. A pair of DCOs per voice give you lots of options - sawtooth, triangle, variable width pulse waves come from OSC 1, while OSC 2 adds different colored noise. Sound textures go even further with options to hardsync OSC 2 to OSC 1 and FM modes. There’s a multimode, variable slope filter with ADSR envelopes, two LFOs, an arpeggiator, portamento, room for 99 presets, and more. While the original Nord Lead did only come with four voice polyphony, a hardware update expands this to 12 voices, and later models boast 16 voices or more.
With second-hand units selling for under $1000, you get a lot of synth for the money even by today’s standards. The Nord Lead also comes in a popular rack version, and has seen later editions in the Nord Lead 2, 3, and 4 synthesizers. In 2015, Clavia released the Nord Lead A1.
|Year of release: 1995||Polyphony: 4 (expandable to 12)|
|Oscillators: 2 per voice (DSP)||Multitimbral Parts: 4|
|Filter: 1 multimode digital filter||VCA: ADSR|
|Format: VA Synthesizer||Keys: 49|
|Modmatrix Sources:||Modmatrix Destinations:|
|LFO: 1 (tri, saw, square, random, s/h)||Control: MIDI|
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