The mid-90’s was an interesting time for synthesizer development. Many manufacturers were getting to grips with digital synthesis as hardware began to see major competition from software platforms. Many lent towards the new craze in software development and seemed to almost leave hardware behind. It was in this time that a new contender in the hardware synthesizer market appeared as Clavia delivered their Nord Lead synthesizer.
There are a number of key features in the first Nord Lead that set it apart from most of the other keyboards available at the time. Aside from the now famous red coloured casing that can be recognised on stages and in studios in an instant, the Lead offered something that was rarely available elsewhere at the time – control. Look at some of the synthesizers being produced by Korg, Roland, Alesis, Yamaha and others and you were faced with a range of buttons and a screen in many cases. In order to find and tweak your sounds, you had to laboriously filter your way through menus to access the functions you required. What the Nord Lead did was bring back real time control to the user and in doing so made it an instant hit for live performers. The Swedish manufacturers brought a little Nordic charm to this keyboard with a wooden pitch bend toggle and a slim modulation wheel that broke from the traditional designs of just about any other synthesizer going around. Being designed in part by Peter Jubel, who went on to be a co-founder in Propellerhead software, you can see how the demand for real time control was enforced. It actually bears some resemblance to the layout and design of certain synthesizers found within the original Reason software a number of years later.
While the competitors seemed to be focused more on PCM based sample engines for their synthesizers, the Nord lead took us on a different journey. Clavia coined the term “virtual analogue,” with the release of the Nord Lead and that was just what they delivered. This new digital engine was designed to emulate the inner workings of classic analogue synthesizers and was able to recreate subtractive synthesis and FM synthesis through the use of the DSP processors it held under the hood. As a new idea that hadn’t really been ventured into before, the Nord Lead gave us a range of sounds that really sounded like they could stand up to any analogue synthesizer and give it a run for its money. Best of all, the digital processor delivered stability and control quite unlike that of the analogue models it was replicating. With a concept that now seems so simple and common, the Nord Lead swept the world with the new analogue modelling process and showed how just about any synthesizer’s sound could be recreated from this one keyboard. With a built in performance mode, you got even more power out of the engine as you were able to store certain parameters with a sound to be easily tweaked on the fly. It wasn’t long after the release of the Nord Lead that Clavia pushed to further the product and release a rack version of the same synth. These soon started to appear in studio racks all over the place as the MIDI capabilities of the Lead Rack meant you could access all the control from a master keyboard or still make adjustments on the unit with just simple note data triggering sounds via MIDI. This all meant that Nord had secured itself as a name in synthesizers and was here to stay. They quickly became the go to keyboard on tour stages the world over when the product range developed to include newer versions of the Lead as well as the Electro and the Stage, the latter two offering more possibilities for piano and organ sounds. But, it all comes back to the design and engineering of the first Nord Lead that started not only Clavia, but a range of other manufactures off on the analogue modelling path. The Nord Lead did have its own very recognizable sound, but it also had the sound of many other synthesizers to offer and that’s what made it so great.