This highly entertaining review comes courtesy of Paul Syers...
Timing is everything they say… I mean, who could imagine now that when Frank Whittle built the first jet engine in 1937 it would be kind of overlooked for the first few years of its life… understandable you might say given that the World was a little preoccupied with other events at the time… but amazing nonetheless.
Fast-forward then to mid-late 2008. As the World packed its collective economies into a big box and sent them down the tip for recycling, amid this noise and fluster a little gem arrived quietly on our shores…
NORD WAVE - FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The first thing you notice when getting the Nord Wave out of the box is its weight, or lack thereof. Weighing in at just 6 kg it’s only fractionally heavier than some of the jumbo laptops doing the rounds these days, so whether you’re lugging it to-and-from gigs or just dead-lifiting it onto a studio stand, you’ll still have enough movement left in your fingers to play it once it’s there.
And when you do, the Wave really starts to impress pretty quickly. The action on the four octave C-to-C keyboard is fast and reminds me of the likes of the old ARP Odyssey, only slightly lighter. But it’s the interaction of the physical keyboard with the sound generation aspects of the synth that really makes this feller shine. There’s an immediacy to the speed of the sound that seems really fast, even by modern keyboard standards. It’s hard to describe, but it almost feels like some of the old hard-wired analogue synths used to, where you felt like they were playing the note almost before you’d pressed the key! For those of us who have spent any time of late with virtual instruments and subconsciously gotten used to even the smallest of lags, the Wave will feel astonishingly immediate by comparison.
NORD WAVE - PITCH AND MOD CONTROLS
If you’re new to Nord instruments, you’ll notice that the performance controllers are miniature works of art compared to the usual Tonka-tyre wheels of many a modern synth. The pitch wheel has changed (Transformers-style!) to take the form of a small indented wooden block craftily seated atop a laterally sprung pitch stick, whilst its cousin the Mod Wheel has opted for the “Just popped in from the Japanese Garden” stone disguise.
Both these performance controls work brilliantly. If you’re the kind of person that tends to use your pitch wheel for big extended pitch dives or rises though, you might find the block a little harder work than you’re used to – It’s side-to-side rather than up-and-down action means that you need to pretend you used to be the guy that controlled Fingermouse. Further, a good solid vibrato can require you to break out the Jazz Hands and at its bend-extremes the internal spring is working so hard against you to return your finger to the middle that it feels like you are using the Force to keep your hand there.
Soon though you realise that through this mystical shape transformation, it has become, by design, brilliantly capable of mimicking the manner in which an acoustic instrument player interacts with their instrument. And unlike pitch benders on some other keyboards, it feels totally natural, avoiding the dead and dreaded hard ‘centre’ notch, finally making fluid pitch bending or believable vibrato finely controllable.
NORD WAVE - FRONT PANEL
In fact, the front panel could pretty much totally be summed up by the phrase ‘By Design’.
There’s a knob or button for everything that matters, no more, no less…not too many, not too few…just right. You could call it the ‘Goldilocks Standard’ of knobs. Practically everything is immediately accessible and the few things that aren’t are usually only a step away. Even a somewhat deeper change that you’d be unlikely to be doing live, like swapping one of the oscillator waveforms to one of the many FM variants available, is only 2 steps or so away should you suddenly desire it.
Regular rotary pots rule the day here, with only a couple of rotary encoders thrown in and these are easily differentiated by different shaped knobs. Rotary pots of course give the advantage that you can easily ‘get’ the range of a control in one sweep of the knob; not only useful for live work but also for visually understanding the scope of change that control can make. Rotaries on the other hand can drop you straight to a recalled programme, with the knob set to carry on from exactly where you currently are, though with no clue as to where in the function’s range you are.
Unlike it’s stable mate, the Lead 3, which had a novel solution for this, the Wave doesn’t have LED’s around the knobs to show you how a patch is setup when you load it. In the scheme of things though, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to not having this functionality again and how quickly you become comfortable with just using your ears, though it might well have earned it’s keep doing live work.
As ever, Nord’s case design provides the only visible and slight nod to affordability to my mind; despite solid sturdy construction, the metal that forms the front panel folds to create side flaps where it meets the keyboard, leaving a couple of small square, apparently uncovered spaces that look like they disappear inwards into the black innards of the machine. As with so many things in life, I didn’t stick anything in there so I’ve no idea how deep it really is, but for those among you who’s gig rider contains something like “One bowl Smarties – Blue Only!!”, I’ll just say that I wouldn’t necessarily balance the bowl on the top of the keyboard, else one slip might leave you with the World’s largest rattle!
NORD WAVE - THE KEYBOARD
The keyboard then is delightfully responsive in terms of velocity and lack of lag. The aftertouch is sensitive and progressive and doesn’t take much effort once set to get it to kick in. The upside of that is that it makes a delightful change from the days of the old Roland D50, when you had to strap an anvil to your shoulders and lean heavily on the keys in order to give yourself a chance of activating the aftertouch. But, just once in a while, I did occasionally find that when trying out Wave presets with the vibrato on, it wasn’t immediately obvious that I’d given it enough ‘lean’ to pass the threshold, so I’d be mistakenly twiddling with the LFO amounts to try to get it to stop before realising it was the vibrato. All-in-all though, the new was much more effective than the old.
The only downside with the aftertouch capability on the Wave is that it won’t let you route the aftertouch to anything other than vibrato. It seems like a strange omission for a keyboard that so clearly wants to be the great unifier of live and studio keyboards and clearly it is. Where previously, its stable mate the Nord Lead 3 allowed you to route the aftertouch to a ‘Morph’ destination (more on this later), the Wave doesn’t and that’s a shame.
NORD WAVE - THE MANUAL
At this point, it’s worth mentioning the manual, where I went to double-check the whole 'no aftertouch routing' thing when I first believed it to be true. There’s a fair chance that as a new or even seasoned Nord Wave user, you will not have needed to reach for it yet, such is the elegance of the instrument design. But a Doff-of-the-Hat to the manual writers here, it really is one of the most clearly and concisely written synth manuals I’ve seen. With chapters covering topics from 'Synthesis Basics' thru Hands-on-parameter topics thru to the management of the sample side of the instrument and its software, you’ll quickly find most of your answers there. You’ll probably even get something out of it if you aren’t a Nord Wave owner, so that says something!
NORD WAVE - THE SOUNDS
So what does it sound like? Well I have to say, I’ve had a lot of keyboards come through here but this is the only one that has made my other half stop in the doorway while passing and say “ooh, that sounds nice...”. Now I’m not saying this feller is a workable replacement for endless cans of Lynx (for those that use such things), but it has a certain smoothness that makes you smile when you hear it. Not smooth like muddy, or lacking in definition or top end... No, by smooth I mean really classy sounding, like ‘George Clooney in a tuxedo swapping his coffee machine for one of these’ classy.
And that translates in the real world... Those of you that track synths on a regular basis will quickly appreciate how much less time and effort it seems to take getting this synth to sit nicely within a mix. I re-recorded the synth part on several tracks I was working on using the Wave and in more than one instance, the sound that came out of the back of the synth was what ended up on the track, no further EQ, Fx or compression applied.
Under the hood, the Nord Wave is all about giving you the biggest sound creation capability for your buck. As you look at the front panel, the controls you see are essentially for one of two complete synth engines. Buttons just below the LCD display determine which of the two ‘slots’ (as Nord calls them) you are accessing or working on at any one time; A, B or both. Usefully, saving a patch also captures this slot configuration, so when working live you can have say a piano patch in slot A, strings in slot B and at the touch of a button be playing one, the other or both at the same time.
The oscillators then are where a lot of the big news starts with the Wave. To start with, each of the two oscillators provides a set of the expected defacto waveforms, so you get a set of very classy and analogue sounding Saw, Triangle, Square and pulse waveshapes, with oscillator 1 throwing in a sync button for all those old-school hard sync sounds. You then get a huge set of pre-combined FM algorithms, ready to take the hard work out of making FM sounds. These range from a simple single sine waveform through to some of the final waveforms, consisting of up to 3 operators.
Now, if you’ve ever tried to programme a patch on a DX7 from scratch (and then perhaps resorted to putting your own hand in a mangle just to stop you biting it when things become implausibly esoteric), the FM capabilities here alone will make you smile. It’s the Good-Cop to the DX’s Bad-Cop…it’s all “Hey, here you go, try this one, it might be just what you’re looking for!”…rather than the DX’s frown-mangle-mangle-mangle…
These alone would already provide a huge basis for sound design, especially given that you effectively get two slots-worth of all this, so you could do the DX double and make a version of a 12 operator FM monster synth if you chose to go all-FM, all-the-time. But, as an 80’s gameshow host might say, 'wait, there’s more…'
Oscillator 1 throws in a wave table containing 62 jangly and harmonically rich waveforms, which add another dimension to the sound. Sadly, one can’t step through the wavetable using modulation in the way you could have with a PPG, but given the scope of sound on offer here, that’s really a small niggle and follows up with some miscellaneous waveforms, including various varieties of noise and shapeable sine waves.
Oscillator 2 swings back with its take on the wavetable, SWAV, containing waveforms originating from acoustic sounds, which deliver an initial attack portion to the sound ahead of a repeating wave section. Finally, Oscillator 2 provides access to the sampled waves (stored internally in flash memory) and controls for detuning Osc 2 from Osc 1.
Each oscillator also has a control called 'Shape', the function of which varies depending on the waveform or type selected, e.g. 'pulse width' for the square wave, or 'FM modulation amount' for the FM algorithms. On Oscillator 2, when using either the samples or the SWAVs, 'Shape' gives you a further separate decay control over that source. Finally, you have control over the start point of the sample as played back, enabling you to use only as much of the attack portion of the sample as you want to.
NORD WAVE - MODULATION, FILTERS, EFFECTS & MORPHING
Now that’s a lot of sound source! Modulation sources are also well catered for and up to the task in the Nord Wave, with two LFO controls per slot offering slightly differing variations on routing and also covering oscillator pitch and modulation controls, pan, filter cutoff and resonance, and the oscillator shape controls. Under the hood, these are actually separate LFO’s, one for each voice, so 18 in all. LFO waveforms cover the usual suspects of square, triangle, saw and random and also throw in an inverted saw and a nice smoothed random waveform that adds subtle random interest where applied.
Full-fat ADSR envelopes are available for amplitude and filter control purposes, plus a separate AD/R modulation envelope allows for some fun, being capable of controlling pitch, waveform shape, filter and oscillator mix. And I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again…that’s all per slot!
The filters, as ever, are brilliant. There is slightly less choice on offer here than with the Nord Lead 3, but in use it rarely feels like it. 12dB and 24dB/oct versions of Low, High, and Band pass cover much of the traditional ground, plus you get a multi-filter, which applies 3 resonant peaks, a Comb filter for some groovy phasing-style action and an excellent Vocal filter, where the resonance control moves the filter between the various vowel sounds.
Effects are a somewhat rarer beast on Nord keyboards. Often you’ll find that the raw sound is so good that you’ll hardly use the effects at all, but when you want them, per the Goldilocks Design Principle, they do exactly what’s required. A stereo delay provides 4 feedback settings to choose from, plus a tap tempo for quick matching; A tube amp simulator adds overdrive, though to my taste it’s probably done a lot of what you’d want it to do by the time the knob hits half way; The reverbs are lovely, with variations on Hall, Room and Stage reverbs doing the job nicely; and last but not least, the Chorus is great and in fact I’d go as far as to say it’s smoother and more usable, especially at the extremes, than my old Juno 6. Praise indeed.
Finally we come to Morphing, which is Nord’s way of letting you use the mod wheel/pedal, keyboard note and velocity as sources for real-time changes to your current sound, routing those to up to 26 morph destinations. Routing is achieved as simply as selecting the morph source, then pairing it by twiddling the destination parameter. That’s it! Doing the same again while holding the shift key will clear down an assignment and a green light by each knob tells you whether morphing is active or not. Very slick.
It’s worth pointing out at this point (in case I’ve not made it obvious) that the sheen the Nord Wave applies to its sounds is a result of the analogue part of its signal chain and consequently once you start uploading your own samples to the Wave, the same loveliness will be applied to those, as will the ability to apply the Wave’s filters, modulation and effects.
NORD WAVE - PRESETS & SOFTWARE
The factory patches then are a delight given the huge variety of sound and modulation sources from which they’ve had to draw and I’d guess they are probably aimed a little more at an audience of live musicians and recording composers and songwriters. You won’t find some of the “Quarcks” and hyper-excesses of some of the Virus’s here, but what you get is bank after bank of sounds that you just want to play. My first spin through them got me as far as patch three after about 20 minutes, having stopped en-route with an ‘ooh!’ at each one!
Patches run from songwriter / performer style fundamentals, including great sounding acoustic guitar and strings combos (that one had me glued for about half an hour), through to good solid old-school analogue leads, including one that immediately required me to trot out the solo from Rush’s Subdivisions, to a selection of the fizzy whizzy patches that often overfill the factory patches of many new synths. And if you do find yourself missing a little hypersaw action…well, it turns out that’s actually not really a problem….
Loading your own hyper-mega-saw samples into the Wave turns out to be a pretty easy thing to do once you’ve jumped through a few hoops. Apart from the sample start control on the keyboard itself, all other sample control management is done from within software, so you’ll need to plug the keyboard into a PC or Mac using a USB cable and load up Nord’s Sound Manager.
Once connected, you get to see the names of the patches in memory and by clicking on them an alternative tab will show you the sample layout. On first loading though, you might well see that a good proportion of the available memory is already full. I’ll come back to that shortly, but since the choice of memory contents is entirely yours, you could dump the lot and start from scratch if you had that specific requirement.
Samples are held in 185Mb of flash memory, of which I initially found only 21Mb to be free. That total might not sound like a lot compared to how many instruments some of the software based multi-gigabyte sample instruments make available these days, but as it turns out its more than you might think, with this particular instrument holding 35 sample based instruments comfortably when I first looked. And being held in flash memory, once the synth has ‘booted’, which feels like it takes only a few long seconds, then you are away.
Sound Manager is a nice piece of software, but isn’t nearly as sophisticated as something like Kontakt for sample layout and management and it takes comparatively quite a bit more effort to create complex overlays. And also, since it’s only the layout tool for the synth, you do have to upload to the synth before you can try. Sound Manager follows a hardware-centric terminology here rather than an internet one, so moving stuff from the PC to the synth is called downloading and bringing stuff from the synth to PC is called uploading. Same principle, just by a different name I guess, but it did keep making me double-check which action I was performing.
In fact most of my niggles with the Nord Wave are with this part of the implementation. Some are obviously software and thus potentially addressable by an upgrade, but some we might just be stuck with.
So let’s run through. The Sound Manager smartly compresses your samples into a proprietary nsmp file prior to sending to the synth, but this can take longer than you’d like. Understandably, the compression can be more successful with some samples than others, but that does make it more difficult to plan memory usage ahead of time, as it becomes a little bit of 'seeing what will fit'.
On top of that, the transfer itself to the synth is reminiscent of waiting for a download to complete on a slow broadband day, and if you go to initiate a transfer whilst playing the keyboard, everything suddenly stops dead whilst the transfer takes place, before springing back to life. That made me look I can tell you!
Sample-wise, in experiments my Wave only seemed to like 16 and 24 bit samples recorded at 44100Khz...everything else it chewed for a moment and spat out like a baby that was expecting banana and got sprout. Whether this will prove hugely problematic for you will depend on the number of sprouts you have in your various sample libraries compared to bananas. Sample rate issues are always fixable with a little effort, but it’s actually quite annoying to have to work around this. It is of course possible that a software update may have been issued between me writing this and now during which this is fixed…I hope so.
Something it seems a software update won’t be fixing I’m told (though again, this may have changed) is that the USB interface, amazingly, can’t be used to allow the Nord Wave to act as a master keyboard over USB…it’s MIDI only here. Now that really seems a shame.
And yeah, as I was saying, the memory is nearly full as well when you get it! Oh no wait, actually, that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it turns out, that’s actually a very very good thing. Because what many of you reading this will probably already know is that Nord have spent some quality time creating partnerships to bring you…the Nord Sample Library. This library, which at the time of writing is completely free for Nord Wave owners, contains amongst many other things, all the classic sounds of the original Mellotron.
For those of you that might have those Mellotron sounds of the 60’s mentally pigeon-holed as scratchy warblings of the flutey-stringy variety, this library will be an eye opener. There are both low and hi-fi versions of sounds that have become rightly famous, some of which will instantly give you an ‘Aha!’ moment (or will at least stop you hunting high and low for them).
Usefully, the patch titles often reference the songs you’ll have heard them in, so you’ll see the likes of “King Crimson (3 Violins, MkII Brass and Cello…)”, “Yes
(3 Violins, 8 Voice Choir, Vibraphone, Flute)” and “Genesis (3 Violins,
MkII Brass, 8 Voice Choir…)”.
However, whilst some of the original sounds are now so recognisable that they instantly reference the song that made them famous (which is of course great if that’s what you are after), the newer Mellotron libraries are both usefully anonymous and highly useable in their own right, with lush strings, voices and brass being the standouts.
Very pleasingly, Nord have gone one step further and provide access via their website to user created sample sets with a range covering old string machines and vintage synths through to samples taken from more recent Nord Lead instruments. There surely can’t be many modern synths that throw in a free Mellotron, Logan String Melody and Clavinet with every purchase.
NORD WAVE - SUMMARY
As you’ve probably already guessed I’m just a huge fan of this keyboard. As both a stage instrument and a source of in-studio inspiration, it is a delight, and as well as being the most sonically versatile machine I think I’ve ever used, it’s also without a doubt the most mix friendly. It is (in its own way) a sort of modern day PPG or Synclavier, an instrument of endless sonic possibilities with a capacity to be used by musicians working in any genre. That might sound like hyperbole, but there really aren’t that many instruments around that have that kind of scope.
There’ll be a few things I’m sure that people would have liked to have been included - a few more extreme multi-peaked filters perhaps, an arpeggiator, alternative aftertouch implementations, but at a price less than a quarter of that of a PPG Wave at launch and less than 1% of the price of a Synclavier in its day, I think it’s absolutely unbeatable.
So, if like me you were a bit busy or otherwise engaged perhaps when the Wave first arrived on our shores, well, I can understand that...but, hey, it’s here now, and I have to say it’s really quite something!
Welcome to the future.
For more information on the Nord Wave or to buy one, click the link below: