One Track Mind
When I record, I tend to do one thing at a time. Most of the instruments I’ve owned have either one output in mono or two outputs in stereo, and I’m used to that. I don’t have many stereo effects, so I’ve largely worked with mono sources that can be passed through mono effects pedals or have stereo effects applied later in the DAW. This has served me well for guitars, synths, and drum machines for most of my life. Combine this with a lot of time spent working on music alone playing one part at a time, and it becomes a habit.
I say all this to explain why it’s taken me so long to explore the multitimbral features of my Nord Lead 2. Today, I dug into its routing options, and while it has a pretty simple system, there are a few quirks that might stymie someone attempting it for the first time.
Timbrality? What’s that?
If you spend enough time playing with musical instruments, eventually you’ll run into the concept of “timbre”. An instrument’s timbre (pronounced “tam-bur”) can best be compared to a person’s voice. Everyone has a different voice, and these differences come from the variations in human physique. The size of a person’s head, tongue, mouth, lips, and chest all contribute to the overall sound of a person’s voice. The same can be said of instruments. It’s what makes a piano sound different from a guitar. They have different shapes, are constructed from different materials, and have different methods of producing sound, so they sound different when playing the same pitch. Some instruments, like an electric guitar, have switches and knobs that can change its timber (guitarists like to call it “tone”) by changing the configuration of the guitar’s pickups and EQ, but it only has one timbre at any given time. If you want different guitar sounds, you have to record them separately, one at a time.
But what about synths? As mentioned earlier, for much of the synthesizer’s history, synths produced one sound at a time, through one output, one note at a time, in mono. They had knobs, sliders, and switches giving them near infinite flexibility of timbre (and these options are what make one synth sound different from another synth), but it was still only one timbre at a time. Eventually synths allowed the player to switch timbres (synthesists like to call them “patches” or “presets”) with a push of a button and save favorite timbres for later. However, the old limitation of one timbre at a time remained.
Multi-timbral synths, like the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak and the Casio CZ-101 added the ability to make more than one sound at a time. When these synths were hooked up to a MIDI sequencer, a keyboardist could play organ, bass, and lead synth all from one physical unit. The cheaper units used only a pair of stereo outputs, but more professional models featured separate mono outputs for each sound, so you could mix them or add effects separately. You could have a dry, compressed bass sound on one output and a reverb-drenched pad on another output. A whole song could be performed from one synth. This was a big improvement.
Setting Up the Nord Lead 2
The Nord Lead 2 is a multi-timbral synthesizer like the Six-Trak or CZ-101. It has four outputs and four parts (called “slots” on the casing). You can assign a different patch to each slot and route the slots in a number of different ways. The synth has no built in effects, but supports a sort of faux stereo as well as mono output.
When setting up the Nord Lead 2, it’s easy to miss one small detail: when you use only one cable, plugged into output “A”, you will hear slot “A” and slot “B”. They may be layered or separated (when you switch the active slot), but they will both come out of output “A”. If you plug the cable into output “B”, you may only hear slot “B” or slot “A” depending on other settings. If you want slot “A” to come out of output “A” and slot “B” to come out of output “B”, you must use two cables: one in output “A” and another in output “B”. I was baffled by this until I plugged 2 cables in, and now the slots are perfectly separated.
Clavia cleverly put a little map to the far right of the controls, so you don’t have to dig out the manual to set output routing. We have 8 different modes available for routing:
- Mono/unison stereo to outputs “A” and “B” (mode “1Ab” on the LCD)
- Mono to outputs “A” and “B” (mode “2Ab” on the LCD)
- Alternating to outputs “A” and “B” (mode “3Ab” on the LCD)
- Slot “A” to output “A” and slot “B” to output “B” (mode “4Ab” on the LCD)
- Mono/unison stereo to outputs “C” and “D” (mode “1cd” on the LCD)
- Mono to outputs “C” and “D” (mode “2cd” on the LCD)
- Alternating to outputs “C” and “D” (mode “3cd” on the LCD)
- Slot “C” to output “C” and slot “D” to output “D” (mode “4cd” on the LCD)
As you may have noticed, the first four modes are duplicated for outputs “C” and “D”. There is a ninth mode (“-cd” on the LCD) that sets outputs to the exact same routing as outputs “A” and “B”.
To change the output mode, hold the “Shift” button, and press the “Out Mode” button (located under the LCD display). The display should show the current setting such as “4.Ab”. You can then press the up and down buttons to change the output mode. Press the “Out Mode” button (without holding the “Shift” button) to change the “C” and “D” settings. Press the “Shift” button again to exit the menu.
The Output Modes
The first output mode is “1Ab”. This is the default output mode. All sounds from slots “A” and “B” are sent to outputs “A” and “B”. The sounds will be mono or stereo depending on the patches assigned to slots “A” and “B”. No matter what sound you assign to the slots, they will come out of outputs “A” and “B” with the intended mono or stereo image. If both slots are set to a mono sound, the output will be mono (equal volume over both outputs). If at least one of the slots has a stereo patch, the output will be stereo.
This second output mode is “2Ab”. This mode sends equal levels for slots “A” and “B” at the two “A” and “B” outputs. Even though the sounds are coming out of the 2 outputs, the levels are the same and there is no discernible stereo image.
The third output mode is “3Ab”. This is the forced stereo mode. The sounds from slots “A” and “B” are sent to outputs “A” and “B” in alternating fashion, creating a faux stereo image. All sounds, be they mono or stereo, will have a stereo image. This is the most stylistically drastic mode and entirely subject to taste.
The fourth output mode is “4Ab”. This is the forced mono mode. The sound assigned to slot “A” will come out of output “A”, and the sound of slot “B” will come out of output “B”. Sounds will be in mono, no matter what their settings. You can process each sound individually over separate mixer channels. This is useful for multi-timbral performances where you want effects on some of your sounds, but not all of them. I find it especially useful with using the Nord Lead 2 as a drum module. You can put a kick, snare, closed hi hat, and open hi-hat on the 4 slots, and effect each drum differently (such as a compressor on the kick and a delay on the snare).
The “C” and “D” outputs and slots have exactly the same routing options, with the addition of the “-cd” mode. This mode copies the behavior of slots “A” and “B”. For instance, if you have “A” and “B” set to “3Ab” and “C” and “D” set to “-cd”, all 4 slots will come out of outputs “A” and “B” with forced stereo sound. No sound will come out of outputs “C” and “D”.
To Learn New Things
I’ve found one of the most effective methods of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) relief is to get more in-depth with the gear you already have. Learning a piece of gear inside and out inspires creativity and can break a stubborn run of musician’s block. In the case of the Nord Lead 2’s output options, I’m now inspired to use it as a percussion instrument. So get in deep with your gear, you never know what you might find.