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  Review 9/Oct/03  
Nord Modular G2 - Preview - Impressions

The G2
In early September, in London, I got to see Rob Hordijk present a preview of the The Clavia Nord Modular G2. This synthesizer is the much anticipated replacement for the venerable Nord Modular. Rob knows the new machine very well and gave an excellent presentation. Later in the evening, a few lucky NM users joined Rob in the lobby of our hotel and got some hands-on time with the new G2. In this article I will give some of my impressions and thoughts from this first look.

The original NM is a phenomenal electronic musical instrument. When connected to a PC, the NM provides musicians with virtually unlimited supply of polyphonic modular synthesizers. I have one, as well as a Kyma system and lots of other goodies in my studio. The NM is my favorite. In the rest of this article I will assume that the reader is familiar with the current NM. To keep it simple, I'll use NM when talking about the current version and G2 for the new one. This is not an in depth product description, or even a product review, just my impressions, and later some thoughts. Here goes:

Original Nord Modulars
First impression: the G2 is striking. There are 4 LCD displays, 8 new rotary encoder knobs, and 8 large push buttons with lites. The three octave keyboard (more about that latter) has a mod wheel and there is the Nord lead style wooden lever controller. It is easy to understand the layout of the controls as they are a logical evolution of the NM. Like the NM, the G2 has four slots; essentially four synths. From the back, the 4 audio ins and outs is impressive. The construction is very much like the current NM, all metal and painted red.

There can be as many as 8 DSP chips in the G2. they run a little less than twice as fast at the NM chips. The auxiliary processor runs hundreds of times faster than the NM. This makes a fully loaded G2 about as powerful as a 12 processor Kyma Capybara 320, at least in terms of raw processor cycles.

Like the NM, the G2 stops playing when you load a new patch, or change a connection while editing a patch. The silence interval was very short; seemed like 300 to 500 ms.

New G2 Controllers
The new rotary encoders look great. There is almost a circle of LEDs around each encoder knob to indicate approximately where the knob is set. The knobs are unfortunately not high resolution. This is very unfortunate. They feel very smooth though. Since the knobs are incremental devices, there are 15 pages with each patch to store knob and switch assignments. These are selected on the front panel by 8 pushbuttons; bank 1-3 and page 1-5 (I could have these backwards).

Unlike the NM, the G2 has MIDI out. In addition there are many new MIDI processing modules. It should be possible to use the G2 for some very powerful MIDI processing, including time quantization in real time. There are modules that allow any control signal to be used as a MIDI signal. There are new arpedgiator modules, and it will be possible to build your own arpedgiators. These improvements in MIDI are alone worth upgrading from the NM to the G2, in my opinion.

Very exciting: there are 4 internal busses in the G2 that can route signals between slots. These a mono busses. and can be used for audio or control signals.

In the G2, there is much less distinction between audio and control signals. The new code complier is smart enough to conserve DSP resource on the fly. In fact, the G2 is no need for many of the NM's stripped down slave oscillators and such. In the G2, DSP cycles are still a concern, but the user doesn't have to be as crafty or clever in order to conserve them.

The oscillators have been enhanced to make it easier to do Chowning or Yamaha DX7 style FM synthesis. There is a new string oscillator which apparently can be used to good effect to synthesize string instruments. Check out the first mp3 sample of the G2 posted by Clavia; click here http://www.clavia.se/G2/G2Guitar.mp3. (Interesting that the first sound sample of the G2 that Clavia provides on their web site is a synthesized acoustic guitar. To be sure, it's one of the best acoustic guitars I've ever heard played on a modular, but it is not too great compared to a moderately good sample playback synth module, or even some of the sub $500 toys I saw today at the electronics store in the shopping mall. A modular synthesizer isn't the logical choice for synthesizing acoustic instruments. What's the point? Let's hear some hard core electronic sounds, or should I say, some electro-music.)

There apparently is a reverb module, but I didn't get a chance to see or hear it.

Rob Hordijk and the new Clavia Nord Modular G2
There is a new Bode style frequency shifter. While these can be relatively easily made on the NM with a few ring modulators and mixers, but it's nice to have a module.

There are neat new multiplexer and demultiplexer modules. The will be useful for lots of stuff, like building switching sequencers. Can't wait to play with these.

There are new sequencer modules. One has a "voltage", or level sensitive, input to set the active stages. With this, if you put in a sawtooth, the sequencer will step along like a conventional NM unit, say from left to right, step by step. If you invert the sawtooth, it will go the other way, from right to left. Give it a random waveform gated with a S/H and you get random stage selection, or random movement. I think this is great. I asked if there was a sequencer that has a FWD/REV selector input and was told that yes, there will be in the production models, but there wasn't one on the prototype at that particular time. In my opinion, sequencers are one of the weakest aspects of the NM. I'm confident that the G2 will be much stronger in this department.

The old NM patches won't work with the G2. No downward compatibility. While this is very inconvenient, it's OK with me. The G2 is new from the inside out. I'm sure there will be many G2 patches available on the NM mailing lists. There has never been a shortage of NM patches, and I don't expect there will be for the G2 either. Let the new kid hit the streets free of the limitations of it's ancestors. I wish we could all do that.

When Rob was patching G2 with on the computer, the user interface looked pretty much like the NM. There are now eight morph groups, a big postive enhancement over the NM which has only four.

I'm impressed with the G2. It's a great new piece of gear; my favorite synth improved. I'm looking forward to buying one when it is available, but I have some reservations just the same.

The G2 will come in two models: a keyboard unit with three octaves and all the knobs and switches, and a rack mount "engine" with no controls at all. There will not be an equivalent model to the NM Rack, which has all the controls, but no keyboard. Neither one of the new G2 models is a good match for my needs.

The G2's three octave keyboard is an improvement over the 2 octave one on the NM keyboard, but not by much; it's minimal - plastic keys on coil springs. Keyboard players are going to have a separate MIDI keyboard if they want more octaves and better action, just as we do now with the NM. Unfortunately, since the G2 engine has no controls, we are stuck with the keyboard model if we want the nice new interface with the resetable knobs and buttons, and the four LCDs. I think some people might hold off on buying the G2, hoping for a rack mount model with knobs to come out later.

On a different subject, I think the current NM doesn't have enough knobs, even though it has 18 of them. The G2 has only 8 knobs - gulp. But it does have 8 buttons and 15 pages of assignments. Even so, an one expressively play a large modular synthesizer with just the 8 knobs? I'm not sure. Switching controller assignment pages in the middle of a performance by pushing two of eight buttons isn't going to be possible in many situations.

There is good news: the G2 is compliant with the protocols the soft synths use when controlled with external incremental encoders, such as the Doepfer Pocket Dial and the MotorMix. This is a big plus because these devices have the same instant reset capabilities as the G2 rotary controls. So, I think I'll be happy with a G2, and external keyboard, an external box or two or three of knobs.

While we wait for the G2, hopefully it will be available by Christmas in Europe - later in other geopolitical regions, there is a lot of discussion on the NM mailing lists about Clavia not offering the G2 patch editor program on the Apple operating system, OSX. There are a lot of great musicians that won't touch the G2 because of this unfortunate limitation. What competent software developer writes platform specific code these days? This is indeed a mystery, because I think the Clavia software engineers are outstanding. The NM editor is a magnificent program. It has never glitched for me, much less crash. So why, when starting a new software project, don't they do it with OS independent tools? I personally do not have an Apple computer, so lack of OSX support isn't too much of an issue for me. Nevertheless I'm bothered because it reminds me of what the president of a major airline once said, "A dirty tray table means we don't do good engine maintenance."

All in all, I think the G2 is an outstanding instrument. There's room for improvement - but it's a big step forward nonetheless. Congratulations; Clavia - stop reading this article and get back to work. We are holding our breath in anticipation of this new electro-baby.

[Editors note: I apologize for any errors, omissions or misrepresentations I may have made. The preview was an informal presentation, and there were no written materials or fact sheets. I expected that in writing this I would be able to consult Clavia's web site. Unfortunately they have removed several pages of G2 details. Please, if anyone has any comments or corrections, please post them as replies to this topic.]
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