A virtual analog, polyphonic synth created by Clavia. Introduced in 1995, it was one of the first virtual analog synths, at a time when most synths on the market relied on sampling as a synthesis method. It was packaged in a 49-key (aftertouch-less) keyboard version and also a rackmount version. The first version of the synth provided an architecture similar to that of polyphonic analog synths of the 1980s: two VCOs, two LFOs, one VCA, an ADSR envelope generator, and a multimode VCF.
The synth was also multitimbral, providing four "slots" which could be used as patch layers, or as true multitimbrality under MIDI control. Additionally, a fifth layer allowed simplified percussion patches to be mapped to regions of the keyboard. The basic unit provided four-voice polyphony; an expansion board increased polyphony to 12 voices and also provided a slot to plug in a memory card, to increase patch memory. The MIDI implementation was very complete, with every front panel programming control mapped to a MIDI Controller message number. The synth provided the ability to "morph" between patches, gradually changing some parameters between the two patches' parameter values.
Four major versions of the Nord Lead have been released. The Nord Lead 2 replaced the original in 1997. It used the same basic engine but provided more VCO and LFO waveforms, a more aggressive VCF, additional patch memory, more polyphony (essentially building in the original version's expansion board) and several smaller improvements. Circuitry was more highly integrated to sell the synth at a somewhat lower price point.
The Nord Lead 3 was, internally, a significant redesign. The VCO section was replaced with a new one that provided many more waveforms and sync options on each VCO. The VCF was replaced with a pair of multimode filters that were switchable between 1-, 2-. and 4-pole operation. Many software changes are made internally, and the software is stored in flash memory so that it can be updated with a MIDI download. Two significant changes occur in the user interface: the three-digit patch number display, which was the only visual display on the first and second versions of the synth, are replaced with a multi-character LCD display. And, all of the previous versions' potentiometer knob controls are replaced with rotary encoders. Each encoder is surrounded by a ring of LEDs which indicate the (approximate) current value of the parameter. The keyboard finally gets aftertouch capability. This model is introduced in 2001, replacing the Nord Lead 2 model.
But trouble for the Nord Lesd 3 began right away. Sales were slow, attributed to the new model being priced significantly higher than the previous version. Early customers complained that the synth had too much internal aliasing and did not sound "analog". Clavia scrambled to get software updates out, but sales continued to be slow, enough so that Nord reintroduced the Nord Lead 2 model, with a few improvements, as the Nord Lead 2x in 2003. The Nord Lead 3 continued to be offered, but the rotary encoders finally proved to be its demise: the vendor was unable to provide parts that meet the then-new European Union RoHS regulations, and Nord did not have the resources to redesign the panel to use a different encoder. The result is that the Nord Lead 3 was dropped in 2005, while the Nord Lead 2x remained in production.
In 2013, the Nord Lead 4 finally replaces the 2x model. The 4 improves polyphony to 24 voices, incorporates the 3's arpeggiator capability, and contains several sound quality upgrades, plus vastly more patch memory. Curiously, it retains the minimal 3-digit display of the early models.