Gear Review – Nord Wave

When the Nord Wave came out, I thought it would be a tough sell, to uh, ‘sell’ a sampler that doesn’t sample, in a day and age when computers have effortlessly taken over most of the duties that samplers were once needed for.  And at the price these came out at, I’m sure it was a tough sell.  When I say it doesn’t sample, what I mean is that you do the sampling with a computer, and then import these into the Wave.  So if you need a computer to use this, you have a computer, and might just want to use that for sampling.  It seemed daft to me.

Sure, there was a time when some hardware samplers had features and more importantly a ‘sound’ that wasn’t present in software, but that’s always improving, and really, for what many people used samplers for, you could just cut, paste and position in your DAW without needing even a sampler plug-in.

So I ignored this Nord for years.

Then one day I realized that a bunch of synths I loved had something in common, they were all wave based synths.  From the Prophet VS, PPG-Wave, Korg DW8000, to the many Ensoniqs that took the technique to a whole other level,  there was something there I craved.  The Waldorf XT, and Dave Smith Evolver are also high on my list of favorite synths.  Now the older synths on that list are often credited with making horribly cheesy sounds, and that’s a fair assessment.  Wave based synthesis was often touted as a way to ‘better’ emulate acoustic instruments, and as you can imagine that appealed to a bunch of musicians who should have just used acoustic instruments.

As a result there will always be those who have nothing but horrible memories of those synths, and won’t care that Skinny Puppy used Ensoniqs on most of their early material, and still did on later albums when they could afford fancier gear.  The Pink Dots and Edward Ka Spel should also be mentioned for championing the Ensoniq brand, but there is no lack of synth enthusiasts who used wave or wavetable based synths – so google that shit, buy a Gary Numan album, or keep reading.

Oh, right, I’m reviewing the Nord Wave, (or spouting opinions on it), and so far that’s been kinda negative.

I don’t want to own a stack of vintage synths (or do I. . ?).  But I do want the sonic possibilities those synths offered, and I realized the Nord Wave is exactly what I needed.  It’s not meant to be a sampler in the traditional sense, but is aimed at using sampled waves as oscillator sources.  The Wave is so into this concept that it has four different categories of wave – Waveforms, Wavetables, Samples and Sampled Waves.  There are differences in all of these, (download the manual) but the concept is the same.

If you just stuck with the built in waves you could have tons of fun with this synth.  But you can sample say all the raw waveforms from a Korg DW8000 and then roughly replicate those patches.  And so I did, and it made me very happy.  I have to say the Curtis filters in the Korg are thicker than the Nord, and it’s truly one under rated synth.  But once I got those sounds in the Nord, having all those knobs on top was pure joy.

The Nord sampling software is easy to use, although it has some quirks.  You will want to sample single cycle waves to replicate old synth favorites but you can also sample longer bits to capture a synth a little more verbatim.  For example, I have the Korg MS-20 plugin and can’t live without a few sounds in there, although really it’s just a few.  It’s not wave based, so I sampled whole notes into the Nord minus filter, envelope, etc – to be added later inside the Nord.  I was ecstatic with the results and now don’t bother loading up the plug-in because the Nord is just so hands on and easy to edit when you start tweaking those knobs.  The software can map your samples automatically, so with a DAW, it’s easy to play back a midi sequence of notes to make one big sample and chop/map those notes automatically after.

So that’s the point of the Wave, which the name should have told me, but I didn’t understand (until I saw one for cheap!)  Everything you just read was me explaining what the point of this synth is and how I didn’t know that until I needed to.  I’m sorry to have wasted so much of your time if all that was obvious to you.

There are still some things that I would be negligent if I did not address here.

People do complain that the Nord filters are thin.  I agree, they are, compared to some filters, but this has not limited the fat bass I can get out of the Wave.  The Nord synths have always had a cold sound that reminds me of Sequential gear, not a fuzzy bright sound like Japanese synths.  (boy can I generalize – but you nerds know the Curtis chip (used in said American synths) filters out harmonics.  That’s what I’m getting at)  (*side note -  brackets inside of brackets is how I actually talk).

The filter is precise, and that’s fine with me.  In comparison, the previously mentioned Korg DW8000 filters can get downright unruly, and that’s not always a good thing.  This makes me immediately think of the EQ because I’ve used that to add bass back in when needed, or cut when unruly.  The EQ on this synth makes programming that much easier.  Every synth should have EQ.  So often I’ve been screwing with parameters on a synth when all it needed was a bit of EQ.  It also has delay and reverb, which nicely round out the sound, but even more useful is the tube distortion.  Using that tube distortion sparingly on some sounds can really bring them to life and impart an ‘analog-ness’ that sounds good to my ears.  If you want thick distortion it does that too, but it’s more impressive as a sweetener than an effect.

The Wave uses the standard Nord ‘morph’ feature, which is so stupidly easy to set up that you will use it.  I’ve had synths with a similar feature, but setting it up was a pain, and it didn’t pass the simple “I’m drunk” test.  (BTW, I’m writing this review drunk!)

By now you know I like the Nord Wave.  It might have a niche market for people like me who are really into the wave thing.  But if you saw one for just a bit more cash than a Nord Lead 2 – by all means get the Wave, it’s got all the features of a Nord Lead, and then some.  If you are not into the wave thing, well go to the Nord website and you can download samples of all kinds of vintage synths, including the other Nords.  I really dig the depth of this library, there are some obscure sounds in there that are awesome.  Take a look; Yamaha CS-80, Optigan! etc. blah, blah, go look!

I should also mention something that is not a feature per se, but is important.  The Nord Wave is easy to learn and also very easy to program, and that makes it my go to synth.  This is not just about knobs on top, which other synths have, it’s about layout and an architecture that makes sense.  Perhaps it’s just the way I was raised, but this synth makes sense to me, and tweaking it gives predictable results, something that fell by the wayside for a lot of modern synths that try to pack too many options into one interface.  Having said that, some knobs do have dual purposes, but they keep this to a minimum, and the purposes are always related.

Final verdict.  Under rated, over priced.  You could have just ‘skipped to the end’.

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