Nord Lead 20 Years

Ah, the joys of "vintage gear". 

20 years ago, back in the 20th century, I got hired to do some scoring work for a TV show. The show hoped to capitalize on the then-up-and-coming world of ELECTRONICA. Prodigy! Chemical Brothers! Crystal Method! and so on.

Naturally, I said "I totally have a synthesizer and totally know what to do with it." That was half-true. 

I managed to cadge a discount on a brand-spanking-new Nord Lead 2, a "virtual" analog synthesizer (i.e. it's digital, but it attempts to sound like a classic analog subtractive synthesizer, rather than a new digital architecture, like a Yamaha DX-7 or Roland D-50 or Waldorf PPG).

The Nord was and is a beautiful piece of kit. A red metal chassis, in stark contrast to the black nearly everyone else uses. A wooden pitch stick and stone modulation wheel, instead of the usual black plastic wheels. The "Template Gothic" font. 90s attitude, 80s sounds.

The Nord Lead 2 (image courtesy of Clavia)

The Nord Lead 2 (image courtesy of Clavia)

The sound engine itself is clearly modeled on the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, which at the time was (and is) legendary and unavailable. The Nord adds some frequency modulation options (FM) and a few other minor tweaks, but for people like me who grew up on a 2-oscillator-into-lowpass/multimode-filter-with-modulation kind of polysynth, it was like coming home.

I didn't get the scoring job, but I did end up using the Nord on almost every project I did for the next decade. It has also proven to be the perfect "live" keyboard. It's reliable, simple, easy to tweak live, and has lots of space on the top of the panel to tape notes, like "these are the notes for this song" or "use this patch" or "the drummer owes you money".

One thing about the Nord is that it uses an SRAM PCMCIA card for patch storage. The internal memory is really limited -- 40 patches only. To save any other patches, or any "performances" at all, you need one of these. It has to have 64K of memory. Yeah, you read that right. 64K.

Now, back in the late 90s, this card cost upwards of $200...but you had to have one. These cards also use a lithium battery (because "flash" memory wasn't really commercially available) to store the data in the card. Lithium batteries don't last forever, whether in use or on the shelf. And when that battery goes, there go all your sounds.

I realized I hadn't replaced that battery in a while, so this weekend I resolved to swap it out. I'd already picked up a new battery. I just had to get it in there.

First, because I'm a pro, I backed up all the sounds on the card. Using MIDI-OX (an invaluable tool -- every musician has it!), I captured SysEx dumps of all the performance banks and patches. 

I powered down the Nord and ejected the memory card. Using a paper clip, I began to fiddle with the lock that holds the battery door, and I realized that some time in the last 20 years, that battery door had cracked in half. (In one of Nord's rare design missteps, that card is located on the back of the synth, and sticks out enough that it is probably the first thing that hits the floor when the synth is set down).

As I moved the latch, the two pieces of the door went flying. I have recovered ONE of them. I swear the other has evaporated. Or maybe I swallowed it. Regardless, trying to find a .5 CM piece of black plastic in a sea of black cables with middle-aged eyes was neither fun nor productive.

Then I shook out the battery. Guess what, gentle readers? Wrong battery. I quickly reinserted the old battery so as not to lose my sounds and went off to eBay and Amazon.

My original 1997-era Pretec 64 KB card with recent "repair" stopgap applied.

My original 1997-era Pretec 64 KB card with recent "repair" stopgap applied.

It turns out nobody makes the exact configuration of card one needs anymore -- it has to be SRAM PC Card. That means ATA cards won't work, and of course, almost nobody makes or carries SRAM anymore.

Anyhow, parts ordered. Waiting for the mailman to deliver. In the meantime, I guess I'll go turn knobs on a different synth.