Conductive Labs NDLR Review
The NDLR is a small, powerful synth controller and modulation toolkit for generative composition and performance.
Sometimes following a random search prompted by YouTube can lead to unexpectedly rewarding results. I recently searched for Berlin School, ambient music tutorials, randomizing sequencers, and analog synthesizers. I found a beautiful-sounding music video on a new device called the NDLR (pronounced noodler), a generative sequencer unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I’m always looking for better ways to inspire my performances and recordings. My rig is all hardware with lots of randomizing functions at its heart. I like to create evolving drone and pad loops with my loopers and then sequence randomly evolving, arpeggiated melodies. The NDLR fits right in. It’s a petite 9″ × 6.3″ × 2.8″tabletop box that can effectively replace a bunch of hardware. It can also be a powerful addition to a larger setup. Its possibilities are quite intoxicating.
The NDLR has two 5-pin DIN MIDI Ins and two 5-pin DIN MIDI Outs. It also has USB for connecting to a computer or tablet. Its internal clock or an external clock signal handle MIDI sync; CV clock in and out are available via 3.5mm jacks. Simply plug the unit’s USB connector into a USB power source and route one or more MIDI outputs to one or more standalone synthesizers, an iPad, or computer-based sound sources.
All the Right Ingredients
The NDLR has a menu- and button-based controller that transmits four synchronized parts—Pad, Drone, Motif 1, and Motif 2—on four MIDI channels. In my mind, these correlate to chords, pedal tone, and melodies. In performance, all parts follow the same key, mode, tempo, and chord structure.
The Pad controls a polyphonic sound source that generates from 1 to 22 notes you can position on an imaginary eight-octave keyboard. Customizations include the type of strum you want to play the notes, range of the notes, and spread of the notes across the range. You can Poly Chain the Pad’s output over as many as three more consecutive MIDI channels, effectively breaking out a chord’s notes across four sounds.
Typically, the Drone is for a long, sustaining, single-note sound source. However, you can set it to generate as many as three notes polyphonically. The five-octave position and the root or chord trigger are also adjustable.
Each of the two Motifs is for single-note sound sources like monosynths or solo patches. You can adjust position, pattern, pattern length (up to 16 steps), variation, clock division, rhythm, rhythmic duration (from 4 to 32 notes), accent, and offset parameters.
Lay Your Hands on Me
The real power of the NDLR lies in its expansive software nestled within a quickly learnable and accessible user interface and menu. You use eight selector knobs, fifteen buttons, and the centrally located 1.5″ × 1.25″ color menu display to control all parts. A circle of buttons (the NDLR’s “keyboard”) surrounds the display for selecting notes, choosing the type of chord, and accessing the menu. A Shift button lets you access alternate functions.
On both sides of the control panel, columns of four knobs control two of the parts. Each knob can select and modify multiple functions and navigate the modulation matrix. Four buttons along the bottom play and pause individual parts. Another button at the top plays and pauses all parts. The MIDI panic button also toggles between the two Motifs.
The NDLR loads whatever you’ve most recently saved into the global preset user slot; if you haven’t saved anything, it boots to the default preset. Slots are like macros, storing parameters you’d use to begin a new performance. You can store the key, tempo, pad chord spread, change animation, and drone complexity and movement, as well as the direction, octave range, and number of notes in an arpeggio. Just as importantly, you can save all your modulation settings.
The NDLR gives you plenty of roads to explore in the process of making it your own.
Apply any of 16 modes or scales to your selected key, and set internally clocked tempos between 10 and 300 bpm. A really slow tempo immediately puts you into glorious Eno-esque ambient territory. When I think of sequencers, patterns come to mind first. Pattern creation and development is the core of my composition and performance work. The NLDR helps me find patterns to explore.
You establish your musical fingerprint on the NDLR by creating and storing your own signature patterns ahead of time and then using those for your work. It contains 20 preset patterns and rhythms. You can modify them and store the modified versions into 20 user slots. That puts a total of 420 patterns and rhythms at your disposal. Sculpt and modify any pattern on the fly, either manually or using modulation sources. The permutations are practically endless.
The modulation matrix assigns mod sources to destinations and their amounts to specific values or ranges. You can control every function in this way, with 32 onboard modulation destinations plus 127 MIDI CCs. In addition to each part, mod destinations include the global key, mode, and chord type.
The built-in MIDI CC mixer controls part volume, panning, filter cutoff, and filter resonance. It’s one place where I find the extra set of modulation “hands” really helpful.
You can assign any of nine modulation sources—as well as four velocity, pitch bend, mod wheel, and aftertouch controller inputs—to any of the part functions. Want the position of the Pad to slowly move up and down the keyboard? Assign one of three LFOs or any of five other preset modulators to produce the desired movement by changing the Pad position. LFOs generate sine, saw, ramp, or other waveforms at rates ranging from glacial to super-fast. You can choose to sync them or not.
Couple all this variability with the NDLR’s manual controls, and you have a controller that gives you a modular synth-like environment for performance and sound design.
The Proof Is in the Noodling
The NDLR feels like it was custom-made for my normal composing and performing methods and rule set. In the studio, I often connect the Pad output to several vintage and modern polysynths in my collection, which is is particularly effective when using Poly Chain to divvy up the notes across multiple synth patches.
I route the Drone and Motif parts to my analog monosynths, and I sync the NDLR to loopers, drum machines, and my Sequentix P3 sequencer. I can use a P3 channel to sequence and loop the chord progression I play on the NDLR’s buttons, which frees me to focus on sound design once the MIDI loop takes over.
I’d love to have more slots in the modulation matrix, maybe 16 or 24 mod slots, and more global user preset slots. You can’t have too many of either. Other than that, there’s nothing really lacking.The NDLR really stands out. It’s an algorithmic composer and performance controller that fits easily under the fingers. It’s quick to learn, and its incredibly deep and the wide range of evolving musical permutations will keep you noodling in search of your own sonic rabbit holes.