Nord Electro 5 reviewed

September 4, 2015

Clavia launched the original Nord Electro nearly 15 years ago, and these red beasts have delivered vintage electro-mechanical sounds in a compact form factor on stages around the world since that time. It’s not often that a keyboard becomes iconic enough to maintain its original name and still be relevant in its fifth generation. Each Electro has raised the bar, from the core organ and electric piano/Clav focus (Electro, Electro 2) to broader sample-based sounds (Electro 3, reviewed Apr. ’09) to physical drawbars instead of increment buttons (Electro 4D, reviewed Nov. ’12 ). The Nord Electro 5 (NE5 for short) is the newest iteration and it some of its features make it much more compelling than its predecessors.


Some History and What’s New

The Electro has long been a polarizing instrument. Players gave generally agreed that it sounds great as a vintage throwback and was easy to carry under one arm. However, it was criticized for its LED “drawbuttons” (remedied with drawbar-capped sliders on the NE4D) as well as the seemingly limited sound set (improved with sample loading in the NE3). The remaining Achilles’ heel has been its lack of multi-timbral operation, as stated in the Keyboard review of the NE4D: “Still can’t split or layer organ with non-organ sounds—it’s one or the other.” Clavia has solved this in the NE5, providing a “Part Lower” and “Part Upper,” each of which can play organ, piano, or synth sounds. Each part has dedicated buttons for octave shift, plus sustain and control pedal on/off, designated by red LEDs under the buttons. These Parts can be layered or split.

The other big deal on the NE5 is the new 128 x 64 character OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display. There’s been a ton of material published about this type of display in mainstream consumer electronics media, but Clavia may be the first musical instrument maker company to use this technology on a keyboard—and without getting overly technical, let me just say that it looks awesome. It has a deep black background and warm white graphics that are very easy to read under all types of stage lighting conditions. It’s way better than LED or backlit LCD.

Nord has also marshaled this crisp display in the service of a new Set List feature that allows for real-time, on-the-fly ordering of song setups without needing any connection to a computer to organize your lists.

The piano sample memory is about three times larger (compared to the NE4) and the separate sample memory for the synth section is twice its previous size. Not to be overlooked is the addition of a pipe organ, previously available only on the dual-manual Nord C2D. It’s a beautifully haunting sound, and while it may be rarely used for the average weekend gig, I could see it being greatly appreciated for church gigs or your band’s cover of Ozzy’s “Mr. Crowley.” [We don’t recommend combining these two applications in the same set. —Ed.]


Layers and Splits

I’ll say it again: An Electro that plays organ and non-organ sounds at the same time in splits and layers is both new and a big deal. Here’s how it works.

Layers. One sound from each engine can be selected for the upper and lower parts. The resulting possibilities are piano plus synth, piano plus organ, or organ plus synth. The Part Mix knob provides balances the volumes of the Upper and Lower parts with no need to go menu-diving. One minor limitation is that you can’t layer two of the same sound categories together; for layering piano with piano or organ with organ, you’d need to spring for a Nord Stage. There are ways around this, as the Nord Piano Library, which feeds the keyboard’s Piano section, is distinct from the Nord Sample Library, which feeds its Synth section. In theory you could press something from the Sample Library into service as a “B” piano or EP for splits and layers.

Splits. Split points are adjustable via LEDs shown just above the C3, F3, C4, F4, C5, and F5 keys, like on the Nord Stage. Some may wish for more flexibility than the fixed points Nord has provided, but those LEDs showing where the split point is prove quite helpful during performance, particularly on a dark stage. Unlike with layers, in split mode you can select the same sound source for both the upper and lower parts. You still can’t have two different Synth section or Piano section sounds on either side of the split, but you can note-shift them and change how they interact with controllers. For example, I found it quite useful to assign the Synth sound to both sides of the split. I set the Lower Part with sustain pedal enabled to serve as my pad and the Upper Part without sustain to serve as my lead. This lets me hold a chord on the left side of the keyboard and solo over it with the same sound—again, with different octave-shift and effects—on the right.

The Organ engine (which as on previous Electros uses modeling, not sampling) does allow splits with separate drawbar settings for dual-manual playing, and either the upper or lower part can be accessed via an external MIDI controller. Since the NE5 has a maximum of two multi-timbral parts (not three), purist B-3 players will lament the lack of the separate pedal part one enjoys on any current Hammond keyboard, but you can always use the Lower part to kick bass, with the help of a new workaround mode called “B3 + Bass.” In split mode with organ in both parts, this causes the lower part to play only the 16' and 8' bass pedal drawbars, while the upper part covers the full range.


User Interface

Compared to earlier Electros, the NE5 has more going on under the hood, so there’s a bit more involved in learning its dashboard.

Moving from left to right, the familiar organ section appears first. On the NE5HP, which features a weighted action (and was the model I was sent for review), you’ll have the usual LED “drawbuttons;” the 61D and 73D have physical drawbars and organ-action waterfall keys. Next up is the piano section, with six different categories from which to select the piano sounds loaded into the instrument (Grand, Upright, EP 1 and 2, Clavinet, and Harpsichord). In the middle of the controls is the main Program selection area as well as the Upper/Lower dashboard, where you configure any splits or layers.

Very usefully, the display allows for program naming and shows the current state of the program in use, in terms of which portions of the instrument are in play, the drawbar settings, and so on. Additionally, when any knob is tweaked, the display will show the setting change momentarily. This is helpful to get feedback on edits as you make them.

The Set List feature is a big step for Nord and is great to see on the Electro, which up to this point relied on an old-school two-digit LED display. The Set List can save “Songs,” which are essentially mega-pointers for up to four programs within the instrument. In my ’80s band, we cover “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by the Police, for which I switch between four different sound combinations multiple times in the song for verse, chorus, bridge, and outro. In the NE5, I created four programs with various layers. From Set List mode, a single saved Song that points to these sounds via buttons A through D. This is so very efficient and flexible for gigs. The “Organize” feature allows quick grab-and-drop of Songs to put them in order—again, without needing a computer. Currently, you can’t edit Set Lists from the Nord Sound Manager software, but I’m confident this will be added in a future update. I’d also like to be able to name the Set Lists to signify different gigs and/or bands. Out of the box, there are four available Set Lists each with 50 song slots.

To the right of the OLED and Program section is the (sample-based) Synth section, which allows editing of dynamics, attack, and release. I found myself really wishing for a filter cutoff knob. At least there are three dynamics selections, which encompass how velocity affects the filter cutoff. Another observation: The knob for selecting samples is very close to the main Program knob and the two are the same size. Sometimes I got these knobs mixed up in the heat of the gig.

Finally, there’s the Effects section on the right side. First is a three-band EQ with sweepable midrange. Effect 1 provides for tremolo, pan, and ring modulation, all of which can be controlled via a connected sweep pedal. Effect 2 includes phaser, flanger, chorus, and “Vibe.” The NE5 also has delay and reverb as well as a compressor and an amp simulator that covers the Leslie 122 simulation from the Nord C2D. EQ can be assigned to either upper, lower, or both parts, and reverb applies globally and doesn’t use up any of the other effects engines.

Those other effects can be used on either the upper or lower Part, but not both. These effects have a dedicated Part Select button for lower, upper, or off. For example, I set up a keyboard layer with organ running through the C2D Leslie simulation plus delay, while I had a Rhodes sound running through a tremolo and phaser, with a touch of reverb affecting everything.


Sounds

The NE5 comes with 1GB of Pianos from Nord’s Piano Library, as well as 256MB of sounds from the Nord Sample Library. These are mostly standard fare for those accustomed to the Nord libraries, though Nord has optimized them to squeeze the most out of the available memory. The organ uses the same tonewheel modeling engine as the flagship Nord C2D, and both it and the Leslie simulation sound superb. There’s a B-3, the aforementioned pipe organ, as well as Vox and Farfisa transistor organ models, all controlled by the drawbar section. The Clav section only has four models and is missing the more extended filters (resident in earlier Electro models) to emulate the pickup and tone switch settings of a vintage Hohner D6. Presumably, this trade-off was made in favor of some of the other features. Though the Clav sound is certainly realistic and plenty funky, as a Clav enthusiast, I was missing these tonal options.


On the Gig

I decided to test the NE5 in a daring manner: as a direct replacement for my Nord Stage 2 (a.k.a. NS2) that I’ve been taking to gigs with my ’80s band Flat Elvis for the past three years. I use many of the “power features” of the NS2, often accessing all six of its internal sound engines at the same time, so my goal was to set up the NE5 to cover as much ground as possible, maximizing the Set List feature. From a sound standpoint, I was very pleased with the Piano and EP section, which sounded virtually identical to the NS2 other than the Clav limitations I mentioned.

The Organ section blew me away, as the NE5 has the most recent tonewheel organ model Nord makes. I typically use Neo Instruments’ popular Ventilator pedal for Leslie simulation on my NS2, but doing so was completely unnecessary on the NE5. In fact, the organ and rotary effect were so ballsy that my bandmates immediately noticed the difference. Also, there was a perceptibly increased output from the NE5 in general; our sound engineer told me it cut through the mix better than the NS2.

The biggest compromise for me was working with the Synth section, which is less robust than that on the Stage, and not having a pitch-bend or modulation wheel. Even so, I made it through several gigs using just the NE5, very happy with the improved display and user interface. I became so hooked on the Set List feature that I found myself really wishing for it on my NS2. Did I mention that in spite of its weighted keys, the NE5 HP weighs over 15 pounds less than an 88-key NS2? It was an absolute breeze to carry it to my gigs and rehearsals. Truly, it’s like a “Nord Stage Lite.”


Conclusions

With each release, Clavia has continued to improve upon this funky gig machine. They also continually supply new OS updates and additions to their downloadable Nord Piano and Nord Sample libraries, and provide customer support that in my experience has been personal and attentive.

As for competition,” Keyboard editor Stephen Fortner chimed in, “the Hammond SK series is the most direct. It’s less expensive at any given keyboard length and offers upper, lower, and pedal organ parts, plus its non-organ sound bank, all at the same time. But the sampled non-organ sounds in the NE5, piano and EP in particular, strike me as a bit more premium. Electro 5 versus SK is definitely the A-B you want to do at the music store.”

With the NE5, Nord has moved the needle on what players can expect in a focused yet versatile workhorse. The split and layer capability is something Electro owners have been hungrily seeking for years, and our wait is over. Plus, the new OLED display coupled with the Set List feature makes the NE5 such a compelling instrument that it’s become a likely contender to replace my Nord Stage 2.

PROS

Can split or layer organ and non-organ sounds. Large OLED display a first for Nord and for keyboards in general. Set List feature makes sound organization a breeze. Expanded memory and improved effects. Inclusion of low E note on 73-key Electro 5D.

CONS

Reduced Clav filter options compared to prior Electros. Nord Sound Manager doesn’t currently support Set List functionality. No provision for dual-manual organ plus pedal parts. On the expensive side.

Bottom Line

Now that the newest Electro has the ability to split or layer modeled organ and sample-based non-organ sounds, Clavia could have named it the Nord Stage Lite.

Electro 5D 61: $2,999 list | $2,499 street | Electro 5D 73: $3,599 list | $2,999 street | Electro 5HP: $4,199 list | $3,499 street

nordkeyboards.com

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