Clavia Nord Piano

September 1, 2010
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by Tony Orant

np_MAIN450Every gigging keyboardist struggles with reducing the size and weight of their rig, but wants the best tone they can get. Those of us who grew up playing piano have a harder time, as we tend to be married to 88 weighted keys, so if you love vintage electric pianos as much as acoustic pianos, finding a suitable tone/weight compromise can be a problem. Nord has been a real champion in this arena in terms of pure sound: They have top-shelf electric piano and organ emulations, and the Electro series and Stage Compact are knockouts in their weight and size class. However, since those keyboards took an all-in-one approach, some of us wanted more of a dedicated stage piano with a keybed that would really let our fingers connect to those non-organ, non-synth sounds.

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np_stand_angle450<- With optional Keyboard Stand EX and music rack.

  

Piano Sounds

Acoustic piano sounds have been a real divisor among Nord Stage fans— you either loved them or hated them. Though Nord’s previous piano sounds were beautiful and extremely playable through studio monitors and headphones, I was never happy with them through amplification at gigs. I’ve always thought that piano sounds with not quite as much “character” would work better in loud rock settings. Certain workstation keyboards have done extremely well in that regard, and Nord has taken notice. Nord has added new multisamples to the latest edition (version 5) of their Piano Library, and one that really got my attention was “Grand Lady D.” It’s warm with lots of detail and just plain inspiring to play. With some slight EQ and compression added in the “West Coast” patch, this piano sound really works well in a loud rock band.

I’m a huge fan of the Yamaha CP70 electric grand, and the Nord Piano does a fantastic job with that sound. New upright pianos round things out. Somewhat understated, the Petrof Black reminds me of the piano on “Treat” from the first Santana album and sits really well in a mix. The Baumgart works well for those tack piano and honky-tonk sounds with the strings providing enough chorus that you’ll never need the actual chorus effect. Just put on your arm garter and you can almost smell the beer-stained floor!

Nord also captured details that many stage pianos miss. Sympathetic string resonance, where undampened strings pick up vibrations from ones you just struck, adds the harmonic buildup you’ll hear when someone plays lots of sustained notes or a big crescendo on a real grand piano— that sort of shimmer, sparkle, and grind that lives “between” the notes. Damper noise is faithfully recreated, as is half-pedal sustain. These subtleties get buried in most rock or cover gigs, but they do add that final percent of realism in contexts where the piano is more exposed, such as jazz practice or a cabaret gig where it’s you and a singer.

Rhodes, Wurly, and Clav Sounds

Anyone who has played an Electro or Stage knows that Nord’s Wurly, Rhodes, and Clav sounds are phenomenal. Playing them from the Nord Piano’s keyboard is exquisite: Lean into the Wurlies, and they respond with a meaty grunt. Engage the Amp and Compression modeling, toggle to “Twin,” dial in a little Drive, and you’re channeling Ian MacLagan. As I tend to gig with guitar-oriented rock/blues bands, this is one of my favorite comping sounds when I’m being the “second guitar.”

 

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<- Props to Nord for including a serious triple pedal at no extra cost. It supports half-pedaling and correct sostenuto behavior.

 

The Rhodes sounds vary from dark and nasty to bell-like Dynos, and bark very nicely when played with some muscle. I tend to be a little heavy-handed, and have experienced some wrist aggravation on one or two keyboards in the past five years, but even after four days in a row of gigs, I had no complaints here. The Nord Piano has a four-position Keyboard Touch button to accommodate players’ touches. Hit Shift and that button, and the output changes to mono, summing all the sound from the stereo signal with no phase problems and making channel-stingy sound engineers happy.

The Nord Piano’s Clavinets are a lot of fun to play and have been simplified: Pushing the Info button toggles between four sounds, emulating the D6 pickup choices: “neck” on, “bridge” on, both on, and both on but out of phase. Die-hard Clav fans will have one nit to pick: The sounds all seem to be taken from a Clavinet in perfect condition. Most real Clavs exhibit a strong note-off sound: When the string comes free from the groove it has worn into the rubber hammer tip, the pickup catches that sound, which resembles the “chicken-scratch” funk guitar technique if you know how to play it. While this is a defect resulting from wear and tear, many of the coolest Clav recordings capitalized on it. Nord should add this to their otherwise realistic Clavs—perhaps in an update to the downloadable sounds the Nord Piano can load and play.

At the Gigs

I played the Nord Piano on a few “unplugged” gigs, and on some large festival stages in a Texas blues/rock band, using my QSC K10 powered speaker for an onstage monitor in both settings. I used “Grand Lady D” almost the entire evening for the unplugged gigs, as it just was so full and fun to play. There were certain songs where I reached for the EQ, spinning the Frequency knob and Mid volume to tame the sound. In that relatively exposed setting, the Nord Piano sat nicely and was a pleasure to play. On the much louder gigs, I switched to the “West Coast” sound for all but the most relaxed songs. While not as outright realistic as the others, it had a nice front-end attack that cut through a really loud guitarist, and a smooth, full body that held its own even through the stage monitors, which were EQ’ed to prevent feedback on vocals, not necessarily for tone.

The festival’s front-of-house engineer happens to be a friend who also plays keyboards, so I asked for his feedback (no pun intended) on the piano sound. He loved it, remarking that it sat well in the mix without him having to do anything to it. He noticed that on the slower songs, the midrange of “Grand Lady D” made it one of the most realistic stage pianos he’s ever dealt with, noting that it was very dynamic and seemed to respond to delicate playing very well. As a longtime Wurly player (we’ve shared horror stories of mid-gig tune-ups with a soldering iron), he totally fell in love with the Nord Piano’s Wurly sounds. When I pulled in some overdrive, I could see him give me the thumbs-up from 50 yards away.

Effects

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<- Simultaneous effects include a pan/tremolo/wah group, phaser/flanger/chorus group, EQ, amp modeling, and reverb.

 

The two effects groups are very simple. Each has a rate knob, and you control the depth by stepping through effects with the single button— for each type, two depths (Chorus 1 and Chorus 2, for example) have LEDs on the panel, and you get a third, maximum depth when both LEDs are lit. Effect group 1 contains auto-pan, tremolo, and auto-wah; Effect 2 comprises phaser, flanger, and chorus. You can use both groups at once. Phaser 1 gave me those Steely Dan Rhodes tones; in fact, I preferred the minimum depth for almost any effect I chose. Electro and Stage users will notice that the auto-wah responds to velocity a la Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” but isn’t the kind where you hold a chord and it wahs at a set rate like on Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” My Electro 2 had both kinds, and I used the latter a lot.

If you played a real Rhodes or Wurly before the workstation era, your amp would affect the sound, whether using the Suitcase Rhodes’ bottom or plugging your Wurly into a guitar amp. The Amp/Compressor section interacts well with the EQ to duplicate this to a tee. The reverbs are clean and can be as subtle or extreme as you like, but there’s no delay. This is a misstep, as nothing is sweeter than Rhodes with a taste of delay—think of Pink Floyd’s “Sheep.”

Conclusions

The Nord Piano is ideal if you want a dedicated stage piano with great tone—and mine fit into a 76-note keyboard bag. Its ease of tweaking onboard sounds and loading new ones makes it a great fit for technophobes. Its keyboard has a nice, deep throw with good cushioning as it bottoms out, making it very responsive, yet non-fatiguing for extended playing.

You may or may not care that it doesn’t do splits or layers. For jazz gigs or casuals where you’d bring just one keyboard, it’d be nice to be able to throw an upright bass in the bottom couple of octaves or some strings behind your piano. Since the Nord Stage EX can play the same Nord Piano Library, its organ and synth abilities make it a better “one keyboard to rule them all,” but even the non-weighted EX compact lists for a heftier $3,600, and weighted models go up from there. If you’re in the market for an acoustic and electric piano specialist, the Nord Piano’s stellar factory sounds, updatable Library, and instantly tweakable effects give it an unbeatable vibe.

Specifications

PROS Great acoustic piano, Rhodes, Wurly, electric grand, and Clav sounds. Relatively lightweight. Excellent keyboard action. Can download new sounds from Nord’s online Piano Library, and includes full version on DVD. Includes robust three-pedal unit.

CONS No splits or layers. Effects section has no delay. Lack of pitch or mod wheels limits use as a MIDI controller.

 
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CONCEPT Stage piano with user-rewritable flash memory for new sounds.
POLYPHONY 40–60 voices, depending on sound.
ACTION 88 weighted keys, graded.

  

W x H x D 50.5" x 4.8" x 13.4".
WEIGHT 39.6 lbs.
Price List: $2,799
Approx. street: $2,700
nordkeyboards.com

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