Not much more than an Electro 2 with 88 weighted keys and an inflated price tag: That’s what many seemed to be expecting when the Nord Stage was announced. After using the Nord Stage on gigs and in the studio, I’ll offer a slightly more accurate oversimplification: It’s two Electro 2’s with fresh sample sets, two multimode synths, expanded effects, amp models, and even modest MIDI “motherboard” features. But does it rock?
The top level of organization on the Stage is the Program; for each Program there are two Panels, and each of those contains settings for each of the three instrument sections. If both Panels are active, you can use two instruments from each section — the Electro doesn’t let you layer, say, piano and Rhodes together, but the Stage does. This is also how the Stage handles organ splits; one drawbar registration from Panel A and one from Panel B. The upshot to all this is that a Program can have up to six active instruments. So we can immediately dismiss any doubt that the Stage offers a lot more over the Electro 2 than just 88 weighted keys and a synth section. Mild buzzkill: While the Panel effects (effects blocks 1 and 2, delay, and amp sim/EQ) are duplicated on both Panels, there’s only one Leslie simulation. The Korg OASYS remains the only self-contained keyboard with the ability to run dual virtual Leslies.
Morph parameters have been brought over from the Nord Lead synths, so the mod wheel, control pedal, or incoming MIDI controller data can be harnessed to sculpt the sound in mild to wild ways. Wanna crossfade from a Hammond to a synth pad? Easy.
I’ll make enemies on both the reader and manufacturer sides with this discussion. I absolutely adored the musicality and detail of the factory piano samples. Every nuance of the source pianos is captured with impressive fidelity. And the velocity mapping is quite possibly the best I’ve ever played. It’s nearly perfect — easy to control, highly predictable and smooth, exceedingly musical. On the other hand, the source pianos themselves are going to be controversial, I think. While they’re obsessively detailed and undeniably excellent representations of the sampled instruments, people used to the artificially perfect pianos found in most keyboards these days are likely to be disappointed. What we have here is anything but generic or artificial. These pianos have air around them. They’re not emasculated with rumble filters removing all the subsonic energy a piano generates as even a single note is struck. They live and breathe vividly. They have quirks that were not “fixed in the mix” and they sound as if unmolested by unwarranted EQ. They’re vibey. Frankly, I find their slightly idiosyncratic nature highly refreshing. It’s like playing a specific piano, rather than some hypothetical ideal McPiano.
I like the Yamaha (used in the preset “Studio Grand”) best, the Steinway (“Concert Grand”) next, and the two uprights least. There might be hope for outright haters, too. The USB port lets you blow new samples (in proprietary Clavia format) into the Stage’s flash memory using Clavia’s Stage Manager application, which is a free download.
The story with the Rhodeses and Wurlies and Clavs (oh my!) is equally good. Editor Ernie Rideout, himself an Electro owner, felt the EPs were “highly improved, and that’s high praise — I love the Electro sounds!” I had to agree. They exhibit all the grit and greaze of my Dyno’ed suitcase 73. The Mark I Stage is realistically mellow, but engage Amp 1 and crank the treble EQ and you’re nearly into Dyno territory. The characteristic clank and bark of a real Rhodes under heavy fingers is here in living color. There’s even a relatively rare Mark V Stage in here.
The Wurlies, coupled with the Amp effects, can go from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” to Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” to Supertramp’s “The Logical Song.” They get all snarly when you really dig in, and they’re spot-on under gentle hands too.
Funkmeisters will be pleased with the Clavinet sounds. They’ll be even more pleased with the Clav EQ controls, which duplicate the function of the tone tabs on a real Clav. Each of the four Clavinet D6 pickup selections is represented, so rather than just a collection of a few choice tones, it’s almost a virtual Clav. Awesome. The weighted keyboard isn’t really an asset here, but it’s acceptable.
All my teenage heroes played Yamaha CP-series electric grands: Howard Jones, Prince, Tony Banks, and so on. The Nord Stage lovingly renders every charming shortcoming of the genuine article’s bass strings as well as its seductive bell-like upper midrange and treble strings. I could sit here and play “No One Is To Blame” all day.
The Organ section is essentially unchanged from the Electro 2 (reviewed Dec.’03), whose simulation has established itself as among the very best. That said, true Hammondheads will rankle at the prospect of playing organ on weighted keys. There is a workaround, but it plays up the viability of a 73- or 76-key unweighted keyboard on a product like this.
The organization (hardy har har) of the Organ engine is a little different from the rest of the Stage’s engines in that the two-part Electro-derived organ is divided between the Panels. This was done to keep the procedure for creating Splits consistent across the whole instrument, and it helps the organ section fit into Dual KB mode. More on that below.
A full-blown Nord Lead synth is too much to hope for here, but the Stage’s synth is respectably flexible. It wasn’t intended to be a tweaker’s holiday — it’s a workhorse synth designed to give you a better-than-most variety of synth sounds, and let you get at them fast.
Analog waves come from modeled oscillators, and the filters are modeled, too, based on Nord Lead 3 technology. Sawtooth and pulse waves are presented in nude, detuned, and synced variations, with a triangle wave showing up plain or synced and a Cosine wave synced only. A noise wave rounds out the selection. There are also 29 FM waves from a real three-op FM synth, and 32 digital waves. Together, the waveform complement is a pretty capable arsenal for just about any musical situation.
The Timbre knob controls things like pulse width on the pulse waves, the pitch of the synced oscillator in the sync waves, and mod amounts in the FM waves.
A two-stage (AR/AD) mod envelope comes next, with filter Q and timbre parameters as possible destinations. It’s even loopable so it can be used as a rather deluxe LFO. The amp envelope is set up the same way minus the looping capability, and the resonant filter offers 12- and 24dB slopes and adjustable keyboard tracking. Mono and legato modes, portamento, unison, a pitch LFO, and dedicated two-band shelving EQ offer a few extras.
Most of what’s going on in the synth is rather nice. The inclusion of single-cycle sample-based (say that three times fast!) and FM waves add considerably to the palette. But with the filter wide open, several of the analog waves exhibit moderate aliasing in the top octave and a half. Modulating Timbre on the synced waves brings it out as well. The digital waves are a little cleaner, and the FM waves are cleanest at the top end of the keyboard. On the bright side, it’s worth mentioning here that I couldn’t get the filters to show me any stair-stepping as I swept the frequency knob at high resonance settings.
The Stage’s modest but highly useful MIDI controller functions are controlled from the “Extern” section of the panel. Setting up Zones themselves is actually handled elsewhere, and Extern makes use of the currently active Zone setup. Notes in the selected Zone can be octave-shifted, and individual activation of the pitch stick and sustain pedal — on both internal and external zones — is done without diving into menus. That’ll speed up creation of your setups. In addition, there’s a knob in the Extern section that can be assigned to MIDI Volume, Program Change, or the CC of your choice. Nice. Extern settings are saved at the Program level; remember that a Program comprises two Panels, and there’s an Extern section in each Panel. Not too shabby.
For anyone who might wish to play the internal organ sounds from an unweighted keyboard, the workaround, called “Dual KB,” is adequate but I wished for more. Just MIDI in the unweighted ’board of your choice and activate Dual KB. It takes just two button presses — which totally rocks — but it places all of Panel B under the control of the external keyboard, which means layering of Piano section voices on the weighted keys is no longer possible. I’d like to tell the Stage to let the external controller play just the organ section. Guess what’s been included in v. 1.12 software, says Clavia? Traditional multitimbral operation. Yesss!
The Stage showed up on the very day I had a band rehearsal — my first opportunity to take it into the thick of things and
see if it would be a help or a hindrance, and right out of the carton to boot. I pulled in a deep breath, slid the Stage into a handy wheeled gig bag, determinedly left the manual on the desk in the Keyboard studio, and headed out for the first workout.
Assembling the factory leg kit was quick, although confounded by a missing brace thumbscrew. No matter — the Stage’s legs held the instrument rock solid even without the two angle braces.
The first thing the soundman did was ask me what the heck I had changed — the EQ settings for the regular stage piano, a Roland RD-700, were all wodgy now. After a few minutes listening to the band warming up, he decided to defeat the mixer channel’s EQ entirely. Thumbs up so far. I settled into using the “Studio Grand” Program for the feature song, Casting Crowns’ “Who Am I?” I added a little high end with the Stage’s onboard EQ, to help it cut a little better. I really dug how the Stage responded to me. I really had to go for it to reach top velocity, which was a welcome change from the response of the RD, on which I feel like I have to hold back to avoid sounding like Animal from the Muppets is on the keys. It was really freeing to have that velocity headroom — it opened up the middle range of the response for more nuanced expression.
On another song, the bandleader asked for a Rhodes, so I dialed up the Mark V and built a new preset with a little mid scooped out, pretty strong chorus, and the tremolo just out of sync with the chorus. Nice! The song’s chorus wanted a little lift, so I created a nice floaty pad sound on the synth and tied its volume to the control pedal.
Remember where I’d left the manual? The Stage made it really easy to do what I had to do. I was momentarily tripped up by the need to turn off memory protection in order to save my new creations, but that parameter was right in the System menu where I expected to find it.
As I’ve already said, I don’t like playing Hammond sounds from weighted keys, and we have a Korg BX-3 in the keyboard rig, so there was no need on this gig to use the Organ section. Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so, because the Nord organ is excellent, but I’d MIDI in our M-Audio Radium 61 using the Dual KB feature and play the organ from there.
The Electro had a nifty feature where a pedal connected to the sustain-pedal jack would also operate the Rotary effect on the organ — it meant you didn’t have to hook up a second pedal, and it was slick. The Stage offers you the choice of dedicated sustain and rotary pedals or the Electro’s scheme, and even goes further, letting you choose whether you want rotary speed to hold at “fast” only while you hold the pedal down or to toggle between slow and fast with each press of the pedal.
The Stage has few faults, and of those, none are very significant. I think a couple of its sounds are destined to generate more controversy than anything in recent memory. There’ll be two camps, equally fierce: those who love the more idiosyncratic of the pianos and those who think they’re utter garbage. And let me make it clear that “idiosyncratic” is not used here as a charitable euphemism for “awful.” I think they’re fantastic, but I think they’re going to be too vibey and quirky for some folks.
$4,100 seems like a lot of money until you consider what two Electros would cost, and even then you wouldn’t get the synth, the weighted keys, the amp simulator, multiple outs, etc. If you’re a vintagehead, and you’d like to have a rig that packs into an economy car and loads in at the venue in one trip, the Nord Stage is a top candidate for the job.
Programmable 88-key stage keyboard with piano, organ, and synth engines and MIDI controller features.
PROS: New piano, Rhodes, Wurly, and Clav samples are extremely detailed. Velocity mapping approaches perfection. Dual-panel design means two sounds from a single category can be layered and set up in splits. Amp models are a huge improvement over Electro overdrive effect. Cool optional integrated stand kit.
CONS: Love-’em-or loathe-’em character of piano samples. Weighted keyboard ruins playing experience of organ sounds. Synth aliasing in top octave. Stand kit includes no gig bag.
Clavia, www.clavia.se. U.S. dist. by Armadillo Enterprises, www.armadilloent.com. $4,100; optional stand kit, $300.
POLYPHONY: Organ: full; acoustic pianos: 40 voices; electric pianos: 60 voices; synth: 16 notes.
KEYBOARD: 88 weighted keys.
PERFORMANCE CONTROLLERS: pitch stick, mod wheel; inputs for organ volume pedal and assignable control pedal; inputs for sustain pedal and rotary speaker speed.
EFFECTS: ring mod, tremolo, auto-pan, wah, auto-wah (2 types), flanger (2 types), phaser (2 types), chorus (2 types), delay (2 types), amp simulator (3 types), EQ, compressor, reverb, rotary speaker.
AUDIO OUTPUTS: 4 x 1/4" unbalanced; 1/4" headphone out.
MIDI CONNECTORS: in, out.
COMPUTER CONNECTOR: USB.
Yamaha C7 concert grand, close-miked; Steinway Model D, ambient miked; Svenska Pianofabriken upright; Yamaha M5J upright, Yamaha CP-80 electric grand; 1978 Rhodes Mk. I Stage 73, “deep” voiced, tines far from pickups; 1981 Rhodes Mk. II Stage 73, “shallow” voiced, tines close to pickups; 1984 Rhodes Mk. V Stage 73, stock voiced, tines close to pickups; Wurlitzer 200A electric piano; Hohner Clavinet D6, each pickup setting and voicing switch sampled.