By Eric Lawson
The original Nord Stage (reviewed Nov. ’05) was a highly sought after performance instrument that bundled the best of Nord’s electromechanical vintage sounds with tonewheel organ and a single-oscillator virtual analog synth section, giving you access to up six sounds at once (two each of organ, piano, and synth) along with loads of realtime control in each section. Nord rolled out a few incremental revisions of the original Stage—most recently the EX, which doubled the internal memory. There’s nothing incremental about the new Stage 2, though. We’ll focus on the newest features in this review, and as you’ll see, they make the Stage 2 more desirable than ever for putting on the bottom (or only) tier of your gigging keyboard stand.
The Stage 2’s B-3 simulation uses Nord’s latest and greatest tonewheel modeling. Other than lacking a third part for bass pedals (though you can split the keyboard between upper and lower manual parts), it’s identical to the dedicated C2 organ we reviewed this past May. In addition to the well-known “drawbuttons” with their LED strips, more organ parameters are editable than before. For example, you can choose different tonewheel sets, from clean to dirty and leaky.
This organ sound is a pretty big upgrade from the original Stage and Stage EX. The most noticeable improvements are in the percussion, key click, and Leslie simulation. Also, Nord’s decision to trigger the organ (as contrasted with other sounds) at a high point in the keys’ travel makes it very playable, even on the weighted keyboard of my 88-key review unit. I had no problems with palm smears and quick single-note repeats. If you’re playing mainly organ but want the other sounds on offer, though, consider the Stage 2 Compact, which features unweighted waterfall keys. While I still slightly prefer a Neo Ventilator pedal (reviewed May ’10) for my Leslie effect, the Stage 2’s onboard simulation is so much better than the older Stages that I’ll surely use it a lot.
Fig. 1. Sound Manager is a librarian for all sounds in the Stage 2. You can import any sounds from Nord’s Piano Library into the 500MB of Flash memory reserved for the Piano section, which also houses electric pianos and Clavinets.
My early unit had red lights to indicate both slow and fast rotary speed, and neither pulsed along with the speed. Since then, Nord has gone to a green LED for slow and a red one for fast, making it easier to tell the rotary speed at a glance.
The piano side of the Stage 2 improves upon the original Stage and Stage EX models. All sounds from the Nord Piano Library are compatible with the Stage 2. “Grand Imperial,” “Grand Lady D,” and “Grand Studio 2” are stunning, and “Grand Imperial” works especially well in both stereo and mono. A friend and frequent contributor to the Keyboard Corner reader forum, Dan Patten (a.k.a. RedKey) plays a Stage 2, and hipped me to the dark horse among its piano sounds: “Black Upright” (sampled from a Petrof 132 upright) is oozing with character, cuts through a mix beautifully, and turned the heads of a handful of audience members that wanted to know more about that sound.
Previous opinion about the Stage’s acoustic piano sounds has been polarized—you either loved them or hated them. Essentially on par with the dedicated Nord Piano (reviewed Sept. ’10), those in the Stage 2 are so vastly improved that it’s hard not to love them. Though there’s not as much new to talk about in the electric piano department, the funk, grit, and realism of Nord’s EP and Clav sounds is at an all-time high in the Stage 2.
Samples and Synth Section
Sample loading, a capability shared with the Nord Wave and Electro 3, is another huge improvement over previous Stage models. You can load either your own samples or ones downloaded from the Nord Sample Library, which are then used when you select “Samp” as the base waveform in the Stage 2’s Synth section. (Modeled-analog pulse, saw, and triangle waves, plus FM and sparkly digital wavetables, are your other options.) The 380MB of memory will likely max out before you can fill all 999 slots, but what’s cool is that it’s separate from the 500MB devoted to the Piano section—that’s for factory pianos and further sounds from the Nord Piano Library, which in turn is distinct from the Nord Sample Library. Both memory blocks are non-volatile Flash, so their contents are waiting for you any time you power up.
Nord ships the Stage 2 loaded with a diverse enough selection of great samples that it’s akin to a ROMpler or workstation. This is really the first time that Nord has offered a keyboard that couples a stellar vintage machine with a wide variety of general-purpose sounds.
Using the Nord Sound Manager soft ware (see Figure 1), I quickly moved sounds I’d created on my Electro 3 into the Stage 2. Nord’s website also offers an impressive collection that has grown to include the Sequential Prophet-5, Yamaha DX7-II, and Minimoog. (Note to Nord and developers: I’d pay good money for a Roland Jupiter-8 library!) I loaded 150 slots worth of extra sounds without maxing out the memory. The large piano memory is also a welcome upgrade, as on earlier versions of the Stage, you couldn’t effectively load different pianos at the same time for comparison.
Dan Patten provided additional feedback on sample loading. “Many prior Nord Stage owners supplemented their keyboards with another synth or module for string and brass,” he explained. “This is no longer necessary. While Electro 3 owners have been treated to this library for a while, they couldn’t layer it with other sounds or modify it with synthesis. On the Stage 2, you can, and the synth controls [such as the modulation envelope and resonant multi-mode filter] really make the samples you put in there come alive.” See Figure 2 for how it’s done.
Some of my favorite sounds include the Mellotron and Chamberlin. The more modern string samples are great as well. A pop horn set called “HornTrio+Baryton_Split” cuts through a mix better than any keyboard I’ve heard in a live setting. The accordions are inspiring and really breathe.
As with the Nord Wave, samples are independent of sound presets—if you delete or move a sample, your presets won’t know it’s missing. It would be great if the Sound Manager soft ware had a way to warn you, for instance, “By removing this sample, you’ll affect programs A21, B35, and C55.”
The Stage 2 was my gig partner in Flat Elvis (flatelvisband.com), a band I’ve recently joined that plays everything from Beatles to ’80s pop to the Killers and Muse. I’ve used an older Stage for a number of years, so I’m familiar with the layout, but still found myself a little overwhelmed by the number of features to digest at first. I had a few hours in advance of my first rehearsal to learn the Stage 2 and create some “programs” (actually multis that save the state of the whole instrument) I’d need for the set list. Many things I needed were there out of the gate, such as piano/ synth layers, and splits with a pad in the left hand and a lead in the right.
Keyboard action is a subtle but perceptible improvement over the Stage “classic” and EX. The keys-to-sound connection is one of the best I’ve ever felt, with an immediacy and dynamic range I normally find lacking.
I do wish Nord had included a second row of program buttons in addition to the simple row of five. As it stands, these are shared with “Live mode” slots, which are admittedly very useful: Each slot remembers whatever changes you most recently made, then saves them (even with the power off ) without you hitting “Store.”
Fig. 2. Want to play your own samples? Once you have them loaded, edited, and keymapped in Nord’s Sample Editor software, click the Generate button to port the whole thing as a multisample to the Stage 2’s next open sample slot.
It’s worth noting that the original OS (version 1.10) on my review unit had a number of small bugs that were addressed in an OS update I downloaded a week before we went to press. Many gaps were related to forgotten features that hadn’t yet made it over from earlier Stage versions. I didn’t get special treatment for being a reviewer, but just downloaded OS updates and sound banks from the Nord website like any customer would. My experience confirmed Nord’s reputation for listening to musicians’ feedback and staying on top of updates.
What justifies the Stage 2’s existence in today’s crowded market of all-in-one gig keyboards? It’s the combination in a single instrument of all these sounds and features: killer organ and vintage keys, breathtaking acoustic pianos, analog- and digitalsounding synthesizers, workstation-like general-purpose sounds, the ability to load your own samples, effects that are easy to apply and adjust on a whim, and an action that really connects you to the sounds. Nord has rolled all of it into one classy mothership of a keyboard that’s a genuine joy to play. Being able to stack and split all these sounds almost instantly, without paging through edit parameters, is most refreshing, and I believe that the Stage 2 will earn its keep very quickly in just about any gig. It’s a model of how a premium instrument for professional keyboardists should sound and behave.
PROS All of Nord’s best sounds in one keyboard. Exceptional organs, EPs, and Clavs. Beautiful acoustic piano sounds. Can load user samples as well as diverse, high-quality sounds from Nord’s extensive online libraries.
CONS Even with dedicated controls for most functions, it can be difficult to grasp at first. The few hardware buttons for changing programs are shared with Live settings. No MIDI thru.
CONCEPT All-in-one gig machine with emphasis on vintage keyboard sounds.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Modeled tonewheel organ and analog synth. Sampled acoustic and electric pianos, Clavs, and other sounds.
POLYPHONY Organ: full. Piano/EP/Clav: 40-60 voices. Synth: 18 voices.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS Organ: upper and lower. Piano/EP/ Clav: 2. Synth: 2.
WEIGHT 88 keys: 41 lbs. 76 keys: 36lbs. 73 waterfall keys: 21 lbs.
PRICE 88 weighted keys | List: $4,599 | Approx. street: $4,200
76 weighted keys | List: $4,299 | Approx. street: $4,000
73 waterfall keys (Stage 2 Compact) | List: $3,999 | Approx. street: $3,600