A pro’s guide to making the switch

I’ve been a Nord artist since 2012, when I got my first Nord Stage 2 HA88 for a world tour with Rufus Wainwright. My second Stage 2, an HA76, came into my life the following year when I was asked to join John Mayer’s band. I used them both as part of my rig for John’s Born and Raised and Paradise Valley world tours of 2013 and 2014. 

Now I own three of them - one each for home, stage and studio. I can program wherever I happen to be, and use Nord Sound Manager to transfer programs freely between the three of them, as well as rented backline units all over the globe. Currently, I use one NS2 in my touring rig with Steve Van Zandt (Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul) and two in my rig with Cyndi Lauper.

Why do I love the Stage 2?

It is great-sounding, incredibly versatile, quick and intuitive to use and of rock-solid build quality. The quickness largely comes from its being so knobby. The front panel may, at first glance, bear some resemblance to an airplane cockpit, but those knobs really connect you physically to the sound-shaping experience. Once you’re familiar with the layout and signal path, it becomes like a part of your body.

One thing that John Mayer, Cyndi Lauper, Little Steven and Rufus Wainwright all have in common is this: When they want a sound, they want it exactly the way they hear it in their head, and they want it immediately!

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With the NS2 I can dial up just about any sound in an instant and begin tweaking it in real time literally as they are making up their minds about it. No getting lost in multi-page menus. Need slapback delay on that piano sound? One knob turn and a button press and it’s there. Add a string layer to that pad? I can have it for you in five seconds. Too digital-sounding? I can make it Mellotron strings just by turning a knob a few clicks. Now it sounds a little boxy? I can sweep the mids and boost the highs on the EQ section and “un-box-ify” it before you even finish the next sentence.

So all of those qualities make the Stage 2 a great piece of gear. So what about the new Stage 3?

It’s got even more knob, plus two OLED screens! What new capabilities does it bring to the table that will help me do my job even better? Here are five:

1. The Synth Section

All the sections have been given an upgrade. The piano section has 2GB of sample memory, twice the memory of the NS2EX. The organ section features Nord’s latest tone wheel-organ model (derived from their flagship C2D organ, and a marked improvement over the model found in the NS2) and adds 2 pipe organ textures. But it’s the synth section that shows the biggest advance.

Mind you, the NS2’s onboard synth was quite powerful, able to produce rich-sounding virtual analog, digital FM synthesis, wavetable synthesis and sample playback, with plenty of modulation routings and innovative sound-shaping tools on offer. But the NS3’s synth engine, derived from the Nord Lead A1, is a whole another story.

For starters, it’s got its own dedicated OLED screen. It has a dual-oscillator configuration which can produce analog-style waveforms, additive waveforms, “Super-Waves” (a large number of oscillators combined), “F-Waves” (formants), and samples from the newly upgraded Nord Sample Library. You can produce anything the NS2 does and more, although each synth retains its own character. You also get nice additions like a Moog-style “ladder” 24dB/octave filter and more.

But back to that dedicated OLED. You can use it to navigate through different oscillator configurations, sample libraries, etc., really quickly.

Once you grasp the method of navigating this new, highly intuitive interface, you can dial in an even wider range of sounds than the NS2, just as quickly.

And the main OLED can also be utilized to scroll through the Synth Preset List, pre-sorted by category. Super quick.

2. The Organize function and Song Mode

The NS2 allows you to organize programs into sound categories, like Pianos, Organs, Pads, Leads, etc. To find, say, the perfect pad for a particular song, you can start by scrolling through all programs in the Pad category. But on the NS2’s smallish single LCD display, you can only look at the program you have up at the moment. By contrast, on the Stage 3's nice big main OLED display, you can simultaneously see neighboring programs immediately before and after the current one in its category - four programs at a time. This can help tremendously in situations when seconds count. Which they do, on the gig, the recording session, the soundcheck or the rehearsal. And the NS3 allows you to organize your programs easily by moving them around directly from the front panel, which on the NS2 you could only do using a USB-connected computer running Nord Sound Manager.

The NS3’s new Song Mode, accessed with a single button press, allows you to group any five programs together as a “Song” without having to move them from their regular memory locations. You move back and forth between Songs using the left and right arrow keys or the Program knob, and you select the 5 grouped programs (“Parts”) within the Song using the Program / Song Parts buttons. When you call up a new Song the NS3 automatically selects Part 1 (the program you’ve set to show up when Program button 1 is lit). Song List mode is accessed by holding Shift while turning the Program knob. This allows you to see five Songs at a time. Once in Song List mode, you can scroll rapidly through the Songs to find the one you’re interested in, then hit Shift / Exit to enter the Song you selected. Once you grasp the methodology, this becomes incredibly intuitive. You can program whole set lists without ever having to memorize things like “Which page of which bank did I use to store that pan flute patch, which opens the song which has just been moved from the middle to the top of the set?”. All eyes will be on you as you calmly scroll over to “Zamfir Boogie” in your Song List, select it, and pan-flute away! And if “Zamfir Boogie” goes over so well with the crowd that it becomes your band’s permanent set-opener, you can move it to the top of the Song List for the next gig, right from the front panel. Super convenient.

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3. More Morph-able parameters

The Morph feature on the NS2 is a wonderful way to quickly and intuitively establish enhanced realtime control over the sound you’re working with. In seconds you can assign the mod wheel, expression pedal or aftertouch to a multitude of parameters, to whatever degree you want, in any polarity you want, even multiple parameters simultaneously. But on the NS3 you gain the ability to Morph a whole lot more: things like reverb wet/dry mix, delay feedback, LFO control over the filter in the Synth section, or even rotary speed. You can assign Morphing to any combination of these parameters in the time it takes to say “I want to set the delay feedback to be controlled by aftertouch.” It makes the previously-impossible possible, and makes it seem to others as though you’re doing the impossible. Job security, baby!

4. Seamless transitions

The ability to switch seamlessly between programs has now come to the Nord Stage family. With Cyndi Lauper, I often have a lot of synth parts to cover - enough for two or three keyboard players at times. I frequently face the challenge of switching between sounds without interruption. An example is on “Time After Time”, in which I switch from a square-wave-based pad in the verse to a synth-brass pad in the pre-chorus. On the record it’s completely seamless, so there can be no gap between them. This is one instance where I really need two NS2’s on stage with Cyndi, each with a sustain pedal and an expression pedal. I do a little bit of fancy footwork so I can work around that little gap of silence that comes when you switch programs on an NS2.

Thanks to the seamless transition feature on the NS3, I can now do that transition on one keyboard. I can just hold the last chord of the verse with the sustain pedal, hit program-up, and let the sustain go as I start playing the pre-chorus. Look, Ma, no gaps! Now if someone could retro-fit that feature onto a Hammond B-3, I’d really be in business!

5. Better use of splits, layers and onboard effects

With four keyboard zones now available as opposed to the NS2’s three, I can incorporate external sounds into my Nord soundscape in more sophisticated ways using the Extern section. And amongst the internal sounds, crossfading between split points eliminates a lot of awkwardness that can come from momentarily straying over into the next zone.

As for the allocation of effects: on the NS2, you can have one instance of reverb, compression and rotary (Leslie) effect. Reverb and compression can only be applied across the board, on everything coming out of Outputs 1 & 2. The rotary effect can only be applied to the organ, piano or synth section of BOTH panels. For example, if you had rotary applied to the organ section in Panel A, it had to also be applied to the organ section in Panel B, or not at all. With the NS3 you still only have one instance of the rotary effect, but it can be applied to different sections in each panel.

The NS3 greatly improves the situation by allowing you one instance of reverb and compression per panel as opposed to one instance on everything, so you can have a synth swimming in hall reverb alongside an electric piano with room reverb - or perfectly dry. Interestingly, the reverb is placed before the rotary effect in the virtual signal chain, so you can now accurately emulate a Hammond organ with a built-in reverb pan - you can get that reverb to swirl. (Now I can replicate the intro of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” without an external Leslie pedal.)

Lastly, as I touched on in Example 3, you can use Morphing on a lot more effect parameters (which are themselves significantly extended on the NS3). In addition to the Rate and Amount of all the effects in the Effect 1 section and the Amount of all those in Effect 2, you can now morph the Tempo, Feedback and Wet/Dry in the Delay section, the Mid-Frequency Sweep and Drive in the Amp Sim / EQ section, Wet/Dry on the reverb, and Speed on the rotary effect.

The Bottom Line

With the Stage 3, I have a lot more sonic “tricks” in my arsenal, and I can access them all just as quickly - or even more quickly, due to the improved ability to organize sounds from the front panel. For any particular sound I need right away, I can use the new organizational capabilities of the NS3 to quickly find a sound that’s close, then, just as quickly, fine-tune it, do any needed splits / layers, add any needed effects and realtime expression through morphing, in a blink of an eye. It's a major improvement across the board. Way to go Nord!

For more information on the Nord Stage 2 and Stage 3, visit http://www.nordkeyboards.com