The Nord C2D expands on the success of its predecessor with an improved Hammond emulation and the addition, for the first time, of real drawbars.
Clavia have been recreating the sounds of organs for many years. The company started with their Hammond emulation in the 'piano plus organ' Electro series, and later added Vox and Farfisa models alongside a basic polysynth in the Stage series. Inevitably, the different requirements of the piano, organ and synth sections led to design compromises, so I was delighted when they separated the organs from the rest and gave them an impressive new, dual-manual home in the original Nord C1. Next, the company added a sampled baroque organ, which marked the most significant upgrade from the C1 to the C2. But, while the sounds and treatments improved at each step, the philosophy of the control panel remained the same, wherein the player was constrained to imitating the pulling and pushing of drawbars, or the switching on and off of tabs (or even, on the C2, the pulling out and pushing in of organ stops) by pressing so-called 'drawbuttons' that moved virtual controls and displayed their resulting positions using rows of illuminated LEDs. This meant that anyone whose performances relied on 'playing' drawbars or instantly flipping multiple switches had to look elsewhere, and, given the number of the so-called clonewheel organs with physical drawbars, this must have cost Clavia sales.
Today, however, there's the Nord C2D, resplendent in its new burgundy livery and sporting a full set of 38 (sort of) drawbars. Of course, there's much that remains the same on the C2 and the C2D, so, rather than cover these pages with regurgitated facts and opinions, please allow me to direct you to my reviews of the C1 (SOS April 2008) and C2 (SOS February 2010), which will tell you much of what you want to know. In this review, we'll concentrate primarily on the features that differentiate them.
The most significant change is, of course, the addition of the drawbars. You might think that there's nothing to say about this other than, 'hey, it's now got a full set of drawbars!' But you would be wrong...
To understand this, you have to be aware that on a C1 or C2, selecting a program not only recalls the sound, it sets the 'virtual' drawbars (or switches or stops) to the positions defined within that sound, and illuminates its LED read-outs accordingly. The C2D doesn't have motorised drawbars and has no such LEDs. For any given sound, it shows you if a drawbar is active or not (which is fine for the on/off switches and stops of the Farfisa and pipe organs), but not the amount by which a drawbar is extended in the Hammond and Vox emulations. Furthermore, unlike some other Hammond emulators, there's no page on the new, 16 x 2-character LCD to display the registration. You can edit within its menus much more quickly and, for the first time, name Nord C-series patches sensibly, but you can't see what sound is going to emerge when you press the next note. What's more, pressing the drawbuttons on the C2 immediately edited the selected sound. The C2D doesn't allow this; you have to hold down the appropriate Preset button and then move the drawbars to edit an existing sound. This requires both hands, so many players will find it to be a significant shortcoming, because it means that you can't 'play' the drawbars if your starting point is any memory other than the continuously updated, non-volatile 'Live' setting. This is actually no different from a genuine Hammond, on which it's only when you press the reversed A# or B keys (which select the left-hand and right-hand sets of drawbars on each manual, respectively) that the drawbars can be used to create new sounds. Nonetheless, I think that Clavia should consider addressing this, because it's a backward step.
The topic of selecting presets on the C2D now arises. In addition to the A# and B keys mentioned above, a console-style Hammond has 10 further reversed keys to the left of the manuals that allow the player to chose from nine preset sounds, plus silence, for each. Consequently, I'm delighted to see that the C2D now has its preset selectors positioned on two small panels to the left of the manuals, and that the buttons that select the drawbars have been duplicated here. In many ways, this is equivalent to having the G, G#, A, A# and B selector keys of a genuine Hammond reinstated. Unfortunately, two of them are the wrong way round: the Nord's 'A' buttons are where the 'B' buttons should be, and vice-versa, which means that you will forever be hitting the wrong one and wondering where your percussion has gone! Please, Clavia, swap these over immediately. And, while you're at it, you could change the chorus/vibrato selector from the existing button and LEDs to a nice, big knob, which would make selection much quicker and more positive.
Turning to the drawbars themselves, these don't feel the same as a vintage Hammond's because they're not connected to the electro-mechanical gubbins of mid-20th century technology. You might think that this would make them lighter in operation but, in fact, the converse is true; those on the review unit need to loosen up a bit because you can't flick them in and out in the same way as on my A100.
Changes to the (already excellent) Hammond emulation include noticeable improvements to the percussion and the key-click. Less significant is the change to the 'key bounce' (the relationship between the speed at which you release a key and the loudness of the resulting click) because, unless the key (on) click is far too loud for my tastes, I hear little difference in the key (off) click. It would be much more impressive to take advantage of the C2D's velocity-sensitive keyboards and model the slight spreading of the actuation of each of the pitches in the registration as you play with lesser and lesser velocity, as on a genuine Hammond. It would also be nice to see the Hammond's Normal/Soft loudness switch added to the panel. It may seem trivial, but I sometimes find it useful to be able to flip a single switch to reduce the volume by a fixed amount or, perhaps more usefully, raise it (and therefore the amount of drive at the Leslie's preamp) by the same amount.
In addition to updating the Hammond model, Clavia have added a new Leslie rotary speaker model and tweaked the overdrive simulation, which can add anything from a gentle purr to a heavily distorted scream. There are three Leslie options in the Sound menu: a Leslie 122, a close-miked Leslie 122, and a Leslie 145 (which is mechanically the same as a 122 but housed in a smaller enclosure). Despite a paucity of controls — for example, there are no parameters for microphone placement, and just one for the fast and slow speeds of each of the rotor and horn — the C-series' rotary speaker effects were always good. Happily, the C2D's is considerably improved by the addition of a rotor/horn balance parameter, variable from 70/30 to 30/70 in steps of 10. I find that genuine Leslies have much woodier sounds than manufacturers of digital emulators tend to choose and, for me, being able to set the C2D's rotor/horn balance to 70/30 is a huge improvement.
Let me offer an example: some Hammonds 'leak' even when no notes are depressed. (Leakage is a background sound caused when the pickup for one tonewheel 'overhears' stray signal from another tonewheel. This, together with the almost inevitable broadband noise generated by the vintage electronics, helps to give Hammond organs their characteristic, throaty quality.) By selecting the Vintage 3 mode (the noisiest of the four underlying modes for the Nord's Hammond sounds) you can recreate a road-weary, battered and leaky instrument on the C2D. Played through a preamp or one of the non-rotary amplifier models, the higher frequencies of the leakage are perhaps a little too noticeable but, when played through one of the Leslie models with the rotor/horn balance leaning toward the rotor, the effect is magical. My only gripe is that both the underlying model and the choice of Leslie are global settings rather than preset-specific, which is a great shame. Hmm... that's not quite true. I have another gripe, because Clavia still sell their half-moon switch as an optional extra. Maybe I'm being greedy, but I feel that this should be part of the standard package because you would rarely (if ever) play without one.
Unlike the Hammond model, the Vox emulation is not a perfect recreation of the original, although the sound closely resembles the Vox Continental II. Even further from the original, the Farfisa emulation remains evocative rather than strictly accurate, and there seems to be a small bug in the way that the STR16 and FLUTE8 tabs interact. It's not a problem (I've used Farfisas with much more significant faults), but it's something that Clavia could perhaps address in the next OS revision. What's more, using physical drawbars to emulate the switches on the Farfisa isn't ideal, and a more thorough make-over might have added tabs as well as drawbars, although this would have resulted in greater size, weight and cost, which I'm sure that Clavia wanted to avoid. Don't misunderstand me; both the Vox and Farfisa emulations are as good as they always were but, in truth, I think that they are beginning to suffer a little in comparison with the increasing quality of the Hammond emulation, so maybe it's time for Clavia's engineers to re-address them and bring them up to the same standard.
The 21 stops, tremulants and various couplers of the baroque organ are — as far as I can tell — the same on the C2D as on the C2, with one possible exception. When reviewing the C2, I noted that the 8' Principal in the Great was not just an octave lower, it exhibited less harmonic content than the 4' Principal on the Swell. On the C2D, the 8' Principal is the brighter and more strident of the two. Have Clavia modified the samples underlying the pipe organ? I must admit that I don't know, and you shouldn't care. It still sounds superb, and that's what matters.
Elsewhere, the C2D continues to be identical with the C2. For example, the I/O still comprises line-level stereo outputs, high-level outputs (on quarter-inch and 11-pin connections) for a genuine Leslie speaker, a headphones output, three control inputs, MIDI In and Out, a USB socket for updating the OS and using the Sound Manager (see box), and a dedicated MIDI input for bass pedals. The final socket is a 3.5mm stereo input for monitoring external sources such as MP3 players. Unfortunately, the C2D shares the C2's inability to output the audio received at this input other than through its headphone socket, which was daft in 2010, and still is. On the bright side, the C2D retains the C2's ability to route the output from its Hammond emulation to its dedicated Leslie outputs while sending its other organ sounds to the standard quarter-inch outputs. This is an excellent feature, and I would certainly want to take advantage of it on stage. Mind you, I wouldn't dream of taking a C2D on the road without a real flightcase. The presence of the drawbars on the uppermost surface means that it's impossible to place a Minimoog on top of it or jump onto it and soak up the adulation of the audience after a gig. It also means that the drawbars are susceptible to damage and, although Clavia supply a soft case for the C2D, a solid road-case would be a necessity, rather than a luxury.
Any other negative thoughts I've had about the C2D have been minor. For example, the effects knobs are potentiometers rather than encoders, which means that when you load a program, the values of the parameters will probably be different from the knobs' physical positions, so when you turn a knob, the parameter jumps instantly to its current position. Not exactly a deal-breaker, is it? Likewise, I'm not a fan of the Synth Bass because you have to use the Shift key and menus to set it up. Big deal, huh? Talking of the bass sounds, if you've just won the lottery, Clavia will happily sell you their expensive Pedal Keys 27 pedalboard to accompany the C2D. Weighing almost as much as the organ itself, this is a linear rather than radial board, which seems a little odd, but it includes a swell pedal in the right position, which is welcome.
Having digested all of the above, you're no doubt gagging to know whether the C2D lives up to its billing as one of the best Hammond emulators ever built. Fear not... When I carried out a careful comparison against my A100 and Leslie 147, I was impressed. Hammonds and Leslies are wondrous beasties, but I don't gig with them because I hate moving them, and I'm confident that neither the audience nor anyone in the band would hear a difference if I used a C2D. Sure, I would notice the difference — the actions of its manuals as well as its drawbars are a little heavier than those of the vintage organ — but I'm confident that a few years' hammering would loosen things up nicely. I only wish that I could play one model (say, the Hammond) on one manual, and another (say, the Farfisa) on the other. I can guess at why the current DSP architecture would not support this, but it's nice to dream.
Given the quality of the existing Hammond emulation, and assuming that Clavia will eventually update the Vox and Farfisa models, I wonder if it's now time for the company to turn their attention elsewhere. There are numerous electronic organs that are not large Hammonds, Voxes or Farfisas. So perhaps the most overlooked organs are now the 'other' family of Hammond tonewheel organs: the L-series so famously tortured by Keith Emerson and allegedly used as the basis of the haunting pads in Vangelis's early music, and the T-series that provided the delicate organ sounds of mid-period Genesis. These 'Spinets' have their own character, and might be an excellent choice for the fifth organ in the next generation of the C-series. While you're at it, Mr Clavia, please add a control that mimics the switching off and back on of the organ to create the dramatic pitch-bends of the era. I can't play 'Stagnation' from Genesis's Trespass without it.
In the meantime, it would be silly to claim that the Nords are anything other than superb instruments. The Hammond emulation is better than ever, and the Leslie simulation is much improved, to the extent that the C2D may now be the most realistic of all the clonewheels. In addition, the Vox and Farfisa models, while not perfect, remain highly valuable additions, as does the lovely baroque organ. So why would you choose not to buy one?
The answer lies in the way you approach the Hammond. If you treat the drawbars as part of the playing surface, the C2D is a step forward. If you don't, the original C2 offers the advantages of showing you the sound you're about to play and allowing you to modify it freely whenever you choose. Consequently, I hope Clavia continue to supply both models. Each will have its fans, especially since the new OS v2 for the C2 installs the Hammond organ and Leslie 122 from the C2D, plus minor updates and bug fixes. If you already have a C2, the original 'Rotary B' speaker model is sacrificed to make way for the new features, but I still can't imagine why you wouldn't rush to download the free update.
So, to C2D or not to C2D? That is the question. If you want drawbars, the answer is self-evident. If you're an aficionado of the drawbuttons and LEDs of the C2, yet prefer the sound of the C2D, you can have both. I just hope that the price difference (the C2D is currently £400 more expensive than the C2) will diminish. If you're undecided about which way to jump, it currently makes the C2 look just a little too attractive!
If you're after a high-quality Hammond emulator, there's lots of choice, including Hammond's own digital organs, as well as more obscure offerings from the likes of Crumar and KeyB. There are also several flagship synthesizers that offer remarkably good organ emulations, plus numerous 'soft' Hammonds and even dual-manual MIDI controllers with which to use them. Nevertheless, the combination of Hammond, Vox, Farfisa and classical organs ensures that the Nord C-series remains unique.
There are (in addition to the effects within the organs and the amp/speaker models) three further 'outboard' effects available on the C2D: delay, EQ, and reverb. These do a good job, but they are rather simple, and I would prefer to see them provided with parameters equivalent to, say, simple stomp boxes of the same functions. Nonetheless, there is progress in this area on the C2D, with an extra feedback option in the delay section, and six reverb options rather than five, so things are moving in the right direction.
There are four menus in the C2D. 'System' sets up the basic parameters, including things such as the MIDI channels on which the manuals and pedals transmit, and to which the instrument responds. 'Sound' allows you to fine-tune the Hammond and pipe organ sounds as well as the rotary speaker emulation. 'Pluck/Release' is the smallest, and sets up the Synth Bass. Finally, 'MIDI' is the most extensive, and provides a comprehensive set of parameters, including more than 50 MIDI CCs that allow you to use the C2D as a velocity-sensitive, three-manual MIDI controller (the keyboards are velocity-sensitive, but the generated data are not used locally) and to sequence things such as dynamic changes of registration, percussion on/off, the actions of couplers, the use of the swell pedal... and just about everything else.
The C2D is shipped with a CD containing the Nord Sound Manager. Launching this on my MacBook Pro (Core Duo, OS 10.6.8) and connecting it to the organ caused the two to synchronise instantly, whereupon the C2D's internal memory appeared in the Manager's library window. (PC users will need to install the appropriate driver before it will do so.) The Sound Manager is not an editor and, even as a librarian, it would benefit from some more efficient organisational tools, but for safely reorganising programs, it's a boon.
The C1's manuals had a Normal mode of operation (in which the notes were triggered near the bottom of the keys' travel) and a Fast mode (in which they were triggered near the top), and you could use both simultaneously: Fast for playing the local sounds, and Normal for sending MIDI messages to connected devices. Unfortunately, this facility seems to have been lost on the C2 and C2D. They still offer 'High' and 'Low' options, but the dual mode is gone.