Combining several types of sound generation in one instrument, Clavia's Nord Stage harks back to the multi-keyboards of the 1970s. Is it a funky revivalist, or should it be considered a thing of the past?
Cast your mind back to the dim, distant past, and in particular to the Korg Trident, ARP Omni, ARP Quadra, and Roland RS505 Paraphonic Ensemble. These now-classic keyboards can be thought of as forerunners of the modern workstation synth. However, they were not the MIDI-equipped, multitimbral, sample-based, sequencer-driven instruments we now take for granted. In fact, they were resolutely analogue, and very much for live playing. The principal factor they shared was that they were 'multi-keyboards', capable of producing more than one sound at a time. A typical instrument of this type might have had separate string, synth and bass sections which could be layered together or split across the keyboard range and played independently. Some of these instruments are still considered desirable today, despite having quite limited options.
It seemed as though the multi-keyboard was a transitional phase on the way to truly polyphonic synths, and yet new examples have appeared in recent years; Generalmusic's Promega 3 (reviewed in SOS May 2003) falls firmly into this category, and now Swedish manufacturer Clavia have embraced the concept. Their offering is the Nord Stage, a performance-oriented keyboard employing three totally different and independent sound engines, and based on technology used in the Nord Electro (reviewed in SOS December 2001) and the Nord Lead 3 (reviewed in SOS July 2001).
The Nord Stage is, like all Clavia keyboards, very red, with a great many bright lights. Weighing in at 18.5kg, the Stage sports an 88-note, velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keyboard, described by Clavia as 'medium weighted'. Whilst it's not exactly lightweight, carrying it upstairs to my studio was no problem.
The Stage boasts three separate sound engines: a Hammond B3/electric organ emulation, a sample-based acoustic piano/electromechanical keyboard engine, and a virtual subtractive-synthesis engine. These three engines can be layered, split or played alone, and selectively directed to three separate effects groups, plus a modelled amplifier/speaker cabinet/EQ section. Additionally, there's a rotary-speaker simulator to which any single instrument section can be directed, and a global effects section which is applied to the combined output and consists of a reverb and compressor. Finally, the so-called 'Extern' section provides master MIDI keyboard control of external MIDI instruments.
The Stage's construction is reassuringly solid and chunky; the casing is made entirely of metal, and is topped off with a pair of lacquered end cheeks in the standard red Nord livery. Clavia's hopes of presenting a simple-to-use stage instrument seem at first optimistic; the front panel is an attractive yet busy-looking affair densely clustered with LEDs and cluttered with panel legending. However, this is because many of the controls have dual functions; the Stage turns out to be more straightforward in use than it looks.
The two main performance controllers are of Clavia's signature design — a sprung wooden stick for pitch bend, and an angled 'stone-effect' mod wheel, both positioned on the panel's left above the keys. The mod wheel is fine, but I just can't get on with the pitch stick. It's mounted at a rather awkward angle that works OK for downward bends, but feels very uncomfortable when performing the upward movement. Pitch-bend range for all the internal sounds is also fixed at plus or minus two semitones, which seems daft in the context of the Synth section.
The group of controls surrounding the two-line LCD serves not only to select Programs, but also provides access to the Stage's various keyboard-management and Program-storage functions, and System settings. A Program contains all the instrument settings, effects assignments, key splits and External MIDI settings — in other words, much like a complete 'Performance' on a regular synth. The Stage's Programs are set out in 12 banks of six programs each, for a total of 126. This may seem an odd number, but closer inspection of the panel reveals two grey buttons labelled Live 1 and Live 2. These are 'live panel' Programs whose settings are constantly updated into Flash RAM, but not written permanently to memory. The most recent changes you make to either of these Programs will be retained and can be recalled, even if the Stage has been powered off in the meantime. These two Live Programs bring the total to a more 'traditional' 128. All Programs are user-rewritable, but can be restored to factory settings by reloading the factory SysEx file downloadable from Clavia's web site.
Of note in this section is the 'Shift' button — I sincerely hope this is of a heavyweight industrial grade. Due to the sheer number of dual control functions, this button gets more use than almost any other on the Stage! Also of note are the two lower buttons named 'Panel A' and 'Panel B'. At first glance it appears that the Stage has just the three Organ, Piano and Synth engines. However, the Panel A memory contains the settings for one 'layer' of these three sound engines, whilst Panel B is host to a separate, duplicate layer, and the Nord Electro-like use of LED columns to simulate Drawbars in the Organ section and Nord Lead 3-like LED 'collars' on many of the endless rotaries means that you can instantly switch between Panel settings without worrying about having to physically reset controls when recalling memories. In other words, you have two Organs, two Pianos and two Synths, each with completely different settings. Thus you can layer an acoustic piano with an electric piano, or layer two totally different synth patches, and of course this is how 'dual-manual' organ settings are achieved. Each of these engines can be addressed over MIDI on its own MIDI channel, meaning the Stage can be up to six-part multitimbral when played from a MIDI sequencer. Not only are the synth engines duplicated, but the Effects sections are too; Panels A and B each have their own complement of Effects.
This remarkably good, fully polyphonic Hammond B3 emulation is essentially the same as that featured on the Nord Electro, but with some changes and enhancements. For example, one criticism raised in the SOS review of the Nord Electro was that the level of the key click effect was fixed. The Stage addresses this issue (as did the Nord Electro 2); the level of the key click is now fully variable.
Central to the controls in this section are the nine LED 'chain graphs' and Inc/Dec buttons that represent the nine drawbars found on a real B3 (see the picture overleaf). Although not quite as 'organic' (sorry...) as physical drawbars, they satisfy the need for immediate visual feedback of drawbar registrations nicely, as well as sidestepping the need for motorised physical equivalents, thus keeping the cost down and reliability up, at least in theory.
On the Nord Electro, the drawbar Inc/Dec buttons were also utilised to provide eight preset, one 'random' and nine User drawbar memories. This facility is now gone (which is a shame) and has been replaced by a single button named 'Preset II'. This provides a simple, one-click alternative User registration for each organ 'Panel' within each complete Stage Program. Further hands-on flexibility comes in the form of Morphing, whereby the current drawbar registration can be smoothly changed into another. The drawbar Morph settings are also stored within each Program (see the box on morphing over the page).
Apart from the Hammond emulation, the Nord Stage offers two further organ models — a Vox Continental and a Farfisa Compact Deluxe. If this sounds familiar, it's because Native Instruments provide the same extra 'tonewheel' sets for their B4 and B4 II software organs. Clavia have aimed for more authenticity with these, especially concerning the Farfisa. Whereas B4 's drawbars offer continuously variable values for this model, the Stage's drawbars default to on/off values, reflecting the fact that the Farfisa used on/off 'rocker' tabs to combine various preset registrations. Similarly, Clavia's Vox Continental model uses six drawbars for registrations (the seventh is non-functional) whilst the eighth and ninth drawbars provide a variable mix between sine and triangle waves, similar to the original. By comparison, NI's B4 offers only sine, triangle or a 50/50 mix of the two waves, as well as nine fully functional drawbars. B4 allows use of the percussion and the full range of B3-type vibrato effects on its Vox and Farfisa models, whilst on the Stage the percussion is non-functional for these, and the vibrato types are implemented as they were on the originals. So while NI's B4 offers extra flexibility with these models, the Stage scores more points for realism.
Without doubt, the B3 model is the flagship of the Organ section. Despite the cleanliness of the basic tonewheel sound and the absence of any drawbar leakage effect, it packs a very satisfying punch. Turn on the rotary speaker simulator, crank up the Drive, and you'll see what I mean.
Morphing is used to control single or multiple parameters on the Stage, using either the mod wheel, aftertouch or an attached controller pedal. Any parameters that use a rotary encoder can be assigned to Morph control, as can the LED drawbars and the Rotor speed. To assign filter cutoff to the mod wheel, for instance, you simply position the filter cutoff knob at its starting value, press and hold the Morph assign 'Wheel' button, and turn the cutoff knob to its finishing value. Now when you move the mod wheel, you will see the filter knob's LEDs move between the two values you have set.
In this way, you can use the mod wheel to 'morph' between two drawbar settings, apply oscillator sync on the synth, change the rate of an Effect, or any combination of these and more. Morphable parameters can be freely added to and removed from Programs, and are stored with them.
This sample-based engine offers a generous selection of acoustic and electromechanical pianos — there are six basic types with a total of 13 variations between them. Unusually, the samples are held in Flash RAM, so individual instruments can be updated or replaced with ease by means of the supplied cross-platform Nord Stage Manager software (see the box on the last page of this article). Polyphony is quoted at 40 to 60 voices, as it's dependent on the selected sound.
The two stereo grand pianos — a close-miked Yamaha C7 and a Steinway Concert Model D with rather more room ambience — have a nice wide dynamic range, and are suitable for a wide range of rock/pop and classical applications. The velocity-split points are well placed — the most drastic timbral changes occur in the upper velocity range, which avoids tell-tale timbral jumps at average playing levels — and the loop tails are clean, and generally noticeable only when sounds are played in isolation. The multisample splits, too, are all but unnoticeable, although curiously the volume of both pianos tends to tail off in the upper registers.
Two stereo upright pianos — one made by the Swedish company Svenska Pianofabriken, the other a Yamaha M5J — offer substantially different tones to the grands. The Svenska has been tuned in a 'parlour' style, giving it a very pleasant ringing ambience, and I could easily imagine it sitting comfortably in a Coldplay track. The M5J is perhaps the least impressive of the acoustics — its mid range is so perfectly in tune that it sounds strangely artificial! All four acoustic pianos have a key release layer, and all but the M5J include a nice-sounding soundboard resonance effect when the sustain pedal is down.
The Yamaha CP80 Electric Grand is the first decent-sounding representation I've heard coming from a hardware instrument. Add a little chorus from the built-in effects section, and many famous recordings from the 1980s come instantly to mind. However, I felt that the tuning was just a bit too perfect — some characteristic CP80 detuned 'zing' wouldn't have gone amiss. Also, the apparent lack of a key release layer exposes the existing (uneditable) release time, which I found rather too abrupt.
Three vintages of Rhodes piano demonstrate just how different the various hardware models could sound back in the day. Variation 1, a MkI Stage, has a dominant fundamental harmonic, sampled with the tines set at a moderate distance from the pickups for a mellow tone. Variation 2 is a MkII Stage, but here the tines are close to the pickups, and aimed more centrally toward the pickups' axes, giving a tone strong in upper harmonics and a rich sound when played hard. Variation 3, a MkV Stage, has its tines close to the pickups but off-axis, for a full, clear sound.
The Wurlitzer EP200A electric piano is very realistic, and immediately recognisable. A real Wurly really rocks when put through an amplifier/speaker combo with a bit of drive — and this one does too, if it's routed through the Stage's amp-simulator effect with a dollop of tremolo. Very nice.
Finally, the Stage's Hohner Clavinet D6 comes with four pickup variations, just like the original. Not only that, but the D6's four EQ switches have also been reproduced with commendable accuracy. Being the owner of two D6 Clavinets, I have to say this model is absolutely wonderful, and sounds just like the real deal. However, the lack of a key release layer and the original D6's Damper is a shame — I would assume this is down to limitations of sample memory, as the current piano sample set uses 99.8 percent of the available Flash RAM. Attempting to recreate either effect using a simple envelope shaper would have been a desultory solution, and it appears that Clavia thought so too.
Apart from such small niggles, these are all excellent sounds. The restricted key ranges that especially dogged the 61-note Nord Electro are no longer an issue — all the sounds now span the full 88-note range.
Bearing in mind that a weighted keyboard is not ideal for every situation, Clavia have made certain 'comfort' provisions for those occasions where a lighter touch is needed. This is because although the keyboard's default response to velocity suits the acoustic pianos well, some players might find it a little heavy for the electromechanical keyboard sounds. The Clavinet, for example, needs a much lighter touch for true funkiness, to which a weighted keyboard is not particularly well suited. Happily, an optional Piano Dynamics parameter alters the keyboard's response to velocity, using three progressively lighter settings.
Organists, on the other hand, need not only a light action, but one with a shallow key travel. Clavia have thoughtfully provided an optional 'fast' setting, applicable only to the Organ, which causes the notes to trigger much sooner than usual. Under normal circumstances, sounds trigger after around 8mm of key travel, but with the 'fast' setting, this is reduced to 5mm, making sweeping glissandi a less painful experience than otherwise! It's a shame this can't be applied to other sounds — Clavinets have a shallow key travel too.
The Synth hosts its own set of programmable memories, divided into three sound categories: Synth, Pad and Bass, each of which has 99 memory locations. At its most basic level, this is a 16-voice polyphonic, single-oscillator subtractive synth featuring a single switchable 12 or 24dB-per-octave low-pass resonant filter and two simple AD/R envelopes, one for the amplifier and one for assignable modulation duties. The single oscillator is also capable of oscillator sync effects, courtesy of a 'hidden' sine-wave oscillator dedicated to this purpose.
The waveforms are divided into three categories: virtual analogue, sampled digital and up to three-operator FM, providing between them a wide range of waveforms. These waves can be further modified using the Timbre knob, which controls pulse-width modulation, oscillator sync and FM intensity as appropriate. Apply a modulation source such as Morphing or the mod envelope to the Timbre control, and dramatic time-based harmonic changes are possible. As this section is a single-oscillator synth, the Unison detune knob provides a welcome means of thickening the source waveforms.
Despite a number of compromises reminiscent of those old multi-keyboards of yesteryear, Clavia have aimed to squeeze as much as they can out of this synth, given such a basic structure. However, these compromises throw up some interesting problems. For example, there is no dedicated LFO for modulation duties, which begs the question 'how do you apply cyclic modulation effects, such as pulse-width modulation?' The answer lies with the mod envelope, although it's a rather unconventional solution. The mod envelope has three modes: Attack/Hold/Release, Attack/Decay, and Repeat. By assigning the Pulse waveform to the mod envelope and choosing Repeat mode, the envelope will cycle round the attack and decay slopes indefinitely, thus providing a pseudo-LFO-type effect. The advantage is that you can sculpt irregular 'LFO waveforms' using different values for the Attack and Release knobs, but the downside is that you can no longer use the mod envelope to make one-shot filter sweeps.
Whilst it is not possible to modulate oscillator pitch with an proper envelope, a compromise is provided, but it's available only to the oscillator's analogue 'Sd' waveform. This sawtooth waveform is 'split' to behave like two oscillators, and if you rotate the Timbre knob, the 'second oscillator' detunes against the first, and this relative detuning can be smoothly modulated using the mod envelope. The bad news is that the level balance between the two oscillators is fixed at 50/50, and detuning via the Timbre knob is restricted to semitones only, so the two oscillator 'halves' cannot be fine-detuned against each other, and at unison pitch, they simply sound like one oscillator. If the mod envelope had an additional sustain-level parameter, this could be used to work around the fine-detuning issue — but it hasn't. The only possible solution is to Morph the detune value manually, using a very narrow Morphing range, but then the detune value has to be set by hand every time you select a 'detunable' synth Program.
The implementation of pitch vibrato is also curiously limited. Three types of delay vibrato can be selected, each with a preset delay time. The rate and depth of delay vibrato is set globally in the Sound System menu, and applies to every single Synth Program. At least the depth is variable when Vibrato is assigned to the mod wheel or aftertouch, but the rate always remains fixed, regardless of the Program selected, which is rather silly. And because you cannot fine-tune the oscillator, you cannot detune a Panel A synth against a Panel B synth, which makes numerous classic synth sounds impossible to achieve. All of this is very frustrating.
Round the back of the Stage, we find a relatively economical complement of connections. The audio outputs comprise two stereo pairs and a headphone socket (shame this couldn't be around the front!). Next to these are two switch-type controller sockets for a sustain pedal and to switch the rotory speaker simulation from fast to slow and vice versa. Two more jacks cater for continuous controller pedals — one for a single assignable controller and/or control of the Morphing function described elsewhere in this review, while the other handles Organ swell (volume) control. The Mains on/off button is accompanied by one of those little shaver-type figure-of-eight power sockets, which concerned me — how many spares of this kind of lead do you have? Lastly, a USB socket provides connection to a computer for various OS-updating and sample-management duties. Er... sample management? For more details on this intriguing point, see the box on the Nord Stage Manager utility opposite.
The Effects section consists of four independent sub-sections: Effect 1, Effect 2, Delay and the amp simulator/EQ section. Effect 1 offers tremolo, auto-pan, ring modulation and three flavours of wah-wah. Effect 2 deals with pitch-related effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing. The Delay can be mono, or be switched to stereo 'ping-pong' mode, and features a tap-tempo button, which is very handy for spontaneously setting delay times in a live situation. The AmpSim/EQ section, as its name suggests, offers three amp/cabinet simulations, three-band EQ, and a Drive effect.
Each instrument type can be directed to one or more of these effects sub-sections, but again, there are limitations. For example, if the Piano section from Panel A uses the delay, no other Panel A instrument can use that delay. In this case, though, another Panel A instrument could still use an effect from Effect 1 or Effect 2, as long as nothing else was already using that effect! To assign two instrument sections to the same effect type, one of them would have to made using the Panel B settings, and use the Panel B Effects group. The effects themselves have little in the way of editing facilities, offering only Rate and Amount controls, and whilst they're not sonically revolutionary, they're perfectly adequate for their intended uses.
The Rotary Speaker simulator, despite having no editable parameters (except fast/slow/stop) sounds excellent, and is the Stage's most impressive effect. The Drive control adds just the right colour, from a gentle growl to full death-metal shredding. Its one major drawback is that only one instrument section at a time can use it.
The Global reverb and compressor are the final sound-sweetening tools, and are applied across the combined output of all the instrument sections. The reverb offers Room, Stage and Hall settings, and apart from the dry/wet mix, has no editable parameters. Frustratingly, you cannot selectively apply reverb to one or other of the instrument sections: everything gets it to the same degree. Similarly, the compressor only has On/Off and Amount controls, and when it's switched on, it's applied to everything. But I guess that's why they're called Global effects!
This section provides control of external MIDI instruments, though the facilities on offer are fairly basic, comprising only one assignable rotary encoder knob which is switchable between the assigned controller, volume or program change messages. As well as the active/mute status and key range, each Stage Program recalls its own 'Extern' settings for assignable MIDI controller number, plus initial values for the assigned controller, volume, and Program Change number, and these can optionally be sent to the external MIDI instrument each time you select a Program on the Stage. Frustrations abound, however. The external MIDI transmission channel is set in the MIDI System menu, and applies globally to all Programs, so realistically you can only control one external synth from the Stage. Directing control to a different instrument necessitates delving into the MIDI System menu. What's more, the Panic (all notes off) button works only with the Stage's internal sounds, and is not transmitted to external instruments, which is where it's likely to be needed most!
Finally, the transmitted key velocities have an incredibly heavy response curve — even playing vigorously, levels only average in the upper 50s, with Herculean strength being required to hit velocity 127. And the curve can't be altered. Until these issues are addressed with an OS update, it's unlikely anyone will be using the Stage expressly for its master keyboard facilities.
As mentioned in the main part of this review, the Stage uses Flash memory to store its piano sounds. This is a fine system, because unlike other digital pianos whose sounds are set in stone and can only be updated by buying a newer model, those in the Stage can be updated as and when improvements are made. Updating the OS is no big deal these days, so why not the sounds too? The Nord Stage Manager utility (downloadable from Clavia's web site) makes this a breeze. First of all, you download the required piano sample updates from the company's web site (this would take impossibly long via dial-up connection, so they are also obtainable on CD-ROM). After installing the Clavia USB driver if required (Mac users don't need to do this), you just connect the Stage to your computer via USB and fire up the software utility.
As you can see from the screenshot on the right, your downloaded samples and the ones currently resident in the Stage can be seen in separate windows. You simply delete the ones from the Stage you wish to update, and copy the new versions across to replace them. Although the samples in the review model were all up to date, I deleted one piano and reloaded it to check that the utility worked; it did. The software can also be used as a means to backup and restore the Stage's internal Programs.
Each instrument section can address the full keyboard, or be assigned to zones. You can define Lower, Upper and High zones, the split points being indicated by LEDs above the keys, and the splits apply globally to Panel A and Panel B sounds. The Octave Shift buttons found in each section operate only when a particular section has been 'zoned' (that is, when it's playing less than the full key range).
A 'Dual Keyboard' facility enables you to play the Panel B sounds from an external MIDI keyboard. This is useful if you wish to create a dual-manual organ setup where the external keyboard is the 'upper' manual (Panel B) and the Stage's keyboard is the 'lower' manual (Panel A). This also has the benefit that each manual can play across its full key range.
On one level, the Stage is a very desirable musical instrument, but on another, it seems to be a mass of compromises, and at times, there are rather too many 'either/or' decisions to make. For example, which sound gets the rotor effect — the piano or the organ? You can't do both. Want reverb on the synth only? Sorry, it has to be plastered on everything, or nothing at all. Similarly, choosing whether to sacrifice the filter envelope in favour of pulse-width modulation in the Synth section can be wearisome. Clavia's goal in designing the Stage was to make it simple and quick to use in a live context, and indeed, the Piano and Organ sections are straightforward and easy to use, but I feel that the simplicity of the Synth section is its own worst enemy, providing only just enough to justify its inclusion.
Whether the Nord Stage functions well as a master keyboard is also in question — it's hard to imagine a way in which you could independently control more than one external MIDI instrument, and even then you'd be using a frustratingly reduced set of facilities. That heavy external MIDI velocity curve doesn't help matters, either. Personally, I would keep the Stage as a stand-alone keyboard, and use a different dedicated master controller keyboard to play any other MIDI instruments I wanted to use.
Lastly, there is the all-important factor of cost; at £2200, the Stage is certainly not cheap. I know we're looking at a high-quality instrument here, but it's amazing what you can get for your money these days.
On the positive side, the functional compromises I've highlighted may not bother you personally as a player. If so, and if you're prepared to bear the cost, the Stage is absolutely on the money as a stand-alone instrument that covers a range of classic acoustic and electromechanical keyboards in highly competent fashion. I'd advise that you find time to try out the Stage before you make your purchase decision, think about your playing needs and how you might want to use it, and see if its great sounds seduce you.