CLAVIA NORD ELECTRO

Clavia Nord Electro Virtual Electromechanical Keyboard

Published in SOS December 2001
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Reviews : Keyboard

Electromechanical keyboards — electric organs, electric pianos, and so on — are popular at the moment, and there's no shortage of software plug-ins modelling them. Clavia's Nord Electro attempts exactly the same thing in hardware — but how successfully?


Gordon Reid

I'm a fan of old, electromechanical keyboards, so here's something that I think is a brilliant idea: most contemporary synths imitate their analogue predecessors, so why doesn't someone do the same for electric pianos and organs? OK, so it's not such a novel concept, but it explains why I was rather excited when Clavia announced the Nord Electro, a keyboard whose raison d'etre is to provide the sounds of a range of unwieldy electromechanical keyboards.

The Electro comes in two flavours; the Sixty One (reviewed and pictured here) and the imminent Seventy Three. These names describe the number of keys on each instrument, and there are apparently no other differences between them. Their sound generators are divided into two distinct sections: a fully polyphonic, modelled 'virtual' organ, and a selection of sampled pianos.

The Organ

The Electro's organ claims to be a digital emulation of the Hammond B3, so it is as this that we will judge it. Hang on a moment, though... there are no drawbars! How can you have a B3 without drawbars? Well, you can... sort of. Clavia have replaced them with nine LED bar-graph meters and nine pairs of in/out buttons that allow you to 'pull out' or 'push in' the harmonics. I suspect that the company did this because it was cheaper than providing a set of real drawbars. I also suspect that it was a mistake, because I'm sure that traditionalists will recoil from it.

Clavia Nord Electro 61/73 £1295/£1449
pros
Many of the sounds, the rotary speaker, the organ's chorus/vibrato, and some of the other effects are first class.
Set it up and play — you don't need to read the manual.
MIDI control of all performance parameters is a bonus.
cons
A 74-note grand piano multisample mapped on to a 61-note keyboard...? That's silly.
Not enough detailed control over some sounds, or modulation effects.
The keyboard is too short, and too light to accurately emulate some of the instruments it models.
Some of the effects are third class.
Not multitimbral, limiting use in a sequencer setup.
It's not cheap for this level of peformance.
summary
I want to like the Electro, I really do. It's a great idea, and most of its sounds are very good. But it has too many niggles to get an unreserved thumbs-up. I hope that there's a Mark 2 on its way. With suitable forethought and appropriate revisions, that could be a killer product.

When I first saw this system, I was afraid that the Electro would allow me to move only one 'drawbar' at a time. It was therefore with relief that I discovered that I could adjust all the harmonics simultaneously if I wished, and that the registration would change in appropriate fashion. So the system works, and it does mean that you never have problems with drawbars being in the wrong physical place when you change patches. But do I like it? Not really, but I don't dislike it as much as I expected to. It lacks the immediacy needed to 'play' the drawbars as one would on a B3 or its siblings, but it's perfectly usable, nonetheless.

Above the virtual drawbars you'll find three sets of additional controls. These are the 'Percussion', 'Vibrato' and 'Manual' sections (see picture, right).

Percussion is much as you would expect, with second and third harmonics, soft/normal volume, plus slow/normal decay options. It sounds very accurate, and is single-trigger (which also imitates the B3 accurately) but the body of the registration is perhaps suppressed a little too far when normal percussion volume is used.

The Vibrato section offers all six options found on the classic Hammonds, and is worthy of a compliment or three. Accurate imitations of the Hammond scanner chorus/vibrato are notoriously difficult to realise, but this one is excellent, particularly for the deeper effects V3 and C3.

The Manual section fulfils two functions. With the Electro alone, it introduces a split approximately halfway up the keyboard, thus allowing you to create and play two registrations simultaneously. Alternatively, if you hook up a second MIDI keyboard... ah, but we'll come to that later.

Now, what of the basic sounds? As soon as I started playing the Electro's organ, I had a problem. Although Clavia seem to be very proud of their simulated key-click, it's far, far too loud. The only way to tame it is to twist the high-frequency EQ at the end of the signal chain fully anti-clockwise to -15dB. This huge cut is necessary to reduce the high-frequency content of the sound to an acceptable level.

Having sorted this out, I then found another minor problem. In the Electro's manual, Clavia talk of 'energy stealth', meaning the way in which a real Hammond makes existing notes quieter when you add more to a chord. This compression is one of the subtle characteristics that distinguish tonewheel organs from their electronic competitors. The Electro imitates this but, compared to my A100, it takes the effect a little too far. Other than that, the sound is first class, although the tonewheel emulation and leakage are slightly too clean to fool a Hammond aficionado (well, this one, anyway), for whom a dirtier 'vintage' tone would be more satisfying.

The Overdrive is very simple, comprising just an On/Off switch and an Amount control. The distortion it imparts is surprisingly usable, and imposes anything from a gentle purr to a tortured rasp. However, there are two problems. Firstly, the sound glitches slightly when you increase or decrease the overdrive amount from zero. Secondly, the range of drives that most players will use is confined to a small band between '1' and '3' on a scale of 0 to 10. Clavia should be able to tweak the Electro's operating software to fix both of these, so I don't view them as insurmountable faults.

  Thanks For The Memories  
  The Electro offers 48 memories in six banks of eight, and it's easy to create and save favourite sounds, recalling them at the touch of just one or two buttons. You can then dump and restore these — one at a time, or the whole memory — via SysEx. That's just as well, because there's no other onboard storage.  
The Rotary Speaker effect is also usable. In fact, it's better than usable. I'll admit that I wasn't entirely happy with it at first and, had there been any parameters to hand, I would have tweaked them. However, since there are no controls other than On/Off, Fast/Slow, and Stop, I had to live with Clavia's concept of the Leslie sound. Once I had got used to this, I found it rather pleasant. Still, if I were to record using the Electro, I would want more control... microphone distances and positions, fast/slow rotation speeds, acceleration rates... and the Electro doesn't have any of these.

Before moving on, I should mention one final facility in the organ section. The drawbar 'push in' buttons double as seven preset registrations, an 'all drawbars at zero' setting, plus Random, which generates a new, random registration each time you press the button. To these you can add a further nine of your own, storing these under the 'pull out' buttons, thus allowing you to jump instantly from one favourite registration to another.

The Pianos

If you now press the 'Instrument Select' switch in the centre of the control panel, the organ is silenced, and you find yourself playing the electromechanical pianos. There are four types of electric piano, plus the bonus addition of the so-called Acoustic Grand piano — not the slightest bit 'electro', but there it is.

First on the list comes the Fender Rhodes Stage 73. This spans 75 (uhh??) notes from E to F#, which is very odd. Of course, you can only access five octaves of this on the 61-note Electro's keyboard and, if you use the Octave Shift button (shown below ) to move up an octave, the top six notes of the keyboard are mute. Similarly, if you shift down an octave, the bottom four notes are also mute. I could accept this if it conformed precisely to the original, but to create a new range yet still leave these voids at the top and bottom seems perverse.

Happily, the sound itself is very good. It isn't much like my Stage 88, but you must remember that there are significant variations from one Fender Rhodes to another. In its favour, the Electro offers a good range of tone and expression, and is quite distinguishable from the morass of workstation patches that seek to emulate the Rhodes.

Next comes the Electric Grand, which is an imitation of the Yamaha CP80. As such, it is pure Tony Banks circa 1981. I like this sound very much, but it has an even shorter range, being just 74 notes from E to F. What's going on?

Number three on the list is the Hohner D6 Clavinet. Again, I am amazed by Clavia's implementation. A real Clavi spans five octaves from F to E. I realise that it's impossible to map this onto a five-octave C-C keyboard, but why have Clavia implemented it as five octaves from E to Eb? This makes no sense. Furthermore, it means that there are nine mute notes at the top of the keyboard (E to C). That's nearly a whole octave wasted! Furthermore, when you press the button to lower the keyboard by an octave, there are four mute notes at the bottom. In other words, at no time can you play the sound over a full five octaves. This is crazy (although, to be fair, it will not be so on the 73-note Electro).

Frustratingly, the sound itself is again rather good. Well, it is until you look for the Damper control. This is a vital component of the original Clavinet, allowing you to produce a wide range of damped or sustained timbres, yet the Electro lacks it. To me, that's like leaving the black notes off the keyboard — you can still play, but your options are severely limited.

My other criticism of the Clavi sound lies in the lack of pressure sensitivity and pitch-bend. If you press harder on any key on a real Clavinet, you stretch the string slightly and increase the pitch. The Electro lacks this. Furthermore, if you play a D6 aggressively, there is a slight sharpening of the initial attack of the note. This, although subtle, adds to the character of the sound. The Electro lacks this too.

  The Electro & MIDI  
  Every Electro parameter is 'live' to MIDI continuous controllers. I had great fun playing the Electro from a Korg Z1, using the X/Y pad to introduce or remove two drawbars — one along the X-axis, the other along the Y-axis. Given time, I suspect that I could master this and create some interesting performances not possible on any real Hammond. But best of all, the continuous controllers mean that you can sequence all your drawbar changes, as well as 'live' tweaks to the effects and EQs.

It's also worth pointing out that although the manual says the Electro only receives Program changes from 0 to 7, this is not true. It responds correctly to numbers from 0 to 47, changing bank after each eight Programs, exactly as you would expect.

 
Last on the list of electroacoustic instruments lies the Electro's impersonation of the Wurlitzer EP200. Again, the basic sound is good, although it lacks the magic that would make it great. And the range, this time, is 69 notes from F to C#. Oh heck, they've done it again! A real Wurli has 64 notes from A to C.

The Acoustic Grand Piano is the last of the preloaded sounds. There was no mention of this in the original press release in February 2000, so it has appeared in the 20 months since then. Unfortunately, it's obvious that Clavia needed somewhat longer to get it right, and the sound, while not bad, is uninspiring. This is a shame, because the multisample positions are not overly apparent, and the tails of notes do not exhibit obvious loop points. Nonetheless, it lacks the dynamics of a good piano simulation, and I would not choose to use it. Oh yes, and it only covers a 74-note range from E to F. Now that's just plain daft!

Once you've selected the piano sound you want, you can tweak it using Presence, a sweepable peaking filter that allows you to add ±18dB at the centre frequency of your choice within the range 200Hz to 4kHz (shown left). Despite the lack of a Q control, I found this invaluable. For example, +18dB at around 2.5kHz made all the difference to the Rhodes sound, transforming it from mush into something that approached the cutting edge of the real instrument. A similar boost at 2kHz brought the Electric Grand to life, slightly less extreme settings worked well on the Wurlitzer, and a range of gains (positive and negative) and centre frequencies helped to imitate the various pickup settings on the Clavinet.

Before leaving the subject of the pianos, I must direct your attention to the back of the Electro. Here, alongside its stereo outputs, headphones socket, MIDI In and Out (but no Thru!) sustain pedal input and two controller pedal inputs, you'll find a USB interface. This will allow you to download additional piano sounds into 'Option', a sixth, currently empty, multisample memory. Indeed, if you want to overwrite the existing five pianos, you should be able do so, because all of the samples reside in Flash memory. I would have liked to test this, but the promised CD-ROM of piano sounds did not arrive with the review instrument.

The Effects

Next in the signal path lie the two main effects sections (shown below). These are entitled 'Modulations' and 'Effects'.

Modulations offers six effects, although you can only select one at a time. These are 'Tremolo', 'Pan', 'Ring Modulation', 'Wa-wah' (Clavia's spelling, not mine), 'Wa-wah2', and 'AutoWah'. However, if you're looking for hosts of parameters and tiers of menus, you're looking at the wrong keyboard... the section boasts just two knobs (Rate and Amount) and an On/Off button.

Two of these effects — tremolo and pan — are excellent. They add a great deal to the untreated timbres, and are just right for many classic Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds. In contrast, the three wah-wahs are not sufficiently enough, and seem to be implemented using a low-pass filter rather than a band-pass filter, so they don't sound quite right to my ears. The ring modulator uses a fixed-frequency sine-wave oscillator as modulator, and the manual claims that this tracks the keyboard, but it doesn't seem that way to me. Either way, it's a pretty strange effect to add to an instrument of this sort.

The Effects section offers six further effects (again, just one available at a time) in series with the Modulations. Confusingly, these are the types of effects normally referred to as modulation effects! They are 'Flanger', 'Flanger2', 'Chorus', 'Chorus2', 'Phaser' and 'Phaser2'. I would like to tell you how good these are, and how much they add to the Electro... but I can't, and with no parameters other than depth and rate, there's little you can do to improve things. I'll admit that — in moderation — they provide acceptable thickening and width, but they are not inspiring, and have little in common with the gorgeous 'whoosh' of vintage stomp boxes.

Next, we arrive again at the overdrive and rotary speaker effects. These are just as applicable to the piano sounds as they are to the organ, sitting happily in the vintage zone that the Electro occupies. Fortunately, unlike its position in the block diagram in the manual, the overdrive lies before the rotary speaker in the signal path. That's just as well. It would sound very strange otherwise.

Finally, we come to the equaliser mentioned earlier. This offers ±15dB of high- and low-shelving EQ at unspecified frequencies, and is useful for broad tone-control duties.

Broken Promises

First things first. A 61-note keyboard might, if the range were chosen correctly, be acceptable for a Clavinet or EP200 imitation. But the concept of a Rhodes Stage 61 is arcane, and a five-octave electric grand or acoustic grand piano is downright stupid. Now, having got that off my chest, let's move on...

  Weighting For Go(r)do(n)  
  The Electro Sixty One keyboard is too short. Period. And, while its weighting is about right for the organ and Wurlitzer, it's too light for the CP80 and Clavinet, and wholly inappropriate for a piano or Rhodes.

This is not a trivial point. Pianists need feedback from the keys to help them judge the nuances of their playing. If Clavia are aiming the Electro at the serious player, they would be well advised to remember this. Furthermore, Clavia have done themselves no favours by omitting a range of user-selectable velocity response curves. These would at least allow you to obtain the most appropriate dynamic response from each sound.

 
... to another moan. The original specification for the Electro promised a keyboard split that would allow you to create organ/organ, piano/organ, organ/piano and piano/piano combinations. In addition, it promised that you could use a second MIDI keyboard to access piano sounds when you were playing organ on the Electro itself, or vice versa. Neither of these facilities exists at present. Sure, the Split is there, and you can use the Electro with an additional keyboard, but only to create dual-manual organs. Once you select the piano section... nothing. Not an electromechanical sausage. The split disappears, and the remote keyboard becomes superfluous. Likewise, a promised 'Organ Morph' capability (a "smooth transformation between two separate organ presets" as Clavia described it in their advance publicity) has disappeared back into the nether regions from which it came. Fortunately, all may not be lost. If Clavia later develop these facilities, you should be able to upgrade the OS by downloading new versions from the web and upgrading via the USB socket.

If broken promises are disappointing (and they are) the following is simply weird: When you use the Electro and a remote keyboard in organ mode, the registrations are mapped to two six-octave F to F manuals. Whereas the piano ranges are too short, the organ range is too long! It must be something to do with being Swedish...

Conclusions

Clavia persist in calling the Electro "the ultimate stage keyboard". It isn't. Nonetheless, it has the potential to be a very desirable instrument. The Hammond imitation is excellent, and the vibrato/ chorus, overdrive and Leslie are first class. Likewise, the pianos (with the notable exception of the acoustic piano) are capable of sounding superb. So it's not the fundamental nature of the Electro that lets it down, it's the details.

Consequently, I think that Clavia should stick the Electro back on the drawing board, make it larger and heavier, add a suitable keyboard (see my comments in the box to the left), and rethink the note ranges — either be authentic, or map the sounds across the whole keyboard! The designers should also ask themselves whether the 24-note polyphony of the pianos is sufficient. I encountered note stealing when playing long, twiddly runs.

Next, someone should fire the programmers for releasing the existing effects, and then (after a suitable period of unemployment) put them back to work to create better ones. Actually, that's not fair. The programmers responsible for the organ's chorus/vibrato, the overdrive and the rotary speaker effects should be treated to an expensive smorgasbord and given the keys to the company sauna. Fire the others.

So where does that leave us? In truth, I've been on a rollercoaster throughout this review. When the Electro arrived, I dearly wanted to love it. Then I discovered its limitations, and my disappointment was a palpable gloom over East Anglia. Later, we became friends again. Eventually, I began to overlook its quirks and deficiencies, and I began very much to enjoy its company. Sure, I'll not forgive the Sixty One its 61-note keyboard and silly note ranges, but the Seventy Three would sort out many of my objections. And — just to reiterate — many of the sounds are excellent, and that's what matters.

Then, I discovered the price. Sure, I know all about the inflated values of vintage electric pianos and Hammonds, but, at £1295, I fear that the Electro has a tough life ahead of it.

  Test Spec  
  • Nord Electro OS version reviewed: v1.1.  

 information
Electro Sixty One £1295; Electro Seventy Three £1449. Prices include VAT.
Hand In Hand +44 (0)1245 225538.
+44 (0)1245 225701.
Click here to email
www.handinhand.uk.net
www.clavia.se

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