Clavia's updated Electro range prove that if you need top-quality staple keyboard sounds, playability and simplicity, Nords still lead.
You've got to respect the number of ways that Clavia have found to repackage their piano, organ, synthesis and sample playback technologies, even though this means that the differences between products boil down largely to which combination is included in each. The original Electro was the company's first foray into the realms of pianos and organs and, despite the more recent inclusion of sample playback, this is where the series has remained. Think of an Electro as a Nord Piano plus organs, or a Nord organ plus pianos, or a Nord Stage minus the synthesizer, and you won't go far wrong.
There are three models in the Electro 4 range. The 4D SW61 and SW73 offer waterfall keyboards with 61 and 73 keys respectively, while the 4HP incorporates a hammer-action 73-key unit. Each of these offers updates with respect to its equivalent in the Electro 3 range, although, if you look carefully, you'll see that many of these first appeared on the Electro 3HP, which was launched between the original Electro 3 series and the Electro 4 series.
I've discussed the operation of Clavia's keyboards in the past, so there's no point in regurgitating everything here. To read about this, please refer to the reviews listed in the 'Nord Keyboards In Sound On Sound' box. Today, I'll concentrate on the changes that mark the evolution of the Electro 3 into the Electro 4.
When Clavia introduced the Nord C2D, they upgraded its Hammond organ model and improved its rotary speaker effect. I reviewed the C2D in 2012, and concluded that its Hammond emulation was Clavia's best yet, and arguably the most realistic available. Happily, all of these improvements have been incorporated into the Electro 4 series.
The other major new facility that's common to all the models is MIDI over USB. Mac users can plug the keyboard into the computer, whereupon it will be recognised without further ado. Windows users require a hardware driver, but they'll find this on the bundled DVDs, so that's no problem. Unfortunately, you can't use MIDI over the traditional five-pin sockets and USB simultaneously; you have to select one or the other in the MIDI menu.
Strangely, the Electro 4's enhanced memory appears only within the 73-key models. The increase in the piano memory from 180MB to 380MB is very welcome, as is the increase in the general sample memory from 68MB to 128MB, so I can't understand why these have been omitted from the 4D. What's more, I still find these figures to be rather small for 2013, so it would be nice to see things move further forward in this area. As a mirror image to the memory upgrade, the most visible change in the Electro 4 series appears only on the 4D. This is, of course, the addition of the drawbars first seen on the C2D. As I discussed last year, some players will be delighted by these, while others may be happier to stick with the 'draw-button' mechanism used on the other models.
The rest of the updates are minor, though welcome. For example, the delay effects introduced on the Electro 3HP are available on all the Electro 4 models, although they can't be used with reverb; the reverb processor has become a reverb/delay processor. Likewise, the dynamic response, long release and string resonance options have migrated from the 3HP to the Electro 4, as has the provision of four 'Live' programs (the ones that save sounds on-the-fly as you tweak the control panel) and the change from two banks of 64 memories to four banks of 32.
Although you might fancy a 61-key hammer-action Electro without drawbars or, alternatively, a 73-key model with drawbars, the choice of Electro 4 specifications is not — in my view — arbitrary.
In the first instance, everything about the 4D screams 'Hammond emulator'. OK, its controls don't have the look or feel of the original, but you could, nonetheless, place it alongside dedicated instruments such as the Korg CX3 or Roland VK8 and perform meaningful comparisons. Indeed, the Nord would score very highly, although with three caveats. Firstly, while you can connect a second MIDI keyboard and use the Split and MIDI options to configure them as a dual-manual instrument, there's no provision for bass pedals. Secondly, there's no provision for Clavia's half-moon switch to control the rotary speaker effect. This seems to be an unnecessary omission, although the socket for a rotor-speed pedal will, for many players, make up for it. Thirdly, the drawbars are too exposed and may be prone to damage. On the other hand, the 4D is light and manageable, and it also features the excellent Farfisa and Vox emulations that are now standard across the Nord range. If you read my reviews of the C2 and C2D, you'll know how highly I rate these, and their presence elevates the 4D far beyond digital organs constrained to Hammond emulations alone.
Of course, you can still take full advantage of the piano, electric piano, Clavinet and harpsichord sounds in the 4D, but the limited RAM means that you can't load the best of these — the Bösendorfer Imperial XL (extra large) — because there isn't enough memory. So I used the Sound Manager software (see 'Sound Manager' box) to delete the Yamaha C7 and Steinway Model D pianos, which freed up enough RAM for the 'large' Bösendorfer. I then loaded this and re-linked the grand piano patches to it, activated the long release and string resonance settings and... it sounded superb. Add to this the excellent library of electric and (if you must) upright pianos, as well as the Clavis and harpsichords, and the 4D is an excellent source of keyboard sounds, especially if you hook it up to an 88-note MIDI controller.
In contrast, the wider keyboard and weighted keys of the 4HP scream 'piano' at you. Consequently, I found myself gravitating toward the grand pianos and electric pianos on this model. I freed up 197MB of RAM to load the 'extra-large' Bösendorfer Grand Imperial piano, again switched on the long release and string resonance option, and played. Oh yes! It sounded every bit as good as I remembered. After a while, I also began to realise how beautifully the sound responded to the 4HP's keyboard. I don't know whether the keybed is unique to Clavia, or whether it's an off-the-shelf unit that benefits from something in Clavia's engineering but, either way, it feels great. Of course (for the second time), you can still take advantage of the Hammond, Farfisa and Vox sounds in the 4HP but, if I were planning to perform a full Keith Emerson impersonation (yeah, right!) I would prefer a lighter keyboard. So I attached one via MIDI. Simple!
The sampled sounds — Mellotrons, Chamberlins, synths, guitars, basses and all manner of orchestral instruments — are high quality, although one or two suffer from 'munchkinisation' by being stretched beyond their natural limits. It's a shame that you can't layer them with anything else, because a Bösendorfer Imperial padded with Mellotron violins appeals to me greatly. Nor can you do much to affect the samples. You can slow their attacks by a predetermined amount, there are three 'slow release' options, and you can make their loudness and brightness velocity-sensitive by a pre-determined amount, but that's it.
In short, an Electro 4 is a sample playback instrument, not a synthesizer. But that's not criticism. One of my favourite keyboards is a sample player. It's called a Mellotron. And, with Clavia's ever-growing sample library, you can use Sound Manager to convert an Electro 4 into an über-Mellotron. I did so, then used the EQ, the reverb and the Leslie effect to recreate the sounds of Genesis, Greenslade, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, and others. That was a big mistake. Now I want to buy one of Clavia's keyboards. You may prefer Clavia's choirs, orchestral strings, brass, synths, or any of the other sounds in its library, and I can't blame you. Almost without exception, they all sound great.
If you want to mangle samples externally and then reload them, or create new samples of your own, the bundled Sample Editor allows you to do so. (Beware: you need to download the latest version from Clavia's web site to use it with the 4HP.) It's not bomb-proof — I managed to crash the editor on a couple of occasions when moving loop points and changing the durations of samples — and it only works with WAVs but, notwithstanding these niggles, it does what it promises, allowing you to edit and map your own samples, and then convert them into Electro 4 format for downloading. I recommend that you experiment; the results can be very satisfying.
Despite the quality and gorgeousness of much of the above, there are still aspects of the Nord Electros that I find frustrating. For example, pitch-bend and aftertouch are neither sent nor received. You might argue that these are inappropriate on instruments designed primarily for piano and organ sounds, but I disagree; there are many ways in which the Electros could benefit from them.
In addition, I find the primitive screens very frustrating. You can do everything you have to do, but you could do it so much more easily with a proper display. In particular, you could see what sound you're about to play, without having to remember which patch is your modified grand piano, or Wurli, or Clavinet, or Tibetan Nose Flute, or whatever.
Another strange decision lies in the Electro's inability to play any audio presented to the Monitor In socket through any output other than the headphone socket. This is fine for silent practising, but why not make it an option rather than a limitation?
I also have to question Clavia's decision to limit the keyboard Split function to turning a single-manual organ into a dual-manual organ, although I can see that the company might judge that being able to play piano and organ simultaneously could stray too close to Nord Stage territory. At least it keeps the Electros clean and simple (don't under-estimate the value of that) and avoids the arcane split points and effects allocation system that afflict the Stage series, so maybe it isn't such a bad thing.
Finally, there's one sonic limitation that I've mentioned in the past but which bears repeating: there's still no damper emulation on the otherwise excellent Clavinet sounds, and this continues to limit what you can do with them.
There's a trend for light, manageable keyboards that sound great, and the Electro 4s — resplendent in Clavia's signature red livery — satisfy all of these criteria. They're far from the cheapest ways to obtain pianos, organs and sampled sounds, especially when you take into account their monotimbrality and (for piano work) short keyboards. But while Nords may not always make sense financially, they almost always make sense musically and emotionally. I must admit that I prefer wider keyboards, which pushes me toward the (more expensive) Stage series. Alternatively, an Electro 4 Rack would be a fab product. But whatever your preference, if your need is for pianos and organs, and playability and simplicity are sought, there's currently no other manufacturer that caters quite as well to your needs.
Electro 4s are supplied with four DVDs carrying operating system upgrades, the Sound Manager software, and the Nord piano library. The Sound Manager remains a simple and clear (if rather slow) way to manage your sounds and swap them in and out of the keyboard itself. Yes, it throws up an occasional bug, but it's generally reliable, intuitive and simple to use, and you can't utilise the Electro fully without it.
The strengths and weaknesses of Clavia's sound engines have been discussed at length in previous SOS reviews of Clavia's keyboards. Here's a complete list of all the Nord models that led to the Electro 4 series.
Issue Model Summary
December 2001 Nord Electro The original Electro, emulating a range of electro-mechanical pianos and organs.
February 2006 Nord Stage 88 The Stage added synthesis and acoustic pianos, as standard, to the Electro concept.
April 2008 Nord C1 A dedicated organ based on the models developed for the Electro and Stage ranges.
May 2008 Nord Wave In essence, a Nord Lead that used samples as the basis of its sound generation.
May 2009 Nord Electro 3 Added sample playback to the pianos and organs of the Electro 2.
February 2010 Nord C2 An improved C1 that added a baroque (pipe) organ to the Hammond, Farfisa and Vox models.
August 2010 Nord Piano 88 The pianos and sample playback engines in a dedicated instrument.
November 2011 Nord Stage 2 HA88 Synth, organ, piano, and sample playback in a much improved instrument. The Stage came of age.
October 2012 Nord C2D A yet further improved C2 with physical drawbars in addition to state-of-the-art Hammond and Leslie emulations.