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Clavia Nord Grand

Stage Piano By Gordon Reid
Published February 2020

Clavia Nord Grand

Clavia know a thing or two about stage pianos, and this might be the best one yet.

The Nord Grand is the fifth incarnation of Clavia's piano-oriented keyboards and its abilities echo those of the Nord Piano 3 that I reviewed in Sound On Sound in May 2017 as well as the Nord Piano 4 that succeeded it [see 'Evolution Of The Nord Piano' box later on]. Like its predecessors, it comprises two sample-playback engines: one (the Piano) devoted to keyboard samples, and the other (the Sample Synth) capable of producing a much wider range of sounds thanks to its ability to draw upon the Nord Sample Library. The outputs from the two engines can be played individually, layered or split (with a horizontal crossfade of up to two octaves if desired), and they pass through a signal path comprising six effects sections, five of which can be applied to either signal, both signals, or neither, and the sixth of which is a global reverb.

Despite these similarities, the Grand is the first Nord Piano to adopt a different look and feel from those that came before it. Instead of the flat panel that seems to have existed since the first Nord keyboard crawled out of the ocean, spent a brief time in the trees and then dropped to the ground in order to perform Rachmaninoff's second wotsit, the controls of the Grand are mounted on a sloping panel. In a strange way, this makes the Grand feel more piano-y; it's reassuring to feel something substantial immediately behind the keys. The panel has also adopted a smart new black and white look that marks a significant change from the traditional grey, white and red of previous Nords but, other than that, visible differences are few and far between. For example, there's now a dedicated category selector in the Piano section that makes it easier to select the underlying instrument that you want to use as the basis of a given Program, and the Piano's equaliser is now called Timbre, but that seems to be all that's changed here. Similarly, the Sample Synth now has a pair of dedicated category up/down buttons that also provide quick access to the instrument list, but otherwise its functions are the same. Elsewhere, the Equaliser and Delay sections have swapped positions, but I doubt that anything has changed in the code. Even if it has, the result would be much the same unlike, say, switching the order of a chorus and a delay. Finally, while the Program panel has been split into three separate sections, there's only one change in the control set — the Grand now has a Panel Lock button that stops you from tweaking anything accidentally (although you can still select new sounds in this mode).

So, has anything significant changed? Actually, yes. Firstly, Clavia have doubled the Piano sample memory to 2GB. This is a significant upgrade because it allows you to load more of Clavia's highest-quality 'XL' pianos at any given moment. Secondly, the Grand offers a new Kawai hammer-action keybed with improved motion sensors. But even with these updates, I was starting to wonder how Clavia was going to justify the rather substantial price hike from the Piano 4 to the Grand. Then I started to play it...

In Use

Back in 2017, I made the observation that Fatar keyboards tend not to convince my fingertips that they're playing an acoustic or electro-acoustic piano. To be fair, the Piano 3's Triple Sensor Keybed was a step forward from previous versions with a pleasing grading of the weight from the lowest keys to the highest, but I still felt that trained pianists would prefer a heavier and more realistic touch. Furthermore, I noted that some of the subtleties generated by the Triple Sensor technology were not (and, as far as I'm aware are still not) supported by MIDI, so replaying a MIDI recording of a performance could differ from the 'live' original.

Today, the Grand somehow feels better. The change is hard to pin down, but it appears to be one of 'playability'. Let me explain. Many decades ago I taught myself to play some of my favourite music — tracks by Emerson Lake & Palmer such as 'Trilogy', 'The Sheriff', 'Jeremy Bender' and, in particular, 'Tarkus' — on a succession of good–quality upright and grand pianos. Given my limited skills, I found this exceedingly difficult. Nonetheless, I can still bash out the simpler parts, and I drive the rest of the Floyd Effect to distraction when I use these pieces as warm-up exercises before gigs. In truth, I don't blame the band for throwing rolls of gaffa tape at me because I never play them well on the keyboards that I use on stage. But, as soon as I tried to play them on the Nord Grand, they just flowed forth. The reason wasn't the sound, it was the feel of the excellent 'ivory touch' Kawai keybed which, in my humble opinion, raises the Grand to another level.

Having discovered this, it was time to take advantage of the Grand's expanded Piano memory. This was when I discovered that I had to download the latest version of the Nord Sound Manager because, understandably, the version that I had used two years ago wouldn't recognise the new model. No problem; downloading and installing this took less than a minute. Since the Grand comes with the entire 2GB of Piano memory pre-loaded, I then deleted a handful of the factory-installed pianos to free up some space and installed my favourite digital piano from the free and ever-expanding Nord Piano Library. This is the excellent Bösendorfer Grand Imperial XL, in which every key has its own set of samples, and which mimics the string resonance, long release and response of the original. I then tweaked the Program into which I had inserted it by adding a touch of EQ to compensate for my speakers (which, let's face it, find it hard to sound like half a tonne of resonating metal and wood), a smidge of compression and a touch of reverb. Cue the neo-romantic Rachmaninoffian twiddlings of my teenage years. Gorgeous!

...if I required a dedicated instrument that felt as well as sounded like a piano, I would find it hard to overlook the Nord Grand...

In contrast, while the Sample Synth's memory was increased from 256MB to 512MB on the Piano 4, there has been no further progress here. In these days of cheap 128GB flash cards, I don't understand why the Nord Grand should be so limited in this department unless Clavia are using legacy hardware that can't address a larger memory quickly enough. Whatever the reason, I find the amount of memory more than a little stingy. The Sample Synth appears to be unchanged in every other respect too, retaining its loudness and brightness sensitivity, Attack control, and the knob that allows you to change a sound's overall envelope from an AD, through an AS to an ASR contour. As before, this makes it rather more than a simple playback device, although it still falls far short of what its name implies, especially since the Grand offers no performance controllers. Furthermore, there's no back door to access additional synth functions because the MIDI CC map is constrained to the functions available using the Grand's physical controls. Therefore, the Sample Synth's strength remains its ability to access the Nord Sample Library, which is now up to V3 and compatible only with the latest versions of the Nord Stage and Nord Electro as well as the Piano 4 and the Grand. Inevitably, the Grand is shipped with many of the library's best sounds pre-installed, but I wanted to try some of the alternatives including the extensive range of string synths and orchestral sounds. I installed many of these and some of them proved to be excellent, although others were clearly uneven as I played up and down the keyboard. (Given the tiny file sizes of some of them, that's to be expected, but nonetheless a little disappointing.) Happily, if the library proves to be inadequate for your needs you can, as on previous models, use the Nord Sample Editor to convert your own samples into Clavia's format and then load these into the Grand.

The Nord Grand is a sizeable beast, measuring 1286 x 168 x 387 mm and weighing in at 20.9kg. Still, it's considerably more portable than the average Steinway...The Nord Grand is a sizeable beast, measuring 1286 x 168 x 387 mm and weighing in at 20.9kg. Still, it's considerably more portable than the average Steinway...

Creating Programs and performing on the Grand is a doddle and, with nice touches such as seamless transitions (which means that existing notes survive intact complete with their effects when you select a new Program) everything is simple, slick and, by and large, sounds great. So that's an unequivocal thumbs-up then? Well, no. I remain disappointed that an expensive and professional instrument such as this offers neither balanced TRS nor XLR outputs, nor even a digital output. These would seem to be obvious facilities to me. Even more disappointing is the continuing lack of dedicated stereo outputs for the Piano and for the Sample Synth. You can configure the Grand to send the output from its Piano section to its left channel and from its Sample Synth to its right channel, but you then lose all the benefits of stereo width. While this might have been acceptable on the Nord Piano 2 when the dual Piano/Sample Synth architecture was introduced, I think that it's a poor show that Clavia haven't increased the number of outputs in the eight years or so since then.

Thankfully, another questionable design decision was corrected on the Nord Piano 4, and so it is here. Originally, the signal presented to the 3.5mm monitor input was routed only to the headphones for rehearsal purposes but you can now direct it to the main L/R outputs so that you can use this as a way to mix other audio into the Grand's output. Be aware, however, that there is no mixer for this — you have to control the external audio level from elsewhere.

Finally, I have two final observations — one good, one not so good. Firstly, the good one. I became a fan of Clavia's pianos when I reviewed the Nord Stage 2 HA88, at which time I noted that making the triple pedal an expensive optional extra was rather naughty. Happily, this is supplied with the Grand, and very welcome it is too. Secondly, the not so good one. Looking at the rear panel of the Grand reveals that the demo unit accepts (nominally) 230V power only. Perhaps this can be switched internally but, as things stand, I couldn't ship this instrument to countries such as the USA or Japan and play it without powering it through a transformer. In these days of universal power supplies, this seems very odd.

Conclusions

The digital piano field is a crowded one, with Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Kurzweil and others vying for your cash, and there are also some high-quality pianos in these companies' workstations. I must admit that, if I were to spend around £3000$3500 on a keyboard I would be tempted to choose a suitable workstation because of everything else that it would allow me to do in addition to producing some very respectable piano sounds. But if I required a dedicated instrument that felt as well as sounded like a piano, I would find it hard to overlook the Nord Grand because, if I can play something well on the Grand that I can't easily manage elsewhere, it doesn't matter how flexible the alternatives may be or how much better value for money they might seem.

The Rear Panel

The Nord Grand's rear panel.The Nord Grand's rear panel.

The rear panel is sparse. To the right lies a quarter-inch stereo headphones output alongside a single pair of unbalanced quarter-inch left and right audio outputs. The final audio connection is a 3.5mm stereo monitor input that's now directed to both the headphones and the main outputs.

Two control inputs are provided. The first, marked 'sustain', supports the Nord Triple Pedal supplied with the instrument and offers half pedalling, una corda and sostenuto. The second is now called 'volume/control' and this better describes its ability to control various parameters in the Effects 1 section as well as the volume of the Piano and/or Sample Synth. There are traditional 5-pin MIDI In and Out sockets, and MIDI is spoken by the USB interface, which also supports OS updates and provides the route through which you can program the Grand using the Nord Sound Manager and Sample Editor. Finally, there's an IEC mains input for the 230V power supply.

The Nord Piano Monitor System

Clavia Nord GrandClavia offer a small, stereo monitor system built by Audio Pro (a Swedish manufacturer of Bluetooth and television speakers) and you can mount this on the latest versions of the Stage and Piano ranges, including the Grand.

The right-hand cabinet contains the power supply and amplifier as well as the quarter-inch left and right signal inputs, a 3.5mm auxiliary stereo input with an associated volume control, and a Sub Out. This then feeds amplified audio to the left-hand cabinet via a quarter-inch cable. You're not going to move a lot of air with these speakers (they offer just four-and-a-half-inch woofers and three-quarter-inch tweeters) so the use of a substantial sub will be vital if you want to emulate the depth of an acoustic piano. Clavia suggest that the maximum power delivered by the system is 2 x 80W, but since the mains power draw is rated at 80W, something isn't quite right there. Mind you, speaker specifications are often a minefield.

Nord Piano Monitors £449$599.

Pros

  • The new Kawai keyboard is superb.
  • The Piano memory has been doubled to 2GB.
  • There are some excellent sounds available in the Nord Piano and Nord Sample libraries.
  • The whole thing feels 'just right'.

Cons

  • The Sample Synth memory is tiny by modern standards.
  • It lacks individual stereo outputs for the Piano and Sample Synth sections.
  • It lacks balanced analogue and digital audio outputs.
  • It's not cheap.

Summary

If you're looking for a digital piano for the stage or the studio, I don't know how you could overlook the Nord Grand. I suppose that (conceivably) it may not be to your taste, but my fingertips and my ears love it. Whether it justifies the price increase from the Nord Piano 4 is a different question that you'll have to answer for yourself.

information

£2999 including VAT.

Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000

info@soundtech.co.uk

www.soundtech.co.uk

www.nordkeyboards.com

Published February 2020