Clavia have considerable experience and expertise when it comes to designing stage keyboards. Is this the best one yet?
It’s been more than six years since I reviewed the Nord Stage 2, which was, in essence, a hybrid of the Nord Piano, much of the Nord C2 organ and a simplified version of the Nord Lead virtual analogue synth engine. But things have moved forward since then, and the Stage 2 no longer embodies the best of Clavia’s stable; the Nord Piano libraries have expanded, new algorithms have appeared in the C2 and C2D organs, and the Nord A1 synthesis engine has superseded the traditional Nord Lead engine. So it came as no surprise when, last year, Clavia announced the Stage 3. Incorporating many of Clavia’s latest technologies, this comes in three incarnations: a 73-note model with a waterfall keybed, a 76-note version with a lightweight hammer action, and the fully weighted, 88-note hammer action variant that I have here, which not only feels good and plays well but (unlike some recent instruments from elsewhere) has the correct dimensions, both in terms of key length and keyboard width.
Like its predecessor, the Stage 3 isn’t one instrument — it’s (almost) two. Think of it as one Stage 3 with its Organ, Piano, Synth, Extern (external control) and seven effects sections in what Clavia call ‘Panel A’ and, with a few interdependencies, a second, almost independent Stage 3 in ‘Panel B’, totalling six sound engines, two external control sections and 14 effects sections. But while the Stage 3 looks much the same as previous models — the overall design is the same, the dimensions are the same, and the weight is only slightly increased — a closer inspection shows that there are many significant differences.
The Organ Section
The Stage 3 retains the fully polyphonic Hammond, Vox and Farfisa models of previous Nords, updated with the latest algorithms from the Nord C2D. In truth, there’s nothing new to say about the Hammond model. It offers the same underlying sound and the same key-click, percussion and chorus/vibrato facilities as the dedicated organ, as well as the three tonewheel modes — clean, vintage1 and the ‘leaky’ vintage2 — that I have praised on numerous occasions in the past. In contrast, the Vox model has changed slightly, although not in a good way. For some reason, Clavia have changed the configuration of the drawbars, replacing the Stage 2’s sine wave and triangle wave drawbars with an historically inaccurate mix control on the ninth drawbar. Sonically, the model remains rather more polite than the sound generated by my crumbling Vox Super Continental II so, rather than say that it’s an altogether accurate reproduction of the original, I would prefer to say that it’s one that you could use very successfully in its place. Similarly, the sound of the Farfisa emulation continues to lack the bark of the original and remains an approximation to that of the Compact Deluxe. In the past, I’ve been complimentary about both the Vox and Farfisa emulations, but I think that it’s time to become a little more critical of them. If Clavia want them to be state of the art, they need updating.
The big upgrade in the organ section is the addition of two pipe organ models. Testing Pipe 1 before reading the manual, I was surprised by how synthetic it sounded, but later found that Clavia describe it as “similar to that of the B3 organ — but without any of its electromechanical behaviours and artifacts,” which sums it up well. Pipe 2 is somewhat more authentic, being based upon the Principal ranks of a genuine organ. For either model, you can use the drawbars to emulate multiple ranks of pipes, for example mixing 8’ and 4’ to recreate the 8+4 stops of many classical organs. However, this merely mixes two octaves of the same sound; there’s no difference in timbre as there would be between two ranks of pipes. So, while the two new models may be useful, they won’t replace a dedicated emulation of a classical organ nor the classical voices in the Nord C2, and I would treat them as a nod in that direction rather than a serious attempt to bring pipes to the Stage series.
As before, you can set up two independent registrations of a given organ on a single Panel, allowing you to flick between the two at the touch a button. But even better than this, I was delighted to find that you can now select different organ models for Panels A and B, which means that you can have two models of organ available on the keyboard at the same time. For me, that’s a big step forward.
The Piano Section
I’ve been a fan of the Nord Pianos since the Bösendorfer Grand Imperial XL was introduced. This is a large multi-sample — so large that, on early models of the Piano, Electro and Stage, it gobbled up much of the available memory. However, the Piano RAM in the Stage 3 has now been expanded to an impressive 2GB, so you can retain the Grand Imperial XL, the even larger Royal Grand 3D YaS6 XL, or even both, and much more besides. To take advantage of this, the number of slots into which you can load the six types of piano samples — Grand, Upright, Electric, Clavinet/Harpsichord, Digital and Layers — has increased from nine per type to 20 per type. Just as significant is the increase in polyphony. The Stage 2 offered either 60 mono or 40 stereo voices and, even in 2011, this was a bit limiting, so I was delighted to find that this has now been expanded to 120 voices for all of the piano sounds. The other significant upgrade in this section is the addition of three preset filter settings for the pianos — soft, mid and bright — selected using the same button that switches between the eight pickup combinations now available for the Clavinets.
As always, I found many of the pianos and related sounds to be superb. The XL (extra large) pianos remain smooth, both in terms of velocity transitions and from note to note as you play up and down the keyboard, and the string resonance and soft release functions (when available) help to make the sound even more realistic. I’ve been privileged to play many of the digital pianos released over the past few years and, if I had to choose, Clavia’s grand pianos remain my favourites. I only have one complaint regarding them, and I’ve had it for more than a decade; you still need to buy the Nord Triple Pedal to access the pedal noise, half-pedalling, sostenuto and Una Corda ‘soft’ functions, and this adds around £200$200 to the cost of the instrument. I also like some of the upright pianos, many of the e-pianos and Clavinets, and the French Harpsichord, although a handful of these — in particular, one or two of the Clavinets — exhibit obvious velocity layers, so it’s probably worth using the Sound Manager (see box) and the Nord Piano Library to delete and replace any of the pre-loaded instruments that don’t come up to the mark. Unfortunately, the Clavinets are still unresponsive to pressure (they should go a tad sharp when you lean on the keys) and there’s still no modelling of the mute slider. Played through suitable effects and the amp model, they sound great, but they are now looking somewhat limited when compared with the latest Clavinet soft synths.
The Synth Section
The most visible changes between the Stage 2 and the Stage 3 lie in the Synth section which, while remaining a subtractive synth, goes way beyond traditional VA synthesis. The new version sees an increase in the maximum polyphony from 18 voices to 34 voices, in the number of patch memories from 300 to 400, and in the amount of sample RAM from 384MB to 480MB, but the most significant innovations lie in the voicing itself, and in particular in the dual oscillator section. This now offers initial sounds based upon analogue-style waveforms, Waves (which are additive waveforms, not wavetables as Clavia claim), S-Waves (chorused waveforms), F-Waves (vowel sounds), and samples, the last of which are obtained from the Nord nsmp3 sample library.
You determine how the oscillators are configured using the Oscillator Configuration controls. The first configuration is Single Oscillator (which, as its name implies, comprises just osc 1) and there are three versions of this: Basic, Pitch and Shape, the choice of which determines how the OSC CTRL parameter affects the waveform; either not at all, to control the pitch, or to control the waveshape. Then there are the 12 Dual Oscillator configurations, which include Mix (osc 2 is independent of Osc1, and offers sine, triangle, sawtooth and square waveforms), Detune (osc 2 is a detuned copy of osc 1), two versions of Mix Noise, Sync, 2-op and 3-op FM, ring modulation, and amplitude ‘Bell’ modulation. Not all oscillator types can be used in every configuration — in particular, S-Waves and Samples have no pitch or shape configurations, nor can they be used in the Sync, Detune or FM configurations — but there’s still a great deal of flexibility here.
Once you’ve configured the oscillators, things get a bit more conventional, with the signal passing to a multi-mode filter that offers six profiles: a new 24dB/oct ‘classic’ filter (an emulation of the Moog transistor ladder), Clavia’s 24dB/oct and 12dB/oct low-pass filters, a high-pass filter, a band-pass filter and a parallel LP/HP filter. The first five of these are resonant and will oscillate when asked to do so; the sixth isn’t and the resonance knob controls the second cutoff frequency. Keyboard tracking of the cutoff frequency is Minimoog-style in all modes, with options for none, 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3 tracking. Three levels of overdrive are offered, and the cutoff frequency can be modulated by the synth’s LFO and by either velocity or the modulation envelope (but not both simultaneously).
As on previous models, the Stage 3’s contour generators are ADR/ASR devices. There are two of these: one for modulating the appropriate parameter in the selected oscillator configuration as well as the filter cutoff frequency, and the other dedicated to the audio signal level. They have claimed time constants ranging from 3ms at the snappy end to a languorous 45s at the slow end of the scale, and the levels of both are velocity sensitive, with four degrees of sensitivity for the latter. If this sounds a bit limited when compared with other VA synths, the provision of a single, programmable LFO is even more so. This offers five waveforms including S&H, and has just two destinations: the oscillators (where it’s exclusive with the modulation contour) and the filter cutoff frequency. However, like previous Nords, there’s also a global LFO for vibrato and delayed vibrato that you program in the menus (see box) and control using the mod wheel and aftertouch. Other facilities include a Unison mode that adds one, two or three detuned versions of the initial waveform to itself for a rich, chorused sound, plus a sync’able arpeggiator offering up, down, up/down and random modes over one to four octaves. Finally, there’s a mono mode that offers single- and multi-triggering options and constant-rate portamento.
Despite its simplicity, the Synth can sound superb. It’s capable of being simultaneously precise, deep and engaging, and I found that I could use it for all manner of jobs — analogue-style basses, pads and leads, digital timbres, and of course a huge range of sample-based sounds. Once you’ve mastered its unusual architecture you’ll find that it’s a lot more flexible than its limited number of features and parameters might suggest.
Like the Stage 2, the Stage 3 offers Rotary Speaker, Effects 1 and Effects 2, Delay, Amp Simulation/EQ, Compression and Reverb, and all of these are now available independently on Panels A and B, which is excellent news, although each section can be accessed by only a single sound generator at any given time, which remains a considerable limitation.
The Leslie emulation is based upon the latest algorithm from the Nord C2D, and has been enhanced by the addition of independent speed and acceleration parameters for the horn and the rotor, as well as a close/far parameter for the microphone placement. Unfortunately, the speed and drive settings are the same on both Panels, so that precludes playing one organ with a gentle, slow purr and a second screaming though a ‘fast’ Leslie. But that caveat aside, the effect is much better than before, whether used for organs or other sounds such as 12-string guitars.
Next come the Effects 1 (pan, tremolo, ring modulator, wah and two types of auto-wah) and Effects 2 (two phasers and two choruses, a flanger and Vibe) sections. In each of these, only one effect can be selected at a time, and you’re limited to just two parameters for each — generally rate and amount — although those in Effects 1 can be sync’ed to Master Clock if desired.
The next big change is apparent in the Delay section, which has been enhanced by the addition of three filters (LP, HP and BP) that allow you to create a wider range of effects, plus an Analogue mode that adds a touch of distortion to the repeats and emulates a tape echo when you change the tempo. Nice!
The Amp Sim/EQ section has also been enhanced by the addition of resonant 24dB/oct low-pass and high-pass filters together with a wet/dry control that allows you to mix the contributions from the filtered and unfiltered sounds. You can only select one of these at a time, but the effect on the sound can be considerable. Sadly, this section still exhibits a fault that I noted on the Stage 2, whereby altering the master level of an overdriven sound doesn’t affect the amount of distortion.
The Compressor has also been updated with the addition of a Fast mode (which, because it generates pumping, is not to my taste, but you may like it) and, finally, the Reverb has been updated with a Bright mode that does what its name suggests.
Extern & MIDI
Squeezed between the Synth and Effects section, there’s the small group of controls called Extern. Although it has other uses, it’s perhaps easiest to think of this as another instrument section that just happens to have its sound generator — another keyboard, module or soft synth — outside of the Stage 3 itself. To make this as seamless as possible you can configure things so that, each time you select a Program, the appropriate Program Change messages and any desired CCs are sent to the external instrument. Extern MIDI channels can be set on a per-Program basis or globally and, if the latter, any changes made to the physical controls on the Stage 3 can be transmitted as MIDI data, which means that you can use it as a controller keyboard. You can also route incoming MIDI to anything being controlled by Extern, which is good.
In the other direction, more than 100 of the Stage 3’s voicing parameters can be controlled using MIDI CCs, which makes it possible to automate performances. What’s more, if you present a MIDI Clock to the Stage 3, its Master Clock will lock to this. This means that, on both Panels, the arpeggiator, the synth’s LFO and any appropriate effects can be synchronised, either at the same rate or at various subdivisions of MIDI Clock.
To get the best from the Stage 3, you need to grasp its unusual Program architecture and understand how its three sound engines work within this. Let’s start with the keyboard zones. Unlike previous models (which offered three of these) you can now define four zones across the keyboard and these allow you to assign each of the Organ, Piano, Synth and Extern sections to their own zones, or overlap them in various ways, or spread them across the whole keyboard as you see fit. There’s also a new Split Width parameter that creates a crossfade across a split point so that the sound changes smoothly between the instruments placed on either side of it. Regrettably, and in common with previous models, there are only 10 pre-determined split positions so, if you want to play a synth bass sound from the bottom of the keyboard to G3, and a piano from Ab3 upward, you can’t. The best you can do is select the nearest split point at either E3/F3 or B3/C4, which might be acceptable, but equally may not.
Even the Panels are not as straightforward as they might seem. Most obviously, you can use them to switch between two complete Organ/Piano/Synth/Extern setups, or to create dual-manual organs, or to create layered sounds such as duo-timbral synths that you can’t obtain from a single Panel... or, using the zones, all of these simultaneously. There’s also a facility to place a Piano sound in each of Panel A and Panel B, and then detune the two by three amounts ranging from honky-tonk to ‘just about to fall apart’. In addition, there’s a dedicated Dual KB mode that allows you to determine which single instrument in Panel B will be disconnected from the keyboard of the Stage 3 itself and played using an external keyboard. This allows you, for example, to play the organ section using a suitable MIDI controller while reserving the Stage 3’s own keyboard for piano playing. You can even set things up so that you’re playing one Panel on the Stage 3 itself while some or all of the other is being controlled via MIDI from elsewhere. These are good facilities, and I wonder why Clavia don’t make more of a fuss about them. If there’s a significant limitation (and there is) it’s that both Panels use the same zone configuration so, while you can assign different instruments to the zones within Panel A and Panel B, you can’t configure their split points differently.
Once you’ve grasped all of this, you’re ready to create, save and recall Programs. There are then two ways to access them, either in Program mode, in which the eight banks of Programs are split up into 10 pages, each containing five Programs, or in the new Song mode, which accesses the same Programs but allows you to configure them into set lists. It’s important to understand that no copies are made to populate the Songs — if you edit a Program held in one location, you edit the underlying Program and therefore the same sound in all locations in all Songs. Nonetheless, it’s a useful feature that I would use extensively. In addition, there’s also a Live mode that contains five Program slots. The difference between these and other Programs is that any changes you make to the sounds and effects are stored automatically for immediate recall.
If all this flexibility comes at a price, it’s that the Stage 3 is far from a ‘one function per control’ instrument, whether programming sounds or when performing. But once you’ve used it for a while, almost everything falls quickly to hand. Inevitably, there are still areas of the Stage 3 that could be improved, such as the provision of pedal noise without needing to buy the Nord Triple Pedal, the addition of audio over USB, and more, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use one in the studio because it can sound beautiful and I find it to be musically inspiring. I’m therefore rather sad that I couldn’t use one on stage at the moment. This is because I often need more control over the positions of splits and layers than the Stage 3 can provide. But for players with simpler demands in this area (and that’s likely to be the majority of you) this won’t be a problem.
The Stage 3 is a significant upgrade from the Stage 2, not just because of the major changes, but because some of the lesser ones could make a difference to how and when you’ll be able to use it. Of course, the price will remain a stumbling block for many people, and no-one (well, almost no-one) is going to spend somewhere in the region of £3500$4500 on a whim. But if the facilities of the Stage 3 are appropriate to your needs, you won’t be disappointed by the range of sounds that you can get from it, nor its quality, nor its style, which are as good as they ever were. The Stage 3 is a fine instrument, and one that I would love to have the opportunity to use.
Some ‘multi-instruments’ from the 1970s and 1980s offered individual outputs for each of their sections plus a Total output, and I think that a similar arrangement would be appropriate for the Stage 3, which instead offers just four unbalanced quarter-inch outputs. A headphone output sits alongside these, as does a 3.5mm monitor (audio) input. On the Stage 2, the audio presented to this input was directed only to the headphones, but now it’s available at the Ch1/Ch2 outputs, which is a significant improvement.
As expected, there are inputs for a sustain pedal, an expression pedal, an organ swell pedal, and a pedal to control the speed of the rotary speaker effect. In addition, there’s a new input for a dual pedal switch to step upward or downward through Programs or the Parts in a Song. MIDI in and MIDI out are provided, as is MIDI over USB, the latter of which provides the means for using the Sound Manager and, when it appears, the Sample Editor. However, there’s no audio over USB.
The final hole accepts an IEC mains lead for the internal power supply. The review unit accepts nominally 230V, 50/60 Hz, which suggests that there’s a separate model for the USA and other 100-120V countries.
The Stage 3 has four menus that, by and large, operate globally upon the instrument. The first is a System menu that allows you to set several performance-oriented settings such as the output routing options and the types and functions of any connected pedals. There’s also a new parameter that determines how transitions are handled when changing Programs — either curtailing the current sounds or retaining them until released by the keys or MIDI. For obvious reasons, the second of these is very welcome. The Sound menu concentrates on parameters that affect the sounds, including the loudness of the piano pedal noise and string resonance, the Hammond tonewheel model and the loudness of its key click, the rate of the synth’s dedicated vibrato oscillator and its amount when delayed vibrato is selected, and the speeds and accelerations/decelerations of the horn and rotor emulations in the rotary speaker effect. Next comes a MIDI menu that sports all of the expected parameters, plus one that allows you to connect a second keyboard to use the Stage 3 in Dual KB mode. Finally, there’s the Extern menu, which again concentrates on MIDI settings including Program-specific parameters for Panels A and B.
The Nord Sound Manager & Sample Editor
Unlike the Stage 2, which was supplied with two DVDs containing the Nord Sound Manager, the Piano sample library, the Synth sample library and the Sample Editor, the Stage 3 was delivered with a pair of DVDs that contain just the first two of these.
The Sound Manager is a useful adjunct to the instrument itself, allowing you to organise your Programs, Songs and Synth patches, to upload new samples to the Piano and Synth engines, to back up the Stage 3 and to restore it to its factory state. True, you can organise Programs and their underlying samples on the Stage 3 itself, but it’s a much faster and more pleasant exercise using the software. Unfortunately, the Stage 3 isn’t compatible with existing versions of the Sample Editor. Clavia say that an updated version of this is “in the works” and will be available soon. When this appears, it will allow you to take your own audio samples and multi-samples, edit them, and then convert them into the Stage 3’s format ready for uploading.
The Sound Manager runs on Macs (OS 10.6 and later) and PCs (Windows XP and later). The Nord USB driver (v3.0 or later) is required for PCs.
Morphing allows you to use the mod wheel, a pedal and aftertouch to affect the various sound engines in real time. Each of these can control multiple parameters simultaneously and with either polarity. The list of destinations — including all of the drawbars in the organ model, the level of the piano, seven parameters within the synth, and 10 in the effects sections — is fewer than on some Clavia instruments, but it’s still a very useful facility. For example, lacking three hands or three feet, I always use aftertouch to control the Leslie speed on my organs, and being able to accentuate the sound by pulling out the drawbars a tad and increasing the drive at the same time makes me doubly happy.
The Stage 3 Compact
The Stage 3 Compact differs from the 76- and 88-note versions in two significant ways. Firstly, courtesy of its semi-weighted, 73-note ‘waterfall’ keyboard, it’s better suited to organ and synth playing. Secondly, it uses physical drawbars instead of inc/dec registration buttons and offers a Live mode that, when you jump between Programs, uses the physical positions of the drawbars as the current registration no matter what is stored in memory. This is an excellent innovation, and one that I would undoubtedly find useful.
- Many obvious upgrades: increased sample memory, new pipe organ models, a more powerful synthesizer, increased polyphony and enhanced effects.
- Many less obvious upgrades: Song mode, an extra keyboard zone, seamless transitions between Programs, Program changing using a footpedal, improved monitor input routing and more.
- Many of the acoustic pianos and other piano-type instruments are excellent.
- The Hammond organ model and its related effects are state of the art.
- The synthesizer section is more powerful than you might imagine.
- The two Panels are now close to independent, making it (almost) two instruments in one.
- It’s solidly built, yet Clavia’s red livery continues to look stylish.
- The lack of user-assignable split points is limiting.
- Making the triple pedal an expensive extra remains rather naughty.
- The Vox and Farfisa models are starting to fall behind those of the competition.
- The Clavinets have no mute function.
- There’s no USB audio.
- It’s not cheap.
When I was asked to look at the Stage 3, I didn’t know whether it would be a minor upgrade or a significant step forward. It turned out to be the latter, to the extent that I can see Stage 2 owners selling their existing instruments and spending the extra to obtain the new model. I would.
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