The ubiquitous Nord Stage keyboards just keep getting better.
When I started out with this musician lark, every type of keyboard sound I wanted came from a dedicated instrument. If I needed a piano sound, I had to find an electric piano of some sort. If I wanted ensemble sounds, I had to blag a Mellotron or one of those newfangled string ensemble thingies. And if I wanted organ sounds, I had to have an organ. But in 1975, a new class of keyboard appeared. This was the multi‑keyboard, so called because it was capable of producing the sounds of multiple classes of instrument, sometimes one at a time but, more often than not, allowing players to access two or more sounds simultaneously using early implementations of what we now call splits and layers.
At the start, these instruments tended to hail from Italy and were — not to put too fine a point upon it — rather cheap and cheerful. But within a year or two, Japanese manufacturers were getting in on the act, with instruments ranging from some relatively small and affordable Korgs at one end of the scale to the monstrously large, heavy and expensive Yamaha SK50D at the other. By providing some combination of analogue pianos, half‑decent organs, fully‑decent strings, and brass (which later morphed into paraphonic synthesis) they were a boon for players whose budgets stretched to a tiny fraction of the cost of a Rhodes, Hammond, Mellotron or polysynth (let alone all four). However, the era of the multi‑keyboards was short‑lived and their fate was sealed in 1981 when affordable polyphonic synthesizers began to appear. Except that it wasn’t. If you had told me when I bought my first Juno‑60 that the spiritual successor to the Crumar Composer or Multivox MX‑3000 would be one of the most widely used and recognised keyboards of the 21st Century, I might have questioned your sanity. Nevertheless, a squizz at the stage of any major gig or festival will demonstrate that the various generations of Nord Stage (which comprise pianos, organs, polyphonic synthesis and effects) are almost ubiquitous within the rigs of those who can afford them. But why? Workstations such as the Korg Kronos and Kurzweil K2700 can do just about everything that a Nord Stage can, plus a great deal more, and cost you less while doing it. So what’s the attraction of the big red Swedish beasties?
I think that it boils down to four things: the build quality, the sound quality, the relative simplicity of use and — in a somewhat circular fashion — the aforementioned ubiquity. Turning to the first of these, I’m not aware that anyone has ever seriously questioned the build quality of a Nord Stage. Sure, you have the right to dislike it in matters of personal taste but, in all fairness, you can’t claim that it looks or feels anything other than high quality. The same rationale applies to the sound quality. You are under no obligation to like the sounds it produces, but I doubt that many would agree if you were to suggest that it’s fundamentally naff. The question of simplicity is itself simple to understand. By limiting the Nord Stage to a handful of mainstream sound engines, Clavia removed much of the fear that sometimes accompanies powerful workstations. The final argument is perhaps the least obvious but, if your live rig is based upon a Nord Stage, it’s possible that all you will ever have to carry on your next tour will be a storage medium containing your samples and Programs. Having seen my keyboards disappear into the depths of Stansted Airport to be mishandled by staff who view ‘Fragile’ stickers as some sort of challenge, I can tell you all about the fear that accompanies the first opening of your cases on foreign soil. A rental company could have provided a Nord Stage locally, but the chances of finding a fully‑loaded XP‑80 with the correct configuration of SR‑JV cards as well as an 18‑voice Z1 for hire on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea are as close to zero as makes no difference.
Following the success of the first incarnation of the Nord Stage, the problem facing the big brains at Clavia for the past few years must have been, “How do we keep it new and exciting without fundamentally changing it?”. They clearly felt that a cautious approach was warranted because, looking back, its evolution has been glacial. When the original version (retrospectively named the ‘Classic’) appeared in 2005, its piano section was based upon sample memory of less than 256MB, and its polyphony was 40 stereo or 60 mono voices. This was later updated to 500MB in the Nord Stage 2 (reviewed in SOS November 2011), to 1GB in the Nord Stage 2 EX (2015), and then to 2GB and 120 voices in the Nord Stage 3 (SOS March 2018). Similarly, the original Hammond/Vox/Farfisa organ voicing derived from the Nord Electro was updated to the Nord C2 voicing (minus pipe organs) in the Nord Stage 2, and then to the C2D (including pipe organs) in the Nord Stage 3. Perhaps the largest improvements were to be found in the synthesizer section, which started out as a basic 16‑voice polysynth, gained 380MB of sample RAM and two additional voices in the Nord Stage 2, followed by an additional 100MB and another 16 voices with the adoption of the Nord A1‑based synth engine in the Nord Stage 3. Given that 18 years have passed, these are not huge leaps, so what can we expect from the Nord Stage 4 — another small increment here and there, or something more substantial?