Stephen Fortner Posted May 8 Share Posted May 8 Imagine my excitement when Clavia’s North American distributor emailed me to ask, “If we send you a Nord Stage 4 to check out, will you write about it?” Um, no, I’m too busy eating shredded cheese out of the bag and catching up on Star Trek: Prodigy which is way better than it has any business being. Of course I’ll write about it! To be honest I’ve never been a huge Nord guy. I’ve owned three of them over the years: the Electro 2 that replaced my Roland VK7 on the bandstand, an original Wave for a minute, and most recently a Nord Grand because I fell in love with the keyboard action when I reviewed it for Piano Buyer back in April 2020. But even given the little bit of time I’ve spent with the Stage 4 so far, let’s just say I’m understanding why previous Stage models are on so many backline riders and what guys like Eric Lawson are on about. Nords have become a bit polarizing. I’ve met two types of keyboard players. If they have an opinion at all, they either think that Nord’s sound quality and approach to real-time control puts them head and shoulders above any other do-it-all stage workhorse, or they think Nord is an overpriced hipster brand that’s gotten a lot of mileage out of being … red. For me at least, what distinguishes the Nord Stage series is not the color, and we could argue who has the best piano or B3 or Rhodes sound all day and never come to a consensus. Instead, it’s the approach to accessing and controlling multiple instrument sounds and methods of sound generation. The multi-model thing is pretty much standard issue on higher-end keyboards now — samples, tonewheel modeling, virtual analog, FM, physical modeling, wavetable synthesis, etc. But for the most part, the way it’s implemented is, well, workstation-y. On a Kronos, new Fantom, Montage, etc., you pretty much choose a synthesis type and put it on a mixer/MIDI channel in whatever multi-timbral setup the instrument has. More often than not, this requires some menu diving and extended touchscreen poking. With the Nord Stage 4, you see the sections first: organ, piano, and synth. It’s a single button press to turn any section on or off, and there are mixer faders for further multi-timbral parts or layers within each section. Buttons below each fader select which layer that section’s controls are currently editing. Twiddle the knobs in each section until you hear what you like, then hit Store and you have a preset. If the user interface on modern workstations is like the Enterprise D or Voyager or Discovery, Nord is more like the bridge from the original series: lots of tactile feedback and blinky lights. A handful of things made great first impressions on me, though none of this will be news to any veteran Nord players. Across all sections, any layer or combination of layers may be assigned to “Aux KB,” i.e. an external keyboard controller. This is ideal if you have one of the weighted versions of the Stage 4 and want to play organ and synths sounds from a keyboard with a synth or waterfall action. Also, the Stage 4 is really a seven-part multi-timbral instrument. The Organ section has two parts (corresponding to upper and lower manuals), the Piano section has two parts (letting you layer acoustic pianos and EPs and such), and the Synth section has three parts. Each part/layer within each section, along with all of its associated parameters, is addressable on a separate MIDI channel. I set up a quick template in Logic Pro to test this, with Logic’s external instrument plug-ins on each of seven tracks transmitting on MIDI channels 1 through 7 and just moved an Apple Loop from one track to another. Nope, it wasn’t too good to be true. Want to sequence the Synth section in your DAW as though it’s three synths each doing their own thing? Can do. Want to do that as a single synth with three “oscillators”? Set the appropriate tracks’ MIDI outputs to the same channel. Another cool convenience: Shift-pressing the on/off buttons for the part/layer that currently has the control focus in any section toggles whether that part responds to the pitch stick and/or the sustain pedal. Speaking of pedals, you get a lot of dedicated pedal inputs: one for Nord’s triple-pedal unit (I have one that came with the Nord Grand so looking forward to testing it), one for swell in the organ section (insert Beavis and Butt-Head laugh here), one for fast/slow toggle for the Leslie effect, plus continuous control, sustain, and switch jacks. Also like: The Synth section’s filter cutoff and resonance knobs normally work per layer, but you can toggle a “section” mode that makes them affect all active synth layers at once, which is presumably what you’d want to do for dramatic sweeps in live performance. Anything underwhelming so far? There’s a 1/8-inch stereo external audio input, but it’s only a pass-through for monitoring audio from an external devices and is routed directly to the main line-level outs and the headphone jack; you cannot, for example, process external audio through a layer of the Synth section nor the effects. That, and entering program names is a pretty clunky affair. My overall first impression is that “Stage” is really the right name for this beast. Everything on it is geared for quick changes in live performance. If you’re used to more of a “workstation” configuration, there’s a moderate but totally manageable learning curve, especially in the sense that you’ll be using that Shift button a lot because if there were actually one button or knob per function, the Stage 4 would cost twice as much and the necessary panel real estate would have to go above a 176-key keyboard. But once you start to get your head around Nord’s user interface logic, there’s a certain beauty and immediacy to how they’ve minimized menu-diving. A word about the action: The 88- and 73-key weighted versions use a hammer-action Fatar TP-40M with aftertouch. I received the 88 and it’s a great action: heavy enough but not too heavy that I’d get fatigued by playing in a cover band all night — though it does fall somewhat sort of the piano purist’s dream that is the Kawai action in the Nord Grand. The Nord Stage Compact features a 73-key semi-weighted waterfall action, also with aftertouch, and is what I would choose personally as I’m more of an organ and synth player than a pianist. Not to mention, the Compact weighs 22.9 pounds as compared to 43.2 for the full 88. I’ve found that a curious thing happens to keyboards as I get older with more and more gigs under my belt: they don’t get any lighter! (BTW, for anyone wondering, “waterfall” refers to semi- or very lightly weighted keys with square fronts but no “lip” on the key like a piano. Organists in particular like it because it was the key design on many Hammond organs including the B-3.) So, from here, I intend to make posts more or less in the following order: - Summary of upgrades vs. Stage 3 - Organ Section - Piano Section - Synth Section - Effects - Center Section (the main program selection/saving and menu area) - MIDI controller functions - Any miscellany we didn’t cover in the previous sections Videos when I can! As always, butt in, interrupt me, ask anything, and if I don’t know the answer I’ll run tests and/or bug the Nord people until I do. 1 1 1 1 Quote Stephen Fortner Principal, Fortner Media Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine Digital Piano Consultant, Piano Buyer Magazine Industry affiliations: Antares, Arturia, Giles Communications, MS Media, Polyverse Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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