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Clavia Nord Stage EX 88
Published in PM April 2009
Reviews : Keyboards+Synths
The new Nord Stage EX 88 from Clavia aims to provide serious players with an ideal combination of instruments for stage performance — but is it the right keyboard for you?
With their bright red livery, robust steel chassis and heavily lacquered end-cheeks, the latest generation of Clavia products are very nicely presented. The original Nord Stage felt solid, was not too heavy, and it looked very swanky. Its successor, the Stage EX, feels solid, is not too heavy and well, you get the picture. Indeed, it isnt until you look closely that you can see any physical differences between the EX and its predecessor, the most useful of which is the legending of the rear panel sockets on the top panel of the keyboard. Combining elements of Clavias Nord Lead synths and more recent performance-oriented keyboards such as the Electro (see Genealogy box), the EX not only looks the part, it seems to offer an almost ideal combination of instruments aimed squarely at the performing musician. But is it everything that Clavia claim?
There are six categories of piano and piano-type instruments in the EX. First among these are three grand pianos, based upon the Yamaha C7 and one based upon the Steinway Model D. Sampled pianos tend to succeed or fail on the consistency of their samples, both in terms of unwanted tonal differences as you play across the keyboard and in terms of glaring differences between velocity zones. A third criterion is whether the tail of each sample sounds natural, and then theres the question of sympathetic resonance; samples that reproduce the sound generated by the undamped strings and soundboard when the sustain pedal is depressed. Get all of these correct, and you should have a fine digital piano.
In general, Clavia have done a good job, but some of the sampling is a little uneven in places. This is most obvious in the bottom octave, but there are other areas where the timbre goes ting-ting-ting, dung-dung-dung as you play a scale. Some of the velocity splits are also a bit obvious, and you can hear the pitch of the soundboard change when you play different notes in the upper octaves, which does not happen on a real piano. In addition, the volume of the upper octave of each of the grand pianos is quieter than you might expect. Nevertheless, the errors are not glaring, and I would be more than happy to use these grand pianos on stage (which, after all, is what the EX is all about) although I might hesitate to expose them to solo classical piano.
To complement the grand pianos, the EX offers two upright pianos. I am not a fan of these because Clavia and I have different ideas about what constitutes the sound of an upright. For me, it should be like a grand, only less so. In contrast, one of the EXs uprights is clunky and overly percussive, while the other is dull and muffled, particularly in the upper mid ranges. Loosely aimed, I suspect, at the Coldplay genre of pop, I wouldnt use these unless it was to achieve a specific effect.
The next category contains a recreation of the Yamaha CP80 electric grand, plus a curious hybrid of an acoustic piano and the Yamaha. The latter of these is interesting, but I am tempted to ignore it because the CP80 emulation is, tonally, the best that I have yet heard. This again suffers from slight timbral shifts as you play up the keyboard, and (more significantly) the sound is curtailed far too quickly when you release a key, so I found that I always needed to pass this instrument through a splash of reverb to obtain a more natural release. However, with this done, the overall effect was amazingly accurate.
Next come three variations of Fender Rhodes: a Mark I, a Mark II and a Mark V. I have yet to meet the Rhodes that was consistent across its keyboard, so any small sampling irregularities are all but irrelevant here. Using the EXs onboard effects (discussed overleaf) you can tailor the three variants to span the whole range of Rhodes characters, and I particularly liked the Mark I with tremolo and a bit of overdrive. I would defy anybody to identify this in a mix as an emulation, unless it was because it sounds too good to be the clunky original!
The Wurly (Wurlitzer) has just a single variant. Its not bad, but it lacks a little punch and its velocity zones are too noticeable. Nonetheless, if you dont require an absolutely accurate recreation, its a perfectly useable sound. Next, we come to four instruments based on the Hohner Clavinet. I like these a lot because they imitate the four pickup combinations of the D6 and E7 with surprising accuracy. Theres also a dedicated EQ section with Treble, Brilliance, Medium and Soft options that imitate the original instruments options. This is all good stuff, but the velocity splits are again too obvious, and the EX lacks the subtle pitch-bend and pressure sensitivity of the real thing. (If you play a Clavinet aggressively, there is a slight sharpening of the attack of the note, and if you lean harder on a key once depressed, you stretch the string slightly and increase the pitch.) However, the most significant way in which the EX differs from the original is in the lack of the damper, which is a huge omission.
Finally, as far as the piano-type instruments are concerned, there are two harpsichords. The first of these is single strung, and excellent in the mid range. The second uses both sets of strings in an Italian double-strung harpsichord, and is much louder and fuller across the whole range.
Because all of these instruments are based upon samples rather than modelling, theres no reason in principle why you should not be able to replace the factory sounds with others. On most keyboards this is not possible because the samples are held in ROM, but Clavia have used flash RAM that allows you to delete and replace one set of samples with another. The EX is supplied with a CD that contains the Nord Stage Manager and all the factory data, so I loaded this onto my MacBook Pro and connected it via USB to the keyboard. (PC users, as usual, have to install drivers.) I then deleted and reloaded various sounds, and everything worked well. Visiting Clavias website, I found that there is already a small selection of new samples available: a further Fender Rhodes Mark I, a lute stop for the existing Italian double-string harpsichord, and six registrations from a French triple-strung harpsichord. I wonder how long it will be before the EX (like the Electro 3) can utilise Mellotron samples, or even RMI Electrapianos, Hohner Pianets, Solinas and Logan string ensembles.
For most players, the foremost of the EXs organ models will be its Hammond B3. The sound of this (although only judged from memory) seems to lie somewhere between the Clean and Vintage 1 settings of the companys dedicated organ, the Nord C1, and although I would prefer to hear a tad more generator leakage, this is a good choice. When compared with a real Hammond, I found that it accurately reproduces the subtle inconsistencies of the original, as well as the gentle compression that affects a genuine tonewheel generator. Whats more, the Hammonds wrap-round is recreated, and usefully extended to the extremes of the EXs keyboard.
Clavias excellent emulation of the scanner chorus/vibrato offers all six options found on the original, and is particularly pleasing when the deeper effects V3 and C3 are used. The excellent percussion settings of a real Hammond are also recreated accurately, and theres one area in which the EX improves significantly upon previous Nords: its key click. This was so loud on the Electro and C1 as to make them almost unusable at times, but the click level is now the subject of a parameter in the EXs system menu, and can be tamed with just a few key presses.
The EX has no physical drawbars, but uses pairs of buttons to increase or decrease the contribution from each footage. Because you can adjust any combination of these virtual drawbars simultaneously (just like the real thing) its a more useable system than it sounds, and it even offers some advantages, not least of which is the ability to recall registrations from memory and have the drawbars in the correct positions for further manipulation. After youve used the system for a while, youll find it surprisingly responsive. Oh yes, and talking of response The EX offers a fast keyboard setting that is much more appropriate than the standard response for playing organ.
The V-type model emulates a Vox Continental. Strangely, the drawbar settings on the EX only relate loosely to those of the originals. Single-manual Continentals had drawbars marked 16, 8, 4 and IV, with additional drawbars that controlled the contributions of the sine-wave generator and the triangle-wave generator for each. The dual-manual Vox Continental II had differing sets of drawbars for its upper and lower manuals: 16, 8, 4, II and III on the upper, and 8, 4, 2 and IV on the lower, plus the pair for the sine and triangle wave generators. (The II, III and IV settings were different combinations of the higher harmonics.) In contrast, the EX has drawbars for 16, 8, 5 2/3, 4, and 1 3/5 plus a single combination stop. This is unfathomable, because the Nord C1 had the correct footages! Tonally, the sound of an original Vox is somewhat brasher and deeper than the V-Type model because the waveforms generated by the EX are too close to the ideal of the sine and triangle waves that the Vox claimed to generate, but didnt. Likewise, the distinctive Vox vibrato is not captured perfectly. But, apart from the unaccountable choice of footages, were dealing with small differences here, and the EX will convince many people that they are listening to the original combo organ, provided that the player doesnt need to recreate a registration that isnt available.
Unfortunately, I dont own a Farfisa Compact or Compact Duo, so I cant make a direct comparison between an original and the EXs F-Type model. However, a colleague with extensive experience of Farfisas confirmed that the overall sound and effect is faithful, and he was pleased to see that the Hammonds chorus/vibrato modes have been replaced by dedicated vibratos appropriate to a Farfisa. With a touch of overdrive and a hefty application of delay, the F-Type will transport you right back to the hey-day of psychedelia.
If youre tempted to compare the EX to a workstation that offers powerful digital synthesis... dont. The 16-voice, single-oscillator-per-voice polysynth in the EX offers none of the sophisticated features that you would take for granted on a modern synthesiser or workstation. Indeed, there are many voicing limitations that will frustrate players accustomed to the usual complement of oscillators, multi-stage envelope generators, LFOs, sophisticated effects, and so on. As an example of this, the EXs synth offers dual AR/ASR contour generators instead of the more conventional and more flexible ADSRs and — with no dedicated LFO provided — its necessary to press one of these into service in its repeat mode if you want cyclic modulation effects. Other limitations are even closer to the surface, such as having a vibrato generator with a single speed for all patches! But hang on a minute Im obtaining some really nice polysynth sounds from the EX. How come?
Fourteen years ago, I reviewed the first Nord Lead in the UK. For its era, this did an excellent job of imitating the Prophet 5, so its not surprising that its descendent has much of the character of a large, analogue polysynth. A detailed description is available on Clavias website, but highlights include the nine types of waveform that its virtual analogue oscillator can generate, some of which can be syncd to a hidden oscillator, or PWMd (pulse-width modulated), as appropriate. Theres also a double sawtooth, which can be detuned in semitones (but not fine-tuned) over a range of ±1 octave. Although the means for controlling these facilities are limited, the quality of the sounds they create is greater than you might expect. For example, take the double sawtooth, detune it by an octave and add a sensible amount of unison detune, and youll already find yourself beyond Prophet territory. Add some effects such as chorus and delay, and beautiful, polished sounds leap out.
But the real surprise is that the oscillator section offers no fewer than three modes of sound generation: virtual analogue, FM and PCM-based. The weird three-op FM option offers 29 algorithms with fixed frequency relationships. Since FM is still a closed book for many players, this implementation is rather neat: a generator of unusual waveforms that are recognisably FM in nature, but much easier to use than traditional FM synthesisers. I found that passing these waves through the virtual analogue filter produces a wide range of interesting hybrid sounds, and I liked some of these very much. The third method of waveform generation is provided by 77 PCM waveform snippets. This method of synthesis is reminiscent of the Roland D50 and the Prophet VS, and you can obtain many evocative sounds from it, ranging from bells to plucked strings, from pipe organs to voices, none of which can be obtained from the VA oscillator or the FM algorithms.
Inevitably, cramming so much into such a small space with so few controls has forced Clavia to make the synth somewhat arcane to programme but, once I had spent a few days with it, everything became simple and straightforward. Then I learned to approach it on the basis of what I could do with it, not what I couldnt. Eschewing conventional voicing architecture and controls, it forced me to be creative and to come up with new ideas so, despite its considerable limitations, I found that I was using it to create sounds that I might not have programmed on a more conventional instrument.
Lets start our whistle-stop tour of the effects with Rotor, the Leslie speaker simulation. I was surprised to find myself liking this very much because I usually demand numerous parameters that I can tweak to taste. But for stage performance, Clavias settings are well chosen, and the Drive effect is a standout feature, adding just the right effect, varying from a gentle purr to the wail of tortured valves.
The Effect 1 section contains auto-panning, tremolo, a ring modulator, wah, and two types of auto-wah. You can only use one effect at a time, and the amount by which you can modify it is limited to just two parameters — rate (or, where appropriate, frequency) and depth. Nevertheless, I found the tremolo to be very useful, especially when applied to the Rhodes and Wurlitzer emulations. In addition, the ring mod (which is created using a hidden sine wave oscillator) can create the usual range of interesting, clangourous sounds. On the other hand, I am not a huge fan of the wah-wahs on offer, although they do a reasonable job when applied to sounds such as the Clavinets.
The Effect 2 panel contains two phasers, two flangers and two choruses, again with just two controls: rate and depth. These effects lack the satisfying whoosh of vintage stomp boxes, but I was surprised to discover how useful they could be. I particularly liked the chorus applied to the CP80 emulation, and the phaser applied to some of the string synth patches that I concocted in the polysynth. The EX isnt a replacement for a Roland RS202 or an ARP Quadra but, if you take a bit of care when programming it, similar sounds are not far away.
Next comes the delay, which has mono and stereo (ping-pong) modes, and offers controls for tempo and feedback. This is followed by an amp simulator and a simple three-band equaliser. There are three amplifier models on offer (inspired by the Fender Twin, the Wurlitzer EP200s internal amplifier, and the Roland Jazz Chorus) and, if none of these is selected, the section applies a straightforward overdrive. Simple though this section is, I had great fun with it, slamming out all manner of Keith Emerson- and Jon Lord-inspired organ licks. However, I noticed that the volume control in the organ section and the drive control in the amplifier section do not interact correctly. Lower volume does not result in less drive, so the EX cannot emulate the effect of the swell pedal on an overdriven organ. This sounds trivial, but it isnt, so I double-checked the drive attached to the Leslie effect. Happily, this works exactly as it should.
The final effect section is global, which means that it is applied equally to every instrument. It offers simple compression and five types of reverb, with just a single control for each. To be honest, I would ignore these whenever possible, directing my sounds to separate outputs so that I could treat them individually. Also, its a shame that theres no way to place reverb before the Leslie effect (which is where it lies in a real Hammond/Leslie combination) but since there is no spring reverb algorithm, the point is a moot one anyway.
Despite Clavias claims about the EXs supposed simplicity, many of its controls have multiple functions, and youre soon going to become sick of pressing the shift key to obtain the operations you need. Whats more, the two-line by 16-character screen is antediluvian, so there are no graphics to tell you whats happening. Instead, the busy panel sports a massive concentration of red and green indicators, especially in the organ section and around the rotary encoders, which show their values using collars of LEDs.
Although the sound generator sports the three sections described, the EX offers an unusual Panel A/Panel B configuration that allows you to split or layer two of each instrument across the keyboard, for a maximum of six instruments at a time. Unfortunately, you can only allocate each instrument to a low zone, an upper zone, or a high zone, or the upper and high together, or all three together, and there are just 11 preset split points, so you cant be any more precise than using the one that is closest to what you need. This also means that you cannot allocate more than four sounds to non-overlapping zones. I cant image why Clavia coded such an arcane system.
Talking of arcana, theres the EXs Program memory system, which shares its controls with various system menus. This offers 21 banks of six programs (126 programs in all), plus two live settings that are always available on dedicated buttons, all of which contain the settings for the six instruments and their 10 associated effects, plus two MIDI controller setups (see Extern box) and the global effects section. Underneath this, there are 300 synthesiser memories divided into three banks named Bass, Pad and Synth, but which are freely programmable with any type of sound you choose to create. Why not call them Bank 1, Bank 2 and Bank 3? It beats me.
Surprisingly, there are no individual outputs for the piano, organ and synth sections. By way of compromise, you can configure the four programmable outputs as two stereo pairs or as one stereo pair and two monophonic outputs. This is short of ideal (which would be three stereo pairs) but its not too bad. Further cost-cutting in the I/O department is revealed by the lack of a MIDI Thru socket, but at least theres a healthy allocation of three pedal inputs that control sustain, swell, and the fast/slow rate of the rotary speaker, plus a programmable pedal controller.
Regarding the instruments themselves, the lack of obvious note-stealing in the pianos deserves mention, and the voice allocation algorithm works well, even when playing complex pieces. Also worth a compliment, the touch of a switch (or two) makes the pianos mono-compatible, which will be useful on those occasions when you may have only one channel available. On the other hand, while the piano section offers a Dynamics button that modifies the response of the keyboard, I think that this is insufficient for an expensive instrument such as the EX. The feel of a grand piano is very different from that of a Clavinet, and a Fender Rhodes is equally dissimilar from a harpsichord. Consequently, Clavia should have included a range of user-selectable, program-specific velocity curves that would have allowed players to obtain a more appropriate response for each sound.
Moving on to the organ, the EX is not a replacement for the C1 because, as well as lacking a physical manual and two tonewheel models, it also lacks support for bass pedals. However, you can place two registrations on either side of a split point, which goes some way toward emulating a dual-manual instrument. Unfortunately, the EXs organ section has lost a rather neat facility that existed on the Electro and the C1, by which the nine push in drawbar buttons doubled as preset registration selectors, plus an all drawbars at zero setting, and Random, which generated a new, random registration each time that you hit the relevant button. To these you could then can add a further nine registrations of your own, storing these under the pull out buttons. All of this is now gone, replaced by the EXs Program memories and a Preset II button that allows you to store a single favourite in each of Panel A and Panel B.
However, the biggest limitation lies in the effects architecture, and it renders the EX a much lesser instrument than it would otherwise be. In short, each of the effects sections — Rotor, Effect 1, Effect 2, Delay and Amp/EQ — can only treat one instrument at a time. So, for example, if you want to pass the organ in Panel A through the Leslie, you cant play the piano in Panel A through it. Or, say, if you want to add chorus to the polysynth in Panel B, you cant apply it to the organ in Panel B and so on. Theres a (sort-of) way around this: since each Panel A effect is duplicated in Panel B, you can treat two sounds with the same effect if you allocate them to different panels. But despite this, you can never process all three sound generators with the same effect, except for reverb and compression, in which case you have no choice but to treat them all simultaneously and equally. In these days of genuinely multi-timbral effects sections (the Korg M3, Roland Fantom G and others), this is a huge limitation.
One final thing. The Stage EX sends a worrying thump through the speakers when you switch it on, and particularly when you switch it off. If, like me, you monitor directly through active speakers, be careful, or be prepared to replace a cone or two at some point in the future.
Before receiving the Stage EX I expected to love it but, when I started to use it, I found it to be very limited and limiting. Then, as I got to know it better, I started to understand what it could do, rather than concentrating on what it couldnt. Layering piano-type instruments, combining pianos with Prophet-esque strings and pads, simultaneously producing superb electric pianos and even better organs on a single keyboard, using a second keyboard to create a dual-manual organ or to control the Panel B instruments as I experimented and learned, I began to realise that the EX is targeted at a very specific audience. Could I use it as a main keyboard? No. Despite the excellent sounds it can produce, the limited Extern capabilities would make this impossible, and even if these were adequate the EX lacks too many of the features that I need and which conventional workstations offer me. But would it make a superb keyboard for a player whose need is almost exclusively for top-quality pianos and Hammond organs? Yes, it would, and the Vox and Farfisa emulations are a huge bonus, worth far more than you might imagine.
However, all this has to be weighed up in the context of the price. At £2599, the EX is not cheap, and lies in the same price band as the fabulous Korg M3-88 Xpanded (which boasts a superb grand piano of its own, all manner of piano-type and organ sounds, and a monstrous synthesiser) and the new Roland Fantom G8. Whats more, its substantially more expensive than the Kurzweil PC3x, which boasts revered pianos, a dedicated organ section, powerful synthesis and very advanced MIDI controller capabilities. Given the quality of this competition, youll need to have a specific reason for choosing the Stage EX. 0
There are three models of Stage EX: a 76-note version with an organ-style, semi-weighted keyboard; a 76-note version with a piano-weighted keyboard; and the full 88-note version reviewed here. The touch of the weighted keyboards is pleasant, lying somewhere between a good-quality, semi-weighted keyboard and a genuine piano. It doesnt feel quite as expensive as the keyboard on the similarly priced Korg M3-88, but I would be happy to use it on stage and in the studio. Im less convinced by the implementation of Clavias signature modulation wheel and pitch-bend lever. These are positioned behind rather than alongside the keyboard, and offset by a few degrees. I found them rather unnatural to use, and while their position can be justified by the width of the 88-note keyboard, placing them at an angle was not (in my view) a good decision.
One third of the Nord Stage EX is descended from a family of synthesisers that first appeared in 1995, when the worlds first virtual-analogue polysynth, the Nord Lead, burst upon the market. Sporting the controls and the sound of a large analogue instrument but with a heart of pure DSP, this won many fans, especially when it was updated to Version 2 and given a bank of Prophet 5-inspired patches.
The other two thirds are descended from a somewhat less successful keyboard that appeared in 2001, the Nord Electro. This combined a modelled Hammond organ with a sampled grand piano and sample-based emulations of electro-mechanical keyboards, including the Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer EP200 and Hohner Clavinet. Aimed at performing musicians, this suffered from numerous voicing errors that made it rather unpalatable to cognoscenti of the original instruments.
In 2005, Clavia added Vox and Farfisa emulations to the first version of the Nord Stage, now known (retrospectively) as Revision A. This combined the companys latest pianos, electric pianos and organ models alongside a new, cut-down synthesiser based on Nord Lead technology. Software updates led to the Revision B and Revision C models, followed in 2009 by todays hardware revision, the Stage EX, which is the same instrument but with double the sample memory, which makes it possible to load more sample-based instruments simultaneously.
Morphing is a useful facility that allows you to morph between any two values of one, any or all of the smoothly changing parameters on the EXs control panel. You can assign any number of parameters to morph simultaneously, and use any combination of three controllers — the mod wheel, aftertouch and the controller pedal — to affect them. Setting this up within a Program is simple and, once you have done so, it greatly expands the range of expression that you can wring from the organ and synth sections. Forget just tweaking the filter cut-off frequency Now you can tweak the oscillator, the filter, the effects, the organ registration and more, simultaneously, just by pressing a bit harder on the keys, or with the movement of a wheel or pedal.
Extern: MIDI control
The Extern section provides a limited amount of control over external MIDI devices. Limited? I should have written “extremely limited”, because by no stretch of the imagination could one describe the EX as a MIDI controller, and neither should Clavia. Most restricting is the fact that the MIDI Out channel is a System parameter, which means that — no matter which Program you select — MIDI is always directed down a single, fixed channel. This renders the EX useless in any real-world situation. There are many other limitations, some equally significant, so the message is, if you need genuine MIDI controller capabilities, youll have to look elsewhere.
Published in PM April 2009
In this article:
Nord Stage EX 88 £2599
The Nord Stage EX is an unusual instrument that offers three excellent organs, some superb electric pianos and Clavinets, good (although not perfect) acoustic pianos, and a baby synthesiser that offers more than you might imagine. However, there are some compromises and omissions so, if youre expecting something akin to a modern workstation, youre going to be disappointed. It will nevertheless deliver for those who appreciate it for what it does offer and who dont need what it lacks.
Nord Stage EX 88
88-note hammer-action keyboard with aftertouch.
Pitch-bend lever and modulation wheel.
Organ section featuring Hammond, Vox and Farfisa emulations, with nine digitally controlled drawbars.
Piano section featuring two grand pianos, one upright piano, four electric pianos, one Wurlitzer, one Clavinet, one harpsichord and one electric grand piano.
Synth section featuring 10 analogue waveforms, an FM synthesis engine, 77 wavetable waveforms, unison control, a resonant filter and 16-voice polyphony.
Global level control.
Three split zones.
Dual effects engine plus master compression and reverb effects.
Four assignable line outputs plus stereo headphone output.
MIDI in and out.
USB for connection to PC.
Nord Stage Manager software included.
Sustain pedal included.
Dimensions (WDH): 1297 x 334 x 121mm.
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