Archive for October, 2011

Vintage Vibe redux… Any colour you like. No, really!

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Anyone like brightly coloured instruments? Remember orange Voxes, red Farfisas, green, red or beige Wurlitzers? Maybe you even own a Kustom Kombo covered in sparkle blue or gold Naugahyde…

Well, remember those nice folks at Vintage Vibe? They now have a gallery at their website showing their Electric Tine Pianos in every colour of the rainbow!. It’s not faked - each photo is of a real, hand-built electric piano in that particular colour. I like the gloss lime green and the sparkle purple ones…

To see these beautiful instruments, click here and then click on the word “Pianos”.

Ladies and Gents, The Nord Electro 3!

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Here it is - a (very rough) demo, showing the Wurly sound, grand and upright pianos, and Hammond, Farfisa and Vox organs.

Enjoy!

Review: Clavia Nord Electro 3 73

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Well, I’m now the proud owner of a 73-key Clavia Nord Electro 3. And I guess it’s time for a review.

nord2

What is the Nord Electro 3?

About ten years ago, Clavia, a small Swedish company best known for electronic drums and analogue synths introduced a new type of instrument; a “virtual electromechanical” keyboard. The Nord Electro featured a modelled Hammond organ, using a novel system of pushbuttons and LED ladders to simulate drawbars, plus high-quality samples of Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Yamaha CP-80 electric pianos, and a Clavinet emulation which allowed all the tone settings of the original. The intention was that the Electro could replace a number of vintage keyboards on stage or in a studio. To this end, no synthesiser sounds were included and there were no acoustic instrument sounds apart from a grand piano of questionable appeal.

Despite these apparent limitations, the Nord Electro (soon upgraded to the Electro 2, with a software update available for the earlier model) became the industry standard as a stand-in for vintage keyboards, and the little red instrument rapidly became a common sight on stages world-wide.

But Clavia continued to develop other products, and when they launched the top-of-the-range Nord Stage in 2005, including the ability to download new piano sounds plus an organ section which had Vox and Farfisa models as well as Hammond, it was clear that the Electro was due for a revamp.

1… 2… 3!

The Nord Electro 3 has inherited both the spirit of the earlier models and some of the improvements of its big sibling. Like the Electro 2, the emphasis is still on vintage keyboard sounds, and it still only allows one sound to be used at a time. No split keyboards (apart from upper and lower organ voices) and no layers. If you want those, you’ll have to pay more than 50% extra and get the Nord Stage 2. On the other hand, you now have three classic (and very different) organ models to choose from, plus access to some of the most authentic electric piano sounds currently available. Also inherited from the Nord Stage is a Sample Bank. That’s right – you can now download impressive multi-samples from the Clavia website (including a huge range of Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds) or even create your own sounds on your home computer and put them on the Electro 3. Two DVD-ROMS of pianos and samples are included along with interface software for Mac or PC and sample-editing software.

Out of the box

At 9.1 kg (20 lb, 1oz) the Electro is reasonably light. The first thing you notice (apart from its distinctive red finish) is the sheer build quality. The end-blocks and keyboard cheeks are solid hardwood, stained bright red and given a thick, glossy coat of varnish. The case itself is made from sheet steel, painted black below and red on top, with the control panel printed in black, grey and white. To the right of the panel is a list of hidden functions including system, MIDI and sound options. Along the left rear edge are labels corresponding to the connections on the back.

There are only two types of control on the front of the Electro 3. The first is a rubber-coated knob operating a pot (rather than an encoder). There are ten of these, and they have a smooth action with a fair amount of resistance. The second type of control is a small rectangular plastic push-button with a dimpled top. These buttons are variously coloured black or grey, with a single red one dedicated to storing settings. Most of the buttons are set horizontally but a few important ones are vertical to make them easy to locate. These buttons, like all the hardware, feel positive, heavy-duty and well made.

There is a plethora of LEDs, mostly red, set into the instrument’s control panel and fitted flush with the surface. These include a 3- and a 2-digit readout for identifying presets and sound variants, tiny round and triangular LEDs used as status indicators, a single green one to denote slow rotary speed and 9 “ladders” of 8 rectangular LEDs which show drawbar and tab settings for the various organ models. The control panel is a masterpiece of ergonomics and restraint.

panel
The control panel

The keybed is a slightly unusual one, unless you are familiar with Hammond organs or their imitators. The white keys have a “waterfall” profile, with a small radius between the playing surface and the vertical key front, and no protruding lip as found on most pianos. The black keys have a smoothly curved top. The overall key length is slightly shorter than on a piano, but the width is normal. This gives quite a firm but responsive feel to the keys, and I couldn’t work out why it felt familiar until I realised that my Hohner Pianet T, sadly stolen back in 1988, had a very similar key design and feel.

One thing which might seem strange is the lack of pitch-bend and modulation controls. The simple fact is that the majority of the instruments which the Electro emulates don’t feature pitch-bend or modulation as part of their playing technique, although I would argue that Mellotrons have a limited but often used pitch-bend facility and that tremolo or panning intensity could have been implemented as a modulation wheel, but Clavia have evidently decided that these features are not required. Oh, and the Electro doesn’t recognise pitch-bend or modulation data via MIDI either. Just thought I’d mention it.

The mains connector is, surprisingly, not the usual 3-pin IEC but a 2-pin “figure-8” usually associated with electric shavers or portable stereos. These are fairly easy to find, but don’t rely on being able to borrow one from a fellow band member. Better get a spare… The rear panel features 6.3mm (1/4”) sockets for stereo headphones, left/mono and right line out, sustain, rotor and control pedals, MIDI In and Out, USB (for sound management rather than MIDI) and a rather unnecessary 3.5mm (1/8”) “Monitor In” whose signal is routed solely to the headphone socket. Lastly, there is a large oblong pushbutton to turn the instrument on. Press it and the display shows the OS version for a few seconds, and then you are ready to play.

Back to basics

It’s probably best to think of the Electro 3 in terms of whatever you are using it for. You want a Hammond? You’ve got nine virtual drawbars, each operated by a pair of buttons, one for up, the other for down. Each pair of drawbuttons has a ladder of 8 LEDs which light up to show the drawbar setting. Some have criticised the Electro and its kin for not using real drawbars, but I find the buttons easy to use, and of course they jump to position instantly and are easily visible on a dark stage!

organ
The Organ control panel

Most functions are controlled by a single button, often in conjunction with a “Shift” button. In the case of the Hammond emulation, these include the three standard variations of Chorus and Vibrato, and percussion. Of course there is a rotary speaker simulator, complete with adjustable overdrive, and a button controlling the speed. Although there is only one set of virtual drawbars, they can be used to control either of two settings; either as instantly available presets, as a split keyboard or with the lower sound controlled by a second keyboard via MIDI.

Vox pop

There is also a model of a Vox Continental combo organ. In this case, seven drawbars adjust footages (the model is based on a dual-keyboard Super Continental) while the last two (displaying a single LED rather than a bar) control the amount of the Foundation (near-sine) and Reed (triangle) waveforms at the selected footages. Vibrato for the Vox is preset; either on or off, and there is no percussion available.

Italian cheese

Lastly on the organ front is a simulation of a Farfisa Compact Duo. The Farfisa used tab-stops for a variety of voices at selected footages, and on the Electro 3 this has been implemented by using the drawbar buttons as on and off switches for each stop, with a bar of either the top or bottom four LEDs showing its status. A very neat trick. Vibrato has four settings, fast and slow in each of two depths. Farfisa purists might be disappointed that there is no Tone Booster facility; however it is difficult to see how this could be implemented.

It’s piano time

Now you press the Piano button, and the LED ladders turn off. You can now select from six “Types” of instrument; “E Piano”, “Wurl”, “Clav/Hps”, “Samp Lib”, “Grand” and “Upright”. That’s right – “E Piano” means “Fender Rhodes”, and out of the box there are four very different ones, from a raunchy Mk I Suitcase to a ridiculously glassy and pingy Dyno. Some might like it, but I used the sound management software to delete it and replace it with a nice late-60s Sparkle-top.

piano
The Piano control panel

By contrast, there is only one “Wurl”, but it’s a very realistic one, and you can EQ it, use amp modelling and add effects to get anything from Richard Carpenter to Ray Charles. I could play it for hours (OK – I have played it for hours), and as a Wurly enthusiast I should point out that once you’ve played a real one, it takes something really special to live up to it.

The Clavinet offers pickup selection and tone filters just like a real D6, although purists might miss the damper slider – there just isn’t one. After cycling through all four pickup settings, you suddenly (incongruously) hit a harpsichord. A real, acoustic one, and so authentic you can practically smell the ancient wood, felt and leather.

Switch to “Samp Lib” (Sample Library) and you get the good, the bad and the plain unnecessary. Mellotron and Chamberlin strings, flutes, brass and choirs; yes please. Wheezy pump organs; not so sure. “Jump” and “Final Countdown” synths; no thanks. But it’s all a matter of taste – some poodle-haired moron will love those sounds, and they can easily be deleted and replaced with more Mellotron. Or an RMI Electra-Piano. You even have the option of adding velocity sensitivity, slow attack and one of three release times to any sample.

Piano. Ah yes. One of the main criticisms of the earlier Nord Electros was that the acoustic piano was not only an afterthought, but it sounded like one, a bit embarrassing on a keyboard that costs more than many dedicated stage pianos. Well, under “Grand”, we now have two impressive grand pianos, one big and mellow, the other more focussed and lean, plus a Yamaha CP-80 electric grand which, while not really my kind of thing, is very authentic and playable.

Just one “Upright”, but it’s a very nice one – very Beatles-ish. And of course you can download others if you like.

Cue FX…

There is an optional three-band equaliser with fixed bass and treble bands, plus controls for mid-range frequency and gain. I found this useful to add some extra “honk” to the Wurlitzer sound.

fx
The Effects control panel

Below the EQ are four sets of digital effects that can be used simultaneously in combination with any sound. The first offers tremolo, stereo panning, ring modulation, auto-wah or pedal wah. There is a knob for speed, but tremolo and pan depth are restricted to three preset levels. If an expression pedal is attached, it controls ring-mod depth or pedal wah. Next is phasing, flanging or chorus, again with a speed knob, and three preset levels for each effect. Amp simulation is next, offering “small speaker”, “JC” (Japanese solid-state amp popular with Fender Rhodes players), “Twin” (American valve amp popular with Fender Rhodes players), “Rotary” (mostly for use with organ sounds) and a handy compressor. A knob adjusts drive/distortion/compression. Lastly, there is a digital reverb unit offering “Room”, “Stage soft”, “Stage”, “Hall soft” and “Hall”, with a knob to control direct/reverb balance.

All the way to the bank

You can store up to 128 user presets in banks called A and B. There is no way to “jump” between numbered presets; you can choose to scroll through all the A’s or B’s or to scroll through all the presets in the form 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B etc. For any numbered preset, however, there is the facility to switch instantly between banks A and B, so you could have, say, a Wurlitzer as 1A and a specific Hammond setting as 1B. And don’t forget that an organ preset actually consists of two separate settings, available as whole-keyboard sounds or as a split.

prog
The Program control panel

So you can have four organ sounds (each pair sharing the same organ model and effect settings), two organ sounds (both using the same model) and a piano/sample sound, or two piano/sample sounds for each preset number. That’s a bit of a bargain, and it can hugely reduce the amount of scrolling required. When you store a preset, it stores everything (apart from “System”, MIDI and “Sound” parameters), including features which are switched off. So your Wurly sound can have tremolo switched off as default, and when you switch it on it’ll appear at the correct speed and depth. Features not stored as part of a preset include “transpose”. But then again you probably wouldn’t expect the Nord to even have a transpose function. I mean – where’s the transposer on a Hammond?

In use

The user interface is initially quirky (this is from the country that gave us Saab cars, Gravadlax and IKEA, don’t forget), but pretty intuitive once you get used to it. If you’re expecting hi-res, full-colour touchscreens you’re in for a shock – a 3-digit LED readout is the nearest that the Electro offers. That kind of thing was last seen back in the 1980s, but it works, it’s easy to understand and, above all it encourages you to save presets in places that make sense to you.

The Shift button cuts down on the number of buttons required – it either activates alternative functions, accesses “hidden” features (permanently listed on the front panel) or reverses the order of buttons that select sequentially. One button which can’t be reversed is the Piano Type selector, but to go from any type to the previous one takes a maximum of five key presses. Fortunately the preset selector is allowed the luxury of dedicated buttons for up and down.

The virtual drawbars have been often singled out for criticism since they first appeared on the original Nord Electro, but they have stood the test of time and, let’s face it, they work fine for building organ sounds. It may not be quite as easy to tweak them into a “smile”, “frown” or ramp as real drawbars, but they are quick and easy to adjust, and if you overshoot, just press the opposite button to correct it. If you really feel you need drawbars, various third-party add-ons exist, including at least one designed specifically for Nord keyboards.

Verdict:

Well, if you like vintage keyboards, this thing has it all, albeit at a price. As long as you are happy with the concept of having a warehouse full of organs, electric pianos, Clavinets and Mellotrons in perfect playable condition but only being able to plug in and play one at a time, this is the best you can get. The sounds, if not flawless, are the best currently available in a single keyboard, and they give a strong flavour of playing the real instruments. For the first time I understood why a Vox Continental makes you play in a particular (and very non-Hammond-like) way. The Wurlitzer sound gives my playing an authority that I experienced when I was using a real 200 and which it lacked while I was using the (surprisingly good) Wurlitzer sound from a Casio WK-3000. It’s not just me – after a recent gig using the Nord, the keyboardist from the support band complimented me on my authentic Wurlitzer sound. I’ve never really got on with Clavinets, but having the wah-pedal facility available made me want to play 70’s funk all day. And so on. This is a completely addictive instrument and I would recommend it to anyone who can afford it.

Clavia Nord Electro 3 73

Price: approx. £1400 (US$2200)

Quality: *****
Versatility: *****
Ease of use: ****
Value for money: *****
Fun: *****

Alternatives:

Clavia Nord:

There is a 61-key version of the Nord Electro 3 available for a bit less money, and since it has octave-shift (plus or minus one or two octaves) available, it may not be as much of a limitation as you might imagine. Going upscale, Clavia make an Electro HP version with a hammer-action 73-note keyboard (E-E rather than F-F) and four performance presets for instant selection. This might be an option if you don’t feel that the organ-style keyboard suits your style of playing.

Far more expensive are the Nord Stage 2 models, with 88- or 76-note hammer-action keyboards and the Stage 2 Compact, with the same keyboard as the 73-key Electro 3. These not only allow piano and organ sounds to be used simultaneously in splits or layers but have a full-featured polysynth section as well. Oh, and they have a pitch-bend lever and a modulation wheel too.

Other manufacturers:
The other current contenders are Hammond-Suzuki’s 61-key SK-1, with Hammond, Vox and Farfisa models controlled by real drawbars, plus a wide range of other sounds including vintage electric pianos, and Korg’s SV-1, available with 88 or 73 keys and featuring a wide range of electric pianos, but only preset, non-editable organ sounds.

I’m getting a Nord Electro 3!

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

I’m very excited!

I will very shortly be getting a 73-key Nord Electro 3*. This will replace my Casio WK-3000, which in turn replaced a Wurlitzer 200 which sadly had to be retired due to its weight, age and the strange and non-musical noises that it made while warming up (the Wurly is owned jointly by my band, The Skanx, and hopefully we will continue to use it for songwriting, rehearsal and recording).

Although it was my sole keyboard when I joined the Skanx, I have been using the Casio exclusively for its Wurlitzer sound for about a year, along with the band’s Roland VK-7 drawbar organ and my Stylophone S1 (see review on this blog). The Casio WK-3000 and its newer relatives actually have a pretty good Wurly sound for the price, but the Nord will take it to a new level of authenticity.

When I joined The Skanx about four years ago, I made a deliberate choice to only use organ and Wurlitzer sounds. This gives our music a distinctive edge – many other ska and reggae bands use an acoustic piano sound. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Nord Electro leads me to try out its Vox or Farfisa sounds or if I reserve the non-Wurly sounds for my own musical projects.

Expect to see a full review of the Nord Electro 3 on this blog very soon!

*If you don’t know what a Nord Electro 3 is, it’s a modern digital keyboard containing functional models of Hammond, Vox and Farfisa organs, plus accurate multisamples of Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Yamaha electric pianos, Hohner Clavinet and Mellotron sounds. It’s made in Sweden. And it’s red.