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Nord Electro 3 Review

July 1, 2009
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FIG. 1:  The Nord Electro 3 is much lighter and more dependable than the vintage keyboards it replaces onstage. It looks similar to previous generations of the Electro, but some new surprises are hiding inside.

FIG. 1: The Nord Electro 3 is much lighter and more dependable than the vintage keyboards it replaces onstage. It looks similar to previous generations of the Electro, but some new surprises are hiding inside.

The Electro 3 is the next generation of Nord's electromechanical vintage keyboard-emulation instruments. The Electro 3 looks similar to the two previous incarnations of Electros, but according to Nord, it is completely redesigned internally. It is now an amalgamation of its own lineage, along with the best elements of other Nord keyboards, packaged in a simple-to-use, performance-oriented, monotimbral keyboard (see Fig. 1). The Electro 3 comes in two sizes: 61 keys ($1,899) and 73 keys ($2,199).

EM published my review of the original Electro in June 2002 (available at http://emusician.com/elecinstruments/emusic_clavia_nord_electro); this review will concentrate on new features and improvements. The Electro 3 has eight times as much RAM as the original — 256MB total — which means much more room for long piano samples. About 180 MB of that RAM is reserved for pianos, electric pianos and Clavinets, which now include all the piano libraries that were designed for the Nord Stage. About 80 MB is reserved for samples, which include sample libraries from the Nord Wave and user samples.

The Electro 3 is just as wonderfully lightweight and portable as its predecessors, and the semiweighted keyboard action is still superb for electric piano and organ playing. The audio and data connections are the same as on the Electro 2 (see the online specifications table), except for the addition of an ⅛-inch stereo input that passes audio unprocessed to the headphone outputs. This addition makes it easy and convenient to practice along with a portable MP3 player.

New and Improved

The Electro 3's integration of the Nord Stage's acoustic piano library is a massive improvement over the original Electro's thin acoustic piano. Any piano in the Stage's library can be downloaded and placed in the Electro for free. The Electro comes loaded with a couple close-miked Yamaha and Steinway grand pianos, but I replaced them with Nord's 50MB, ambient-miked, velocity-layered Steinway D. That sound is eminently playable, quite realistic and as good as one could ask for in a sampled acoustic piano. The Electro's semiweighted keyboard is not the best match for an acoustic piano simulation, but it is perfectly acceptable for the occasional piano tune on the gig.

The Electro 3's electric pianos sound just great, too, as they have in earlier Electros (see Web Clips 1, 2, 3 and 4). However, with so much RAM now available, I'd love to see a larger variety of electric piano and clavinet samples — perhaps a Wurlitzer 140B, a Clavinet E7 and a Hohner Pianet, as well.

The organ system is derived from Nord's C1 double-manual organ keyboard. To my ear, it is a significant upgrade from the first Electro's organ model (see Web Clip 5). Small details such as key click have been improved, and the overdrive effect works beautifully, allowing you to dial in enough grit to suit your taste. The rotary-speaker simulation is very good — better than the Hammond XK-3 digital organ's, in my opinion, but still no match for a real Leslie speaker. The simulation now includes a Stop mode to emulate the single-speed Leslie speakers preferred by many jazz musicians. Farfisa and Vox organ models supplement the thick, meaty Hammond tonewheel sound with thinner, transistorized classic organ sounds.

Sample Library and Editor

FIG. 2 You can add user-created samples to the Electro 3 with the included Nord Sample Editor.

FIG. 2 You can add user-created samples to the Electro 3 with the included Nord Sample Editor.

The Electro 3 delivers a subset of the Nord Wave's sample-playback capabilities, but it does not have the Wave's synthesis features. You can download the entire Nord Sample Library — available free of charge from Nord's Website — into the Electro 3. Plenty of Mellotron sounds are available, which will be of particular delight to the vintage keyboardist. Many of the most famous Mellotron sounds come loaded in the Electro 3's factory bank, including the well-known 3 Violins, boy's choir and, of course, the Mellotron flute (see Web Clips 6, 7 and 8). Additional samples available from the site include a large variety of acoustic strings, winds, brass, tuned percussion, accordion, guitars, pipe organs and synthesizers.

You can use the Electro 3's 80 MB of sample library RAM for your own samples, too. You can edit and upload user-created samples into the Electro 3 with the included Nord Sample Editor application (Mac/Win; see Fig. 2). Sample programmability is not as comprehensive as in the Nord Wave, but basic sample layout, looping, filtering and amplitude enveloping are available.

An Eye for Effects

For the Electro 3, Nord has added to the effects available on earlier Nord instruments. The previous 2-band equalizer has been replaced with a 3-band system, with shelving treble and bass, and a parametric midrange. The phasing, chorus, wah and tremolo effects are similar to previous incarnations, but the overdrive simulation has been replaced with a speaker emulator that models three different types of amps (a Fender Twin Reverb, a Roland Jazz Chorus and a “small” speaker), in addition to the Leslie rotary speaker.

The Electro 3 supplies a reverb effect, which was missing in prior generations. The five simple but effective reverb programs sound good and are well suited for gigging purposes. Each of the effects has a user-adjustable single parameter; you can change the modulation effects' rate, the speaker emulator's drive and the reverb's wet/dry mix. I would have liked a bit more control over the effects — reverb decay time, for example. The effects amount knobs that were present in the Electro 2 are missing from this model.

Department of Gripes

FIG. 3  In addition to MIDI In/Out and USB ports, the rear panel has two audio outputs, three control-pedal jacks and an input for routing an MP3 or CD player to the stereo headphone jack. The power connection uses an ungrounded two-prong cord.

FIG. 3 In addition to MIDI In/Out and USB ports, the rear panel has two audio outputs, three control-pedal jacks and an input for routing an MP3 or CD player to the stereo headphone jack. The power connection uses an ungrounded two-prong cord.

As an organist, I don't think I'll ever get used to using buttons instead of drawbars for the all-important function of changing organ timbre on the fly. Having a 3-digit numeric LED rather than a larger LCD means that you must memorize your patch locations. And though you can rapidly switch between organ patches by holding Shift while pressing the drawbar buttons, it would be great to generalize similar functionality to all patches so that your 18 favorite sounds are available at the touch of two buttons.

Gigs are inevitably chaotic, so I rely on standardization whenever possible to minimize risk. The Electro 3 uses the ungrounded IEC C7 power cord instead of the more familiar 3-prong IEC Type-C13 cord, so if the power cable goes missing, it might be more difficult to locate a replacement (see Fig. 3). Because the Electro 3 targets pro organists, a Leslie output would be a welcome addition.

Personally, I'm a firm believer in the instrument disappearing into the background so that the audience focuses on the performer. I know that Nord's red color is a trademark, but I would prefer a more subdued-looking instrument onstage.

Sum and Difference

For the vintage keyboardist who relies on a bevy of electromechanical sounds, the Electro 3 is a slam dunk. The sound quality is superb, and the comprehensive variety of instruments and ease of programming allow performers to tailor to their taste. The Electro's portability is second to none, making transport to the gig in a compact car a trivial matter. The reverb, piano and Mellotron libraries; improved organ model; and user-configurable sample playback are all terrific improvements.

Small quibbles aside, unless I were playing a straight jazz organ gig that required a two-manual instrument or a piano gig mandating an 88-note weighted keyboard, the Electro 3 would be the instrument I'd take to the job. Though no digital keyboard can ever be a perfect replacement for the originals, the Electro 3 has such an overwhelming number of advantages over carting my beloved warhorses around that there is no longer any contest. My vintage keyboards are staying in the recording studio from here on out.


Nick Peck is a composer/vintage keyboardist/recording engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can check out his music at underthebigtree.com.

ONLINE BONUS MATERIALS

Nord Electro 3 Specifications
Audio Outputs (2) unbalanced ¼" TS, (1) ¼" stereo headphones
Audio Input (1) 1/8" monitor in (routed to headphones)
Data I/O (1) MIDI In, (1) MIDI Out, (1) USB
Control Jacks (1) ¼" expression pedal, (1) ¼" sustain switch, (1) ¼" rotor on/off switch
Keyboard Velocity-sensitive, semiweighted, waterfall-style keys
Power internal transformer, IEC C7-type cord
Dimensions 61-key: 35.4" (W) × 3.9" (H) × 11.8" (D); 73-key: 44.1" (W) × 3.9" (H) × 11.9" (D)
Weight 61-key: 15.3 lbs.; 73-key: 18.2 lbs.

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