Once upon a time, musicians sporting sideburns, large zodiac medallions on thick gold chains, and tight polyester jumpsuits grunted and heaved their monstrously heavy keyboards onto the world's stages. They begged and cajoled their temperamental behemoths to survive another gig without breaking tines, reeds, or Leslie motors. The mighty Hammond organ, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, and Hohner Clavinet were large, heavy, bulky, and often in need of maintenance. But the sound that emanated from them was glorious.
Clavia, manufacturer of the Nord series of virtual analog synthesizers, has responded to the thirst for vintage keyboard sounds by creating the Nord Electro. The Clavia Nord Electro is a virtual electromechanical instrument that simulates a Hammond B-3 organ, a Hohner Clavinet, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, and a Yamaha CP80 portable piano. There are no synthesizer sounds, and programming capabilities are limited to tweaking the effects and Hammond settings. The Electro is incredibly compact and lightweight, has a great keyboard action, and delivers credible simulations of several instruments.
The Clavia Nord Electro was designed to be highly portable (see Fig. 1). The 61- and 73-key versions are not much taller than the height of the key bed. (A rackmount version, the Electro Rack [$1,699], is slated to be released by the time you read this.) The case is the standard Nord fire-engine red, and the buttons, knobs, and distinct lack of an LCD are the same as on others in the Nord series. In a nod to its '70s progenitors, Clavia clad the sides of the Electro in red-stained wooden end blocks — a nice touch. The Electro has an internal power transformer as well as a two-prong power cord rather than the ubiquitous three-prong grounded IEC power cord that is found on most pro-audio and synth components.
The controls and displays are tightly grouped above the keys. In addition to ¼-inch stereo outs, a headphone jack, and MIDI In and Out, the rear panel sports jacks for an assignable control pedal, a Sustain switch, and a switch to change the simulated Leslie's rotor speed (see Fig. 2). When new instrument samples become available, the Electro's USB port will facilitate downloading them from Clavia's Web site. A second pair of outputs would have been most welcome, allowing the organ section to run into a Leslie and the piano section to run into an instrument amp.
I've never been wild about Nord's bright red look. It is distinctive and edgy, but it can distract from the performer during a gig. I wish Clavia would offer a black model with silver writing as an alternative; it would fit perfectly into a rig that includes vintage keyboards.
The front panel is a model of efficiently organized elegance, with dedicated knobs and buttons for every commonly used feature. On the left is the area for program storage and selection as well as system-setup functions. A two-digit LED display shows the preset and system values, but users would be better served with a small LCD. The octave-shift buttons, which let you transpose the pitch up or down three octaves, are especially useful on the 61-key Electro. To their right are the instrument controls.
The Clavia Nord Electro is conceptually grouped into two instrument sections: organ and piano. The organ is a physical model, and the pianos are Velocity-switched multisamples. You choose between the organ and piano sections using an instrument-select button.
The organ section features the most frequently used tone-shaping controls found on a Hammond B-3. Buttons are provided for percussion (On/Off, Second/Third Harmonic, and Standard, Soft, or Slow Decay), vibrato (simulations for the B-3's three levels of vibrato and three levels of chorus), and nine sets of drawbars.
The Electro's drawbar buttons substitute for the drawbars on a real Hammond organ; their tone-shaping ability is a critical aspect of B-3 performance practice. Each virtual drawbar represents one partial of the organ tone, letting the player change the sound markedly by moving drawbars on the fly. Each drawbar consists of an up and a down button and an eight-segment LED display for each partial.
The advantages of the Clavia Nord Electro's drawbars are that partial settings are instantly updated during program changes, and real drawbars stand a greater chance of eventually breaking. On the other hand, the drawbar buttons aren't as direct and immediate as real drawbars, and they will take some getting used to on the part of the seasoned Hammond player.
On the organ instrument, you can split the keyboard to simulate a Hammond's upper and lower manuals. The split point is fixed and allows enough room in the lower manual for left-hand chord comping or walking bass. As an alternative, you can plug another MIDI keyboard into the Electro to operate as the lower manual.
Although I applaud Clavia for assigning a separate control knob or button to each primary function, it missed the boat in one area: the positioning and size of the Leslie-simulation buttons. On a real Hammond, the Leslie Speed switch is on the organ's far-left side to permit a quick swipe of the left hand to change rotor speed. The Electro places the switch toward the right side of the front panel, and the button is no larger or easier to reach than the rest of the buttons on the instrument. However, you can control the speed with a footpedal by means of the rotary speed jack.
The piano section is straightforward and features a button that switches between the Rhodes Mark II Stage Piano, Wurlitzer 200A, Clavinet D6, Yamaha CP80 Electric Grand, acoustic grand (Ac.Grand), and Option (for future use) multisample sets. Additional presence controls in the piano section let you dial in a midrange bump or cut to shape the multisample's tone a bit.
ACTION AND PLAYABILITY
I am a snob when it comes to synth keyboard actions. I wondered how any manufacturer would handle an action that covers the needs of organ and electric-piano performance. Clavia has succeeded marvelously. The keyboard uses waterfall keys similar to those on real Hammonds; they have no lip, and the front edge reaches down into the key bed, unlike the keys on most synths. The action has a bit of bounce, weight, and stiffness, which is great for lightning-fast repetition of single notes, a technique common to Hammond playing.
The action is heavier than but certainly in the ballpark of a Clavinet's action. Although it's definitely lighter than the thuddy, sluggish feel of a Rhodes or the pianoesque action of a CP80 or Wurlie, the Electro's action is perfectly acceptable for idiomatically playing electric-piano sounds as well as organ.
For years I have owned and played all the instruments simulated by the Electro. I'm comparing the Electro directly with them, not with instruments that simulate the real thing. In that context, the Electro's sounds are a mixed bag, ranging from excellent to, well, not; in all fairness, though, I feel the same way about many other vintage keyboard simulations.
The Hammond model sounds wonderful. The tone partials are thick and fat, with a tremendous, tight low end and shimmering highs. Dialed-in drawbar settings sounded exactly as I expected them to; they behaved similarly to my real Hammonds. The percussion is good and usable for bringing out ripping lines over a band. The chorus and vibrato are okay — not dead-on, but good enough. The Leslie simulation is one of the best I've heard; it is musical and crystalline, and the changes in motor speed sound amazing.
The one glaring problem in the Electro's Hammond is the key-click simulation. It is a sharp, spiky, bright click at the beginning of each note that is like nothing I have heard in any Hammond. It sounds unmusical to my ears, and you can't defeat it or lower its volume. Fortunately, there is a work-around: keep the Leslie simulation on while using the Hammond model, and the lowpass filter in the simulation completely removes the key click. Clavia reports that a software patch that allows the user to defeat the key click should be available soon.
The Rhodes multisample is based on a Mark II Stage Piano. The samples and Velocity crossfading are great. The instrument is full and rich, though just a shade bright and bell-like for my taste. With a nice dynamic range, the sampled Rhodes really honks and bites when you dig in. Throw on a touch of the phaser or chorus effect and a little overdrive, and you're in business. This instrument is totally musical.
At first I didn't like the Wurlie, but it's growing on me. The tone is rich and smooth, but it just doesn't have quite the growly honk of my beloved 140B. Something is missing in the subtle dynamics of the instrument; perhaps it's a bit too clean and polite. The tremolo effect helps a lot, though, and the instrument sounds good.
The Clav is a disappointment. The sample Clavia chose is bright and fairly flat, without any of the ringy honk and beef that characterize the real thing. Clavia didn't capture the subtlety of the sound, the clangorous overtones, or the grittiness that make songs such as Stevie Wonder's “Superstition” and Billy Preston's “Outa-Space” classics. Running the Clav sound through a real wah-wah pedal helps, but a more nasal, midrangey sample set would be a great thing to add in an upgrade.
The CP70 and CP80 were Yamaha's “portable” electroacoustic pianos. Popular in the 1980s, those pianos used a small soundboard and electric pickups to create a metallic, biting sound with little low end. The Electro achieves a credible simulation. Throwing a little chorus on the instrument creates a pretty-sounding alternative to the Rhodes, making it useful for ballads.
As a bonus, Clavia includes one nonelectromechanical simulation: an acoustic grand piano. Acoustic pianos are difficult instruments to capture, and Clavia did not succeed in the Electro. The piano is thin and two-dimensional. Clavia would have done better to use the space for an alternate Clavinet sample set. I hope that the acoustic-piano set can be upgraded in the future through the Electro's USB port. (According to Clavia, that will be possible by the time you read this.)
The effects section is a serial chain of six effects stages, each with its own On/Off button and control knobs, making it simple to quickly dial in the right sound for your application. Effects include the aforementioned midrange presence control for the piano section, a Modulations stage with six amplitude- and filter-based effects, an Effects stage with six pitch-based effects, an Overdrive stage, the Rotary Speaker stage, and a final high- and low-shelf EQ stage.
The Modulations stage includes a tremolo that is essential for dialing in a convincing Wurlie sound, an autopan good for a Rhodes patch running in stereo, a ring modulator, and a decent wah managed by a control-voltage footpedal for the Clav. The Effects stage consists of two flangers, two phasers, and two choruses, all of which are appealing but not as good as high-end analog effects pedals. Similarly, the Overdrive stage is an okay distortion simulation, but a good overdrive pedal would sound better. The Rotary Speaker, however, is terrific. You can use it on the piano and organ sections, which is a great touch. Like other units in the Nord series, the Electro offers no reverb or delay effects.
Clavia has created an interesting product in the Nord Electro. The Hammond simulation is solid and credible, though the drawbar buttons take some getting used to. The sampled pianos are a mixed bag, but the size, weight, action, and built-in effects make the instrument a godsend to the gigging retro keyboardist.
Does the Electro sound exactly like the instruments it tries to simulate? Nope. Does it sound musical? Yes, for the most part. For gigging musicians who focus on vintage keyboard sounds, the practical convenience can't be beat. I have yet to find an instrument that can take the place of my beloved vintage instruments, but in a gig or rehearsal situation to which lugging the real thing is inconvenient or impossible, I would throw the Electro on top of a real Wurlie and know my bases are covered handily.
Nord Electro Specifications
Sound Enginephysical modelingPolyphony61-note or 73-note with internal keyboard; 146-note with additional external MIDI keyboardVirtual Drawbars(9) drawbars; (9) user drawbar settings; (9) preset drawbar settingsKeyboard Splitslower manual/upper manual; preset split pointEffectsswell; percussion (2nd, 3rd, loud, soft, slow, fast); chorus/vibrato; overdrive; rotary speaker simulation; organ morph
Sound Enginesample playbackPolyphony24-noteSimulationsClavinet D6, Wurlitzer 200A, Rhodes Mark II Stage Piano, Yamaha CP80 Electric Grand, Ac.Grand, OptionEffectspresence
Keyboard61-note or 73-note; Velocity-sensitiveDisplay2-character LEDGlobal Effectsoverdrive, EQ, chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, wah-wah, autowah, panning, ring modulationAudio Outputs(2) unbalanced ¼" TS; (1) ¼" stereo headphoneControl Inputs(1) assignable footpedal; (1) Sustain switch; (1) Rotary-Speed switchMIDI PortsIn, OutMemory48 RAM programsDimensions61-note: 35.8" (W) × 3.7" (H) × 11.6" (D); 73-note: 44.0" (W) × 3.7" (H) × 11.6" (D)Weight61-note: 17 lb.; 73-note: 20 lb.
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE5.0AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE3.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent Hammond, Rhodes, and Wurlitzer sounds. Compact and lightweight. Terrific keyboard action. Clear and comprehensive user interface. Convenient electromechanical keyboard simulator for gigging keyboardist.
CONS: Expensive. Thin Clavinet and piano sounds. Hammond key click is too loud and bright. Organ performance-button layout is too different from real Hammond.