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The Future of Performance | Nord Stage 4 Keyboard

The Future of Performance | Nord Stage 4 Keyboard

Since its introduction in 2005, the Nord Stage series of performance keyboards has been an in-demand favorite of touring and studio keyboard players. Originally combining the synth side of the Nord Lead and the electro-mechanical instrument emulations of the Nord Electro, over the years the Stage has added massive sampling capability, expanded controllability and the ability to do complex layers and combinations of sounds. The Stage 4, debuting in February of 2023, is the result of six years of refinement and advancement since the previous version, the Nord Stage 3, was released in 2017. We took the opportunity to chat with Nord Product Specialist Staffan Lindroth to find out more about this powerful new version of the iconic touring keyboard.

The Nord Stage 3 was originally released in 2017. Can you give us some insight about the evolution of the Stage 4 design process?

Staffan Lindroth: The Nord Stage 3 was a big step forward for us when it was released, among other things introducing the “Seamless Transitions” functionality for the first time and featuring the larger OLED displays. It has proved a very successful instrument for us, with many appreciated features, and the user feedback has been very positive in general. Naturally, requests for features, changes or updates keep coming in from our very active user base, which we are very happy about. Several major updates were released along the course of the Stage 3 as well, adding both improvements and entirely new features. Sometimes these updates were in response to the feedback we received, but mostly they were based on our ongoing R&D work.

In between the Stage 3 and the Stage 4, we also developed and released the Nord Wave 2, featuring a new Synth engine, with new panel features and concepts which we developed even further with the Stage 4.

Speaking to the panel redesign, what were the basic tenets of what you were looking to accomplish with that? Were there specific problems you were trying to solve?

All of the previous Nord Stage generations have been based on the “Panel A and B” (or “Slot A and B”) concept—which provides two instances of each sound engine and the effects—on two independent panels. Most Nord users know this concept well, but to new users it could be a bit confusing as you might hear sounds being played which weren’t clearly visible on the panel. This was one of the things we wanted to improve on with the Stage 4.

The solution was to put all available sound engines on one single panel, with each instance (each “layer” of the Organ, Piano and Synth) instantly adjustable by means of a physical fader. This is coupled with an LED graph showing its volume level. The Layer buttons then let the user turn individual layers on or off, or focus each of them for editing. This concept is largely based on the Nord Wave 2, although we did update the LED fader graphs with more segments.

Another clear advantage with the new concept is the ability to have a different number of layers for each section (Organ, Piano, Synth). For instance, it made a lot of sense to include a third Synth/Sample layer, while it would clearly be less useful with a third Organ layer.

One design challenge for us, stemming from the decision to include complete and independent effects chains for each layer (except the two Organ layers, which share one chain of effects), was to provide an intuitive way of focusing and editing effects. The system we’ve ended up with seems to work very well, in that the effects can follow the focus of the layers, as buttons are being pressed in other areas of the panel, but still provide the ability to shift focus locally in the Effects area as well, which is quite convenient in some scenarios. 

How did you approach the Preset Library implementation?

The Preset Library was really made possible by the independent effects per layer. We’ve had preset libraries before, but mostly for the Synth section, and in those cases not including effects. The idea with the preset library is to provide a broad range of classic Organ registrations and classic Piano sounds, including their effects—in addition to the very large collection of Synth presets of different categories and genres. The Preset Library makes it a very quick task to set up a Program using different layered or split sounds, and since you can store your own presets to the library, it enables quick recall of the individual sounds that you use most often.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Layer Scene function?

One common use case, based on the Panel (or Slot) layout of previous Stage generations, was to switch between two different sound combinations within the same Program, perhaps for switching to a different Piano sound during the chorus of a song, or for going back and forth between Piano and Organ throughout a performance.

The Layer Scene functionality of the Nord Stage 4 recreates and adds to this by letting you define two distinct Layer/Section configurations. For each Scene, you can decide exactly which sounds should be turned on or off, which lets you either add additional sounds on the second scene or switch back and forth between two different sound combinations.

A useful addition is the ability to assign a pedal for switching between the scenes, which lets you add or change sounds during a specific run or section of a song, all hands-free.

One of the things that really jumps out on Stage 4 is how much you’ve expanded the Piano library. What new stuff do you think players will be excited to try out?

The Stage 4, of course, comes with the latest additions to the Piano Library within its factory bank. This includes the Felt and Pearl Upright pianos, and the White Grand, which is a Steinway Model B that’s full of character. What really takes these sounds further on the Stage 4 are the new Piano features and effects, as well as the ability to blend sounds.

Do you have any personal favorites?

A current favorite for a lot of us is the Felt Upright, which also works very well with the Bright Timbre setting. It’s an excellent starting point for contemporary, laid-back piano sounds.

Are there any fun stories from the sampling sessions?

One classic story from our sampling sessions would be about the Clavinet. Since the Clavinet is notorious for picking up electromagnetic interference, the sampling session took place on a remote island in the archipelago of Stockholm with no electricity! The recordings were done on a portable, battery-run system, and took place outdoors.

Can you tell us about how the Dynamic Compression works?

The idea with the Dynamic Compression is to do the job of a compressor effect, but in an idealized fashion, as a compressor will introduce certain (sometimes desired) artifacts and behaviors that color the sound. In this case, we achieve the compression by increasing the volume level of softer strokes within the Piano engine itself—with the amount dependent on the specific setting and the velocity being played. This keeps the dynamic range intact in terms of the timbre, but reduces the range in terms of level, which means that you can play within the soft range of a piano sound but still be clearly heard within a mix.

Let’s dig into the Synth section. The Stage 3 featured the Lead A1 Synth Engine, whereas this synth section runs off of the Nord Wave 2 engine, which you touched on a bit earlier. What’s that going to mean for players?

To begin with, there is a whole range of new oscillator waveforms and modes that were introduced with the Wave 2 which are also found on the Stage 4. This includes an enhanced selection of “super” waveforms, which provide a large number of slightly detuned oscillators; various shape configurations, letting you morph between different waveforms; new waveforms for sync setups, and revamped FM modes that are going to cover a lot more ground than those on the Stage 3.

Another area which has been greatly expanded would be the Arpeggiator, which now has modes for polyphonic arpeggios as well as a rhythmic gate mode. These, as well as the traditional arpeggios, can be coupled with the Pattern option using either one of the predefined patterns or user-created ones. When it comes to sound design, these options hugely expand the range of possible sounds and textures that can be created—especially considering that there are now three layers available for combining or splitting sounds.

Finally, the new sample format (version 4) includes both a greatly enhanced Unison mode, which can create very realistic ensemble/stereo versions of single instruments or mono sources, as well as round-robin functionality and “Tru-Vibrato,” which recreates a much more realistic vibrato for the various acoustic instruments.

One of the most noticeable changes on the Stage 4 series is that you’re now putting physical drawbars on all models. What was the thinking behind this?

This has been a common request from many of the musicians that we are in touch with, and now felt like the right time to go ahead with it. The fact that the LED indicators are there means that you will always know what sound is loaded when you recall a Program, and the physical drawbars, of course, provide the familiar hands-on experience that many keyboard players are accustomed to. So, it’s the best of both worlds.

You touched on this a bit earlier, but you’ve given the FX section a big upgrade. Can you talk about what that does for players, both from a sound-design perspective as well as a general-performance perspective?

The most important improvement are the independent effect chains per layer. Essentially, this means that you don’t have to consider what effects are used on other sounds when setting up your effects for a specific layer. For ease of use, we’ve included the option to group all effects per section, since it is a common use case to treat, for example, the entire Synth section as “one sound” despite being made up of three distinct Layers.

Within one Program on the Stage 4 there are six instances of each effect, excepting the Rotary Speaker, which is a “singleton” effect, accessed as a send effect for any Layer. The actual number of instances for each effect is, in fact, 12, since the Seamless functionality requires that everything on the panel exists in two instances. On the Stage 3, by comparison, there was one instance of each effect per Panel, which means that there were two instances per Program. So—a great leap forward indeed.

Outside of “wow, that’s a lot more effects”, which it is, what does having independent effects section per layer offer?

This system really expands the range of options greatly. Again, the whole preset library is based on the premise that effects can be included in presets for single Layers or Sections and be recalled without interfering with sounds that already exist within a program.

In terms of layering, one example of where this is useful is when combining dry and wet sounds on different layers. You can then use a second piano as an “effects layer,” introducing a different timbre, perhaps combined with one of the new, large reverb types and any number of other effects.

Pretty much all effects now come with a variation, some of them being obvious choices for us and, in some cases, being the result of trial and error, and experimentation. For the chorus, as an example, we opted to combine the previous 1 and 2 options into one effect, where the amount introduces an additional delay line. The variation in that case is an entirely new effect, which was modeled after a vintage pedal with more of a “vibrato” character. Other effects, like Auto-Pan, now come with an alternate waveform while others, like Flanger and Ensemble, which are new for the Stage series, effects, switch between mono and stereo versions. The general idea is to provide highly useful options that still are a distinctly different flavor from the original effect.

As you look over the FX section, are there any favorites? Maybe some that are more utilitarian versus others that might be a bit more inspiring?

A favorite, perhaps in the utilitarian category, is the hard-panning Auto-Pan variation. This was highly requested and allows for a lot of classic sounds. The entirely new Spring Reverb is another favorite. It’s very flexible since the Dark and Bright modes, coupled with the longer variation, give so many flavors of spring sounds, suitable for organ, electric pianos and synth sounds.

One must also mention the new Pump effect, which recreates the familiar side-chained compressor sound, and can be synced to the Master Clock or triggered manually with a pedal. This effect is likely to be used a lot and will surely become a favorite among a lot of users.

You talked a bit about the spring reverb, but do you think any of the effects are particularly well suited for specific sounds?

Yes, the mentioned spring reverb is certainly one such example—for a lot of classic, vintage sounds—but there are so many others. The Chorus variation works great as a stereo widener for a lot of Synth or Electric Piano sounds. The “Chorale” variation of the Cathedral reverb gets used a lot for atmospheric patches, and the reworked amp models, with variations, work really well with both electric pianos, certain organs and clavinet, among others.

Can you speak a little bit about all of the dedicated tactile control for the FX?

Like previous Stage generations, the Stage 4 features the familiar “morph” concept where the modulation wheel, a control pedal or aftertouch can be assigned to alter user-defined ranges of the panel controls. This is, of course, highly useful for effects, and the options are virtually limitless. To mention some of the new possibilities, the fact that the reverb effect now reaches a fully wet signal can be used very creatively, and the new Spin (rotating speaker) effect with its ramping behavior is well suited for morph control as well.

The triple-sensor keyboards seem to have gotten a bit of an update as far as the overall responsiveness.

We’ve been using triple-sensor keybeds on our Piano and Grand series for a while, and in our experience, as well as that of Nord users, these keybeds greatly enhance the realism of piano playing. The key has been to develop a good system for how to utilize the additional data provided by the extra “middle” sensor. Some applications are easy to test out for oneself, such as repeating notes without returning the key all the way up (keeping the “damper” lifted throughout), while other applications are more subtle and relate to exactly which velocities are generated, depending on the behaviors of the virtual hammers in our system.

The pedals have gotten a bit of an update, too.

The new pedals feature both an updated exterior design and continuous sensors for all pedals. This gives us excellent resolution for dynamic features, such as the Pedal Noise and half damping, and even allows for using the single Sustain Pedal 2 as a control pedal.

The Triple Pedal 2 has its own, dedicated connector on the rear panel, and its left and middle pedals can now be assigned to do a variety of things apart from their traditional Una Corda and Sostenuto functions. These options include program up and down, controlling the Pump effect, changing Layers, Scenes, Rotary control and more.

It’s important to mention that the previous generation of pedals is still compatible, and the classic Nord Triple Pedal 1 can also be used for the additional options that we’ve provided.

Speaking as a player, which features have you found to be the most helpful from a performance standpoint, and which features have you found to be the most inspiring?

In my case, the Auxiliary Keyboard function is a great addition when it comes to performing. This builds on the previous “Dual Keyboard” functionality, but with more flexibility. Any combination of Layers on the panel can be controlled from a secondary MIDI keyboard, which, for instance, lets me play three different synth sounds from the second keyboard, within the same Program. At the same time, I can use the Layer Scene functionality to alter between Organ and Piano playing on the Stage 4 keyboard. In terms of inspiration, I’d say all the options in the effects section, as they expand the range of available sounds so much.

Okay, final question. Any favorite sounds you’d recommend people check out?

A:31 The Long Dark Whl is a favorite of mine. It uses the Felt Upright combined with Noise oscillators in the Synth, mimicking both attack noise and low-end rumble. The wheel brings in an atmospheric piano layer and an inharmonic FM soundscape.

B:62 Rudiments is a nice example of the Pattern mode, combined with a polyphonic “chord repeating” arpeggio, which I find a lot of fun to play around with.

In closing, I would recommend that everyone should simply dive into the factory banks, both for Programs and Presets, and check out the sounds. Hopefully, a lot of them will inspire further tweaking and highlight the many possibilities and sound design tricks that are made available by all the new features of Stage 4.

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