As often happens on the interwebs, a recurring question pops up from time to time as people look to upgrade their gear or get into the worship/keyboard world and that question is “Should I get a Nord Stage?” or the related question “Is a Nord Stage really worth it?” Increasingly I am also seeing them on church stages or finding posts in my Facebook feed either celebrating or cursing their appearance at a church gig here or there. I am, of course, the happy owner of a Nord Stage 2 Compact which I bought for the purpose of playing in a church setting and so I thought I would share my reasons for doing so and generally to give my opinion about whether or not that is a good idea.
First, a bit of background. I have been playing in church services for 20 years now and have been involved in laptop-based set ups for a couple of years. I have owned several other keyboards from different manufacturers and played more so I feel like I have a decent grasp on the state of the market circa 2014. So all in all I hope you will find my position to at least be informed.
So what is it anyway?
For starters, it helps to describe what the Nord Stage is and is not. It is not a workstation. It is not a standalone analog synth. What it really intends to be is an awesome stage piano with some extra bells and whistles. Why is this distinction important? Well, the Nord stage finds itself in the same price bracket as the top tier workstations from the big three. As a result the Stage tends to be compared with the Kronos or its ilk but the features you would expect from a workstation (multitrack recording/sequencing, bazillions of patches, routable effects) are quite different from those of a typical stage piano (killer piano sound and action, portability, usability).
Why buy a stage piano for twice as much as the competition?
The pro stage piano price point is about $2,000 US. So if a Nord stage finds itself in the wrong price bracket then who is it for? There are really three (or maybe four) killer features on the Nord.
First, the piano samples in the Nord can be swapped out for others that Nord provides, and Nord regularly provides new samples for free. The piano and electric piano samples include sympathetic resonance, pedal release, half pedaling, and all the other advanced piano features you would expect in a stage piano. The end result is that you can have the best piano you want for any particular gig. Likewise the synth section allows for limited user sampling – again you can have whatever sounds you need.
Second, the up front user controls are second to none. If you need to change it there is a control available right on the panel. It is possible to set up splits and effects very quickly from the front panel which makes on the fly changes easy and fun. In this sense it is a lot of fun to play because all the settings are easy to get at.
Third, the stage provides an industry leading B3 organ sim which IMHO is one of the best out there (I prefer Hammond’s own as well as the Viscount sim) which helps cover a lot of gig territory. The Leslie sim isn’t anything to write home about but it is serviceable. That right there makes it a better value than other stage pianos (remember, stage piano is the product category!).
Fourth, the thing is small(er) than the competition. Especially compared to an 88 key workstation it is a lot easier to haul to gigs (Nord Stage 2 88 – 41 lbs, Yamaha CP-300 – 71 lbs, Korg Kronos X – 51 pounds).
You may have noticed that I didn’t count the synth section in there. Actually the synth section is one of my favorite parts of this keyboard but I have to admit it is rather limited. It can handle 80% of the usual worship duties (pads and leads for days) but if you’re into carbon-copying album parts or beat sync’d rhythmic parts you will find it wanting.
It’s not all roses and fairies…
What are the downsides? Well there are a few and with each passing year they become a bit more painful. For one, reverb and compression are global for all parts on outputs 1&2 (L/R). You can’t have a verb’d out pad and dry piano mixed to outputs 1&2. Bummer. Memory size is another biggie. The pianos sound great but the newer pianos take up increasingly larger shares of the memory forcing tough decisions about which ones to load in. In the synth section the inability to multisample means there is no sample layering when sampling in – one sample per note only. As noted above the Leslie sim does not hold up well to other modern sims. Many find that the weighted action is still rather light compared to the competition.
Should you buy it?
So who, in my opinion, is this synth for? I would have to say the target market is the intermediate/advanced keyboardist playing regularly and covering rock and roll/classic sounds. The piano alone would be worth it if it was priced at the normal stage piano price point (and you can get it that way if you want to). Throw in two of them (there are two fully functioning sides to the synth) and a market leading B3 sim, handy and capable synth section, and the build quality and I think it is worth the asking price. Advanced keyboardists will enjoy an awesome B3 and being able to pick their piano and Rhodes samples. Again, tweaking controls on the fly is both a joy and lifesaver. Sound quality is excellent. The synth section is quite handy and very versatile within its limitations. If your Sunday morning style follows a classic rock type format then this board would fit in great.
A strength can also be a weakness. Most beginners are going to find the controls up front to be intimidating rather than comforting simply because they don’t know what the knobs do. Keyboardists playing experimental or alternative styles will chafe at the limitations of the synth section and will spend a lot of money on keyboard functions (electric piano, B3) that they don’t need. If you are moving in the direction of multiple keys layers/sequenced parts (which seems to be the direction of popular worship music right now) then this board will frustrate you.
Who should definitely avoid a Nord Stage? If you are looking to use your hardware synth for music production beyond piano and B3 then it probably isn’t a great choice. If you would like your hardware synth to also be a control surface for Ableton or Mainstage then again a Nord Stage isn’t a great choice. If having complicated effects or arps is important (to cover album parts for example) then again – not a good choice.
My church is looking for a board, should I recommend a Nord Stage?
Worship leader – should you push for your church to buy one? The pressure is there – Awesome Megachapel for Christ (™) down the road has one! I think I can generally recommend, in terms of stewardship of funds or ease of use, that you choose something else. If what you want is a stage piano, you would be better served with a Yamaha CP or Kawai MP as far as ease of use for your volunteers. If your style is closely covering album sounds then a laptop based rig and appropriate controller are the way to go. If you need a backup for that rig again a cheaper investment is a lower cost stage piano, especially if you are only going to play it direct to FOH in emergencies. When might it be a good idea? If your style is more rock related or basic keys & pad then it might be a good choice, but a workstation might be too. If you are going to be leading from the keys then it might be a good choice.
A last word…
This brings us to the end – why did I buy one? Well, I hated lugging around 88 weighted keys and was looking for something lighter. At the same time I was getting pretty frustrated trying to find a convincing sampled piano in a hardware package. I was also toting an unreasonably heavy Hammond XK and I saw an opportunity to lighten my load and get a killer piano in the same package. I now have a 20 pound board that covers 95% of my worship needs. So, it works for me, but I can see why it’s not for everyone. The elephant in the room is this – the Nord Stage 2 is showing its age at 4 years now, and we can expect a new model in the next year (in my opinion). I think that Stage 2’s are still likely to fetch a good price on the used market but if you might die of Buyer’s Remorse then holding off for now is the way of wisdom. Please add your thoughts in the comments below. Until next time…