Nord Stage 2 – Review after 6 years of use

You’ll find lots of in-depth reviews online about the Nord Stage 2 which discuss the usual things you would expect a review to discuss, such as features, specifications, sounds etc. However in this review I’ve taken a different angle and I’m focusing more on how the keyboard has stood up to live performing over the years.

So here’s my take on how the Nord Stage 2 has stood up to the blood sweat and tears of performing each night at live gigs for the last 6 years and how well it has survived a battered life “on the road”.

The first thing I feel is important to say about the Nord Stage 2 is that it still sounds as fabulous as it did the day it left the factory.

Whether you personally like the pianos, organs, samples, and synth sounds of the Nord Stage 2 is completely open for debate and is purely down to personal taste. I know many musicians who love Nord sounds and just as many who don’t so when I say it still sounds as good as the day it was new, what I really mean is the quality of the DAC’s (digital to analogue converters) are of such high quality that the depth and definition of every sound that comes out of this keyboard is absolutely top notch. So whether you personally like Nord sounds or not, the audio quality of sound it puts out cannot be argued with. Hope that makes sense. And this keyboard has not degraded in any way sonically in the 6 years I have gigged it. Full marks to Nord on this. 

It’s not a perfect keyboard by any means (no keyboard is). The Nord Stage 2’s achilles heel has always been its inability to multi-sample and this has certainly caused me a few problems at gigs. Having to play sound samples which feel as though there are only two dynamics to their volume – half volume or full volume – can be very frustrating. If I’m playing a classic synthesizer type sample, this restriction on touch-sensitivity isn’t really the end of the world, I can get by. But try playing, say, a solo saxophone sample, and you quickly realise that the pressure you hit the keys with makes little difference to the sound, meaning all the nuances that you would normally want and expect from touch-sensitivity in a sound like this are just not there on the Nord. 

There are a couple of workarounds for this, the best one probably being able to use the ADSR to open up the filter the harder you hit a key. But at the end of the day it is pretty much what it is…just a workaround rather than a proper solution to the problem. I’m surprised Nord haven’t addressed this issue given the number of years they’ve been producing Nord Stages. I do realise that a lot more sample memory is required for multi-sampling but if cheaper mid-priced keyboards like the Yamaha MODX can multi-sample and come with a big chunk of in-built memory to handle it all, there’s really no excuse for a Nord Stage (at twice the price) not to being able to do this. Just my tuppence worth. 

Conversely, and on a more positive note (pun intended), if you are a live musician who plays keyboards live on stage at busy/noisy gigs every night, you’ll probably find yourself thrashing everything out at full volume by the end of the night anyway, just to cut through the rest of the band. In cases like these, any little touch-sensitive nuances in a performance are often lost when the gig reaches this kind of fever pitch. Let’s face facts, guitarists and drummers very rarely become quieter and more disciplined as a live gig progresses (yikes!) so in this type of gig environment the touch-sensitivity of samples (or rather, lack of) on the Nord becomes less noticeable and less of a problem. Apologies if you’re a drummer or a guitarist reading this by the way!

Moving on to the build quality and robustness of the Nord Stage 2, it’s pretty much everything you expect a high end keyboard to be. Of course, it should be no surprise to anyone that in 6 years of constantly lugging the Nord in and out of the van and on and off stages, it has obviously suffered a few dents, dings, and scratches here and there. I’ve also dropped it a couple of times too (hey, it happens no matter how careful you try to be) but the important takeaway from all of this is that it has still held together incredibly well. The output jacks and pedal sustain jacks are still nice and tight after all these years with no crackling or looseness which is a testament to the build quality of this machine. All the buttons and dials still work perfectly. I’ll also give a quick shoutout to the Nord official gig bag. All the zips still work perfectly and there are no rips or tears. Now that’s quite amazing given that every other keyboard bag I have had for that length of time has fallen to bits after just a few short years of hard use. Not so the Nord gig bag. Nice.

The only fault the Nord Stage 2 has developed recently is one of the notes on the keyboard has started to play at full volume no matter how hard or soft you press it. This is a very common problem with keyboards and has happened to just about every keyboard I’ve ever owned after a while, not just the Nord Stage 2. You see there are sensors underneath the key bed which detect how hard (well, technichally how quickly) you hit the keys so that the keyboard knows the level of expressiveness to give you for those notes. These sensors are typically made of rubber and, well, they just wear out with use. This is perfectly normal and totally understandable after the 6 years of gigging this keyboard has had to endure so I don’t view this as a negative aspect to the Nord Stage 2 in any way. It’s just part of life. I’ll get it in to the repair shop soon and I’m sure the engineer will replace the pressure pads on it in no time at all (and I don’t expect it to be a particularly expensive fix either, so all is well). EDIT – it has now been repaired, cost was £75 which I reckon was pretty reasonable considering the work involved and the cost of the spare parts.

In the meantime, while my Nord Stage 2 is out of action, I’ve replaced it with a newer Roland FA07. I’ll probably write a full review of the Roland FA07 at a later date after I’ve given it a right good “gigging” but initial indications are that it’s doing a surprisingly admirable job of standing in for my poorly Nord Stage 2. OK, so immediately I can tell that the FA07 doesn’t have the same depth and definition of sound as the Nord Stage 2 and the buttons on the Roland FA07 are a bit plasticky so I doubt very much they’ll stand up to much more than a year or two of heavy gigging. However please don’t read too much in to that last sentence above as it’s really unfair to compare these two keyboards. The Nord Stage 2 and the Roland FA07 are completely different in almost every way. For starters, the Roland is more than half the price of the Nord so any attempts to try and do a Nord Stage 2 vs Roland FA07 shoot-out would just be unfair.

This also means that while the Roland FA07 has replaced the Nord Stage 2 in my set up for now, how long it occupies the Nords hallowed space in my live rig is anyones guess. In saying that, I’m already starting to utilise the 16 part multitimbral capabilities of the FA07 to create some interesting keyboard layers and splits that were not possible with the Nord. The FA07’s 16 track sequencer and sample pads are also proving to be quite useful for a few different live performance things I’m currently dabbling with (the Nord Stage 2 isn’t multi-timbral and doesn’t have a sequencer or sample pads). I’m also finding the vocoder on the FA07 quite handy too. I used to have to carry a separate vocoder with the Nord Stage 2 as it doesn’t have one.

So there you have it. The Roland FA07 can do many things the Nord Stage 2 can’t do (and vice-versa of course). Let’s wait and see how things pan out. The Roland FA07 is such a different keyboard that it may just change my workflow on stage at live gigs enough to earn it a prime place in my set up. Who knows.

Of course one of the thoughts that you may have guessed went through my head when I took the Nord Stage 2 out of my live rig was whether I should buy a Nord Stage 3 to replace it.

I did toy with that idea but upon demo-ing the Nord Stage 3 I had to dismiss it as a definite no. Here’s why.

As a solo keyboard player who doesn’t play in a band, when I’m on stage I need a keyboard that allows me to be able to quickly call up any sound/patch at any time. Most times I only have a split second to find a sound/patch, therefore I need a keyboard which allows me to access to any sound/patch in it using a maximum of two button presses. Keyboard players who do live gigs, especially solo keyboard players, will know exactly what I’m talking about here.

The Nord Stage 2 is fine for this. It has 4 buttons for banks and 5 buttons for user programs on the front panel so with no more than two button pushes, I have access to 20 sounds/patches. I’ve also further expanded on this by utilising the “pages” buttons on the Nord Stage 2 so that I can have, in effect, 20 ‘bread n’ butter’ sounds/patches on one page, 20 ‘synthy’ sounds/patches on another page, 20 ‘country music’ sounds/patches on another page, 20 ‘rock’ sounds/patches on another page…you get the idea.

But the problem with the newer Nord Stage 3 is that they have done away with all of this and now use a song list/set list type system to call up sounds/patches.

Without getting too much in to the whole nitty gritty of it all, the Nord Stage 3 basically restricts you to just 5 buttons which, in the musical world I inhabit, translates to me only having 5 sounds/patches at my finger tips that I can call up in an instant (to get more sounds/patches I would have to scroll to another page using a dial wheel which is just not precise enough for quick changes when playing live solo).

So for me – and I emphasise this is just for me, you may differ – this patch/sound selection system is just not quick enough for the type of solo live work I do.

I’m well aware that most live musicians are not one-man-band type solo keyboard players like me so if you play in a band you probably already use set lists in your performance. Before you start a song you probably already know exactly which 5 sounds you intend to use in that song so 5 buttons is fine for you. This is probably the case for the majority of keyboard players out there so having 5 sounds at the the press of one button on the front panel will probably be more than enough for you. Nords new song list/set list way of calling up sounds/patches will suit you just fine and dandy, but sadly this just doesn’t work for me due to the kinda unique way I have to play live.

So there you have it. My poor old Nord Stage 2 has probably seen it’s best days and even after I get it repaired I may well end up retiring it from gigging all together. In my experience, when you start to have problems with a heavily gigged keyboard – especially one which is a few years old – it’s only a matter of time before other things start to go wrong with it too so it may be best to quit while I’m ahead.

But don’t think for one moment that this means the Nord Stage 2 is ready for the scrap heap any time soon. Oh no, the trusty Nord Stage 2 is a keeper, no question about that. As I said at the beginning of this article, as far as sound quality goes, the Nord Stage 2 sounds every bit as good as the day I bought it and it will still sound as good, if not better, than most modern keyboards 10 years from now. Just as a Minimoog still sounds as good today as it did in 1971 and can still stand shoulder to shoulder with all the newer analogue synths of today, the Nord Stage 2 will still stand with its head held high against it’s modern, newer rivals for many years to come.

You see, with the Nord Stage 2 it’s all down to the high quality DAC’s. These give the Nord Stage 2 a depth and definition of sound that you will only ever hear on high end instruments. Cheaper, lesser quality keyboards/synths may sit better in a ‘mix’ when you’re recording them in the studio, but when you play them at a live gig scenario they sound thin and weedy compared to high end instruments like the Nord Stage 2 which can cut right through a loud band. It’s what separates the men from the boys as they say.

If I do decide to completely retire the Nord Stage 2 from my live rig, then it’ll only be because I’ve gigged the life out of the poor thing and the most respectable thing I can do for it now is to save it from any more on-the-road abuse and preserve it for the future.

Because rest assured, it does have a future.

When I’m asked to do certain types of gigs or when I’m asked to go in to the recording studio to do certain types of sessions, the trusty old Nord Stage 2 will still be one of the keyboards I take with me.

And I don’t expect that to change for a good few years yet.