We’ve been big fans of the Nord Stage series since the first Stage Compact was released in 2005, and a huge number of bands have adopted them due to their reliability, portability, hands-on interface and flexible, multi-engined concept.
For this review, we’re taking a look at the NS3 Compact, which is the cheapest model in the NS3 range (there are also 76- and 88-note weighted versions).
Like the NS2 SW73 before it (and the original Stage Compact), the NS3 Compact features a semi-weighted 73-note waterfall keybed which straddles the massive range of sounds that the NS3 can produce brilliantly. It has just enough tension and precision for accurate piano and EP playing but it’s simultaneously light and precise for synth, clav and organ work too.
We prefer to play pianos and EPs from this waterfall keybed than synths, organs and clavs via a weighted keybed (but these weighted options are there if you prefer). This Compact model is also the lightest of the bunch at just 22lbs and the key range now runs from E to E, which is more practical than the F to F range of the outgoing model.
Like all Nords, build quality is tank-like. Switches have a reassuring click, dials turn positively and the new real drawbars feel tough enough to be worked aggressively. The addition of the drawbars is the first of the two biggest physical changes to the Compact model. For authentic Hammond playing, real drawbars are the business and they work great here (though we still dig the LED drawbars).
One caveat with real drawbars is that when you save a patch, the drawbars obviously don’t move to the stored position when recalling. However,
the new central OLED displays a handy drawbar graphic, and there’s a useful drawbar Live button which immediately sets the organ sound to the actual drawbar position.
Further to this, the killer B3 engine from Nord’s flagship C2D organ is now included and compared to my real 1958 B3, the raw tone sounds much more authentic than the outgoing model, with a much improved Leslie emulation too.
There are some small tweaks we’d love, including adding a menu option for rotary horn balance (like the Electro), a deeper more shimmery C3 vibrato/chorus, that the Leslie would collapse to mono better and more difference between the vintage modes... but as it stands, it still delivers the goods!
Any further authenticity tweaks to please us die-hard B3 heads (which Nord are working on currently) will be a bonus. There are now pipe organ emulations included too.
Next up, the piano section has been expanded with double the memory (so you can now have many more of Nord’s beautiful piano samples onboard) and while the new navigation system has done away with the quick buttons for each piano category (and replaced it with a dial to accommodate the bigger range of onboard piano slots), the OLED always keeps you fully updated, (clearly and concisely) so you never feel lost and the hands-on feel is still retained.
There are many other welcome additions onboard. The NS3 range now has four keyboard zones per-section instead of the previous three (so you can get more complex splits and layers happening). In addition, you can now cleverly crossfade between split points (so you don’t have to worry about abrupt sound changes). Also, there are now seamless sound transitions, (so no more cutting off sounds or effects when changing patches); these are all massive bonuses for playing live, allowing much smoother and more musical results. Finally, Song mode allows you to place live sounds into Song slots for immediate recall via the live patch buttons - this makes setlist planning and ordering much easier/slicker and using it is a breeze too. And let’s not forget Nord has added a footswitch socket for patch changing too.
Also, new in this section are handy piano filters which are direct EQ buttons for fast, on-the-fly EQ changes, plus polyphony has been increased from 60 to 120 notes; great for big chords and glissandos!
The next biggest change is the synth section which has been directly lifted from Nord’s Lead A1 synth. It sounds way better than the NS2 synth (ballsier, meatier and more real) and is more versatile and easy to use. There are preset configurations for quick set-up of sounds, plus there are new features unique to the NS3 including stacked superwaves and new FM implementations (and sample import which the A1 misses). Pitchbend range still maxes out at +/- 2 semitones and there’s still no poly-glide, but otherwise it’s improved on every level - the fact you are getting a fully-edged Lead A1 engine with aftertouch and user-sample import is a huge deal in itself.
Finally, the well-respected NS2 effects engine has also been improved and while there are no new stompbox effects onboard, the delay now has feedback filters (for EQ-ing delay tails) and the EQ section now has a filter mode with resonance and HP/LP modes. In addition, the reverb is now available per-panel too (with a bright mode) and there’s a new fast compressor mode (also per-panel).
To conclude, the already-brilliant Stage 2 series has been upgraded in all the right places, re-cementing its crown as the most intuitive, authentic-sounding, performance-orientated stage keyboard around. Notably, Nord always continues to improve and upgrade its boards over the long-term, so you can be sure the NS3 is a great long-term investment and that it will continue to mature like a fine wine. And a fine wine it certainly is!