Review: Nord Grand
Nord (www.nordkeyboards.com), based in Sweden, is one of the more polarizing brands of electronic keyboard instrument. Keyboard geeks tend to think of Nord products either as some of the finest stage pianos and synths in the world—or as pricey badges of hipster credibility whose standout feature is the red color by which all of their keyboards are known. The Nord Grand ($3,499) seems intended not so much to go for the swing voters in this election, as to bypass debate altogether by appealing to serious pianists. Its main selling point is its marriage of a Kawai hammer action to Nord’s best piano sounds. To make a long story short, I surprised myself by falling in love with the instrument, and believe that Nord has a real winner on its hands. To make a long story longer, keep reading.
The Nord Grand’s attire is not the fire-engine red of other Nord keyboards, but a darker, more dignified red, with subtle faux-cherrywood grain showing through a satin (not gloss) finish on its top surface and end cheeks.
The shape of the Nord Grand, with its superstructure rising above the keys, accommodates the dimensions of the hammer action inside. In my opinion, pictures don’t do justice to how elegant it all looks in person. The angled control panel directly above the keys makes ergonomic sense, especially if the piano sits at the bottom of a multi-keyboard setup—you’re not reaching over a slab to operate controls obscured by the keyboard above.
Given the Nord Grand’s primary purpose as a stage piano, it has no internal speakers. However, it sounds and feels so good that if you have a listening system such as a hi-fi or studio monitors to plug into, you should strongly consider using it as a home instrument. Nord also offers matching powered speakers to mount on the rear panel (see below).
At 46 pounds, the Nord Grand has some chonk by today’s standards, but it’s well-balanced enough to somehow not feel as heavy as its weight would suggest. For comparison, I found it easier to carry than the 44-pound Dexibell Vivo S9 I’ve just reviewed.
A three-pedal unit that supports half-pedaling is included with the Nord Grand, but oddly, a music rack is an optional accessory ($119).
Kawai is known for designing digital pianos with impeccable actions, and the Grand is the only Nord keyboard thus far to source its action from them instead of from European go-to vendor Fatar. Compared to, say, Nord’s Stage 3 or Piano 4, the Grand is a different beast. First of all, it has real hammers and a real escapement mechanism. Jiggle a key up and down and you can feel the hammer escaping, and the tactile feedback of its return to its rest position. The keytops have just the right amount of texturing. The Nord Grand doesn’t feel like a “weighted 88-key action”— it feels like a piano.
The bigger story is the action’s triple-sensor configuration. Many digital pianos have three sensors per key, the timing between sensor “hits” used by the sound engine to establish the keystroke’s loudness in a process called velocity sensitivity. In most digital pianos, the keys trigger the sensors directly. In the Nord Grand, the hammers trigger the sensor stack, which thus amounts to a virtual piano string. There could be no closer mirror of the chain of physical events comprising a keystroke on an acoustic piano, from finger motion to string vibration.
This makes a difference—and compared to every other weighted-action instrument currently in my studio, the difference is not subtle. Back at Keyboard magazine, we were fond of the term “finger-to-music connection.” That property of the Nord Grand is positively wonderful, whether I’m playing a grand-piano sound, a Rhodes electric piano, or anything else. The action is at once precise and forgiving, and seems to almost anticipate the harmonics I want from each note. When a key reaches the bottom of its travel, I get the uncanny sense that I’m causing a physical-acoustic event instead of merely triggering a digital sample.
Three velocity-response settings are provided: Light, Medium, and Heavy. Medium worked well for most of my applications, including fast runs. Light is very light, a bright tone jumping out in response to a feather touch, but not to be discounted for techniques such as machine-gun trills à la Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man.” My only criticism is that some classically trained pianists might find the Heavy setting not quite heavy enough—but in the same way they might think of a particular acoustic piano, not in an it’s-crap-because-it’s-digital way.
Aftertouch response (the digital-piano kind) is absent, and though it’s seldom used for the piano sounds that are the Nord Grand’s specialty, I think there’s a case to be made that any digital keyboard instrument costing $3,499 should have it.
This section is home to the Nord Grand’s acoustic-piano tones, as well as its electric pianos, Clavinets, and a few sundries such as harpsichords, mallets, and Yamaha DX7–inspired synthetic pianos. The White Grand and Royal Grand 3D tones are the stars here, the former a bit brighter and more midrange-forward, the latter more round and bassy. Both are gorgeous and immersive, working together with the action to create one of the most convincing illusions of playing a grand piano I’ve ever heard from anything that has to be plugged in. (I’ve spent a lot of time with the Yamaha AvantGrand pianos and will flag them as a clear step up from the Nord Grand, but the Yamahas are full-blown digital baby grands and uprights that are far more expensive, and are intended to remain in one place.)
Nord is tight-lipped about which source pianos they sample, but the sound of the Royal Grand 3D makes me wonder if Royal is a euphemism for Imperial, as in Bösendorfer. This sound was also recorded binaurally—i.e., with a Kunstkopf or dummy head with microphones inserted in its ear canals, to mimic the head-related transfer function (HRTF) of human ears on a human head. The illusion of space and depth is pronounced, especially through headphones. Unlike the usual headphone experience of the sound being in the center of your head, there’s a sense of a fully 3D soundstage.
Those two grand tones, as well as the Amber Upright (which reminds me of the upright pianos used on various Beatles recordings), are labeled XL on the display, indicating Nord’s largest sample size. XL samples feature a “fully mapped keyboard” (i.e., one sample per note, as opposed to pitch-shifting a sample across a small range of notes) and damper-pedal-down samples for the entire keyboard range, in addition to stereo sampling and multiple velocity layers. Large samples offer all of this except the fully mapped keyboard; Medium ones restrict the pedal-down samples to the middle range of the keyboard, where they’re most audible; and Small samples offer only the stereo and velocity attributes. You’ll find these last two in just about any decent digital piano, but Nord’s implementation of velocity is so good that, even with Small samples, you won’t hear “breaks” as the force of your keystrokes increases from very light to very strong.
This is all relevant because, via downloads from the online Nord Piano Library, you can change some or all of the sounds in the Grand’s 2GB of piano sample memory, and most of the sounds are available in multiple sample sizes. The idea is to go XL for the sounds that play your starring roles, then save memory by using smaller samples for the supporting cast.
All the electric pianos are good, but Nefertiti (a Rhodes) and Wurlitzer 2, both XL, are outstanding. I could go on about the qualities that make a Rhodes or Wurly sample good, and they’re all present here, but these sounds just have so much emotional range and attitude. The same goes for the Clavinet, whose four variants duplicate the pickup switches that adjusted the tone on the real instrument.
Some cool tone-sculpting tools are on hand. The Timbre button cycles through filters that make the sound brighter or softer. Two Dyno filters mimic the signature sonic sparkle of Dyno-My-Piano, a West Coast company that hot-rodded Rhodes pianos in the 1970s and ’80s. Another button engages sympathetic string resonance on acoustic-piano sounds, plus a Soft Release mode that lends notes just a bit more decay and is suited to legato playing. This button also toggles damper-pedal noise, which has different characters on acoustic-piano vs. electric-piano sounds. Nord’s attention to detail here is admirable.
Here and in the Sample Synth section (see below) are buttons that let you choose whether each section responds to the damper pedal, the volume pedal, or both. This is useful for when, say, you want to swell a background string section while playing a piano passage at constant volume. Most stage pianos bury this type of setting in a menu; kudos to Nord for making it so accessible.
Sample Synth Section
The Sample Synth section offers 235 sounds organized into 18 categories, and can be split or layered with the piano section or used on its own. Select categories with a pair of buttons, and scroll through their sounds with a knob. Nord’s approach is to give you a useful fistful of sounds from just about every common instrument type: section and solo strings, brass, woodwinds, choirs, electric and acoustic basses, synths, and more. Strings are particularly lush, and various synth sounds exhibit authentic vintage characters. There isn’t space here to go into detail about each category, but suffice it to say that nearly every sound is of high quality. The word density comes to mind—these samples are meaty, and definitely not spread too thin.
As on a synthesizer, an Attack knob determines whether, when you strike keys, notes speak crisply, softly, or take a while to fade in. The Decay/Release knob cleverly controls the notes’ behavior after that: At 12 o’clock, notes go silent the instant you release the keys. Turn the knob counterclockwise to shorten the decay time even when keys are held down, or clockwise to add a tail that’s still audible after release. Between these two knobs, I could quickly perfect a sound that was already almost what I needed at the moment. With the Dynamics button you set whether your finger velocity makes a sound louder, brighter, or both. I’d still like to see a brightness-filter knob in this section, but velocity control offers a lot of range within which to modulate the sounds’ character through playing.
The Sample Synth can also play sounds downloaded from the Nord Sample Library (which is distinct from the Nord Piano Library), allowing you to tailor this section to your needs.
Nord Sound Manager
Available for Mac OS and Windows, this utility (a free download from Nord’s website) lets you quickly transfer individual sounds or entire banks between the Nord Grand and your computer. You can also save your setups, and install sounds you’ve downloaded from Nord’s comprehensive Piano and Sample libraries. I’d like to see the app be able to connect to Nord’s servers directly; at this time, you still download sounds from the Nord site via a browser, then Nord Sound Manager gets them from your computer into the instrument. It’s fast and rock-solid stable, though.
Programs and Splits
In the center of the control panel is the LCD display and the Program section. On the Nord Grand, a Program is a snapshot of every setting in the instrument: which sounds are active in the Piano and/or Sample Synth sections, splits, effects settings, and more.
The Nord Grand can be split with either the piano section in the lower range and the synth section in the upper, or vice versa. Of course, you can octave-shift each section to create the desired note range. You get a choice of eight preset split points, from C3 to F6. At first it seemed weird that I couldn’t just set whatever split point I wanted, but the payoff is that LEDs just above the keys indicate the current split point. That way, enthusiastic hands will never play, oh, a double-bass clunker where a piano note was expected. For even more flexibility, a Split Width setting creates a zone either 6 or 12 keys wide in which one section’s sound fades out as the other fades in. Nice!
The way Programs are chosen is unorthodox. Programs are organized into eight banks (A–H), with another eight (I–P) in which to store more. Each bank houses 25 Programs, which you can scroll through with a knob. Because Program numbers use only use digits 1–5 in the ones and tens places, the first Program is A11. After A15, the display jumps to A21; after A25, it jumps to A31; and so on, until you get to A55—the next Program is B11. This arrangement is intended to let you choose from a subset of five programs using the five buttons below the display. These buttons alternately work as a numeric keypad, letting you directly access sounds by punching in numbers 11–55—my preferred method, because once you’ve memorized the numbers of a few of your favorite Programs, it’s way faster than scrolling to the one you want.
Then there’s Live Mode. This saves any alterations to the sound (e.g., button presses, knob twists) to one of five memory locations, recallable by the five Program buttons. Exit Live Mode, call up any Program, and the changes you made to your Live Mode Program will still be there when you return to it. The point is that if you casually hit on a combination of sound and effects you like, it won’t be lost to posterity because you forgot to use the Store button. Of course, you can use the Store button to save Live Mode results as “regular” Programs.
A small caveat: Some Programs use the same names as their counterpart sounds in the Piano section. For example, the White Grand Program uses the White Grand sound, but the two are not the same thing. I mention this only because it’s fairly easy to be browsing sounds in the Piano or Sample Synth section and grab the main Program knob by mistake, thereby switching Programs and losing your changes.
The Nord Grand’s stellar action will make some people want to use it as a master MIDI controller. In this respect it’s just a simple slab of keys, albeit a nice one. It transmits on one MIDI channel at a time, and has no settings for controlling external zones. The knobs transmit MIDI continuous controller data but aren’t programmable. None of that is a deal-breaker if you’re controlling modern music-production software, all of which can handle these duties and more on the receiving end. The bigger limitation to the Nord Grand’s use as a controller is its lack of a pitch-bender and modulation wheel.
The Nord Grand’s effects sound fabulous and check all the right boxes. Two insert effects can function simultaneously. One covers auto-panning (sound moving back and forth between stereo speakers), tremolo, wah-wah, and the clangorous ring modulation that every keyboard maker seems to include and no one actually likes. The other comprises phasers, flanger, chorus, and vibrato—all essentials for making electric-piano parts sound like the record when you’re covering classic tunes. (For example, a slow phaser on a Rhodes was a silky signature of Steely Dan and “yacht rock” in general.)
The three-band EQ with sweepable midrange band is great for tuning your overall sound to a room’s acoustics, and the delay sounds as if purpose-built for call-and-answer “echo canyon” effects. Importantly, it has tap tempo, meaning you can tap a button to the beat of your music to adjust the delay’s timing. However, the delay doesn’t sync to external tempo sources such as a MIDI clock.
My favorite effect might be the Amp Simulator and Compressor, which includes models of Fender Twin and Roland Jazz Chorus amps, both of which amplified Rhodes and Wurly pianos on many famous rock and soul recordings. The emulations are mostly spot on, though the Drive (overdrive/distortion) knob sounds best at its low to medium settings. Higher settings get buzzy in a way that’s not true to the original amps.
Note that you can apply any of the above effects blocks to either the Piano or Sample Synth sections, and while you can have different effects on each section, you can’t have the same effect on both sections at once.
The lush reverb has Hall, Stage, and Room options, and does affect the Piano and Sample Synth sections together, with one exception: A routing option in the system menu sends the Piano section out the left output and the Sample Synth out the right output, each in mono. But when I tried this, I heard reverb only on the Piano section.
Nord Piano Monitor
This pair of two-way powered speakers ($799) makes the Nord Grand a viable option for home digital-piano seekers who care about appearance and might prefer not to run cables from the Grand to a listening system some distance away. Using the included brackets, the speakers mount directly on the rear panel. Nord’s website claims that they’re “exclusively engineered for optimal reproduction” of the Grand’s sounds. We haven’t tested them, but can tell you that they feature a 4.5″ woofer, a ¾” tweeter, and 80 watts of power per side—which seems beefy enough. For more bass, an RCA output jack can feed a powered subwoofer.
The Nord Grand is an incredibly fine and well-executed stage piano, and I’ve developed the sort of emotional connection to it that world-class pianists talk about with regard to a particular favorite instrument played in a particular concert hall. Once I start playing it, I keep playing instead of finishing important tasks (such as this review—just ask the editor). The next thing I know, three hours have slipped away. Again, it’s how the feel of the action and the sound interact that makes the Nord Grand so special. I’ve actually come up with new musical ideas I might not have otherwise, because this keeps me inspired and exploring—and I’m as jaded about keyboards as Michael Bauer must be about restaurants.
That said, the Nord Grand lacks certain features that potential buyers of home and stage pianos might expect, especially from a $3,499 instrument. For the home market, the most glaring omission is any kind of song recorder, as piano learners often rely on these to evaluate their progress. Also, there are no drum rhythms or auto-accompaniment with which to play along. Pros, on the other hand, might lament that the Nord Grand can do a maximum of only one Piano-section sound and one Sample Synth sound at a time—there’s no way to create more complex setups simultaneously involving more sounds. Nor can you layer two sounds from the same section. By contrast, many stage pianos offer 8- or even 16-part capability.
All of this is consistent with the Nord Grand’s purpose: It’s a specialist. It does only what it does, but it does that with jaw-dropping excellence. If you’re a piano purist, you could put the Nord Grand in your living room, play only its best acoustic-piano Programs, ignore its other functions, and be delighted for years to come. If you’re a professional with piano-centric gigs and/or other gear to meet your other sonic needs, the Nord Grand covers all your acoustic- and electric-piano bases—plus a few others—at a Rolls-Royce level of luxury and performance.
Stephen Fortner’s video of his Nord Grand review is coming. Please check back later.
Product Description and Specs for the Nord Grand can be found at: www.nordkeyboards.com/products/nord-grand
User’s Guide and other support manuals can be found at: www.nordkeyboards.com/downloads/downloads-nord-grand
Stephen Fortner, former editor-in-chief of Keyboard magazine, is now an editor and associate publisher of Music Player Network, the world’s leading online community for musicians. He is also the proprietor of Fortner Media, a content and consulting firm for the musical-instrument industry.