The OSC Toy-Box - Nord Electro 2 (Sixty One)
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
The "OSC Toy-box" articles look at some of the instruments and equipment I use when making my own music. My ethos regards equipment is always to avoid getting the latest product, or whatever is fashionable at any given time. Instead, aim to get something that's more of a long term investment and/or a little bit quirky and unusual. Learn this equipment like the back of your hand and really exploit its every potential.
Whatever you do, don't break the bank or get in to debt. You can make very cool music that's distinctive and uniquely your own sound without spending a fortune on the latest hardware or software. As you read these article, please remember, this collection of instruments and equipment has been amassed over the course of 15+ years, and wherever possible, I've avoided paying full retail prices, instead opting for second hand, ex-demo, or in some cases even rescuing from the trash!
Nord Electro 2 - Sixty One
This is the 61 note variant of the Nord Electro 2 (there was also a 73 note variant). I bought this in 2006 (or 2007, I forget!). I was working in several function bands at the time playing lots of 1960s and 1970s Soul and R'n'B covers and therefore needed a keyboard that was easy to transport and could handle authentic organ and electric-piano sounds. This fit the bill perfectly. Rather than get the 73 note variant, I opted for the smaller size and (with the money saved) bought a custom made flight-case for it, to keep it in good condition.
Having recently graduated from university, I had a job, but was still living with my parents, and so I had spare, disposable income. I'd never owned a really good, professional grade keyboard before, so I treated myself. I knew when I bought it that it would be an instrument-for-life, and it is just that. I've never regretted buying it, play it regularly and can't imagine not owning it. I've yet to come across more authentic sounding electric-pianos, clavichords or Hammond organs on anything other than Nord's more recent keyboards.
It was the first time I'd owned a 61 note keyboard. This presented new challenges to me, as being pianist I was used to exploiting all 88 keys in order to achieve musical expression. Not being able to play in the upper and lower registers meant I had to relearn how to achieve certain forms of expression. Firstly, it massively improved my chord voicing as I was forced into expression with nuanced chordal work, as opposed to noodling around melodic phrases. Furthermore, this led me to better understanding how to make use of delicacy, space and dynamic range in my soloing and improvisation.
This experience was a major contributing factor to my belief that if you really want to become good on your instrument, strip it down to bare essentials. Take for example a drumming street busker who can play the most amazing things using just a kick, snare and hi-hat; no cymbals and no toms. This is like the keyboard equivalent; it's simplified and focused. Playing the Nord Electro 2 requires a disciplined approached and if I can fully express myself musically on this, then my 88-note piano playing will improve significantly also (which it did!).
How it Works
The Electro 2 blends multi-layered samples with analogue modelling synthesis and amplifier emulation to generate very authentic reproductions of classic electro-mechanical keyboard instruments such as Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer A200, Yamaha CP70, Hohner D6 Clavichord and Hammond B4 Organ. It's cleverly nuanced in so much as you can play the same note repeatedly and it somehow doesn't feel like you're just re-triggering the same sample each time. It responds and rewards play like an actual electro-mechanical instrument does.
In its day, this was Nord's flagship electric-piano emulator. It's entire design aesthetic is geared towards the simplicity of old fashioned electro-mechanical keyboard instruments (think the two-knob control panel on the Fender Rhodes or the few rocker switches on the Hohner D6 Clav). Very simple, yet very effective.
It has organ controls on the left and electric-piano effects on the right. The "Modulations" (Tremolo, Auto-Pan, Ring-Modulation, and 3x Wah variants) are rich in character and you can only choose one from the options available. The "Effects" (2x Flangers, 2x Phasers, 2x Chorus) are equally as lush and like the "Modulations", you can only choose one. My personal favourites are to use Tremolo and Chorus 2. There is also a warm distortion and a High/Low EQ.
The rotary cabinet emulation (Leslie Rotary Speaker - if you don't know, look them up, they're crazy-cool!) is useable with all sounds (not just Organ) and is tremendous. A little while after buying this keyboard, I bought an old Leslie speaker on eBay and used to run the Nord through it at gigs. It was enormous and heavy, making it difficult to transport so I sold it on, but honestly, I've never missed it. I learned that the Leslie emulation in the Nord is top notch and more than adequate. It's thick, rich, warm and has truly independent low and high frequency rotation, just like the real thing.
Overall, this simplistic approach to effect use (like so much of this instrument), keeps the player at the centre of focus. You have to choose one or two effects and really work with them, exploiting their every nuance of their tonal character with the way that you play.
Before they discontinued support there was the option to download updated/alternative sound-sets from Nord and swap out the stock sounds with updated variants. Mine are not the stock sounds and there’s no way back for me as I don’t have a Windows XP computer with the old Nord software. But I'm ok with this as the sounds truly are brilliant. It currently has two Fender Rhodes (a Mark 1 and Mark 2), a Wulitzer A200, Yamaha CP70, Hohner D6 Clavichord and a vintage sounding upright piano (slightly honky-tonk sounding) alongside the legendary Nord Hammond Organ audio-engine.
The semi-weighted, creamy-white waterfall keys make it a delight to play with Organ and Clavichord sounds, and the wooden end-cheeks give it a classy aesthetic. For the electric and acoustic piano sounds, I tend to these days MIDI-in to the Nord from my fully weighted piano-action MIDI controller (below the Nord in the above picture) as this gives me a little more touch control.
In recent years, I’ve used the vintage piano sound from this on "Reflection" from the EP Her and the Fender Rhodes Mark 2 sound on "Skateparks At Sunset". The Fender Rhodes and Hohner D6 feature heavily on the upcoming album.
To sum up, this instrument is truly an exercise in less-is-more. It forces you into a position of what I like to call positive minimalism. It forces you to up your game (in terms of playing) and the payoff is quite simply, improved musicianship.