Until now the only way to get a real Hammond sound was with a real Hammond - it's still the case, but now you can go solid-state. Malcolm Harrison and Tim Goodyer investigate the alternative to wheels and valves.
What '70s music revival would be complete without the dirty sound of Hammond drawbars? None - and Hammond's new XB2 is here to make this one easier on the roadie.
THE HAMMOND ORGAN was once the mainstay of the rock keyboard rig. Although originally designed and built for the American domestic market, "the" Hammond (usually a model B3 or C3) was unmistakable in both sound and stature. Such was its size that the usual practice was to cut it in half (horizontally) to give what became known as the "split" Hammond. The instrument's size and weight were a consequence of the technology behind its sound - a primitive collection of valves and discrete components built around a series of rotating tonewheels from which the waveforms for its drawbars (analogous to the stops of a pipe organ) were derived. There was no mistaking it and, at the time, no way of imitating it.
Inevitably, the advance of electronics meant that various solid-state pretenders to the Hammond crown appeared. Crumar's Organizers had a stab, but didn't get too close. Roland's VK1 got closer but not as close as Korg's BX3 and CX3. For the period preceding "popular" sampling these were the only alternatives.
The arrival of punk saw the Hammond losing ground fast as one of the trademarks of the rock dinosaurs punk sought to make extinct. But with the resurgence of interest in 70s styles and sounds the search is on once more for that sound. Roland's VK1000 and Voce's organ module bear witness to the renewed attempts of the copyists, but most remarkable of all is Hammond's own XB2.
Why didn't Hammond do it sooner? With the uniqueness of its drawbar sound it was inevitable that the daddy of organ companies would eventually enter the imitation stakes themselves; indeed, the company floated the idea some ten years ago. Having said that, I'm glad the company has waited until now, since it has at its disposal the latest technology with which to make this a truly special keyboard. (Hammond instruments now emanate from Suzuki, and are made in both the USA and Japan.) The first thing to interest me about the XB2 is that it isn't just a 61-note keyboard with nine drawbars. There's rather more to it than that - although not in the "all-singing, all-dancing" mould of many current keyboards and workstations. Here is a specialist instrument for the Hammond fan.
FIRST WE'D BETTER make a descriptive tour of the XB2. As already mentioned, the keyboard has 61 notes (C to C) with nine drawbars: 16', 5⅓', 8', 4', 2⅔', 2', 1⅗', 1⅓' and 1'. These drawbars, together with the effects, are placed to the left of the keys. Under the keyboard are 11 buttons and a display screen from where all the programming takes place. The instrument is housed in a tasteful wooden case which seeks to emulate the solid monsters of yesteryear. (It's also not unlike Korg's CX3.) It has no internal speakers so you'll need an amplification rig of some sort - or, of course, a genuine Leslie.
For those not au fait with drawbars, a little explanation is in order. Each drawbar corresponds to a particular harmonic pitch, and the further you pull the drawbar out, the louder that particular harmonic sounds. There are eight degrees of volume for each of the nine pitches, so by mixing them in various combinations, a wide variety of sounds is possible.
Incidentally, many of us take the drawbar sound for granted and dub all modern organ sounds as "drawbar", but try comparing the wide range of sounds produced by different companies: the Italian flutes epitomised by Elka have a subtly mellower character compared to those of Hammond or even fellow American, Lowrey.
Back to the XB2. This has been based on the old B3 warhorse, hence the sounds obtainable are those rounded tonewheel voices so typical of jazz in its many forms. However, you can also "re-voice" the instrument for a more mellow sound (based on a sine wave, and ideal for big band and swing numbers) or a Brite (sic) tone which is more suitable for emulating pipe organs. On some of the earlier digital models employing drawbars, there was a noticeable delay between moving the drawbar and hearing the new sound. The change now appears to be instantaneous, allowing you to hold chords or individual notes and manipulate the drawbar sounds at the same time.
But Hammond haven't been content to leave it here. For instance, you can add Second and/or Third Percussion Via two buttons under the drawbars. Their percussive effect is only heard when playing staccato; you have to release all the keys before it will retrigger. You may also want to split the keyboard and have different sounds for left and right hands. This can be done with the split being placed either one, two or three octaves up from the bottom.
Now, the number of combinations obtainable from drawbars is almost limitless, so Hammond have provided the XB2 with no less than 128 memories. From these, eight can be selected as presets which can be called up at the press of a button. A patch can contain a multitude of effects and settings as we'll see later.
The eight preset buttons also double up as programming aids, each having a menu of its own which is shown in the LCD. You step through the menus with ± buttons and a cursor; let's have a look at some of these hidden features. First of all there are three Vibrato and three Chorus effects. The Vibrato settings are Small, Wide and Full with four speed options: Slow, Normal, Mid and Fast. Vibrato Split allows you to have two different vibrato settings: one above and one below the split.
The effect of the drawbars can be altered by two additional effects: Attack and Sustain. Attack options are a fast attack or a slower initial build up. For the Sustain there are two settings: Short and Long, although even the Short is relatively long. This is selectable for upper or lower.
Perc Edit allows the Second and Third Percussions to be either prominent or much softer. The decay time can be set too - fast or slow. Perc Velocity allows the keyboard to become touch sensitive so that how hard you hit the keys affects how much percussion is heard - an interesting nuance to get to grips with.
The XB2 has its own Leslie simulator built in so that even playing through a "straight" amplifier or cabinet you can have that mechanical rotating speaker sound. Alternatively you can hook up the instrument to a real Leslie via the dedicated 11-pin socket. I used an old Leslie 310 but Hammond are planning to bring out a new model based on it, the 320.
On the original B3, limitations of the tonewheel system meant that very low and high flute partials doubled back when played at extreme ends of the keyboard. Hammond have included this feature, dubbing it Foldback. Another shortcoming that has become inextricably entwined with the Hammond sound over the years is the click of dirty key contacts. That is present here and can be set to Normal or Soft. The actual effect has been faithfully sampled from a pristine example of a B3 but to me it sounded a bit weak - like clattery keys rather than the initial "pop" I associate with the effect. Apparently the key click fault was somewhat random on the old B3 - so that's included here too.
"With the going rate for old Hammonds creeping higher and the old problems of the size and weight of the B3, you could almost call the XB2 a bargain."
Another essential element of the Hammond in rock was distortion. This is obtainable on the XB2 via the Overdrive setting, the amount of overdrive being controlled by the modulation wheel to the left of the keyboard. In a more modern vein, the XB2 offers four onboard reverb effects - Room, Live, Hall and Church. Despite the choice, these settings are somewhat "subtle" in operation. It's interesting to note that in the owner's manual where the reverb types are described, Church has the entry "Carlsbad Caverns".
WHEN IT COMES to making up your own drawbar registrations, Hammond have helped you out by making the first 24 patches factory set. This will give you something to go on if you're doubtful. This is particularly helpful as you can study the diagrammatic representation of the drawbar "shape" shown in the LCD display. Alternatively, pressing the Record button will give you the exact numeric listing in which drawbar registrations are usually given - such as 888000000. This represents the 16', 5⅓' and 8' drawbars being fully extended and all the rest in.
Apart from setting the drawbars themselves, you can program all the various parameters such as split, key click, overdrive, reverb and so on. One other feature you can set at this stage is POD - Priority On Drawbars. This allows you to override the preset setting manually, and is shown in the display whenever you call up a preset with POD on.
Needless to say, the setting up of registrations can be quite time consuming. Once you have eight favourite patches these can be transferred to the XB's preset locations ready for instant recall. I should point out that it's possible to create registrations straight into a preset (as opposed to a patch). However, if you do this you can only store the drawbars and MIDI parameters and not all the hidden effects we've talked about. When you're playing it's easy to switch between the presets and the drawbars simply by pressing Cancel. And when returning to a preset from the drawbars you can be safe in the knowledge that your drawbars will be as you left them (if you haven't refigured them in the meantime). This includes the settings of Second and Third Percussions, Vibrato On and Leslie Fast.
More mundane but equally essential parameters that are available for the player are the master tune, transposer - ±6 semitones - and the range of the pitchbend wheel - +12 semitones. Although the instrument has initially been priced to include its own expression pedal, a further programmable footswitch is also available as an option. This can control any of three functions: Leslie Slow/Fast, Sustain On/Off and Preset Forward - advancing through the eight presets one step at a time.
ALTHOUGH THE XB2 was still having its MIDI implementation finalised at the time of going to press, it should contain five edit pages covering the setting of the basic MIDI channel (1-16), Omni mode On/Off, Local On/Off (to mute the unit's internal voices), volume control via MIDI, pitchbend and tremolo depth transmission and reception (which controls the Leslie slow/fast effect).
Interestingly for an instrument that is traditionally incapable of dealing with note velocities, the XB2 can transmit MIDI note velocity if required. A further refinement is that the dynamics can be set to either of two scalings, Vel 1 or Vel 2. Vel 1 is less responsive and is intended to more closely resemble the playing dynamics of a piano. Perhaps the most important feature of the XB2 in terms of its MIDI controller capabilities is that the keyboard can be split into two zones. Each can be assigned a separate MIDI channel to control expanders or be controlled themselves by other MIDI instruments, and these can be made to overlap for sound layering purposes.
The XB2 also supports SysEx dumping of its 128-patch/8 preset memory.
IN SUMMING UP the XB2, virtually any physical, practical or technical shortcomings it may have must take second place to the great sound it produces. It will give you the classic overdriven rock organ, Jimmy Smith's jazz sound and all points between. There's still no substitute for a genuine Leslie cabinet to get the best out of a drawbar organ, however, and the XB2 is no exception.
For those who want the Hammond sound together with the flexibility of "authentic" drawbars and the ability to build up an accessible library of such sounds (something your sampler will never give you), there's nothing I've heard to beat the XB2.
There's no doubt that a lot of thought has gone into the XB2. Apart from the single-minded thoroughness of the design, the fact that you can call up the "numerical settings" of each registration will give many newcomers to drawbars a better idea of how the damn things work. Then there's the facility to set up your "manual" drawbars and switch between them and the presets at the press of a button - even James Taylor might be tempted.
More critically, a numeric keypad to call up any of the 128 patches would have been a simpler way of recalling sounds. But given the Hammond's domestic heritage, I'd wager that the company have fought shy of making the XB2 appear any more complicated than they've had to. Hammond UK are claiming the pro and semi-pro markets to be main target areas for the XB2, but I'm sure they'd be as surprised as me if it failed to infiltrate many a living room.
I wouldn't call the XB2 cheap either, but when you want a Rolls Royce you don't buy a Ford Sierra because the "extras" come as standard. Besides, with the going rate for old Hammonds creeping higher and the old problems of the size and weight of the B3, you could almost call this a bargain.
Prices XB2 and expression pedal, £1399; XBS without pedal, £1299. Both prices include VAT.
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