David Etheridge reviews the reborn Hammond organ. With MIDI, memories and full programmability, it represents a '90s approach to a classic instrument.
The Hammond organ? Why bother with the real thing when any number of synths will offer the sound as a preset? Why indeed? The answer is very simple: it's not so much an instrument as a way of life. Just ask Keith Emerson, James Taylor (the quartet one, not the singer/songwriter), Steve Winwood, Howard Jones, and a whole host of more recent converts to the marque.
An original B or C3 was something else. No power-up switch with an LCD saying 'Welcome to the wonderful world of Hammond'. No sir. Push the Start switch in for around eight seconds, and then push a Run button while still holding down the Start button. It's analogous to hand cranking a 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow; we are talking all time classics here. Only then could you hear the whirr of the tone wheel mechanism settling down to cruising speed.
Then there was that sound, made totally voluptuous when heard through a fair sized Leslie cabinet. On quiet settings, you seemed to be enveloped in reflected sound; turn up the wick (to 11 at least) and the creamy distortion spelt nirvana for Hammond fans. Real valves, real key click (a mechanical aberration that Hammond tried to eliminate; were they surprised when owners complained about the absence of articulation!), and an overdrive that meant that the sound positively roared.
Drawbars meant that you could get any number of sounds in real time and change them in a nonce. For those who think of a Hammond sound as just a basic waveform, Hammond's claim that a whopping 253 million different sounds are available through different drawbar settings should give you food for thought! The only problem was the weight — fine if you were on anabolic steroids, weight trained regularly, or had a few obliging roadies to hump the beast around, but many Hammonds were sawn in half to make them a little more manageable on the road.
Tastes changes with the synth revolution. Roland's VK1 and Korg's CX3 gained fans, with the overdrive pot on the CX3 giving full overdriven grunge in an easy to use (and carry) package. While keyboards such as the CX3 can be retrofitted with MIDI, it's only recently that Hammond's new range of 'tonebar' (the new name for the tonewheel system) organs has been available.
These days, Hammond is more correctly known as Hammond Suzuki, as Suzuki have pioneered the DRH (Digitally Recorded Harmonics) system for the truly accurate recreation of Hammond's tonewheel sounds. This is a variety of high quality sampling arising from an earlier tie-in with sampling giants Kurzweil in their pre-takeover (by Young Chang) days.
In 1991 the Hammond XB2 appeared, a single manual instrument reminiscent of the CX3 but with MIDI, pitch bend and mod wheels, LCD display, memories, splittable 61-note keyboard, velocity sensitivity, as well as classic features like drawbars, percussion tabs and an 11-pin Leslie connector. All in all, perfect for MIDI setups. The ultimate acceptance came when Keith Emerson added an XB2 to his lineup of C3 and L100 organs on the latest ELP tour. Now, in 1992, comes the XB5, which is more the stuff of which Hammond dreams are made of.
What we have here is the nearest thing to a full-blown C3: two 5-octave keyboards (velocity sensitive), optional one or two octave pedalboards, expression pedal, and a revamped package that goes most, if not all the way to giving the muso a true C3 for the '90s.
The XB5 comes in a suitably authentic wood panelled cabinet, with legs and bench. Whilst the control panel will look familiar to seasoned Hammond owners, there are also other features that are new. Let's look at them in greater detail.
Along the top shelf, above the upper keyboard, are controls both familiar and unfamiliar. Next to the power switch on the left are Upper and Lower Drawbar Priority Tabs, and nine numbered Preset tabs, with an extra 'cancel' tab; this last tab defaults to whichever setting you have created on the drawbars. You therefore have access to a total of 10 'patches'. On B and C3 models, you selected different drawbar settings with the reversed colour keys on the right of the keyboard (naturals black, sharps and flat notes white). When you pressed down the note, the sound would change.
The Percussion section is standard Hammond fare: second and third harmonic clicks, which by themselves sound almost sine wave-like in character. Also provided are tabs for Soft (varying the volume of the percussion tone) and Fast (switching this on gives a xylophone style decay rather than a chime-like effect).
Now to the meat and drink of the Hammond: the drawbars. These are the standard Tonewheel voicings of 16, 5⅓, 8, 4, 2⅔, 2, 1⅗, 1⅓, and 1 foot stops (one set for each keyboard) with additional 16 and 8 foot stops for the pedals. All the drawbars have numbers for the amount of volume on each footage: 0 is off, 8 equals maximum volume. (Incidentally, rumour has it that the ELP sound basically consists of the bottom three drawbars pulled all the way out; Rod Argent used the bottom two on solos, and the lower four on bigger sounds, as did Booker T. Jones. Chorus 3 seems to be the favourite setting for many a classic sound, with a touch of third harmonic percussion.)
To the right of the drawbars you'll find the Vibrato/Chorus tabs. On a C3 the equivalent was a 6-way rotary pot offering three versions of either vibrato or chorus. On the XB5, we have two tabs marked I and II, and a chorus tab. Press down both numbered tabs for setting 3, and the chorus tab changes from vibrato to chorus and back again. Two tabs next to these marked 'upper' and 'lower' turn the effects on or off for the selected keyboard.
Last in this section are two pedal control tabs: Sustain (allowing a slow decay of pedal notes, making for smooth bass parts), and 'Pedal to lower', which lets you play the pedal sounds on the bottom two octaves of the lower keyboard. It's also useful if you don't want to use a set of pedals, but want the sounds.
Further controls are located on the control panel next to the upper manual (keyboard): four rotary controls, for Total volume, Ext In volume (yes, you can play an outboard module through the XB5), Reverb (there's an Alesis digital reverb on board), and Overdrive. This last pot will be the one that most musos will be looking for, in order to get that real roar and bite to the sound.
However, it's the next feature that shows how the XB5 has developed over the past few years: the Information Centre Display (ICD) and two rows of four multi-function buttons. The top row are numbered, with the bottom row marked Record, Shift, Play, and Menu. The display is a 2-line, 20-character design and it represents the brains of the XB5, giving you a graphic representation of drawbar voicings either as vertical lines, or numerical values (880884 etc.), and allowing you to deal with such programming functions as setting MIDI transmit channels, controlling the Leslie simulator, the reverb and so on. The current set of parameters for the whole instrument is saved along with the drawbar settings into those 10 Preset memory locations.
Next to the lower manual are the obligatory performance wheels. Both pitch and mod wheels have knurled finishes, with the pitch wheel being centre sprung and indented. In order to get pitch bend on a C3, you had to turn the instrument on and off (witness Keith Emerson's sounds with both ELP and the Nice, also Tony Banks on Genesis' track 'Stagnation', from the album Trespass).
Next to this are three MIDI tabs, turning MIDI transmission on and off from the upper manual, lower manual and pedalboard. The last two tabs control the Leslie cab: On and Fast. This last feature is the one that most (if not all) synth impersonations fall down on — the gorgeous sound of a Leslie cabinet's doppler shift from fast to slow and back again. In addition, the differing rates of upper and lower horns in a Leslie cabinet are faithfully reproduced on the onboard Leslie effect. Real fans will invest in the real thing — Hammond UK can provide all types both new and secondhand, from an economical 45 watts up to an ear shattering 240 watts.
On the subject of audio outputs, round the back you'll find, in addition to MIDI In/Out/Thru, a pedalboard socket, and footswitch 1 and 2 sockets, line out left and right, Leslie FX loop sockets, and External In left and right. For some reason, phono sockets are used here instead of jacks. Lastly, there are two EQ pots marked treble and bass for fine tuning your sound, and an 11-pin connector for a genuine Leslie.
All very well... but what's it like? Without a doubt, the XB5, and indeed its smaller brother, the XB2, are the nearest you can get to a C3 without actually having the real thing. You also don't have the hassle of the 'yearly service' — the tonewheel motor spindles needed oiling every 12 months! The action is as close to the original as you will find: much lighter than a piano weighted keyboard, but more substantial than today's speed-of-light synth action keys. You quickly get comfortable on the two manuals, and I found myself dancing around the pedals quite quickly. The sound? As accurate as you'll find this side of a vintage C3.
Using the DRH system of sound production, all the basic tones are there. I found that the drawbars were a little more 'sudden' in effect than a C3, as the tones seem to increase in discrete steps. A C3 I played at Gateway Studios many years ago seemed to be much smoother in action, but I'll guess that's the result of digital technology in play on the XB5.
One thing the XB5 certainly has is warmth, and lots of it. Original Hammonds start to give out above about 8k, so you'll find none of the digital top end that Hammond synth patches often have, and that to my mind is one of the basic characteristics of the sound.
One thing I miss from the XB2 was the ability to introduce distortion to a sound via the mod wheel. While you have a separate pot for distortion here, you might miss it in the heat of pitch bending and general pyrotechnics; but that's only a personal view.
One problem with the XB5 is its limited ability to send MIDI program changes — it can only transmit program numbers 1-10 because it has only 10 memory locations. While this isn't too bad for live playing, it rules out the XB5's use as a master keyboard in the studio, unless you positively like using only the first 10 locations on all your synth modules. In Hammond's defence, they presumably aimed for parity with the 10 or so presets that you got on an original C3. However, this needs serious updating so that, hopefully, full memory implementation can be offered on future upgrades. If you want to store more settings, you can store another 28 banks of nine Presets on RAM card, or use SysEx dumps to/from a sequencer. You can also use SysEx to record and play back real time changes to drawbar settings — but note that just one incremental change has to have an 11 byte message, so you may start to gobble up sequencer memory pretty fast.
One definite plus is the combination of master outs and Leslie connections. Here you can try the combination of on-board digital Leslie with the real thing, or use the master outs through other amps to get the best combination sounds. Be aware, however, that the Leslie FX loop on the back will route the return signal through the Leslie and not the master outs.
With the XB5, Hammond have got it right. It sounds and feels good, and the looks are quite impressive too. The competition? Though challenged by Roland, Voce, and Fujiha, the XB5 has a lot going for it. Voce's organ module sounds great but has an intimidating operating system; real-time drawbar changes are impossible except through SysEx or on-screen editing, and that's hardly ideal for live gigs. Fujiha's D9, an XB2-sized instrument, sounds good but has only a mono out, which misses the entire point of the Leslie stereo image. Roland's VK1000 adds vibes and Rhodes electric piano sounds, which might not be what you want if you're just looking for an organ (or rather, the organ).
So, in the end, the XB range may be right up your street. With Level 42's Mike Lindup as well as the mighty Macca himself among recent purchasers, it would appear that the XB5 has a lot going for it.
Hammond XB5 (double manual with 13 note pedalboard and expression pedal) £4,500 inc. VAT.
Hammond XBS top (no pedalboard) £4,000 inc VAT.
Hammond XB2 (single manual) £1,399 inc VAT.
Hammond UK, (Contact Details)
Review by David Etheridge
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