When Fake Hammond is Good

March 21, 2014

In classic house music, the two most prominent keyboards are piano and Hammond B-3 organ. First used in the late ’80s, a synthetic B-3 sound quickly became a staple in early ’90s house music. The timbre in question was almost always some variation on the Jimmy Smith sound, i.e. the first three drawbars plus third harmonic percussion. Because it was sampled or synthesized using the gear of that era, the percussion behaved incorrectly with respect to a real B-3, in that it triggered on every note, all the time. In the context of electronic dance music, this became part of its appeal.

While its popularity has waxed and waned in cycles in the decades since, the B-3 is experiencing a comeback in the hands of modern artists like Disclosure, Hot Since 82, and Mark Knight. Let’s look at how it all got started, and how you can get the most authentically inauthentic B-3 sounds into your house tracks.

Korg M1: “Organ 2”

The definitive synth B-3 sound that dominated early ’90s house music was found on the legendary Korg M1 workstation. Used for both chord stabs and bass lines, “Organ 2” (preset number 17, to be specific) can be found at the heart of countless hits, both mainstream and underground. According to Korg’s senior voicing manager Jack Hotop, the “Organ 2” waveform was derived from one of the sample disks for their ’80s era DSS-1 sampler. Today, you need look no further than Korg’s Legacy Collection and its M1 soft synth, which delivers the sound flawlessly. 

Yamaha TX81Z: “Perc Organ”

Some house producers turned to less expensive gear than the Korg M1. As a result, Yamaha’s affordable TX81Z, a rackmount FM synth, became a staple in many studios of the day. With four operators, arranged in eight possible algorithms, the TX81Z included 128 factory presets, several Hammond B-3 emulations among them. The most notable was preset A17, “PercOrgan,” which can hold its own in any deep house track and has a slightly rounder tone than the M1. Best of all, you can find a vintage 81Z for less than $100 on eBay—at least for now.

Ableton Operator

For producers who prefer to whip up their own synthetic B-3, Ableton Live’s Operator does a fantastic job. Use the default patch and switch the waveform to “user” mode with 16 harmonics—more than enough perfect for drawbar emulations, in other words. Stick with the first, third, and seventh harmonics and adjust their levels until you get something that’s close to a B-3. Then, tinker with Operator’s volume envelopes for the finishing touches.

Reason Subtractor

For Reason's Subtractor, or any two-oscillator subtractive synth, set your oscillators to reflect the pitches of the first and third drawbars, then mix them to taste. In this case, using sine or triangle waves on both oscillators, set oscillator 1 to the fundamental and tune oscillator 2 to one octave plus seven semitones (an octave and a fifth). From there, you can add a touch of click by lowering the cutoff very slightly and giving the filter envelope a super fast decay to zero, adjusting envelope depth to taste.

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