Davis Muller KeyB Solo

July 5, 2013
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For the gigging organ player, the choices for a top-shelf clonewheel organ are better than ever. The instruments currently available from Hammond, Nord, Studiologic, and Crumar are all pretty phenomenal, with each model giving the concept their own (dare I say it) spin. With many workstations now including a dedicated organ engine (e.g., Korg Kronos, Kurzweil PC3 series, and Roland Jupiter-50/80), it can take something special to motivate you to bring an extra one-trick pony to the gig. The KeyB Solo has that something special, for days.


 

Overview

The KeyB Solo is a single-manual drawbar organ that does nothing but tonewheel and rotary: there are no transistor organs, pianos or electric pianos, or other sounds. Of all the clonewheels I’ve ever owned (and there have been many), this really comes the closest I’ve ever been to both the sonic and tactile playing experience without actually carrying a full console or chop along with a Leslie 122 speaker—or Hammond’s five-figure New B-3 Portable. 

The irony is that musicians begged to get that sound from something that doesn’t require a moving van and a chiropractor on call, we got what we wanted, and now we play drawbar organs that are usually even smaller than the typical synth workstation. You’re just not as cool as Jon Lord when you’re sitting at a slab that feels like it might launch off your stand if you key-slap too heartily. The KeyB, by contrast, is begging you to abuse it a little. The player doesn’t dwarf the instrument, and though it weighs only 33 pounds, the organ has some girth and is built like a tank; you won’t look or feel foolish doing windmill chops. The wooden end blocks, black metal chassis, and retro rocker switches give the whole instrument a retro, elegant, and sexy look.  

Controls

The first thing you notice when you sit down at the KeyB Solo is that everything is where it should be relative to a vintage B-3. There are two sets of drawbars plus the two pedal drawbars centered above the keyboard for easy reach of either manual’s drawbars by either hand; you can switch the whole keyboard between the two drawbar sets or use them for an upper/lower split. In the left corner are two bone-colored, square rocker switches with rounded edges, just like on the real thing, for vibrato/chorus (on/off for each manual) and the large clicky knob for the familiar six vibrato/chorus settings. 

In the upper right corner, four more rockers duplicate the harmonic percussion functions of the B-3; left to right, they control on/off, soft/normal volume, fast/slow decay, and second or third harmonic. To the left of these, three more switches couple the pedals to the lowest 25 keys, toggle the keyboard split, and shift the lower manual’s part up one octave—useful for comping chords in a musically pleasing range without having to rework the drawbar settings an octave higher.

Left of the drawbars are knobs for bass, treble, key click, crosstalk, volume, reverb, and overdrive. On the left cheek block is an authentic “half-moon” rotary switch with a slow, brake, and fast settings. A headphone jack is conveniently placed at the left end of the front rail. There’s no menu diving on the Solo and no display screen; everything has a dedicated knob or button. Well, almost everything: Next to the knobs is a Transpose button with an embedded LED. Hold that button while pressing a key (F#1 to F2) to transpose to that key. Transposition is in effect until you hit the button again and the LED goes out.

The same button works with a few more keys to handle a few more functions: Using C1, you can change the point in the keys’ travel at which they trigger sound (though the default setting seemed perfect to me); B5 toggles a hum effect (does anyone really want this?) and C6 is the MIDI panic. The final four controls are on the rear: knobs for tuning, overall percussion volume, overall percussion decay, and the “Gospel Set” button, which inverts the assignment of drawbar sets so that the left set controls what used to be the right-side registration and vice versa. One of my only complaints is that these knobs being on the back makes them difficult to get at, especially if you have another instrument on top of the Solo. Interestingly, the knobs work backwards, which means they’re forwards if you’re reaching over the keyboard. 

 

Keyboard Feel  

The KeyB Solo continues its retro vibe with the keybed itself. The waterfall keys are bone color as opposed to stark white and the black and white key sizes are the same as on a vintage Hammond organ. From my years of playing these organs, the feel is more than in the ballpark; the keys have the right heft and the action is quiet, responsive, and fast without being hair-trigger. Adjusting the trigger point, I didn’t notice much change in the feel, but I’m a ham-fisted player, so your mileage may vary. The only thing missing is the smell of oily felt!      

 


Sound

In one word: authentic! The KeyB uses a modeling algorithm—no sampling. Individual drawbar tones stand up on their own, but integrate sweetly as they should; there’s no “beating,” phasing, or other strangeness that can reveal a clone when you play more complex chords. You also get full polyphony: I laid both arms down on the keys and every note rang true.

The harmonic percussion has that nice woody thunk. The percussion volume is generous, so if you want that spitting Keith Emerson sound, you’ll get it. The vibrato/chorus has a shimmer that’s natural yet articulate. I’ve generally avoided vibrato/chorus on clonewheels, but now find myself using the C1 and C3 settings a lot. And while you can dial the key click up to a startling level, it’s super musical, especially set at around 11 o’clock.

The tonewheel crosstalk knob will go from adding a little “hair” to an organ-in-need-of-repair sound if you want it. The reverb has the appropriate spring-tank sound, but to my ears, any knob setting past eight o’clock just sounds too swimmy. 

The overdrive on the Solo is killer! There’s a fair amount of flexibility between seven and 12 o’clock, giving you lots of different sounds, and it interacts with the internal rotary simulation beautifully. You get a nice “worn” sound starting around ten o’clock, with a little “griddle” by about 11. Anything past noon goes beyond Jon Lord into “Big Muff” stompbox territory, but even that has its place. You’ll find that overdrive compresses the volume appropriately; if you need more, just grab the volume knob. Again, this is very well executed and very musical.

 

Rotary Simulation

Now, what everyone really wants to know: How’s the rotary effect? It’s beautiful. There’s no tweaking: the “Leslie” you own is the one you play through—kind of like when you use the real thing. You can’t adjust any of the parameters: not speed, nor ramp times, nor high/low rotor balance, but it sounds great out of the box. At the 2013 Winter NAMM Show, I went back to the KeyB Solo exhibit a number of times and would get lost in the sound for half an hour at a crack through headphones. It was a pleasure to hear that same sound come roaring out of my speakers at home. The balance feels right: You can feel the lower rotor diverge from the upper rotor. I personally don’t use fast speed at length: I set my real Leslies’ fast motors to be triggered from a momentary switch, and ramp up the speed momentarily in order to make musical statements. For this reason, I really like the in-between speeds on the KeyB Solo and use those for accents.

Presently, though, plugging a momentary swich (such as a generic sustain pedal) into the KeyB Solo will get you toggle behavior: step on it to change speeds, step on it again to go back. Granted, this is what most organists would expect and want, but I like the acceleration to happen only as long as I’m stepping on the pedal, so I’d like to see this option somehow. The folks at KeyB tell me they may add this option in a future update. 

The Leslie sim itself sounds very organic and (here’s that word again) musical. The Neo Instruments Ventilator, a dedicated rotary effect pedal (reviewed May ’10), has done much to level the clonewheel playing field. I’ve never played a clone that didn’t benefit from the Ventilator . . . until now. I did a number of gigs running the KeyB’s direct out (which bypasses the Leslie sim) into the Ventilator, mainly because it’s in my rack already and is wired to work with a momentary switch. But I found that the KeyB’s own rotary sim adds a gorgeous sparkle to the organ sound that even the Ventilator hasn’t surpassed, and the way the Solo’s rotary effect interacts with its own overdrive and reverb is inspirational, even if you’re running monaurally into the P.A.

A direct out meant for using an external rotary speaker or effect sums the main stereo signal to mono and doesn’t carry the internal rotary effect. However, using this also disables the reverb, overdrive, and key click, which is unfortunate, as so much personality lies in these things. That turned out not to be a big issue, because other than the momentary switching, running mono to my Ventilator offered no improvement. That’s in no way a criticism of the Ventilator, just kudos for the KeyB. If you insist on a real Leslie, the KeyB has an 11-pin connector and the half-moon speed switch communicates correctly with 11-pin Leslies. 

One other thing about the sound: The “smear” is a popular rock organ technique that can add some punctuation when used sparingly. That technique has never really worked for me on organ clones because it’s always sounded as though there’s too much separation between each note—they never really blend into one sound the way they do when you palm-smear on a real tonewheel organ—but the KeyB really does capture that characteristic.

 
Other Models
 
   
 KeyB Duo dual-manual model.
 KeyB Expander sound module.
 

For organ purists who require dual manuals, the KeyB Duo offers all features of the Solo plus four sets of drawbars, reverse-color preset keys, the Normal/Soft volume switch you’d find on a vintage Hammond, pitch-bend and modulation wheels and a Local On/Off switch to control an external MIDI sound source via the lower manual, and string bass (i.e. bass pedal sound with a release envelope). Street price begins at $3,999 for the ebony finish. Need all the sound but don’t have room for more black ’n’ whites? The Expander sells for $1,199.

Conclusions

Keyboardists who require organ capability have many excellent options these days, but those who play organ have different needs and standards. For organists whose ears demand perfect tone and rotary sound, and whose “muscle memory” demands familiar size, placement, and tactile feedback from all controls, the KeyB Solo really ups the ante. If your playing requires dual manuals, the KeyB Duo (see above) offers exceptional value as well. Seriously, the next step up from here is the Hammond New B-3 Portable, which is awesome but a considerably greater commitment in terms of both cost and carrying. As for the Solo, with its dedicated controls for everything and no menus or screens, it’s the closest you’ll get to a full-console tonewheel organ experience in a single-manual clone that’s easily transportable to the gig. Simply awesome!


PROS: Great organ sound. Outstanding Leslie simulation. Controls will make any tonewheel organist feel instantly at home. Light weight for such a robust build. Flat top for stacking other keyboards. 

CONS: Tuning, percussion volume, and decay knobs are on the rear panel. Direct output bypasses the reverb and overdrive, not just the Leslie simulator.  

Bottom Line: The most realistic feeling tactile playing and control-grabbing experience on a single-manual organ clone—and the sound leaves nothing to be desired either.

Ebony: $2,999 list | $2,499 street 

Walnut or cherry: $3,599 list | $2,999 street   

davismullerinstruments.com

 

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