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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
| 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.
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
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