By Stephen Fortner
Working on a laptop, you can become an overnight sensation of electronic dance music, or a pop star’s go-to producer. With some high-end sample libraries, a computer beefy enough to run them, and some study, you can do film scores that might convince John Williams you used a real orchestra. Honest-to-goodness analog synths and electric pianos are back in full force thanks to the likes of Moog Music, Dave Smith, and Rhodes. In spite of these and more reasons that it’s an amazing time to be a keyboard player, what still gets us all talking like nothing else? Getting a great B-3 organ sound.
We just got a lot more to talk about. Beyond going into great detail to simulate the sound of tonewheels, drawbars, and a Leslie speaker, Hammond’s ultra-compact SK1 has a whole slew of acoustic piano, electric piano, Clav, synth, brass, and other sounds that read like a weekend warrior’s wish list. We know—other manufacturers who don’t happen to own the storied Hammond name have been at this “clonewheel plus other cool sounds” thing for a while. Trust me, though—the SK1 holds its head high in that fray and could meet a whole lot of your needs in one go.
Like Hammond’s more expensive XK-3C, the SK1 offers upper, lower, and pedal drawbar parts. An obvious concession to compact size is that there’s one set of drawbars, not two, but LED-lit buttons select which part the drawbars control. You can split the keyboard at the touch of a button (the split point is adjustable in a menu) and add sustain to the pedal part, approximating the “string bass” modification once added to vintage Hammond organs. The SK1 also retains the XK-3 series’ Manual Bass button, which couples the pedal part to an adjustable bottom range of the keyboard. You can set Manual Bass to polyphonic or lowest-note monophonic mode, and since the upper/lower split is available at the same time, a skilled player could use the mono mode to kick bass with some fingers of the left hand and comp simple chords with the others, leaving the right hand free.
Though you can’t customize the tonal qualities of individual virtual tonewheels as you can on the XK-3C, you do get several drawbar sets: cleaner and dirtier B-3 variants, realistic Vox and Farfisa (with drawbar behavior appropriately changed), and a nice chapel pipe organ. If B type 1 or 2 is selected, four further tonewheel sets show up one editing level deeper: Real B-3, ’80s Clean, Noisy, and Noisy60—this last one has the most crosstalk and other grunge, and was my favorite because it added real chewiness to the sound without being musically obtrusive. By contrast, some other clones’ “leakage” simulations sound like a background sample of someone laying a forearm across the keyboard.
The vibrato/chorus that vintage Hammonds created using an electro-mechanical scanner is an essential part of “the sound,” and the SK1’s emulation is as good as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll find settings to customize depth and how much the chorus emphasizes treble frequencies, plus a toggle for whether or not putting vibrato/chorus on the lower manual also affects the pedal part—so you could have a chorused left hand but straight pedals for a clean bass foundation. The XK-3C’s real tube output stage is forgone, but if overdrive is important to your style, the “Tube” simulation is warm and crunchy and compresses realistically as you turn up the dedicated knob.
Drawbar for drawbar, the SK1 is brassier and more aggressive in the mids and highs than other clones I had on hand for comparison: the Studiologic Numa Organ (reviewed May ’11), a Roland VR-700 (reviewed June ’10), the CX-3 mode in the Korg Kronos, EVB3 in Logic, and my old Nord Electro 2. You really notice the SK1’s throaty scream in the top octave, which is where many otherwise excellent clones tend to be a little too polite. With all EQ settings flat and effects bypassed, the other organs had varying degrees of slightly scooped midrange and “production pixie dust” on the sound. The SK1 was more raw and ballsy, which is why it would be my first choice for running through a real Leslie—as real ones tend to roll off some highs and smear out the sound, so you want to feed them well-defined drawbar tones. The SK1 is no slouch through its own Leslie simulation either, so let’s check that out.
The Leslie speaker is the most beautiful irony: It’s so low-tech it’s practically steampunk, yet the gargle of speakers pumping through spinning rotors is still one of the most elusive sounds to duplicate by high-tech digital means. The SK1’s simulation is Hammond’s best yet. More than that, it’s world class: Hammond-Suzuki may have been behind the competition ten years ago, but that’s simply not the case anymore.
Editing goes very deep. You’d expect independent slow and fast speeds, rise times, fall times, and volumes for both bass and treble rotors, and you’d be right. On top of that, control over the distance and separation angle of a pair of virtual mics offers immediate and dramatic variation—play with these until you like the sound, which I guarantee you will. Large (122/147) and small (142/145) cabinets are modeled, as are solid-state and tube amps, and you can mix and match cabinet and amp types.
I’ve said this enough that regular readers are probably sick of it, but high drawbars at fast speed are the true test of a Leslie simulation. Even a good ROMpler can get a decent Jimmy Smith or Procol Harum sound, but pull something like the Erroll Garner setting (80 0008 888) and spin up to fast, and a subprime simulation will have squirrelly treble that goes yi-yi-yi and seems to bounce in and out of your speakers rather than go ’round in circles. The SK1 avoids this pitfall, so well that I could almost sense the bass and treble rotors moving in opposite directions as they do on the real thing. Adjusting speeds and virtual mic placement to taste can go a long way towards increasing the sense of motion you want to hear, so don’t be afraid to dive into those parameters.
The last rotary simulation that really impressed me was in the Studiologic Numa Organ. Compared to the SK1, it seemed to have more pitch modulation in the low-mids, and at fast speed, was somehow a more “blendy” sound—as if the Leslie were miked with a less directional mic in a more reflective room. At slow speed, the Numa’s sim almost seemed to have some sort of stereo widening on it that, while pretty, isn’t totally authentic.
Here’s an observation for which I only found words after a lot of obsessive comparison—playing the same notes with the same drawbar settings and using a metering plug-in to set everything to the exact same volume, then switching between slow and fast until even my cat left the room: Whereas the other clones in my studio were like different record producers’ ideas of how a B-3 through a Leslie should sound in a track, the SK1 was more like being in the room with the real thing. Firing up my own vintage Leslie 142 confirmed this perception.
A lot of readers have asked if the SK1’s onboard Leslie sim is as good as Neo Instruments’ Ventilator (reviewed May ’10), which is widely acknowledged as the current king of electronic rotary effects. The short answer is that I don’t think anything built into a modern clonewheel quite is, but the SK1 is excellent enough to make you consider whether the extra percentage points of realism justify a $450 dedicated stompbox. If so, have at it—the SK1’s raw tone sounds awesome through the Ventilator.
It’s a shame Hammond calls these “Extra Voices,” as that suggests a handful of General MIDI-ish afterthoughts a la their XK-1 or my old Roland VK-7. Quite to the contrary, these sounds are darned good, they’re what you’d actually want on a gig, and there are lots of them. Dealing with them is straightforward as can be: The “Allocate” buttons assign the chosen sound to one key zone or the other (or, on the dual-manual SK2, to the entire upper or lower manual) and the Solo button mutes the organ so you hear only the Extra Voice. Though the octave shift buttons on the panel affect both sounds in a zone together, a separate menu item lets you shift the Extra Voice one or two octaves (up or down) while the organ stays put. Here are just a few highlights.
Acoustic pianos. Bright yet full-bodied, these pianos will get you through any night of rock and soul tunes with aplomb. Because the SK1’s keyboard is meant for playing organ, it’s no surprise that the piano sounds go to full volume fairly easily, but MIDI’ing up a weighted controller got a surprising amount of subtlety out of them. Yes, you may hear differences in velocity layers, and no, these sounds aren’t meant to compete with dedicated stage pianos. For supplemental pianos in what’s mainly an organ, though, they’re surprisingly good.
Electric pianos and Clavinets. Wow. The EPs here are full of bark and personality, and make use of the dedicated Extra Voice effect to provide auto-panned, phaser, and overdriven versions of what are ostensibly Rhodes Mark I and II and Wurlitzer 200A pianos. It has to be said: “EP Rd1 Phase” is the Steely Dan sound. Clavs are very funky, and include variants for how the A/B and C/D pickup switches might be set on the real thing, as well as the obligatory “Higher Ground” touch-wah. Speaking of Stevie Wonder, a unique preset called “Clavitition” sustains notes from the lowest Eb down and maps chords to single keys in the top octave. It seems the intent is to let two hands approximate the multiple Clav overdubs on the original recording of “Superstition.” With some practice, I got pretty close indeed.
Synths. Hiding under the unassuming “Other” button are some tasty treats. The tastiest have got to be the handful of “Solly Strings” presets—as in ARP Solina string machine. These have a swirly phaser (you can change the effect type for any Extra Voice and store the result) with adjustable rate on the dedicated Extra Voice Effect knob. “Solly Strings O” is octave-doubled and simply nails the sound Bernie Worrell noodles on throughout Parliament’s “Flashlight.” In similarly funky territory, “P.O. Love” is a stacked sawtooth blast that reminded me of the synth in the Time’s “Jungle Love.”
Other standouts. There are many more accordions than you’d expect, and brass patches with “FD” in the name have a pitch fall-down you can trigger by spanking the top key in a chord. A few saxes, trumpets, and synths have “Pcd” in the name, which is short for “ProChord.” Split the keyboard, and leads in the right hand will auto-harmonize with your left-hand chords. You can’t customize the harmony types, nor decide which sounds use ProChord—it’s a factory thing—but it works well. A couple of brass sections even have the fall-down and ProChord.
You could conceivably get through a night of cover band fare with just the SK1 and a compact (perhaps weighted) controller MIDI’ed to play Extra Voices assigned to the lower manual. Want to send organ sounds to a real Leslie or outboard rotary effect while keeping Extra Voices in the main stereo P.A.? The SK1 has an eight-pin output for direct connection to modern Leslies like the 3300 and 2101. Hook up one of these, and the organ sounds are routed to the Leslie and removed from the main 1/4" stereo outs, leaving only the Extra Voices there. (The exception is pipe organ, which presumably you don’t want to Leslify.) It’s important to use an eight-pin cable supplied by Hammond, as there’s some specific pin wiring involved. This cable also makes the speed buttons for the onboard simulation control the real Leslie.
Hammond also offers an adaptor for connecting the eight-pin jack to rotary preamps or effects that use a 1/4" input. At press time, Hammond hadn’t decided whether to sell it for a few bucks or box it with future SK1/SK2 shipments and send it to existing owners for free—but it’ll be one or the other. Eight-to-six-pin adaptors are available if you want to go straight into a vintage Leslie without the need for a preamp pedal.
The SK1 and SK2 don’t have the pitch and modulation wheels of the XK-1 and XK-3C, and at first, my unit didn’t respond to external pitch-bend or modulation messages. Since then, Hammond has posted an OS update in the support section of their website that fixes this in addition to offering many useful tweaks and some new Extra Voices. Only the Extra Voices respond to pitch and mod, which makes sense, as you probably don’t want to pitch-bend your B-3 sounds.
A nice touch for editing is that holding any button for a second drills right into an initial menu of parameters for that thing, e.g. you can just hold the Leslie Fast button to get to rotor speed adjustments and the like. From there, getting your head around the menus can take some time—mainly because you can scroll pages both horizontally and vertically. The manual does a good job of visually “unfolding” the menu maze for each area.
The SK1’s drawbars move smoothly, lacking the usual clicky feel. Presumably this saves on cost (because that clicky mechanism involves more moving parts) and front-to-back depth (because the guts that read drawbar positions go under the drawbars instead of behind them). Fair enough, but there is one thing that makes it a bit fiddly to “play” the drawbars as you play the organ. Many seasoned players use the base of the hand as a stop, resting it against the fronts of the drawbars while curling the fingers over and behind them. On a real B-3 or the Hammond XK series, there’s a flat “terrace” on which you can rest your hand in front of the drawbars. On the SK1, the drawbars sit in a sort of tray that’s sunk into the chassis about 3/8" on all sides. My hand sat on the raised panel between the “south” edge of the tray and the “north” edge of the keys, and if I pressed it down into the tray while manipulating drawbars, things started to feel a bit cramped. I also had a tendency to pinch the skin at the base of my thumb if I wasn’t careful when pulling drawbars back out, which necessitated modifying my technique just a little. Look, some compromises are inevitable when designing an instrument this compact, and I’d still rather have this setup than pushbuttons for drawbars.
In 1999, I set foot in the Keyboard offices for the first time, as a panelist in the clonewheel roundup that would appear in that year’s June issue. Even knowing how quickly technology evolves, I could never have hoped that 12 (or even 20) years later, something this tiny would throw down B-3 and Leslie sound this huge. We’ve come an incredibly long way.
Comparisons between the SK1 and the Nord Electro 3 are inevitable, given the squeaky-close sizes and prices. Under critical listening, the Electro has more polished acoustic and electric pianos that sound like they use larger sample sets, but the “Library” bank in the SK1 is meant for future Extra Voices that Hammond intends to offer for download, so that could change. Let’s not forget the more glaring difference: On the Electro 3, you can’t play the organ and non-organ sounds at the same time. On the SK1, you can, splitting and layering as you see fit. Combine that with how killer the B-3 sound is, how gig-worthy all the sounds are, a price that makes it attractive as the first keyboard in your road rig, and portability that makes it welcome as the third or fourth, and it all adds up to a Key Buy.
Fat, warm, utterly authentic B-3 organ sound. Excellent and deeply editable Leslie simulation. “Extra Voices” include highly gig-worthy electric pianos and synths. Can split and layer organ and non-organ sounds at same time.
No MIDI over USB. Recessed drawbars can feel cramped. No pitch-bend or modulation wheels.
Ultra-compact drawbar organ with full complement of gig-ready non-organ sounds.
Hammond B-3, Vox, Farfisa, and pipe organ.
“Extra Voices” include acoustic pianos, electric pianos, Clavinets, synths, string machines, accordions, saxes, and brass.
Organ: 63 notes each for upper and lower parts, 8 voices for pedal part. Extra Voice: 63 notes.
4: Upper, Lower, Pedal, and Extra Voice.
Street: $1,995 (only publicized price)