Hammond XK-1C organ reviewed

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The Hammond organ is one of a handful of keyboard instruments that never go out of style. Though some think it only makes “one sound,” that sound has countless different hues due to drawbar manipulation, organ/amplification pairings, Leslie type, microphone placement, age and integrity of parts, and a host of other factors. When you think about it, that so-called one-trick pony is pretty hard to tame. Well, Hammond has distilled all the things that go into making all those “one sounds” into a 16-pound keyboard that not only feels great, but also can sound like the Hammond part from any and every recording you ever loved.

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PROS: Killer organ sounds in a lightweight, ultra-compact, attractive package. Fantastic Leslie simulation. Deeply editable—no additional processing needed for realism or inspiration. Action feels great.

CONS: Line lump power supply. Unlike SK series, has no dedicated effects button or reverb amount knob.

Bottom Line: If you want no-compromise drawbar organ and Leslie sound—and nothing but—in a package small enough to take on public transit, your search is over.

$1,795 list | $1,495 street | hammondorganco.com

The XK-1C is an evolution of Hammond’s recent SK line, using the same engine, but eschewing the non-organ sounds. You’ll find no pianos, Clavs, or accordions—just tonewheel, transistor, and pipe organs. However, the XK-1C does those organs right. The SK1 was reviewed in November 2011, the SK2 in August 2012, and the SK1-73 in October 2013, so refer to those reviews (online at keyboardmag.com/february2014) for what’s familiar. Here, we’ll concentrate on new additions that are indigenous to the XK-1C.

The control panel layout is very similar to the SK1, but has been condensed a bit now that the instrument is devoted solely to organ sounds. Besides eliminating the controls for the extra voices, Hammond has merged the patch selection buttons with the cursor buttons, resulting in a “telephone keypad” configuration—minus the bottom row where zero would be. This means that you now have only eight favorites buttons instead of ten, though you still can save many more programs into user memory. I tend to program a handful of main drawbar settings, and then use the rest of the favorites for storing different organ sounds that are based on the same registration, but with different Leslie simulation and tonewheel settings.

You still get one set of drawbars, and their assignment to upper, lower, or pedal duty is done with dedicated buttons, which works great. As on other current Hammonds, long-pressing any button brings up the menu for the most relevant parameters (Leslie settings if you hold the slow/fast button, harmonic percussion if you hold any percussion button, and so on), which is nice and fast. I must say that the buttons feel firmer and more solidly anchored on the XK-1C than I remember on the original SK1. Reverb control has been reduced to an on/off button (there’s no amount knob) and the SK1’s non-reverb Effect knob and switch have been removed entirely, which I think is a mistake, although full control of the effect is still in the menus, and the entry state of reverb and other effects is saved with your preset.

In trade, Hammond has instituted a couple of new features not present in the SK models. For instance, while the vibrato/chorus is basically the same, the XK-1C has a new parameter called Mix, which lets you continuously set the balance between a direct and chorused signals—even to the point of having one or the other only. Combined with the Emphasis control, which increases the bandwidth of frequencies to be chorused, you can go a long way towards capturing the subtle differences you’d encounter if you were to go to a vintage Hammond dealer and play five or six different B-3s and A-100s with the same drawbar settings. Awesome!

Another new parameter, Color, is in the Leslie section. Through headphones, adjusting the “Color” amount sounds like you put the vent covers back on your Leslie, slightly dampening the sound. Through speakers, however, the effect is more dramatic and very useful. It tames the top end a little bit, adds a nice girth to the sound, and really feels like you’re hearing the resonance of the wooden Leslie cabinet itself. It took me years to wean myself off of using a real Leslie live, and it wasn’t until hosting Native Instruments B4 running on my Muse Receptor, which I then routed through a Ventilator rotary effect pedal, that I felt good enough about the sound to leave my Leslie at home. With the XK-1C, I can now leave the Ventilator at home. Between the Color knob, the internal 122 model (which sounds brighter than the 147—veteran Leslie users might expect the opposite) and my new favorite, the “right there in the room with you” model 31H with the lower rotor coasting at about 60 rpm, I now have more Leslie options than ever before. Add a little built-in tube overdrive simulation, and you have unlimited potential to grab that “one sound” from any recording or recollection you may have.

The action is a joy to play. It’s lighter than my SK1-73, but not as hair-trigger as the XK-3C. It’s fast and begs you to skate up and down the keyboard, but doesn’t make you feel or sound sloppy.

Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on what an aesthetic upgrade Hammond has given the XK-1C. An organ should at least have some wood on it, and the wooden end caps are an elegant touch that helps the XK-1C not look small, which is a real feat on a keyboard this . . . small. In all aspects, Hammond has really stepped up their already impressive game with the XK-1C. I love it!