Dramatically different but without compromise...
The Hammond XE-1 Organ
A review by Andrew Gilbert
Allow me to don my teacher’s hat for a few moments. This review needs to be preceded by a short history lesson, so if you’d like to settle down at the back of the class, I’ll begin. Hammond is one the companies in this business that are well known for innovation. OK, it’s true that a certain Mr Lowrey did make a simple example of an electronic organ as long ago as 1917, but it was Mr Hammond who produced the world’s first practical electric organ back in 1934. Looking for a more compact instrument, it was Hammond again who made the world’s first spinet organ, the model M, in 1948. Hammond then came up with his first non-tonewheel single manual instrument, the Novachord, followed by the world’s first compact easy-play single manual organ, the S-1, in 1953. Then came the split keyboard F100 in 1961 and the first auto-play organ, the Piper 727, in 1970. Other ‘firsts’ followed on in a similar tradition, so I for one was not that surprised with Hammond’s latest innovation. Instead of a keyboard that features organ sounds, they’ve gone full circle and come up with the XE-1, which, as I’ll state right here at the start, is a compact, single manual organ that can be played like a keyboard. I saw some pictures of a prototype a while back and hastily ‘bagged’ the review from our Ed. Was it worth waiting for? You’re about to find out.
The XE-1 System, as its name implies, is modular. You can buy the basics and then expand it later as your requirements change. I’ll start, therefore with the appearance of the main ‘keyboard’ part of the instrument. It’s a bit larger than the usual ‘top of the line’ keyboard and looks very substantial with chunky sliver side panels and a dark grey fascia. It’s overall layout stays true to most keyboards, with styles to the left of the central LCD display and voices to the right. The display is, as usual, surrounded with buttons whose functions are determined by what the display is showing at the time. The pitch bend and mod wheels, along with the floppy drive are to the left of the keyboard. All very standard so far, but then there are three sets of drawbars, nine each for the ‘manuals’ and two for the ‘pedals’. With these come the usual Hammond requisites like the Vibrato, Leslie and Percussion controls. Then there’s the actual keyboard itself, and Hammond has chosen to use its 1965 leaf spring keybed. This plays like a dream – I always did prefer it to the older ‘waterfall’ type keyboards – and now has the added bonus of being velocity sensitive, though there’s no aftertouch.
Right, so far it looks like a keyboard but like I said, this is an organ and it’s time to do a bit of a transformation. The first thing many people buy for their keyboard is a stand, so let’s add one. The XE’s stand is no black metal X-frame affair, oh no. Instead it’s an elegantly curved and beautifully finished wooden stand, the curves of which have been borrowed from one or two Hammonds of the past. The review sample was finished in real cherry wood, but other finishes are available to special order, including walnut, mahogany and black ash. Now let’s add a swell pedal, and the XE’s pedal is a very substantial one, complete with a foot switch, that looks and feels just like the one you might find on a console or spinet Hammond organ. This combination of keyboard, stand and swell pedal is the ‘standard’ package, but to complete the changeover to an organ, we’ll need some bass pedals. Let’s add Hammond’s tried and tested XPK-100 MIDI pedalboard, a 13-note unit, which has pedals – surprise, surprise – just like the Hammond spinets. There is no bench supplied with the organ, but your Hammond dealer will be able to arrange either a folding keyboard stool or a proper wooden organ bench, the finish of which will depend on what you’ve chosen for the stand. We’ve now arrived at the instrument as it was delivered to me, and as it’s the set-up that I think will be most popular, this is what I’ll base the rest of the review on. There is, however, one more optional extra that can be added. It’s a second keyboard that slots into place below the first. Once plugged in, turns the XE1 System into a full two manual Hammond, with all the ‘left hand’ sounds now played from the lower manual. It’s an option that I personally would give serious consideration to.
I’ve already told you what the instrument’s general appearance is like, I suppose, but the consensus chez moi when it had been assembled was that it looked very good. ”I’d rather look at that than a keyboard or a ‘proper’ organ.”, said my better half. The kids chipped in with “Neat!” and “Well cool!” respectively! As for me, I think it’s a very good-looking piece of kit, though I think Hammond could do itself a small favour by replacing the black wire-frame music desk with a full-width glass or perspex one. (How about one as an optional extra, guys?)
So to the sounds and what else could I start with other than the drawbars? As with all the current crop of Hammond organs and modules, like the XB3, XK2, XH200 and XM1, the sound, ‘out of the box’ is just about as close to the original as you’re likely to get. Simply hit the keyboard split button, then pull out the drawbars, hit the digital Leslie or Vibrato, add a touch of reverb and you’re away. This virtually instantaneous ease of use is both refreshing and impressive, and it carries on right through the instrument’s specification, too. It didn’t take too long to get accustomed to playing this organ in a keyboard style, all on one manual, and I sat and doodled for a rather long time. I would have been quite happy if this had been all there was to the drawbars, but Hammond had made it far too easy to tweak things – I couldn’t resist having a fiddle around! First, I held down the Leslie speed button, this brought up the Leslie adjustments screen. All these were very logically set out and it took just a few seconds to get the sound of my old model 145. Holding down any of the Drawbar on/off buttons brought up the Drawbar adjustments screen, and here I was able to change between B3, Mellow and Bright voicings, set the attack, keyclick, sustain length and so on. I found that I could quickly and easily change the basic Hammond character of the XE1 from the original B3 plus Leslie 122, through the later T100 plus Leslie 145, right up to the purely electronic Concorde plus Leslie 710. Whatever you do here, you’ll be impressed, as this is a Hammond through and through. For the purists who, like Laurens Hammond himself, don’t want their Hammond sound adulterated by Leslie, the straight sound is pure B3 plus PR40, it’s snappy and crisp – exactly like it should be. Jazz organ fans will go straight for the slow leslie plus chorus vibrato sound, and I couldn’t resist having a go at what my kids call ‘the Renault Clio tune’, more correctly known as Organ Grinder’s Swing, and played on the ad by the legendary Jimmy Smith. A bit more fiddling around revealed that the pitch bend range could be individually set for each division of the instrument, so I upped this to 12 semitones for the upper drawbars. A little fiddle with the Vibrato and Leslie and it was possible to recreate the slalom effects that Klaus Wunderlich used on his Wersi Helios. Now all this is seriously impressive and in fact, the only minor niggles I have concern the harmonic percussions and the sustain lengths. The percussion sounds are right, but the decay envelopes aren’t, being a bit too short, even on the longest setting. A second problem is simply that the percussions don’t go through the Leslie effect as they really ought to. I know that this has been corrected on a couple of other models and the same should be done for the XE1 – I predict a user-loadable software update before long. Hammond never have been over generous with the sustain length for the drawbar sounds and the XE1 continues the tradition, even on maximum the sustain is short! All in all, though, I’ll give this section of the instrument top marks, it’s Hammond sound par excellence.
At this point I normally move on to the orchestral voices, but although I’m moving to that division of the instrument, I’m going to start by looking at what you get when you press the Organ button. You get several screenfuls of sounds to choose from starting with some very good straight pipe organ voicings. There are some powerful full organs, softer diapasons, flutes and gambas, as well as a sprinkling of solo reeds. Naturally, you can apply any of these to either half of the keyboard and to the pedals, and the pedals also have a couple of organ sounds in the bass division. Next up come some sounds under the label ‘Theatre’, but don’t expect them to recreate a Wurlitzer, for that isn’t Hammond’s intention at all. Put the words ‘Analogue Non-tonewheel Hammond Organ’ here instead and you’ll hit the mark – but it probably wouldn’t have fitted on the display! What you get here is a selection of Hammond’s ‘other’ voices, lifted from the likes of the X-66, N-100 and the Novachord. Well OK, the Novachord voices are sounds with an unusual character all of their own, but you might like to try a duet between drawbars (no Leslie please) on the ‘lower’ with Novachord on the ‘upper’. As far as the other sounds go, they will all mix superbly with the drawbars. In the interests of accuracy, I slowed the vibrato speed down to match that of the X-66, and added in the Organ Trumpet. Takes me back to the late 1960’s, does this, and I should also point out that, like the XT100 and XH200, the XE1 features the X-66’s distinctive Glockenspiel as well, so it wasn’t long before that was called up to complete the illusion. The last selection of organs is all drawbar-based, including a gloriously overdriven rock B3 plus fast Leslie and even a couple of non-Hammond instruments such as the Vox Continental. If you like organ sounds, you’ll find that you’re spoilt for choice.
So to the rest of the orchestral sounds, and looking back at some of my previous Hammond reviews, a recurring comment has been that whilst they were perfectly strong enough to carry the melody, they didn’t have the realism that some other instruments had managed to achieve. Instead, Hammond had made sure that the sounds would blend together well when the player decided to play the instrument in its intended role as an electronic organ rather than an orchestra. I’m very pleased to say that all those ‘mellower’ sounds, for want of a better term, are still present in the XE1, and layering a typical Gilbert combination of Drawbars, fast Leslie, Strings and Piano still results in a glorious sound. However, I’m doubly pleased to point out that they have been joined by a whole new batch of orchestral voices that are up there with the best of the rest. A few examples of these would have to include the Stereo Grand Piano, Stereo Strings, Jazz Guitar and a super Breathy Sax. Accordion fans will find that they’ve not been left out, as there’s a complete set of very authentic sounding accordion registers plus a Musette to play with.
You’ll want to have quick and easy control over all your sounds and Hammond has provided two ways to achieve this. The first is the usual Conductor type system, that will let you add Drawbars plus two Orchestral voices on the ‘upper’, Drawbars plus one Orchestral voice on the ‘lower’ and Drawbars plus one Orchestral voice on the pedals. If you’re not using the pedals, then you can add its Orchestral voice to the ‘lower’ as well. By default, the conductor works in ‘self-cancelling’ mode; i.e. when you select one voice group for a manual, any others previously selected will be turned off. This is very much the norm these days, but Yamaha owners will be pleased to note that it is possible to switch the conductor to ‘additive’ mode, so that it works like an EL or AR series instrument. Then come the panel memories, and Hammond has provided 100 of these in ten banks of ten. It’s possible to customise the way that these work, so you can decide whether rhythms, tempos etc. are stored along with the voice settings. If you wish, you can name each bank of ten presets, and even each preset! Once done, you can save them to floppy or to Flash Card. (More on this a bit later.)
So to the styles and, as usual, Hammond has been very clever with what has been put in. There are 100 styles, each with four variations plus the inevitable intros, endings and fill-ins. There are two Autoband groupings plus Auto Bass, all separately switched. This means, importantly, that it’s possible to use auto-accompaniment whilst playing the bass line manually from the pedals. Then there’s an old Hammond favourite, Auto-Vari. This cycles between the four variations of the selected style and you can choose how and when it does so. The range of styles is impressive and it’s clear from a very brief exploration that Hammond has concentrated on the needs of the more ‘traditional’ player. That’s not to say that you won’t find the more up-to-date styles of the nineties and ‘noughties’, for they are there. Alas, these particular styles won’t win any prizes in a competition with a modern keyboard. That, however, is not the point, for when it comes to waltzes, foxes, quicksteps, latin, big band and swing, the XE has them in abundance and they include some real crackers. Swing Ballad, for example, with its laid back jazz guitar patterns (unashamedly pinched from the Lowrey MX1, I’d say!) just cries out for something like Left Bank Two. Then there are the Organ stylings, a little touch of Ethel Smith, Lenny Dee or Eddie Layton, maybe, and done with far more panache than one or two other companies have managed. Hammond obviously haven’t missed the fact that this organ is going to be of some appeal to the professional market, and you’ll find that quite a few of the ‘euro’ and ‘party’ styles have been included as well. If you want to tweak a style, by altering its sounds or balance, then this is perfectly simple to do and you can store the results. There is no means of Style creation or editing, but it is possible to load in styles intended for other instruments by means of the Style Convert feature – I tried a couple of Technics styles and they worked perfectly. Hammond is about to release a library of new styles for the XE System and this will be on Flash Memory card, rather than on floppy disk.
OK, I’ve covered the sounds and the styles, so let’s have a look at what else you get, starting with the sequencer. This can operate in three distinct modes. Easy Record acts as a very simple, one-pass record and playback system and, as such, may be all that many players require. Multi Record expands this to a three-track system, where upper, lower and pedal tracks can now record specific divisions of the instrument, plus their respective controls. The final step is to go the full 16 track sequencer, which offers even greater control over what is recorded, and how. There appear to be no editing features in any of the modes, so if you goof something, you’ll have to play it again. As the 16-track system is only a little harder to use than the 3-track one, it’s worth following the very clear owner’s manual to get to grips with it. Again, all data can be saved to floppy or Flash Card. As well as being able to tweak the rhythms, you can have a go at tweaking the orchestral sounds of the instrument. These tweaks are perhaps sensibly confined to the filtering and envelope shaping of the sounds. That’s all that will probably be needed by most players and I had no trouble in mellowing the Jazz Guitar and Trumpet to my taste. You can store 28 of these user sounds on board.
Pro Chord is Hammond’s one finger right hand chord feature and this has been expanded to offer twenty varieties of effect. Some are the standard Open, Close and Duet harmonies, and these stick to Hammond’s decision years ago to place their harmonies above the melody note rather than below like the original, and perhaps more preferable, AOC. I’d have welcomed a few of both types or perhaps the ability to swap things over. Other harmonies follow Lowrey’s lead in their 1980’s Cotillion model, where an appropriate sound selection is made to match the harmony. Duet trumpets, Glenn Miller reeds and so on, all appear, and it’s very simple to override the factory settings with your own choice of voices. There’s a useful Sound Effects button that serves two purposes. One, it lets you choose from a whole raft of GM/XG based effects, and two, it lets you call in that effect instantly. At long last, I can finally play Pennsylvania 6-5000 and bring in that telephone bell manually at the required moment! If you dig just ever so gently into the menu screens you’ll find the mixer page, which can in fact be your default screen. This gives you full and total control over the sound balance, and a button push or two further lets you control the pan, reverb and effects settings.
When it comes to connectivity, the XE1 isn’t lacking in any respect. You get stereo line inputs and outputs, a mike input (with a dedicated echo effect) and a mike output, for passing the signal back to a mixer or PA system. If you want to connect a real Leslie cabinet, the XE1 will drive any Leslie that has an 11-pin connector. This includes most of the more recent multi-channel cabinets and the valve driven, single channel 122XB. Via a suitable adaptor, you can connect to anything from a 145 to a 760 or 710. Obviously, if you connect a single channel cabinet, only the drawbars will sound through it, so you’ll have to amplify the straight sounds separately. There’s also a socket for a footswitch, and as the expression pedal already provides one of these, this second footswitch is primarily intended as a sustain pedal. It is, of course, possible to choose an alternative function for both switches.
There are two MIDI inputs, one normally being used by the pedalboard, plus MIDI out and thru, and a Host PC connector. It’s worth pointing out that while the XE1’s MIDI specification is set up pretty much right ‘out of the box’, you can adjust just about everything that it’s possible to adjust and I can’t imagine a situation where there would be a problem connecting anything up.
Certainly the most innovative of the XE1’s connections has to be the Flash Memory socket. This allows the user to simply plug in a Flash Memory card and use this as a viable alternative to floppy disks. At present Flash Ram cards are available with capacities ranging from 8Mb up to 128Mb. At the upper end, that’s getting on for 100 floppies’ worth of data. Whilst you might argue that a built-in hard drive would offer bigger storage, the Flash memory system does have two advantages. First, it’s instantaneous, no more waiting for even a hard drive to load in the data. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, Hammond will be releasing a Style Card, with many more styles on than could be placed on a single floppy. It will be much simpler to use this one Flash Card than to have to keep playing ‘floppy swappy’.
The XE1’s amplification deserves a bit of a special mention, as Hammond has managed to get an very big sound out of very small speakers. Each of the stereo channels has just a 13cm and a 5cm speaker, driven by a 50 watt amp, but the speakers have been built into wooden enclosures inside the body of the instrument, with a sophisticated bass reflex system to beef up the bass. The speaker system is, to quote Hammond’s words, ‘acoustically focused’ – in other words the sound is directed right at the player’s ears. Well, it certainly makes a good change from having it blasted at your knees! To widen the stereo imaging, Hammond has included a pseudo 3-D effect, under the name of the Sound Expansion System. None of these ideas are new in themselves, but it’s the first time they’ve been added together in this way and as someone who’s been playing Hammonds for over 30 years, I’m seriously impressed with the amount of low down grunt available for the bass sounds. I’m also delighted to say that all this bass doesn’t interfere with the snappy, bright treble end. Full marks to Hammond for this.
Right then, let’s sum up, and as you’ll have already surmised, I’m very taken with the XE1, for many reasons. Firstly, it’s a brave step to launch a new type of instrument (well, OK, they’ve done it before a couple of times, so let’s say ‘re-launch’) into a market where most pundits would say that sales of new instruments have been in free fall for years. Hammond has done just that, and done so with an instrument that manages to combine a lot of traditional Hammond sounds, features and values with enough high tech facilities to cope with any demands made of it. It looks good and sounds good, but here’s the clincher for me. It plays divinely, right out of the box, and all ‘on the fly’. Sure, you can tweak it and customise it to your heart’s content and I could have doubled the length of the review in telling you how, but for the week that I had it, I only dabbled with the hidden features to see how they worked. I didn’t actually need to program or set anything as everything I really wanted was right to hand, and I found myself playing away into the small hours on several occasions. This is a player’s instrument that’s instantly playable. If it were a keyboard, its price tag of just under £3400 would seem high. But it’s not a keyboard, it’s a ‘compact organ’, and for an organ of this calibre, it represents great value. The XE1 gets a very big thumbs up from me, so if you’re thinking of a new organ or perhaps trading in an organ for a keyboard, you’ll definitely want to check it out.