Andrew Gilbert reviews the HAMMOND XB3 in 'KEYBOARD PLAYER' Magazine
MY FRIEND put down his beer glass, looked up and then gazed into space. "Oh yes," he said, smiling, "I remember that one." I grimaced, as my friend (the one that thinks organs are 'just like cars' and ought to have 'individuality') seemed about to suffer an attack of terminal nostalgia. He continued: "You got the first hernia lifting the darned thing on stage, the second from shifting the PR40 speaker and the third from lugging the Leslie around. Mind you, it didn't half make a good sound!"
"It" is probably the most heard organ in history. Even if you've never seen one, let alone played one, you'll have heard it on countless recordings, in films and on radio and TV. Other instruments may come. and go, but nearly 40 years after its introduction in 1955, the venerable Hammond B3 goes on and on.
As you may have read in our interview with Mike Carr recently the B3 and its more utilitarian styled brother the C3 are still sought after in the professional world. Dependable, reliable and built like the proverbial tank (hence the back-breaking weight) it still finds its way on stage with the top names. So why has Hammond, in its 60th year, brought out the latest addition to the stable, the XB3? Why reinvent the wheel if the original is so darned good?
I put it down to what I call the 'Morris Minor Syndrome'. You see, I'd like an immaculate Morris Minor 1000 but I'd prefer it to have better handling and performance. So I'd put in a bigger engine, uprate the suspension, add disk brakes, wider wheels and tyres. Then put in a stereo, more comfy seats and so on. In short I'd end up with the original Moggy, but somewhat updated. So it is with the B3. You can add bits, modify it, tweak it, put MIDI on and so forth, but there comes a point when you think that maybe a new instrument altogether is called for. Enter theXB3.
In appearance the XB3 is virtually a carbon copy of the B3. Same cabinet, same carved legs, same folding lid and the same basic layout. Even the 'Hammond' name between themanuals looks original, well post 1968 anyway - they changed the lettering that year! However the absence of the tonewheel generator means that there's not so much below keyboard level -and it's also much lighter! It's a couple of inches wider than the B3, to accommodate some of the new bits, but you'll find everything to hand very quickly if you just sit down and pretend it's a real B3.
So that's just what I did. With the organ on its default settings, it not only looks like a real B3, but sounds like it too. When Hammond launched the Super-B a few years ago, I thought they'd got about as close as they could get to the 1935 sound, but the XB2, XB5 and now the XB3 have got even closer. I'd say that this is 99.9 per cent accurate, to say otherwise would be splitting hairs, and I haven't got that many to split!
Next, I spun the Leslie rotors and found myself wallowing in pure nostalgia.
Believe me, the sound is unmistakably,
Hammond gave me four Leslie cabinets to try the XB3 with, so I first plugged in the new valve amplified 122XB - a 1994 version of the original model 122. The combination is magic. With the Leslie stopped and vibrato turned on, it brought to mind some old recordings I have of
Ken Griffin, Ethel Smith (of Tico Tico fame) and our own Robin Richmond playing a B3 in the late 1950's. Incidentally the Vibrato and Chorus effects are the same options as the original, i.e. V1,2,3 and Ch2, and 3, same depth, same speed. Next, I spun the Leslie rotors - aha, I found myself wallowing in pure nostalgia. Believe me, the sound is unmistakably, undeniably right.
So, if the sound is right, does it 'feel' like a B3? You bet your life it does. The keys are the original piano style, not overhanging, and have the authentic, slightly-stiffer-than-normal touch to them. The controls are all in the right places and, within reason, work the same way. The pedals feel light and easy and even the Leslie control is just about in the right place. Close your eyes and play and you would not know the difference. So I'll give Hammond's R&D team 10 out of 10 for accuracy; but now let's see what else the XB3 will do.
There are so many improvements and new features, that to go through them all would take more than one article, so I'll cover those that make the most difference. I'll start with the reverse coloured preset keys. On the B3, these latch down and can be very stiff to operate, occasionally jamming. On the XB3 they are non-latching and very light, the selected preset being indicated by an LED. Programming the preset keys to your own drawbar settings is no longer an engineering task, thank heavens, but a simple two button process. Bottom C can, as usual, be used as a Cancel key, but the XB3 allows you to use it as an extra preset too.
Next, what variety of Hammond sound would you like? The default is 'B3', the original 1935-1955 sound of the model A, B, C and D, which is not, contrary to popular belief, a 'pure' sine wave, but a rather more 'dirty' waveform. Then there is 'Mellow', the purer sound of the transistorized model T from 1968; and finally 'Brite', the electronic non-tonewheel sound of the Concorde, circa 1972.
To complete the illusion, you can switch the expression pedal response between that of the console Hammonds, like the B3and C3, and that of the spinets, like the L, M, and T series. Real-hit-pickers may also like to switch the tuning between B3 type and Even Temperament. A fine difference maybe but noticeable to the trained ear. The 16' drawbar folds back on the bottom octave and the 1' at G4, as does the B3, but as other Hammonds don't do this, you can reset the foldback points or do away with them altogether.
Switching the XB3 over to 'Brite' really called for a change of Leslie, so I plugged in an 815. Reason? Simple, the standard Leslie for the Concorde, Elegante, and later models was the 715/815 series, with the characteristic heavy throb of the Roto-Sonic tremolo unit. The XB3 then gave a first-rate imitation of a Concorde. At this stage I also added sustain, which Hammond drawbar organs did not have until the Concorde. OK, the models H and E had 'Harp Sustain' but only at 8' pitch. The sustain lengths here are adjust-able in three steps and pedal sustain is also provided, no more 'grunting' pedal lines!
Now, we really start to have fun! Back to the B3 sound, back to the 122XB cabinet and see what the B3 would have been like if Laurens Hammond had invented it in 1994. First, let's start by using the fact that the keyboards are touch responsive. We can make the 2nd and 3rd harmonic percussions touch sensitive, and set their level relative to the drawbars in 16 steps. You can also set the organ so the drawbars are automatically reduced in level by about 50 per cent when the percussion is added. With a bit of time and practice you can really make the XB3 snap and bite. If it were a dog, it would frighten off Rottweiler!
Next, we can set the XB3 to bring in a second drawbar setting when the keys are struck hard. This is just brilliant and has to be my favorite 'new' feature. I tried Satin Doll with a real smoochy sound (804002348 and fast Leslie) with a sudden 'stab' at the keys bringing in a morepunchy combination (828868667). What's more the touch response can also switch the Leslie speed. Very useful indeed. Hmmm, a touch responsive B3. I wouldn't have thought it an idea worth considering - how wrong could I be. It makes playing the instrument a whole new ball game and a heck of a lot of fun too.
So while we're having so much fun, let's look down at the expression pedal. Aha! There's a footswitch, so what can that do? Add sustain, sostenuto, send a MID Start/Stop signal or switch the Leslie speed, for a start. In fact there are four ways to change the Leslie speed, the Slow/Fast switch itself, the 'half moon style flip switch on the front, the footswitch and touch response. Overkill, maybe but you can't complain since it covers all personal preferences. So, I set the footswitch to sustain and left the slow/fast job to the 'half moon' switch.The XB3 defaults to a sensible
amount of click, though those
seeking a really gritty, dirty
sound can crank it up a lot higher
Now we go further. We can slow the attack envelope of the sound (no thanks, a 'soft' Hammond is like a squarewheeled bike - it doesn't work!) or more usefully alter the keyclick level. Keyclick -there's a nostalgic point. Hammond spent years getting rid of the click and when they
eventually succeeded, the outcry was such that they had to put it back on again! The XB3 defaults to a sensible amount of click, though those seeking a really gritty, dirty sound can crank it up a lot higher.
Play around with the reverb? No problem, choose one of four types from small room to large hall, and then set the level. Mind you, it's a bit different hearing the reverb swishing through the Leslie again after all these years. We can add overdrive, but don't tell my friend - he'll think it's a car again. Overdrive in this case is what the Americans would call tube distortion, that unmistakable sound caused by pushing a valve amplifier to its limit - or past it. Now it's variable and can be used with a bit of discretion. At maximum it really screams and you thankfully don't have to blow the amps to do it.
All the 'tweaks' are done via a small menu display located to the left of the lower manual, with eight associated push buttons. The LCD display itself is perhaps a bit on the small side and could have been angled up to be more easily read. The operation is fairly straightforward, but with six main pages and then several sub pages of some options it's not something I'd try to do in mid-tune. However, in the display's 'Play' mode some of the push buttons rather sensibly take on new functions such as sustain on/off and transpose, which when needed, are needed quickly.
Other controls are located to the left of the upper manual. These are small rotary type controls, including Overall Volume, Reverb Level, Treble and Bass response and Overdrive again. Handy that, having dived into the menu to set the maximum overdrive level, you can then tweak it as you play.
There is also a Ramcard slot for storage of preset data, but no disk drive. Oh what the heck, it doesn't need one as all your tweaks are stored in the XB3's memory and most players will set the organ up to their personal preferences and then use the XB3 'on the fly' anyway.
What else? Well the MIDI spec is full enough for professional use, zoning each keyboard is no
problem and the XB3 can transmit enough information to act as a pseudo master keyboard. I can see some players using one manual for their Hammond sounds and the other as a MIDI controller. The XB3 uses the first set of upper drawbars to control MIDI volume levels in real time. There is space inside the console for a half-width sound module, rather cunningly hidden at the top left of the console.
The XB3's own sounds are strictly single channel but you can change the amplification to two or three channel depending on the Leslie cabinet in use. This means that 'straight' sounds like an additional sound module can be diverted away from the Leslie rotors. There are inputs for external sources, and various outputs allowing connection to a variety of amplification. The Leslie output is an 11 pin one, so there's a wide range of rotary cabinets to choose from.
Talking of rotary cabinets, let's look at the matching Leslie, the 122XB. Apart from a difference in the louvers on the front of the cabinet, you wouldn't tell it from an original 122. Move around to the back and you get a surprise, for Hammond has used the same amplifier chassis, the same valves, even the same bolts to hold the back on!
The only things to have changed are the power supply, now fed in via a separate mains lead rather than down the Leslie cable, and the drive motors. The frequency response of the cabinet is the same as the old 122 and trying it out in direct comparison with a 412, 815 and 822,1 must say that I prefer it to its transistorized counterparts. You can't beat valves in my book.
One slight problem is that it hums just like my old Leslie 145 used to. Is this intentional, I wonder? If so, it's very authentic, but I would rather it didn't do it! Still, the original B3, PR4O and Leslie 122 were never exactly 'hifi' and people have been putting up with their odd hums and noises for long enough, so who am I to complain?
At this stage my mind went out of 'Review' mode and into 'Play', so I did - for half the morning! I tried every type of music I can ever recall playing on Hammond, from smoochy late
night stuff to classical organ. I tried jazz numbers, screaming, overdrive rock organ, some of my old 'easy listening' arrangements from 20 odd years ago when I had a model L and a model T, and even A Whiter Shade of Pale! Then came Keith Beckingham's arrangement of Caravan complete with lower manual bongos and Bryan Rodwell's version of Donkey Serenade complete with donkeys! In short I looked for all my favorite Hammond sounds and then some. The XB3 delivered them all, flawlessly.
Hammond have got things pretty
much right: it does everything
you might expect a pure drawbar
organ to do and does it very well
So, the XB3 is a very playable instrument, but has Hammond got anything wrong or missed anything, you might ask. Well, I would have liked to have seen an AOC type feature. OK, I know it's not original 'pure' Hammond, but we're talking about a serious case of updating here, so why not? A split Leslie for upper and lower manuals would have been very handy, given a two or three channel Leslie cabinet. A few more percussions, like 4th, 5th and even 6th harmonics, perhaps? Again, not standard, but useful nonetheless.
Imodified my model T that way. The extra drawbars found on the model H and X series Hammonds wouldn't have gone amiss, but perhaps that's going too far away from the original idea of the XB3. Nice idea, though. Whilst I can see the point of making the console copy the B3 as closely as possible, I must say that I still prefer overhanging keys to the piano type, sorry Hammond.
Those few things apart, I think Hammond has got things pretty much right: it does about everything you might expect a pure drawbar organ to do and does it very well.
So where does its market lie? Will it tempt those who currently have B3's or C3's to change? Well, Hammond has packed the XB3 into a cabinet that is lightweight, that splits easily and yet is still tough enough to move around, so this is quite a useful beast for the organist on the move.
I think Hammond realizes that the real market is for the pro, not so much the solo performer, but the rock players like the Rick Wakemans and Keith Emerson's of this world and jazzers like Mike Carr and Tim Hinkley, who's about to take his XB3 on tour. For that type of player, the XB3 represents a really useful tool, with its wealth of extra features built on top of an exact copy of the original sound. The roadies will undoubtedly prefer its weight to that of the B3, but the Leslie will still make them groan!
Recording studios, too, might well look favorably on the XB3, as no sampler can deliver so many Hammond sounds of this quality. Some home Hammond enthusiasts might just be tempted enough to swap their beloved A1OO's, but the XB3 is a rather pricy animal: if you want the Leslie 122XB as well, it will set you back over £11,000.
I can't see many home players taking the plunge but would I buy an XB3 myself, given the cash? Yes I would, definitely! Now where did I put that pools coupon?