Synthesized, sampled, or modelled, the Hammond B3 tonewheel organ has inspired many imitations over the years. Now, for 15 thousand pounds, you can own Hammond's attempt at recreating the original. How close have they come?
The sound of the classic Hammond tonewheel organ and its Leslie rotary-speaker cabinet is an instantly recognisable element used in virtually every genre of popular music, and although the very first Hammond organ — the Model A — appeared in 1934, the instrument that everyone associates with the familiar, nay revered, 'Hammond Sound' is the infamous B3, introduced 20 years later.
There have been many and varied attempts at emulating the B3 sound over the years — both in hardware keyboards and in virtual instruments — but I think it is far to say that none has ever quite managed to perfect the challenge, although some have come remarkably close, particularly in recent years. Perhaps at this point I should explain that I am a total Hammond tonewheel aficionado — it is, beyond all others, my favourite keyboard instrument — and I am the proud and doting owner of a 1961 Hammond A100, complete with Leslie 122RV. If you're a newcomer to the world of the B3, check out the box on the history of this fascinating instrument later in this article.
So, when the corporate descendants of the original Hammond company (the Suzuki group bought both Hammond and Leslie in the late 1980s) announced an all-new B3 at the Frankfurt Musikmesse last year, with a digital sound generator at its heart, I was very keen to see and hear it. The pre-production model on show there looked and sounded impressive, but I have had to wait patiently until now before being able to climb on the bench to play the beast for myself — one of only two in the UK at present.
Hammond's 'New B3' is, to the casual observer, a stunningly faithful replica of a late-vintage original instrument (there is also a 'New C3' model available for those who feel the alternative slab-sided casework is more aesthetically pleasing or appropriate). The cabinetry of both models is sized identically to the corresponding originals and Hammond claim that the replica designs are so accurate that parts can even be exchanged with the original models. However, without the huge and heavy tonewheel generator and valve preamp the new machines are considerably lighter than the original at around 290lbs (132kg).
The 'late-vintage' reference relates to the drawbar handles on the New B3. These have the more modern angular shape with engraved footage numbers which were only installed on original B3s after 1969 — OK, I admit it, I'm a Hammond anorak! The tab switches are also squarer than the original, and the knob cap on the Leslie slide switch (in a replica half-moon pod, just as on the originals) has a different shape. But apart from these very minor cosmetic details, pretty much everything else is as you would expect to find on a real B3, with the same controls for percussion (of which more later), the same rotary vibrato/chorus switch, the same volume and vibrato tabs, and the same reverse-colour preset keys. There are even two run/start switches, although here there is a clever function change to accommodate the new electronics.
The original organ has separate Run and Start switches. The latter is a momentary (non-latching) switch which applies power to the starter motor and is used to get the entire generator mechanism spinning at a speed slightly higher than the normal running speed. The Run switch can then be operated to apply power to the internal amplifiers and the synchronous motor which maintains the generator's rotational speed in normal operation (the original synchronous motor could not spin itself up from cold, although some of the later spinet tonewheel organs did use a self-starting synchronous motor).
Clearly, with no mechanical generator in the New B3, there really only needs to be a single on-off switch to power the electronics. However, many Hammond players use the Start and Run switches for effect — pressing the Start switch with the organ already running will cause the generator to increase in speed, giving an upward pitch-bend, while pulling the Run switch off momentarily allows the synchronous motor to slow down, giving a downward pitch-bend.
So, to preserve this feature, the New B3 has a latching on-off switch on the right to power the instrument, and a non-latching three-way motor speed switch on the left — both are rubber-coated toggle switches just as on the original. Pushing or pressing the speed control switch creates a pitch-bend in the appropriate direction, reminiscent of the original, which will please advocates of this effect.
Other notable departures from the original tonewheel console organ are the addition of a side footswitch on the expression pedal to control the Leslie speed, and a control panel tucked under the bottom keyboard rail on the left-hand side (although many original B3s have been 'hot-rodded' with accessories to provide similar facilities).
The control panel (see picture on page 125) has rotary controls for master volume, bass and treble EQ (the last two with centre detents), reverb level and the amount of overdrive distortion. There are also three quarter-inch sockets providing a stereo headphone output, plus a pair of remote-control sockets to control the Leslie speed and the main/echo switching when two Leslies are connected (more on this in a moment). If fitted, the half-moon Leslie switch pods plug into these sockets.
At the back of the organ and built in to the pedal frame base on the left-hand side (as seen from the back), a connector panel provides an IEC mains inlet and a pair of 11-pin Leslie cabinet connectors, labelled Main and Echo. The main output is exactly as its name suggests, but if a second Leslie speaker is required (a common setup for organ jazz combos) it can be plugged into the Echo socket (Echo being standard 'Leslie-speak' for a second speaker output). Usually a second Leslie switch pod is added to supplement the normal Leslie slow/fast switch, with Main/Ensemble/Echo switching, allowing either or both Leslies to be used, as required. Another point worth making here is that the Leslie 122XB rotary speaker intended for use with the New B3 includes a Stop (Brake) mode as well as the normal Chorale (slow) and Tremolo (fast) settings.
A metal plate under the organ console provides the MIDI output socket (there is no MIDI In or Thru) plus four quarter-inch sockets which provide an external stereo line input, and a stereo line output for the complete organ (including reverb if selected).
In some ways, the New B3 employs a 'back-to-basics' approach in a concerted effort to achieve the intended goal of producing a direct and indistinguishable replacement for the B3, retaining all the character and subtle nuances of the original. The heart of the original B3 is its electromechanical tonewheel generator, and the heart of the New B3 is, wait for it... A 'Digital Tonewheel Sound Engine.'
It seems obvious really, but Hammond have found the best way to recreate the characteristics of the original design is to reproduce each tone source individually and simultaneously — and it is therefore generating 96 individual tones at all times. These are not audio samples of tonewheels, but bespoke tones digitally generated and designed precisely to replicate the various artefacts of the original electromechanical system. There are two different sets of tonewheel waveshapes, called 'B-type' and 'Mellow' which replicate the slightly different tonalities of different vintage tonewheel organs.
Most modern keyboards only generate the specific required note when a key is pressed, and there is a limit to how many notes can be produced simultaneously — whether that is 32, 64, or whatever. The arrangement used in the New B3 means it has total polyphony — all notes can be played at once, just as in the original, and the sound is output the moment a key is pressed, not several milliseconds later after the required waveform has been found in the system memory.
Another aspect of the New B3's operation is that it employs a similar key-switching arrangement to the original instrument. There are nine palladium switch contacts operated by each key, one for each drawbar, plus a 10th contact to generate MIDI note and velocity data. The output from the appropriate tonewheel generator is routed as an analogue signal through the corresponding drawbar contact for each keyboard note, and then on to the associated harmonic drawbar mixer — and the audible key-click is actually generated as a by-product of this mechanical key-switching, just as on the original (apparently, the whole generator and key-switching system is the result of over seven years of painstaking research and development).
Consequently, there is no facility to adjust the amount of key-click, other than with the tone controls — what you get is what is created by the contact switching. Whether because of this keying arrangement, or because of the way the tones are generated, there is audible crosstalk from all the other tone generators when any note is played, just as on the original.
The signal-mixing system has also been engineered in such a way that the 'loudness robbing' which is such an essential part of the original Hammond sound has also been maintained. In other words, although the volume increases as more notes are played, it doesn't build linearly, but instead there is a degree of gentle compression, producing a fatter sound than might otherwise have been expected. This attention to subtle detail is obviously paramount when trying to produce a modern replica, and it can be seen all over the New B3. The volume curve and frequency response changes that are an integral element of the action of the expression pedal (foot volume controller) have also been reproduced extremely accurately (with three alternative settings to replicate different models of organ), for example. It's a subtle point and not widely known, but the amount of key click changes very slightly when the chorus/vibrato is switched on in an original B3, and the New B3 shows exactly the same effect — now that really is attention to detail!
If you have already read the box below about the history of the original B3 instrument, you might have noticed a discrepancy in the number of tonewheels. The New B3 has 96 digital tonewheel generators whereas the original B3 (and its siblings) had 91 active tonewheels (although there were actually 96 physical wheels in the generator, the unused ones being there to maintain the mechanical balance). However, if you do the sums, you'll find that there are actually 109 different tones required to produce nine harmonics on a 61-note keyboard. The original Hammonds overcame this problem by cheating — partial octaves were repeated at the top end of the keyboard, the repeating starting on different notes and octaves depending on the drawbar. On a stock B3 the 2-foot drawbar repeats only the top 'C' from the octave below, while the 1-foot drawbar repeats an octave and a half starting from the 'G', and the intermediate drawbars start repeating somewhere in between. This arrangement is usually referred to as 'fold-down' and it is an essential element of the subtle but characteristic tonal quality of the B3 and its siblings.
However, some of the later Hammond organs (like the H100 and X77) were fitted with a full complement of 96 active tonewheels, adding an extra half-octave of notes at the top end which allowed the amount of fold-down to be reduced as well to enable the introduction of seventh, ninth, 10th and 12th harmonics (usually paired as 7/9 and 10/12 combinations on two new drawbars). These organs had a subtly different, slightly brighter tonal character.
The bottom octave of the lowest drawbar was also repeated from the octave above on the original B3 and its siblings, to avoid producing too muddy a sound (the lowest tonewheel frequencies are normally only available on the pedals). However, all the earlier and some later models retained the full range of the 16-foot voice on the manuals and many B3s were hot-rodded to enable bass lines to be played with the true 16-foot pitch notes in the bottom octave of the lower keyboard.
So, returning from this small diversion, the New B3 has all 96 frequency generators available, and the fold-down configuration can be adjusted to set precisely where the top and bottom notes are repeated. The default mode is to replicate the stock B3, naturally, but it is simple to recreate the tonality of other Hammond organs, or indeed to create a new fold-down configuration.
Hidden in a pull-out drawer under the right-hand side of the lower keyboard is the 'Information Centre.' This comprises a 2 x 20 LCD screen with nine buttons to navigate the half dozen or so menus, select the various options, and adjust the available parameters. Everything that was inherently adjustable or which varied with different B3 models can be configured here, along with many hot-rodding parameters to suit pretty much any personal preference spanning the full range of B3 characteristics. So, the tonewheel set can be changed (independently on manuals and pedals) to give different tonalities, and the percussion volume, sustain, keyboard level, and 1-foot cancel mode can also be adjusted.
On a stock B3 the keyboard drawbar level is reduced by about 3dB when the percussion is switched to its Normal (loud) mode in order to preserve the overall volume, but many players prefer to disable this function and that can be replicated on the New B3. Similarly, the 1-foot drawbar is normally disabled when Percussion is switched on (the 1-foot key contacts are used to trigger the sustain circuit) but many players rewire the organ to use a less important drawbar contact so that the 1-foot pitch remains available when percussion is used. Again, this feature can be replicated through the Information Centre menus.
A rather more unusual feature is that the vibrato rate can also be changed, the expression pedal minimum volume can be adjusted, and the volume versus position curve altered. The side switch on the expression pedal can also be programmed either to toggle the Leslie speed, force the Leslie to run fast while pressed, or to act as a sustain damper pedal (probably most useful for controlling external MIDI sound generators). Standard Liturgic, Jazz, or Theatre voice banks can be allocated to the preset keys (or user-programmed variations), and there are facilities to store or recall preset voices to and from a Type I compact Flash Card.
The latter can only be accessed by removing the rear panel of the case, which seems unnecessarily awkward. However, since all settings and custom configurations, including the MIDI setups, can be stored in both the internal user memories and the CF card, a touring Hammond player could carry his or her own preferences to instantly reconfigure another New B3 anywhere in the world.
You can also select a digital reverb type, the overall tuning pitch, key-transposition modes, and the MIDI configuration, and the organ's output tonality can be optimised for solid-state or valve Leslies. Given the attention to detail in other aspects of this replica, it's a shame that while the built-in digital reverb facility includes programs for two halls, three rooms, two churches and a plate, there is no spring-reverb setting — a popular choice of effect with real Hammonds.
The pedalboard on the original B3 was effectively just another keyboard, so it was therefore fully polyphonic and the notes stopped when the pedals were released. Some later instruments used an electronic system for generating pedal tones and introduced a plucked-string effect where the note decays slowly after the pedal is released, but with the side effect that the pedals became monophonic (highest note priority). Needless to say, the New B3 can be configured through the Information Centre for normal or muted (softer) bass pedals, polyphonic or monophonic operation, and pedal sustain can be switched on or off with a user-determined decay time (scaled simply from 1 to 5).
The MIDI facilities of the New B3 are similar to those on the decade-old, MIDI-capable Hammond XB3 and XB5. The keyboards are velocity-sensitive and zone-mappable with octave-switching facilities, and the reverse-key presets and drawbars can be used to send program and channel control data. The pre-production models of the New B3 were also equipped with aftertouch (as on the XB3) but apparently this has been dropped from the production models because it made the key action too long and detracted from the accuracy of the replica — and few players felt it a necessary feature anyway.
Having mentioned MIDI, I should point out that there is only a MIDI Out socket, so while the New B3 can be used to control an external expansion rack, say (allowing you to play a nice Rhodes piano sample from the top half of the lower keyboard, for example), there is no MIDI In or Thru facility. This is because the note generation is controlled by the physical key contacts, and can therefore not be activated remotely.
After playing the New B3 I can say with all confidence that this instrument is virtually indistinguishable from an original machine — certainly judging by sound alone. Naturally, with the same controls placed exactly where they should be it feels very familiar to play too. Although the stock sound is stunningly faithful, it is also easily tweaked to closer replicate the broad range of real Hammond organ tonalities from bright or even screaming, through smooth and mellow, to downright dirty!
The adoption of individual contacts for each drawbar pitch on every note not only produces real key-click (with all the inherent variations each time a note is played), but also causes the different harmonics to be introduced one at a time as a note is pressed slowly. Some players claim this is an important performance aspect of the instrument — a kind of touch sensitivity — and although I'm not personally convinced by the argument, the effect is there anyway! I found the key click initially rather more prominent than I like, personally, but a gentle reduction in the treble control soon brought a balance which was more to my liking. This was using the standard B3 tonewheel set, and when I changed to the Mellow set I discovered an overall sound much closer to my own vintage A100.
From the performance point of view I found the keys to be a little more 'springy' than my own Hammond, but then the review organ was brand new, whereas mine has been played for 40 years, which is bound to make the keys a little slack! With the waterfall-fronted keys, palm glissandos are as easy and satisfying as on the original, and the drawbars (again a little tighter and 'notchier' than my own instrument) were delightful to 'play'.
The customisation features accessed through the Information Centre expand the flexibility of this instrument considerably, and I particularly found the ability to adjust the volume of the percussion and keyboard useful. The pedal sustain was also nice for some kinds of music, and the facility to change the tonewheel set and fold-down configuration is excellent, allowing the user to change the entire character of the organ from a bright, 1970s-sounding instrument with the late-model high-end filter networks installed, to a more mellow 1960s organ full of crosstalk, beer and smoke — and all at the touch of a few buttons! As they say in the best jazz clubs: "Niiice..."!
The adjustable overdrive is fantastic too — this is the one of the most natural valve-overdrive systems I have yet heard, really capturing the traditional effect and allowing everything from full-on Jon Lord rock grunge, to a gentle grit, to an ultra-clean gospel sound. I wish it was that easy to change the amount of distortion on my vintage organ!
The Leslie 122XB is well established and makes all the right kinds of noises — both electrical and mechanical — and the inclusion of the Brake mode which stops the drum and horn completely is a welcome facility. Although I'm not used to using it, the Leslie speed switch on the expression pedal makes it easy to play with both hands while still winding the Leslie up and down. However, this can also lead to some confusion as the half-moon Leslie control switch on the bottom keyboard rail can end up out of sync with the Leslie's actual status, and you have to change the switch position to regain control. I found it less confusing to reconfigure the expression pedal switch so that it had a momentary action which forced the Leslie to fast mode.
I don't think there can be any doubt that the New B3 is a true replica of an original B3 — both in terms of the look and layout, and the actual sound. I honestly don't believe anyone could tell the new instrument apart from an original if it was set up appropriately. This new organ looks the same, it sounds the same, it plays the same, it has the same quirks and characteristics, but it can also be tweaked and configured to replicate the most common and important hot-rodding techniques, which extend its capabilities just enough to satisfy the widest possible range of B3 lovers.
Although I am ecstatic that Hammond-Suzuki have laboured for so long and so lovingly to recreate the original Hammond tonewheel sound with modern technology, I'm not entirely clear as to the intended market. This instrument is seriously expensive and more than twice the price of a really nice original tonewheel Hammond complete with Leslie. Okay, so B3's are extremely rare in the UK — but they do still turn up — while C3s and A100s are widely available and cost a fraction of the asking price for a New B3 and 122XB.
Having said that, an original instrument is going to be at least 30 years old, so will need regular (and sometimes expensive) maintenance. It is also extremely heavy and difficult to gig with, and the tonality of each instrument is more or less fixed unless you are prepared to give it a major overhaul and makeover. It won't have MIDI either, and although this can be retrofitted, there are serious compromises and it is an extremely expensive process. Compared to all that, the New B3 is substantially lighter, has far more flexible tonality, built-in MIDI facilities, and should prove as reliable as any other modern keyboard.
So to whom will it appeal? The average gigging keyboard player looking for a Hammond-esque sound is already pretty well catered for, and I would have thought that most serious Hammond nuts would prefer to cosset an original instrument since the idiosyncrasies of an old tonewheel Hammond are an inherent, almost organic part of its character, just like a much-loved original Fender guitar.
However, there are many home organists who might like to go down this route, and with a MIDI expansion rack to provide additional voices such as strings, brass, pianos and so on, the New B3 would make a fabulous centrepiece for an impressive home setup — and with a cost not too dissimilar from some of the state-of-the-art home organs currently available.
Apparently Hammond foresee the biggest market area to be Gospel churches, especially in the USA, and professional Hammond players — like Jimmy Smith, for example, who is already using one of the new B3s — will appreciate the convenience and reliability of the new model too. These benefits will appeal equally to recording studios and musical-equipment hire companies as well. The ability to change tonewheel sets to manipulate the sound quality, and to adjust other performance and sonic characteristics of the organ to suit different user requirements will be a major boon to these organisations as well, since it enables them to tailor the organ to the user quickly and easily, rather than having to maintain several different instruments with different characteristics.
Understandably, the production run of Hammond's New B3 will not be huge — the instrument is virtually hand built — but the official word is that it is an ongoing project and they will continue to manufacture the beast as long as orders come in. Judging by the reception the New B3 received at its NAMM and Musikmesse launches I would imagine that much of the technology developed for this fabulous organ will spin off into other keyboards in the near future too — although I'm told that the key-contact mechanism requires a lot of depth below the keyboard which makes a single-manual version — along the lines of the XK2 — rather difficult to engineer.
However, for B3 aficionados everywhere, the New B3 is an immensely important product, and full marks to Suzuki for investing the time and funds to create a replica which is, finally, truly indistinguishable from the original in every important way. I think we will be seeing a lot of this instrument in the months and years to come.
Thanks to John Henrys (+44 (0)20 7609 9181) for the use of the B3 pictured in this article.
The Leslie speaker intended to accompany the New B3 is the 122XB, a model that was originally developed for the Hammond-Suzuki XB series of organs. This cabinet is identical to the original Leslie 122 and the internal mechanics are very similar, with a rotating treble horn and a polyurethane foam bass rotor. The speaker weighs about 150lbs (70kg).
It is connected to the organ with the modern 11-pin plug which uses low-voltage switching instead of the high-voltage phantom system used on the original six-pin Leslies, and mains power is provided via an IEC connector directly to the built-in amplifier chassis. Like the original designs, the 122XB uses a single-channel 40W valve amplifier (again similar to the original design and using the same 6550 output tubes), and a passive crossover connected to a pressure driver for the horn and a 15-inch woofer. There are three speed options: slow (choral), fast (tremolo) and off (brake).
At present there is no equivalent to the Leslie 122RV cabinet which had a built-in reverb spring line, separate amplifier and static speaker fitted in the side of the Leslie cabinet. The significance of this is that because reverberation is added internally in the New B3, the reverb is also 'Leslied' along with the rest of the organ sound when using the 122XB rotary speaker.
A straight B3/122RV combination has no reverberation at all, and many players don't use reverberation anyway but where they do, it is traditionally through a B3/122RV setup. This gives a non-dopplered reverb tail which not only sounds more natural, but also enhances the Leslie effect by providing a constant pitch reference. This is not currently possible with the New B3/122XB combination. It's a small point, perhaps, but one which struck me immediately as a change in the sound character.