The Hammond organ, with its distinctive sound, remains as popular as ever, a fact confirmed by the growing numbers of keyboards and modules on the market which are designed to replicate tonewheel organ sounds. Roland, Korg, Oberheim, Voce and Hammond/Suzuki themselves are among those manufacturers who have quested to put an end to the strangulated hernia once and for all by giving us tonewheel soundalikes that can be tucked under one arm and installed snugly on to any modest, lightweight keyboard stand -- unlike the backbreaking original Hammonds.
So far, Hammond's recent XB/XM-series has brought us the single-manual XB2, the dual-manual XB3 and XB5 (see review in SOS March '93), and the XM1/XMc1 module/remote control combination (reviewed May '97 by yours truly). The XB1 is the latest addition to the clan (wot, no XB4?) and is the logical progression from the XB2, being the brain of an XM1 module (near enough) and the body of an XB2 ....er, near enough.
HAMMOND XB1 £1098
Dimensions are similar to those of the XB2, although the XB1 is 1.5cm slimmer heightwise, lending it a sleek appearance. Whereas the XB2 had a wooden top, the XB1 now sports a control surface of knobs, tabs and an LCD display, thus combining the editing and control facilities found on both the XM1 module and its XMc1 remote unit. These controls consist of three rotary knobs for master volume, reverb amount and overdrive amount; then four tabs for drawbar select and keyboard split, four for percussion settings, one bank/number select, and eight bank/patch number tabs (for the 64 user rewritable patches). These eight tabs also double as your means to navigate the edit menus, and the edit tab also does the patch-storing duties. The panel to the lower left of the keyboard houses the drawbars, pitch and mod wheels, three Chorus/Vibrato tabs and three Leslie tabs.
Round the back we find the usual (but vital) fare -- IEC socket for mains, MIDI In, Out, and Thru, one footswitch socket (assignable to various tasks), an expression pedal socket, stereo audio outs, headphone jack and also an 8-pin DIN socket to output the signal to a real Leslie cabinet, should you so wish. This DIN socket has to be used with the optional Hammond XLD1 Leslie adapter box, which in turn provides the necessary 11-pin Leslie socket. Quite why this arrangement exists is unclear -- especially as the older XB2 had an 11-pin Leslie socket on its back panel, negating the need for a further box and cable.
The XB1 addresses many of the operational shortcomings of the XB2, and adds some extra bells and whistles along the way. Among these are a hugely improved Leslie simulator, immediate hardware access to parameters such as vibrato and percussion settings which were previously software menu items, the addition of a Pedal 'manual' -- I'll explain those single quotes in a minute -- and improved editing of the drawbar settings, notably those of the lower 'manual', which is now easier by several orders of magnitude.
If the mention of upper, lower and pedal manuals seems confusing (there being only the one obvious keyboard visible) then it should be explained that the keyboard can be split at a user-definable point, thus giving you the choice of upper/lower, upper/pedal or lower/pedal configurations. All three 'manuals' will respond to their own separately assignable MIDI channels from an external MIDI source (default channels are 1, 2 and 3). You could also connect a set of MIDI bass pedals to get live access to all three sounds. The keyboard can also be used as a MIDI master controller. There are two external zones, each of which can be set to transmit on its own channel with independent settings for (take a deep breath) pitch bend, modulation, damper, bank changes, program changes, key range, max/min volume, velocity curve, and octave transposition (+/- four octaves).
The internal zones' settings (those that affect the organ's own sounds) include split point, upper/lower, upper/pedal or lower/pedal keyboard configurations, lower-manual transpose (0 to 2 octaves), upper/lower/pedal bend ranges, mod wheel mode (off, Leslie, overdrive) and key range.
Happily, the XB1 sends virtually every panel control over MIDI. I was initially surprised to find that the vibrato, percussion, overdrive and Leslie on/off and brake controls sent no MIDI data, but I soon discovered that the System default for transmitting and receiving NRPN messages was off. Turn it on, and everything goes just fine. The drawbars send their data too, which means you can record dynamic timbral changes into your sequencer and have them play back just as you performed them (this is a feature XB2 owners have always wanted, and to their credit, Hammond have taken note and implemented many improvements to the XB2 software to bring it very close to the XB1 specifications). Tests showed that in order to make this work correctly with a sequencer, it's advisable to add a program change at the start of the sequence as a 'known' starting point -- otherwise the XB1 won't be able to follow the controllers' history properly if you start the sequencer in the middle of a song. Usefully, the drawbar data is sent as MIDI Controller messages, not SysEx -- which means it is very much easier to edit afterwards. Data dumps can also be made of the current drawbar and switch settings, as well as the entire instrument.
* THE LESLIE
The most noticeable sonic improvement of the XB1 over the XB2 is the built-in Leslie simulator. The front panel even has the screenprinted legend 'Animation by Digital Leslie', including the Leslie logo in Gothic type. And they have reason to be pleased with themselves, as it's in a different league altogether to the Leslie effect supplied with the XB2. This new version (also featured on the XM1 module) has many editable parameters including speed, rise and fall times, mic placement/distance and horn/rotor balance. Of course, with so many variations possible, it makes sense to have somewhere to store them. Rather than storing the actual Leslie settings as part of a patch, there are five separate editable Leslie memory locations, and you can choose which of these memories to store as part of a patch. This number differs from the XM1 module, which offered 10 memory locations, but five is probably plenty -- I'm sure most people will make up just one or two favourite Leslies and stick with them for the most part. Rather importantly, the effect actually sounds quite good. On a personal level, I would have preferred the effect to be slightly more pronounced at the slower speed, and the overall speeds' rise/fall times as written into the factory settings seemed a bit on the sluggish side -- but the latter can easily be changed to bring things in line with your own requirements.
* THE OVERDRIVE
This is designed to simulate the valve distortion that occurs when a Leslie preamp is driven hard. While the XB1 offers many improvements over the XB2, this is one area in which I feel the XB2 did marginally better. To my ears, the XB1's overdrive sounds just a tad too fizzy. It performs at its best when you apply it in subtle amounts, which is fine when the organ is fairly exposed in a musical arrangement, and you can hear the effect clearly. However, when competing with other instruments, the overdrive is somewhat masked, so you have to crank it up a bit to compensate, which leads to an attack of the fizzies. The XB2 overdrive fared better in this department, having a distinctly warmer, growlier quality. However, in its favour, the XB1 stores the overdrive amount as part of a patch, and any changes in overdrive level can be recorded over MIDI.
* THE REVERB
"The XB1 addresses many of the operational shortcomings of the
XB2, and adds some extra bells and whistles along the way."
Four Reverb algorithms are provided -- Room, Live, Hall and Church. No edit parameters exist for these -- the only thing you can change is the level. This, too, is stored as part of a patch -- but in common with the other X-model Hammonds, the maximum times and levels of reverb are a bit on the mean side, which counts out any long, ambient effects unless you add outboard reverb, which you'd possibly want to do anyway in a recording. Being able to vary the internal reverb's level and have it recorded in a sequencer is a plus point worth mentioning.
All six of the classic Hammond vibratos are available, with three depths each of Vibrato and Chorus Vibrato. Delving into the edit pages reveals that there are five speeds to choose from -- slow, mid, normal, mid-fast and fast. The vibrato is applied to the both upper and lower manuals, but not the pedals.
* OSCILLATOR PHASE CONTROL
An unusual parameter, it nevertheless does make a small difference. When set to on, all the oscillators' phases are locked to provide a tighter sound. When switched off, the oscillators' phases are independent, having the effect of slightly thickening the sound when more than one note is played -- not an easy thing to put into words. This is definitely quite subtle, and really only noticeable when the XB1 is being played solo. But don't expect the audience to leap up in uncontrolled appreciation...
* KEY CLICK
This can be set independently for the upper, lower and pedal manuals, and is intended to replicate the 'spitting' quality of dirty key contacts found on older organs. Soft, normal, max and off are the choices -- and a fifth option adds a slow attack to the drawbar tone, almost like a bowed effect. To complement this, there are also four choices of sustain (release time to you and me): off, short, mid and long; this is very useful for chime-like effects. I wasn't completely convinced by the key click -- it's more of a scratchy 'tick' than a 'spit', and it appeared to sound much the same regardless of the level setting, even after I'd made quite sure I was editing the right manual! On closer examination, the click has a randomness to it -- it's never quite the same level on two consecutive key presses. The same goes for the key-off click, which is sometimes present and sometimes not. This randomness is a nice touch -- at least I presume it's a nice touch, as I wasn't sure if it was intentional or not. If it is an accident, it's a happy one.
* THE PERCUSSION
As on the original Hammonds, second- and third-harmonic percussion is included, with the option of slow and fast decay times, soft/normal levels, keyboard scaling and single/multiple triggering. This is quite comprehensively editable, and can be customised to suit each drawbar registration. There is even the choice of having the drawbars dip in level by 3dB, or staying unaltered when either of the percussion tabs is selected. These percussion tones can also be selectively routed via the Leslie effect or left dry, depending upon your tastes -- an improvement over the XM1 module which didn't route the percussion via the Leslie at all.
The percussion is my major niggle on the XB1, and it's all to do with the attack time (which is viciously fast) and the decay envelope, which is rather too exponential. In other words, the initial attack is too violent, whilst the tail of the sound drops in level too quickly, regardless of the decay time setting. This lends it a sort of 'plastic' quality, and to my mind, it doesn't sit with the main drawbar tones quite as successfully as it did on the old XB2.
There are three tonal choices for each of the three manuals: Brite (sic), Mellow, and the classic B3 type. These differences are most noticeable in the lower registers of the keyboard. Drawbar foldback settings can be set individually set for the upper and lower manuals -- this regulates at what point the 16' and 1' drawbars 'wrap around' the octave at the extremes of the keyboard.
Putting aside my reservations about the percussion and overdrive, the XB1 has a very good basic sound, subjectively an improvement over that of the XB2. The Leslie simulation is certainly a major improvement, and the comprehensive MIDI implementation allows it to integrate fully into the MIDI studio environment. For around the same price as the XM1/XMc1 combination, you're getting all that those units provide, plus a perfectly playable MIDI master keyboard into the bargain. The current competition of note would come in the form of the Oberheim OB32 and the Roland VK7. The differences between these units begins to look increasingly marginal, and how those differences are perceived is entirely up to the prospective purchaser. Looks, brand name and price are inevitably considerations; the XB1 certainly has the pedigree name, it looks very slick and attractive, and it sounds very much like... well, a Hammond. Go check it out -- it may be just the thing you're looking for.