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Creamware B4000 ASB

Modelled Tonewheel Organ
Published August 2006
By Dave Stewart

Creamware B4000 ASB

Having served up convincing hardware emulations of the legendary Minimoog and Prophet V analogue synths, Creamware turn their attention to the mighty Hammond B3.

The past is all around us, and it won't go away. Virtually every popular keyboard from the '60s and '70s seems today to be available in software, sampled, or emulated hardware form — Vox Continental, Farfisa, and Hammond organs; Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos; Mellotron; Hohner Clavinet and Pianet; Yamaha CP70 electric grand; Minimoog, Moog Modular, ARP Odyssey, ARP 2600, Yamaha CS80, Prophet V, and PPG Wave synths; and even the daftly-named, UK-designed Oscar!

Having played most of these vintage items in their heyday, I well remember that they required regular and costly maintenance, tuning, and repair, and, as my shredded back muscles will testify, some of them weighed a ton. While I'm grateful to be spared the bills and the backache, I'm still suspicious that behind the flashy graphics and hip retro stylings of the modern replicants, the software-driven sound engine might not be doing justice to the original instrument.

On that score, German company Creamware recently allayed a few of my fears with their Pro 12 ASB, a very creditable hardware recreation of Sequential Circuits' fabulous 1978 Prophet V analogue synth. Apparently their Minimax ASB Minimoog emulation does the business too. (You can read the reviews in SOS May and January 2006 respectively.) So when I heard that Creamware were planning a digital clone of the mighty Hammond B3 organ, my ears pricked up. This instrument towers over the 20th-century music scene like a colossus: since it first appeared in 1935, it's been played by legions of legendary organists, is still widely used by touring bands, and can be found in recording studios throughout the world. The big, rich, churning, but incisive sound we all know comes from hooking the B3 up to a Leslie rotary-speaker cabinet, which means that anyone who attempts to emulate the famous Hammond sound has got to get the Leslie effect right as well.

Economy Of Scale

Creamware's B4000 ASB (short for Authentic Sound Box) is a sturdy, well-built hardware unit in a wooden case which, along with its various front-panel controls, boasts a set of nine full-sized Hammond-style drawbars which feel smooth and solid in operation. It must be said that Creamware do the miniaturisation thing very well — from a distance, their petite instrument (32.5 x 21 x 9.5cm) resembles a little 1970s rhythm box, and it's only on coming closer that one notices the set of drawbars on the front. If you placed it side by side with a real B3 (a huge, intimidating beast with two manuals and a large, two-octave pedal board) it would be like seeing a kitten standing next to a baby elephant. But small is beautiful — unlike the original, you can take this lightweight box to a gig in a shoulder bag, and if the gig happens to be in Yokohama or Oklahoma you won't be looking at an excess-baggage bill of thousands of pounds.

On the back panel there are stereo analogue jack outputs and inputs (yes folks, external signals can be run through the Leslie effect); MIDI In, Out, and Thru; a USB socket for Windows and Mac connectivity; a power supply socket, about which more below; and two jack sockets for switch and expression pedals. The manual makes a terrible fuss about the latter, insisting that models other than a Yamaha FC7 may cause permanent damage. Duly warned, I refrained from connecting my Korg expression pedal, feeling it might be better to finish the review before destroying the unit. I also figured I'd be able to use the MIDI Continuous Controller number 11 (CC11) Expression controller, but the B4000's response to this control is inverted so that high controller values make the signal quieter! Until Creamware fix this fault you'll have to use MIDI CC7 (Volume) instead. I also discovered that the B4000 ignores sustain-pedal and volume-control changes on all MIDI channels apart from channel one, which I presume is another mistake. As for the 'switch' socket, I've no idea what it's for and the manual gave no clue. I tried plugging my sustain pedal into it — it didn't work, but caused no apparent harm.

Drastic Plastic

Unfortunately, the B4000's power supply is the wall-wart type with a European two-pin plug. When I reviewed Creamware's Pro 12 ASB in SOS May 2006 I criticised the cheap-looking, thin brown plastic UK mains adaptor supplied with it — the main problem was that it fitted too loosely over the power supply so that when plugged into a wall socket, the power supply was prone to fall out. Creamware now supply a virtually identical black plastic adaptor with a locking screw which holds it in place when tightened. However, the new adaptor is of no better quality than the original, and when fitted over the European plug at right angles it forms an ungainly and unbalanced L-shape. If I were taking the unit on the road I would definitely look for a sturdier, less clunky alternative — the best solution would be to buy your own UK 12V power supply, but it's annoying that Creamware don't supply this in the first place. A more marked improvement over the Pro 12 is that the B4000's manual appears to have been properly proofread, and its English version is mercifully free of German technical words!

A Hammond B3's upper and lower manuals and pedals each have their own set of drawbars, so it's possible to have three different sounds going on at the same time. The B4000 has the same capability: for multitimbral work you can set a different MIDI channel for the three components, or to play all three simultaneously from a single keyboard, you can set them to the same channel and create a three-way keyboard split. The upper manual's MIDI channel (which doubles as the B4000's global channel) is not stored as part of a preset, and its last setting is not always retained on power-up. The volume controls for the manual, pedals and audio input are always 'live' and their settings are not stored within presets.

The unit ships with 127 'global presets' (each comprising the settings for both manuals and the pedals) which can be edited and overwritten. In addition, the manuals and pedals each have 100 editable user drawbar settings. Up to five presets can be assigned to the five 'encoder buttons' and instantly called up — the same goes for the drawbar settings. This flexible system makes the B4000 suitable for live use, and the good news is that sound changes occur instantly, although (as with most sound modules) a preset change tends to cut off any notes you're holding down at the time. When you turn a panel rotary control, its value appears on screen in a nice big red LED display. To aid comparison between a stored and edited sound, a small yellow 'sound changed' LED lights up whenever you alter a stored setting. In theory the LED should go out again when you manually match the setting's value, but on the review unit this function was not working on the second and third drawbars, rendering any sound-matching impossible.

Hammond Drawbar Terminology

Traditionally, Hammond drawbar pitches are described in pipe-organ terminology (16', 8', and so on, referring to the pipe length in feet) or in terms of the acoustic harmonic series (second harmonic, third harmonic, and so on.) Neither seems appropriate or particularly helpful when applied to an electronic instrument, so to clarify matters the table below shows the relative musical pitches of the drawbars along with their traditional descriptions. Note that the second drawbar is pitched higher than the third, a Hammond organ idiosyncrasy.

DrawbarPipe LengthHarmonicIntervalPitch (for MIDI note number 60)
1 (Brown)16'1stSub-octaveC2
2 (Brown)5 1/3'3rdFifthG3
3 (White)8'2ndFundamentalC3 (Middle 'C')
4 (White)4'4thOctaveC4
5 (Black)2 2/3'6thOctave + fifthG4
6 (White)2'8thTwo octavesC5
7 (Black)1 3/5'10thTwo octaves + major thirdE5
8 (Black)1 1/3'12thTwo octaves + fifthG5
9 (White)1'16thThree octavesC6

Basic Sound

The Hammond drawbar system is faithfully reproduced by the B4000 (see the table for an explanation of drawbar pitches). The basic sound (best demonstrated by pulling out the bottom drawbar with no effects) is very clean and pure and, either by accident or design, nicely reproduces the little 'patting' noise Hammond organs make when you release a key. Real Hammonds also produce a pronounced key click on the front of notes, a sonic artifact which was first regarded as a nuisance, but gradually came to be seen as an asset. (As well as amplifying his Hammond with a bank of Leslies, Keith Emerson used to run it through a Marshall 100W stack to bring out the click!) Creamware's key click simulation is a little weak — it has its own volume control and (unlike the real thing) can be heard even when no drawbars are pulled out, but I found it a bit thin-sounding, slightly synthetic, and too quiet in relation to the drawbar volume. The click also seemed to vary in level somewhat, which occasionally made it vanish in the mix.

You can make the unnaturally pure organ tone less pristine by turning up the front panel 'condition' control — this successfully simulates the drawbar 'leakage' which occurs in out-of-condition Hammonds and adds upper frequencies and a bit of rumble and body to the sound. Turn the knob beyond 63, and you begin to affect the organ's tuning; setting it to maximum makes the tuning so horrid that if this were a real B3 you'd be ringing your local organ repair shop to book a service! There's also a subtle 'crunch' control which recreates the slight drawbar distortion which creeps in on old Hammonds.

I always used to steer clear of the B3's vibrato, because it reminded me of the cheesy theatre organists that held my parents' generation in a weird kind of thrall. (Hours of radio time were given over to this terrible throbbing noise — God, it was depressing!) Understandably, Creamware have ignored my silly prejudices and totally nailed the Hammond's vibrato sound, which is selected (as on the original) by a six-way wheel control offering three types of vibrato and the same number of chorus settings. For what it's worth, my favourite is Chorus 1, simply because it's the most subtle, but you can emulate the sound of the great Hammond jazz players by choosing Chorus 3. I feel Creamware have missed a trick by not providing a 'vibrato depth' setting; it's nice to be able to add just a hint of vibrato to a plain, churchy organ sound, but with the B4000 you're stuck with full vibrato, or none at all.

Percussion & Pedals

No complaints about the B4000's percussion sound — it's perfect. The default percussion pitch is two octaves above the lowest drawbar's notes, producing a pleasant, but piercing high-pitched chime which adds rhythmic definition to the Hammond sound and helps it compete with cymbals and guitars. Setting the percussion to '3rd' on the front panel raises the pitch by a fifth, which, in conjunction with the percussion's fast decay setting, makes the sound you hear playing the bass line on Kylie Minogue's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' and the current National Lottery theme tune. (Please note that I offer these examples purely for illustrative purposes, not as indicators of my musical taste...) Further percussion options can be accessed via the B4000's editing software, which I'll get to in a moment.

As you may know, Hammond percussion sounds only when notes are played with a detached fingering style, hence its original name — 'touch response' percussion. This means that once the percussion has sounded on the first note of a passage, it's up to you to lift your fingers smartly if you want to trigger the effect on every subsequent note. (Don't complain — it's good for your keyboard technique.) On tonewheel Hammonds, one of the buss-bar contacts was used to trigger the percussion, which meant that one drawbar became inoperative whenever percussion was enabled. On a Hammond B3, the 'sacrificial drawbar' is usually the highest (ninth) one; on my Hammond L122 (a smaller, spinet style organ), the eighth drawbar gets the chop. Creamware have diligently replicated the B3's behaviour by muting the ninth drawbar when percussion is activated, but while this is undoubtedly authentic there's no longer any electronic reason to do it — I would have preferred to have the option of keeping all nine drawbars sounding in percussion mode.

A real B3 has just two pedal drawbars, but the B4000 dedicates six drawbars to the creation of pedal sounds. However, since Hammond pedals are characterised by their big, booming bass (a sound so powerful that it's often been used instead of a bass player in jazz combos) you won't need the upper frequencies provided by the higher drawbars if you want to recreate this effect! The B4000 does a reasonable job of simulating that low end power, but it doesn't match the strength of a real Hammond pedal board.

Soft Leslie

The front-panel controls are sufficient for most purposes, but to access the B4000's hidden depths you need to connect it to a computer via USB or MIDI and open up the instrument's software editor utility. There you'll see individual drawbar settings for the upper manual, lower manual, and pedals, plus (on the Main page) a handy extra control that lets you set the pitch of the percussion to correspond to that of any one of the drawbars. (This facility is also implemented in Native Instruments' B4 — quite a coincidence!) The control doesn't have any markings to show the pitches, but you can work out what's going on by using your ears (a pair of auditory accessories made of flesh and cartilage, positioned symmetrically on either side of the head and DI'd into the brain — I find them excellent for stereo auditioning).

Creamware B4000 ASBThe stereo Leslie speaker effect has several useful controls that let you customise its sound beyond the rather limited settings found on a B3. The most significant of these are separate speed controls for the 'slow' and 'fast' rotation speeds — with the real thing I always found the former too slow and the latter too cheesy, so it's nice to be able to set a speed somewhere in between. Aided by the editor, it was easy to get a lovely rich, floaty chorale Leslie sound, and I appreciated the fact that you can set the rate of change between slow and fast speeds in both directions. Separate controls for the treble and bass rotors combined with Spread, Distance, and Balance settings for the two virtual mics (again duplicating features found in NI's B4 — funny, that) are also welcome. It's theoretically possible to use aftertouch to switch the Leslie speed, but this facility didn't work. This means there's no way to change Leslie speed over MIDI, which is bad news if you're planning to sequence the B4000 in a track.

Distortion, controlled or otherwise, has always been an important part of the Hammond sound, and the edgy sound of an over-driven Leslie is a classic, exciting rock-organ timbre. Creamware say that their version of this is 'faithfully digitally modelled on the sound of an original overdriven Leslie cabinet amplifier', and although it has no controls beyond basic level and balance, it does sound pretty lifelike. However, if you want to explore a wider range of distortion timbres for your Hammond sound, you'd be advised to look at some of the excellent amp simulation plug-ins out there.

End Note

By giving me knobs to fiddle with and drawbars to pull in and out, the B4000 unchains me from my computer and makes me feel like a musician again. With this piece of hardware, Creamware have got the important things (not least, the basic sound) right, and have also done a good, faithful job of simulating the various characteristics and eccentricities of a real B3 — even, in the name of historical accuracy, the undesirable ones!

On the downside, the numerous niggly faults I found in the review unit somewhat take the shine off this product. The box has the potential to establish itself as a viable Hammond clone, but until Creamware sort out these bugs (none of which, I have to say, are particularly serious) that potential won't be fully realised. I look forward to these problems being fixed, at which point I'll be able to recommend the B4000 ASB to my fellow keyboardists as a truly desirable piece of professional kit, fit to uphold the reputation of Laurens Hammond's immortal invention. 

Alternatives

The Hammond organ's long-standing popularity has inspired many digital soundalikes — the Korg CX3, Roland VK8, and Voce Key 5 keyboards all sport Hammond-style drawbars, while Clavia's Nord Electro 2 uses a set of LEDs to display virtual drawbar positions. Hammond continue to manufacture their own pricey digital clones, including the single-manual Hammond Suzuki XK3 and XK1 models. In the software domain, Apple's EVB3 and Native Instruments' B4 MkII (which has its own B4D hardware drawbar controller) carefully replicate the Hammond/Leslie sound. Ultimate Sound Bank's Charlie is not to be sniffed at, and those operating on a zero budget can download the free VST instrument ORGANized Trio at www.soundfonts.it. But if you want a hardware Hammond-in-a-box equipped with real drawbars, the closest alternative to Creamware's B4000 ASB is a Roland VK8M module. Voce's V5+ unit is also a contender, but it has no Leslie rotary-speaker effect.

Published August 2006