When Emu launched their flagship Proteus 2000 sound module last year, they promised a further range of cheaper 'P1K' modules which would cater to specific needs, but be expandable to full Proteus 2000 spec. The first of these modules to appear aims to recreate the classic Hammond tonewheel organ sound. Nick Magnus is impressed.
As interest in retro instruments continues to grow, new keyboards and modules designed to imitate the Hammond tonewheel organ sound are still appearing. We have Hammond‑Suzuki's own XB/XM keyboards and modules, Oberheim's OB3<sup>2</sup> keyboard and module, Roland's VK models, along with offerings from Voce and Peavey; even Clavia have jumped onto the tonewheel bandwagon. I have found myself called upon to review several of these in the past, so when SOS asked if I was interested in reviewing Emu's new B3 module, I was intrigued but also a little apprehensive. Why apprehensive? Because the differences between the best of this type of instrument can be quite subtle, and one has to be wary of applying superlatives or hyperbole to subjectively small improvements where they occur. As it happens, however, Emu have approached their B3 Hammond soundalike module from a rather different angle than other manufacturers.
Firstly, the observant amongst you will have noticed an uncanny resemblance between the B3 and Emu's Proteus 2000 (reviewed in SOS March 1999). Colour scheme aside, the 19‑inch rack case is identical to that of the Proteus, including the sweeping, organically curved surround to the LCD display. Many current Hammond emulators feature curving wooden end cheeks to conjure up that retro feel: clearly that would be a waste of time (and trees) with a 19‑inch rack, so Emu have given the B3's front panel a suitably Hammond‑ish cream and bakelite livery for that 'period' look.
There is a reason for the physical similarity between the B3 and the Proteus 2000, namely that they are in many respects one and the same instrument. The principal differences are the B3's 64‑voice polyphony (compared with 128 on the Proteus) 16 MIDI channels (as opposed to 32) and single stereo output pair (versus three pairs). I was informed by Emu that a kit will shortly be available to upgrade the B3 and other models in the range to full Proteus 2000 spec, ie. 128‑voice polyphony, three stereo outputs, S/PDIF digital out and additional MIDI In/Thru sockets for 32‑channel operation. The Proteus 2000 was designed to accept up to four sound SIMMs, allowing the user to add the sounds from other forthcoming Emu modules such as the Xtreme Lead, Mo' Phatt and the orchestral Virtuoso 2000, as and when required. The B3 and its sibling 'P1K' modules, on the other hand, have room for one extra board in addition to the 'resident' one. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the B3 also exists as a plug‑in SIMM that can be added to the Proteus. In the same way, the Proteus 2000's Composer soundset could also be popped into the B3, transforming it into a 2000. Aternatively, you could change it into an Xtreme Lead, or a Mo' Phatt...
The availability of separate modules as well as sound SIMMs allows the user, who doesn't need all the Proteus 2000's sounds, to buy just the ones they want in a less powerful module; some people may simply find that having discrete units is more flexible and convenient than running everything from one unit with a finite number of outputs and effects. At present, the B3 module also has a number of specific software features over and above those of the Proteus. However, this situation is about to change as Emu say that a software upgrade (v1.11) will shortly be available (downloadable from www.emu.com) to upgrade the Proteus to take full advantage of the B3's additional editing parameters.
The B3 enjoys the same 17 Z‑plane filters, four layers, real‑time front‑panel controllers/editors, three multi‑waveform LFOs per layer, three multi‑stage envelopes, two effects processors, 37 modulation sources and 40 destinations as the Proteus 2000; enough to keep the most ardent sound‑warping enthusiast happy. Indeed, since its raison d'être is the production of Hammond organ sounds, you could almost criticise it for being over‑specified for its intended function. However, the synthesis features do give B3 owners unusual creative possibilities and, in any case, anyone fitting any of the optional expansion SIMMs will be needing the full set of features. For a full rundown on the synthesis capabilities of the B3, check out SOS March 1999 for the review of the Proteus 2000.
Many Hammond soundalike instruments employ samples from the original instrument, while in the case of Roland's VK series, the sounds are physically modelled — but in either case the basic, raw sound could be best described as the dry, untreated sound you would get if you were to DI the output straight from the organ itself, with no rotary speaker or vibrato, just the straight tonewheel sound. Standard practice is to then treat the sound using a rotary speaker effect, modulate the samples to create vibrato effects, and perhaps add distortion to simulate an overdriven valve preamp.
The B3, however, takes an entirely different approach, using samples that have the genuine Leslie, vibrato and overdrive effects already applied. To this end, the B3 comes loaded with a comprehensive set of multisampled waveforms. These range from complete popular drawbar registrations to each of the nine individual drawbars, as well as second‑ and third‑harmonic percussion. These are presented in fast and slow Leslie variations (except the percussion, which is slow Leslie only) and many of the waves are presented in a choice of stereo or mono. There is also a selection of dry, DI'd samples as well as a number of samples of characteristic Hammond effects, including tonewheel generator noise and Leslie rotor swirl. Drawbar registrations using the classic Hammond chorus vibrato, with and without Leslie, are also on offer. Of course, not every conceivable possibility has been covered, as sample memory is an inevitable limit, but basically the B3 provides a comprehensive toolkit to create the sounds you desire.
The advantage of this 'sample‑the‑whole‑shooting‑match' approach is quite clear when you play the B3. What you get is the sound of a real Hammond, via microphones and a real Leslie, complete with the coloration of the actual room where the samples were taken. The effect is really quite gratifying: from cheesy funeral‑parlour tones, through cool jazz to full‑on rock and gospel overkill, it sounds like a big machine. The 512 user‑programmable presets and 384 factory ROM presets cover just about every typical Hammond sound you can think of, with a few moments of weirdness thrown in for good measure.
The B3 has a neat trick or two up its sleeve, particularly concerning the Leslie sounds. Many of the presets have the Leslie fast/slow control pre‑patched to the Mod wheel (MIDI CC#1) and the sustain pedal (CC#64). Operating the wheel or stamping on the pedal causes the speed to 'ramp up' or 'ramp down' in an unnervingly realistic manner. But wait — surely the slow and fast Leslie samples are discrete and separate? To quote Eamonn Holmes, how do they do that? Now, I'm not the kind of beastly person that gets pleasure from conducting exposés on tooth fairies, UFO sightings, or the fact that Santa Claus is actually a weather balloon, but I feel impelled to share my findings — purely on the basis of scientific enquiry, you understand. The virtual Leslie is not changing its speed gradually: rather, the B3 employs a lag processor to perform a crossfade from one set of samples to the other. You might imagine this deception would be quite easily rumbled, but in actuality the illusion is so smooth that I needed to double‑check to be sure that this is what really happens. This illusion is also helped by virtue of the level staying apparently constant throughout the crossfade; there are no volume peaks or dips at the mid‑point (a common problem when the sample‑based approach is taken). However, preset 44 in ROM Bank 2 ('1st4 Ultra') had me intrigued; on moving the mod wheel to hear the fast Leslie, there definitely appeared to be a gradual speed change. Further investigation revealed that Layer 4 (a fast Leslie sample of the 2 2/3' drawbar) employs a patch‑cord routing that modulates the filter, amp and pitch with an LFO, the speed of the whole lot being controlled by a lag processor. So, as the sample fades in, the harmonic modulation picks up speed until it closely matches that of the Leslie rotations — very clever indeed. I'd have liked to have seen this technique employed in more of the presets, as the effect is really quite convincing.
All these good points should be balanced with a few reservations, so let's delve into the critical detail. Firstly, consider a real Hammond going through a real Leslie. The Leslie rotations for all notes will be in sync with each other — obvious really, as the whole sound is going through the one effect. This is not the case with the B3; indeed, careful examination of individual multisamples reveals that each sample starts at a different point in the Leslie's rotation cycle. But does it really matter? I have to say that while I was playing the B3, this departure from realism never seemed particularly apparent. In practice, I doubt that any but the most critical listener would notice, especially during a track going at full tilt. The question of the speed ramp‑up/down being noticeable as a crossfade would also depend on the musical context. If the B3 is fairly exposed, it does show: however, if the overall arrangement is busier and the B3 is at an appropriate level in the mix, one's attention is less likely to be drawn to this point.
During my review of Hammond's XM1 organ module, (SOS May '97) a design error was pointed out, namely that the percussion was not routed through its inbuilt Leslie effect. Strangely, the B3 revisits this mistake, but in a slightly different way. As mentioned earlier, only slow Leslie samples of the percussion are provided, so when playing patches that use the percussion, only the drawbar part of the sound speeds up with a Leslie speed change. Well, at least it is Leslie'd percussion, albeit at the one slow speed. There are a couple of compromise workarounds to this problem, one example being to assign the 4' or 2 2/3' fast Leslie drawbar sample to an empty layer, and applying a percussive amp envelope. Simple! Well, not quite, because in order to have it perform the crossfade against the slow Leslie percussion, and to have the correct single‑triggering, there is some pretty complex virtual patch‑cord routing to get your head around (see diagram on page 193). Alternatively, you could create a new preset which consists only of the slow Leslie percussion and fast Leslie drawbar samples, copy the appropriate patch cord routings for the Leslie crossfade and single‑trigger lag processors from another preset, save the new preset and then link it into an empty layer in the destination preset... oo‑er! Quite frankly, this workaround is sufficiently fiddly that I could fully understand anybody choosing to accept the slow‑percussion foible without a second thought.
In most cases, the ideal sound you're looking for is likely to be somewhere within the B3's supplied range of presets. But how does it fare when you want to sculpt the sound a little more precisely? Other units such as the Rolands, Oberheims and Hammonds have a clear advantage in having physical drawbars: it takes only a second to adjust the drawbar registration with a deft flick of the wrist. The B3, on the other hand, requires a certain amount of time, patience and familiarity with the synth architecture to make such changes. Certain factory presets have been pre‑constructed to use the mod wheel to crossfade between two registrations, but they may not be the registrations you require. General editing of the B3 is not overly difficult, but its limited LCD display area, cryptic abbreviations and general lack of graphical assistance inevitably slow down the spontaneous creative process. The creation of exact drawbar settings requires the user to sift through the available samples for the appropriate raw material, layer them together and adjust the levels. You can also link an existing preset to each individual layer to achieve even more detailed 'stacks', but all this is a task best performed well ahead of any high‑pressure live or studio situations!
When it came to linking presets to layers, incidentally, I found that some unpredictable results could occur. Many of these linked presets didn't play as expected — the levels within the linked presets' layers were often completely wrong, resulting in some linked presets being totally silent. For example, linking User preset 58 into the 'Default B3' preset caused the level of preset 58's Layers 3 and 4 to be unbelievably loud. There appears to be no means to edit a linked preset, so you're a bit stuffed. There is no explanation for this in the CD‑ROM PDF manual — indeed, it suggests you can cheerfully link any preset to any other — and I never really got to the bottom of this mystery.
A note, too, concerning the use of 'overdriven' sounds. Some of the samples are of the Leslie preamp running into mild valve coloration, but if you're looking for 'meltdown' overdrive, you won't find it in the sample soundset — you'll have to use the Distortion effect in the Effect B section. This is not a totally satisfactory solution, however, as the overdrive on a real Hammond occurs before the Leslie. The B3, on the other hand, applies its overdrive effect to sounds that have already been Leslie'd, which can result in a bit of a gruzzly‑sounding mush. That said, certain sounds from the B3 can be very weighty as they are, so you may not feel the need for further grunge.
Like the Proteus, the B3 operates in one of three MIDI modes: Omni, where the selected preset plays on reception of any incoming MIDI data, Poly, where the selected preset plays on one specified MIDI channel, and Multi. The B3 is 16‑part multitimbral so, for instance, three different presets could be assigned to their own respective channels, thus recreating two manuals (often referred to as Great and Swell) and a pedalboard. Sixty‑four such Multi setups can be user‑programmed and saved.
You could of course accomplish something similar to the above Multi setup in Poly mode by assigning key ranges to the individual layers in one preset. The three 'manuals' can then be played from one MIDI channel. The advantage of using Multi mode, of course, is that you have independent MIDI control (for instance over level and patch selection) for each manual. You can even have independent Leslie control of the lower and upper manuals, as demonstrated to good effect in the first demo ROM tune.
Compared to the competition, the B3 certainly wins in the realism stakes vis à vis the straight‑from‑the‑box sound. During the course of the review I set up equivalent patches on an OB3<sup>2</sup> module: the raw OB3<sup>2</sup> sound was extremely close to the B3's dry DI samples, but the OB3<sup>2</sup>'s rotary effect, good as it is, was no match for the B3's real Leslie samples. The head‑to‑head comparison evened up a bit when the OB3<sup>2</sup> was fed through a Line 6 Pod valve preamp model and then the Leslie program in a Roland SDX330, which made the result pretty darned convincing. However, compared to the price of a B3, the cost of adding external effect units (or a Leslie) to an OB3<sup>2</sup>, Hammond XB/XM, Voce or similar instrument is considerably more, the resulting setup will take up more room, and the realism of the sound might still be a subjective issue. Not only that, but the B3's synth architecture allows it to be pushed into some fairly exotic sonic areas, and its functionality can be extended (indeed, its whole personality can be changed) with the addition of the optional expansion SIMMs.
To put all of the above into some kind of perspective, what really matters is that the B3, without external assistance, makes you smile from the first moment you play it. It evokes all the grandness of the real thing, and you may very likely find yourself quite willing to forgive the Leslie crossfade ramping and lack of fast Leslie'd percussion. If your definition of the ideal dedicated Hammond module is one that you can just plug in, dial up a great sound and play, then the B3 certainly seems designed to fulfil this brief. It will be interesting to see how many appearances of the B3 on record are accepted as being a real Hammond: I'm sure there will be quite a few. If you've been considering acquiring a dedicated tonewheel organ module, the Emu B3 should definitely be one to add to your auditioning list.
The lag processor that performs the Leslie fast/slow crossfade enables a predictable, smooth ramp time from one state to the other even when operated by a momentary controller such as the sustain pedal. Using a continuous controller such as the modulation wheel to change speeds enables you to interact with the lag time and slow the process down a bit — you can even stop it half‑way so you get an even mix of slow and fast Leslie samples playing together. Another lag processor is also employed in many of the presets to ensure that the second‑ and third‑harmonic percussion is single‑triggering, just as on a real Hammond. These lag processors are currently unique to the B3's software, but as mentioned elsewhere in this article, the Proteus 2000 will imminently be upgradeable to version 1.11 so that an installed B3 SIMM board will function to its full capability.
- Stonking, realistic Leslie'd Hammond sound straight out of the box.
- Loads of really usable presets.
- Expandable with one extra Proteus SIMM board.
- Upgradeable to full Proteus 2000 spec.
- The dreaded PDF user manual is now set to replace the wall‑wart power supply as the new reviewers' gripe!
- Sound creation and adjustment not as intuitive or immediate as simpler, drawbar‑equipped instruments.
- Nature of the Leslie speed ramping and lack of fast Leslie percussion are factors you may or may not find acceptable.
The B3 sounds great straight out of the box. It has a wide selection of classic, authentic Hammond presets, as well as the power to warp them beyond recognition thanks to the Proteus 2000 synth engine. The ability to add Proteus sound SIMMs and upgrade to full Proteus 2000 spec ensures it an extended lifespan. The B3 is sure to find its way onto many future hits.