Is the SKX the lightweight gigging Hammond you've always dreamed of?
The sound of the Hammond organ is as popular today as it's ever been, and remains a staple component of so many different musical genres. But gigging with a genuine console tonewheel organ, with its massive weight and the potential unreliability of a complex electro-mechanical vintage instrument, is not for the faint hearted. Thankfully, there are numerous 'Hammond clonewheels' these days, most using digital emulation technology of one form or another, which deliver the right kind of sounds in a far more convenient package.
Arguably leading this 'clonewheel' field are the Hammond company themselves, a brand which is now owned by the Suzuki Musical Manufacturing Company, with several digital Hammond models to suit a wide range of requirements. The flagship is the seriously expensive but mightily impressive 'New B3 MkII', while the portable and expandable XK5 (reviewed January 2018) covers the serious traditional gigging Hammond player. Both of these instruments feature clever bespoke variations on multi-contact keybeds specifically designed to maintain the unique playing feel of a vintage Hammond, but at a significant cost. At the more affordable and versatile end of the scale is the 'stage keyboard' or 'SK' range, whose models use mass-produced 'waterfall' keybeds. While entirely suitable for the purpose, these keybeds do have a heavier and springier action than the real thing, but the benefit is a much lower price tag.
The Stage Keyboard models are intended to serve as multi-purpose keyboards for live stage applications. The core feature set is that of a Hammond tonewheel organ, but they also include a collection of pianos (acoustic and electric), clavichords, orchestral strings and other instruments, tuned percussion, string synths and other synth-based sounds, basses, choirs, and much more besides — courtesy of an updatable sound library system. So these are organs with extra sounds, as opposed to pianos or synths with organ sounds; an important distinction.
Originally, the SK line comprised the SK1 — a single-manual keyboard with 61‑, 73‑ or 88-key semi-weighted variants — and, for more demanding organ players, the SK2 with two 61-note manuals in the traditional arrangement. The SK2 was probably the lightest and most compact dual-manual Hammond ever produced. (Purely for completeness, I should also mention the XK‑1c which is another 61-note single-manual variant using the same technology, and the least expensive portable Hammond. However, it differs from the 61-note SK1 by omitting the extra voices functionality to make it a pure organ clone, hence being branded an XK model rather than sharing the SK moniker.)
Now, although the SK2 has been a very popular and capable instrument, some aspects of its design frustrated some players and discouraged potential customers, mainly because its control arrangements restricted its playability in a live context to some extent. Key amongst those hindrances was the provision of a single shared set of drawbars, making it awkward to tweak the sound of the two different keyboards while playing. Secondly, having only 10 instant-access 'Favourite' memories was also a little restrictive.
As a result, Hammond introduced an improved and upgraded replacement model called the SKX, the development of which was heavily influenced by extensive customer feedback — and I've finally managed to get my hands on one for this review. I should, though, declare an interest here as I was put off buying an SK2 largely for the reasons cited above, and instead added an XK‑1c to my Nord Stage Classic keyboard for my own live setup. As a result my overriding interest here is whether the SKX addresses all the perceived limitations of the obsolete SK2.
The first good news is that the new SKX retains exactly the same ultra-compact dimensions as its predecessor at 944 x 454 x 170mm (37.2 x 17.9 x 6.7 inches), although it is nearly a kilo (2lbs) heavier at 16.9kg (or 37.25lbs). Most of this extra weight comes from the majorly revised control panel, which is the most obvious difference when comparing the old SK2 and new SKX.
The biggest and most welcome revision is the inclusion of two full sets of nine drawbars right in the middle of the panel, allowing individual, direct, and real-time control of both the upper and lower manuals (there's also an additional pair of drawbars for the pedal section). Although expensive in terms of panel real-estate, this addition makes a vast improvement in the live playability of the organ, and while still not as versatile as the traditional arrangement of dual drawbar sets for each manual (as seen on the New B3 and XK5), I think it is a very acceptable and pragmatic compromise. Incidentally, it is also possible to configure the instrument to use both drawbar sets just for the upper manual, if desired, switching between them using the octave up/down buttons in a similar way to switching drawbar sets with the inverted A# and B keys on a vintage console Hammond.
Adding 11 extra drawbars has, inevitably, imposed numerous changes to the rest of the controls, which now occupy rather more of the panel surface compared to the SK2. However, the operating paradigm remains entirely familiar and consistent with the other SK models. After the new drawbars, the next most obvious change is that the backlit display and associated value knob and cursor buttons have been moved to the left-hand side, along with the main configuration and Favourite preset buttons, while the Extra‑Voice, Effects controls, and Percussion buttons have moved a little further to the right.
One direct consequence of the panel revision is that the SK2's dedicated 'music player' volume knob and transport controls have been lost, although the function is still available and controlled through the menu screen, accessed by pressing the Control and Drawbar buttons together. Other obvious changes include dispensing with the dedicated Vibrato/Chorus scanner mode buttons, with the setting (C3/V3, etc) now being configured as a secondary function of the Favourite buttons, and the omission of the physical Master Equaliser controls (though their function remains within an additional menu page). The Extra‑Voice section has had a major makeover, too, which I'll come to shortly.
Having used both the SK2's and SKX's panel layouts I think, on balance, that I actually prefer the newly revised layout, which seems more logical and performance-focused. Critically, though, Hammond have ensured that all of the organ's tonal settings can be adjusted directly and easily without having to dip into the menus.
Although not at all obvious at first glance, another very substantial improvement is the addition of a 'Bank' function associated with the retained 10 Favourite preset memory buttons. Adding this Bank feature to the extant 'Manual' mode button provides near-instant access to 100 Favourite presets, which is a 10-fold increase. OK, so two button presses are needed to select a preset in a different bank from the current one, but that's still a lot faster and easier than having to scroll through presets via the menus. In practice, this new arrangement works extremely well and allows, for example, specific patches for different parts of a song to be stored within a Bank, keeping everything together in a very clean and logical way.
All of the design tweaks I've mentioned so far are very practical and useful, but were largely obvious and expected. What I didn't expect at all was the inclusion of a second duplicate Extra‑Voice section (the SK1 and SK2 have only one), along with a generous increase in the non-volatile memory capacity, allowing many more Library voices to be stored on board.
On the SK2, the Extra‑Voice section could be allocated to either the upper or lower manual, and the panel was equipped with dedicated buttons to access the different voice sections ('a-piano', 'e-piano', 'kybds', 'wind', 'other' and 'library'), as well as a Solo button which muted the organ sounds on the assigned manual to leave just the Extra‑Voice sounding. A slightly different approach is taken on the SKX, where the two Extra‑Voice sections can be allocated independently to either manual, giving the ability to layer both Extra‑Voice sounds on one manual, with or without the corresponding organ voice, if desired. Alternatively, the same or different Extra‑Voice sounds can be assigned to different manuals, again with or without the corresponding organ sounds.
The Extra‑Voice group selection buttons have also been condensed to 'a-piano', 'e-piano', 'other', and 'library', with multiple presses cycling around the options within each group. Also, instead of the Extra‑Voice Solo button the SKX has a couple of dedicated buttons next to the Favourites array, which turn each manual's organ sounds on or off. Separate volume controls are provided for the overall level as well as the organ and Extra‑Voice sounds, with a balance control to adjust the level between the two Extra‑Voice sections. The SKX retains the same arrangement of controls as the SK2 for organ overdrive and effects, Extra‑Voice effects, and overall reverb level.
Rear‑panel connectivity is also the same, except that the SK2's eight-pin Leslie connector has been replaced with an 11-pin version. One minor disappointment, though, is that SKX still uses an external line-lump universal mains power supply with a coaxial DC connector (12V, 1.25A) , rather than an internal PSU.
Almost all of the configuration menus and parameter options are, as far as I can see, the same as the SK2, although I did spot a couple of new additions. For example, there's now an automatic power-off option (after 30 minutes of non-use); an extra page has been added to the master equaliser menu to adjust the band gain controls (replacing the omitted physical knobs); and output level adjustments have been added to the overdrive effects. I also noticed that the Glide effect parameters have been extended, and there are some useful new configuration options for the transpose and organ/Extra‑Voice on/off buttons. The Extra‑Voice parameters are all the same as before, as well, except that there are now some extra pages to allow the two sections to be configured independently.
Hammond's VASE III sound engine is a mature design and the quality of its tonewheel, vibrato/chorus, percussion and Leslie sound generation is very hard to fault indeed. With a little bit of parameter fine-tuning it sounds almost identical to my own 1961 A100 console organ and, when playing, the only significant difference is the keyboard's weight and action — there is none of the inherent variability of sounding tones that comes with a multi-contact keyboard. However, the significance of that aspect of the classic Hammond very much depends on playing technique and context. In those situations where it is deemed an important characteristic, the XK5 or New B3 models become the weapons of choice. That said, for most typical band applications I'd humbly suggest it's an irrelevance. I found the SKX's keyboards perfectly fit for purpose, allowing a natural organ playing style, but also providing enough weight and predictability for reasonably well-controlled piano parts.
When it comes to the quality of the Extra‑Voices — both built-in and from the downloadable library — some are genuinely excellent but others... less so. Players tend to have very strong views about acoustic and electric piano sounds, in particular, and my own view is that the SKX's offerings aren't quite as good as those in my Nord Stage. But having said that, I found them all very usable in a live sound context, and the practical benefits of having them all in the one, lightweight dual keyboard far outweighed the minor nuances in the sound character. I also found that tinkering with the keyboard's Velocity-Offset and each Extra‑Voice's Velocity Curve parameters improved the playability and consistency of touch-responsive instruments quite substantially for me.
The current sound library is quite extensive, but will benefit from further development and expansion. Many of the synth sounds (leads, basses, strings, etc) are very useful and, although not adjustable, they are provided with enough variations to find sounds that work in most situations. The orchestral symphonic and chamber strings are all pretty good, and while the limited sample space and DSP mean that they can't possibly compete with, say, the Vienna Symphonic Library in a DAW, or even one of the flagship workstation keyboards, I feel they are quite workable for a live band setup. In particular I loved the 'Taped Sampler' flutes, and the wooden recorders library is very good too.
Overall, I think the SKX is a real winner. It is a brilliantly compact multi-purpose stage keyboard that ticks all the boxes for a Hammond player in a band, cleverly addressing the compromises of the original SK2 while also providing a very decent range of other instrumental sounds in a very practical and exceptionally versatile package. Yes, this is a Hammond with extra sounds, rather than a piano with Hammond sounds — and that bias will obviously appeal to some potential customers and not others. But for me the SKX is the stage keyboard that the SK2 really should have been but wasn't.
It would be nice if Hammond could come up with a library/configuration app, instead of having to do everything at the instrument itself, and I really, REALLY wish they would introduce a Spinet organ option to emulate the very different-sounding L100 instrument, which was arguably more important in British rock music than the much-copied Farfisa, Vox and Pipe emulations. There is lots of scope to expand and improve the Library voices too.
However, these are relatively trifling items for future consideration. The SKX is an impressive and very practical instrument, and I'm off to find a hammer to see if my piggy bank will let me replace my current XK‑1c/Nord Stage Classic setup with one. My car, back, and fellow band members would greatly appreciate it!
- Two full sets of keyboard drawbars, plus pedal drawbars.
- Two independent Extra‑Voice sections instead of one.
- Ten banks of 10 instant-access Favourite preset memories.
- Ultra-compact and lightweight instrument.
- Arguably the best Hammond organ and Leslie sound engine on the market.
- Greatly expanded Library capacity.
- Keyboard action is slightly heavier and springier than the real thing.
- No multi-contact keyboard sophistication (or expense!).
- Still uses an external line-lump power supply.
- Still no L100 Spinet tonewheel option.
A thoughtful reworking of the original SK2 which delivers a far more playable and versatile live performance instrument. Two Extra‑Voice sections allow complex layering as well as entirely non-organ performances. Overall, a very practical and flexible multi-purpose stage keyboard.