Is Hammond’s XK-5 the best lightweight ‘clonewheel’ organ money can buy?
The Hammond console tonewheel organ and Leslie speaker has been a standard feature across a range of different musical genres for more than 70 years, and that’s a lot of heritage and status, mostly associated with the B3 model that was introduced in 1954 (although the C3 and A10x variants employ exactly the same sound-generating components, and only really differ in their case styling).
However, the earliest B3s have been around for 63 years now and even the youngest are over 40 years old (production ceased in 1974). At more than 140kg (310lbs) these vintage megaliths are just too big and heavy for most players (or their roadies) to want to cart around to gigs, and increasingly they are becoming far too precious, delicate, and valuable as well. Consequently, there is a strong market for lighter and more convenient ‘clonewheel’ organs, and a variety of manufacturers have tackled this market over the years with varying degrees of success. Arguably king amongst these is the Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation, which acquired the remnants of both the Hammond and Leslie companies in the late 1980s. Their first ‘digital Hammond’ was launched in 1986 as the ‘Super B’ under the Hammond-Suzuki brand, and the technology and accuracy of emulation has progressed substantially through the XB- and XE-Series models, culminating in 2003 with the flagship ‘New-B3’ which I reviewed in Sound On Sound in the July 2003 edition.
This imposing instrument sounds, plays and looks almost exactly like a vintage B3, but hidden away in a pull-out drawer by the player’s right knee is a digital display and controls to change myriad sound generation parameters allowing a wide range of customisation. At the heart of this beast is a ‘virtual tonewheel generator’ called ‘VASE III’ and this adopts a modelling approach to replicate the intricate characteristics of the tonewheels, the vibrato/chorus scanner, the percussion generator, the expression pedal and valve amplifiers, and the all-important Leslie speaker — as well as a variety of more modern effects and reverbs.
VASE III — albeit with several beneficial enhancements — also sits at the heart of more recent portable Hammond-Suzuki organs, including all of the XK and SK ranges (except the new XK-5). And those enhancements were later reintroduced back into the ‘New-B3’ flagship in its current MkII form. I am pretty familiar with VASE III as I use an XK-1c Hammond as part of my live keyboard rig, and I have compared it directly with my own 1961 Hammond A100 and Leslie 122RV speaker. In my view, this technology sounds remarkably faithful to the real thing, recreating almost all of the subtle nuances that make the Hammond such a special instrument. The digital Leslie effect is also amongst the best I’ve heard right out of the box, but best of all is the ability to tweak so many parameters, and that’s important because no two Hammonds ever sound alike and no two players share the same preferences!
If I were to be picky, though — and all Hammond-players are! — the greatest weakness of the XK-1C (and the SK instruments too) is the feel of the keyboard itself. It’s not bad by any means (and it’s a lot better than many alternatives I’ve played), but it’s doesn’t behave and react exactly like the real thing. That matters because the tactility of the keyboard is crucially important to the instrument’s interactive playability and most of the established Hammond playing techniques depend on the way the instrument responds to touch in creating its sound — especially when keys aren’t fully pressed, such as during glissandos, slides and fast licks. Hammond players will probably know exactly what I mean, but for our guitarist friends, it’s broadly equivalent to the way that action height and string gauge dramatically affect the playability of an electric guitar.
The Hammond-Suzuki company knows this, of course, and for the flagship ‘New-B3’ they went to extraordinary lengths to replicate not only the mechanical feel — the weight and ‘bounce-back’ — but also recreated the multi-busbar and contact arrangement of the original Hammonds, specifically to help recreate the way it should respond to the player’s touch. However, building these kinds of bespoke key-beds is expensive and just not economically viable for an instrument in the SK/XK-1c budget range.
Although there is a portable version of the ‘New B3 MkII’, it is still large and quite heavy, so most jobbing Hammond players tend to opt for either the XK-3C system or the even smaller and lighter SK2 or their variants. These are all based on the VASE III engine, albeit in slightly different evolutions, so the sound and configurability is very similar throughout and selection is usually determined by the ergonomics, the practical aspects of gigging with the instrument, and cost.
I reviewed the original XK-3 System in the July 2005 issue and, although that was replaced with the (essentially very similar, but upgraded) XK-3C in 2007, the important aspect from a gigging perspective is that both incarnations are designed as a modular system. The XK-3C keyboard contains all the electronics and controls and can be used on its own perfectly well, but if a dual-keyboard arrangement is desired the optional XLK-3 MIDI keyboard can be added with the XK-3C slotting into the lower keyboard’s extended replacement side panels. The combination can then be mounted on a frame and an optional pedalboard added if required — the whole setup being broken down easily for portability.
The XK-3C keyboard has 73 notes, but the bottom octave has reversed colours and selects memory presets — similar to the vintage Hammond design —– rather than playing musical tones. This instrument is equipped with two full sets of drawbars, one for each manual, plus an extra pair for the pedal tones, and the overall look is reminiscent of the vintage console organs, but with fewer drawbars. The lower-cost SK2 alternative is an integrated two-manual instrument using 61-note keyboards and a single set of assignable drawbars, and presets are accessed through a keypad, but it does come with a range of extra sounds like acoustic and electric pianos, clavichord, vibraphone, accordion, wind and brass instruments and so on. (The various SK1 and XK-1C models are all single-manual instruments, with the latter lacking the extra voices of the SK range).
Both the XK-3C and SK2 sound great and play well, of course, but purists argue that the key action isn’t quite right (although the former is definitely closer than the latter), and the reduced drawbar sets can inhibit some playing styles. Naturally, the technology has moved forward since those models were introduced (in 2007 and 2011, respectively), and Hammond-Suzuki has been beavering away to raise the clonewheel benchmark yet again; a little over a year ago they launched the all-new XK-5, which was an immediate success — so much so that instruments are selling almost as quickly as they can be built, and I’ve had a frustrating year-long wait to get hold of a review model for Sound On Sound!
Although superficially looking very similar to the XK-3C (which is now discontinued), the XK-5 is an entirely new design and features four new patent-pending technologies. It builds on the same user software interface of the previous generations, so it feels very familiar to configure, but the new sound engine combines both sampling and modelling techniques to achieve an even more accurate recreation of the vintage organ’s sound generation, the menus system has many new parameters and deeper levels of customisation, and — most importantly — there’s a bespoke new keybed and contact system.
Physically, though, the size of the XK-5 is identical to the XK-3C but, at a shade under 16kg, almost 3kg lighter. It also follows the same modular approach to form of Hammond-Suzuki’s new ‘Heritage Series’ with a choice of either contemporary or traditional styling.
The ‘XK-5 Heritage Pro System’ creates a dual-manual setup by slipping the XK-5 keyboard between the extended side cheeks of a matching lower manual (XLK-5). A folding metal frame (ST-XLK5) is available, along with a 25-note pedalboard (XPK-250) with integral expression pedal and a metal-legged bench (BCH-250XK). (Smaller 20- or 13-note MIDI pedalboards can also be used, if preferred).
For a more traditional ‘B3’ look, there’s also a wooden spindle-legged frame (ST-XLK5W) and matching wooden bench (BCH-250), and while the matching lower manual is identical to the XLK-5 it features thicker side cheeks. In America this variant appears to be called the ‘Model A-3 System’, and the associated lower keyboard is the A-3, but in Europe it seems it’s just sold as the XK-5 Heritage with the spindle-leg frame.
Perhaps the most immediately obvious difference between the XK-3C and XK-5 is the new model’s full complement of drawbars: two full sets for the upper manual, another two full sets for the lower manual, and a separate pair for the pedal tones — exactly as on vintage console Hammonds.
Arguably the XK-5’s most important step forward is the new keybed and I suspect this is the main reason for its instant success, together with the new sound engine. It’s a ‘waterfall’ keyboard of course, styled as before with 73 notes and a reverse-colour bottom octave to serve as preset selectors. The A# and B keys select the corresponding manual drawbar sets, as they should, and, with no need for a mechanical release key, the bottom C becomes an additional preset memory. Importantly, this new keybed is built by Hammond-Suzuki in Japan rather than being a bought-in OEM unit (as most of the previous keyboards have been). Enormous care and attention have been paid to replicating the feel and dynamic response (the ‘weight’ and ‘bounce’) of a vintage but well-maintained console Hammond.
Although possibly subtle to the uninitiated, this keybed is in a whole different league to the springy keyboards that other clonewheels typically use — including my own XK-1C. In fact the new keybed feels almost indistinguishable from my beloved A100, and the standard Hammond playing techniques like palm slides, glissandos, trilling and so on all feel very natural and easy as a result. It’s actually quite an eye-opener what a difference this makes!
But it’s not just the dynamic mechanical feel of the keyboard that’s so good here; Hammond-Suzuki have also found an ingenious way to emulate the multi-contact arrangement again. In the vintage Hammond (and ‘New-B3’) there are nine busbars running across the full width of the keyboard under the keys, arranged in a vertical column, with nine corresponding contact wires which move under each key when it is pressed, making the required electrical circuits. Typically, these contact wires reach their busbars at slightly different times and bounce a bit creating the infamous key-click, and changing the spectral content as some harmonics sound while others don’t (or are slightly delayed, altering the perceived attack of the notes.
It is these unique characteristics that make the Hammond such an organic instrument to play (pun intended) as the generated sound responds subtly to the playing technique introducing a subtly changing tonal character in a similar way to an acoustic instrument. When playing simple block chords these subtleties may well be lost and irrelevant, but for Hammond aficionados it really does make a big difference to both the performance and sound — it’s what makes the Hammond a musical instrument rather than just an electro-mechanical device!
Obviously, this kind of interactive keyboard response can’t be replicated with standard MIDI keying technology, so the new XK-5 needed a bespoke contact arrangement, but one that was simpler, lighter and less expensive than the New-B3’s. The solution is a novel three-contact system, with the contacts effectively spaced slightly along the key’s travel so they are activated at fractionally different times and depending on how far the key is depressed. Each of these three mechanical contacts triggers three virtual contacts, so the system provides nine discrete ‘note-on’ signals, one for each individual drawbar pitch — just as in the original — each starting at slightly different times (which can be user-configured).
The result is a remarkably effective solution that really does recreate the crucial interactive playing response amazingly well, and I doubt any player could reliably tell the difference between this arrangement and the classic nine-busbar system — it’s that good. And for the really finicky, the XK-5’s setup menus even allow the time-spread and sequence of the individual ‘note-on’ signals to be tweaked to determine both the order in which the different harmonics speak, and the amount and duration of key-click noise. Even more impressively, the three contacts also transmit separate MIDI data (over multiple MIDI-channels) so that every nuance of a performance is not only captured accurately into a DAW, but can be played back with the same precise note attack and tonal variation to retain the ‘life’ of a performance.
For me, this hugely impressive new keybed combined with the full complement of drawbars would have sealed the deal on making this the undisputed king of the XK range and, probably, of all the clonewheels... but Suzuki-Hammond have gone further and upgraded the sound engine too. This is much more than a few incremental enhancements to the already very capable VASE III; it involves a whole new approach to sound generation called ‘MTW I’ or ‘Modelled ToneWheel One’ (clearly future developments are anticipated!), and this combines the latest sampling and modelling techniques in an effort to recreate the exact sound and natural variation of real tonewheel generators even more precisely.
Four pre-defined tonewheel generator sets are included in the instrument’s configuration options (called A100, C3, B3 and ‘Mellow’), each with three variations, and there is provision for three more user-customised sets. I was entertained to see the manual (which has a few ‘Japan-glish’ translations) actually lists the serial numbers of the B3, C3 and A102 instruments, which were sampled for the core tonewheel data! Each of the 96 individual virtual tonewheels can be tweaked in terms of volume level, high-pass filtering, leakage-tone levels and even which tonewheel is creating the dominant leakage signal! Anyone familiar with the previous generation of XK and SK organs will know that these offered tonewheel customisation facilities too, but the detailed parameter options in the XK-5 are far more sophisticated.
Another new addition affects the two pedal drawbars which, on the vintage instruments, provide complex mixtures of multiple tonewheels (rather than the pure tones on the keyboard drawbars). In the XK-5, the precise blend of pedal tones can be fine-tuned to replicate the slightly different pedal drawbar tonalities that Hammond evolved over the years. Three options are pre-programmed (derived from two different B3s and an A100 — again with the source instruments’ unique serial numbers given!), and there are three user memories which can store the nine source drawbar tones in any desired combination and level. This is another good example of the meticulous attention to detail and customisation afforded by the new sound engine.
The factory defaults are very realistic and playable, of course, but the ability to fine-tune all these subtle parameters makes it possible to emulate any specific vintage organ with immense accuracy. Interestingly, Hammond-Suzuki plan to make custom tonewheel sets — including some derived from famous organists’ own instruments — available for download.
Unexpectedly, though, this new sound engine doesn’t include any alternative voicings at all — it’s a pure unadulterated console Hammond, plain and simple. So there are no electronic (Vox/Farfisa) organ emulations, no pipe-organ sounds and no pianos or other voices. Purist Hammond-o-philes won’t complain, but some band keyboard players may be disappointed by this decision.
Yet another new feature is the detailed modelling of the ‘matching transformer’ employed in vintage organs, which mixed together the signals from each drawbar on the two manuals and pedalboard. The matching transformer has a non-linear behaviour which, once again, plays an important role in the characteristic sound and playing response of the organ. Magnetic saturation effects slightly alter the levels of sounds passing through the transformer, and magnetic hysteresis means that what was played before affects what is played next. It’s an effect often referred to as ‘volume robbing’ and it influences the instrument’s dynamics when single notes are played immediately before or after big chords. It lends a kind of ‘breathing’ quality, making the instrument more natural and organic (that word again!). As you might expect, the effect is subtle but still important and Hammond-Suzuki have taken a lot of care in replicating it as precisely as possible in the new XK-5 sound engine.
Next for revision was the virtual vibrato scanner. In vintage organs the vibrato and chorus effects are produced by an analogue delay line with multiple output taps along its length, and an electro-mechanical rotating contactor bolted between the run motor and tonewheel generator essentially samples the signal back and forth at different points along the delay line. The resulting short varying delay produces a time-domain vibrato effect and, when mixed with the source signal, a chorus effect. Over the years, the design of the analogue delay line changed, altering the effect character slightly (mostly affecting signal brightness), and the XK-5’s sound engine provides options to replicate the V-C scanner types dating from 1955-’57, 1957-’59 and 1959-’74. In contrast, the previous XK and SK instruments model only one type of delay line, but offer some customisation of the scanner speed, effect depth, and the amount of high-frequency boost imposed by the vibrato scanner. The XK-5’s implementation also allows the depth to be adjusted, and the speed range is a little wider at both extremes.
Also, like the XK-3C before it, the new XK-5 retains a physical tube preamp stage featuring both 12AX7 and 12AU7 valves, although the circuitry is configured differently. Instead of the valves being used in a two-band distortion circuit ahead of the expression pedal, the two valves here book-end a signal processing chain that includes a multi-effects option, the expression pedal and a digital overdrive (similar to the VASE III feature). The order of the two valves can be swapped or they can be bypassed completely, the various modes changing the overall tonality of the instrument slightly and the way it behaves as the expression pedal is used.
The control layout and facilities are a little different to the XK-3C, but still quite familiar and easy to use. A lovely new OLED display grabs the attention to the left of the drawbars, and seems to remain readable in a far wider range of ambient lighting than previous LCD displays. Adjacent to the display is a rotary encoder ‘Value’ knob, a quartet of navigation buttons, and the usual Display, Enter, Menu/Exit and Play buttons, all of which access and adjust the menus in exactly the same way as previous models. The master volume knob sits in the top left corner, while a traditional-looking rotary switch situated where it should be just to the left of the drawbars selects the chorus and vibrato mode, along with two buttons to apply the effect to the upper and/or lower manuals. The drawbars themselves feel just right, with a light clicking across each position as they are moved, and the lower-manual B-preset drawbars can be used to send nine channels of MIDI control messages to external equipment, if desired.
Lower down, alongside the reverse-colour preset notes, more buttons control the preset bank and preset note allocations, record new patches and control functions like key transposing, octave shifts, keyboard splits, pedal sustain and related functions. And right at the front are the obligatory buttons for Leslie fast/slow/brake and bypass. The rather incongruous pitchbend and modulation wheels of the XK-3C have been deleted.
Over on the right of the drawbars are four buttons to control the percussion generator (On, Soft, Fast, Third), and above them four knobs to adjust a three-band equaliser (with a sweep-mid). Further to the right are three more knobs with associated buttons to enable and adjust the amount of overdrive, active effect and reverb. The digital overdrive effects have been improved compared with previous generations and also work in concert with the physical tubes in the preamp. The XK-3C’s assignable function knobs and buttons have been deleted, so the XK-5 is much more of a purist Hammond organ emulation than the multi-function controller keyboard that the XK-3C tried to be, although the ability to re-allocate the lower-B drawbars to serve as MIDI controllers meets that need pretty well for anyone that needs it.
The power switch is on the rear panel alongside an IEC mains inlet (fixed voltage, set at the factory for the relevant sales region, and 220-230 V AC on the review model), and there are sockets for an 11-pin external Leslie connection, quarter-inch (unbalanced sockets) for the stereo line outputs, two more for assignable controllers (foot-switch or expression pedals), each with a wiring-polarity slide-switch, and an eight-pin DIN socket for the EXP-100F expression pedal (with integral Leslie speed toe-switch). There’s also a 3.5mm stereo headphone socket here, and I’ve already mentioned the three MIDI connectors and the A- and B-type USB sockets. The two valves can be seen through slots in the rear panel, too.
Underneath the rear of the chassis are two more quarter-inch sockets. One is a duplicate (but full-size) stereo headphone output and the other accepts the plug from a CU-1 half-moon Leslie speed switch. There’s also a four-pin XLR socket for the new H-Bus interface, which carries power and MIDI data from the optional XLK-5 lower manual and pedalboard.
I can see why the XK-5 has already proven a huge success; the new keybed alone makes it a genuine joy to play, and the provision of a full complement of drawbars is both comforting and practical. The new sound engine definitely brings some audible improvements too, although they are relatively subtle; a case of many small improvements across many separate areas that add up to produce a sound that is indefinably a bit more real. And while I doubt most would ever notice at a gig or even in a recording studio, it can certainly be heard and appreciated — especially in close comparison to an older XK or SK model. The addition of a USB-to-Host facility and the ability to stream audio over USB will appeal to studio owners, and hopefully Hammond will create a software editor for parameter tweaking too because, usable though the onboard menu is, it can be rather long-winded to make radical adjustments.
Are there any downsides to the XK-5? Other than the lack of alternative sound textures and the cost (which I’ll come to in a moment), I’d have to say none come to mind. One thing that has always surprised me with all of the Suzuki-Hammond organs, though, is the absence of a Spinet tonewheel option to replicate the more complex drawbar tones of the Hammond L100 (and its relatives), which was the instrument of choice for so many rock groups in the ’70s and which has never been emulated properly in a clonewheel organ as far as I’m aware. Perhaps this option could be offered when the promised downloadable tonewheel sets are made available?
As for the pricing, the XK-5 costs £3250$3695, which is roughly three times as much as the budget XK-1C single-manual alternative, but I think the price is justified given the superb keyboard, full drawbar sets and sound-engine improvements. Adding the XLK-5 lower manual takes the cost up to around £4674$5795 (without a stand or pedals), which is more than twice the cost of the SK2 compact two-manual organ (or the Nord C2D for that matter).
From this it will be self-evident that the XK-5 is intended as an instrument for the highly demanding and discerning Hammond player who really values the superb playability and ultimate sound quality, which the new XK-5 affords so brilliantly. Looking at it from the other direction, the portable version of the ‘New-B3 MkII’ costs around £15,000$15000, which makes the XK-5 System’s posh spindle-legged variant a real bargain!
Playing the XK-5 has been the closest experience from any clonewheel I’ve had yet to playing my own vintage A100 (with the exception of the New-B3), and the price seems quite reasonable to me in that context, especially given the customisation possibilities and connectivity. For anyone who takes their Hammond playing seriously, the XK-5 has to be auditioned... but make sure the bank account can take the strain beforehand because you won’t want to walk away from it!
The Leslie Rotary Speaker, although originally made by an entirely separate company, has long been considered an integral part of the Hammond sound, but this mechanically quite simple system imparts incredibly complex tonal variations to the organ’s sound. Recreating all of those acoustic effects digitally has always been a huge challenge, but I think most would agree that the Leslie emulation in the Hammond XK and SK instruments is amongst the best currently available. Even so, Hammond-Suzuki claim the XK-5’s version is better still.
To the casual eye, the adjustable menu parameters appear much the same as the previous incarnations, but one significant new addition is the provision of two separate virtual stereo mic arrays, one for the treble horn and the other for the bass rotor, with the ability to independently offset these microphone pairs sideways to emphasise or diminish the ‘approaching’ sound from their respective speaker. The audible effect is subtle but undoubtedly improves the realism.
Another new feature — and one that’s been long overdue in my book — is a USB-to-host connection (using the square type-B socket), so the XK-5 can pass MIDI (including SysEx data), setup and system update files in both directions directly to/from a computer. (A five-pin DIN MIDI Out socket is also provided along with two MIDI In sockets for connecting a lower manual and pedalboard).
Remarkably, the USB-to-host socket can also stream stereo audio from the instrument directly into the computer and, being class-1 compliant, it works with both Mac and Windows systems without a bespoke driver. I really wasn’t expecting that! An A-type USB socket is also provided for use with thumb drives to store and load user setups, much like the previous XK/SK instruments.