Sam Inglis roots around in the dustbin of history and fishes out one of the few Roland analogue instruments you can still afford without a second mortgage. Does it deserve to be rehabilitated?
The year is 1980. The raw guitar thrash of punk rock is beginning to give way to the quirkier, more oblique sounds of post‑punk and the New Romantics. The charts are awash with electronic acts like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and Japan, while established artists like David Bowie and Neil Young dabble with increasingly experimental synthesizer sounds. A new generation of powerful analogue polysynths, led by the Prophet V and Oberheim OBX, offers hitherto unparalleled sonic power. Not the best time, you might think, to launch a faithful electronic recreation of the old‑fashioned Hammond organ.
Nevertheless, that year saw the debut of no less than three such instruments: Korg's CX3 and BX3 and Roland's VK1. Though they were ostensibly rivals, both contemporary and more recent opinion has it that there was little real competition — the Korg instruments simply won hands down. The CX3 and BX3 (basically single‑ and double‑manual versions of the same instrument) mimicked not only the Hammond's drawbar setup and percussion, but also included built‑in overdrive and Leslie speaker simulations which are still regarded as pretty authentic. Roland's design, on the other hand, lacked any means of replicating these latter features, which many people consider definitive of the classic Hammond sound. As a result, the VK1 disappeared from view fairly promptly, while the Korg products flourished, becoming the instruments to own if you couldn't afford, or lift, a real Hammond B3.
A consequence of their enduring reputation, however, is that the Korg organs still fetch substantial sums when they become available second‑hand. A BX3 was recently offered in SOS small ads for £995 — approaching the second‑hand cost of a real Hammond, and only £400 cheaper than the original list price — and you'd be lucky to see any change from £500 for a CX3 in half‑decent condition. By contrast, I bought my VK1 in 1996 for £120, which was pretty much the going rate at the time.
The VK1 was introduced as a cheaper, single‑manual adaptation of Roland's existing 'flagship' organs, the VK6 and VK9, which were hefty two‑manual beasts with equally hefty price tags. As we will see, the cut‑down VK1 lost some of its big brothers' most important features; on the up side, it also shed some of their excessive weight. Even so, it's hardly compact — some might say it's unnecessarily large, given that much of its depth is taken up with empty space. The whole thing is housed in a chunky chipboard case, covered on the top with black vinyl and on the bottom with rather impermanent black paint (or does it just pick up dirt?). Undoing about 15 screws allows you to lift up the hinged top panel for access to the murky depths within, should you wish it.
While the 61‑note keyboard is not the quietest ever devised, it is robust both in construction and feel, with a satisfyingly springy action. Sophisticated single‑keyboard Hammond clones often include keyboard split options, so that their one set of keys can be used to mimic simultaneous playing on a real Hammond's two sets and/or pedal bass. Unfortunately, the VK1 is not sophisticated: though its five‑octave range is entirely adequate for most applications, you have to use the same sound for left and right hands.
Like most electronic organs, the VK1 has nine drawbars which are colour‑coded to distinguish the different harmonics, and numbered in feet and inches to reflect the dimensions of the pipes to which they correspond on a pipe organ. These have a pleasing click‑stopped action, and are also pretty reliable. If you're giving a VK1 (or any electric organ) the once‑over, though, it's important to try moving each drawbar over the full extent of its travel while listening to the output. Pops and crackles may simply indicate dirty contacts, but could also be a sign of more serious problems.
The front panel features a number of old‑style Roland LED buttons which are used to select the three preset tones and the drawbar/percussion mode, the style of percussion (see box) and the chorus/vibrato which is the VK1's one onboard effect. There are also Volume, Brilliance (tone) and Tuning pots, along with controls for Rate and Depth of the vibrato. The more upmarket VK6 had a 'Click Attack' control which was supposed to emulate the distinctive attack noise caused on real Hammonds by dirty key contacts; this, sadly, is missing from the VK1.
The VK1 is resolutely mono, and its single output is switchable between high, mid and low levels. Set to the 'high' position, it should put out a fairly healthy signal; weedy or distorted output is another sign of potential trouble. Apart from the headphone socket, that's it for the back panel. There's no MIDI, obviously, nor any means of connecting a footswitch. The VK1 also lost the CV/gate outs of the VK6 — and, which is more serious, its dedicated Leslie output.
Original Hammonds used notched metal tonewheels, rotating in a magnetic field, to generate sine waves which serve as electrical analogues of the sound produced by air resonating in a pipe. Portable Hammond copies like the VK1, by contrast, use simple integrated circuits to produce their sine wave tones. While this means that the VK1 is certainly lighter than a tonewheel organ, it also makes its tuning rather less stable. Of course, you can use the Tuning pot to adjust the pitch — unless, as on my VK1, the tuning of the whole instrument goes only from sharp to painfully sharp! It may have drifted over the years, but it's also quite possible that Roland inflicted on the VK1 their eccentric belief that concert A should be 442Hz, as it is on other instruments of the time like the Jupiter 8.
I've had a couple of years of sterling service out of the Roland organ, and wouldn't part with it for the world. Nevertheless, I would be the first to admit that the sound you get out of the back bears only a passing resemblance to the raunchy, gritty swirl of a real Hammond B3 played through a Leslie amp and speaker.
Now that decent stand‑alone Leslie simulators are available, it would no doubt be possible to achieve a reasonable approximation to 'the' Hammond sound with a VK1 and a little effort. But then, you could probably get a 'reasonable approximation' with a modern digital synth, and you'd get MIDI and a whole load of other sounds as well. So why bother with a cantankerous, badly‑specified piece of kit that's rapidly approaching its 20th birthday?
The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is that while the sound of a Hammond B3 overdriving a Leslie is great and unique, it is certainly not the only great organ sound. I realise that in some musical quarters this view constitutes heresy of the worst order but, despite the howls of the purists, there are valid reasons why you might want to have an organ that doesn't sound like a Hammond B3.
For one thing, even if you only want to imitate classic organ sounds of history, you have to consider all those players — Ray Manzarek, Jerry Harrison, Steve Nieve — who achieved their distinctive sounds using Voxes, Farfisas, and the like. And in this respect, the VK1 doesn't fare badly, especially on the Farfisa front.
More importantly, however, the VK1 just has a nice sound of its own. In my experience, while it is possible to get a good sound out of most organs, it is not always very easy (indeed, getting any sound at all out of a real Hammond, other than the frustrated crash of boot on speaker cabinet, can be far from trivial). It is, however, hard to get a bad sound out of the VK1 — provided you avoid its presets. Almost any random setting of the drawbars and chorus/vibrato yields a sound you want to use, from spooky dark basses and eerie sopranos, via delicate, pure tones to rich, churning solo sounds. It can sit pretty comfortably in a mix, either in the background or the foreground. And the drawbars, of course, give you real‑time control possibilities that few synth organ patches can match.
If you want a cheap, portable drawbar organ for gigging or recording, your options these days are surprisingly limited. Roland recently re‑entered the fray with their impressive physical modelling VK7 (reviewed in Sound On Sound July 1997), but this, like its competitors from Hammond‑Suzuki and Oberheim, is hardly an impulse buy, retailing at well over £1000. Older instruments like the sample‑based VK1000 and the Viscount D9 can be got second‑hand for substantially less, but there are still few bargains to be had — unless you get yourself a VK1. It's not a Hammond organ and it never will be, but it's functional, reliable and yields cool noises with minimal prodding.
I don't know how many VK1s Roland produced before they eventually cut their losses, but I would imagine the final figure is not enormous. Certainly, the instrument was not a resounding success on its introduction, and they don't seem to crop up that often in small ads or music shops — though whether this is due to rarity or perceived undesirability is not clear. If you do come across one, though, it's well worth trying out. Given that it'll probably cost you between £100 and £200, depending on condition, you might agree that it represents something of a bargain.
In addition to its presets and drawbars, the VK1 also features a Percussion section. As on original Hammonds, this term is used to refer not to any beatbox capability, but to an additional sound‑generating mechanism which is used to emphasise note attack — many classic 'cool' Hammond sounds feature prominent percussion against a rather muted sustained drawbar sound. Roland's intention was clearly to mimic this feature of original Hammonds, as was Korg's incorporation of percussion on the BX3 and CX3.
What you get are five switches with LED indicators: three different types of percussion are available, second‑, third‑ and fifth‑harmonic, and these can be used individually or in any combination. The other switches select 'soft' volume, making the percussion more subtle, and 'fast' decay, which gives a more staccato effect. So far, so good. And if, the first time you set up your VK1, you were to try turning the percussion on and playing a single note, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear a rich, bell‑like tone not dissimilar to that of an old electric piano. 'Aha,' you might think, 'not only do I now own a Hammond copy, it can also do Fender Rhodes impressions too!'
The warm feeling this thought might produce would, however, last only until you got around to pressing a second key — and heard no percussion at all. For, like that of original Hammonds, the VK1's percussion is single‑triggering, only sounding on a note if no other notes are already playing. This is a serious problem on a single‑manual instrument. Play a solo phrase with one hand, and it sounds fine: try to play the same phrase with a few sustained bass notes as well, however, and you will hear very little. Given that Roland didn't bother to reproduce some of the most important positive features of the original Hammond sound, like key‑click and overdrive, it's rather annoying that they should have copied one of its few drawbacks so faithfully!