The VK8 is Roland's latest addition to their long-established VK series of tonewheel organ emulations. But due to the current popularity of the tonewheel sound, there are now plenty of other Hammond imitators around. Can the new VK stand its ground?
Hammond emulations are nothing new, if only because the larger tonewheel organs were, and remain, the organs of choice for most players (there was a time when, without an authentic Hammond, you couldn't get a decent organ sound for love or money). Unfortunately, recreating their sounds is not simple.
Until the advent of physical modelling software the best emulators were, by common consent, the Korg CX3 and BX3. These used analogue synthesis technology to imitate the classic B3/C3/A100 sound, and they ruled throughout the 1980s. Then, as the modern era dawned, numerous digital imitations appeared. Some claimed to imitate the sound of tonewheel organs. Others offered "authentic recreations of the vintage Hammond sound". Neither claim was true. Early examples of the genre were typified by the Voce DMI64, an instrument with ghastly overdrive and rotary effects, and the Fujiha D9, which was ghastly full stop. Roland got in on the act with the VK1000 — a useable organ, but a much better electric piano.
The first company to release something that you could use to replace a large Hammond in both a live or studio context was... Hammond. The Suzuki-built XB2 was a brave attempt and, despite a number of flaws, showed that you could recreate much of the 'Hammond plus Leslie' sound using digital technology. The XB2 and DMI64 were soon followed by the XM1 and XB1, and the V3 and V5 from the soon-to-be defunct Voce, all of which were improvements upon their predecessors.
Despite this, it was left to two other companies to really nail the sound players craved. In 1997 Viscount launched the Oberheim OB32 keyboard and module (not to be confused with the earlier and inferior OB3), and a couple of years later Korg released the superb CX3 (not to be confused with the earlier and inferior... umm... CX3). The Oberheim was cheap and offered limited facilities, whereas the Korg was expensive and provided everything you could ask for; but both offered superb recreations of that sound.
Roland's first DSP-based organ was the VK7, yet another variation on the theme. This made little impact in the marketplace, but the company persevered, further developing the sound generator for its flagship — and expensive — VK77 dual-manual organ. Now, in 2002, the company has announced its latest single-manual Hammond imitator, the VK8, which claims to use the VK77's sound-generating system. But does it...?
My first impression of the VK8 was good. Despite its lack of weight, it feels chunky and robust, and the keyboard itself is styled like vintage Hammond's, with flat fronts rather than any form of contouring. The action is a little lighter than my A100 (alongside which I placed the VK8 for testing) and much lighter than a typical, aged C3, which makes it perfectly suited to its task.
To the left of the keyboard you'll find the traditional complement of drawbars, together with controls for Leslie on/off, fast/slow and brake. There are three additional buttons: Pedal, Lower and Upper, of which more later. The main control panel consists of a master volume control, the expected six-position chorus/vibrato, a D-Beam controller (as found on the XV88 and many of Roland's Groove products), the traditional percussion controls, voice selectors for the 64 patch memories, plus the tonewheel, amplifier and overdrive controls standing proud in the centre. Then I noticed... there's no screen. Given that the physical controls couldn't represent all the facilities offered by the VK8, I began to have a bad feeling. Nonetheless, there was nothing less than obvious here, so I switched on and started to play.
Leslie Speaker Parameters
- Rotary Woofer Level.
- Rotary Tweeter Level.
- Rotary Woofer Acceleration.
- Rotary Tweeter Acceleration.
- Rotary Woofer Deceleration.
- Rotary Tweeter Deceleration.
- Rotary Woofer Spread.
- Rotary Tweeter Spread.
- Rotary Woofer Speed Slow.
- Rotary Tweeter Speed Slow.
- Rotary Woofer Speed Fast.
- Rotary Tweeter Speed Fast.
- Rotary Microphone Distance.
- Rotary Randomise.
Click & Percussion Parameters
- On Click Level.
- Off Click Level.
- Percussion Soft Level.
- Percussion Normal Level.
- Percussion Slow Time.
- Percussion Fast Time.
- Percussion Recharge Time.
- Percussion H-Bar Level.
- EQ Bass.
- EQ Middle.
- EQ Treble.
- Electric Piano 1.
- Electric Piano 2.
- Jazz Scat.
Roland have modelled their organ sound on the Hammond B3/C3/A100, implementing subtleties such as the 1' mute when percussion is on, the response of the percussion circuits to rapid playing, and the foldback of higher harmonics. Switching off all the effects allows you to inspect the unadulterated tonewheel 'Types', of which there are three: Vintage 1, Vintage 2 and Clean. While these can be seen as a step forward from the VK7 (which offered just Vintage and Clean settings) they're a big step back from the VK77's four Types — Vintage1, Vintage 2, Solid and Clean — and three wheel 'tables' — Mellow, Bright and Low-Boost Mellow.
Roland describe the VK8's Vintage1 and Vintage2 settings as simulating the organs of the 1970s and the organs of the 1960s respectively. Both of these offer generator leakage, which imitates the noise produced by the original instruments, 'Clean' has no leakage, which can be useful in its own right.
At first listen, all three voices sounded moderately authentic, but displayed a lack of 'body' when compared to the un-Leslie'd sound of my A100. I was not dismayed by this because, in my view, it is a fault of all Hammond emulators, and easily corrected using the onboard EQ. So I started to hunt for the EQ controls. This was when (cue tremulous organ music, cataclysmic flashes of lightning and doom-laden thunder) I discovered the VK8's editing system.
The VK8 allows you to edit dozens of extra parameters not represented on the control panel. However, more than half of these are stored as system settings, not as part of the patch. This wouldn't matter if these parameters were exclusively system parameters. You know the kind of thing... MIDI channels, SysEx IDs and that sort of stuff. But when the manufacturer starts to tuck many of the sound creation settings into an obscure editing system, I start to get twitchy. You can see some of the parameters I mean in the boxes dotted around above. All of them are global, and are applied to the instrument as a whole, no matter which patch you select.
Now, let me tell you how you access these important settings. First, you hold down the Harmonic Bar Part Upper and Pedal buttons, located at the bottom left-hand corner of the keyboard, simultaneously. Next, you press either the Tone Wheel, Percussion Second, or Amplifier buttons to access the Leslie, Click and Percussion, and EQ parameters respectively. Having done this, an appropriate number of the eight Preset/Other Tones selector buttons will light, and pressing one of these will allow you to edit the parameter it controls (oh yes... except that the Leslie effect has 13 parameters, so there are two lists controlled by whether the Preset button is lit or not).
Still with me? You'll wish that you weren't. Having pressed one of the Preset/Other Tones buttons, you edit the parameter by turning the Vibrato/Chorus selector knob. And how do you know which parameter you're editing? You look it up in the manual, because Roland didn't think it sensible to physically print this important information anywhere on the instrument itself. You may think that this is a trivial point, but it's not. It is very annoying when you can't remember which arcane combination of buttons accesses the desired menu and parameter.
Finally, how do you know what the parameter value is? Simple... you go to the D-Beam LEDs, and the number of these that are lit up tells you the value. Except that there are five LEDs, and up to 128 parameter values, depending upon which parameter you're editing.
As you can probably guess from my tone thus far, I found this combination of a multi-button system and no screen horrible. You even have to perform functions such as SysEx dumping and loading using obscure button combinations, and there's still no visual indication to tell you whether things are working. Judging by the VK8, Roland appear to have lost the plot of interface design completely.
Having unravelled the mysteries of the editing system, I tweaked the EQ, increasing the thickness at the bottom end and rolling off some of the top. Now the basic VK8 sound was much more authentic. Adding percussion and key-click did nothing to damage the realism. Or rather, it didn't after I had set up the appropriate parameters. Despite my dislike of the editing system, I can't deny that it does do the job.
The VK8 can transmit from its MIDI Out the merged MIDI data received at both of its MIDI Ins. However, using Thru appears to disable MIDI Out itself; indeed the manual warns you that the merger may trip over when presented with large amounts of data. What's more, the Thru setting is lost when you power off, so you must reprogram it every time you switch on again. On an instrument of this price, why not have a dedicated MIDI Thru? It beats me.
The sound of a tonewheel organ is as much a consequence of the effects applied to it as it is of the sound generator itself. Vintage Hammonds offer a number of such effects; some planned, others 'faults' that have since been adopted by players and listeners alike. Examples of the former are the six-position chorus/vibrato and the rotary speaker effect. The latter include key-click, release key-click, and the distortion caused by overdriven valve amplifiers. As you would expect, the VK8 recreates all of these.
I tested the VK8's six chorus/vibrato settings against my A100, and found that they were almost identical, modulating the signal at the same speed and at the same depth. Good stuff.
The amplifier and overdrive settings are modelled using Roland's excellent COSM technology. When I reviewed the VK7, I found its amp and overdrive effects to be rather 'fizzy', and I recommended that the company replace them. COSM is exactly what I was hoping for.
There are three Amplifier Types, described as Type I, Type II and Type III. Roland describes these as (I) characteristic of the most frequently used rotary speakers, (II) characteristic of large vacuum-tube amps of the '70s, and (III) characteristic of the rotary speakers often used for rock organ. I think that we all know what they mean. Associated with the Amplifier Types, you'll find the overdrive and tone controls. The overdrive does as expected, and with the correct combination of Type and drive you can make the VK8 purr or scream, as desired.
However, the Tone control does not act as you would expect. Ranging from 'fat' to 'bright', it appears to control two parametric boosts, one in the mid-frequencies at around 300-400Hz, and the other in the highs at 3-4kHz. 'Fat' starts as a flat response, and then, as you rotate the knob clockwise, you boost the mids, and then boost the highs, with a crossfade region between the two EQs. It's very odd. Nonetheless, all three Types are useable across a wide range of drives and EQs, allowing you to change the sound from meek and unassuming to bare-chested and whisky-sodden with just a press of a button and the tweak of a knob or two.
The Leslie speaker effect is also created using COSM technology. As shipped, I found it to be less than realistic, but tweaking the global parameters sorted it out, with one exception... I couldn't obtain the deep bass 'whoompf' I wanted at slow settings.
The last element in the signal path is the reverb. This offers four settings — Room, Hall, Church and Spring — but with no obvious controls other than a Depth knob. I found this limiting, because the reverb effects were never quite what I wanted (I eventually discovered that there's a reverb time parameter buried in another menu).
Strangely, the Leslie and reverb are two areas in which the VK8 is inferior to its five-year-old predecessor, because the VK7 offered dedicated stationary speaker settings, and whereas the VK7 had seven reverb types, the VK8 has just the four. Why Roland have reduced the capabilities of the VK8 is a mystery to me.
Oh, and while I'm mentioning reduced capabilities, it's worth noting that the VK77 let you change the reverb structure, placing the reverb either before or after the rotary-speaker effect. This is important. A real Hammond can only have room or hall ambience after the Leslie effect... the spring reverb must come before. The VK8 does not offer this flexibility.
The VK8 comes with a set of GM2 rhythm sounds, but I guarantee that you will not find these by accident. What's more, I'm certain that you'll get a headache trying to access them, even with the manual in front of you. This is because (a) you can only play them from an external keyboard, and (b) you can only play them from the external keyboard if an obscure function called Sub Keyboard Function is off. This function is, of course, buried in an invisible menu.
The VK8's eight so-called 'Other Tones' provide a fourth multitimbral part that you can split or layer with the organ patches, or assign to their own MIDI channel. However, other than the volume control on the panel, these have no associated parameters whatsoever. No envelopes. No pitch controls. No nuffin'. You can add chorus and shift them up and down in octaves if you delve into yet another arcane, unannounced menu, but other than that, forget it. Even the global EQ is powerless to affect them. You can't even mix them, so what you're given is what you get. And it ain't much.
The piano is dull and lifeless in a 'PCM synth piano' sort of way. The electric pianos are worse, with two obvious samples per note. These are velocity split, without a crossfade region to soften the transition from one to the other. That's rather amateur from a company like Roland, who have decent electric piano samples in abundance — but not here they don't. The basic string sound is acceptable, but it's limited to a single articulation, which makes it almost useless.
Jazz Scat is a really curious one. This comprises multiple samples offering Roland's archetypical "doo", "dah" and "bop" voices. These are again velocity-split without crossfades, but in this case it's a little more appropriate. I first heard these samples in 1989 or thereabouts on my S330, and they were fun at the time. 'Nuff said.
The choir is perhaps my favourite of the Other Tones, but only because I'm a sucker for big choral sounds. With globs of reverb, it's pleasant, but it then sits poorly with the over-reverbed organ.
Next to this lies the Synth, a typical Roland 'bell+pad' sound first heard on the D50 and reproduced a thousand times on every JV, XP and XV since. It's nice, but lacks dynamics. Finally, we come to the Brass, which is acceptable in a 'brass section' sort of way, but useless for anything else.
In normal use, the Other Tones are layered over the organ, and this highlights another deficiency: there is no organ mute control. This means that if you want to hear the Other Tones in isolation you have either to (i) pull out and push in all the drawbars, and cancel percussion, or (ii) create and select a silent organ patch. Bah, humbug!
The really crazy thing is... The VK7 was hugely superior in this department. Its 'Orchestral' section contained 39 patches arranged in six banks (strings, choir, brass, bass, attack, and 'other') and you could edit these with basic envelope, filter and LFO parameters. Sure, the VK7 was not a full-blown S&S synth, but it was way ahead of the VK8, and could double as a simple, semi-preset, PCM-based synth. The VK77 was even better, so the VK8's Other Tones are multiply disappointing.
Roland go on somewhat in their literature about the VK8's so-called "ivory-coloured waterfall-style' keyboard. What this means, in plain speaking, is that the keys have flat front surfaces with no sharp bits. This allows you to 'swipe' the keys and play glissandos as you would on a real, large-format Hammond. Try doing this on a typical weighted synth or a piano, and you'll see why the waterfall keyboard is an advantage.
Unlike competitors such as the Hammond XK2 and Roland's own VK77, the VK8 lacks conventional performance controls such as a pitch-bend or modulation lever or wheels. This severely limits its usefulness as a controller keyboard.
What it has instead is a D-Beam. This may seem incongruous on an organ, but it controls five effects; some useful, some less so (see picture, right). These are Crescendo, toggling the rotary speed between slow and fast, ring modulation, tonewheel brake (the 'switching off the Hammond' sound) and reverb spring shock (the 'Keith is throwing his L100 round the stage again' sound).
I am rather bemused by the ring modulator. Have you ever see a Hammond with a ring mod, or have you heard anyone play a Hammond through one? I haven't. The wheel brake is more appropriate, but Roland should have linked this to the Leslie brake. It sounds very unnatural when the organ pitch and volume drop to zero but the Leslie keeps rotating as if nothing had happened. As every Hammond player knows, if you switch off the organ, you switch off the Leslie too. Better than either of these, the reverb shock effect is great, and adds spice to some performances.
Since the D-Beam is the only performance control on the VK8 itself, Roland has added three control pedal inputs. The first is for a sustain pedal, and this works on both the organ and Other Tones. The second is a control pedal input, which controls your choice of one from 12 useful functions such as Leslie fast/slow, manual control over Leslie speed, overdrive level, and so on.
The third is 'Active Expression'. This is another facility that Roland get nearly right. If you insert the recommended EV7 Expression Pedal into the appropriate hole in the back of the VK8, it allows you to control your choice of three different modes of expression (ie. it's a loudness control). The first activates the sound of any selected Other Tone first, then introduces the organ one drawbar at a time from the top downwards, increasing the loudness of both sounds as it does so. The second does the converse, starting with the organ and then adding the Other Tone and increasing the loudness of both. The third is conventional, with both organ and Other Tones increasing and decreasing in volume simultaneously and equally.
In principle, this should be very useful, but I found two problems. Firstly, I have many expression pedals, but no EV7. I tried half a dozen or so, but none worked correctly. Eventually, I got down on my hands and knees and disconnected my EV5 from its permanent home in my studio, and hooked it up to the VK8. This worked perfectly, but be warned... if you buy a VK8, you may have to have to buy a dedicated expression pedal to go with it.
Secondly, I expected that, in the first mode, each drawbar would be introduced smoothly. Instead, each travels from silence to maximum volume in quantised steps, just as if one was pulling out the drawbars by hand. This made the expression sound rather jumpy.
If nothing but the best will do, the VK8 sports an 11-pin Leslie connector alongside its conventional stereo outputs.
Not knowing the pin-outs of my Leslie 122RV and 147, I declined to test this. After all, shoving the current from a 24V power rail up one of the signal inputs of a vintage valve amplifier is a bit beyond the call of duty, even for Sound On Sound. But given the time and inclination, I'm sure that I could wire a connector (if necessary), and I'm confident that everything would work correctly.
The back panel offers an extra MIDI In to connect another controller keyboard to act as a second manual. There are also three sockets for expression pedals, an audio output pair and phones socket, and an 11-pin connection for attaching an external Leslie.
Like the VK7 before it, the VK8 allows you to distribute its sounds across three 'virtual' fully polyphonic manuals, or two manuals and a set of pedals. Twin MIDI Ins allow you to connect suitable controllers so that you can use it as the core of a genuine 'twin manuals plus pedals' instrument, with individual MIDI channels for each. There is a separate channel for the Other Tones, two more for the spring shock effect and the GM rhythm sounds (see 'Rhythm Sounds' box), and yet another for a selection of other functions.
I hooked up my Roland XV88 as a second manual (and to play the rhythm sounds not accessible from the VK8 itself, as explained in the 'Rhythm Sounds' box) and set about testing the VK8 as a replacement for the A100 in my studio, and for the Oberheim OB32 I use for sessions.
As already noted, my first job was finding the appropriate menus to adjust the sound to my liking. Having done this, I started to feel more accommodating towards the instrument. Ignoring the Other Tones and using it purely as a Hammond emulator, I found that it did the job, handling most of my 'Hammond plus Leslie' requirements. It has much of the sound of the originals, and (notwithstanding my one reservation regarding the Leslie) the onboard effects — particularly the chorus/vibrato — are first class.
However, if you want to push the VK8 a bit beyond standard organ duties, making use of the Other Tones, or using it to control other sound generators, you're going to be disappointed. The Other Tones are too limited to be worthwhile, and the absence of aftertouch as well as pitch-bend and modulation wheels renders the VK8 pretty useless as a controller keyboard.
Unfortunately, my dissatisfaction doesn't stop there. For one thing, I discovered a bug... When you switch on the percussion while holding notes, the VK8 emits an annoying 'blip'. Many Hammond players engage percussion with notes held in order to lift the intensity of the next passage or phrase. The VK8 renders this impossible.
But let's cut to the chase. The thing that really annoys me about the VK8 is its editing system. I've detailed some of the parameters buried in its invisible menus, but there are many more, all of which should be easily accessible, should tell you the existing value of the parameter and, in many cases, should be stored with the patch rather than globally.
Like all of its contemporaries and competitors, the VK8 makes a very creditable stab at replacing a vintage Hammond in the studio and on stage. So let's finish by assuming that you are unconcerned by the editing system, and now ask whether the VK8 is an instrument that you should consider buying.
As a Roland aficionado for more than two decades, I would love to say yes, but I can't. In, or slightly above its price range, the VK8 has stern competition in the shape of the Korg CX3, which sounds superb, has a large screen and an excellent editing system, and which extends the traditional Hammond sound with extra drawbar footages. The Hammond/Suzuki XK2 is no slouch, either. Alternatively, at around one third of the price, there's the Viscount/Oberheim OB32, and for one fifth, you could pick up the OB32 module. These have many fewer facilities, but still sound first class.
If you like the VK8, don't let me deter you. Despite my reservations, it's a fine-sounding instrument. But I'm afraid that it's not going to set the world on fire.