Years after releasing their successful OB series of digital drawbar organs under their Oberheim brand, Viscount have updated their take on organ modelling with the new DB series. But the march of progress seems to have executed an abrupt about-turn...
When I first saw an advertisement for the DB3, I thought that it must be a misprint of 'OB‑3', so I didn't give it another thought. I was therefore surprised when I got a call from SOS asking whether I would be interested to review a new Viscount organ called... the DB3. Less than a week later, the organ itself arrived, proving to be far more than a mere typographical error.
As you can see, it appears little different from its predecessors, the Oberheim OB‑3 and OB‑32 (reviewed in SOS March 1996 and September 1997, respectively), or its current competition, instruments such as the Hammond XK2, Roland VK8, and Korg CX3. A wooden chassis reminiscent of a vintage Hammond encloses a five-octave keyboard, with a control panel and drawbars at the left-hand extreme, and as with the OB‑32, there's also a module version which offers the controls and drawbars but loses the keyboard. Yeah... well, so what's new? Given that the DB3 is yet another competent Hammond emulator in a world replete with competent Hammond emulators (not least of which is Viscount's own aforementioned OB‑32, which I personally rate highly), why should we take any notice?
The answer is simple, and compelling. Whereas the Hammond, Roland and Korg will cost you upwards of £1500 (or thereabouts), the Viscount can be yours for a mere £500 (and the module, at £349, is even more reasonable). This has to be worth a closer look...
Like its competition, the DB3 incorporates a DSP-powered physical modelling system dedicated to emulating the sound of a vintage Hammond played through a dual-rotor Leslie speaker. Consequently, the control panel (which looks much smarter in black than its predecessors did in cream) sports the expected controls: nine drawbars, a six-position knob for chorus/vibrato, a reverb knob, switches for percussion, and switches for Leslie on/off and rotor speed.
The DB3 provides three manuals — Upper, Lower, and a pedalboard called 'Bass' — all of which you can play on the DB3 itself using split points that allow you to allocate each to a range on the keyboard. You configure these (and determine the DB3's other functions) using the nine extra buttons — Bass, Lower, Rotary, Rev Type, Equaliser, MIDI, Global Memory, '-' and '+' — and the three-digit LED screen that also resides on the control panel. Oh, for heaven's sake... not another three-character screen, surely?
I have been critical of silly little screens in the past, and I see no reason why the one on the DB3 should escape my ire. Why manufacturers think it acceptable in 2002 to use displays incapable of displaying the letter 'M' is beyond my comprehension. Admittedly, the simplicity of the DB3's operating system renders this less of a limitation than it is on synths that adopt the same approach, but I'm still not happy about it. Sure, adding a 20-character LCD might add to the cost. But then again, it might not.
Allocating the three 'manuals' to regions on the keyboard is simple. You start by pressing the Bass button. On doing so for the first time, the screen displays 'BLx', which means 'Bass Level, x' where 'x' is a number from zero to nine. You can then press the '+' or '-' buttons to adjust this. Pressing the Bass button again displays 'BSx', which allows you to program the Bass Sustain, which is, of course, a Release time. True, you won't find Sustain on vintage Hammonds, but it is nevertheless welcome.
The next press of the button allows you to determine whether the Bass is layered over the bottom end of the Upper or Lower manuals, or whether it is assigned to its own region. A fourth press allows you to set the Split Point itself, simply by pressing '+' followed by the appropriate key. Similarly, pressing the Lower button allows you to determine a split point and level for the lower manual. The system is simple, and after a quick whizz through the skimpy but clear manual, I configured the DB3 quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Maybe I'll forgive the three-character LED, after all.
If you wish to use the DB3 within a multi-keyboard MIDI rig, that's no problem. Pressing the MIDI button allows you to select a MIDI 'mode': send/receive on a single channel, send/receive on two channels for separate Upper and Lower/Bass use, and send/receive on three channels, setting the MIDI channel for each section independently. Furthermore, the DB3 offers a healthy MIDI specification, with SysEx or MIDI CC# control of almost all parameters, and as on the OB‑32, the hardware drawbars transmit and respond to MIDI controllers. You can transmit Program Changes from the panel and you can dump the memory to a MIDI sequencer (on playback, though, the DB3 will reload any files it encounters, so be careful).
The final MIDI parameter is Key Touch. Surprisingly, given the nature and low cost of the instrument, its 'waterfall' keyboard is velocity-sensitive, with five response curves. This proves to be pleasantly playable, and you should have no difficulty using the DB3 as a controller for a velocity-sensitive synthesizer or expansion module. Bear in mind, however, that the DB3 offers no provision for a sustain (damper) pedal, so playing piano sounds is doomed to failure. This is odd... why go to the bother of implementing multiple velocity response curves, and omit the sustain pedal? This indicates muddled thinking; surely it would make more sense for Viscount to stick to one philosophy or the other? Also, there is no aftertouch, and no performance controls such as a pitch-bend/modulation lever or wheels. On balance, I think that it would be best to ignore the MIDI Out socket as far as using the DB3 as a keyboard controller goes.
Having set up the DB3, I set about customising the sound to my taste. But there was a problem... although the DB3's Bass sounds are much better than the OB‑32's single bass registration, they are too quiet, even at maximum Level. Oh well... since there was nothing I could do about this, I decided to ignore the Bass for the rest of the review (except to add it to the list of 'cons' in the summary box) and concentrate on the manuals.
The first job was to tweak the Upper and Lower sounds into shape using the DB3's basic EQ. Adjusting this could not have been easier. Press the Equaliser button once, and the bass cut/boost appears; press it again and the treble setting appears. As always, you adjust these using the '+' and '-' buttons.
I found the factory EQ settings quite acceptable for most uses, but, as on other DSP-driven organs, it was necessary to reduce the treble at extreme overdrive settings. In truth, the DB3 required less adjustment than some other organs I have reviewed, and this is to its credit.
It was now time to fine-tune the noise and key-click parameters. Again, this took just seconds. There are two types of noise on the DB3: the ethereal sound that characterises leakage from the tonewheel generator, and electrical (motor) noise that appears as a broad hum in the desired signal. I can't remember being able to adjust these separately on any other Hammond emulator. Well done, Viscount.
Next, I set up the key click. As delivered, this seemed a little too quiet to me, but a few button presses later I had the sound I wanted.
Moving on, there is a strange parameter called Scaling. The manual describes this as "four variations in the instrument's character", but this is an exaggeration. The effect is very subtle, best described as a slight accent toward the bass when Scaling is set to '1', and a slight accent towards the treble when Scaling is set to '4' (its maximum). I set Scaling at '2' for the review, partly because this was the factory default, but mostly because the differences were so slight that I could hardly hear the difference. It's certainly no substitute for the various tonewheel models offered by the competition, most of which incorporate variants of 'vintage' and 'modern' modes.
Having set the voicing to my satisfaction, it was now time to inspect the DB3's drawbar sound. To do this, I compared it to both my vintage A100 Hammond, and also to my not-so-vintage OB‑32. The results — across all registrations and registers — were encouraging. The DB3 was rather clean when compared to the direct (ie. un-Leslie'd) sound of the A100, but that is to some extent a consequence of the studio monitoring... my Hammond has a 37-year-old valve amp and speakers, whereas the DB3 was passing through a low-noise desk, followed by a reference amp and modern monitors. Apart from this one observation, I could find nothing to concern me. The basic sound of the DB3, while different from the A100 and the OB‑32 to which I was comparing it, proved just as useable. So far, so good.
There is one area in which the DB3 far exceeds the capabilities of the OB‑32; it's that of memories. The DB3 has two types of these: Upper and Global.
Upper memories are what the name suggests; they contain drawbar registrations for the Upper manual. They do not store settings for the percussion, chorus/vibrato, reverb, overdrive or Leslie effects, so you might think them rather limiting, but they are in principle the same as the hardwired presets on a vintage Hammond.
The Global memories are far more encompassing, storing all the current parameters except for the master volume, the fine-tuning and the MIDI settings. This means that you can create complete registrations and store or recall them at will.
Like the OB‑32, the DB3's Lower manual and Bass do not offer memories. Instead, there are five preset registrations for the Lower, and two for the Bass. You cannot modify these.
The rear panel sports stereo outputs, a headphone output (which, in my opinion, should be at the front), a pitch control trimmer, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and three control pedal inputs: volume, Leslie fast/slow, and a toggle between the last two memories used.
My only gripe lies with the power socket; it's for a 10.5V AC-AC wall-wart, which is not the kind of thing you'll find in Woolies if you damage the original. I would prefer a standard IEC socket and an internal PSU but, given the price of the DB3, I'll say no more about it.
It was now time to turn my attention to the vital effects that define the Hammond sound. These are: percussion, chorus/vibrato, overdrive, reverb, and the rotary speaker simulation.
The percussion is, perhaps, the third area in which the DB3 falls short of expectation. This is not because the sound itself is inadequate, but because Viscount missed a trick. On a real Hammond and its more accomplished emulators, the sustained body of the sound becomes quieter when you select 'Normal' percussion. This helps to accentuate the percussive blip. The DB3 does not do this, and the Normal/Soft switch affects only the percussion sound itself. Also, the decay speed is too fast, particularly on the 'fast' setting. But if this was disappointing, there was more to follow...
Comparing the DB3's six chorus/vibrato settings to the authentic Hammond vibrato, I found that — although seemingly acceptable in isolation — the modulation on the Viscount is faster than on the Hammond, much less deep than it should be, and that it exhibits a different character. What's more, nothing above middle 'C' on the 2' drawbar or above sounds modulated! The more I played the DB3, the more I realised that the chorus/vibrato on the OB‑32 is hugely superior, modulating at the correct rate, with greater depth, and with a more accurate shape. I wonder why the DB3 has taken such a significant step backwards in this important area?
The next effect is overdrive, traditionally created by overdriving the inputs on the valve amplifiers within the Hammond and Leslie cabinets. Since the DB3 has an Overdrive knob, you might think that this recreates the effect at all times. It's a reasonable assumption — but unfortunately, it's wrong...
On receiving the DB3, I was so keen to hear it that I initially plugged it into a small pair of active speakers that live on shelves above my writing desk (this is not as daft as it seems. When you're reviewing, it's useful to be able to remove everything superfluous from the signal chain). However, such is the gain of the speakers that I was unable to turn the master volume control of the organ above 3/10 or thereabouts. This meant that, when I tried use the overdrive to get a gritty sound, I could not. The clean registrations sounded fine, but imitating Deep Purple proved to be impossible.
Moving the DB3 to the main studio confirmed what I suspected. The Master Volume and Overdrive controls are linked, and the DB3 will not 'drive' at low volumes. This is an accurate recreation of the Hammond/Leslie combination, but it's frustrating. The OB‑32 allows you to play overdriven sounds at low volumes, and I suggest that, in this area, Viscount have opted for authenticity in favour of expedience, and not necessarily wisely — even though they previously favoured expedience on the OB‑32.
As for the overdrive itself, this seems — at first — to be perfectly useable. However, when you engage the rotary speaker effect (see below) the distortion does not appear to rotate in the soundfield. It sits in the left channel and sounds rather divorced from the Leslie simulation, almost as if it were added to the signal afterwards. That can't be right. Curiously, the OB‑32 did not exhibit this untoward behaviour. Indeed, if you cancel the Leslie effect on an OB‑32, the overdrive is defeated, as it is on an authentic Hammond and Leslie. Again, the DB3 seems to have stepped backwards.
Now we come to the rotary speaker effect itself. This is vital to the final sound of a Hammond, but it is another area in which the DB3 lets itself down. You can demonstrate this by playing the DB3's percussion sound in isolation, and without effects. "No problem here", you might say, and you would be right. But when you engage the Leslie effect, percussion at the lowest extreme of the keyboard is weighted by about +10dB towards the right. Conversely, when you play at the top end, it is weighted +10dB or thereabouts towards the left. I wouldn't mind this if the image were rotating, but it's not... it's static in these positions. The result is the same whether the percussion is normal or soft, or slow or fast, or even whether the Leslie is slow or fast. It's also true when you play sustained sounds: with the Leslie engaged, the bass is weighted to the right, and the treble to the left.
At first, I thought that this must be a DSP programming error, and began to sharpen my most venomous, barbed pencil. But, as sometimes happens, I awoke the following morning with a thought: this is the sort of response one would obtain when recording a dual-rotor Leslie using two microphones — one aimed at the horn, one at the drum — offset by 180 degrees. Consequently, the DB3's Leslie sound isn't wrong... it's just a model of one of the ways in which you can record a Hammond/Leslie combination.
Having realised this, I went hunting for the parameters that would allow me to modify the microphone distances and relative angles. Oops... they don't exist. Apart from the Leslie on/off and fast/slow buttons on the control panel, there are just four parameters for the effect. These are slow speed, acceleration, high speed, and deceleration, and they apply simultaneously to the rotor and the horn. This does not mean that the rotor and horn effects are rotating at the same speed, nor that they accelerate and decelerate in unison; it means that you cannot adjust them independently. This is not necessarily a criticism, it's merely an observation. My favourite low-cost Leslie simulator, the Korg G4, works in the same way, and I have never found it to be a problem.
Anyway, returning to the issue of microphone-placement parameters, the lack of these means that you must live with Viscount's interpretation of the Leslie sound. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If I think back to my misspent yoof in the late '70s, I can remember that most engineers recorded Hammonds in this fashion. Using four microphones set at 90 degrees to one another was quite rare, and it is only with the advent of today's digital emulators that we have become used to swinging the Hammond sound all the way from the left channel to the right, and back again. On this basis, I can't find it in me to criticise the DB3's rotary speaker effect too harshly. Hmm... that's not quite true. The algorithm lacks the deep bass "whoompf" that I look for in a Leslie simulation. Again, the OB‑32 is greatly superior.
Finally, we come to the reverb effect. Before considering this, we should remind ourselves that we hear two types of reverberation when we listen to a Hammond. The first is generated by the spring reverb that lies after the sound generator but before the rotary speaker; the second is the natural reverberation of the listening space.
The DB3 offers five reverberant effects, the levels of which are controlled by the Reverb knob on the panel. The first three of these are Hall, Room, and Church, and they lie after the Leslie simulation, as 'on' a real Hammond. The fourth reverb effect is 'Spring', but this also lies post-Leslie. This is wrong. Viscount isn't the only manufacturer to make this mistake, but that doesn't excuse it. The fifth 'reverb' effect is Delay, and this offers a single slapback echo. At maximum delay, you can hear a third echo, but I would never use this, and I think that it's best ignored. Again, the effect on the OB‑32 was greatly superior.
I was intrigued to see that the manufacturer of Oberheim synths and keyboards has found the courage to launch the DB3 under its own name. But apart from this change, I had expected the DB3 and my OB‑32 to be much the same. In this, I was both right and very wrong.
For clean sounds played without effects, I found them similar, and very good at their jobs. But as soon as I started to add effects, my preference swung — with a resounding thud — firmly and irrevocably back to my OB‑32. This is not to say that the DB3 is unpleasant. But the OB‑32's percussion is better, its chorus/vibrato is dramatically superior, the overdrive lacks the DB3's anomalous behaviour, and the Leslie effect is more pleasing. Even the reverb/delay is better on the older model. OK... I'll admit that the DB3 sounds great if you can ignore the chorus/vibrato and use external overdrive and rotary speaker effects. And, to its credit, it is so straightforward that you can just plug it in and start playing. But is that enough? Having read the preceding criticisms, you might think not. But therein lies a dilemma. If Viscount discontinues the OB‑32 (as I suspect it might) then your choices for a low-cost Hammond emulator become very limited.
So, let's finish by returning to something that I mentioned in the introduction to this review — money. At £500, the DB3 costs in the region of one-third the asking price of the Hammond, Roland and Korg equivalents. Despite my concerns about the DB3's effects, you might find it hard to justify paying three times as much for the Hammond or Roland. If money were no object, you would undoubtedly go for one of these. But money is rarely no object.
The bottom line...? If you can live with the DB3's faults and idiosyncrasies, you might want to try one. If you already own an OB‑32, you'll take some convincing that the DB3 is worth your time.