B-3 SHOOTOUT

"The latest organ simulators face off"

(Taken from Keyboard Magazine edition june 99)

 


THE CONTENDERS

This shootout of B-3 wannabes marks the fourth time in ten years Keyboard has conducted such an experiment.

Since the last one (Jan. ’98), five new organs and modules have come to market: Blue Chip’s Baby B and OX7, Hammond Suzuki’s XK-2, Roland’s VK-77, and the Voce V5. (Yes, after first being introduced nearly two-and-a-half years ago, the V5 is finally available. As you’ll see, the long wait was well worth it.) Also included in this shootout are three models that have been around for a while and are still available: Hammond Suzuki’s XB-2 Version 2 and XM-1 (reviewed in Sept. ’95 and Apr. ’97, respectively), and Roland’s VK-7 (Jan. ’98). Not included here are the keyboard and module versions of the Oberheim OB-32 (Jan. ’98). Late last year, Gibson released the Oberheim name to Italian manufacturer Viscount, co-developer of the OB-32. Viscount is still arranging its U.S. distribution, so those products weren’t available this time around.


As we did for the Jan. ’98 shootout, we used a Hammond A-105 (valued at about $1,200) as the benchmark against which the wannabes were compared. Before you email or pen us a nasty letter of complaint, please understand that the A-100 series of Hammond organs is mechanically identical to the B-3. It only differs in two ways: its cabinet design and the inclusion of built-in speakers. A switch has been installed in this A-105, which belongs to associate editor Ernie Rideout, to silence the internal speakers. For the Leslie end of the equation, we convinced editorial director Dominic Milano to dig his 122 (worth $900 to $1,100) out of his studio/garage and bring it in. Unfortunately, gremlins had apparently worked their malevolent magic on this Leslie, and it needed sub-stantial restoration. Peter Miller of CAE (Custom Audio Electronics of San Mateo, CA, 650-348-2737, Magicman35@aol.com, www.bayarea.net/~caesound) performed his own magic to bring the Leslie back to decent working order. CAE also loaned us one of their LTP-122R tube preamps ($549, reviewed Oct. ’95) so that we could pipe the A-105, which has a custom-installed line-level output, and all the wannabes through a mixer and into the Leslie. To closely evaluate each wannabe’s sound and Leslie simulation, we also listened to them through our Genelec 1037A studio monitors.


THE PLAYERS

As always, we invited experienced B-3 players to come in and help us with our evaluations. Some of them have participated in the previous shootouts/roundups, others were newcomers, and one even came all the way from Southern California.
In alphabetical order, they were:

"It was thrilling to watch these guys up close and in action."


IMPORTANT ASPECTS

Just as we’ve asked them to do in the past, each of the guest organists rated the wannabes, the A-105, and the Leslie 122 in five categories.



Nearly ten years ago, Hammond Suzuki introduced the XB-2 (Nov. ’91). Four years ago, it competed very well against other B-3 wannabes thanks to a new and improved Version 2 operating system. The XB-2 fared well in our ’98 shootout, and it didn’t do so badly in this one either. Along the way, Hammond Suzuki introduced two dualmanual organs in the XB line, the XB-5 and XB-3 (Oct. ’93 and July ’94, respectively), as well as the XM-1 module (Apr. ’97). In the XK-2, Hammond Suzuki has raised the ante on the expectations one can have of a B-3 clone. All of the guest organists immediately noticed the most significant improvement:

Instead of a synth-style keyboard, the XK-2 has square-front, or "waterfall," keys, just like the B-3. "A synth-style keyboard on an organ is a complete waste of money," Gould comments. "The waterfall key is the only way to go." Why is that important? Because of the palm wipes B-3 players commonly do. Sharp-edged synth keys could cut the hands of an over-zealous player. "A lot of times, especially when you’re playing jazz, you’ll use your palm on the base of the keys, gliss up, and grab a chord an octave higher," explains Krogh. "You can do that with the XK-2 without injuring yourself and bloodying the keyboard."


Our players also liked the XK-2 keyboard’s response. "It allows you to play the Jimmy Smith-style of machine-gun, many-fingers-on-one-key notes," Krogh continues. "The keys are very responsive and pop back like a real Hammond organ with a good action." Jethro voiced a similar reaction, though he put it in a different way: "The touch of the XK-2’s keys allows me to play most of the notes I start out to try to play. You see, I start out trying to play about 64 notes in a measure, and I wind up playing 24 notes. But with this keyboard, I can play 30. It allows me to get more of those notes in than I normally do from the average B-3." These comments help to explain why the XK-2 won the Playability contest among the wannabes.

Speaking further about its playability, Krogh bubbles, "It’s fun to play because it’s so much like playing my B-3. Furthermore, kudos to Hammond Suzuki for putting on separate vibrato and chorus buttons. That’s the same thing that you’d find on a B-3, V1 through V3 and C1 through C3. In addition, the vibrato/chorus sounds really good. They’re a very close approx-imation of the tone-wheel sound." Torney, who’s an XB-2 owner, agrees: "The XK-2’s vibrato/chorus section is a vast improvement over the XB-series. It’s the closest approximation I’ve heard. The only other thing I could want is actual control over the chorus intensity; if you could back it off just a bit, it would be there."


The XK-2 also won in Sound Quality and took a silver for its Authenticity. "One of the problems I have with a lot of B-3 wannabes," Krogh notes, "is that when you play a whole smear of keys as a percussive statement, you hear too much definition between individual notes. On the Roland VK-7 you can hear individual pitches, whereas notes aren’t as distinguish-able on the XK-2 — the same as it is on a B-3." However, Krogh discovered an interesting idiosyncrasy in the XK-2: "When any of its drawbars gets to a certain point halfway between 3 and 4, the sound crackles — it imparts this buzzy sound that isn’t organlike." Jethro dis-agrees: "The drawbars on earlier Hammond models were individually notched, and there could be clicking between notches as a draw-bar slid across the bus bars. It was really bad until Hammond improved the drawbars so that the harmonics would smoothly go from one step to the next. But still, you can get clicking because contacts can be dirty. So this is typical of the way a Hammond can be." And Jethro likes the fact that the XK-2 has a slight defect. "One of my criticisms of newer keyboards and organ B-3 wannabes is that they’re all perfect," he argues. "I think that makes a lot of difference, because a real Hammond can be so imperfect."


Some "improvements" aren’t looked on so favorably by traditional B-3 players. For instance, the XK-2 — like the XB-2 — allows both the second and third percussion harmonics to be enabled simultaneously, whereas you could only get one or the other on the B-3. Likewise, both the XB-2 and XK-2 offer a parameter that allows the 1' drawbar to function when percussion is enabled; on the B-3, the percussion uses that harmonic.

In the MIDI realm, Hammond Suzuki wisely equipped the XK-2 with an LCD character that indicates the reception of MIDI data. That’s a convenience not provided by any other wannabe in this shootout, including the modules. In addi-tion, splits work beautifully — provided you don’t mind playing a single-manual five-octave keyboard. Repositioning the split point is as easy as holding the split button and playing a note. And unlike the XB-2, where the selected preset determines whether the drawbars are active, the XK-2’s drawbars are always active, and you can quickly select the upper or lower manual or pedal voice for adjustment. Also new for a Hammond Suzuki: Whereas their proprietary EXP-100A pedal is required for expression control of the XB-2, the XK-2 alternatively allows the use of a CV pedal from other manufacturers. Stereo 1/4" inputs are also provided; incoming signals are mixed with the XK-2’s sound and passed directly to the outputs.


Not everyone felt the XK-2 was the best wannabe in the room. "In comparing the sound quality between the XK-2 and VK-7," asserts Fortner, a VK-7 owner,"the XK-2 seems a little more mid-rangy, maybe a little more compressed than the VK-7. They’re both good, but the VK-7 is a little better. To my ear, it has more body, warmth, and dynamic range, and more that reminds me of what I like to hear when I listen to the B-3 on a recording. The VK-7’s sound quality conjures up more of that psychoacoustic picture than the XK-2."

Jethro hears it differently:"I’m surprised that the XK-2 sounds as good as it does without the Leslie, playing it through the studio monitors. Even its Leslie simulation doesn’t sound bad with all the drawbars pulled out. It sounds very good. I don’t want to say that it sounds too good, because the other old guys may take my card away from me."

 

VITAL STATS XK-2

Format portable organ
Keyboard 61 square-front organ keys (C to C) with velocity sensing
Number of presets 64 plus manual mode
Number of multitimbral parts 3
Built-in effects Leslie simulation, vibrato, chorus, overdrive, reverb
Audio connections L/mono and R outputs, L and R inputs, stereo headphone out (all 1/4"), 11-pin Leslie output
Onboard controllers 9 drawbars with upper, lower, and pedal assignment buttons, master volume, reverb, and overdrive level knobs, second, third, fast, and soft percussion buttons, vibrato/chorus buttons, Leslie on, brake, and fast buttons, split button, mod and pitchbend wheels
Display backlit 16 x 2 LCD with graphic or numeric drawbar representations; 16 LEDs
MIDI jacks in, out, thru
Pedal jacks footswitch and expression pedal inputs (both 1/4"), proprietary expression pedal input
Powered by standard AC cord
Dimensions/weight 46" W x 15-3/4" D x 4-1/8" H; 42-1/2 lbs.
Options EXP-100A expression pedal, FS-9 footswitch, 30' Leslie cable, Leslie connector adapter kits

Taken with permission from KEYBOARD Magazine, June, 1999