The Hammond players I know fall into two categories. One group likes to discuss the number of notches on a tonewheel and which organs came with a bench and why. The other group doesn't know or care about anything more technical than how to fire up a B-3, grab a fistful of sliders, and wail.
Korg's new Hammond B-3-emulating CX-3, a clever revision of a theme the company first hummed more than 20 years ago, should appeal to both types of players. On one hand, the physical-modeled organ is riddled with “authentic” B-3 niceties and tweaks; on the other, you can simply switch it on and wail away.
In 1979 Korg went for simplicity with the CX-3. (Couldn't someone dream up a different name?) That model was a three-preset, drawbar-laden analog instrument with percussion, distortion, and key click (which Keith Emerson tells me was his idea). The new CX-3 hides a multitude of programming parameters and high technology under its old-school wood-panel hood (see Fig. 1).
I'm a great believer in pedal control, and a sturdy volume/swell pedal that plugs in to a jack on the CX-3's back panel is included. There are also two assignable footswitch jacks that let you control the rotary speaker, step through programs, and so on. A pair of unbalanced ¼-inch outputs and the usual trio of MIDI jacks complete the back-panel connections (see Fig. 2).
With 64 notes of polyphony, the CX-3 offers 64 Programs in Normal mode. You can alter the sound in real time with two sets of nine drawbars. In addition, you can split the keyboard to use the Upper and Lower tone generators. If the keyboard isn't split, only the Upper tone generator is used. The drawbars can govern two simultaneous sounds in a split configuration, or they can be toggled to provide two sets of sounds that can be altered in real time for, say, just the upper half of the keyboard.
One feature definitely not found on a real B-3 is the CX-3's EX mode, which uses both drawbar sets and produces a new range of weird, digital timbres using both tone generators. (Happily, that doesn't reduce the CX-3's polyphony; each tone generator can produce 64 notes, which are blended in EX mode.) The first set of drawbars works as usual, whereas the second set controls higher harmonics and additional percussion harmonics. Purists will probably give EX mode a wide berth. The adventurous will gain 64 additional Programs in EX mode and a new range of cool, non-B-3 (but still organlike) sounds.
LOOK AND FEEL
Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, a Hammond-simulating organ needs to have a certain look and feel, and the CX-3 has it. A dark wood veneer is pleasingly sculpted at the sides, with a handy, flat 6-inch-wide top surface. The only cheesy construction is on the instrument's underside, which is particleboard — strong, no doubt, but hardly the stuff you want to see on a $2,600 instrument.
Two complete sets of click-stopped drawbars sprout from a ledge above the keys; they look and feel authentic. Possessing a smooth, positive, fluid feel, their quality is better than the drawbars on most Hammonds I have played.
To the right of the drawbars is a large 20-character, fluorescent display, with characters formed of pale blue dots, that encourages you to investigate and tweak. The display is extremely easy to read under a variety of lighting conditions; I tested it in the studio, on a dimly lit stage, and under bright lights. Aside from showing the current Program's name, the display reveals default drawbar configurations and myriad parameters for sounds and effects processing. Although there are multiple pages for each group of parameters, I never seemed to get bogged down. It's a great piece of design.
LED-indicated buttons for controlling Percussion and Vibrato and two knobs for Vibrato/Chorus and Expression/Overdrive take up the remainder of the panel. Everything is clearly labeled and self-evident to anyone with even the most rudimentary Hammond knowledge.
Adjacent to the 61-note keyboard, a second panel contains four knobs for Master Level, Treble, Bass, and Reverb Offset. The latter knob controls the reverb depth relative to its programmed value. Turning it clockwise from straight up increases reverb; turning it counterclockwise attenuates reverb. If a Program doesn't include reverb, the control has no effect.
Undoubtedly, the most crucial left-hand controls govern the rotary (Leslie) effect's speed. Three white buttons are labeled On, Stop, and Fast; On is effectively “slow,” and Stop is effectively “off.” Because those buttons are only a quarter of an inch apart, it's much too easy to hit the wrong one. If I owned a CX-3, I'd assign the rotary controls to footswitches; fortunately, the instrument makes that easy.
Above the rotary controls, six gray buttons manage the instrument's configuration. The buttons are divided into two groups of three, which are assigned to the Upper and Lower tone generators. The buttons determine whether the tone generator uses a drawbar configuration as defined in the current Program (Drawbar Preset) or one of the two drawbar sets (Drawbar 1 and Drawbar 2), which are adjustable in real time. The buttons that control the Upper tone generator are larger because they control the entire keyboard unless it is split.
Organs, especially Hammond types, are hands-on instruments. You expect to switch this in and that out, tweak an effect, and adjust a sound. For that reason, the controls should be in appropriate locations, and they shouldn't present too much of an opportunity for accidents. For players who demand authenticity, the CX-3 has more controls in the same locations as a real B-3 than other Hammond clones. For the rest of us, however, those locations aren't always the most convenient.
Korg opted (a little slavishly) to place the Percussion buttons on the instrument's top-right side; authentically enough, that is their placement on a real Hammond. Because they are tone controls, I prefer a location where you can operate them with your left hand.
Although Korg could have made the layout of the controls a little easier, playing the CX-3 is a joy. The controls, the drawbars, and the keyboard operate smoothly and professionally.
A Hammond keyboard is light, fast, and not Velocity sensitive. It's the same here, though you can enable Velocity sensitivity for when you're stuck in a studio with only a CX-3 and a bunch of MIDI modules and you need to play a piano part, for instance. That feature is thoughtful.
Immediately after my first stab at the CX-3, two things were apparent. First, the keyboard is ultrafast, triggering long before I reached the bottom of the key travel, which makes it superb for playing choppy, skittering parts, such as glissandi. The keys are smooth and nicely rounded at the edges, which also greatly facilitates smears and glissandi. Second, the keyboard retriggered as I took my fingers off the keys. That is not good; in fact, it's downright annoying. Mercifully, that release retriggering is a bug only on early models, and anyone who purchased one of those units will surely have had Korg fix it by now.
A real Hammond B-3 has presets; you call them up using a dummy set of reverse-color keys on the left side. Presets are nothing to be ashamed of. The CX-3's Programs — assembled by canny Korg programmers and big-name organ players such as Brian Auger, Bill Champlin, and Tom Coster — range from full-throttle distortion to restrained tones suitable for a funeral.
The Programs are organized into eight banks of eight. When appropriate, their names are prefixed with a star player's initials. Some names pay homage to whatever song the setting seeks to replicate (Deep Hush, Gimme Some, OnionBook, Whyter Shade), and others are purely descriptive (NicePerc, BestSolo, Smoothie).
After a happy 30 minutes playing “Whiter Shade of Pale” (something I got away with playing on the chapel's pipe organ at boarding school) and “Gimme Some Lovin'” (which I wanted to play in the chapel but certainly couldn't), I selected Quiet Hymn 2 as my favorite Program. Its glistening sound has a pure undertone and strong percussive harmonics. (Hey, I'm getting older, okay?)
The Programs offer only a glimpse into the world of possibilities the CX-3 offers. You can call up a Program and hit the Drawbars button to rebuild the sound in real time using the drawbars (see Fig. 3). If you press the Display button, the display reveals the current Program's drawbar configuration; that is a great way to learn about using drawbars.
The Expression/Overdrive knob adjusts the tone generator's output level and therefore the input level to the internal amp simulator. As you turn the knob, it progressively adds distortion and volume or simply volume, depending on how a Program was configured. Controlling volume and distortion simultaneously may be authentic, but it can be impractical at times; ideally, you should be able to add grit without bumping up the level at the same time. However, if you route a pedal to control the level of the amp simulator's preamp, you can add distortion without increasing gain quite so much.
It may seem odd that with a rotary speaker in tow, the CX-3 needs something as comparatively lightweight as vibrato or chorus. But real Hammonds do, and so does the CX-3. In almost identical fashion as its inspiration, the CX-3 has a large multiposition knob marked V1 through V3 for three vibrato intensities, and C1 through C3 for three chorus intensities. Those settings are preset; you can't dive into the edit pages and change their speeds or relative depths but neither can you on a Hammond.
To add player-generated dynamics to the sound, Hammond devised the percussion effect. Two harmonics — one an octave higher than the played pitch (the second harmonic) and the other an octave and a perfect fifth higher than the played pitch (the third harmonic) — are triggered by a note's initial attack, adding a transient tone color. On the CX-3, that feature was copied faithfully, with Soft and Fast (for a fast decay) options. Instead of two mutually exclusive buttons for the second and third harmonics, like on the B-3, the CX-3 toggles between them with a single button labeled 3rd. The system is a little obscure, but it suffices once you are familiar with it.
The percussion effect can be fine-tuned in terms of relative levels and decay speeds within the edit pages. Percussion only works with the upper drawbars, just like a real Hammond. The Lower tone generator, or left-hand part in a split, remains unaffected.
EDITING, DOWN AND DIRTY
The CX-3 uses Korg's Resonant Structure and Electronic Circuit Modeling System (REMS). With that sound-modeling technology, the makeup of the essential sound and the amplification and processing of that sound (amp types, mic simulations, and so on) can be selected and adjusted.
In practice, what does that mean? It means you can create or customize almost every aspect of the Hammond organ experience, from selecting an organ's vintage and model (along with its accompanying foibles) to tailoring percussion levels, amplifier type, tone, and gain, along with every imaginable rotary-speaker setting. You'll also find a smattering of reverb parameters.
CX-3 Specifications Keyboard61-note unweighted, transmits Note-On and Note-Off VelocityPolyphony64-noteMultitimbral Parts2Sound Enginetonewheel organ modelingDrawbars9×2ROM/RAM Programs0/128 (64 normal, 64 EX)Effectsrotary speaker; vibrato/chorus; overdrive; reverbAnalog Audio Outputs(2) 1½4” TS unbalanced; (1) 1½4” stereo headphoneControl Inputs(1) expression pedal; (2) assignable footswitchMIDI PortsIn; Out; ThruDisplay20-character 5 1-line vacuum fluorescent display (VFD)Dimensions42.6" (W) × 5.83" (H) × 15.87" (D)Weight37.5 lbs.
Although most of those functions are probably going to appeal to only my first category of Hammond players, I was impressed that none of the in-depth editing is offered in a complex or overly technical fashion. The instrument and the owner's manual use plain English, and even if you are the plug-in-and-play type, it's fun to experiment with things such as the virtual Leslie's mic-distance parameter.
The Wheel Type parameter offers two options: Vintage and Clean. Older B-3s tend to produce crosstalk between the pickups; that phenomenon is called leakage. Providing an example of Korg's attention to detail, the CX-3 can progressively add that sound-diffusing, high-pitched background noise on the Vintage setting. The Clean setting is always, well, clean.
The sonic difference between Clean and Vintage is quite clear, but the difference between a Leakage Level of 0 and 99 didn't grab me by the throat. When you play a fat chord, especially with some overdrive and the rotary effect pounding away, most people will hear little difference either way. If you're a purist, I suspect the difference will be far more noticeable. Mid to low notes are the best for testing and hearing differences in Leakage Level. Considering Korg's clear interest in that type of nicety, it would have been helpful to see some background or tips printed in the owner's manual. Korg obviously knows a lot about leakage, so why not pass along some of that knowledge?
Click Level is a far more clear-cut parameter. In addition to progressively adding more dirt and spike to the attack, you can do the same to the release. Considering that my review unit provided enough release material on its own (the retriggering problem noted previously), I was unable to test the value of adding or subtracting it deliberately. Key click is not a Hammond feature per se, but that's the name people use to describe the Hammond keyboard's hallmark trait of noisy or dirty electrical key contacts. The Hammond Organ Company tried for years to get rid of it. If its efforts had truly succeeded, the B-3 would probably never have taken the rock world by storm.
GET YOUR ROTOR RUNNING
The Hammond B-3 story is filled with serendipity. Perhaps the most important association is with Don Leslie and his rotary-speaker cabinets. The Leslie cabinet includes a spinning high-frequency horn and a separate spinning drum containing a bass speaker, which is normally called the rotor. Both can be set to rotate slowly or quickly, and because it is a mechanical device, it takes time to speed up or slow down. The beguiling combo adds wonderful movement to the sound, and for most people, a Leslie cabinet is as vital to the Hammond as a pair of hands.
Mimicking a device predicated on physical movement is tricky (the Doppler effect is a reasonable example), and few Leslie simulators come close to the blood-pressure-raising movement of air and sound waves exuded by the real thing. On the CX-3, you can feel the sound wheeze and breathe in true Leslie style. Korg provides a full complement of editing parameters, including horn and rotor balance, individual speed, and individual speed-up and slow-down times (see Fig. 4).
The simulated horn and rotor each has a stereo pair of virtual mics that can be adjusted in several ways. The Mic Distance parameter lets you adjust the mics' proximity separately for the horn and rotor, increasing or decreasing the organ sound's closeness. At a setting of 99, the horn sounds very close to the mic; you're practically inside the horn. At 0, the high-end sparkle is quite distant but the stereo image is far more evident.
When you increase the Mic Spread parameter, which simulates the distance between the mics, the stereo effect is pronounced. It's been a few years since I mucked around with miking a Leslie, but I don't think that miking a real cabinet displays stereo quite so dramatically as the Mic Spread's highest settings. Values from 30 through 60 offer the most plausible range. Similar parameters are offered for the horn and bass rotor.
You can play around for hours simulating a close-miked, wide-stereo rotor combined with a room-miked, narrow-stereo horn. It is fun to play with those parameters, but I always come back to more natural settings.
Some Hammond clones provide the real Leslie 11-pin connector. Whether it's because of confidence in the Leslie simulation or simply economics, the CX-3 does not.
B-3 OR BE SQUARE
Naturally, the CX-3 offers MIDI capabilities, and a compelling application might be to connect a second keyboard to emulate the two manuals of a B-3. The upper and lower halves of the CX-3's keyboard can be transmitted on two MIDI channels. If you're into sequencing (and I suspect many potential CX-3 owners are not), note that drawbar movements (as well as chorus, overdrive, percussion, rotary, and vibrato parameters) can be recorded through MIDI.
You can use MIDI to control the gimmicky (though splendid at the right moment) Wheel Brake effect. The effect mimics the life-draining sound of a Hammond turned off in midplay. The pitch swoops down and then swoops up again as you power back up. To my ears, though, using that effect more than once a month is excessive.
I really like the instrument. It's fun to play, it offers a vast amount of control, and it sounds fantastic. It has some quirks but fewer than half as many as a real B-3, and the CX-3 weighs a fraction of its inspiration's weight. The price is considerable, but if Hammond authenticity is your bag, the new CX-3 represents the pinnacle of technology.
As far as owning a Hammond goes, Julian Colbeck only ascended to the heights of an L100. However, he played B-3 on “Roundabout” on Symphonic Music of Yes, when Uncle Rick took one of his sabbaticals.
FEATURES4.5AUDIO QUALITY5.0EASE OF USE5.0VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Almost slavishly faithful simulation of a real Hammond B-3 in terms of sound, features, and foibles. Enormous fun to play, with a huge range of sounds you can really use. Full keyboard polyphony.
CONS: No 11-pin Leslie connector. Rather expensive.