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Review: Hammond XK-5 - EMusician

Review: Hammond XK-5

Raising the bar in sound quality and feel for virtual tonewheel organs
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Laurens Hammond was a German clock maker whose quest to make the pipe organ more affordable, as well as “portable,” led to the development of what eventually became the Hammond B-3. He applied his meticulous clock-making techniques toward developing the heart of the B-3 (and its derivatives C-3, A-100, etc.) and created the tonewheel tone generator. This tone generator was designed with all the accuracy you’d expect from a premium timekeeping device with the sole purpose of producing a simple sine wave.

However, the result was neither simple nor precise, and it is the imperfections that are directly responsible for what has become the holy grail of organ tone—that “B-3 sound.” And it’s these idiosyncrasies that all clonewheel organs have tried to emulate since the ’70s, but with mixed results.

Although the current crop of clonewheels has upped the ante significantly—and there are some strong contenders out there—I can only surmise that Hammond saw fit to throw down the gauntlet with a no-holds-barred, price-is-no-object organ in the development of the XK-5.

IT’S IN THE DETAILS

The XK-5 not only provides authentic Hammond tones, it offers a realistic playing experience, thanks in part to the feel of its keys.

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Among the new features that set the XK-5 apart from previous XK and SK models are four features that, when taken together, show the company’s intent to capture every quirky detail that separates real Hammond tone from even the best clonewheels.

First, the XK-5 has a new sound engine that combines sampling and modeling to replicate the character of the original tonewheel generator authentically. Much of what makes a vintage Hammond sonically unique are the imperfections in the sound generation and signal paths within the original design. These include the timbre variation caused by the spinning discs (each of which had its own pickup to create a single note); the bus-bar system that created key clicks as each key made contact with it; and the chorus and vibrato scanner that would be slightly different from model to model due to component availability.

All of this, and more, is tweakable on the XK-5. Some parameters have a huge effect over the tone, while others are barely perceptible. But taken as a whole, you can create just about any vintage you can imagine. Even straight out of the box, with no tweaking, I noticed the XK-5 has way more detail and character than any of the previous XK and SK models.

The second new feature is called the Hybrid Multiple Key-Contact System. On a vintage B-3, each key has nine individual contact points, each of which corresponds to one of the nine drawbars. These contact points are spread out within the throw of the key. While it’s traveling between these two extremes, the key passes through each of the nine contact points, switching on each of the drawbars for that note at different times. This offset of note-on times helps creates Hammond’s signature attack characteristic.

The third important feature is a custom keybed that not only gets the throw-angle correct when you hit the bottom, but also it simply feels like a B-3 with restored action; not too stiff, not too spongy. Hammond has nailed it, here.

The fourth innovation is the instrument's Virtual Matching Transformer technology. This models the way that signals from the manuals and pedals in a classic Hammond organ would go through matching transformers prior to reaching the preamplifier.

What I hear as I adjust these values is a saturation effect that, although subtle, provides a more accurate range of thick to thin (airy) tones. Combined with percussion and with the drive engaged, it produces a wide degree of variation and satisfying realism in the core organ timbre.

Other notable features in the XK-5 include an updated Digital Leslie (with continuously variable speed), as well as a dozen additional virtual tonewheels and the ability to add custom tonewheel profiles. Users can also use the nine Lower B drawbars to send MIDI CC messages to other gear.

Fig. 1. You can run the XK-5 through a P.A. system and Leslie cabinet at the same time, as well as connect additional foot controllers.

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The XK-5 provides a pair of 1/4" audio outputs, suitable for use with a keyboard amp or P.A. system, and a traditional 11-pin jack for connecting a Leslie cabinet (see Figure 1). It also includes a headphone output, a pair of foot controller inputs, two MIDI Ins (one for a lower manual, the other for pedals), MIDI Out, and two USB ports (one for preset management and updating the firmware using a flash drive, and the other for connecting to your computer).

DIALING IN YOUR SOUND

The first impressions were good. The sound is more rich and detailed than the SK models. The Chorus/Vibrato is very close, if not spot on, with just the right amount of pitch shift and analog-like scanner instability. This was especially noticeable in the C3 mode. I have always found that the Chorus/Vibrato in clones doesn’t sound very realistic, but Hammond has really taken the time to get this right in the XK-5.

When I first played the instrument, I didn’t initially dig the overdrive tone. But I soon discovered it was set to emulate a solid-state stomp box, which I then set to tube. There is also a Clip setting and an EP Amp setting that emulates an electric piano amplifier. This led me to think that there may be additional instruments available in the XK-5, as there are in the SK models, but there are not.

I also noticed that when I rode the expression pedal, the overdrive amount didn’t change with the expression level, as you would expect from a real tube amp, where the harder you drive the input, the more the tubes distort. Then I realized that the overdrive mode needed to be switched from OD-EX, where the overdrive is placed before (and not dependent on) the expression level, to EX-OD, where it’s placed after the expression pedal and therefore dependent on the expression level.

You can select either 12AX7 and 12AU7 tubes, each of which has different gain characteristics and voltage curves: They are not only sonically different, but differ both in their behavior relative to input levels and in the way they distort. The tube choices give you a significant palette in which to paint the overdrive signature of this instrument. This feature, alone, is worth spending some time with.

The XK-5 also has a collection of keyboard-centric effects onboard, including auto-pan, wah, tremolo, ring modulation, phaser, flanger, chorus, and delay. While they’re cool, they are best suited for Clavs, electric pianos, and the like. Unfortunately, changing or adjusting the effects requires you to dive deep into the menus.

The next level of discovery came when I prepped the XK-5 for a club gig. The addendum in the XK-5 quick-start guide provides simple steps in getting a handful of typical organ timbres—Gospel, Clean, Jazz, Rock, and Old School. Each of these walks you step-by-step through the depths of the XK-5’s tweakability to adjust the custom tonewheel, key-click and leakage, custom key contact, and Digital Leslie settings that are appropriate for each style.

I own an XK-3, which has the same menu but found it a bit confusing to navigate. But two things are worth noting here: This method of setting up common organ tones is a great way to familiarize yourself with the menu navigation; and Hammond now includes buttons on the front panel that take you directly to the most common pages, such as Drawbar and Control, in one click rather than flipping through pages of menus. As a result, I was able to set the organ up for an Americana-type gig in a flash and it proved to be a great starting point.

ON THE BANDSTAND

The XK-5 sounds great and sits perfectly in the mix. The upper end is smooth, but can scream when needed. The keybed feels great and the tactile feedback allows me to play it more like a vintage instrument.

Overall, the sound of the XK-5 is as close as I’ve heard to the real thing. Between the authentic tone and the feel of the keys, the relationship I had with the XK-5 onstage was enhanced, and I felt like I played better because I was so engrossed in the experience of the instrument. For many players, this alone will make the XK-5 worth the price.

STRENGTHS
Killer B-3 emulation and detail. Great feeling keybed. Chorus/Vibrato is spot on. Reverse color OLED display is easy to see under stage lights. Fun to play.

LIMITATIONS
Pricey. Menu navigation is not straight forward. No piano, EP, Clav or synth sounds.

$4,295
hammondorganco.com

Albert can be found doing his best Chuck Leavell impersonation with his clonewheel close at hand in the Ultimate Stones Band.