Some Observations on Hammond Clones

For the past 38 years, I have been playing (semi-pro) guitar in the Blues, Rock, Fusion, Country, Folk and Jazz context. However, I am also able to play keys to some extent, and my second love – at times more than rivalling the guitar – was always the sound of the Hammond organ as I heard it on the classic Santana, Deep Purple, etc. discs. For various reasons, the real deal (i.e. a B3 or close relative and a 122 or 147 Leslie) was never really an option. Nevertheless looking for “the” sound, I have been confronted with Hammond-clones of various sorts for as long as I can think (musically). Given the many discussions I witness about Hammonds and their clones, I thought it would be not a bad idea to share some experiences. What I am writing below is totally influenced by my personal tastes and preferences – whenever I write something like "great sound" or "terrible action", I intend this not to be an objective judgement but would like it to be read as "I really liked that sound" or "for my taste the action was not good at all". Most of the organs mentioned below I have played extensively – a few I have encountered only for a few hours. In any case any instrument referred to here has left a lasting impression. The indicated year refers to my first interaction with the instrument, not to when it was built.

1971 Dr. Böhm DnT
(still operational in my mother's living room .....).
Not a clone but my first organ: I built this myself. It was a rather substantial kit put together by the then well-known German organ kit maker Dr. Böhm. Sporting two 5-octave keyboards, lots of switches, a small pedal-board, a built-in stationary speaker, it looked like a piece of furniture (the latter it remains to this day!). Being really innocent about musical equipment and believing that all organs should sound the same (well, they are all called "organs" aren't they?!), I expected the finished organ to sound like what I heard on records featuring Gregg Rolie or Jon Lord. I should have paid attention that the organ on most Doors recordings sounded so different! So in that sense the DnT was a disappointment. However, I learned much from the project both in terms of electrical engineering and what makes organs tick and sound good or bad. Later, I connected a Leslie 16 to the DnT which made it sound actually quite decent but still many light-years away from any Hammond (or any clone as we know them today)

1972 Hammond M3
(a few hours in a music store)
Not a clone, of course, but my first live encounter with a Hammond. Loved it: the sound – the looks – the feel – the charisma. At the time I didn't even notice that there was no foldback. It was not connected to a Leslie – that clarified to me that for my tastes the Leslie (-effect) was indispensable.

1973 Farfisa VIP-345
(the one keyboard in my band at the time)
I think it was intended as Hammond clone. It had drawbars and percussion ...... We loved it – but we were very aware that it left much to be desired. That we did not have a rotating speaker didn't help, either. I have recordings of the band with it so I can verify that it sounded very thin in the upper range but nice and warm in the middle range. No grinding and screaming at all, though, no key click and not a very good percussion sound. The hardware felt good. A Leslie would have helped a lot, but it would not have turned the organ into something serious.

1974 Ace-Tone GT7
(many visits to a music store, and more encounters at a friend's house)
Coupled to a Leslie 760, this was my dream rig at the time. I remember this to sound RIGHT and to have the air of serious business, except that somehow it didn't scream (not at the volume we were allowed to play it, anyway!). Great drawbar action and sound, nice key click and percussion, too. No waterfall keyboard – but that was never an issue back then: we didn't even think about this aspect! I was a hair away from buying the GT-7, but it was just too much money.

1978 Crumar Organiser T1
first version (many rehearsals with our band – it belonged to somebody else but sat in the rehearsal room we used): I think this had the worst hardware of all organs I played over the years – but the sound was not bad at all. It was somehow between the Farfisa and the Ace-Tone but closer to the latter. Only the key click function was a joke: instead of a "fffffft" at the beginning of a tone it gave a "thud"! It was fun to play although the drawbars were way too hard to move. We amplified it via a Roland Jazz Chorus amp, which gave a Leslie-like-effect to some extent, and again this revealed itself as crucial. In any case the Organiser still felt like a toy.

1979 Hammond B-3
(a number of rehearsals with a band-project that fizzled out soon)
Didn't have a "real" Leslie but a Solton rotary system. Nevertheless there was no doubt that this was the reference. Incredible. The pure physical aspect and the way the hardware felt alone made such a difference.

1980 Korg CX-3
(excessive testing for a weekend, later we had in my band for a year)
At first glance really good – a breakthrough! Drawbars, percussion, key click – great stuff. However, I hated the Leslie simulation. It was a great idea to try to actually simulate the horn and the rotor independently, and to introduce a distortion feature, but the effect sounded totally artificial and "squirrelly" to me, and the distortion was just too lame. A great instrument that suffered merely because of the lack of the rotary sim, although I thought the key action was not the best, either.

1982 Roland Jupiter-8
(I owned this for about 14 years)
O.k., o.k. – that's not a Hammond clone at all! However, I tried to program it to sound as close as possible to a (Hammond) organ, used it (with a Dynacord CLS-22 for the Leslie effect) to some success in this role, and learned a ton about how a Hammond should sound! But of course it lacked totally! I had to have a real organ.

1983 Korg BX-3
(I had this for 13 years)
The issues I had with the CX-3 returned in the BX-3. I solved them by running the organ via a Boss OD-2 (later a Hughes & Kettner Crunch Master) overdrive effect into the Dynacord CLS-22 (and later a CLS-222 which in fact is only marginally different). Total success. Loved it (in fact everybody who played the rig loved it!), used it for ages. It screamed and purred and was all the things we needed organ-wise in the band. The physical aspect of the BX-3 was very gratifying although the keyboard did not feel as smooth as I would have liked. The sound was super albeit not all that "Hammond-esque" as I learned (see below). The C/V effect on the old BX-3 felt wrong and - having very little amplitude-modulation - did not grasp what I think the Hammond C/V is all about. Moreover the changes effected by the C/V-mode switch were speed-related rather than depth related! However, the effect was still useful. I always thought that the balance knob supposedly varying the volume of the two keyboards relative to each did almost nothing – since I verified this on several BX-3s, it was not a defect on mine.

1987 Hammond B-250
(extensive encounter in a music shop with possibility to A/B the B-250 with a Korg CX-3)
It looked strange ...... but it sounded really good! Compared to the Korg, it had a more transparent sound, and a significantly more useable Leslie emulation (though still by far inferior to the CLS-22). It taught me that the Korg felt sound-wise more mid-rangy/muddy in the middle of the keyboard range and – after further comparisons with available real tone-wheel Hammonds - that indeed the Korg was less Hammond-like than I had thought. I would have preferred the B-250 to the BX-3 but it was just too expensive, more bulky, and did not look as nice, either.

1994 Yamaha SY-99
Again: not an organ! But also again: I tried to work the FM-section as an organ and again realised that while to some extent I was successful (in particular when running it into a Dynacord DLS-300 digital Leslie effect) I could not get sufficiently close. Learned a lot from it, though.

1995 Voce V-3
(coupled to the SY-99, had it for 3 weeks before returning it)
That was a strange experience – the best organ sound I had experienced to that date, great user interface, even decent Leslie emulation ....... this should have been a big success! However, it was SOOOOO noisy that it turned out to be unusable! I returned it after a few weeks.

1996 Hammond XM-1
(coupled to the SY-99, owned it for 2 years)
My first genuine Hammond product! I liked it – found the basic organ sound very good and the C/V right were I wanted it to be! The whole package with reverb and rotary effect in one box was very attractive, and the many parameters gave a great opportunity to learn about which special details were crucial to the Hammond sound I wanted. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Leslie effect interfered with the C/V (the C/V was much weaker when the Leslie was engaged), and that the rotary effect and the distortion characteristic itself left a lot to be desired - even lots of editing did not really yield a satisfactory result. The distortion sounded like only the higher frequencies were affected by the non-linearity – it was not a full bodied distortion. However, in combination with the DLS-300 (which on top of a very nice rotary simulation equal to the CLS-222 features a rather decent distortion effect) it gave good results. In the end, I still got tired of it not so much sound-wise but more because I needed to record it MIDI-wise and that somehow didn't gel to my satisfaction (playing/sequencing the XM-1 from the SY-99 and also operation the DLS via MIDI .....). I wanted a stand-alone organ.

1997 Roland VK-7
(I owned this for 9 years)
Checked this one out when the first unit came to the Munich music stores. Couldn't believe my ears! Bought it immediately (expensive then!), took it home ...... and realised that that the rotary effect was not as good as I had thought it to be in the shop ...... panicked ....... After a good night's sleep, I investigated again ..... the fast speed of the Leslie effect was actually very good but the slow speed gave a very flat, unnatural effect. Luckily I somehow thought of watching a few videos with organs and Leslies in them – and then it dawned onto me: the “slow” speed was set way too slow! Yep – making the speed double of what Roland had put into all memory slots solved the problem, and from then on the VK-7 gave me all I had ever expected from such a compact package. The VK-7 was not perfect but it must have worked nicely given that I had it so long! I did regret that it did not have left-hand controllers so I couldn't use it as a master-keyboard. The Leslie effect was not as dramatic as I knew it from e.g. the CLS-222 but it was in fact much more realistic and worked REALLY well, in particular since the overdrive effect suited me perfectly – a full but very variable growl really sensitive to the volume pedal. The VK-7's top octave had a rather overblown presence .... but then I wanted the organ to scream, anyway – I took that as an idiosyncrasy I worked with rather than against. The C/V-effect was voiced in a way I loved – lots of amplitude-modulation very nicely interacting with the overdrive. O.k., the C-3 was on the hefty side – but using the C-2 was an easy workaround.
Whenever I sat down at the VK-7, I was inspired and gratified. I never regretted its purchase for one second. Over the years, I learned to edit it better and better, and really make it MY instrument. What a great board.

2000 Oberheim OB-3
(a friend had it for a year)
Nice sound! I liked that ..... basic sound more round and warm and soft and mid-oriented kind of like the (old) Korg CX-3. Not as transparent as many Hammonds would appear to be. Cons: Rotary effect not state-of-the-art, and in particular it lacked any proper C/V.

2001 Roland VK-8
(had it for a week)
Around 2000, for the first time the issue of the waterfall-keyboard was discussed generally. When the VK-8 came out, my wonderful experience with the VK-7 made me buy the VK-8 sight-unseen. They can only improve things, can they?! Wrong.... While indeed the keyboard of the VK-8 was nicer to play than the VK-7, and while the basic sound may have been a tad more traditionally Hammond-like in the VK-8, I ran into trouble with my new acquisition after only minutes of playing it. First of all, the editing on the VK-8 turned out to be a nightmare. Without the display and the lack of clear control over editing, I was annoyed to no end. That there were more knobs didn't help because still many important parameters were somewhere in the menues (which without a display were tough to navigate). I was used to trimming my organ sounds – I knew what I wanted to hear and certainly had a clue how to get it ....... if I could get to the parameter! The next shock was that in contrast to the VK-7, the VK-8 did not store all parameters of the organ sound and the rotary effect per memory position. Many parameters were stored merely in a global memory. This made the switching between different “virtual” organs and Leslies which I loved so much on the VK-7 impossible. The worst, however, was that the rotary effect had been further developed ........ but not to be better for my taste. Yes, it was a bit deeper, but the fast speed made me cringe every time I switched to it: to much frequency modulation , too "squirrelly", to much like the old Korg CX-3....  The VK-8 lasted only a week. Back to the VK-7 with a sigh of relief that I hadn't sold it. I could do without the nice waterfall keyboard, but not without that sound.
N.B.: I understand the VK-8 has since been improved with regard to the rotary effect although I have not gone back to check it out again. The editing issue still stands.

2001 Oberheim OB-3 Squared
(a friend owns it)
Basic sound just as the OB-3: nice, warm, gratifying, straightforward. The C/V is there although not totally to my taste – a bit too much emphasis on frequency modulation. The rotary effect is not too bad but again not really state-of-the-art. The board profits tremendously from running it into a Boss RT-20 and my band was fully happy with that combination for a long time!

2002 Nord/Clavia Electro
(played on many occasions at friends' then and since)
Many people love the Electro to death. When I first heard it, experienced how light and compact it is, what great additional sounds is offers, and how good the price is, I could sympathise! I still think that for what it is, the Electro is unbeatable. If I ignore the piano sounds (which is in fact almost impossible to do!) and focus on the organ, then the first thing that stands out is the Leslie emulation. It is not actually realistic (like the emulations in the CLS-222 or the DLS-300 were not, either!), but like the CLS-222, it just sounds GREAT, is musically imminently usable and - most importantly - highly inspiring. The basic organ sound of the Electro appears to me to be a bit "Korg"-ish in the sense that the old CX-3 was of a more mid-rangy, "muddy", less transparent character than the Hammond B-250. That puts me off a bit – I know other people will call this quality "warm" and prefer it. The real “no go” issue for me personally is, however, the electronic drawbar arrangement. This deprives me of something I just need to have: control over the speed of the change of the drawbar setting. Why is that important to me? Because from time to time I try to emulate what e.g. Gregg Rolie and Tom Coster did on Santana recordings such as "Song of the Wind" or "Life is a new" or "One with the sun". While holding chords they slide various drawbars in and out with well chosen speeds ... sometimes fast, sometimes slow. This is not possible to do with the Electro. Bummer.

2004 Apple Logic Pro 7 EVB3 (I’ve been using this now for 5 years constantly for recording)
Yes, this is only a software organ. But I absolutely like it. I'd be really happy with this sound and these possibilities in a stand-alone organ. Presently, it would be my favourite clone. But it's in the computer (where I use it all the time to record), and I don't enjoy having to boot that up and sitting behind the computer environment when I just want to play organ. I considered building a two-manual, waterfall-keyboard computer controller but at present I don't have the time for that.

2006 Korg (New) BX-3 (had it for a year)
I missed having a big 2-manual organ and took advantage of the reduced pricing of the BX-3 as is was phased out of production. I had played the CX-3 and BX-3 at friends' and in the store and remembered having some issues, but then how could I go wrong buying a BX-3 with so many people going gaga over the new CX/BX-3? With time, I should be able to edit it in a way so I'll love it. Or so I thought ...........  The BX-3 is just lovely physically with two quite nice waterfall keyboards. A great master keyboard, too, with controllers and a great MIDI implementation. I set it up and was so impressed. I played it and liked it a lot. I played it more and started to modify it ..... and started to have my doubts. Again, the basic sound was "Korg-ish" (well, it is a Korg ......) not as transparent as I like it. I couldn't edit out this aspect, either. The Leslie emulation is fantastic – again not necessarily realistic but musically totally usable and inspiring. However, the C/V is not to my liking at all. I know that other people (those who will typically not like the VK-7's C/V!) find it superb but for me it is too flat with regard to amplitude modulation. This couldn't be edited so I was stuck there. The overall organ seemed very bass-heavy and I found it not easy to control this with EQ. Another major problem was that the overdrive appeared geared towards the higher frequencies and did not sound as heavy and full bodied as I wanted it (and liked it from the VK-7). It also did not interact with the volume pedal to my liking. Somehow the BX-3 and myself did not get along. I sold it after a year. Unfortunately, I have already sold the VK-7 ....... big mistake!

2007 Hammond XK-1
(short interaction in a music store)
First impression: very good. Both basic sound and effects appear to be to my liking. Nice Waterfall keyboard. This should be a highly useful clone and I would prefer it to the Electro because of the "real" drawbars.

2007 Roland VK-77
Remembering how much I liked the VK-7, I decided to bid on a VK-77 on eBay. I managed to get the instrument (not cheaply at all, I have to say). I have started to reprogram and reconfigure the organ to my liking - my extended experience with the VK-7 helped much although the VK-77 has of course many more (and very useful)
parameters. As a result, I have to say that I am astonished how good the VK-77 sounds (to my ears, anyway), and how it can be programmed to sound much like various other clones! For example, it was possible to create all the idiosyncrasies of the VK-7 but also to make the VK-77 sound much like the BX-3 or the Electro or the XK-1 or the OB-3squared. My preference lies somewhere between these organs and with the VK-77, I am much closer to what I like than with any other clone I have played. Extremely effective and helpful are parameters like "wheel table", "OD character", "V/C vintage", etc. Interestingly, I find the Leslie emulation of the VK-77 very good, too - in many way almost as good as the much lauded BX-3 effect, and I have to admit I even like the key-feel of the VK-77 more than that of the BX-3 .... it feels smoother although I would prefer the waterfall shape.

The VK-77 is also noteworthy as a "central" stage instrument. Its comprehensive MDI implementation makes it an effective master-keyboard. While some of the additional non-organ sounds may be considered a bit outdated, there are others (notably the e-piano sounds and many pads and basses) which remain perfectly use- and character-ful.

The VK-77 also has a very solid stand which can be relatively easily folded and packed making for a rather roadable package (in particular considering this is a two-manual organ). I have upgraded the stand so that I can set up another keyboard above the VK-77 making for a very compact stage setup around the organ as a central element.

Last not least, I should also mention how well the VK-77 works with the Roland PK-7 pedal which I could acquire. It interfaces flawlessly with a special connection (including power supply to the pedal). The PK-7 itself is imminently practical because it holds the volume pedal including two sideways footswitches to operate the rotary effects (or a real Leslie since the VK-77 does have an 11-pin Leslie connector!). It also features an additional footswitch (e.g. for sustain for the additional non-organ sounds) and has a nice patch bay to interface the volume pedal and all the switches with any gear other than VK-77 or VK-88 organs, and of course MIDI.


2008 Hammond XK-3c

This is the main axe of the keyboard player in our band and sits in the basement of my house in the rehearsal room - so I'm confronted with it a lot ........ hallelujah! Without doubt, this is the best of the clones to my taste. It wins hands down in terms of sound, feel, features ..... This organ does everything it's supposed to do REALLY well including overdrive, C/V, key click and Leslie simulation. In fact, it does MUCH MORE really well - I wish I could find the time to go deep into the menues to establish my "dream Hammond" on it because the XK-3c is the most likely contender to actually achieve this.

The grief it gives me is the price and the lack of good (classical) looks when combined with the lower keyboard (LXK-3).  It's also bulky and heavy (for a clone) but I guess this just has to come with the great feel of the board. The XK-3c is less flexible than the VK-77 but that's by design, of course!

Presently we run the XK-3c into a Echolette ME-2S rotary speaker and the combination is a winner. Although using the ME-2S is more snobbery than actual necessity because the Leslie-sim in the XK-3c is really good and we can easily work with that as well. The differences are subtle …. Indeed the “real” rotor effect is more based on detail and subtlety while the simulation is a stronger “effect”. But both are very satisfying.


2009 Oberheim/Viscount OB-5/DB-5 (Tonewheelmaker TWB-5)

I could not resist this organ because I got it at a reasonable price on ebay and it just looked so good! A German music shop at the time called "Tone-Wheelmaker" had apparently been buying Viscount DB-5 organs directly from the Italian manufacturer and customising them somehow, reselling them as Tonewheelmaker TWB-5.

The DB-5 (identical to the Oberheim OB-5 built by Viscount before the DB-5) has gotten a good rap as inexpensive two-manual alternative to the BX-3 or the VK-88. What makes mine special is that it has a custom built stand à la B-3 and just looks great ... much like a mini-B-3 - very enticing indeed!.

Sound-wise, the DB-5 does everything right - it is not very spectacular but it always inspires to play a bit more! It sports far fewer parameters to adjust than the VK-77 but then, I do spend more time playing and less time adjusting. There's something to be said for that ....

I would characterise the sound of the DB-5 as between the VK-7 and the BX-3. It sounds warm but not too thick. The C/V is adjustable both in terms of speed and depth and is really quite good although it misses out on the treble boost inherent to various degrees in the original Hammonds. The overdrive is quite good (I like it  much better than the BX-3's) and the Leslie simulation does o.k. although it cannot reach the virtues of the VK-77, BX-3 and XK-3c. In any case the later clearly rules.

In closing
(as of Autumn 2009)
All in all, I would still prefer a "good" Hammond B-3 and 122/147 Leslie - but I just don't want to accommodate the bulk and weight. Of course there would be the issue of finding that "good" B-3 since it appears that there is a big variability from B-3 to B-3 – probably as much as there is a difference from one model of modern clone to another! For the time being I am extremely happy with the VK-77 and the DB-5. That said - it's one organ too many in the household and the question is whether I can part with the VK-77 ......



                                                Tilmann Zwicker, Sept. 2009