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Friday, September 20, 2013

Roland VK7

Virtual Modelling Tonewheel Organ


Reviews : Keyboard

Much hard graft has been put in by electronic instrument manufacturers over the years in an attempt to transfuse the essence of the tonewheel organ into a MIDI-compatible keyboard. NICK MAGNUS dissects Roland's latest virtual modelling approach, and pronounces the operation a complete success.

As the Editor of this magazine has remarked before, it's ironic that physical modelling, the most recent development in synth technology and a result of the latest in high-speed processor chips and DSP power, has so far been most successfully used to recreate the sounds of the past. Take a look at Clavia's Nord Lead, and Roland's JP8000 -- both unashamedly and deliberately designed to impersonate those analogue synths of years gone by. Even Roland's V Guitar system uses sophisticated modelling techniques to emulate the sounds of knackered old valve amps.

Roland's newest Virtual Modelling instrument, the VK7, continues the nostalgia theme. The VK7 is a recreation of the tonewheel organs first developed in the 1930s, and still hugely popular to this day. Although various Hammond soundalikes have been unleashed on the market lately, this is Roland's first effort in this area for seven years (since the VK1000), so perhaps it's time they had another crack at it, using the new technology that's now available. In 1980, Korg launched the analogue-based CX and BX organs, arguably the first successful dedicated Hammond impersonations. In 1990, Roland's VK1000 used S+S synthesis to achieve its goal, and more recent units have employed sample replay methods in the quest for the perfect tonewheel emulation. So can Virtual Modelling show any appreciable improvements over these older methods? Let's take a closer look.



Apart from the different panel placement and controls, the VK7 bears more than a passing resemblance to a Hammond XB2, sharing a practically identical wooden cabinet and dimensions, although it's actually slimmer, being a mere 10cm high. While not perhaps the most exciting instrument to look at, it is nevertheless very solidly built, and everything about the design is sensible and uncluttered. The panel switches are fat and chunky, with embedded LEDs where appropriate, and the legending is a good size, easily readable even in my dimly lit studio.

The keyboard is a 61-note C-to-C affair with a pleasant, firm action that doesn't rattle disturbingly when subjected to those wild glissandi beloved of organists. To the left of the keyboard is a panel that houses the drawbars (Roland call them harmonic bars, presumably for copyright reasons), the rotary effect controls, and three buttons which determine whether the drawbars will affect the Main, Sub or Pedal registrations.

The panel above the keyboard is home to all the remaining controls: eight grey patch-selector buttons and Bank select, plus four similar buttons for organ percussion (no, not the drum type); at the right-hand end, six more grey buttons select a category of Orchestral Voices, more on which later. Four rotary knobs give access to overdrive, Orchestral level, reverb and master volume. The remaining small black push buttons perform tasks such as edit on/off, vibrato on/off, keyboard assignments, and cursor, value and write functions. At the centre is an LCD display to aid navigation through the editing process.

Around the back are the usual connections -- stereo out, phones, MIDI and mains power, plus sockets for two external controller pedals and an expression pedal. As on the XB2, an 11-pin connector is provided should you wish to connect a mechanical rotary speaker to the VK7. The MIDI sockets vary from the norm: there are two Ins and one Out, as opposed to the usual In/Out/Thru. This is to allow various combinations of external keyboard, bass pedals and sequencer to be connected; the thru status of each input is changeable from the System MIDI Edit page.



The VK7 is 4-part multitimbral, consisting of Upper Manual (Main), Lower Manual (Sub), Orchestral Voices and Pedals. These can be addressed on separate MIDI channels in a studio or sequencer environment. For live performances, all four parts can be accessed at once using combinations of keyboard splitting, layering, and a set of MIDI bass pedals or remote MIDI keyboard. There are 64 (8x8) organ presets (the Main registration plays across the entire keyboard), and these can be used as a sort of library of sound templates when you're creating any of the 16 user-programmable presets (which can contain splits, layers, effects, and so on).

There are now a fair number of instruments dedicated to tonewheel organ impersonations, ranging in authenticity from excellent to indifferent. In this review, I'll be drawing comparisons with the 1991 Hammond XB2 (see the 'Feature Comparison' box), regarded by many as one of the best examples, and also at present one of the closest equivalent keyboard-equipped units to the VK7.

What often takes the edge off even the most accurate basic sound on many units is their inbuilt effects, specifically the rotary effect and overdrive. To achieve a believably authentic sound, you often need to acquire external valve preamps, Leslie simulators and so on, bypassing the internal effects altogether -- and these can increase the cost of the instrument by several hundred quid, as well as making a lot more kit to cart around if you're playing away from home. So do the wonders of Virtual Modelling mean that the VK7 can stand alone, without need of outboard processing?



I have to confess to being biased towards butch, beefy organ sounds that purr, grind and swirl. On first play, the VK7's presets appear to dwell largely on Diapasons, Tibias, Theatre organs and those cheesy jazz organ sounds that DX7s excel at. Sure, the presets have to appeal to the widest range of potential users, but I still felt that I wasn't hearing what I'd really hoped for. It turned out, though, that this was largely due to the way the rotary effect had been set up for most of the presets. Generally speaking, the rotary's slow speed was too slow, sometimes to the point that I found myself hitting the bypass switch repeatedly to make sure it was working at all. Coupled with that, the acceleration and deceleration times were extremely long: well out of line with your average Leslie. Happily, all these things and more can be edited and saved, and once the requisite adjustments have been made, the rotary effect acquits itself very well indeed -- so much so that I found little to choose between the VK7's rotary and my beloved Dynacord CLS222: the need for one external processor had already been removed.



The VK7 has six simulated amp/speaker settings: Rotary Types 1 & 2, Stacks 1 & 2, Stack Mix and Combo. The stacks and combos also allow the application of overdrive while the rotary is bypassed. Rotary types 1 and 2 sound similar; type 2 allows for some pretty severe overdrive settings, while type 1 is somewhat cleaner and brighter. The Stacks have a distinctly different quality, with pronounced peaks in the low-mid range, and an undeniably boxy 'speakerish' quality. These all respond quite readily to overdrive. Lastly, the Combo setting produces a sound which is comparatively small and slightly telephonic -- useful for simulating the combo organs of the '60s. These amp simulations can be further coloured with a 3-band equaliser.

Also in the effects category is one unusual inclusion -- a ring modulator. This prompts the same question as the DLM parameter found on the Roland D70: it's interesting, but what do you do with it? The ring-modulation frequency can be varied, but once set it's fixed (it doesn't track the keyboard), so it's not possible to create a consistent musical sound that can be played across the keyboard. Its usefulness is further limited by the fact that the ring-modulated sound is stuck with an organ-shaped envelope. I'd be intrigued to know what application the designers had in mind!



Play a vintage Hammond and what do you hear? Extraneous grunge -- the more the better! This grunge is the result of crosstalk from all the tonewheels breaking into the sound, creating a whiney, whistling background noise that was once considered undesirable, but is now seen as a distinct asset for a true vintage sound. The VK7 offers the choice of Clean and Vintage settings. Select Vintage, and the whine appears -- there's even a parameter to vary the amount. Still in the grunge department, the Key Click level determines how much 'fluffy' spit is heard at the beginning of the note. The VK7 is very thorough in providing for both key-on and key-off click levels.

As is the norm, the VK7 offers both second- and third-harmonic percussion, but with the proviso that you use either one or the other, not both. This is a mild disappointment, as I remember that my old Hammond L100 allowed for both to be on at once, as does the XB2. The XB2 also allows the percussion to be velocity sensitive, as well as having multiple triggering, whereas the VK7 remains staunchly true to the original -- no velocity, and single triggering only, so all notes must be released before the percussion will re-sound. On the plus side, the percussion can be assigned to either Main or Sub (upper or lower manual) sounds. Soft/Normal levels are individually definable, as are the fast and slow decay times.

For you pedal wizards, the VK7 is able to simulate either Composite or Individual pedal registrations. Composite uses two drawbars to create the bass sound (as found on models such as the L100); Individual makes use of all nine drawbars to finely sculpt the sound, as on B3 organs.



The reverb has seven variants -- three rooms, two halls, a plate and a delay. The rooms and halls are similar to (if not the same as) those found in the JV-series synths. The plate is reminiscent of the old spring reverbs built into some organs; delay is of the mono type, with a very respectable maximum of around 1500ms available.

True to the original instrument, there are six types of vibrato. The three V settings are of the pitch-vibrato type associated with theatre organs and Blackpool summer holidays, while the three C types are the pulsating variety loved by jazz organists everywhere. The speed of all the vibrato settings is fixed (the XB2 offers slow, medium and fast options).

It's often the case that solid-state overdrive circuits have more in common with fingernails down a blackboard than the smooth growl they aspire to. Roland have made a laudable effort in this department: an overdrive that purrs gently at the lower settings (even on single notes) and rips satisfyingly at full shred. Much of the success of the effect depends on the drawbar registration and chord voicings you're using. You may have noticed that (on an equal-tempered instrument such as an organ) distorted minor chords sound far less pleasant than major ones, but even taking this into consideration, the VK7 copes very well. Overall, the subtler applications of the VK7's overdrive seem to work the best, but one shouldn't complain about being given too much of a thing...



Back in 1990, Roland's VK1000 organ sported not only the principal organ sounds, but also a selection of additional voices: some were beautiful, some were strange, but the electric piano sounds were to die for. Making full use of the S+S synthesis around which the instrument was designed, they were totally customisable, with all the constituent harmonics available on the organ drawbars. You could control the levels of second harmonic, hammer thump, tine zing... whatever you wanted. The sound was worthy of being marketed in its own right as a lightweight alternative to the MK80.

Times change, and S+S has fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by samples. I presume that the VK7's Orchestral voices are PCM sounds as opposed to Virtual Modelling -- there's nothing in the documentation about this. What you do get is a wider range of extra sounds than the VK1000 had, including a selection of Strings, Choirs, Basses (see the 'Voices' box for the full list). This is fine, but I feel that the sounds are somewhat run of the mill, even too safe. Then again, some of the VK7's voices are quite enjoyable to play -- Strings 1 is nice if you're in a sombre mood, the VP330 Choir is a fun salute to the past (why no VP330 strings as well?), and the Full Church Organ is worthy of Vincent Price on one of his spookier days. However, if you don't use assignable foot pedals or an external keyboard controller, the sounds remain static snapshots, due to the VK7's lack of any performance wheels or levers -- which were included on the VK1000.



The VK7 certainly seems to cut the mustard, with great onboard effects -- no outboard gear is necessary short of a mixing desk or suitable amplification. The basic tone is the best I've encountered so far, with plenty of beef and presence, and, incidentally, a very powerful upper octave that screams like a good 'un. So, when's the module coming?


ccc VK7 XB2
Stereo outs Yes Yes
Phones Yes Yes
Send/return jacks No Yes
11-Pin Leslie connector Yes Yes
Two MIDI inputs Yes No
Pitch/Mod wheels No Yes
Rotary effect editable/storable Yes No
Overdrive level programmable Yes No
Amp/Cabinet simulations 6 None
EQ programmable Yes, per patch No, global only
Multitimbrality 4-part 2-part
Additional non-organ voices Yes No
Variable organ sound A/R envelope No Yes
Patches accessible from panel 64 preset, 16 user 8 user
Total number of presets 80 128
Vintage leakage effect Yes No
Panel functions TX/RX via SysEx Yes No
SysEx bulk dump Yes Yes
Ring modulation effects Yes No
External control pedal inputs 3 2
Patch naming Yes No
2nd- & 3rd-harmonic percussion together No Yes
Percussion assignable to main or sub Yes No
Velocity-sensitive percussion No Yes
Percussion triggering Single Single/Multi
Drawbars 'live' for patch editing Yes No
Customisable drawbar wraparound No Yes



The VK7 can transmit and receive every single control (bar the cursor and write buttons) as SysEx data. Roland are thoughtful enough to provide the choice of sending the drawbar movements as either SysEx or control changes, with the option of defining which controllers are assigned to which drawbar -- great for making tonal adjustments from an external master keyboard. The one snag with SysEx is that the task of inserting events into a sequencer retrospectively (such as Leslie fast/slow, Percussion on/off) means typing in a SysEx string -- a rather more tedious job than popping in a quick control change. Still, full marks should be given for including the kitchen sink in the MIDI implementation.




Strings 1
Strings 2
Octave Str
JP Strings
Solo Violin

Large Choir
Soft Choir
VP330 Choir
Pop Voice
Trumpet Section
Brass Section
Orch Brass Ens

Tenor Sax
Soprano Sax]
Horn Section
Tenor Sax Section


Attack 1
Attack 2
Attack 3
Attack 4

E Piano
Pipe flute
Full organ
Nylon GTR
Pop Ocarina

Attack Time Release Time Brilliance
LFO Depth
LFO Speed
Key shift
Pitch Fine
Vel. Sens
Vel. Offset
Chorus send Reverb send Autoglide on/off Glide rate
Pitch Control Sens
Mod Control Sens 

Published in SOS July 1997

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