Organ Module & Drawbar Controller
Reviews : Keyboard
Offering classic Hammond sounds in a rackmount format, the XM1 module, together with the optional XMc1 drawbar controller, seems the ideal space-saving solution for those unwilling to rely on sample CDs for their organ sounds. Hammond XB2 owner NICK MAGNUS considers the pros and cons of a transplant...
The music industry is well known for its fleeting fashions -- certain sounds are all the rage one minute, then, before you know it, nobody would be found dead (or at best maimed) with that sample infesting their creations. Just think of FM (rather unjustly vilified)... you couldn't so much as get a session on a Nolan Sisters album in the mid to late '80s without a DX7, and now people are virtually paying you to take them off their hands.
Despite this fickle fact, there are sounds (or, more specifically, instruments) that remain timeless. The Hammond tonewheel organ is one such beast, having suffered only minor, transitory run-ins with the Fashion Police, and demand for its versatile tones has, if anything, increased of late -- witness the deluge of Hammond samples on CD-ROMs, sample libraries, and S+S synth expansion boards. This is all super, smashing and lovely, and many of these samples are indeed excellent under the right conditions. But, being pre-sampled drawbar registrations, they preclude the immediate fine tonal adjustments offered by a fistful of drawbars (darn it, I promised myself I wouldn't use that phrase!)
In these times of MIDI master keyboards and home studios in a matchbox, another physical keyboard is likely to be the last thing you need. Several manufacturers have addressed this problem in the past by releasing MIDI organ tone modules (see the 'Organ Donors' box), among them Peavey, Voce, Fuji and Oberheim. But for those in the know, a question has been hanging in the air since the release of Hammond's XB2 single manual organ: can we have that one in a box, please? So intense was this need that Wix Wickens (of the Paul McCartney band) reputedly took a chainsaw to his XB2, removing the drawbar end so it could sit on top of his master keyboard while the remaining sound-generating gubbins was kept on the floor out of the way. Well, Hammond have finally decided to save you the bother of donning a lumberjack shirt and brushing up your DIY skills; they've put what is effectively an XB5 in a two-thirds of rack-width module (the XM1), with a remote drawbar controller (the XMc1) available as an optional unit. In the same way that lager is only notionally optional with curry, most interested parties are unlikely to want one unit without the other.
DESIGN AND CONTROLS
If you can imagine a Morris 1000 Traveller re-designed for the turn of the millennium, complete with fake walnut, environmentally friendly dashboard, that's pretty much the appearance of the XM1 and XMc1. Naff? On the contrary. Camp chic meets hi-tech in one of the most eye-catching module designs I've yet seen. It urges you to plug in and play even though the pasta is nearly done and The X-Files is on in five minutes.
Everything you need to make a noise is accessible from the module itself via a group of small cursor, menu and value buttons. There's a lot of stuff to edit here, more than on the Hammond XB2, and setting up a custom sound from scratch can take quite a while. The only real-time controls are two rotary pots for volume and reverb amount, and this is where the XMc1 comes in -- more of which later. There is a yellow backlit display to guide you in your travels, and a power switch -- that's it for the front. The rear has connections for the usual things: a 10V DC input from the external power supply, stereo outs, MIDI In, Out, and Thru, and a footswitch input which can be assigned several functions -- the Leslie speed, for example. Like the XB2, the XM1 also has a multi-pin connector for output to a real Leslie cabinet.
Part of the 'organic' quality of a real Hammond is the immediate access to the drawbars, as well as the controls for percussion, vibrato and Leslie speed. The XMc1 provides all this, plus overdrive level and secondary volume control to boot. Also present are three preset buttons (as on the Korg CX3), and another button with three associated LED indicators to select whether you're changing the drawbar settings for the upper manual, lower manual or pedals. Features such as percussion level are only accessible from the menu system on the main module, but at least the principal performance controls are all here. Curiously, you can't change patches from the remote -- you have to do that from the module or via MIDI Program Change messages! A shame, as I'd have thought that there was room for two more buttons and a knob for percussion level on the XMc1. In a non-pre-programmed performance situation you would still have to keep the module close to hand.
LET'S GET PICKY
Having been an XB2 owner since they first appeared, I was keen to do a critical comparison between it and the XM1. Was the XM1 going to tempt me to trade up and regain some valuable space? Well, it was a swings and roundabouts verdict! The first test was to compare the basic sounds of the two without the benefit of any effects -- just naked and cruel... The results were interesting: when you listen closely, there's a distinct difference in tone. The XM1 wins this round, having a subtly rounder, firmer sound than the XB2, with improved definition in the lower registers; the XB2 sounds reedier, as if there's a small amount of leakage from the upper drawbars even when they are fully off. Sticklers (you mean someone's more anally retentive than me?) might point out that the real thing is less than perfect and some leakage should be expected, but subjectively I prefer the sound of the XM1.
"Camp chic meets hi-tech in one of the most eye-catching module designs I've yet seen."
My next point of comparision was the percussion -- and it's here that the two units vary quite markedly. The XM1 has far more flexible editing options for the percussion, such as keyboard scaling and single/multiple triggering, but despite this, it's one area of the XM1 that disappoints. The amplitude envelope is very steep in the initial decay phase (regardless of the decay time), giving it a pronounced 'clicky' quality (different to key click, which is a separate sound in itself), so that little of the pitched body of the percussion is perceivable unless its level is set high, whereupon the click becomes painfully intrusive. An additional parameter to soften the attack would not have gone amiss. The XB2 fares much better in this department, having a smooth, marimba-like envelope much more akin to the real thing.
The percussion implementation was guilty of one more faux pas -- it's not instantly obvious, but when the Leslie effect is switched in, something is not quite right. After I'd pushed in all the drawbars, the problem became clear: the percussion is not routed through the Leslie. Oops.... There must have been a good reason for this design slip-up, but I doubt that it holds water. Possibly Hammond felt that it would help the sound cut better -- but if any of you have ever encountered an actual Hammond organ with the percussion output separately to avoid the Leslie cabinet, I would be intrigued to hear about it.
This leads us neatly, if not gracefully, to the Leslie simulation itself. The weakest aspect of the original XB2 was its own Leslie effect. Barely a token gesture, it could only appeal to emetic fans who relished a good bout of mal de mer in the comfort of their own studio. Hammond have certainly made an effort to improve this feature, which now has a full range of editing parameters. There are 10 locations in which to store your cabinet simulations, and these are occupied by some variations previously set up at the factory. Rise and fall times of the bass and treble speakers can be set individually, as can bass/horn balance, min/max speeds, microphone angle and even microphone distance. The factory settings tend to accelerate and decelerate rather lazily, but a quick tweak sorts things out. Overall, a vast and welcome improvement on the XB2's version. However, some users may prefer to output to an external device, such as one of the Dynacord units or the excellent Roland SDX330. Or even a real Leslie if you have one knocking around. This also overcomes the percussion's non-internal Leslie effect problem.
ROOM WITH A VU?
Like the XB2, the XM1 includes an integral reverb, which is in fact a chip licensed by Hammond from Alesis. There are four choices of algorithm: Room, Live, Hall and Church. In common with the XB, this didn't make nearly enough gain available from the reverb (nor is any editing possible), which makes drifty ambient effects unavailable without recourse to an outboard reverb unit, and you'd probably want to use that in a controlled environment such as the studio.
The final patient in the doctor's surgery is the overdrive effect. Higher marks have to go to the XB2 here; its overdrive is much the warmer and growlier. The XM1's overdrive, I feel, is rather too much like radio static added to the signal -- not so much a case of effecting a sound, more adding an effect on top of a sound. If you play only fifths and octaves, the crackly artefacts are not too offensive, but add a third, and... Hello Houston, are you receiving me?
MIDI AND OTHER MATTERS
The XM1 (or rather the XMc1) boasts one significant improvement over the XB2 -- it sends all drawbar movements as a stream of MIDI controller information (Continuous Controller number 80) from its MIDI Out port, enabling you to record the drawbar changes you make during a performance. This was something offered by Roland's VK1000, but was, sadly, omitted from the XB2. Leslie fast/slow is also supported (CC92) and the three preset buttons on the XMc1 send the appropriate Program Change and CC80 commands to be recorded in your sequencer too. Quite why the percussion and vibrato controls are excluded from this luxury is not clear, but at least the most important needs are addressed. These features can presumably be accessed via NRPNs (there was no manual to confirm this), but it's a pity that those sound changes can't also be recorded on the fly from the remote controller. The other big improvement is a similar spec to the XB5 -- that is, the upper manual, lower manual and pedal board are all represented, and capable of receiving on separate MIDI channels.
The XM1/XMc1 combination offers significant improvements over the XB2 in some areas (size, basic tone, 3-part multitimbrality, Leslie, recordable drawbars), but takes a backward step in others (percussion, overdrive). To answer the original question -- is it worth trading up from the XB to the XM? -- I would say that it's all down to how fussy you are about the negative points raised here, and whether space is really at a premium for you. If you're intending to use external Leslie and overdrive effects, you might find those on offer in the XM1 to be redundant. I would personally find the change in the nature of the percussion to be a problem, but if I were buying from scratch, never having owned an XB2, I'd generally be more than happy, despite my hyper-critical comments, to have the XM1 as part of my musical arsenal. The only remaining bugbear is the price for the XM1 and XMc1 bundle (£1098), which is not cheap by any means. But when you consider that the 1994 XB3 dual-manual machine (whose facilities the XM1 emulates) cost £8,630, it doesn't look quite so bad.
Tonewheel organ impersonations are nothing new, as a glance back over the years reveals. The Crumar Organiser in 1974 and the Roland VK09 in 1981 were just two such keyboards to take a stab at the task, only to be usurped by the Korg CX3 and BX3 models in 1980 -- deservedly a great success in their day, these last produced a sound that was closer to a Hammond than any other ersatz offering had managed. Indeed, to this day, CX3s can be seen lurking in the shadows at the back of the Top Of The Pops stage (where all us wretched ivory-tinklers belong). Latterly, Roland's VK1000 from 1990 got very close, sporting a highly respectable internal rotary speaker simulation, but was pipped to the post for authentic basic sounds by Suzuki/Hammond's XB2 single-manual and XB3 and XB5 double-manual organs.
Published in SOS May 1997