Tech Tip:To B3 or not to B3: In Pursuit of the Hammond B3 Organ Sound
by Karl Mansfield
There's no other sound in the world quite like the breathy, swirling tones of the Hammond B3 Organ and its companion Leslie rotary speaker cabinet. Rock artists like Steve Winwood and Keith Emerson made great use of them. It's hard to imagine blues, gospel, R & B, and soul music without the B3. Just a few of the jazz artists who've made its sound central to their musical vocabulary are Joey DeFrancesco, Larry Young, Barbara Dennerlein, and especially the late, great Jimmy Smith. It was cutting-edge technology in the 1930s, and some few die-hards still haul around these big beasts to gigs. However, at 400 lbs., moving a real B3 around takes some serious grunt-work and requires a truck to transport.
Fortunately for today's players, there are some great instruments that capture much of the B3's great sound in configurations that are much easier to get to the gig. Hammond, the manufacturer of the original B3, has produced a series of lightweight, well-thought-out digital keyboards that emulate their ancestor convincingly. These include the XK-2 and the more recent XK-3. They even have 3 sets of drawbars, which are used to create the rich harmonics of the original. Roland makes several very popular B3-emulating instruments. Their VK-88 and VK-8 Organs have authentic "waterfall" (square-front) keyboards, employing the wizardry of Roland's vaunted COSM modeling to mimic the sonic characteristics of the tonewheel tone-generating mechanism and Leslie speaker that make up much of the original's sonic character. The VK-8 is designed with portability in mind, while the wood-paneled, dual-keyboard VK-88 is slanted more towards the home and studio market. The VK-8 Organ Sound Module is a great solution for those who crave the B3 sound but don't need another keyboard.
Korg keyboards are renowned for their rich, complex sounds. Their CX-3 and BX3 keyboards deliver meticulous B3 re-creations. The BX3 Dual Manual Organ has two tiers of keyboards just like Hammond's original design. Korg's flagship TRITON workstations count some very high-quality organ sounds among their hundreds of patches. Nord, out of Sweden, specializes in analog and analog-emulating digital keyboards. Several have very respected B3 voicings, including the Electro 2 Sixty-One and Sixty-Two Stage Piano/Organs.
Another tactic is to re-create the B3's sound in virtual form on the computer, an especially attractive option for computer-based composers. The Joe Vitale: Organ Donor CD-ROM from Sony offers a comprehensive library of vintage B3 loops ready to incorporate into tunes. Tascam's Sune's L100 Hammond Organ/Giga CD offers B3 samples of every note with every drawbar setting in Gigsampler format.
There are also speakers and effect units that zero in on the Leslie rotating speaker sound that's integral to the B3 sound. Leslie System's 21 Rotary Unit is a powered speaker unit for processing virtually any sound with Leslie effects, and can be used with the System 21 Stationary Unit when more volume is called for.
Guitar players, notably Jimi Hendrix and Robin Trower, have made extensive use of various effects to emulate the Leslie sound. A few of the good ones are the Dunlop Univibe, the T-Rex BetaVibe Rotary Modulator Pedal, and Rocktron's Vertigo Vibe Stomp Box.
So the next time you want to put a little church or chitlin' circuit vibe in your sound, there's a lot of gear that'll help you get it. And you won't necessarily need a truck and a bunch of grumbling bandmates to help you haul it around.