Wednesday, 26 October 2011

1996 Hammond XM1 Organ Module

The mid ‘90s will probably best be remembered by many keyboardists for the introduction of the Korg Prophecy and the development of digital synths which pretended they were analogues. In the month when Keyboard Review magazine took a first look at the Hammond XM1 and its XMc1 drawbar controller unit, for example (August 1996 – hitting the shops in the July), Yamaha’s brand new CS1x control synth headlined the cover. Keyboardists everywhere were going overboard for anything analogue – provided it was digital, obviously. So was this really the right time to unveil an eleven hundred quid organ with no keyboard? Well, Hammond Suzuki obviously thought it was as good a moment as any, and began advertising their new baby as ‘the real thing’, leaving it to musicians to speculate on which ‘real thing’ they actually meant.


Luckily for Hammond Suzuki (to whom I’ll refer as Hammond from now on), the general consensus was that they were referring to the Hammond B3 tonewheel organ which remained in production from 1955 to 1974, and was worshipped by every cool dude who ever jazzed, funked, rocked or whatevered a hot keyboard lick, man. And if this thang really grooved like a legit B3, well whooey mama, lay it on me, ‘cos joints were gonna rock. Or something like that. But first you had to try and get hold of the thing, which Hammond seemed to go to great lengths to ensure wasn’t possible. I couldn’t find one music shop in England’s second city which actually had access to an XM1 – let alone stocked it. Numerous phone calls down the line, I was given the number of a bloke called Graham, who was knocking them out from a private address in north Birmingham. Not the most encouraging dealer network then, but I’d read good things about the unit and was very interested – particularly in the two-manuals-plus-pedals-all-at-the-same-time feature, which nothing comparable had previously offered. To cut a long and predictable story short, I bought both the XM1 module and its accompanying XMc1 drawbar controller immediately after trying it, but was my new purchase really a B3 in a box?

Well, the debate as to whether a module does or doesn’t sound like a B3 is always going to be as complicated as the tone itself. Every B3 sounds slightly different, so while the emulation may not sound like one example, it could be as near as damn it to another. There’s also the issue of whether the B3’s sound should include the Leslie rotary speaker, which to some is an integral part of the organ, and to others a separate entity. Is the module meant to be kicking out a pre-’67 B3 sound, or a brighter sounding post-’67 version?… So many trainspotter-style questions… What’s clear as regards the XM1 is that you’ll have heard at least one Hammond B3, in one particular state of operation, which sounds virtually indistinguishable. But let’s not get carried away; if you liked your gear at its best straight out of the box, the XM1 was far from perfect.

SOUNDS

There were three major problems with the XM1’s sound as supplied; two of which were easily rectified. First of the concerns was the setup of the Leslie speaker simulators. All ten onboard simulations came factory programmed with ridiculously slow acceleration rates (especially the bass rotor), whilst the majority sported ‘could do better’ virtual mic placement settings. This was childishly simple to amend with just a few button presses bringing things to life, but Hammond did seem a trifle na├»ve to assume that anyone living in the hands-on mid ‘90s would want to be bothered messing with hidden parameters. You didn’t see Roland, Yamaha or Korg trying to sell synths with memories full of badly set effects; the synth manufacturers knew that the route to maxing out instrument sales was through skillfully programmed presets. That was common knowledge – except at Hammond, seemingly.

Which leads to the doorstep of an even larger, if once again straightforward to solve, sonic problem: the XM1’s factory-programmed patches. Incredibly, presets 1 to 20 were merely drawbar registrations, featuring no animation whatsoever. A very sluggish Leslie ambled in from patch 21, but the next ten presets used simple (non-tonewheel) drawbar voicings… Was this really meant to be a B3 in a box? Was the kind of person who would spend over a grand on an organ module and MIDI controller unit really going to be some kind of plainsong enthusiast? It did appear by preset 30 that Hammond had seriously misjudged the market.

The sounds did begin to arrive from preset 31, which harboured a great Jimmy Smith Organ Grinder Swing style jazz setting, with console chorus, and a bass end that reeked of quality. It was jazz all the way to preset 39, afterwhich things became fairly erratic. Jon Lord’s screaming Deep Purple sound one minute, solo instrument ‘impersonations’ with sustain (long release) the next. It was extremely difficult to imagine who, in 1996, would turn to a Hammond organ module for a clarinet sound (which sounded nothing like a clarinet), when synth technology was so powerful and could do the job convincingly. Hammond left the final twenty-odd presets completely empty and silent – either because they ran out of ideas, or so the user would have somewhere to store his/her own creations without overwriting any existing presets. It was probably the latter, but I have to admit that I overwrote all the flute and cornet nonsense before I even touched the empty slots.

What’s so sad about the above is that the module itself was immensely capable. Look at the ingredients – the authentic drawbar tone, the (amended) Leslies, the percussion, the vibrato, and the most fantastic chorus… Many, many extremely tasty dishes were available. You just had to cook them yourself. 

One let-down which couldn’t be resolved was the incapacity for the chorus and Leslie simulator to work together. It sounds as if either there’s some shared circuitry in there trying to cover more than one base, or else the two effects have been ordered wrongly with the Leslie preceding the chorus in the chain. I can’t tell which (it might even be both), but whatever is the cause, you won’t get a convincing whirring gospel grind from the XM1. Instead, everything gets very ill-defined and the high harmonics for some reason take on a synthetic quality. It’s by far the unit’s most serious technical fault.

MISSING THE POINT? 

Some ‘faults’ on the original B3 were 'airbrushed out' of the XM1. There was no drawbar ‘leakage’, the key click wouldn’t turn up loud enough for some, and it was impossible, without outside assistance, to make things sound, for want of a better word, knackered. Maybe the Hammond brand didn’t want even its most ancient products to be associated with such technical ‘incorrectness’, but the fact is they are, and what’s more, that’s what endears them to many, many musicians. The XM1’s overdrive was quite acceptable, particularly when notched up into full distortion. But even a clean B3 can be pretty dirty, and operating the XM1 clean really emphasised the unit’s politeness, as compared with the instrument it was created to mimic.

Compounding the issue, there was no effects send or return, so you couldn’t place any external treatments between the drawbars and the onboard Leslie. There was a Leslie driver socket, so you could of course get a real cabinet, which would, without question, do the business. But if you were going to start buying pieces of furniture you may as well get a real tonewheel organ as well, and then why would you bother with an XM1? Surely the whole point of this module was to provide a stand-alone solution. To me, the effects loop would have been a more obvious inclusion than a Leslie driver socket.

In other ways, though, the company seemed to go too far in the other direction. Those sluggish Leslies, for example, were supposedly intended to replicate the effects of wear and tear. But again, I believe Hammond misjudged what people were after. It did add up, in my view, to a picture of a manufacturer out of touch with its customer base. Such a shame, because setting aside that chorus plus Leslie problem and a crying need for an effects loop, this was technically a pretty spectacular device. The basic sound quality was and still is stunning.

CONCLUSION 

I still use my XM1 every day. I’ve converted an old Vox Continental II twin manual organ for use as a MIDI controller (that was a month of my life I wouldn’t particularly want to revisit!), specifically to play the XM1. The combination is very special indeed. The inspiring look of the Vox with its reverse colour keys, the reliability of modern technology, and a module full of custom-programmed Hammond presets. It’s a pretty unique setup and I think it will remain a favourite instrument for a long time to come. The XM1 is now more than 15 years old, and performs exactly as it did the day I bought it. With the presets and Leslie simulations set to my taste, I absolutely love the range of sounds. I have one Leslie specifically set up for distortion sounds, with its volume subdued. That way when I switch to a heavily overdriven preset, I don't get a sudden increase in volume. It's also possible to use the Leslie simulation facilities to change the tone balance and roll off some top end for a more convincing overdrive sound. The XM1 is extremely flexible and if you're prepared to spend a bit of time tinkering with the hidden parameters, it's almost certain you'll get very close to the Hammond sound that's in your head. True, the XM1 was expensive for an organ module, but time has shown it to be money very well spent.

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt